The UN General Assembly
Interview by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Channel Five programme Glavnoye, Moscow, 28 September 2014
Question: Mr Lavrov, thank you for having us here at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You have been the Russian Foreign Minister for 10 years now. Over these 10 years, has there been a more difficult year than 2014?
Sergey Lavrov: The year is not over yet, so it is hard to draw conclusions. One thing I can say for sure is that the remaining three months are not going to be any easier. In general, the previous years were not very simple, either, although compared to this year, those problems seem almost insignificant, and one might say that the previous years were almost cloudless, but in fact by no means were all of them so.
We had major problems with the United States when they unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty. We had to argue that we saw the true reason for that move and that it was aimed at strengthening the US capacity to dominate in the military strategic sphere, and we had to explain why we could not afford to see strategic stability in the world shaken in this way. There was a rather complicated period when, without any apparent reason, we were told that our refusal to follow European, Western values in their new light neo-liberal version was unacceptable. You will remember how much drama went into this matter.
In our relations with the European Union, there was a time when they refused, under various pretexts, or were unwilling to continue the work on a new framework agreement unless we made further unilateral concessions. Then they threw a spanner in the works over the visa-free travel issue. In general, lots of things happened.
Question: What exactly did you have in mind when you told the Seliger-2014 National Youth Forum that attacks on Russia had begun long before the "Ukrainian issue" cropped up?
Sergey Lavrov: There were some heated discussions when our Western partners tried to achieve certain agreements not on the basis of equality and mutual respect of interests, but to gain unilateral advantages. I could cite specific attacks, think of the "Magnitsky case," when we were accused of "all the deadly sins" and arrogant sanctions were imposed against Russian officials.
Then we were accused of creating the Syrian crisis by refusing to give the go-ahead through the UN Security Council for the overthrow of the legitimate government there. Then, out of the blue, there was the case of Edward Snowden, who turned up in Russia like a "hot potato," and we did not know what to do about the man because the Americans had cancelled his passport. We could not even legitimately let him out of the country.
Then there were the Olympics, which our partners were at pains to present as an apotheosis of the wish of a "dictatorial authoritarian regime" to prop up its positions. We were accused of unprecedented corruption, throwing all the resources into this event at the expense of economic growth and social development. I am absolutely convinced that if there were no Ukraine, they would have thought up something else.
Unfortunately, the truth is that our Western partners have never been able to overcome the Cold War thinking, and that is a systemic problem. We have been trying for years and we will continue to seek to convince the West of the need to follow the agreements reached in the early 1990s and 2000s, when the OSCE and the Russia-NATO Council declared the principle of indivisible security. It was said at the highest level that security must be equal and indivisible, that no state should strengthen its security at the expense of the security of others. This principle was not followed because NATO was expanding contrary to its promises, the BMD began to be created and the Alliance's military infrastructure was approaching our borders. We then proposed that the political declaration should be translated, in one form or another, into legally binding legal language. The proposal was turned down, and we were told that legally binding security guarantees could only be granted to NATO members. End of story. It meant that our Western partners never seriously contemplated equal and indivisible security, but wanted to preserve the dividing lines and move them closer to our borders, thus tempting the post-Soviet countries (like they once tempted the countries of Eastern Europe) to edge closer to NATO.
Some hot heads in various countries, including some of Russia's neighbours, took that as a signal that they could get away almost with anything. Thus, the NATO summit in 2008 in Bucharest declared that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members, and several months later, Saakashvili flew off the handle and decided to conquer South Ossetia, which was a strife-torn Georgian region. Peacekeepers from Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia and observers from the OSCE were there. Saakashvili got this idea into his head because of the NATO promise to admit Georgia to its ranks.
In Ukraine, it was our partner, the European Union, that tried to gain unilateral economic advantages by signing an Association Agreement and an agreement on free trade, which in some important ways ran counter to that country's obligations under the agreements on a free trade zone with the CIS. That zone continues to be effective so that negotiating with the EU a trade regime that contradicts Ukraine's obligations to all of us would be wrong. President Putin repeatedly made this point. And when Ukrainian President Yanukovych said that he needed time to think before signing that agreement, they staged the Maidan, and you know the rest…
The reason I am saying this is to show that problems arose some time ago, and Ukraine is perhaps the most high-profile and tragic manifestation of the problems that had been systemically created over many years.
Question: This prompts a naïve and sincere question: what do they want out of us?
