Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remarks and answers to questions from MGIMO students and academic staff on the occasion of the beginning of a new academic year, Moscow, September 1, 2020
Traditionally, we meet here on September 1 to give a joint start to a new academic year. Of course, we send special congratulations to the first-year students who were admitted in the wake of a serious competition, of which Rector Anatoly Torkunov just provided a detailed account. MGIMO renews its reputation year in and year out. The competition here is the highest among Russian universities, and the quality of new students is always a source of great respect and admiration.
Despite the coronavirus, admissions went well this year. We followed them online and otherwise to make sure the requirements were complied with. Mr Torkunov has just mentioned the results which are impressive.
Mr Torkunov celebrated his anniversary the other day. It was especially gratifying to hear people talk on this day about MGIMO traditions, our history and the people who work and study here. So, I don’t need to say more about my alma mater. I would like to once again extend my best wishes to Mr Torkunov on his anniversary. As you may be aware, the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, signed an executive order to present the rector of MGIMO, Alexander Torkunov, with the Order of Merit to the Fatherland, 2nd Class. I think this symbolically goes to show not only the recognition of his personal achievements, but also his achievements at the university.
Mr Torkunov said that the Foreign Ministry as an employer is the ultimate measure of the university’s success. Although, based on the numbers, an insignificant portion of the graduates join the Foreign Ministry every year, maybe dozens, or at times, a hundred or so graduates. Many more graduates find employment in government departments, private businesses or journalism. The training is fundamental in nature and provides an excellent opportunity to choose a profession to one’s liking. Once again, the quality of the education guarantees that, if there’s a will, great success can be achieved in any area of interest.
As you are aware, we chose diplomacy as our major at a time when it was easier to make this choice. Probably, there were fewer temptations compared to the number of faculties that are available at MGIMO now. We had four faculties. We chose diplomacy, so every year I talk about diplomacy here. Considering that you joined the Institute of International Relations, I am not going to spend much time talking about the international situation. If you are here, then you must be following developments and taking an interest in them.
I will say briefly that for several years now the international situation has been characterised by a transition to a new, more democratic and just multilateral system, which should do a better job accounting for the changes that have taken place in the world over the past decades. Primarily, the changes consist of the fact that all issues have become transboundary and affect all countries equally. No country can deal on its own with the kind of challenges we are facing now. The coronavirus is one such challenge, not to mention international terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime, climate problems and much more.
Another problem we are facing today is the reluctance of many countries, primarily the individual US-led Western countries, to recognise objective reality, notably, the forming of a new system of relations and the emergence of new centres of power. It will suffice to mention China and India as the drivers of economic growth. As for the Asia-Pacific Region as a whole, this region is growing the fastest of all. The financial might followed by political influence comes with the appearance of economic power. I consider short-sighted and dangerous attempts to ignore this reality and prevent the creation of relations that would take into account the new achievements of many countries fully and with due respect. So what is happening? For almost 500 years our Western colleagues set the tone in world affairs, controlled the economy via colonial conquest and ensured a glamorous life for their elite by exporting natural resources from their colonies. Much has happened in these 500 years.
Even after the colonial system collapsed the teacher-pupil or boss-assistant relations still largely influenced the mentality of Western politicians. Even today they refuse to recognise the need to deal with others on an equal basis, and to take for granted a multi-polar and multi-centric reality. Now they are trying to preserve their dominant position not by using the natural mechanisms of economic dominance they created but through completely illegal approaches. These are sanctions, direct intervention and many other actions that we see practically daily as regards many states.
When they fail to dominate a country in a single effort, they create what is called “a space of chaos” that they hope to turn into controlled chaos. But experience shows it is impossible to manage chaos. It all started in Yugoslavia back in 1999 and was followed by the events in Iraq, Libya, Syria and other countries in the Middle East. The sad example of what happened in Ukraine is common knowledge. Today, our Belorussian neighbours are going through a difficult time. We have stated our position in very clear terms. President of Russia Vladimir Putin openly spoke about it. We will be guided by international law and the commitments that exist between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Of course, we want Belarusians to have the opportunity to resolve their problems without any outside interference.
We can see that many Western states, both our neighbours and the countries overseas - I’m talking about the United States and Canada – are tempted to impose certain approaches to overcoming the current situation in the Republic of Belarus. President of Belarus Lukashenko is responding to these approaches. We believe no obtrusive intermediary services are needed. The President of Belarus has proposed constitutional reform. According to our shared assessment, this move can be used to start a dialogue with civil society and should allow for discussing all the issues of concern that are of interest to particular groups of Belarusian citizens. Later, during the interactive part of our meeting, I can provide more comments on this matter should you have any questions.
