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16 March 201823:00

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview to Vietnamese and Japanese media, Moscow, March 16, 2018


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Question: How would you assess the role and the importance of your upcoming visit to Vietnam? What is Russia’s part in the Asia-Pacific region?

Sergey Lavrov: We maintain very close ties with our Vietnamese friends. We describe these relations as a strategic partnership. Our presidents regularly interact. President Vladimir Putin met many times with the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and the foreign ministers maintain close contact, just as do the heads of nearly all ministries, including the ministries of industry and trade, economic development, finance, transport and communications. In fact, absolutely all sectors of our Government maintain contacts with their Vietnamese counterparts.

Of course, ties in education, cultural exchanges and humanitarian cooperation have always featured prominently in our strategic partnership with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. One of the landmark events, which we will discuss during my visit to Vietnam, is the preparations for the Russian-Vietnamese cross-year. We will hold it in 2019, when we will mark the 25th anniversary of the interstate treaty on the basic principles of bilateral friendship.

Regarding the Asia-Pacific region, we are working with our regional friends, not just Vietnam but also other ASEAN countries, as well as ASEAN dialogue partners, to promote a unifying agenda aimed at creating a sustainable and stable architecture of security and cooperation, so that the situation in this crucial part of the world, which has become the driver of the global economy, is not determined by closed bloc agreements but by a dialogue involving all regional countries without exception. We highly value ASEAN’s central role in rallying the efforts towards creating conditions for this dialogue through the annual ASEAN Regional Forum on regional security, the annual meetings of ASEAN defence ministers, which are attended by defence ministers from ASEAN’s dialogue partners, as well as many other meetings between ASEAN and individual dialogue partners, including Russia.

I would like to point out one more promising format that has been initiated by the regional countries. It is the East Asia Summit. During the past few years, these summits of ASEAN and its main partners, such as Russia, China, the US, India, Japan, as well as several other countries, namely Australia and South Korea, have been discussing the importance of creating an open security and cooperation system in Asia Pacific, a system based on the principle of equality of all and indivisible security, so that no country would attempt to ensure its own security to the detriment of other countries’ security.

In short, these are the questions we will discuss in Vietnam much more thoroughly than I have just described them now.

Question: What is your opinion of trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Vietnam, as well as between Vietnam and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)? What are the prospects for the further development of Russian-Vietnamese relations?

Sergey Lavrov: I have mentioned our bilateral relations. Speaking in greater detail about our trade and economic interaction, I can say that our trade grew by over 35 per cent last year and reached a record high level since 1991, when Russia became the state it is now. Last year, our trade amounted to some $5.35 billion. As I already said, it is a record high level since 1991. Of course, this result, that is, a more than 35 per cent growth, is largely due to the Free Trade Agreement that was signed between Vietnam and the EAEU in 2015 and entered into force in 2016. I am sure that we will see comparable figures if we look at Vietnam’s trade with the other EAEU countries, the figures that are evidence of the benefits of the FTA for all EAEU countries and Vietnam, of course.

As for the additional action we can take, these include the encouragement of regular direct ties between our business communities. Work is in process on this matter. The more direct ties we have the more joint mutually beneficial projects our business people will be able to implement. It is important to encourage meetings, business forums, round tables, exhibitions and fairs. There are many opportunities for strengthening ties between our countries’ business communities, especially since we have a new platform that is located closer to you than the traditional St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), which our Vietnamese friends attend.  I am referring to the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), which will be held in Vladivostok this year, just as three years ago.

There is one more potentially very promising format. We worked with our Vietnamese friends to establish a High-Level Working Group that is co-chaired by our ministers of industry and trade. This group is focused on concrete investment projects and is promoting broader ties between our companies in hydrocarbon production and oil processing, as well as in other energy sectors, infrastructure, transportation and communications, including telecommunications. First of all we have achieved good results, and secondly this is clearly not the limit. It is very important that we have started working and our efforts will certainly produce good results in the near future.

Question: A popular saying goes, “Those who don’t want to talk with Lavrov will have to talk with Shoigu.” Thankfully, both you and Sergey Shoigu can conduct talks with your Japanese partners in the 2+2 format. How good is this format for strengthening trust? Does this form of cooperation have a future?

