Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following the 16th Ministerial Meeting of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC), Arkhangelsk, October 19, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen,
The 16th Ministerial Meeting of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council (BEAC) has become the final event of the Russian chairmanship in 2015-2017.
Today we summed up the results of the BEAC’s performance in the past two years. We hold a common opinion that by joint efforts we have made substantial progress in many areas of the practical activities of the Council, which remains the main mechanism of integration in this part of Europe.
We have paid special attention to improving the region’s transport and logistics infrastructure, enhancing cross-border economic activities, protecting the environment, appropriately responding to climate change, promoting the appeal of the North for international tourism, developing cultural cooperation, conducting youth and scientific exchanges, and jointly responding to emergencies. We have reaffirmed the practical, pragmatic cooperation in the BEAC, which is aimed at resolving specific problems that reflect the real needs of its members.
We have also focused on protecting the rights and interests of indigenous peoples. Last April, Moscow hosted the First Barents Indigenous Peoples' Summit. In common estimate, it made a useful contribution to the development of equitable dialogue between the indigenous people and government bodies. We agreed to make this work systemic.
Next year we will celebrate the BEAC’s 25th anniversary. We have discussed prospects of cooperation in connection with this memorable date and in the context of the programme presented by the Swedish chairmanship for the next two years. The Russian initiative to convene a kind of Barents Davos for practical discussion of the entire agenda of our region generally evoked a positive response. We hope it will be carried out. Since we actively supported Sweden’s intention to focus on youth policy in the next two years, Russia would be interested in establishing one more mechanism in our council, notably a youth forum at the level of governments and community-based entities.
Following the meeting, we adopted a joint declaration that seals the results achieved that I mentioned and determines the goals for further cooperation.
The news conference will be followed by the first award ceremony of the Barents cultural cooperation grant established at the meeting of the ministers of culture of the BEAC states in Moscow last November. The award will be conferred once every two years to young culture figures and on-stage performance groups from Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia.
In conclusion, I would like to wish once again success to Sweden during its chairmanship of the council and success to Norway’s Finnmark as the chair of the Barents Regional Council.
Thank you for your attention. Now I will give the floor to my colleague – Foreign Minister of Sweden Margot Wallstrom.
Question: The newspaper Kommersant wrote several weeks ago that Svalbard is potentially a conflict area for Russia and Norway. What do you think about it?
Sergey Lavrov: I haven’t read what Kommersant wrote about Svalbard. But we believe that the situation with our cooperation on the archipelago could be much more constructive.
We believe that all parties must comply with the provisions of the Svalbard Treaty. However, problems sometimes arise in relations with our neighbours, including regarding the limits on the use of Arktikugol helicopters, the need to request authorisation to send research expeditions to the archipelago or to access areas of interest for research or tourism. We believe that the authorisation provision contradicts the Svalbard Treaty. There are also problems with the use of the tax revenues paid by the parties on Svalbarg, including by Russian economic operators. This money is not used to finance the needs of Barentsburg.
We have sent several official notes to our Norwegian colleagues, including two notes last year, asking them to respond to our concerns and to explain how they can be laid to rest. We have not received any reply to these notes. We see no desire on the part of our Norwegian colleagues to cover their part of the road or at least to launch a dialogue. Of course, we are not happy about this. We proposed launching a dialogue several times, but our proposals were rejected. I don’t think this is in the spirit of Nordic cooperation.
Question: Today is Borge Brende’s last day as Norway’s foreign minister. What would you say to him on this day?
Sergey Lavrov: I will say that I hope he will use his new position as head of the World Economic Forum to show his talent and abilities and that he will carry on the forum’s traditions that developed under Mr Klaus Schwab.
Question: Obviously, people in the Barents Region are worried about Russia’s expanding military presence in the north. There are apprehensions that tensions will increase in the entire region. Do people in the North have any reason to worry about this? What is your response to Norway’s latest decision to deploy even more troops in the Finnmark region?
Sergey Lavrov: You have carefully read out your question. It appears that it took you a lot of time to formulate it.
Of course, we are concerned with the development of the military-political situation in the Baltic, including NATO’s expanding presence in this region. We perceive processes going on there as part of a well thought-out strategic policy of containing the Russian Federation. NATO leaders, primarily US leaders, don’t conceal this strategy. This strategy is being consistently implemented and is manifested in rapidly expanding efforts to establish a global missile defence system that has nothing to do with Iran and North Korea but which is linked with containing Russia and the People’s Republic of China.
We can see that our Swedish neighbours are regularly involved in NATO exercises. We hear calls and promises to admit Sweden and Finland into NATO. Each country has a sovereign right to independently determine its foreign policy, to join alliances and to choose any method for maintaining its security. Certainly, in our opinion, the neutrality of Finland and Sweden was among their foreign policy gains, and this neutrality continues to make a very important contribution to efforts to normalise the situation and to maintain stability on the European continent.
Literally just last month, the multinational Aurora 17 exercise was held near Russian borders. This exercise was presented as a purely defensive measure, motivated by the allegedly rapid aggravation of the situation in the area of security. Heavy-duty US armour was involved in these exercises near Russian borders for the first time. We were baffled by the way the situation developed around the Western response to the Russian-Belarusian exercise West 2017. This exercise was labeled as offensive and non-transparent, although the Russian Federation and Belarus had invited observers from foreign countries, including NATO countries, to observe the exercise, including field training sessions, long before the exercise took place. They came and eagerly observed all this. But this ideological attack and the attempt to ram home this claim of the Russian Federation’s aggressiveness continue. Almost no media outlets wrote any honest stories about this exercise’s actual transparency.