Now, I would like to conclude my opening remarks by saying that we stand for a more democratic and just world order, strict compliance with the UN Charter and against attempts to replace international law with obscure rules the world order should be based on. This is a new idea advanced by the Western countries. They coined the term “rule-based order.” The rules change all the time depending on what our Western colleagues want to achieve in a particular case. Coalitions of like-minded nations are being created, usually from among Western countries; they also hand-pick partners from other regions who do as our Western colleagues say. In their circle, they agree to create some kind of a “partnership against impunity for the use of chemical weapons,” then “cybersecurity partnership” and “partnerships to punish those who interfere in cyberspace with unseemly goals” or a “partnership to protect human rights.” All of this is done in a format that is far from universal, but is used only within a narrow circle of those who will not go against the Western initiators of these machinations. Then, the rule that governs a particular issue is declared universal, and everyone is required to observe it. Those who do not comply with the rules developed in such a narrow circle are subjected to sanctions.
Unfortunately, the European Union, on cue from the United States, is increasingly going down the road of the sanctions pressure. The EU decided to create mechanisms for imposing sanctions for intrusion into the cyber-sphere with criminal intent (according to their judgment), human rights and some other matters. These sanctions are illegitimate from the point of view of international law, just like any other unilateral sanctions for that matter. This trend is clearly taking shape. “We - the West, the EU and NATO - know better how to live on this planet.” Everyone else should listen up.
Look at what NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, certain EU representatives and Western leaders who head the OSCE are saying about the situation in Belarus. It’s nothing short of moral preaching delivered in a tone that allows no doubt that it should be followed by everyone as a guideline. This stems from the lack of elementary diplomatic skills and, by and large, is unethical not only from the diplomatic, but also the plain good manners point of view. We can see that and we take note of it.
For example, our French and German colleagues announced last year that they would create a partnership for multilateralism. Multilateralism is probably a good thing. We have always been in favour of resolving problems through collective – multilateral - approaches rather than unilaterally. Why do those who want to promote multilateralism put forward an initiative like this outside the framework of the most multilateral and universal organisation, the UN? This remains unclear. They haven’t even tried to do so. By the way, at the UN, Russia and a large group of countries, including our neighbours and countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, are promoting a partnership in defence of the principles of the UN Charter. This is probably the very motion that is required to indicate commitment to the principles of multilateralism.
We criticise the actions of our Western partners and a number of other countries on the problems that we would like to resolve in accordance with international law and the search for a balance of interests rather than unilateral pressure. Nevertheless, we do not limit ourselves to criticism. We suggest a positive agenda. As I have said, this consists of a return to the foundations of the UN: to respect the principles of the UN Charter; remember that it was born 75 years ago in the aftermath of World War II owing to Victory in the Great Patriotic War and the Victory that was achieved by the efforts of the countries with different socio-political and ideological systems. The allies in the war pooled their efforts for the sake of victory over a common enemy. They rose above the differences that divided them in the years before WWII. This has been expressed many times.
I think that today the world situation is not as bloody as it was in WWII but there are many more risks and they are no less serious. I mentioned terrorism, and drug crime that kills an enormous number of people every year. Let’s not forget about the risks of WMD proliferation. Now the United States has practically destroyed the entire system of deterrence in arms control. It is adopting doctrines that actually lower the nuclear threshold. On top of all that, terrorist and other groups crave access to nuclear technology and methods of creating and using other WMDs (chemical and biological weapons). I believe it would be a crime for all of us to isolate ourselves in our “national apartments,” slam ours doors and refuse to deal with a country until it complies with our ultimatums. But we are seeing all of that.
Look what problems now exist in relations not only between Russia and the US but also between the US and China.
Our position is one of searching for compromise and a balance of interest. The organisations in which Russia takes part – the CIS, the CSTO, the EAEU, BRICS and the SCO – are designed to find compromise. Recognition of new realities was expressed in the creation of the G20 that includes the BRICS countries, the G7 and a number of leading developing nations. The G20 continues its very important work. Now, in effect, this is the only venue beyond the UN where all countries with the leading economies are represented and in which they have set a common goal – to come to terms. Many other formats that our Western partners are involved in miss this logic.
We promote an agenda that should help overcome persisting international problems through cooperation. It must necessarily be equitable, based on consideration for each other’s concerns and be aimed, let me emphasise this again, at searching for a balance of interests.
We have created our vision of moving towards harmony in world affairs. As for economic problems, we are convinced of the need to move towards the creation of the Great Eurasian Partnership (which is reflected in the initiative of the President of Russia) that would be open to economic and humanitarian cooperation of all Eurasian countries, including the members of the EAEU, the SCO, the EU and ASEAN. We have a huge continent with tremendous wealth, and it would be, of course, very unwise not to use this God-given advantage. Our long-term goal is to use it. I am confident that historically this process will be accepted by all countries on our continent.
