Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and replies to media questions during the Government Hour in the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Moscow, December 15, 2017
Thank you for inviting me again to address you during the Government Hour.
We at the Foreign Ministry highly value our long-standing, close and even comradely cooperation with both chambers of the Federal Assembly and their relevant committees. We appreciate your interest in the operations of our foreign policy department. We welcome and support the efforts of parliamentary diplomacy to improve interstate relations and to strengthen friendship and mutual understanding between nations.
I would like to highlight the success of the session of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, which was held in St Petersburg in October and was attended by the largest number of delegates in the history of IPU. This unprecedentedly high level and composition of representatives is evidence of the prestige the Russian legislative bodies rightly enjoy with their foreign colleagues. I congratulate you on this truly important achievement.
It is especially important now to coordinate our work in all areas in order to implement the foreign policy that has been approved by President of Russia Vladimir Putin. This is an extremely complicated stage in global history. The potential for conflict is increasing, and along with the intensification of old crises, we see new crises emerging. We are deeply concerned about dangerous trends, such as the erosion of the fundamental principles of international law and attempts to undermine the role of multilateral institutions or to use them for selfish purposes. The enlargement of NATO and the build-up of its potential on the so-called eastern flank, as well as the deployment of the US ballistic missile defence systems in Europe are seriously undermining the principle of indivisible security. This principle, which involves a political commitment not to strengthen one’s own security at the expense of others, was adopted by the leaders of all OSCE countries. Major international agreements, including on Iran’s nuclear programme, are under threat of disruption. I hope this will not happen, because if it does, it will send the wrong signal to those who are considering solutions to the problems on the Korean Peninsula.
We are openly saying this to our colleagues and are using every opportunity to explain our views and respond to their assessments. We spoke about this at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Vienna last week. I mentioned it during my numerous contacts on the meeting’s sidelines, including my conversation with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
We are convinced that the main reason for the current tension is the persistently egocentric and cynical line taken by a number of countries, led by the United States. Having come to believe in its own supremacy and infallibility, and having become accustomed to thinking its opinions should be perceived as the ultimate truth, the so-called “historical West” is trying to obstruct the natural process of the development of a more just and democratic polycentric world order. Those who dissent are subjected to a broad range of reprisals, unilateral coercive measures and direct interference in their internal affairs.
You can see clearly for yourselves that for many Western states, Russia’s dynamic development and the consolidation of its positions in the international arena, cause overt irritation and rejection. Hence, they are willing to punish us for our independent foreign policy. The line of deterring our country is conducted on the broadest scale – from the economy and power industry to sport and our domestic media. There are many examples of such actions and I do not want to take up your time with them.
We are trying to do everything necessary to ensure the reliable provision of sovereignty, national security and rights of our citizens. Importantly, while working towards this, we are not withdrawing into ourselves or resorting to self-isolation. Nor are we trying to organise perimeter defence. On the contrary, Russia is playing an active role in elaborating a positive, unifying international agenda and taking specific initiatives aimed at resolving urgent international issues.
Our honest policy, relying on the principles of truth, goodneighbourly relations and keeping our word, enjoys broad support, allowing us to develop equitable, mutually beneficial dialogue with the overwhelming majority of foreign partners.
We are paying special attention to the need to unite the international community in the struggle against the terrorist threat. This is in line with President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to create a genuine global anti-terrorism coalition united in its efforts to counter this evil, without any double standards.
ISIS and other extremist groups that entrenched themselves in Syria have been fully routed. Credit for this is largely due to the efficient actions of the Russian Aerospace Forces that facilitated the Syrian Government’s anti-terrorist efforts. The suppression of terrorists and the functioning of de-escalation zones established within the framework of the Astana process are creating the necessary prerequisites for the transfer to the next stage – political settlement in Syria on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This task falls to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, to be arranged on the initiative of Russian, Iranian and Turkish leaders. Now the agenda includes the elaboration of a new Constitution, organisation of UN-monitored general elections, the resolution of humanitarian issues and elaboration of a long-term comprehensive programme for the country’s recovery.