Sergey Lavrov: Good question. I think that the West's actions are to a large extent prompted by nostalgia for the times when, immediately after the collapse of the USSR, slogans about eternal friendship were proclaimed, and it was said that Russia had joined the civilised states…
Question: In other words, they needed Russia as part of the system of civilised states?
Sergey Lavrov: Certainly. We have abundant natural resources, we have intelligent people who develop products and invent interesting things. To our great regret, many of them now work in the West, helping the United States and many West European countries to make a technological leap forward. But I'm sure that as we regain our positions, including on the world scene, but most importantly, as our economy grows stronger, these people will come back. Indeed, we can already cite such instances.
Going back to your question, it was taken for granted that we were part of the West. Therefore, when Russia started getting out of the financial crisis, when we accomplished a practically problem-free, or at least bloodless divorce with the former Soviet states – and it was difficult because many aspects had to be agreed in a new format of negotiations with newly independent states – when we gradually built up economic strength, came to grips with social issues and began to speak in an independent voice within the framework of international law and our obligations, but seeking a solution to any issues on the basis of a balance of interests and not just accepting the recipes coming from the Western capitals, primarily Washington, this was probably not to the liking of some people. However, if such a perception of a new and confident Russia prompted the actions that we now see, then apparently there are no more Russia specialists left in the West. This may be the result of a relaxed attitude that set in after the collapse of the USSR, when there was talk about "the end of history," because history had nowhere to develop and the world would now live according to Western "templates." When these predictions turned out to be an illusion, many were upset, and some got rancorous and began to take out their frustrations and omissions on us.
Question: Russia has never been a country with which one could talk in an arrogant tone. Why are they talking to us this way even if they do not like our actions? Or perhaps this is a diplomatic game?
Sergey Lavrov: Perhaps, it has to do with personal irritation. I feel that this is so. Personal statements targeting Russia and its leaders do not add luster to the names of those who make them.
Perhaps we have more reasons to feel offended than others. I recently read an article by US President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron. They proceed from the positions of their predecessors Margaret Thatcher and George Bush Sr., which were enunciated in 1990 at the time of the NATO summit in London. The calls that were voiced at the time were reflected in the summit's final documents: NATO expresses support for equal security for all Europeans, for the search of solutions to the security problems on the basis of mutual interests. Indeed, promises were made that the Alliance would not expand. All this turned out to be false. The opposite was done. NATO continued to expand, and these attempts still continue. NATO's military infrastructure is approaching our borders. Substantial military forces are stationed on the territories of its new members, something that they expressly promised not to do – this is even written down in the documents.
Question: The Times article you are referring to names the enemies: the Islamic State and Russia. How should we react to this?
Sergey Lavrov: As a matter of fact, I think we were mentioned first. This is really over the top. Precisely at the time when the article signed by Obama and Cameron was being written and published, the Americans offer that we think together about how to cooperate most effectively in the fight against terrorism, in particular the Islamic State.
Question: Are the Russian-American programmes of combating terrorism, drug trafficking and piracy functioning?
Sergey Lavrov: They have all been suspended. Several years ago, a Presidential Commission was set up which formed working groups, including on terrorism, drug trafficking, economy, and civil society contacts – about 20 working groups in all spheres. All of them, and the activities of the Commission in general, have been frozen at the initiative of the American side. Now that the Islamic State has been declared to be the number one enemy of the United States, it is worth recalling that these are the very people who built up strength, formed themselves and started getting massive financial and other material aid from abroad during the regime change in Libya and the attempts to do the same in Syria when "any means were good." The Americans and the Europeans at the time said that they were supporting the struggle against "antipopular" regimes. When we pointed out that large numbers of extremists and terrorists were fighting on the side of the regime's opponents, we were told effectively that "this will pass" – once we topple the regime, we will sort this out.
In reality, this is not what happened. In Libya, they toppled Qaddafi and went into Mali, where the French, who had armed those who overthrew Qaddafi, had to fight terrorists. They did not hide the fact, they said it publicly. Then the terrorists, having done their job in Libya, moved to Mali, where the French began to combat them.
A common criterion is needed here. If we fight terrorism, we should do so everywhere and always. One cannot consider terrorists to be "good" because they help to overthrow the leader you personally do not like, although the leader has been legitimately elected and is the head of a UN member state. Those who kill Americans are "bad" terrorists. For all the tragedy of the situation, they stirred into action only after the hideous footage of the beheading of American journalists was shown on television. This is unacceptable and inhumane. Such people should be fought by all the means available. But why didn't the Americans see this threat before? Because they approached the fight against terrorism with double standards and did not heed our calls to pool efforts and help the Syrian government, for example, together with the moderate patriotic opposition, to create a common front against terrorists who had literally flooded Syria.
