The Minister’s meetings
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference following talks with President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer, Moscow, November 17, 2020
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,
We are grateful to our friends from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), especially the president, Mr Peter Maurer, for a very timely and fulfilling visit to Russia.
Interaction between Russia and the ICRC has traditionally been constructive. We recognise the high professionalism and depoliticised approach that distinguishes the committee in its efforts to facilitate and resolve various humanitarian crises. We give its employees credit for their contribution to alleviating the plight of civilians affected by conflicts and crises. For our part, we are involved in implementing ICRC projects. Today, we reiterated our commitment to continue to assist in implementing them. Primarily, we are talking about projects designed to improve the plight of civilians in crisis situations. Russia has been making annual contributions to the ICRC since 2018 for this purpose.
We discussed the situation in a number of the world’s regions. The Nagorno-Karabakh settlement has been topping that list this past week. Now, thanks to our efforts, including the deployment of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, this process has entered a new stage in accordance with the November 9 agreements between the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents and the Armenian prime minister. I think a cessation of hostilities based on these agreements opens up additional opportunities for the ICRC, which operates in Armenia and Azerbaijan, including Nagorno-Karabakh. Mr Maurer and his colleagues will discuss in more detail the corresponding aspects of their work in the region during their meetings at the Defence Ministry and the Ministry for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief.
We believe that the ICRC is quite capable of playing an important and increasingly active part in overcoming the humanitarian consequences of the events in Nagorno-Karabakh. We are aware that the ICRC is assisting in the exchange of bodies and bringing home prisoners and other detainees, which is important if we want to restore normal relations between the people of different ethnicities and faiths.
We hope that other humanitarian agencies, primarily the UN, specifically, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, will join in. Preserving cultural heritage is a challenge in Nagorno-Karabakh, and UNESCO could play a role here as well.
The ICRC has been present in the region for many years. The organisations that have not yet started working there could use its expertise. We operate on the premise that a strong and broad international presence in the region is in the interests of everyone in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Southeastern Ukraine was among the subjects of our discussions with our colleagues from the ICRC who provide the people of the region with significant amounts of humanitarian aid. With the ongoing blockade by Kiev, this aid, along with Russian humanitarian convoys, provides essentials to the residents there. This is a very important source of humanitarian aid. We also noted that the ICRC’s activities in Donbass are primarily carried out through its interest and willingness to deal directly with the leaders of self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics when addressing specific matters.
We are very pleased with our cooperation in many hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa, in particular in Syria and Libya. For our part, we will continue to provide support to Syria on many levels, while remaining absolutely committed to preserving its sovereignty, territorial integrity and political unity. We will facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland and continue to help consolidate the efforts of the international community in this area, including together with the ICRC.
An important practical aspect of our collaboration is cooperation in making sure Russian children return home from Syria and Iraq.
We also admire the work of the ICRC in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, especially in the context of countering the spread of the novel coronavirus infection in those countries.
Overall, humanitarian problems in many crisis zones are escalating due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Today we discussed the efforts of the international community to neutralise these impacts. Our country is actively participating in these efforts. The experience of Russian doctors is in demand in a number of countries. We are carrying out large-scale deliveries of personal protective equipment, systems, drugs and equipment, and conducting exchange of expertise, knowledge and technology. Our partners abroad are interested in Russian approaches to organising coronavirus response measures. This topic is regularly discussed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his colleagues during their telephone conversations, including yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We see the ICRC’s important role in this area, especially in light of its unique capabilities and authority.
During his visit, Peter Maurer and his delegation had a meeting at the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, where this topic was discussed in detail.
In general, the spread of the coronavirus makes the burden of illegal unilateral sanctions even heavier for millions of people who don’t have access not only to normal medical care and infrastructure, but also to basic necessities. Unilateral restrictions remain, despite appeals from the UN Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is unfortunate and only aggravates the crisis and complicates the work of humanitarian organisations.
Overall, our relations are very rich. We have a specific agenda, and we are interested in developing cooperation. I would like to thank our friends from the ICRC for cooperation and reaffirm our readiness to develop this cooperation in every possible way in the future, building on the very fruitful results of this visit.
Question: Did you discuss the return of Syrian refugees? How would you assess the outcome of the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees and IDPs held in Damascus? Walid Muallem, Deputy Prime Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, passed away the other day. What can you say about him as a person and as a diplomat?
Sergey Lavrov: Walid Muallem was a close friend, and a friend of the Russian people and all Russian diplomats who had worked in the Middle East and contacted him, who admired him as a talented diplomat. He was a top-notch professional and a very humane person. I spent a great deal of time with him, including informally. There is no doubt that his deep knowledge and boundless devotion to his country helped preserve Syria’s independence, sovereignty and real friends. I have sent a message of condolence to President Bashar al-Assad and expressed our deep respect for the late Walid Muallem.
