Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Kommersant daily, November 3, 2020
Question: For over a month, people have been dying in the Karabakh conflict zone. The number of victims on both sides is in the thousands. The entire world, including Russia, is waiting for the parties to be ready for peace talks, watching this tragedy unfolding in the 21st century. Apart from its humanitarian side, the conflict also creates threats for Russia – a strain on ethnic relations, because there are both Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Russia, and terrorism, because militants from the Middle East are fighting in the region, etc. How much longer are we going to wait, and isn’t there a way to force the parties to peace? Can Russia even afford to show its inability to handle problems in its region?
Sergey Lavrov: The tragedy now plaguing the South Caucasus is our shared pain. We are far from indifferent to seeing hostilities unleashed between two peoples that are traditionally friendly to Russia, over a problem that, it is our deep conviction, should have long been resolved exclusively by political and diplomatic means. Given that Russia is connected with Azerbaijan and Armenia by a shared history, culture, advanced humanitarian and economic ties, it would be highly inappropriate, on our part, to resort to methods such as diktat, coercion, or pressure.
Russia’s mission as the chief mediator in this conflict is to help Armenia and Azerbaijan get through the hot phase and find a peaceful way to resolve their aggravated differences.
We are working on this at all levels. President Vladimir Putin makes mediation efforts aimed at resolving this situation, almost on a daily basis. At his initiative, an agreement was reached on a humanitarian truce in early October. We are making every effort, including joint efforts with the United States and France, our partners and co-chairs in the OSCE Minsk Group, for this agreement to work to full capacity. At the same time, we are offering options for a political settlement to the parties. We hope that in the end, a constructive approach will prevail in Baku and Yerevan, hostilities will end, and the Karabakh process will get back on the political track.
The Russian authorities have certainly taken some precautions to prevent clashes between our citizens of Azerbaijani and Armenian origin on Russian territory.
We are naturally concerned over the internationalisation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the involvement of militants from the Middle East. We have repeatedly called on external players to use their capabilities to curb the movement of mercenaries; their number in the conflict zone is already approaching 2,000, according to available data. Vladimir Putin touched upon this topic, in particular, during a telephone conversation with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 27, as well as during regular contacts with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia. We persistently continue to promote our position through various channels.
Question: You noted in mid-October that the main task at the moment was for the military to meet in order to coordinate a ceasefire verification mechanism. Has any progress been made in this sphere? What kind of mechanism should it be? When will it be created? What role will Russia play in it?
Sergey Lavrov: We firmly believe that a lasting ceasefire is impossible without an agreement on an effective verification mechanism. Life has shown that the promises to cease fire that have not been complemented with a verification mechanism are not always kept.
The statement adopted in Moscow on October 10, 2020, reads that the specific parameters of the ceasefire will be agreed subsequently. It is a rather difficult process. There are different approaches to how this can be done. Some variants provide for using electronic verification instruments, a Yerevan-Baku hot line, OSCE-led observers and operations by military contingents. Not all the necessary parameters have been coordinated yet. Work on this is ongoing, including within the framework of our co-chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group. The main thing is for such a mechanism to be acceptable to both sides and deployed as soon as possible.
Question: What is Moscow’s attitude to the proposal by President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev regarding a new Nagorno-Karabakh format, a kind of “two by two” where Russia and Turkey would be the main external players? Could it become an alternative to the OSCE Minsk Group?
Sergey Lavrov: Many different proposals on the negotiations format have been put forth, including to expand or to change it. In particular, this subject was recently discussed in Moscow at a meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
We have pointed out that we do not support the idea of the possibility and admissibility of a military solution to this problem. We regard both nations – Armenians and Azerbaijanis – as friendly and fraternal, and so we cannot support such aspirations. The presidents of Russia, the United States and France have clearly spoken out in favour of an exclusively political settlement. The group of three co-chairs is the universally recognised format of mediation aimed at settling this long-term conflict. In this context, my Azerbaijani and Armenian colleagues reaffirmed the immutability of the negotiating format in the joint statement adopted following our meeting in Moscow on October 10.
Nevertheless, we call for working together with all our partners, including the neighbours of the conflicting parties who can influence them, so as to create conditions for coordinating a political and diplomatic solution based on the fundamental principles of a settlement, which the three co-chairs are promoting during their contacts with Baku and Yerevan.
Question: Has Russia perhaps become too dependent on Turkey in settling regional conflicts – from Syria and Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh? Why do Russian officials – you and the President, among others – make such reserved and even friendly comments about Ankara’s policies, knowing what negative role it is playing in Nagorno-Karabakh and other conflicts?
Sergey Lavrov: Moscow and Ankara are close partners capable of taking a flexible and pragmatic approach guided by strategic vision in bilateral cooperation.
Russia and Turkey are working vigorously to settle crises in most diverse areas. Our cooperation in Syria remains a vivid example of our businesslike practical cooperation between our diplomats, military and security services based on respect for each other’s interests. In cooperation with Iran, we have managed to create the most viable mechanism for settlement so far: the Astana format. We have joint Russian-Turkish patrols in problem areas, such as Idlib and the east of the Euphrates. We cooperate in neutralising terrorist groups and creating the required conditions for the return of Syrian refugees home.