In the near term, we consider it very important for the UN Security Council permanent members to display responsibility in line with the UN Charter and hold a summit. At this summit, it should be possible to review ways to drastically enhance global security by implementing the power of these five countries, which are fixed in the UN Charter. All five countries have given a positive response to this proposal by President of Russia Vladimir Putin. I hope the summit will take place as soon as the coronavirus pandemic permits. Needless to say, this must be a face-to-face summit.
Let’s go to the interactive format.
Question: You have touched on a variety of subjects today. You explained how important it is to resolve problems together, through a collective effort, considering many challenges are transboundary in nature. Sometimes, these problems concern not some overseas affairs but our CIS partners. It has been noted many times, in part by President of Russia Vladimir Putin, that it is the CIS that is our foreign policy priority. How can Russia help resolve the Karabakh crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia takes part in the international efforts to create conditions for settling different crises and conflicts including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. At one time, the OSCE Minsk Group was set up to discuss this. Today, it is co-chaired by Russia, the US and France. Several other countries, including Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Turkey are also members. By decision of this group, the co-chairs – Russia, France and the US – are authorised to do the day-to-day work to create an atmosphere in which the sides will be able to find mutually acceptable solutions themselves.
I would like to emphasise that we are not creating scenarios for resolving the problem, but we create conditions that will allow them to come to terms themselves. The two sides have been drafting the first documents over the past 18 years. Much has been done. They create a foundation that reflects the principles of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and also the specific parameters that must be agreed upon for the settlement to take place. I won’t go into details now.
Several incidents have occurred recently including some in the Karabakh area and on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia last July. Needless to say, these incidents seriously escalated tensions and do not help the co-chairs create the right atmosphere for talks.
During this crisis I spoke by telephone with my Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. The new Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan visited us last week. I had another telephone conversation with the Foreign Minister of Armenia. We have the impression that both sides are interested in reducing tensions and resuming meetings, which representatives of the co-chairs (Russia, France and the US) organise in the region when visiting Baku and Yerevan. After that, they exchange views and prepare meetings of the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan with their participation. At certain stages, when there is hope for specific and positive changes, summits of the presidents of the two countries are held.
Russia is one of the most active participants in this process because in addition to being one of the co-chairs, we are also mediating to create favourable conditions for a dialogue between the sides as a country. We have repeatedly invited the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Russia. There have also been meetings between the presidents of the three countries – Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This type of work is our contribution to the common efforts of the co-chairs. We never match our bilateral steps against the activities of the three co-chairs – Russia, the US and France. Whenever we hold trilateral meetings between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, we always invite the other co-chairs so they can receive all the required information at these meetings.
Our policy is based on the package of documents that has been drafted over almost 18 years. There are the so-called Madrid principles and the updated versions of the documents that the sides approved as a foundation for further talks. These documents are held in the OSCE Secretariat.
At this point, in conditions of some stagnation, there are proposals to give up these documents and start from scratch or even launch a Plan B. We think this would be a big mistake. We are convinced that the documents drafted during these years must remain the foundation for further efforts.
I will not describe in detail what has been tentatively agreed upon because this is a fairly confidential part of the work, However, I can assure you that there exist solutions that will make it possible to ensure fairness both to the Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives.
Question: Recently the US Congress approved a number of additional sanctions against vessels and companies involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2. How do you assess the legality of these sanctions? Do they indicate that the US has lost interest in the development of a transatlantic partnership, or are they an act of friendship towards European Union countries?
Sergey Lavrov: In my opening remarks, I spoke about the problem of unilateral sanctions. Any unilateral sanctions are illegitimate. Only sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council are legitimate. The rest are just attempts to undermine international law and the principles of the UN Charter that call for collective work in addressing any problems.
The case of Nord Stream 2 clearly involves methods of unfair competition. The Americans say openly that it is necessary to stop Nord Stream 2 because it jeopardises energy security in Europe and that in order to ensure it, Europe must buy liquefied natural gas from the US, while the cost of American LNG is much higher than the cost of gas that will be supplied via the new pipeline to the European continent.
Such statements are arrogant because they demonstrate the US’s complete disrespect for its allies. Germany and several other European Union countries have already responded to this. Several days ago, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel reaffirmed in her speech after a regular meeting of the European Council that Nord Stream 2 was strictly a commercial project and could not serve as political currency. We share this position. As for the relations in the Euro-Atlantic community and the assessment of the US’s intentions regarding it, it concerns those located on both sides of the Atlantic. I won’t comment on Euro-Atlantic affairs, or else I will be accused of meddling. I would not want that.
Question: I would like to ask you about the developments in Belarus. In your opinion, what possible solutions are there? What position should Russia take on the issue? What should it do to stabilise Belarus, a neighbouring country that is very important for Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: I have spoken about this in my opening remarks. President Vladimir Putin has addressed this issue more than once, including during his recent interview with Rossiya 1 TV Channel. Our position is very simple and clear. We firmly believe that the Belarusian people have every opportunity to settle this problem independently. But it is obvious that there are issues that need to be discussed.
