Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference following the meeting of the CSTO Council of Foreign Ministers, Moscow, December 1, 2020
We have held a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This year Russia chairs this organisation. The CSTO summit – the meeting of the Collective Security Council at the level of heads of state – will take place tomorrow. The results of our CSTO chairmanship will be summed up at this meeting.
We worked under the restrictions caused by the pandemic. The CSTO countries’ special protected communication channels allowed us to conduct a confidential and trustworthy exchange of views on all international and regional issues, and to discuss the situation in different crisis areas, especially near the CSTO zone of responsibility. We spoke about strategic stability and the threats created by the US line involving the scrapping of all treaties in this area. We discussed the struggle against terrorism and other new challenges and threats in the common geopolitical space.
We summed up the results of the Russian chairmanship in the context of the tasks set by President of Russia Vladimir Putin in Bishkek a year ago, when we assumed the chairmanship. All participants noted Russia’s intensive, active efforts to promote our allied relations with a view to strengthening specific areas of CSTO cooperation.
We expressed support for the continued work on expanding CSTO international contacts and discussed in detail our tasks on developing cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). A special document is being drafted in this respect.
We spoke about new challenges and threats. The anti-drug strategy of the CSTO member states for 2021-2025 was approved for presentation to the heads of state. The same applies to our statement on Afghanistan. We adopted it at the minister level. We paid special attention to the need to curb the dangers of terrorism and drug trafficking, which keep emerging on Afghan territory and directly threaten the CIS southern flank, primarily Central Asia.
As for military-political cooperation, we will submit a military cooperation development plan until 2025 and draft agreements on joint material-technical and medical support for the CSTO Collective Forces to the heads of state for approval.
Considerable attention has been given to enhancing our ability to respond to biological security challenges. A number of relevant proposals have been put forth and are being discussed. I am sure that we will establish a special CSTO mechanism soon which will deal with these challenges and coordinate practical recommendations on ways to neutralise them.
This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and Victory in the Great Patriotic War. We held an in-depth discussion on our countries’ activities on the international stage aimed at preventing any attempts to revise the results of the war, falsify history or promote new forms of extremism, neo-Nazism and discrimination on grounds of religion and ethnicity. A joint statement by the CSTO foreign ministers has been adopted towards this end.
Another focus of Russia’s chairmanship was the strengthening and promotion of the CSTO’s peacebuilding potential and cooperation with the UN when it comes to peacekeeping operations and the participation of CSTO peacekeepers in them.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix made a statement via videoconference. We approved a draft protocol to the Agreement on the Peacekeeping Activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation aimed at creating legal conditions for the CSTO peacekeepers’ participation in UN peacekeeping operations.
We are satisfied with the results. The CSTO chairmanship will pass over from Russia to Tajikistan now. Foreign Minister of Tajikistan Sirojiddin Muhriddin presented his country’s priorities in this capacity, which the other participants of the meeting of the CSTO Council of Foreign Ministers have approved.
Question: Have you discussed the prospect of using the CSTO’s peacekeeping capabilities in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Sergey Lavrov: We have touched upon Nagorno-Karabakh along with other matters that require our attention, offering a detailed account of the measures the Russian Federation is taking under the November 9, 2020 Statement by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia.
The Russian peacekeepers have been deployed there with the mutual consent of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan. No one suggested otherwise.
Question: When the hostilities came to an end, the exchange of prisoners and dead bodies became the number one priority. The relatives of the Armenian service personnel are in despair. They have been asking Armenian government agencies, as well as the Russian Embassy to accelerate this process. Still, there has been no progress so far. What is the possible timeframe for this process? What will the format be? Will this be an all-for-all swap or not? Are there any factors that could explain the delay?
Sergey Lavrov: The November 9, 2020 statement by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia provides for the exchange of detainees and dead bodies. We understand that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are directly concerned with this issue. In keeping with the November 9 agreement, the parties called on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to facilitate a smooth, prompt and effective solution. Russia has proactively welcomed this attitude.
When the peacekeepers were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh, the exchange of prisoners and dead bodies was one of the main and urgent objectives. Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly raised the matter during his telephone conversations with President Vladimir Putin, and they have talked on the phone on quite a few occasions in the past few days and recent weeks. We are interested in resolving this humanitarian problem as soon as possible. A number of specific steps have been taken to this effect.
There is a point that deserves special attention. Effectively performing an exchange of prisoners and dead bodies requires an inventory. Military commanders on both sides have to have accurate lists of the missing persons in order to take any meaningful and specific steps.
The peacekeepers paid special attention to these matters when the ICRC, as the key international institution in this sphere, evacuated its staff from Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that our peacekeepers stepped in and offered to assist the two sides was very important from a practical standpoint.