As I said, we are very concerned about the situation around the Korean Peninsula. There is no other alternative but to gradually relieve the tension and move forward towards negotiations. Any attempts to provoke a military scenario in the hope of resolving the crisis by force will lead to a disaster. There are plenty of opinions on this issue, including in the Western political establishment. In cooperation with our Chinese partners, we have developed a settlement roadmap that would divert the crisis away from the dangerous line. The number of supporters of this approach is growing.
The domestic conflict in Ukraine remains unresolved. The Kiev authorities are clearly sabotaging the peace process. They are persistent in their refusal to establish a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk. Considering our Western partners’ influence on the Ukrainian leadership, we are urging them to use this influence and persuade Kiev to promptly begin fulfilling the Minsk Package of Measures, which was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council.
Our absolute priorities include expanding the diverse cooperation with former Soviet states. This of course includes the CIS, where Russia is successfully presiding this year, the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), where Russia is taking over the chairmanship next year.
We are encouraging the EAEU’s stronger external ties in every possible way, as well as the harmonisation of integration processes with a view to potentially forming the Greater Eurasian Partnership. We continue taking action to interlink the EAEU and China’s One Belt One Road initiative. In particular, we have concluded talks on a trade and economic cooperation agreement that is now being prepared for signing. We are laying the groundwork for talks on establishing free trade zones between the EAEU and Egypt, Israel, India, Iran, Serbia and Singapore.
We continue to consolidate our strategic partnership with China. Coordinating our countries’ approaches to the major modern issues has proved a necessary and important stabilising factor in global affairs. We are working on strengthening the privileged strategic partnership with India. Our relations with the majority of other partners in the Asia-Pacific Region are advancing dynamically, including with Vietnam and ASEAN states. Reinforcing our positions in the Asia-Pacific Region contributes to the general efforts to provide for the social and economic upsurge of Eastern Siberia and the Far East.
Our relations with Turkey have been restored, which in many ways became possible thanks to the personal efforts of President Putin and President Erdogan. Political dialogue and practical cooperation with Latin American and African countries are expanding.
We continue to work closely with our partners within the framework of such associations as BRICS, the SCO, and RIC, the foreign ministers of which met four days ago in New Delhi. These are associations of a new type, without leaders or followers, dictates, or bloc discipline. On the contrary, they are based on mutual respect, the principle of consensus and the search for compromises in compliance with 21st century realities. We are facilitating further disclosure of the G20’s significant potential, which is an effective mechanism for coordinating approaches to a number of key contemporary issues. By the way, the very fact of its creation means recognition of the multipolarity of the modern world and the impossibility of addressing key problems in international affairs, economy, or politics without the participation of new centres of political influence, including the BRICS countries.
Dialogue with the United States and the European Union will be built exclusively on the principles of mutual respect and a balance of interests.
As President Putin has repeatedly stressed, including at yesterday’s news conference, Russia is open to constructive joint work with Washington. Unfortunately, we do not see any progress on the part of the US Administration. It has taken a number of new openly anti-Russian actions. In particular, I am talking about the law, Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions, which takes aim at us, shutting down Russia’s Consulate General in San Francisco, and the seizure of five diplomatic sites. We are not seeking to deepen confrontation, but, of course, we will continue to respond to any hostile actions in accordance with the principle of reciprocity.
The prospects for our relations with the European Union remain hostage to the Russophobic policy pursued by a narrow group of countries within the EU, which, in effect, is acting in the interests of the United States, not Europe. Meanwhile, the sanctions spiral set off by the Brussels bureaucrats on direct orders from overseas inflicted serious damage to European businesses (primarily, German), which lost some of its positions on the Russian market. The Americans did not sustain any losses. Moreover, under the pretext of fighting Russia, they want Europeans to buy expensive American liquefied natural gas, and increase defence spending. It’s up to the Europeans to decide whether they need it or not. For our part, we will develop cooperation at a pace that is comfortable for our EU colleagues. However, our multi-pronged foreign policy will not be a hostage to the whims inside the EU.