We consider it unacceptable in the present-day world to act as a judge, adopting verdicts and implementing them through sanctions and other threats, as our Western colleagues are trying to do. Regrettably, we have seen this happening in the EU, including in Belarus’s neighbours, who would like to drag all EU member states into their hard-line anti-Lukashenko camp. We know that this has created serious discomfort in the countries of the so-called Old Europe, which are aware of the need for balanced actions and which are unhappy with the policy of open and heavy-handed interference in the internal affairs of states. For example, they insist, just as the Americans, Poles, Lithuanians and other Baltic states, that the Belarusian authorities accept OSCE mediation.
I have spoken with Edi Rama, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and Albania’s Prime Minister, and with the Foreign Minister of Sweden, which will take over the OSCE chairmanship, who had proposed such mediation. They called us asking to convince the Belarusian authorities to accept it. We asked why the OSCE did not send its observers to monitor the presidential election in Belarus, which it had been invited to do. They replied that the invitation had arrived too late. But in fact they received it a month before the election. There are no OSCE requirements according to which the invitation to monitor elections must be sent more than a month in advance. There are no such conditions. The only obligation is to invite international observers. The form of the invitation depends on the given country’s national laws and its vision of the situation, which is exactly how Belarus acted. All this nonsense that the invitation must be sent two months in advance is set out in the guidelines of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), 99 percent of whose members are EU and NATO citizens. Russia and its CIS partners first proposed reforming the OSCE back in 2007, so that it becomes a normal organisation with understandable operating criteria, including the principles for organising election monitoring activities. The Western countries have categorically refused to even discuss these proposals. We also proposed discussing, coordinating and adopting an OSCE charter, because the OSCE, although defined as an organisation, does not have a charter.
The message of our Western partners in support of the OSCE in its present-day form is that its vagueness and ambiguous flexibility must be preserved because they are “the gold standard,” as they say. I can see only one explanation for this stand: it is easier to use and manipulate an organisation without a clear focus. Moreover, the OSCE, which wants to be the main mediator or is being prodded by the collective West into claiming this role, is itself in a deep crisis: it does not have a secretary-general or the heads of its human rights, ethnic minorities and media bodies. They all have resigned, because the attempt to simultaneously extend the powers of these four officials (all four of them, as a package) fell through due to the objection of several countries. The only essential principle at the OSCE is the principle of consensus. All four of these officials, who had been appointed to these posts three years earlier, were citizens of Western countries. We have tried many times to have a CIS citizen elected to one of these four positions, but all in vain.
There are acting heads of the OSCE Secretariat and the human rights, ethnic minorities and media bodies, who stepped in when their bosses resigned. Which countries do you think they represent? They are from the Western countries as well. And this is also true for the entire secretariat. I don’t want to blame all countries indiscriminately. Many OSCE states would like the organisation to be balanced and neutral, but they are not allowed to pursue this path. Regrettably, the OSCE is being used by an aggressive minority as an instrument for political point scoring.
Considering the current problems in the OSCE leadership and its actions towards Belarus, we will use the preparations for the next OSCE Ministerial Council, which is scheduled for early December in Tirana, Albania, to demand the start of a concrete and professional discussion on reforming this somewhat stagnant organisation.
As for Belarus, I have mentioned, just as President Vladimir Putin did, that President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko spoke about the need for a constitutional reform long before the election. He has recently said that this reform should be de-personified and should ensure the stability of the Belarusian political system no matter who stands at the helm. He said that he was ready to start drafting proposals for such a reform. I believe that members of civil society should be involved in this work as well. If they want Belarus to get out of this crisis a stronger country rather than to fuel differences, they must indicate their interest in this. Instead, we only see attempts to further destabilise the situation. And they are not even trying to keep their intentions secret. Our Lithuanian neighbours have overstepped the mark in their demands. We have reason to believe that they and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya are using far from democratic methods that are not based on respect for the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus.
Question: What do you think about the future of the Iranian nuclear programme? Is there any chance of keeping the JCPOA in a framework acceptable to all participating countries? Do you think the US and Iran can return to a constructive dialogue to settling their grievances?
Sergey Lavrov: The situation around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on settling Iran’s nuclear programme remains tense. This is due to the US’s official withdrawal from the agreement a couple of years ago when US President Donald Trump signed the relevant executive order. The agreement was reached in 2015 following more than ten years of talks and was unanimously approved by the resolution of the UN Security Council. This approval made it an instrument of international law, which calls for strict implementation of the decisions reached by the negotiators on behalf of the West, Russia, China and Iran. This was a commitment not only for the participants in the JCPOA but also for all other UN members.