Sergey Lavrov: We would like all our key partners to want to talk both with Sergey Shoigu and Sergey Lavrov, because I am sure that the 2+2 format, which we use not only in relations with Japan, is a good platform not just for comprehensive and fruitful discussions on military and political security and the settlement of conflicts in different regions, but also for taking practical and prompt decisions. When foreign ministers work alone, they need time to see if the questions on their agenda can match military plans. When defence ministers work alone, they also need to see how their decisions will be reflected in their countries’ diplomacy. But when defence and foreign ministers work together in the 2+2 format, they are able not just to exchange opinions but also to take prompt decisions on many different matters.

We appreciate Japan’s initiative to resume this format. A year ago, Sergey Shoigu and I visited Tokyo. Now we are discussing the timeframe for a return visit by our Japanese colleagues, the foreign and defence ministers. We are glad that the period when this format was put on hold for reasons that have no connection to Russian-Japanese relations is over.

I hope that the other countries with which we have created this format will do likewise. This primarily concerns European countries that appear to be interested in resuming work in this format. They see that suspending cooperation is a short-sighted policy, at the least, as well as counterproductive and even harmful to those who initiate this suspension.

Question: Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe has proposed an 8-point plan to Russia, which provides for boosting economic cooperation and business ties. This is how Russia and Japan can build up confidence and bilateral relations. This can help them to settle the most difficult problems in their relations – the territorial problem and the peace treaty. On the other hand, Japan has an agreement with the US allowing it to deploy their bases in Japan. What do you think about this twofold problem where the need to strengthen trust in relations with Japan is complicated by the US-Japan agreement?

On March 1, President Putin demonstrated a new type of arms during his Address to the Federal Assembly. He said that the US missile defence system is useless against them. Do you think that these arms will resolve Russia’s concern over the deployment of the US BMD system, including near Japan?

Sergey Lavrov: I can say in response to the first part of your question that our trade, economic and investment cooperation is based on the documents that are designed to implement the agreement reached between the President of Russia and the Prime Minister of Japan regarding joint economic cooperation in the  southern Kuril Islands. On a broader plane, there are Russian documents listing priority projects and the 8-point plan that was proposed by Japan. Taken together, they form the basis for our movement towards broader economic interaction in a variety of spheres.

I can tell you that the majority of these initiatives have already produced positive outcome. But we certainly want even better results. I hope that this is also in the interests of our Japanese colleagues. At any rate, our mutual trade is growing steadily, and the next contacts between our ministries and agencies, as well as my visit will highlight the proposals that can be prepared for the next summit meeting between the President of Russia and the Prime Minister of Japan. The focus of our general policy of promoting and deepening economic cooperation is on joint economic operations on these four islands.

As for the Japan-US Security Treaty, which was signed in 1960, if memory serves, Japan is a sovereign state that is free to take independent decisions on the basis of its foreign and defence policies. This fully applies to the conditions of Japan’s alliance with the US. We will not tell Japan what to do in this or any other sphere. Demands and ultimatums are not our methods. We openly tell our Japanese friends that Japan’s military relations with the US, including the plans to deploy the Asian segment of the US global BMD system in Japan and South Korea that are being implemented now, directly affect Russia’s national security.

You have said correctly that President Vladimir Putin pointed this out again in his March 1 Address to the Federal Assembly.  He said how we worked for many years, at least for 15 years since the Americans announced their decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, to dissuade them from taking this destructive stem. Later we proposed creating a joint mechanism to discuss ballistic missile defence. But all our efforts were in vain. Everything our American colleagues did convinced us that their global BMD system is not designed to protect them from the Iranian or North Korean threats, but to surround Russia along the entire perimeter with these missile defence systems, which are actually designed to render our strategic nuclear capability useless, as our military experts have concluded.

We tell this frankly to our Japanese friends. We tell them that in order to remove all irritants from our bilateral relations, just as the President of Russia and the Prime Minister of Japan agreed to do – to remove irritants, deepen cooperation and build up strategic and friendly relations, to achieve this goal, we will have to discuss the issue on our current agenda, that is, to find a way to correlate problem resolution in our relations with the fact that the US BMD systems, which are a threat to us, are to be deployed in Japan.

