Director of the Foreign Ministry’s Second European Department Sergey Belyaev’s interview with Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, November 18, 2019
Question: Have northern EU countries contacted Russia with new proposals for developing the Arctic and, in particular, using the Northern Sea Route? Are there countries interested in building ports for it? What do you think about the Norwegian Foreign Minister saying that Oslo is questioning the economic viability of the Northern Sea Route and will analyse its compliance with the environmental standards?
Sergey Belyaev: The international community is increasingly focusing on commercial exploitation of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and is looking at it as a possible alternative to traditional oceanic routes. Its main advantage is that it provides a significant shortcut when it comes to delivering goods from Europe to Asia and the countries of the Pacific. Other advantages include unlimited throughput capacity compared, for example, with the Suez Canal, and relative navigation safety. Clearly, the demand for the NSR will grow given the increased activity of gas and oil companies in the Arctic region, including on the Yamal Peninsula. Russia intends to develop the Northern Sea Route. We possess unmatched experience in organising smooth sailing in high latitudes. We plan to continue to develop the port infrastructure and navigation and hydrographic capacity of this transport artery, as well as improving the search and rescue system.
The NSR is managed by Rosatom State Corporation, which obtained the mandate of a single infrastructure operator of this transport artery in 2018. The NSR Directorate was created to this end, which implements the state policy and the NSR development strategy, such as project management, infrastructure projects included. Rosatom is promoting interaction with foreign countries, including in Northern Europe, as part of these activities.
The NSR Public Council was created to ensure the Northern Sea Route comprehensive development and compliance with high safety and environmental standards, as well as to discuss plans and to issue recommendations for developing this transport artery. The Council includes representatives of leading Russian and foreign shipping and insurance corporations and R&D organisations with competencies in Arctic navigation.
Foreign companies have shown considerable interest in the Council. More than 10 European and Asian countries, including Denmark, Germany, Norway, France, Sweden, China, the Republic of Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Japan, took part in its first meeting held on September 4 on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Cooperation to implement Arctic projects has been established with many of these countries. We consider this as a sign of good prospects for expanding the NSR as a competitive transport route between Europe and Asia, which will ensure the timely fulfillment of contractual obligations for the delivery of the output produced under existing and future Arctic projects. We are interested in the further deepening of mutually beneficial cooperation to expand the Northern Sea Route and its infrastructure.
One thing should be made quite clear: the Northern Sea Route is Russia’s national transport artery. As a littoral state, and in full compliance with international law, it is Russia’s responsible to see that everything along this route functions properly and Russia will do whatever is needed to ensure navigation safety and the proper handling of this extremely fragile ecosystem.
During bilateral contacts, Norway has repeatedly emphasised its interest in jointly using the Northern Sea Route in conjunction with its Russian partners. No statements were made regarding its economic impracticability or non-compliance with environmental standards.
According to our information, Norway had five out of 91 permits for using the Northern Sea Route issued by the NSR Administration to ships sailing under foreign flags in 2018, and four out of 79 in 2019.
Question: The Swedish media recently reported that the Swedish Navy had relocated their headquarters to a Cold War-era underground base, citing an alleged threat emanating from Russia. In your opinion, could constant anti-Russia hysteria cause Sweden to renounce its neutral status and to join NATO? What additional action will Russia take if this happens?
Sergey Belyaev: Indeed, Sweden has been persistently spreading the myth of the so-called “Russian threat” since 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground in Swedish skerries due to a navigational error. Another large-scale anti-Russia media campaign dealing with a foreign submarine, allegedly sighted near Stockholm, and unequivocally hinting at, or directly stating its Russian origin was launched in 2014. However, an all-out search operation failed to locate the submarine. Recently, the Swedish press reported that the country’s armed forces had mistaken the transmission of sonar signals by a defective meteorological buoy of the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute for submarine-radiated noise and used them as a pretext for the ‘hunt.”
In the past few years, Swedish media outlets have repeatedly claimed that Russian military aircraft allegedly violated national air space. However, statistical records of the Swedish Armed Forces provide a rather curious picture.