At one time, this document was described as an unprecedented breakthrough in consolidating nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime and a major military political step towards creating a security system in the Gulf region. All commentators who were familiar with the situation praised it as a great achievement. But when the Trump administration called the deal the worst in history and officially withdrew from it, it was put at risk. Many analysts doubted that it would survive. To preserve the agreement, the remaining participants had to display political will. This primarily applies to Russia, China and Iran and three European countries: Germany, France and Britain. All of them reaffirmed their interest in preserving the deal, but a problem was created when the US, having retracted its commitments, resumed its unilateral sanctions against Iran. It abused its position in the world currency system and started curbing any attempts to use dollar settlements to prevent any country from trading with Iran or conducting investment activities with it. This required a lot of work.
A couple of months after the US made its decision, we met with the Europeans, Iranians and Chinese in Vienna. They promised to create a system that would not depend on the dollar and would provide for settlements for all the countries that want to trade or conduct economic affairs with Iran. This mechanism is called INSTEX. It wasn’t created as fast as we were promised, but it became functional at the end of the last year only. So far, it has been used in only one transaction. Of course, this is not enough for normal trade with Iran.
It transpires that the US has given up this plan of action. It has not only resumed its unilateral sanctions but also banned others from trading with Iran. Sometimes, some US allies even humiliatingly asked the US to waive this ban so that despite exterritorial and illegal US restrictions they can still trade with Iran, receive oil from them, etc. I consider this incredible. It was impossible to imagine this several years ago.
In spite of dropping out of this programme and thus having lost all its rights (because it renounced its commitments) the US just recently tried to push through the UN Security Council a resolution that would impose an embargo on the exports and imports of any weapons to and from Iran despite the fact that the relevant provisions of the valid resolution expire in the middle of October. The US was out to prove to us that if we do not continue imposing restrictions on trade in weapons with Iran, Tehran will destabilise the Middle East and the Gulf area further. This was completely unlawful. The suggested resolution was supported by only two votes out of 15. All others either voted against it or abstained from voting.
Now the US is trying to use a fairly sophisticated legal instrument that was fixed in the JCPOA and approved by the UN Security Council. This document may be used to restore the collective sanctions that were imposed by the UN and cancelled in early 2016 after the adoption of the JCPOA. This is also an underhanded attempt. Despite the existence of the mechanism that was created at one time for resuming UN sanctions, it was supposed to be used only if Iran did not fulfil its commitments (but it fulfills them). Moreover, the US has lost all of its rights having cancelled its commitments. The US wants every country to obey its will. This is true not only for Iran but also for Venezuela where the US intercepts ships and tries to organise a maritime blockade. We know an elephant is a symbol of the US Republican Party, but the world is not a china shop.
Question: I would like to thank you for your remarks and for this opportunity to directly ask you questions that are of interest to us. In February of this year, the UK withdrew from the European Union. What kind of relations will now take shape between Russia and the UK, given that on August 1, Russia opened its borders to three countries, one of which is the UK?
Sergey Lavrov: Please, do not read politics or political preferences into the fact that we have opened our borders to the UK and a number of other countries. These decisions have been taken based strictly on the assessments provided by our sanitary and epidemiological authorities and endorsed by the Government Emergency Response Centre.
Ties between Britain and Russia are centuries old. They have never been easy, despite the relations of kinship that were periodically established between our monarchies. The current period has come into being in a far from satisfactory form; the situation is even worse than during the years, when our relations were just middling well. Today, they are sharply negative by reason of the actions taken by our British colleagues.
It all began with the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2007. Next, there were the Skripals, and then the British were as proactive in taking up other anti-Russian antics (like the Malaysian Boeing in Donbass). They have introduced some strictly British nuances, alleging that we meddled with the Brexit referendum; later they said we hadn’t but that we had certainly meddled with the Scotland independence referendum, and now we supposedly will again interfere in the UK’s internal affairs. It is sad to hear this.
We have never attempted to artificially complicate our relations. There are quite a few problems in them as it is.
I have listed just a few that have been created by the British side without any proof.
They are urging the doctors in Omsk to immediately present their reports so that we can investigate why Mr Navalny went into a coma. Do you remember that he was taken to hospital in Omsk for slightly more than twenty-four hours? All our Western colleagues were making a fuss, wondering why there was no information. Well, he is at last in Germany and has been there for a week and the German doctors are providing no information either. This means some additional time is needed, doesn’t it? But for some reason, no one is urging them or denouncing them for “attempting to withhold the truth.”
They are accusing us of doing nothing to investigate this affair. This is not true. The Interior Ministry launched a pre-investigation probe on the actual day, when it all occurred. An investigation can only begin when it is established what really happened. And this, let me repeat it, is not yet clear. The German doctors are still unable to report to us the relevant information. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office asked their colleagues in Germany to activate the Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance.