We talked about the return of refugees during the conference that was held in Damascus on November 11-12. We discussed the ICRC’s role at that event. In our opinion, the countries that sent their delegations to Damascus have reaffirmed their interest in settling the Syrian crisis without attempts to play geopolitical games and combinations but exclusively in the interests of the Syrian people. As for the countries that not only deliberately ignored the conference but also did their utmost to prevent their allies from sending delegations to this important event, it is a sin on their conscience. They went against the main thing in life and in any conflict: the interests of common people, in this instance, Syrians. I am sure that their attempts will fail and that the international community will eventually accept responsibility for helping Syrians and other people in conflict situations. This should be done in strict compliance with international humanitarian law without any political bias and ideological influence.
Question: How are the ICRC and Russia collaborating within the framework of Moscow’s peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh? What measures are being taken to help peaceful civilians resume a normal life? What are the main challenges in the region?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Peter Maurer): I would like to express support for what Peter has said. Unlike Russia, the ICRC has been working in the region for years, including in Nagorno-Karabakh. In their joint statement adopted on November 9, the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia agreed on the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin Corridor. This is a new experience for us. The experience of our friends at the ICRC is invaluable in this context. We would like to exchange assessments of the situation and share recommendations. We sense the ICRC’s willingness to do this as well.
The peacekeeping force will have to deal with humanitarian problems in any event, helping individual people, those who had fled Nagorno-Karabakh and are now returning. The humanitarian component of our peacekeepers’ mandate is no less important than the protection of civilians’ safety. In addition to sending peacekeepers, the President of Russia has signed an executive order on the establishment of an Interdepartmental Humanitarian Response Centre, which will use the combined resources of the Defence Ministry, the Emergencies Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and other related agencies. This Centre will be directly interested in maintaining close ties with the ICRC staff.
I have already mentioned that we would like the parties to the conflict to become aware of the importance of expanding their international presence in Karabakh at the level of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNESCO and the UN Development Programme, because reconstruction is a big problem here. We believe – we have identical views on this matter – that the larger the international presence there, the more effectively will favourable conditions be created for the restoration of ethnic and religious peace and accord.
Question: A representative of the US Department of State said Washington and Paris expect Russia to provide details on the peace agreement. Is Russia working on some explanation of this?
Sergey Lavrov: How did poet Alexander Galich put it? “And they are shouting to me from the audience: ‘Give us more details!’” I find it strange to hear this. As for our French colleagues, in the past ten days the presidents of the Russian Federation and the French Republic discussed, by telephone, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in detail. I spoke to my French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, about this subject for about an hour. Our American colleagues were also informed about it at the Deputy Secretary of the State Department level since Michael Pompeo left for a foreign tour for 10-12 days. There is no doubt that from the very start of Russia’s efforts to stop the hot phase of this conflict, we have worked in close contact with our US and French co-chairs.
The co-chairs were present at the meeting in this building on November 10, when the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia were coordinating their statement with us. They were fully informed. Several days later, French President Emmanuel Macron made a statement without discussing the details with anyone. He put forth an initiative that we supported without trying to see it as some independent position that could harm the interests of the Russian Federation. A week later, another meeting was held in Washington, which the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia were invited to attend. Once again, there were no grievances on any side. The co-chairs were present at this meeting like they were in Moscow.
I think statements like this either reflect a lack of information from those who make them or are the result of a misunderstanding.
Question: You noted the other day that you do not see any signs of anyone trying to derail the agreements on Karabakh. At the same time, Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan declared that now Yerevan considers its absolute priority to be the international recognition of Karabakh and its status. He noted that Armenian troops will guarantee Karabakh’s certain sovereignty. How do you respond to this statement? Doesn’t this pose a threat to the adopted agreements?
Can you explain something that is not quite clear? Does the statement by the President of Azerbaijan, Prime Minister of Armenia and the President of Russia imply that Armenian forces must be fully withdrawn from Nagorno-Karabakh territory including Khankendi (Stepanakert) and Agdere? Did the refugees return there? Will this be controlled by the Russian peacekeepers? What is the plan for the return of Azerbaijani refugees? What is the time schedule for this?
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot comment on interpretations that are separate from the gist of the November 9 statement of the three leaders. It describes everything that was agreed upon. Anything that is added to it by others is their responsibility. The Russian Federation and I are responsible for the following words: right now we do not see any attempts to revise the adopted statement.
If I am correct, difficult discussions are taking place in Armenia now. However, the 17 parties that have united to support their national interests unequivocally opposed any attempts to revise this statement. This is what we proceed from. We will do everything we can to prevent such attempts or, at least, prevent successful attempts.
The statement specifies who returns and where and who leaves from where. All these details have been coordinated at the top level. Our leaders – the presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia and the Prime Minister of Armenia – clearly understand that all this must be carried out.
As for the return of Azerbaijani and Armenian refugees, they must be able to return to the places of their traditional residence safely and on their own free will, in full conformity with the standards of international humanitarian law. Of course, they must be helped to settle at the places of their former residence, all the more so if they were in a battlefield of armed clashes and require restoration. We have spoken about this today. International agencies can play a role in this respect. We will do all we can to facilitate this. It is important to help those who want to return as soon as possible, and do it in the most secure and comfortable way.