In 2018, various military units, including aircraft, ships and army units of NATO member countries, violated Swedish borders 13 times. Not a single violation involving Russia was recorded. Regarding the Swedish side’s January 19, 2019 report dealing with an alleged violation of national air space by an Ilyushin Il-20 aircraft, reportedly escorted by two Sukhoi Su-27 fighters, the Russian side informed official Stockholm that the Russian military authorities had carefully studied this information, and that it had not been confirmed by objective control data.
We maintain regular contacts with our Swedish partners, via diplomatic channels, on stability and security matters in the Baltic Sea region. We consistently note our readiness to discuss any concerns on the part of our neighbours. We are confident that there are no military threats requiring a military solution in the Nordic Baltic region.
In March 2019, members of a delegation of the Swedish Defence Commission [a forum for consultation between the government and representatives of the political parties in the Riksdag] visited Moscow in the framework of compiling a new national security and defence policy report for 2021−2025. They met with the Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Federal Assembly, Konstantin Kosachyov, as well as top Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry officials. Unfortunately, despite our open approach towards discussing all matters that have been raised, the Commission’s May 2019 final report warns about a deteriorating military-strategic situation for Sweden over the past few years as a result of political developments in Russia and Russia’s expanding military might. The document does not rule out a hypothetical armed attack on Sweden. Obviously, it is in response to supposed security threats that the Swedish Armed Forces have reactivated a naval base on Musko Island which had been mothballed 15 years ago.
We see that Sweden continues to consolidate its privileged partnership with NATO, as of late. The Swedish Armed Forces are actively involved in this military’s bloc’s exercises. Sweden provides its territory for maneuvers involving the armed forces of NATO member countries. A memorandum of understanding that aims to support the receiving side has been signed. The document sets forth specific terms for assisting NATO countries’ contingents and agencies that are being deployed in Sweden. We cannot help but feel concerned about all this.
The national government, which was formed in January 2019< has reaffirmed that it will continue with Sweden’s traditional course of non-alignment with any military blocs. We perceive this as highly important in these conditions. Moreover, we consider this policy of Stockholm to be a substantial factor in maintaining stability and security in Northern Europe and on the continent as a whole. The mood of Swedish public opinion is also important. According to opinion polls, no more than 30 percent of the country’s population is ready to support the idea of Sweden joining NATO, so far.
Question: After Finnish President Sauli Niinisto called for greater safety for aircraft flights over the Baltic Sea and the use of transponders, there were several discussions, but the implementation has been postponed for one reason or another, including NATO’s refusal to comply. Can we see the issue as definitively shelved?
Sergey Belyaev: No, it is not shelved at all. We invariably emphasise our readiness to discuss ways of reducing tensions in the Baltic region both at the Russia-NATO Council (RNC) and bilaterally with all the countries concerned. In this connection, we think that President Sauli Niinisto’s flight safety initiative needs to be promoted as part of the effort to reinforce the regional confidence-building measures, the more so that important results have been achieved within its framework.
It took ICAO’s Special Working Group on Civil-Military Cooperation little time to approve recommendations on pilot behaviour in order to deal with dangerous situations in the Baltic airspace, specifically on how to avoid air proximity of civilian and military aircraft, non-standard manoeuvring and interference with flights in the international airspace over the Baltic Sea. The recommendations came into force in December 2017.
An off-the-airway route has been coordinated for Russian military aircraft flying from St Petersburg to Kaliningrad and back. I am referring to a route lying outside the international civil aviation corridors. Off-the-airway routes and echelons have been coordinated so that military aircraft can use separate altitudes and routes, although this is difficult to achieve over the Baltic Sea because of its extremely narrow airspace. In keeping with Russia’s voluntary commitments, its aircraft fly with switched-on transponders in this route and maintain radio contact with civilian air traffic controllers according to flight plans submitted in advance. This has made it possible to considerably reduce the risk to civilian aircraft. For all the relativeness of this indicator, it is believed that air safety in the Baltic Sea region has increased by 50%. These estimates have been provided by foreign experts. According to the available data, the Niinisto initiative has made it possible to reduce the number of flights with switched-off transponders by 50%. The important thing is that the civilian and military authorities in charge of air traffic in the Baltic region are engaged in dialogue. This is a unique situation, unprecedented anywhere in the world.
At the same time, the ICAO measures are nothing more than recommendations as far as military aviation is concerned. We have repeatedly urged NATO to start a structured dialogue on air safety and piloting. But in spite of their assurances that this topic could be considered by the RNC, they are avoiding a detailed engagement.