We continue to work vigorously to protect Christians facing serious challenges, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the followers of other religions. We are pushing for the OSCE, where the Declaration “On Enhancing Efforts to Combat Anti-Semitism” has already been adopted, to adopt similar documents in defence of Christians and Muslims.
As part of our relations with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), we promote mutually respectful inter-civilisational and inter-religious dialogue. We are taking energetic steps to uphold the enduring spiritual and moral ideals that are common to the world's major religions and cultures.
One of the most important tasks is to uphold the rights and the interests of Russian citizens and companies abroad, our compatriots living abroad, and to further consolidate the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russian world. The World Thematic Conference of Compatriots “The 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution: Unity for the Future” held in Moscow in the autumn made a useful contribution to this work. We plan to continue to make maximum use of the potential of “soft power,” promote the Russian language and Russian culture, and the multifaceted dialogue with the Russian NGOs, academia and business community.
Of course, we will continue to provide all the necessary assistance to the regions that you represent to improve their international and foreign economic ties. In particular, the Council of the Heads of Constituent Entities of the Russian Federation, which effectively works under the Foreign Ministry, focuses on this task.
All our actions are ultimately aimed at creating favourable external conditions for Russia’s peaceful development and prosperity of our citizens. The Foreign Ministry consistently operates on the premise that only joint efforts and deeper interaction with domestic legislators and civil society will help us effectively resolve the large-scale tasks which we are faced with, and provide proper answers to the challenges of our time.
We will defend justice and the truth, preserve our identity, and rely on our culture, history, and values.
Thank you. I can now take your questions.
Question: The implementation of the Federal Law on Ratifying the Treaty between Russia and Kazakhstan on the Russian-Kazakh State Border gave rise to a number of demarcation issues in the Omsk Region. One of the centres of the Russko-Polyansky District has the only road linking it with the city of Omsk. Part of this road (10km) went to Kazakhstan. The construction of a roundabout road will cost 800 million roubles. The federal budget will not provide this sum whereas it will take the Omsk Region three years (until the end of 2020) to build a new road. There is an agreement on continuous movement along this section but only until January 1, 2019. Is it possible to reach an agreement with the Kazakh side on extending this agreement until January 1, 2021?
Sergey Lavrov: We have very good, allied relations with Kazakhstan. When the border agreement was drafted, even before the work on land started, some issues arose, for instance, on dividing oil and gas deposits. The sides agreed on the delimitation and subsequent demarcation of the state border.
Naturally, the issues you mentioned come up. If you submit to me the relevant documents, I will definitely attend to it. We will raise it with our Kazakh neighbours. I think we can hope for a positive response.
Question: I rarely praise anyone but I believe that we are lucky with our Foreign Minister, unlike some of your colleagues. If you had been involved in some way in the Olympics doping scandal, it would not have been so shameful. As for Vitaly Mutko, as a decent man he should resign altogether.
About a month ago, we sent an appeal to the Foreign Ministry linked with the dismantling of monuments to Soviet soldiers in Poland. We were hoping that the Foreign Ministry will respond to it. Probably, I simply missed its response in the media. I would be grateful if you could comment on these actions because they are contrary to the current bilateral Treaty on Friendly and Neighbourly Cooperation.
Sergey Lavrov: We often loudly responded to these actions, appealing not only to the conscience of these people, that does not always work in dialogue with our European partners, but also to the letter of the treaty you mentioned. Our Polish colleagues are trying to interpret it in a different way – they acknowledge their commitment to keep in good shape only tombstones rather than simply monuments in honour of Soviet soldiers. This is not right. The lawyers that studied this treaty confirmed that all memorials in Poland and Russia without exception, as long as they concern Poland’s history and its citizens, should be preserved in proper condition. We are talking with them although you probably understand that these attempts lead nowhere. They are infused with Russophobia and I do not know why.