This is why we say that if we really want to find a lasting solution to all security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, including in Southeast Asia, East Asia and Northeast Asia, we must look not for a solution in blocs and military alliances, such as exist between Japan and the US and between South Korea and the US (Australia is also involved in these closed blocs), but work out an inclusive format when all the interested parties sit down at the negotiating table to discuss their concerns and find a common denominator, so that everyone’s concerns are settled in an acceptable manner based on a balance of interests, and so that no country would try to strengthen its security at the expense of others.

We may be wrong but we do believe that Japan has a sovereign right to take decisions regarding military alliances, while we have a sovereign right to make conclusions regarding the influence of these decisions, in particular, the decision regarding the BMD systems, on our security. I believe that no one should be offended by this. We are ready for dialogue, including on this issue. However, in this particular case Japan cannot take decisions on behalf of the US, which is avoiding a dialogue on BMD or, for that matter, on the majority of other issues. On the other hand, Washington has recently reaffirmed its desire to resume strategic stability consultations with Russia. We are ready for this, and we will maintain contact with our Japanese neighbours and will inform them about our views on the progress of these consultations. We are not going to keep this secret.

Question: Is this a serious disagreement?

Sergey Lavrov: I hope I have explained it clearly. We respect Japan’s right to choose the methods for ensuring its security and to choose partners and forms of military cooperation with them. At the same time, we have the right to assess the influence of these agreements [regarding systems deployed near the Russian border] on our security.

Question: My question concerns joint economic activities on the disputed islands. In your interview of February 11, 2018, you said that there is no need to establish some supra-national body. What does this mean? What is your attitude to Japan’s position on this matter? Do you agree that we need some special systems, as the Japanese party insists? Does Russia want an agreement that will leave out the issue of the islands’ ownership, such as the 1998 Russian-Japanese agreement on fishing, which has a provision that precludes any activities or measures that may be interpreted as prejudicing the positions or views of any party?

Sergey Lavrov: First of all, I have already said that our leaders agreed at their meeting in Japan in December 2016 to promote joint economic operations on the islands. They also adopted a short statement that sets out the sequence of actions to be taken towards this goal. First we will choose a series of economically significant projects that Moscow and Tokyo will support. Next, depending on the scale of these projects, they will choose the legal framework for their implementation. The focus should not be on the legal aspects but primarily on the joint economic activities. This is the essence of our agreement.

If the finalised list of projects is very long – so far, we are only discussing five very important and concrete, but not very large projects in culture and tourism – and our Japanese friends decide to take part in these projects if there are incentives similar to those offered by the Russian legislation in this part of Russia, for example in the priority development areas (PDA) and the Free Port of Vladivostok (FPV), these incentives will be offered. If the scope of the economic projects we coordinate requires additional allocations, we will be ready, as I have already said, to sign an intergovernmental agreement on additional incentives for the implementation of economic projects within the framework of joint economic activities on the four islands. We see no need for some supra-national body. As I have said, the current policy includes incentives for the FPV, which comprises some 15 ports in the Russian Far East, as well as the PDAs. If any of the new projects reach a scale where these incentives are not enough, we will be willing to sign an intergovernmental agreement with our Japanese friends.

We proceed from the assumption that the Japanese party will not sign legally unacceptable agreements. However, these deliberations seem to be premature. Before formalising anything, you need to have some substance first. We have not yet coordinated anything. We are only discussing five quite interesting but not very large, medium-scale projects.

Question: What are your expectations from the upcoming meeting between the US and North Korean leaders? How can the resignation of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson influence it? Has Russia’s position regarding North Korea changed? Russia and Japan are members of the six-party talks. Will Russia work with Japan to resume this format?