Generally, the Niinisto initiative helped to take the edge off the allegations as regards Russia neglecting to enforce the rule that military aircraft should switch on their transponders over the Baltic Sea. It became clear to everyone that NATO was to blame for failing to endorse air safety precautions.
We are continuing our policy aimed at steering our partners towards a more constructive position. We hope that sooner or later wisdom will prevail.
Question: When should we expect ratification of the Russian-Estonian border treaty? Why is the Russian side delaying ratification? Are we planning to increase cross-border cooperation with Estonia?
Sergey Belyayev: The entry into force of land and sea border treaties would certainly have a positive impact on relations between Russia and Estonia. Bilateral relations are now far from their best due to the hostile line pursued by Tallinn. Moreover, the ball is not in our court, as they say. When signing the documents with Estonia in 2014, an understanding was reached on the absence of territorial claims between the two states and the need to ensure a normal non-confrontational atmosphere for the ratification of the border treaties.
Russia is fully complying with these conditions; unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Estonian side. The political and informational background regarding Russia has changed for the worse, if at all. And the key ministers in the ruling coalition – Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu and Minister of the Interior Mart Helme have even made public territorial claims to our country, citing the inactive Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920. In 2005, a package of border treaties was signed, but Russia had to withdraw precisely because the Estonian parliament added a number of political clauses to the law on ratification, referring to the Tartu Peace Treaty, which is inactive and implies territorial claims against the Russian Federation.
We expect our Estonian partners to comply with their part of the commitments concerning ratification, in particular, making no political additions. At the same time, the border treaties have to pass two readings in the Estonian parliament to be ratified and only one reading in the State Duma of Russia. They have passed the first reading, but then the Estonian parliament was re-elected, so the situation is back to square one – they are pending two readings in the new parliament. The Estonians seem in no hurry to ratify the treaties.
It is clear that Russia has to be sure that the ratification process will not bring any surprises, and that there is no repetition of the situation we saw in 2005. We must have clarity on there being no additional conditions, no politically motivated appendages to these treaties from the Estonian side.
As for cross-border cooperation, it is one of those few areas that allows for mutually beneficial non-politicised interaction between our countries. We welcome the progress in implementing the Russia-Estonia Cross-Border Cooperation Programme for 2014-2020, which not only makes an important contribution to the development of the adjacent territories, but also facilitates people-to-people contacts and creates an atmosphere of trust. We are also interested in continuing such cooperation after 2020, in developing a new programme, and we are ready to take into account the positive experience of implementing the current one.
Question: President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid has invited the Russian President to take part in the Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples. Has it been decided yet who will represent Russia?
Sergey Belyayev: This question relates, first of all, to the competence of the Russian Presidential Executive Office. I am sure that the decision will be taken with regard to the Russian President’s working schedule and the general atmosphere of Russian-Estonian relations.
Question: Have there been any results from the introduction of online visas to visit Kaliningrad and St Petersburg? Are e-visas popular among tourists from the Baltic countries? Are British tourists interested in visiting St Petersburg using e-visas?
Sergey Belyayev: I think they are. But we have a pretty strict visa regime with London, and British citizens cannot take advantage of e-visas. They are currently available to the citizens of 53 countries, including all EU countries, except the United Kingdom.
This new regime covers all countries of Northern Europe and the Baltic states. This October alone, some 28, 500 electronic visas were issued for visiting St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region; most of the applicants were from Estonia, Latvia and Finland. Of course, the number of tourists applying for such visas will keep growing.
It should also be taken into account that for the time being there is a technical possibility to use e-visas at automobile, air, sea and pedestrian border-crossing checkpoints. The use of electronic visas on trains is also being considered and may become of great interest. One of the most popular tourist routes in the north is the railway route between Finland (Helsinki) and St Petersburg, operated by Allegro high-speed trains. If there are technical means to use e-visas on such trains, I think much more people will use them.
There are still certain technical difficulties when it comes to using e-visas at non-railway checkpoints. When people fill out their online visa forms, they should be able to do this correctly: for instance, to write their names, especially Scandinavian names, using characters that the system cannot recognise, turned out to be a difficult task for Europeans. Although our consular services provide detailed information on how to do this correctly, there are still lots of mistakes. But, I am sure that with time, people will get the hang of the correct spelling and in no time at all the system will be working much better.