Why have I recalled this? Because I have listed the “thorns”– Litvinenko, the Skripals – that our British colleagues have consciously sunk in the flesh of our relations. In either case, no one has provided any definitive facts to anyone. When we are urged to conduct a full and objective investigation into what happened to a person, who had been living abroad for a long time, the investigation, if they abide by their own criteria, will not be complete. No one has provided any concrete facts related to Litvinenko or the Skripals. With regard to the Skripals, the British simply forced all the EU members to banish Russian diplomats (the majority went along with the demand, but some managed to hold their ground). Moreover, we know for certain that many Europeans asked the Brits, when they were feverishly applying to the European capitals, whether they could show the facts that this had been done by Russia. The British said the facts would be on the table, but later, whereas right now they should banish the Russians. I am not joking. This is an established fact. So now, almost one and a half year later, when I ask my European colleagues if the Brits have supplied the facts, they say, their eyes to the ground, that they have not yet. And they won’t either, I am almost certain of this.
We have complicated relations with the UK, although I see no reason for their deterioration, particularly artificial deterioration. Our cultural, humanitarian, educational and scientific ties are developing intensively. There are relevant organisations for contacts between our civil societies. Business is developing rapidly. British businesses are quite interested in the Russian market. They work and invest in Russia, including in the construction of sports facilities and plenty more. Incidentally, trade has grown by more than 50 percent to over $10 billion in the first half of 2020 as compared with the same period last year. This is not a record but a steady trend. I think that we will be able to work more effectively to the advantage of both countries, if the British leaders at long last come to grips with a Russia policy that will achieve the results desired by the UK’s business community and civil society.
Question: The Syrian crisis has been continuing since 2011, and many attempts have been made to resolve the situation in the country. National leaders have held talks. What do you think about the results of joint patrol missions involving Russian and Turkish service personnel in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: The results have been quite good. Although complete success has not been achieved yet, we are making progress. I would like to remind you that patrol missions are underway in Idlib Governorate, covered by an entire package of Russian-Turkish agreements. The main memorandum was signed in Sochi in 2019 and later augmented by a couple of protocols.
The essence of agreements between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan was that a security zone was to be established in Idlib, where all terrorist groups must be separated from the patriotic opposition, even armed opposition, whose reputation has not been smeared by terrorist attacks and whose members are ready to take part in deciding their country’s destiny. Turkey assumed the responsibility for separating members of the opposition cooperating with the Turkish side from terrorists. This is being done with great difficulty. However, I repeat that we can see that our Turkish colleagues are exerting efforts. Nevertheless, terrorists are trying to resist, they are shooting at the Syrian army’s positions from the security zone, and they have repeatedly tried to stage armed provocations, including with the use of strike drones against the Russian air force base in Hmeimim.
Moscow is currently hosting another series of consultations between Russian and Turkish experts, including on Syria, as well as on cooperation on the Libyan peace settlement. We are discussing these matters. Joint patrol missions also aim to deprive terrorists of any space and freedom of action in the Idlib zone. It is necessary to reopen the M4 route and to ensure its normal operation for civilian freight traffic, the Syrian army and Russian military police under another protocol signed by the presidents of Russia and Turkey.
They are not patrolling this route quickly enough because of the extremists’ resistance, but patrols gained several extra kilometres each time. A patrol mission covering the entire route recently took place. There is still a lot of work in Idlib, but we are witnessing progress. Most importantly, there are no bloody incidents in the area. Some incidents are taking place, but Syrian and Turkish personnel are coping with them.
Question: The coronavirus pandemic caused changes in all spheres of society’s life. What changes are in store for the system of international relations?
Sergey Lavrov: The system of international relations is part of the system of society’s life. Consequently, long-distance and online technologies that are becoming part of humankind’s life will also expand their role in the area of international relations. This process will be directly proportional to the extent of their influence on society’s life.
I should mention a very serious restriction here. Far from all important aspects of international affairs can be discussed online, even using the secure networks that are protected from bugging and illegal access. This technological process would be unsafe; however, this is not the most important thing. The problem is that it is impossible to coordinate the most serious agreements on the most crucial matters online. This calls for personal contacts, a chance to get a feeling of where the other party is at, an understanding of how they can be reasoned with, as well as a readiness to find something in their words that can be acceptable for you. As I see it, this process can never be completely conducted online. Nothing can replace personal contacts. At the same time, there is a number of events, especially those with more pronounced protocol aspects. For example, this includes a meeting of some organisation’s ministers for which expert documents have already been prepared. The ministers have the opportunity to speak and approve the relevant resolutions. In this case, I don’t see any major problems with using the online format. We have held a videoconference of SCO foreign ministers, and we are preparing for a BRICS conference. A videoconference of G20 foreign ministers is scheduled to be held this week. Saudi Arabia currently presides in the G20, and it is organising the event. I repeat, these are mostly protocol and ceremonial occasions. But for numerous personal meetings, including closed, private and confidential meetings between the United States and Iranian representatives, the sides would never have reached agreement without holding numerous in-person talks.