Sergey Lavrov: First of all, we welcome progress that began in this process before the PyeonChang Olympics and is developing regardless of the Paralympics. We believe that this process was given momentum when the sides took the responsible decision of making use of the Olympic truce to exchange very positive signals. We approve of the upcoming contacts and hope they will be successful, primarily the inter-Korean summit that will be held in April, as our colleagues told us. The decision to hold a personal meeting announced by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump engenders hope. If they do meet, we will be happy.

We were surprised at the situation in the UN Security Council yesterday, when the US delegation blocked the Russian-Chinese proposal for adopting a statement by the council’s president in support of the agreements, even if tentative ones, on an inter-Korean summit and a meeting between the North Korean and US leaders, a statement that would express the council’s encouragement for the movement away from military tension and toward a political settlement. It is very difficult for me to say who exactly sets the direction of movement on Korean problems. In principle, this is of no concern to us. It is for the US President to decide who will be in charge of this policy, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, his successor Mike Pompeo or CIA Director Gina Haspel. We will watch the US position as it emerges. Maybe there will be several positions – I would not venture to make any guesses. We will see what Washington does and who takes the upper hand there.

Back when President Trump said he would meet with the North Korean leader to resolve all the problems, some members of the US administration promptly said that additional pressure must be placed on Pyongyang, which is allegedly wavering. This is not done in diplomacy. When you discuss a meeting, you try to guard the agreement rather than call for actions that can be interpreted as a provocation aimed at preventing the summit. But, I repeat, this is the US administration’s concern. We are closely monitoring the situation, because we are interested, as much as any other country, in a peaceful settlement and the prevention of a catastrophic military scenario on the Korean Peninsula. We share a border with North Korea. Many Russian populated areas and commercial facilities are located in direct proximity to it. If something leads to hostilities there, we will not be happy at all. This is why Russia and China proposed several years ago that the focus be shifted to a political process and settlement. We regularly discuss this approach with all the countries that took part and, I hope, will take part in the six-party talks, including Japan. We hold regular consultations with the diplomats who are responsible for this sector. I hope that the “party of peace” in the Korean settlement will prevail in all capitals.

Question: You said Russia had no motive and described as absurd Britain’s accusations against it. What steps do you think Russia can take in the current situation? What can Russia do to establish the truth?

Sergey Lavrov: It is not what Russia can contribute to the search for the truth – Russia is already doing much more than any other country toward this end, including the United Kingdom. The British authorities said that this incident (when the man and his daughter were found) was the result of poisoning, that they investigated it themselves and discovered that the toxic chemical was produced in the USSR and that Russians had it because not all stockpiles of chemical arms had been destroyed. Therefore, the only conclusion is that Russia did this on instructions from its leadership or because it lost control over chemical arms reserves. But in the latter case Russia is still to blame because it was supposed to destroy all chemical weapons.

Practically every word of these accusations requires confirmation but nobody is presenting anything to anyone. When this issue was discussed in British Parliament, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn asked those in charge to submit the results of the investigation to parliament. His request was denied as well. This alone should give rise to questions in traditional, established democracies.

As for the rest, we expect the United Kingdom to submit an official request and implement the procedures of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which describes all of these procedures.

Meanwhile, we are being told that Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement in parliament and the fact that UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson summoned the Russian ambassador amount to a formal appeal. But this is not so, this statement is absolutely unprofessional. Under the CWC, if its participant wants to find out what happened on its territory, it should do so officially, in writing. I have no doubt that our British colleagues know everything perfectly well. They are clever people. They categorically refuse to send an official inquiry and are deliberately and arrogantly fanning anti-Russian rhetoric and whipping up hysteria, which shows that they are well aware of the lack of formal grounds for legal procedures. They are trying to reduce all this to political rhetoric and Russophobia in the hope that, like in many other cases, the Western world will fall in line and stand at attention, all the more so since the US has already expressed its full support for the UK position.