They did not listen to us. Now a coalition to combat terrorism is being created. But I can tell you that we have nothing to be ashamed of. We have long been helping – without any coalitions – Iraq, Syria and other countries in the region - to strengthen their potential to fight this evil. We supply modern effective weapons to Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Yemen, weapons that really strengthen their capacity to stand up to terror.
Better late than never. If other countries, especially the Western countries that have the necessary resources, are ready to help the legitimate government of Iraq, we welcome this. If they want to fight terrorism on the territories of other states, in particular Syria, of course they should do so with the consent of the corresponding governments. Speaking about Syria, the country's leaders have repeatedly said that it would be ready to cooperate with foreign partners in tackling the task of eradicating terrorism on their land.
Question: You said "they didn't listen to us." Countries are out of practice when it comes to listening to international organisations. The UN and its Security Council are used to express one's views, but no one is listening. You are well versed in UN subjects. Do you think it's time to establish a new association, where countries will listen to each other and make decisions? Will the United Nations disappear in the 21st century, as the League of Nations did in the 20th century?
Sergey Lavrov: The League of Nations broke up because unlike the United Nations, it didn't have a mechanism for considering the interests of the leading states, on which the world's common security depended. These interests were taken into account when the United Nations was set up. Its Security Council combined non-permanent members – the rotation allowed each country to take part in this instrument – and permanent members – Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and China. The United States proposed a system of veto by a permanent member to prevent infringement on the interests of any of the five permanent Security Council members. The right to veto is not a privilege or a whim. It embodies the responsibility of a Security Council permanent member for implementing its functions. Each permanent member is a guarantor of international security.
Sometimes this right is abused. Americans were accused of using it more often than others, primarily, during the voting on resolutions on a settlement in the Middle East and the Palestinian issue. Such instances may be called "operation costs." We advocated for a reduction of abuses. When it comes to specific issues concerning the future of regions and sometime the entire world, I'm convinced there is no way other than seeking consensus between the Security Council permanent members.
Question: Do you think the instruments of international organisations are still universal? Are they sufficient for resolving global issues?
Sergey Lavrov: They are sufficient. The United Nations and its Security Council are absolutely adequate for resolving current issues if they are used in good faith, as we all agreed when the UN was established.
Question: When you say "in good faith," whom are you addressing?
Sergey Lavrov: The United Nations is not something that emerged out of nowhere. It still unites the same countries. If we agreed to resolve all issues by consensus when we set it up, we should continue doing so. If some of our Western colleagues are using it only to engage in propaganda or collect incriminating evidence against their partners, I wouldn't call this position respectable or cooperative (for instance, they submit a draft resolution that is patently unacceptable for us or for China; we vote against it and tell them in advance about our intention, but instead of searching for a resolution that can only be based on consensus, they still carry the draft to the voting stage, receive a veto from Russia or China and then accuse us or them of blocking the way to resolving this or that issue).
We never resort to such tricks. When we want to resolve some issue, we are always ready for sensible compromise. We look for a balance of interests and we achieve results. There are many examples of such conduct. Here's a recent one. We adopted several resolutions on Syria. At first our Western colleagues tried to present Russia and China as opponents of any progress, and submitted clearly unacceptable resolutions that we were bound to vote against. Now they have calmed down a little, and a number of consensus resolutions was adopted. These resolutions were free of attempts to impose unilateral positions on the Security Council, and were the result of mutual accords. Recently, the Security Council members came to terms on a resolution aimed at mobilising efforts against foreign militants and terrorists that are coming from Europe to Syria, Iraq or any other countries. They are also coming from Russia – this is supported by facts – as well as from America, Britain, Arab and other Islamic states.
Question: What sort of mechanism is there, except for denunciation?
Sergey Lavrov: The sides have built an entire system for exchanging information, including intelligence data, warning other states on the territory of which these people may appear, and assuming commitments to monitor their movements. This was not easy to do, but as a result we have adopted a very strong and correct mandate for working in this area in the intergovernmental format. This is a good example of an instance in which it took a long time to come to terms on a resolution, because it was necessary to consider the specific aspects of national legislations, avoid selective approaches and adopt common criteria in fighting these groups in various regions, primarily the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist structures that are made up of foreigners in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Question: Could you please comment on the US conduct? Eventually, the United States and Russia, two large and powerful countries, albeit with different views on many issues, will have to establish contact and resolve common problems. After all, relations between our states will determine the attitude of the smaller countries that are now happy to follow the US' lead. Are Russia and the United States ready to start talking again?