We are now ready to support direct dialogue between the United States and Iran, and we are ready to create favourable conditions for this dialogue, if both sides are interested in this. It is always better to directly state one’s grievances and listen to the answer.
Question: It is a regrettable fact that the situation on the international stage is not always favourable for Russia, including during court hearings. For example, a Swedish court has recently rejected Gazprom’s appeal against the ruling of the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce to pay some $2.5 billion to Ukraine’s Naftogaz. Is this the result of mistakes made by Russian lawyers? What competencies and qualities should international lawyers have?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think I am in a position to define the qualities of international lawyers. You will be able to acquire them during your studies at the institute. Just trust your professors and lecturers. There are very many experts on the staff who not only know the theory but have applied it in practice too. As for arbitration rulings, many of them have been adopted in Stockholm and in some national courts of the EU, especially on Nord Stream 2. The first branch was granted exemption from the Third Energy Package, but the second branch was rejected. Nord Stream 2 AG itself has appealed against that decision. Gazprom has also put forth its position publicly. I hope that this dispute concerns corporate relations. It would be a pity if the Stockholm or any other arbitration court played political games. There must be no place for politicking in the sphere of law.
Question: Is the current line-up of forces on the international stage similar to any other period in the past? If so, when was the geopolitical situation similar to that of the current one?
Sergey Lavrov: It would be a pity if we rolled back to the primitive era. It sometimes looks like some norms have ceased to exist, or that some powers have chosen to disregard them. I don’t think there are direct parallels between the current period and any other era in the past. We were allies during WWII, and there was a great power concert in the 19th century and many other indications that the then leaders were aware of the advantages of joining forces. However, in most cases they united against something, a coalition or a common enemy. It is, of course, a major achievement. We have many common enemies today as well, against which we should unite. If we take the “humankind and a common enemy” algorithm, WWII was such a period.
Today we have not become fully aware of the gravity of the threats facing us. This explains some of our partners’ slackness and the tendency to yield to temptation. This could be the genetic consequences of colonial times. Even when it is better to join forces, we see attempts to sideline opponents, gain unilateral advantages and moralise instead of working together. I have mentioned double standards, when they present their demands to us while keeping information available to them secret, like in the Skripals and Litvinenko cases. Nobody is telling us anything. But this has not taken the edge off their requests to us in the cases which the West can use to benefit their ruling elites.
I believe that ultimately everyone will see that there is no alternative to working together. The Greater Eurasian Partnership and the settlement of problems in relations among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, which have special responsibility for all aspects of international stability – these are the goals of the initiative put forth by President Vladimir Putin.
The current development of a multipolar world is a new historical period. It will take decades. You can see resistance to China’s ascent, as the Chinese say, a tug-of-war over India, and the invention of new concepts such as “the Indo-Pacific” when we have long had Asia Pacific with its inclusive or collective methods of operation. But no, they are advocating the Indo-Pacific concept the main goal of which is to push back China (and Russia) and to create an affinity group for containing China and Russia. They are introducing negative rather than positive criteria for coalitions. I’m sure that this stage will end, because these efforts cannot succeed but will only provoke even more acute conflicts. There are more than enough crises throughout the world that must be settled, including in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. A possible explanation is that some forces would like the situation to remain chaotic in the hope of turning it into controlled chaos where they would be able to control the developments. We don’t believe this policy has a future. We would like to be able to discuss problems and come to agreements honestly, on the basis of equality.
Question: I was born in Sterlitamak, Bashkortostan. I know that you visited our republic and rafted the Belaya River. I have a personal question, just to add a light tone to the talk. We often hear about your trips around the world from the media and it must be an enormous workload. How often do you spend time with your family? Do you remember the last time your family gathered to have a meal together at home?
Sergey Lavrov: When you mentioned that you are aware of my trip to the Belaya River and would like to ask a personal question, it scared me a little.
I do not often get a chance to see my friends and family, which makes every time I get to see them even more precious.
Question: If you had a chance to choose a different career what would you do?
Sergey Lavrov: There is no point in doing this now. When I was finishing high school, I wanted to study at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. But when I heard that the admission exams at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations were held a month earlier, I decided to give it a try since I had nothing to lose anyway. I never regretted my decision. And I don’t recommend you to regret yours.
Question: The relations between Russia and Latin America can be described as time-tested mutually beneficial cooperation. As we know, right now Latin America is going through difficult times, including the challenging situation around COVID-19 and the economic problems in Venezuela and Argentina. What is your view of Russia’s further cooperation with Latin American countries? Are there any joint projects planned?