As for our statements, we made them not only on behalf of the Foreign Ministry. We drafted a joint statement at a CSTO meeting and circulated it at the OSCE Ministerial Council that took place in Vienna literally a week ago. We suggested relevant formulas in a joint document of the OSCE. Regrettably, our Western partners veered off from this but the issue remains urgent. We will insist that the monuments to the heroes who liberated Europe should be respected and protected not only in Poland but also in all other countries.
Question: On October 4, 2016, Russia and Kazakhstan signed an intergovernmental agreement on preserving the ecosystem of the trans-border Ural River at the 13th Forum of Interregional Cooperation in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. When will the Russian-Kazakh commission on this issue be established?
Sergey Lavrov: I am sure that the time is specified by the agreement itself. We have already appointed its co-chairman. He is the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment. I do not know whether the Kazakh colleagues have also appointed their co-chairman but I will check on this and submit your request to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment that is the head department in this respect.
Question: There is now a kind of association of Russia, Turkey and Iran and those who joined them. Can it transform, in the future, into a serious political structure that will engage on the basis of its own interests? In your speech, you mentioned that a number of our energy companies were subjected to sanctions. Subsequently, if such a structure emerges, our companies could hope to get support within the framework of this “eastern brotherhood.”
Sergey Lavrov: I would say that we found a “troika” format for cooperation on Syria and have been successfully taking advantage of the opportunities that each of our three countries offers. As President of Russia Vladimir Putin repeatedly noted, there is no 100 percent agreement between our goals and interests, but regardless of the many approaches each country takes to this or that aspect of the situation in Syria, we definitely rely on 100 percent agreement on the need to defeat terrorism, preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic and ensure the harmony of all its ethnic and religious groups.
These common interests pave the way for consistent and effective work within the Astana format. For the first time ever, a Russia-Iran-Turkey trilateral summit was held in Sochi. During that summit, as you know, it was proposed to convene a Syrian National Dialogue Congress.
I will not speculate on the necessity or expedience of transforming this “troika” into something permanent, structured and bureaucratic, with a secretariat and executive staff. Surely, everything is good in its season. But on the whole, the current problems in the world require not rigid bureaucratic structures, but flexible coalitions that make it possible to respond to modern challenges quickly and effectively. BRICS, for example, is not an organisation, but rather an association unburdened by a secretariat. All its work is coordinated through a presiding country. Of course, the cooperation level between Russia, Turkey and Iran is far from that of BRICS. And yet, it is not a rigid alliance.
We indeed have and will have common economic, energy and financial interests, because none of the three countries, for clear reasons, wants to depend on the current global currency and financial system controlled by the United States. It tries to use its dominant position in the system it controls to blackmail all the rest. Nobody likes that, China included. Therefore, in our economic relations with Turkey and Iran, we are trying to find opportunities for such forms, in mutual settlements as well, that rely on national currencies. In this sense, energy cooperation will also become less dependent on the conditions imposed by Washington.
Question: President Vladimir Putin set the task of considerably intensifying the work on increasing the contribution of tourism to the GDP to 10 percent. Without resolving visa issues in inbound tourism (which brings in most of the revenue) it is very difficult to reach this goal. This work is going on in Vladivostok and we are grateful for this. Over 5,000 people have already received visas since August 8. Kaliningrad is also starting this work. What do you think about it?
Sergey Lavrov: We are positive about it just like you. The transition to electronic visas was produced by serious interdepartmental efforts. The Foreign Ministry never acts alone when resolving such issues. There is also the Border Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Federal Customs Service.
I think at this point the introduction of e-visas for the entire free port of Vladivostok, for this whole region, is the best solution. Citizens of many countries are already using this service, although not of all countries, including those that the region is interested in. The situation in Kaliningrad is the same – there is a list of countries that can easily travel on e-visas but this list does not include all countries. The principle of reciprocity is important here. I believe Russia should not make unilateral concessions when its citizens have to undergo very serious verification procedures to get a visa to some countries.