We cited numerous facts that cannot be ignored, including those from Western scientific journals of the past 15 years. Let me emphasise again these are Western publications describing the work on the toxic chemical, which Britain decide to call “Novichok.” After chemical weapons were destroyed in Russia, this work continued in the US, Britain, the Czech Republic and Sweden, if we believe Western publications. All this began when the USSR disintegrated in 1991-1992, and labs producing the toxic chemicals that are mentioned in connection “Novichok” were left in several other republics apart from Russia, including the Baltic states and Uzbekistan. The Uzbek lab and depots were eliminated with the participation of US experts. So, it is very difficult to establish who saw what and took something away. But this is a fact that well-known chemical expert Vil Mirzoyanov (who left the USSR and now lives in the US) was taken to the West along with at least two or three other experts and relevant documents. We have presented all of these facts. The fact that the other side is disassociating itself and does not even want to discuss this makes us think.

The fact is that Sergey Skripal and his daughter are alive. If, hopefully, they recover, they may also shed light on what happened. Nobody wants to wait for this. Everything has already been decided and, as our British colleagues said, they will not show us anything, as they know everything and the only thing left to us is to confess that we have done this, following which they will punish us. This is a literal translation from English of what they are saying.

However, when asked – not by us but by Western specialists – if they are sure that this is really so, they answer that it is “highly possible”. The flexibility of the English language notwithstanding, it is not serious to base these absolutely provocative actions, including the expulsion of diplomats and threats of further aggravation of relations, on “highly possible.”

Yesterday, The Hague hosted an OPCW Executive Council meeting. We again recommended that the procedures contained in the Chemical Weapons Convention be followed. Britain’s representative said arrogantly that Britain did not have to do this – I do not know why – and would not do this. In principle, a party to the convention, probably, can say that it does not want to go through this body. But they did! Once one chooses to go through this organisation, one must be guided by the articles of the convention, under which they should forward an inquiry to us, since they suspect that we are the country which has made and even used this nerve agent, and give us a sample of it, so that we can analyse its chemical composition jointly with OPCW experts. Under the convention, after receiving a formal inquiry from Britain, we must reply within 10 days. Moreover, in keeping with the convention procedures, if the British party is not satisfied with the reply, it has the right to ask that the OPCW Executive Council to hold an extraordinary meeting to take a corresponding decision. The British do not want to take any of these steps and they said as much into the microphone. You know, when in the face of such a position and conduct, some countries speak about their solidarity with London, it is pure sacrilege and a mockery of common sense.

There are other avenues as well. If they are not happy with the OPCW and the CWC that underlies its work, there is also the 1959 Council of Europe Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. The mechanism provided by this Convention can be used. However, the message behind Britain’s remarks and rhetoric is that they don’t have to show anything to us or anyone else. They decided that they are beyond doubt and suspicion, and, therefore, urge everyone to punish Russia. It is ridiculous.

You mentioned the absence of any motives. Let’s face it, they really don’t exist. In principle, under no circumstances can we assume that Russia could have done this. Even if we hypothetically adopt the sick and perverse logic of our Western colleagues, who in their right mind can assume that in the run-up to the presidential election and the World Cup, Russia would suddenly decide to create any problems whatsoever? There is no motive. However, those who continue to exert pressure on us, including, to look for more reasons (after doping and other things) to make holding the World Cup in Russia more complicated, do have such motives. Everyone is aware of it. Thinking about the motive of the British government, the Tory government (this was already indirectly mentioned by many Western media observers), clearly, London found itself in a difficult situation during the talks with the EU about Brexit. The popularity of this government is going downhill. Public opinion in Great Britain is aware of the fact that the government cannot wrest from Brussels what it promised to its people, its constituents. This ploy, staging a provocation around Sergey Skripal, is deflecting attention. The second reason is (it may be my subjective opinion, since I know the British a little) their desire not to be forgotten and to be leaders. In this case, they opted for Russophobia because, perhaps, there remain fewer and fewer platforms where Britain could reasonably be a leader. To reiterate, we are open to dialogue, and we said so at the OPCW Executive Council in The Hague, when we proposed using all the opportunities – and there are many – that the CWC provides for investigating this issue. We also propose using the Council of Europe Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. Yesterday, speaking at the UN Security Council, we suggested adopting a statement by the Security Council President calling for cooperation among all parties in order to establish the truth. This statement was blocked by our British colleagues, which once again confirms what I have already said: they do not want to establish the truth, but instead want everyone to take what they are spreading around the world at face value. I don’t think they will succeed.

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