Sergey Lavrov: We are talking. I regularly talk with US Secretary of State John Kerry and we have other communication channels. We do not shun these contacts but we cannot compel the Americans to become our friends or even to hear us out. We have contacts and dialogue. They have been greatly reduced but exist nonetheless. The main problem is that we are truly interested in normalising these relations but it wasn't us that destroyed them. There is probably a need for what Americans dubbed a "reset" under the US President Obama's administration after a serious throwback of our relations in the last years of George W. Bush's presidency. Today it is the current administration that is largely destroying cooperation structures that it established together with us. They will probably come up with something else like "reset No.2" or "reset 2.0."
The trouble is (and I have openly told my American colleagues about this) that they have a consumer-oriented approach. During every electoral cycle – presidential elections are held every four years and in between they conduct elections to Congress that exert a strong influence on the alignment of forces in the country – the Americans want to show off their strength and success and sometimes they fail to do so. They can hardy boast of any achievements in the Middle East after a series of unilateral sanctions that have had no positive effect. Iraq is barely holding together and Afghanistan is only just recovering from the crisis after the presidential elections. Their results were counted over the course of several months and then it took them as long to recount them. Their figures have not been announced up to now although the winner has already been named. This is a grave situation, so they need some success. Regrettably, very often ordinary people are influenced by confrontational rhetoric that is used in searching for an external enemy. Russia was chosen for this role. I've already mentioned the Magnitsky law, Snowden, the LGBT community and attacks on the Sochi Olympics that were used to fuel US public opinion. At that point the administration came up with both personal and economic sanctions. Regrettably, in my opinion it was largely motivated by the desire to score points during the elections.
Question: Heads of state, foreign ministers, ambassadors and other diplomats replace each other but some of them remain in history for different merits to their countries, for instance, Henry Kissinger, Andrei Gromyko and Alexander Gorchakov. They were seasoned men and could see a decade or even an era ahead. But there are also minions that are dangerous for foreign policy. They pursue immediate goals – to win elections or draw support from one group or another.
Sergey Lavrov: That's right. I can draw an interesting analogy. From time to time Russian politicians hold debates on whether the "vertical of power" is a good system or not. This question has received more than enough answers. We have a large country that was on the brink of collapse after the Soviet Union's disintegration. It was necessary to redress the situation and keep the country together. We have an explanation for this.
But nobody is using this term in international affairs although Americans are doing exactly this – building a "vertical of power" in the world arena for no clear reason except to assert that they alone will determine what music the international orchestra will play. This reflects the withdrawal syndrome that Washington is suffering from. America is still the world's strongest military power but far from what it once was; it is still the world's largest economy but China is snapping at its heels. It is far from being able to resolve everyone's problems single-handedly but that's a role they are used to. This is not criticism but a statement of fact. This is a big personal drama for politicians who are used to operating within one and the same system of axes. But suddenly everything changed and the predicted "end of history" did not take place. The Western model and civilisation did not prevail. On the contrary, other countries are flourishing economically and financially, gaining political influence in the process. The world is becoming multi-polar and multi-centric, no matter what you call it. There is already an understanding of the need to reform the international financial system to give these new growing points adequate representation. If they are expected to support the international system with financial contributions, they should be given more votes and influence.
This objective process began long ago and cannot be stopped. The realisation or a subconscious awareness that nothing can be done about it sometimes leads to inadequate actions.
Now I'd like to make a second point comparing domestic and foreign or international affairs. Speaking about the domestic situation in any country, be it Russia, China, Venezuela or Cuba, our Western partners always demand at all forums, for instance in UN agencies that discuss such issues, observance of democracy, supremacy of the law and freedoms. But when international issues are discussed they do not welcome such formulas whenever we suggest writing down that these issues must be resolved on the basis of respect for the supremacy of law and consolidation of democratic principles on the world scene. This is a double standard because while they insist on domestic pluralism, our Western colleagues do not welcome it in the world arena.
Question: We often talk about Russia being a strong power, which, if provoked, can rise and cause a lot of damage. Is this a convenient myth, or is it actually the way Russia is perceived internationally?