True, there are positive changes in the application of Schengen rules that have a broad range of options, including the granting of five-year multiple visas in several days. Many EU countries, for instance, Italy, are promoting this approach. Naturally, we are paying them in kind. However, we cannot switch to visa-free travel with those countries that restrict entry by visas, although we are ready to sign relevant agreements with each EU country.
Until 2013, we were engaged in intensive efforts to draft an agreement on visa-free travel between Russia and all Schengen countries, in addition to the agreement on simplifying visa procedures that has been in force for a long time. We wanted to fully transition to visa-free travel for a broad range of groups, primarily, athletes, tourists, scientists and entrepreneurs. The agreement was ready. We even conducted special expert consultations that enabled the EU to see for itself that we will only use biometric passports, that we can work with them and that we will have the required equipment. We also concluded the agreement on readmission to remove EU apprehensions that our citizens will stay there for permanent residence (as Ukrainians are doing now – I think there are a million of them there). We agreed on everything.
All EU concerns and requests were fully complied with, as Brussels confirmed. This was long before the events in Ukraine, before the EU followed in the wake of the United States and introduced sanctions. They tried to feign the impression that they suspended work on this agreement in response to the events in Ukraine. In reality, they suspended this work because several Russophobic EU countries said they would not support the visa-free travel agreement with Russia for political considerations until visa-free travel is granted to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. So, cheap politics obstructed the adoption of this agreement.
However, our goal is to expand the range of countries with which we have such agreements. All Latin American countries save one are visa-free for us, very many states in Asia, including the Republic of Korea. We are ready to sign such an agreement with Japan and have most easy visa procedures with China. We know the goal but I hope everyone understands that Russia cannot open its doors unilaterally, without reciprocity.
Question: We in Crimea have always believed and still believe that Ukraine can only become a prosperous country if it builds absolutely friendly relations with the Russian Federation. Clearly, currently Ukraine is being controlled by countries that are against its friendship with Russia, however, given the results of Kiev’s efforts to move towards integration with Europe that are not quite satisfactory, are there any signs that even the incumbent Ukrainian leaders have realised the need to normalise relations with Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: Frankly speaking, I don’t see any such signs. I agree with you that the country is under external control, however, with a caveat – we know for sure that countries like France and Germany, who are parties to the Normandy format, other EU countries and even the United States admit in discussions between them that the Ukrainian regime has already started behaving like the tail wagging the dog.
What they are doing in Kiev now, even with regard to the mechanism for countering corruption that was recommended and imposed on them by Washington, shows that they are simply ignoring their obligations. The pledges that our Western partners gave in public to support the democratic revolution that took place there make it impossible for them now to eat their hats and backtrack on their words, saying that this is another failed experiment following the one with Mikheil Saakashvili.
President Poroshenko of Ukraine is taking advantage of this and will continue doing this until the West gets enough courage to admit that it was wrong to provoke the Maidan revolution, topple the legitimate president who was recognised by all, bring radicals into power who furiously attacked the Russian language and did not respond to what Dmitry Yarosh said two days after the coup, insisting that Russians in Crimea would never honour Roman Shukhevich and Stepan Bandera and there should be no Russians in Crimea. As if they did not realise that these words were not just empty talk. These words were uttered at a critical moment for the country. The residents of Crimea and eastern Ukraine could not but react to these words.
Unfortunately, with this on my mind, I am pessimistic about how the Ukrainian leadership views the future of their country in the context of its relations with Russia. The population is much more realistic about these things and realises that the timeservers who try to bleed their country white and capitalise on their relations with the West as much as they can do not represent the interests of the Ukrainian people.
Question: Mr Lavrov, we understand how complicated your job is. We are grateful to you for your service to Russia. We see how the United States is unleashing civil wars and destroying whole states to the accompaniment of fine words about democracy. Indicatively, “the fuel” is sought in the victim country. Maybe the time has come for us to help Africans in their struggle or deal with Native American reservations in their bid for rights and democracy? I think many women in Russia will sacrifice their golden jewellery for this noble cause. Maybe in this case the United States will have no time left to deal with other countries and it will finally focus on its own business.