Considering the topographic features of this place and how the hostilities unfolded, it was difficult to address these concerns immediately after the cessation of hostilities, especially in the absence of accurate missing persons’ lists. The International Committee of the Red Cross, just as its President Peter Maurer and I have agreed (he visited Moscow on November 17, 2020), has recently returned its staff to Nagorno-Karabakh. The ICRC intends to expand its regional presence to 400 people, including in Yerevan, Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh itself. It also intends to significantly increase its funding request for the mission to 45 million Swiss francs.
We hope that when experts from this specialised international agency join these efforts there will be more progress. Our peacekeepers will assist them to the best of their ability.
Whether any deliberate steps are being taken to delay this process is hard to tell. We have not seen this. It is a fact, however, that there are objective challenges which I hope will be resolved soon.
Question: Maia Sandu, the new President-elect of the Republic of Moldova, actively advocates the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping contingent from Transnistria. How can you explain this extremely active and insistent position? Won’t this aggravate yet another conflict on post-Soviet territory?
Sergey Lavrov: It is hard to judge the specific motives behind the controversial statements by Maia Sandu, the President-elect of Moldova. We hear her conceptual statements about prioritising the European track of Moldova’s expanding foreign ties, as well as her desire to preserve good relations with the Russian Federation. I believe that relations with any country presuppose the consideration of mutual interests and earlier agreements.
Russian peacekeepers, as well as Moldovan and Ukrainian peacekeepers, are stationed in the conflict zone under the existing OSCE-approved decisions of the 5 + 2 Format. They address the task of maintaining stability in this region. It is of paramount importance to prevent a new upsurge in bloody clashes there. It was precisely the Russian peacekeepers who stopped the heated phase of the Transnistria conflict. Since then, they have helped freeze the conflict and prevent a lethal phase, in terms of human deaths, and the risks that are always caused by hostilities.
There is also the Russian Task Force that guards ammunition depots in Kolbasna. These depots are in such a state that loss of control over them is fraught with serious incidents. I would like to recall that, in 2003, when the Transnistria peace settlement got underway, ammunition stockpiles were removed rather quickly and effectively. About 50 percent of these stockpiles were removed from Transnistria and eliminated. After Chisinau stopped fulfilling the peace agreements, the Transnistria side flatly refused to resume the ammunition removal process. Consequently, it remains at these depots. Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu has said Russia is ready to eliminate these dangerous items, which are in a far from ideal state. The relevant parties need to cooperate for this purpose. Chisinau and Tiraspol should display goodwill, first and foremost.
It is hard to judge what President-elect Maia Sandu had in mind when she noted the need for withdrawing Russian peacekeepers. However, this will hardly facilitate the peace settlement, and we are unlikely to accept this fairly irresponsible demand. This is an established fact.
Question: Did you discuss the growing foreign pressure on CSTO countries, in particular Belarus? Members of the Belarusian opposition, who are in Poland and Lithuania now, have threatened Belarus with disconnection from SWIFT. Five years ago the EU threatened to cut Russia off from the network as well. Is the threat real in the case of Belarus? Why are they using SWIFT to blackmail?
Sergey Lavrov: The calls made in Vilnius, Warsaw and other Western capitals by the Belarusian political migrants, who are travelling in Europe and making statements at various EU bodies, give rise to many questions. These calls are not aimed at promoting dialogue, but at presenting ultimatums. There have been quite a few of them, including the encouragement of military and security personnel to break the oath, go into hiding and join the radical opposition. All this is extremely alarming, because these calls are aimed at whipping up the conflict rather than shifting it towards a political solution through dialogue, which the Belarusian authorities are ready to do, as they have announced several times. There are the initiatives on constitutional reform and an All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. I recently discussed them with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey in Minsk. We energetically support their commitment to launching a maximally broad national dialogue during which the main groups within Belarusian society will be able to contribute to the efforts to overcome the current crisis and normalise the situation.
The SWIFT payments system is one of the areas where ultimatums and threats are being advanced by those who do not want the situation in Belarus to improve but are trying to further aggravate it. The network was created by the Americans and their allies for financial transactions needed for normal trade in goods and services, as well as investments and for nearly all other spheres of economic life.
The conclusion from this is simple: we must create our own mechanisms, which will not retain our dependence on the West, especially since it has demonstrated its inability to act as a reliable partner on many occasions. It is no longer safe to rely on the multilateral instruments that are fully controlled by Western agencies.
Discussions about the transition to national payments systems are moving from theory to practice in Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. The SCO heads of governments met the other day. This is a very important subject, and we will be working to implement it in practice regardless of the developments involving SWIFT and any other steps our Western colleagues take.