Question: When will e-visas be introduced on the Allegro train?
Sergey Belyaev: The work has begun and Russian Railways has also raised this question. An analysis is underway to find out what is needed for this procedure to be applied for railway transport, too. On the Allegro train, border and customs checks are carried out while the train is moving, so we will need to develop some technical solutions to do this and it may take time. When we worked on the Allegro project it took us almost 10 years from the inception of the project to its actual operation. Hopefully, in this case, it won’t take that long.
Question: Do you consider the possibility of introducing e-visas on other railway destinations, for example, on the trains to Tallinn and Riga?
Sergey Belyaev: If e-visas are integrated properly into the railway transport system, we will think about where it will be worthwhile to use this opportunity. It all depends on the volume of traffic and, to be quite honest with you, on how relations stand with the countries in question. If and when the procedure of using e-visas in trains is tested and polished up, then it can start operating with the countries of Northern Europe and the Baltics.
Question: The UK’s exit from the EU is fast approaching, but the parties have not yet agreed on the terms. Is such uncertainty risky for Russian businesses with British partners? What can Moscow do to minimise the risks?
Sergey Belyaev: We believe that Britain’s exit from the EU is a sovereign matter of the United Kingdom. Of course, we are closely monitoring the dialogue between London and Brussels and the discussions in the British Parliament.
Clearly, the ratification by the UK of the agreement on the variables of the country's exit from the EU took morbid forms and became a serious test for the British ruling circles. Despite the efforts of the government led by Boris Johnson, yet another attempt to approve the deal in October has, in fact, failed. Under the circumstances, it was decided to hold early parliamentary elections on December 12. We believe it is too early to discuss how the outcome of the upcoming vote may affect the prospects for Brexit. There’s no consensus on this matter in the UK, either.
However, there’s no doubt that Brexit will inevitably affect the global, primarily, European economy. Most experts believe the effect will be adverse. According to the Central Bank of Ireland, if the UK exits without a deal, the Irish economy growth rates may go down from 5.8 percent this year (according to data for the second quarter of 2019) to 0.8 percent in 2020.
In addition, regular reviews of the UK market dynamics and the country's economic prospects conducted by Lloyds, Barclays Bank, Santander Bank, Bloomberg agency and others indicate a significant decline in optimism among local entrepreneurs, with 43 percent of the companies braced for exceptionally negative fallout from Brexit. The volume of European transactions conducted by British enterprises fell by 32 percent from early 2019 to a 10-year low, whereas the value of foreign assets taken over by UK companies fell by 69 percent. Of course, the current situation is fraught with risks for Russian economic agents operating on the British market.
In this regard, I would like to note that we have repeatedly stated our interest in expanding trade and economic cooperation with the United Kingdom and the EU countries regardless of Brexit. In the future, the UK will by all means remain a major participant in international economic relations and Russia's trading partner. Bilateral trade amounted to $9.2 billion in January-August 2019.
We understand that current trade between Russia and the UK will need to be adjusted in the wake of Brexit. Clearly, if we want to be serious about this matter, British and Russian experts should sit down and take a closer look at the impact of Brexit on our economic relations. Work to this end is underway. In particular, bilateral Russia-UK and Russia-EU expert consultations regarding the distribution of the UK and the EU tariff quotas following Brexit were held at the WTO on September 25-26. There are also transport-related questions, such as merchant shipping, which was previously regulated by the EU standards, but will then have to be regulated at the bilateral level. What will Brexit mean for Russian companies operating on the London Stock Exchange? There are quite a few questions here.
At the same time, we would like to draw the attention of our businesses to the statements by British officials about London’s post-Brexit plans to coordinate its sanctions policy regarding Russia with the EU and the United States. There’s a possibility that sanctions will be toughened, and we should keep this in mind. Just like now, we will be sticking to the principle that we are willing to expand our relations inasmuch as our partners are willing to do so. If our partners decide to confront us, no one has torn up the principle of reciprocity yet.
The House of Commons openly discusses the possibility of introducing additional national sanctions against Russian companies. We find this rhetoric bewildering. Are the people behind this initiative aware of the possible ramifications, including for the British companies, many of which are interested in close and mutually beneficial cooperation with their Russian partners?