Sergey Lavrov: Probably, it would not be appropriate for us to do something in this vein both because of our Christian Orthodox morality and Muslim traditions in the part of the country where Muslims live, and also proceeding from pragmatic interests. I do not think that we will stand to gain anything if large countries fall into the abyss of internal revolutions. That said, it is a fact that now history, including the history of conquests, wars and victories is very intensively used not for preserving memory about them but for conducting anti-Russian policy.
As you know, World War II is now the most popular subject. Who started it, what are its results and are the decisions of the Nuremberg Tribunal immutable? We are ready to discuss these issues. Meanwhile, our Western partners get embarrassed when they are reminded of the event that took place 15 years after the end of WWII. I am referring to decolonisation and generally to everything that colonialism did in the modern world. In response we are being accused of propaganda. So, rewriting the results of WWII is not propaganda. Anyway, they are never willing to express their opinion on the colonial era and its consequences. After all, this is also linked with the drawing of borders by a ruler in the Middle East and North Africa, which cuts through whole ethnic and religious groups and is largely a trigger for regional conflicts. Therefore, I believe these subjects should be fairly and honestly discussed, and nobody should try to avoid this discussion.
Every six months I meet with the ambassadors of the entire European Union. They spoke about Crimea. I said that those who would like to see how people in Crimea live and whether their rights are violated, have every opportunity to do so. For instance, Representative of the Council of Europe Gerard Stoudmann made a trip to Crimea and published a very decent, proper and honest report. Many MPs go to Crimea, and after all, many foreign observers attended the referendum. So, no questions are raised in this respect.
I asked my colleagues in the EU what they thought about overseas possessions of one of its members – France. When, during the decolonisation process, the residents of the Comoro Islands voted for the choice of their future on the basis of the UN resolution and with France’s consent, all of them with the exception of Mayotte Island chose to become independent rather than remain a French overseas territory. A decision at this referendum was supposed to be made by a simple majority − if all others are for independence, Mayotte Island should also become part of the independent Comoros. But France said “no.” Admitting that the initial arrangement was different, France nevertheless decided to retain its possession of Mayotte Island, claiming that this was what the population wanted. The UN Security Council issued several resolutions to compel France to recognise the results of the referendum based on the initial terms before the voting. But to no avail. France simply ignored this. In the beginning of this century Mayotte Island became an overseas territory, a sovereign part of the French Republic. I quoted this example to understand the attitude of the EU to respect. The referendum in Crimea was criticised for being held in a rush. This does not apply at all to the referendum on the Comores, in which case the UN was coordinating preliminary terms. Ambassador of France to Russia Sylvie-Agnes Bermann said we were comparing apples and oranges. I do not understand why our foreign partners so dislike to compare their conduct and ours in the international arena.
I would not advise our women to give up their jewellery for the sake of what you mentioned.
Question: You have repeatedly stressed that “soft power” is an important element of diplomatic relations. Also, you are perfectly aware that 135 friendship societies have no place where they could convene and register their legal address. Earlier, there was Boris Yeltsin’s order from 1992 and back then there was the House of Friendship at Rossotrudnichestvo. But since 1994, this venue does not exist either. There are a number of your letters to the Russian Government and the Mayor of Moscow. You know, Moscow officials of the highest rank tell me that if the Foreign Ministry thinks that this is necessary, why cannot it allocate two or three rooms for the House of Friendship in its own building?
Sergey Lavrov: Two or three rooms are not a problem, of course. But I am afraid that this is not enough. We all remember what was the House of Friendship, where it was located and how beautiful it looked. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine a suitable replacement now. By the way, attempts were made to transfer the premises currently occupied by Rossotrudnichestvo for other purposes. So far, we have managed to prevent this. Repairs in our right wing are nearing completion and we expect Rossotrudnichestvo to move there. I hope that at least one of the premises they currently occupy may be used for this as well. I will make a note and keep that in mind. This is not a matter for tomorrow. First, it is necessary to complete repairs.