Sergey Lavrov: We see it as cooperation with a very important region. We respect all Latin American countries and are no less willing to work with each of them, regardless of what government is in power in a particular country. Unfortunately, for our partners – specifically, our American partners – cooperation with a particular country is not as important as its government’s loyalty to the Americans. This is not right. It is another attempt to force sovereign countries to choose whether they support the United States or not. This illustrates the aggressive policies against Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. This also explains the events in Bolivia. By the way, recently Estonia, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, convened a special unofficial meeting to discuss the protests in Minsk and the actions of law enforcement agencies. That reminded me of Bolivia. When Evo Morales was faced with the fact of multiple protests, the protesters supported him and the police acted completely different from other cases: dozens of people were killed. Nobody in the UN Security Council lifted a finger, simply because those who were coming to power were convenient for Washington. Our approach is different. For example, in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff’s government was succeeded by Jair Bolsonaro’s government. The two are considered antipodes when it comes to political views. We are developing a strategic partnership with Brazil, guided by pragmatism and the need to find common interests which we have many. The same applies to any other country.
Besides the bilateral relations with the Latin American and Caribbean countries, we are developing close contacts with regional and sub-regional associations – primarily, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the trade and economic union of the countries in Central America and the northeast of South America (CARICOM), and others. We are in the process of obtaining an observer status in CARICOM and the Central American Integration System. We are working together in a variety of fields such as high technology, military and technical cooperation, countering organised crime (police training for Latin American countries in the specialised regional centres opened in Peru and Nicaragua). Lately, we have been working together to counter the coronavirus as well. We supplied test kits to many countries in the region. Now we are negotiating the supply of Russian medicines and vaccine as well as joint production of medicines and the vaccine developed in Russia, in these countries. Speaking about a multipolar world that is being shaped, Latin America is one of the support legs of this world that is now objectively forming. This support will make the future polycentric world order much more stable.
Question: Passions are running high in connection with the presidential race in the United States. How will Russia-US relations change in the event of a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario, even if it is improbable, and if Kanye West is elected president? What is your forecast?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, when Anatoly Torkunov and I were your age and just entered MGIMO, we composed special reviews during which we made fun of everyone, from presidents to secretaries general. You can do the same and joke about anyone in the United States. I hope you won’t be accused of interfering in the US election.
Question: Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe has recently announced his resignation. How would you describe Russian-Japanese cooperation in international affairs during his eight-year long premiership? In your opinion, what are the prospects for Russian-Japanese relations?
Sergey Lavrov: Relations between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian leaders, primarily President Vladimir Putin, were comradely, really friendly and based on mutual respect. It was also clear that they were based on personal sympathy between them. President Putin pointed this out in his recent message to Prime Minister Abe and in the subsequent telephone conversation following the announcement of the Japanese prime minister’s resignation. President Putin has reaffirmed his sincere desire to maintain friendly communication with Shinzo Abe, always and in any capacity.
As for the prospects of Russian-Japanese relations, we would like them to be prosperous and close, and we intend to start with promoting interaction in all spheres without exception – in the economy, high technology, research and technology, culture, humanitarian ties, education, person-to-person contacts, the environment, joint projects, including on the Kuril Islands, as well as close cooperation and transparency in the field of security.
This not only provides for the discussion of concrete situations in our common region, especially in the context of the Japanese-US military alliance, but also for close coordination and collaboration at international organisations. This is what Prime Minister Abe and President Putin agreed to do when they formulated the task of developing bilateral relations in all spheres as actively and deeply as possible, so that our countries reach a level of relations that will allow them to settle even the most complicated problems.
This formula has been coordinated and adopted. Unfortunately, we are still far away from this goal in our relations with Japan. Japan has joined the sanctions that are hindering economic cooperation. Tokyo looks to the other Western countries, primarily the United States, when the issue concerns joint production in the field of nanotechnology and other high-tech areas.
Regrettably, Japan nearly always votes against Russia on difficult resolutions at the UN. Of course, we would like to develop a professional dialogue on security in the region where we border Japanese islands, and we would like to know Japanese views on its military obligations to the United States now that Washington has officially declared Russia to be an enemy. Tokyo, which claims that it would never join the Americans against Russia, has a close alliance with the United States, which sees Russia as an enemy. In short, there is plenty to talk about.
At the same time, I would like to say once again that whatever the outcome of the election of the leader of the ruling party and, consequently, prime minster, we are ready to develop maximally close cooperation with our Japanese neighbours in all of these spheres. We are moving forward, although not as quickly as we would like, when it comes to joint economic activities on the South Kuril Islands. These projects will benefit those who live on the islands, as well as the companies involved. In short, we are ready to move forward one step at a time, but the main task is to advance our relations to a fundamentally new positive level.