We believe that with Brexit in place, a precedent involving the imposition of national sanctions could trigger a chain reaction and speed up the flight of foreign investors from British jurisdiction and thus undermine London’s standing as an international financial centre. A study recently conducted by the Helaba Bank (Germany) shows that following the 2016 Brexit referendum, 31 lending financial institutions from 14 countries were transferred from London to Frankfurt am Main.
We hope that these obvious truths will prevent British politicians from rash acts. For our part, we are working with them in order to establish responsible and constructive interaction.
Question: Can you see any changes in Russia-UK relations, now that Boris Johnson’s cabinet has taken office? Do you expect a thaw in bilateral relations after the election?
Sergey Belyayev: It is hard to say whether there are any prospects for improving our relations. One can clearly say that, under our foreign policy, we are ready to cooperate with our foreign partners to the same extent to which they are ready to cooperate with us. Our approaches do not mean that we are not ready or don’t want to deal with someone. Therefore everything depends on the British side, first and foremost. In the past few years, the UK has been witnessing anti-Russia hysteria that does not call for any evidence. Our British colleagues have coined the wonderful “highly likely” concept: The Russians, and no one else, are to blame for everything; we cannot prove it but we are sure of that. Unfortunately, this happened under the previous prime minister, and this line of thought has hardly changed today. How will it change in the future? We shall live and see. Objectively speaking, Russia and the UK are members of the UN Security Council. This means that there are many issues that we should address together or, at least, coordinate our positions on them.
Economic cooperation continues, although political contacts have virtually stopped. British companies operate rather actively on the Russian market, and they were widely represented at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. In March 2019, President of Russia Vladimir Putin met with the CEOs of major British companies. Therefore economic cooperation is proceeding as usual.
Cultural ties continue to expand, including the Russia-UK and UK-Russia Year of Music that began in March 2019, as well as reciprocal theatre and orchestra tours. Political issues do not hamper this process.
It’s another matter that our British partners are now facing the tremendous Brexit problem. I think new opportunities may be linked not so much with the election as with Brexit because today the British have neither strength nor desire to go in for anything else. It appears that even they still don’t know what Brexit is all about, and how it will take place.
Unfortunately, it appears that the anti-Russia hysteria is largely motivated by domestic political factors in the UK. This is a classic concept: It is very good to find and point at a foreign enemy when the domestic situation becomes complicated, so as to divert public attention. This is largely being done in the UK. We will have to reassess the situation following the general election and after the UK exits from the European Union, of which I am almost sure.
Question: Which Northern European and Baltic countries have been invited to the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War? Which of them have accepted the invitation? At which level will they be represented?
Sergey Belyayev: Invitations to the 75th Victory celebrations have been sent to the leaders of some countries that the Second European Department is in charge of. So far, none of them have publicly commented on this. There has been neither positive, nor negative reaction.
Question: Do you expect the leaders of Northern European countries to make state visits to Moscow, or any other high or top-level visits this year?
Sergey Belyayev: State visits are unlikely. A state visit is a very important visit by the head of state, which Northern European leaders seldom make these days. They mostly make working visits. I would rather not try to pre-empt events, because this concerns the competence of other agencies. I can tell you, however, that preparations are underway for a visit by the prime minister of Finland, which is scheduled to take place soon. But this is a matter for the Executive Office of the Government, which will probably make the announcement soon.
Question: Will this visit take place this year?
Sergey Belyayev: Yes. As for the Foreign Ministry, we are preparing for a visit by the Icelandic foreign minister soon, by the end of the year. A number of other contacts are being coordinated. We are discussing the possibility of exchange visits by foreign ministers with the other Northern European countries, namely, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov may make visits to some of these countries, while his colleagues from the other countries have been invited to visit Russia. These contacts are being scheduled for next year.
Question: How have Northern European and Baltic countries responded to Moscow’s proposals regarding the intermediate- and shorter-range missiles? What do they say?
Sergey Belyayev: Letters on the intermediate nuclear forces have been sent to, among others, the heads of state and government of the countries that fall within the terms of reference of the Second European Department. We have not yet received any official responses. On the other hand, we have discussed this subject with many of our Northern European partners during bilateral contacts at different levels. I am sure that it will be addressed in the future as well.