Question: What do you think about future development of relations with the countries of the Middle East?
Sergey Lavrov: In brief, I think it will be positive. I will try to explain and specify why. Our ties are long-standing. We established them at a time when turbulence, struggle for independence and different wars started in the Middle East. As the USSR, we sided with the Arabs in their war against Israel although the USSR was the first country to recognise Israel’s independence and sovereignty immediately after its establishment. After relations with Israel were normalised at the end of the Soviet period, Russia adopted a policy that is described in the 2000 Foreign Policy Concept as a “multi-vector course” (this goal remains in the concept’s latest version): to develop relations with all countries that are ready to do this on an equitable and mutually beneficial basis. Since then we have established partnerships practically with all Arab countries, including those that do not get on too well with each other, and Israel. In parallel we have been developing ties with such an important regional country as Iran. By now we have established very good and close political, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian relations practically with all countries in the Middle East.
I think we have achieved this primarily owing to the line that we are pursuing in the international arena, upholding independence, keeping our word and refraining from changing our policy depending on circumstances, whether international or domestic. When the so-called Arab Spring began and we strongly objected to the actions of the Western states in Libya and later on in Syria we were told (do you remember what Barack Obama said?) that Russia would remain on the wrong side of history and that the Arab people would berate it because it supported dictators that were stifling them. Nothing of the sort happened. Neither in Iraq (it all started in Iraq when we opposed the aggression there), nor in Libya, nor in Syria, nor anywhere else is there a single political, ethnic or religious group that would view Russia as its enemy. There are some mavericks, like those who until recently headed the radical wing of the Syrian opposition, emigres that live on other people’s money. It is their job to make ultimatums. Otherwise, if a settlement is reached, they will lose this job. Therefore, I think that in many respects credit for this goes to the policy pursued by President of Russia Vladimir Putin starting from his first term – a multi-vector and open policy towards all those who are ready to work with us in a friendly and honest way.
Question: Russia has submitted its candidacy to host the World Universal Exhibition Expo 2025 in Yekaterinburg. Now comes the crucial moment: promoting the bid, lobbying Russia’s interests in the countries which are members of the International Bureau of Exhibitions. The Foreign Ministry of course has an important role to play in that. I would like to hear your comment on how active the Ministry is today and whether our country’s embassies have joined this process?
Sergey Lavrov: The embassies have joined it a long time ago, immediately after Yekaterinburg entered its bid. This topic is raised in all my meetings with the ministers of every country, we make a point of reminding them of our submission. I have to tell you that it is invariably among the materials prepared for President Putin for his international contacts. He always touches upon this issue. The vote is less than a year away (I think it’ll be held in the autumn of 2018). We have strong rivals: Paris, Osaka and Baku. They are of course promoting their bids. It is hard to make any forecasts, but we keep this work under constant review.
Question: The military operation in Syria has come to an end. Our military has gained vast experience of interacting with various Syrian army units, and the units from Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The Russian Foreign Ministry and our diplomatic establishment have gained extensive experience in creating an association of political forces as part of the Astana format. I think much of the credit for this goes to you. However, terrorism has not gone away; it is simply moving to Iraq. We see and we get information from our Afghan partners that there were ISIS camps in northern Afghanistan. How is the Russian Foreign Ministry working on that with its Afghan partners? How do we see the potential threat to us building up in Afghanistan?