And what about a fairy tale concerning Russian forces that will allegedly remain in Belarus after the exercise? The funniest thing is that, even after this exercise ended and the Russian forces involved in it had long since returned to their permanent bases, some continue to claim that a number of service personnel have remained there. It is sad that adults are brainwashing their voters in such a manner.
Regarding specific aspects of Baltic security, when the President of Finland Sauli Niinisto suggested during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year that the sides should agree that all warplanes should fly with their transponders switched on, we responded seriously to this call, and we submitted relevant proposals to the Russia-NATO Council. Finland is not involved in its work; therefore we also agreed to involve ICAO’s Baltic Sea Project Team (BSPT) which holds successful meetings, carries out work and outlines approaches that should suit everyone. At this stage, the team held its last meeting in May. Everyone admitted that virtually all Russian military planes, except specialised planes, fly in line with flight plans that are submitted to all members of this ICAO team in advance, and with their transponders, if any, switched on. At the same time, our NATO partners’ aircraft, as well as those of Sweden, mostly always fly with their transponders switched off.
We are ready for open dialogue on all these issues. By the way, following on the initiative of President of Finland Sauli Niinisto, we submitted the aforementioned proposals to the Russia-NATO Council, and these proposals did not deal with transponders alone. They contained a whole range of security measures that will make it possible to increase the level of trust in the Baltic Sea region. We have not received any reply from NATO so far.
Let’s look at statistics since early 2017, before claiming as proven fact Russia’s policy of ratcheting up tensions. Aircraft and seagoing vessels of NATO member-countries violated Swedish borders nine times. Russia violated them only once when two Russian planes remained in Swedish air space, east of Gotland Island, for one minute.
Instead of talking to each other and hearing nothing, we need to sit down at the negotiating table (we have suggested this to NATO long ago), to present facts upfront, to exchange information about specific mutual deployments, and see whether these deployments were made on home or foreign territory. In that case, it will become clear what forces each country has, and what their designations are.
And I also strongly advise you to go online (I will not even recall these figures here) to compare the annual defence budgets of NATO member-countries and Russia. One can even compare the defence budget of NATO member-countries, minus the US defence budget. You can see by how many times the budget of NATO’s European members exceeds Russia’s defence budget. It is probably better to sit down and talk, as we have been suggesting for a long time. We hope that our NATO colleagues will someday realise the need for this dialogue.
Question: Several years ago in Kirkenes, Russia and Norway signed an Agreement on Maritime Delimitation in the Varangerfjord area. There were various questions and considerations, yet the level of bilateral relations was quite high. How would you describe these relations now, at this forum in Arkhangelsk?
Sergey Lavrov: The agreement we signed in Kirkenes is a bilateral document that is working wonderfully and has proved its viability. Today we attended a multilateral event, where we worked very productively. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom and I updated you on what we were doing today and on the results of numerous other meetings. I believe that it was a very productive event. Arkhangelsk recently hosted one more forum, The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue. Today it is hosting a ministerial meeting. I believe that this is a very comfortable venue. I would like to again thank the regional and city authorities for their hospitality.
Question: Can the Barents region states improve their ties despite the prolonged period of chilly relations between Russia and the EU? How would this influence the life of ordinary people of the North, for example in the Arkhangelsk Region?
Sergey Lavrov: My colleagues spoke about this in their comments today. As Ms Wallstrom has said, we need to protect our region from the influence of the geopolitical situation, which, I regret to say, will fluctuate for a long time yet, because Western leaders find it difficult to accept the fact that the centuries-long age of Western domination is over and that they must respect other countries, especially those that have acquired additional economic, political and financial leverage. I hope they will eventually accept this fact.
As for funding, Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende has said that Russia’s military budget doubled over the past 12 years. But we should look at the federal budget as a whole, rather than just defence spending. Of course, our budget is growing. But looking at the budget in absolute terms does not provide a true picture. I suggest that you do what I proposed doing, that is, compare the defence spending of European NATO members, Russia and the CSTO. You will see that our Western neighbours spend several times more on defence than we do.
I would like to use this opportunity to say again that we respect Norway’s statements to the effect that its respects and complies with the Svalbard Treaty down to the last comma. I heard what Mr Brende has said. However, I have told pinpointed the actual restrictions that are hindering our operation on Svalbard, operation that is allowed by the Svalbard Treaty. Mr Brende failed to answer all of the official Russian notes in his capacity as the Foreign Minister of Norway; the two latest notes remain unanswered. I hope that his successor will respect diplomatic procedure and will write official answers to our very concrete questions.
As for dialogue in this region, we maintain regular contact with Norway, Sweden and Finland regardless. Although many channels of communication between our foreign ministries and parliaments have cooled, as in the case of Norway, we continue to communicate without trying to impose ourselves. It is with great emotion that I recall a ceremony I attended in Kirkenes to mark the liberation of northern Norway from Nazis, the monuments to our fallen servicemen, and how carefully Norwegians maintain these monument, their attitude to our shared history. Minister Brende and I maintain regular contact, and our ministries maintain dialogue at the departmental level. Of course, we could have worked more closely, considering that we are neighbours. We have traditionally close relations with Finland. We appreciate the open and frank relations between President Sauli Niinisto and President Vladimir Putin. I have mentioned Mr Niinisto’s initiative regarding air safety over the Baltic Sea, which we have supported. We have good relations with Sweden, although someone has accused us of plans to interfere in your elections. I am sure that those who are monitoring the situation see how ridiculous these allegations are. We are resuming ties between our parliaments and militaries. We are open to cooperation and we are ready to go as far as our neighbours are comfortable with.