Using the existing levers of influence on Tripoli, Tobruk and other power centres in Libya, our two countries are laying the groundwork for overcoming the acute and protracted crisis and developing all-embracing intra-Libyan dialogue under the UN aegis.
The Nagorno-Karabakh situation is different in principle. I have already partially responded to this in my answers to previous questions. Let me repeat: we have never concealed and do not conceal that we do not support the resolution of any crisis by force and that we are striving for an early cessation of hostilities. Both parties to the conflict and all their external partners must strictly observe agreements on ceasefire, formation of a verification mechanism and the resumption of a meaningful negotiating process with a specific timetable. Although a sustainable ceasefire has not been achieved straight away, we will continue using all our influence in the region and work with our Turkish partners to stop the further escalation of the military scenario, establish dialogue between the parties and persuade Baku and Yerevan to start negotiations.
Question: There are no signs in Belarus that Alexander Lukashenko intends to pursue a real rather than fake reform of the Constitution and an early presidential election. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities continue to ignore contacts with the opposition and even put Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on the wanted list. Don’t you have apprehensions that Russia has placed its bets on the wrong person in long-term perspective? After all, in case of a regime change in Belarus, Russia may face a catastrophic loss of influence.
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot agree with any aspects of your statement.
To begin with, it’s up to the Belarusian people to decide on the scale of the Constitutional reform in their country. If the drafted proposals endorsed by the All Belarusian People’s Assembly are approved at the national referendum that is expected to be held, as far as I know, then that is what should happen. As for the extent to which their depth meets the expectations of foreign observers, this is of third-rate importance.
As for the Constitutional reform as a whole, as you know, Russia supports this initiative by President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko. We support it, in part, because this creates a badly needed venue for national dialogue. Importantly, the country’s authorities have declared their striving to involve broad strata of the population in this process by organising the collection of proposals on Constitutional amendments. It would be unwise to ignore this approach and the opportunities it opens up. Needless to say, nobody can interfere in this work in any way – neither Russia, nor any other countries.
As for putting Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on the wanted list, this is a strictly legal issue. Russia is fulfilling its obligations under the CIS Treaty on Interstate Search for Persons of December 10, 2010. Under Article 7 of this treaty, the Main Information and Analytical Centre of the Interior Ministry is responsible for forming and managing a database on the interstate search for persons as part of the Interstate Information Bank. Ms Tikhanovskaya’s name was added to this information bank at the request of Belarus.
Finally, I will comment on Russia’s bets in Belarus. These are our fraternal Belarusian people and the state of Belarus, which is our ally and strategic partner. If the people of Belarus make their choice, we are obliged to respect it and we will do so. This was clearly confirmed by President Vladimir Putin in his message to President Alexander Lukashenko congratulating him on winning the election.
Question: Many Russian experts are convinced that, regardless of who wins the US election, relations between Moscow and Washington will not improve. What do you think on this score? Do you expect Russia to remain “toxic” for any US administration, and will this complicate the dialogue still further?
Sergey Lavrov: Given the extremely overheated election campaign, I don’t think it would be right to provide detailed public comments on the prospects for the development of bilateral relations depending on the results of the presidential election. As it is, our country is constantly accused of meddling in US domestic affairs and of attempting to influence electoral processes. Unfortunately, we must admit that dialogue between our countries so far remains hostage to the US domestic political struggle, which traditionally exerts substantial influence on the pre-election rhetoric of presidential candidates, as well as on US leaders’ practical actions on the global scene, including in relations with Russia.
I repeat once again that Russia will respect the choice of the American people, and that we are ready to establish constructive cooperation with the winner of the race for the White House, regardless of his party affiliation. However, considering the current circumstances, we realistically assess the prospects of bilateral cooperation and do not expect too much. Anyhow, let’s wait for the voting results. We don’t have long to wait.
Question: In our relations with the European Union, are we aiming for detente and softening, and eventually lifting of mutual restrictive measures, in the future? Or are we really ready to revise our policy in regard to the EU and lose even the meagre opportunities for cooperation we have now?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia’s relations with the European Union are in crisis – and it is not our fault. The EU bureaucracy and individual member states are using any, even the most absurd, reasons to enhance something they call “containment” of Russia.
New sanctions, illegitimate from the international law perspective, are being imposed. Considering the number of sanctions imposed on our citizens under far-fetched pretexts, the EU is second only to the United States. The European media continue a broad anti-Russia campaign. In trade and economy, the Brussels bureaucracy is stepping up various protectionist policies, violating WTO rules and introducing its openly politicised rules of the game as they go.
At the same time, we are being told that Russia can “earn” the right to have normal relations with the EU by changing its behaviour. This cynicism is absolutely off the scale.
While proportionately responding to unfriendly actions, we, nevertheless, remain open to dialogue with the European Union, which remains our important trade and economic partner. There is a steady interest from businesses on both sides in deepening mutually beneficial cooperation. Russian-EU cooperation in the energy sector has not lost its significance. There are areas where it is objectively necessary to combine efforts. I am referring to addressing new challenges and threats, crisis management, healthcare, climate, personal data protection, and artificial intelligence.
At the same time, our European colleagues must clearly understand that any interaction is only possible on an honest and equal basis and respect for each other's interests. We will not allow any one-sided games here. There will be no unilateral goodwill gestures on our part. We still hope that a rational approach and common sense will prevail, both in Brussels and in member capitals. We are ready to wait for that as well.