Sergey Lavrov: If we were perceived as a second-rate country, I can assure you that we would not be facing these bitter attacks. Secondly, as you said, we can of course do a lot of damage. It's not that we need it though – in fact we aren't even considering this possibility. We have our national interests, including national security, and we are prepared to thwart any threats. We are doing this now.
I can also assure you that there'll be no arms race, but Russia will be able to reliably and adequately ensure its security. We have the required resources, strength, political will and highly qualified professionals working to improve the country's defence capabilities with cutting-edge technology. We don't have to worry about that.
One of our priorities is people's well-being. We are interested in improving the quality of life in Russia. To achieve that, we need to promote economic growth, to maintain peace, and to liaise with foreign partners to implement mutually beneficial projects that can help revive the economy and improve social security.
We are open to any form of partnership given the understanding that the cooperation will be based on equality, mutual respect and mutual advantage. This is the concept that underlies Russia's relations with most countries – China, India, the BRICS, the SCO – and successful integration projects in the post-Soviet space, such as the Eurasian Economic Union. More countries have been showing interest in this, and its membership will certainly grow. The process will take some time, but its first results will become tangible soon I'm sure. In fact its predecessor, the Customs Union, has clearly increased its members' mutual trade numbers.
This year, the Russian president and foreign minister visited South America. I also recently visited Africa, a continent with enormous natural riches, which cannot be tapped at this stage due to ongoing conflicts. They are interested in effective partnerships, and in joint projects with Russian companies.
We definitely feel no isolation. On the other hand, I would not like to see extremes here and give up the European and American vectors of our foreign economic cooperation, and international cooperation in general. I'm referring to relationships that benefit both sides – countries that equally benefit from cooperation with Russia.
I am confident that what is happening is only temporary. As you said, one electoral cycle will give way to another; history abhors haste and attempts to direct it. The objective trend is that political issues can only be effectively addressed collectively. Joint effort is what promotes the fastest economic growth.
There is research that suggests that joint efforts of Russia and Europe and the formation of a single economic and cultural community from the Atlantic to the Pacific proposed by President Vladimir Putin will significantly increase the global competitive advantages of both Russia and the European Union. Americans are working on a different project now called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Question: Join that too…
Sergey Lavrov: Right. This is what's happening. It shouldn't be labelled good or bad, politically. This is life. Economic competition has always been there, and will continue in the future. What we need to do is seek formats that will enable us to combine efforts, to uphold our own economic interests and achieve a balance of interests between Russia and its partners. Similar processes are underway in the Asia-Pacific Region where the United States is promoting its Transatlantic Partnership. For some reason they are doing it in a "membership club" format, without inviting Russia or China yet. This is life, but I think the only way to ensure the interests of every normal country on the planet is to negotiate, discuss and supply arguments.
Question: A proverb says "Years do not go; life does." We waste our lives on a lot of artificially created problems. True, our relations with Europe have become quite complicated – although fortunately not with all European nations – as well as with the United States. The conflict with Ukraine has not been resolved. What do you think must happen to help change this situation for the better?
Sergey Lavrov: I think only time will give us answers. We certainly do not want this period to drag on. We have absolutely no intention to continue this war of sanctions, this exchange of blows. We are not going to do this just to spite someone, as some of our partners do, taking enforcement action against Russia. President Putin said we would think about defending our economic and other interests. But I do not think I can give you any dates right now.
Question: Do you think this situation will drag on?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not think it will be too long, but it will take some time. It is most important that our partners realize the pointlessness of ultimatums and threats. There is no goodwill lost on our side. President Putin has proposed initiatives to help the Ukrainians resolve their military-political crisis, a crisis of statehood (which also needs to be addressed – something only the Ukrainians are able to do), as well as to reach a compromise in the economic relations between Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. His initiatives have in fact opened the way to dialogue on these issues. The dialogue is underway, and the Minsk agreements have already led to results. A ceasefire has been achieved, although not without difficulty, and certain mechanisms to control it have been introduced. Three-party talks between Russia, the EU and Ukraine have started, and gas talks have resumed. If every party involved were showing as much goodwill, we would have soon left this abnormal period behind.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the decision made by the European Union and Ukraine to postpone the enforcement of the Association Agreement until the end of 2015, in parts that create risks for the Russian economy – was actually what Viktor Yanukovych had asked for. He said he wanted to postpone the signing (i.e the enforcement) to have more time to consider it. That Ukraine eventually did what he said (which it could have done in November 2013 when he said it) 10 months and hundreds of lives later, will certainly not be put to the credit of those who started it.
To be contunied...