Sergey Lavrov: We are very aware of this threat not only in Afghanistan, but also in other parts of the region and beyond. As you have absolutely rightly said, ISIS has been defeated in Syria in the sense that the pockets that had been created there and where ISIS had been imposing its rule have been liquidated. But isolated small groups are still there, and they will be finished off, there is no doubt about it. Most of them have moved abroad, including via Iraq, although we have repeatedly asked the Americans and their coalition to prevent this from happening. In one episode ISIS militants fled from Syria to Iraq, where our Aerospace Forces have no powers while the Americans have. We provided them with information and said that they should liquidate that group. They said they were not going to do it because these people were already prisoners of war and their status was covered by the Geneva Conventions. This is of course an absolutely unacceptable position, but unfortunately it is becoming very much part of the American approach. Back under President Obama, the Americans thought up a very simple concept of countering violent extremism. Extremism is where there is a dictatorial regime which strangles civil society. Therefore, to prevent manifestations of extremism the world community must, over the heads of the dictatorial regimes, educate civil society in how it should organise democracy in its country. The implications are clear. But, as we now realise, this concept pursues yet another task. By introducing the term “violent extremists” they try to present these people not as terrorists, but to treat them as a separate category in order to be able in the future or even now, by playing with these terms, to equate some to the terrorists that are to be destroyed and some to the violent extremists who are still amenable to educational work. This is a dangerous trend to which we are categorically opposed. Our approach is known and it is not subject to change.
As regards Afghanistan, we are concerned that ISIS is increasing its presence on the borders with our neighbours and allies, the Central Asian countries. In Afghanistan, they are pushing to the north. This suggests that Central Asia is going to be their next target. We are working out plans to counter this terrorist threat in the framework of the CSTO and SCO, and this involves not only foreign ministries, because it is a complex problem, but also the security and intelligence agencies and defence ministries. In addition, there is the SCO-Afghanistan contact group that met in Moscow this October and will meet in China early next year. The fight against the terrorist threat will be high on the agenda. A similar mechanism has been put in place with the CSTO, where there is also a working group on Afghanistan whose main task is to take preventive measures to stop this threat from spreading into the Russian Federation. As to who will deal with this problem within Afghanistan, of course it will be the Afghan security forces and the armed forces of Afghanistan. We are actively helping to equip them with the weaponry they need. Unfortunately, the Americans, who have led the NATO coalition (120,000 troops) in Afghanistan since 2001, have failed to crush terrorism. They not only failed to put an end to drug production that supports terrorism, but they looked on as this production burgeoned. This year saw a record output of heroin and a record opium poppy harvest. They refuse to have anything to do with it. However, there can be no excuses when it comes to fighting terror, this is written down in the mandate of the NATO forces. Each time we ask what they are doing in this connection we get incoherent answers. Indeed, we had a major Russia-NATO Council project to supply, maintain and service Russian-made helicopters in Afghanistan with the money raised by all the members of the Russia-NATO Council because these helicopters are the best weapon for fighting terrorists. The Afghans know how operate them; they are very easy to handle. It was a very successful programme. When NATO cut off all links after the coup in Ukraine, which they backed, we continued the programme with Afghanistan on a bilateral basis. The Afghans were very pleased. The US has recently started to press Afghanistan to scrap these helicopters and buy American helicopters. At the same time the Americans pressed Afghanistan to give up the 50,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles along with ammunition, which Russia had made available to the Afghan forces as a gift and to buy American rifles and machine guns instead. In addition to the question as to what would happen to these 50,000 Kalashnikovs (we have put this question to the Afghans) another question suggests itself: what is the rationale behind the attempts to undermine the capacity of the Afghan army to use the weapons it is accustomed to and impose new weapons that would take some getting used to? There is no answer to that question other than the fact that the Americans try to throw roadblocks in our way wherever they can, just because they love doing it.
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Question: What are the chances of winning the stand-off over Crimea?
Sergey Lavrov: The situation has been brought back to normal. For us it became normal when the people of Crimea cast their votes. It is those who cannot accept the objective reality and historical justice that need to be “normalised.” I think this awareness will come. At least those of our Western colleagues who come to Crimea realise immediately the falsehood of the propaganda to the effect that the people are oppressed and human rights are violated. We have a very honest position: come and see for yourselves. It is hard to disagree with that.
Question: I would like to thank you. President Putin gave a press conference yesterday and not a single foreign correspondent asked a question about Crimea. The credit for that goes to you. I think they have taken note of President Putin’s words that the Crimea issue is closed.
Sergey Lavrov: They were listening to the President first and foremost, and rightly so.