Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a news conference following a ministerial video session of the Council of the Baltic Sea States, Moscow, May 19, 2020
A ministerial session of the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) was just held. The participants reviewed their performance during the 2019-2020 Denmark’s CBSS Presidency.
The main results are as follows. Everyone confirmed the role of the CBSS as a key mechanism for multilateral intergovernmental cooperation among the Baltic Sea states, which contributes to forming a space of trust, stability and sustainable development in the region. We stated that political dialogue and practical cooperation, as well as the implementation of specific projects, remain the two fundamental elements of interaction within the Council.
We focused on the impact of the crisis on multilateral interaction in our common region caused by the coronavirus. The participants agreed that the current situation is having a major impact on many aspects of international relations and requires a rethinking of the approaches to various activities, including multilateral organisations.
We called on our partners to consider system-wide steps that would help consolidate the efforts to find regional answers to the global challenges that are emerging in the region. We came up with a package of specific measures to strengthen Baltic cooperation as part of the CBSS mechanism. For example, we emphasised the importance of drafting a new strategic document for the Baltic region to define the goals and objectives of cooperation for the decade starting in 2021, when the current Vilnius Declaration expires.
We called for resuming the CBSS Heads of Government meetings which were quite useful and which made it possible to more thoroughly and specifically consider various aspects of cooperation. We also suggested returning to the practice of holding northern regional council coordination meetings at the political level, like the CBSS, the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers, with the participation of partnerships created as part of the Northern Dimension which is a cooperation mechanism for the EU, Russia, Iceland and Norway.
We put forward initiatives aimed at strengthening the financial position of the CBSS in order to increase project work, as well as promoting cooperation in a number of specific industries. We emphasised the importance of projects that improve the daily lives of people.
We spoke in favour of building a well-balanced vertical of Baltic interaction by way of strengthening the coordination of its bodies at the national, regional and municipal levels. In addition to the CBSS, there are Baltic Sea state subregional cooperation organisations, of which individual regions in our countries are members. There is also the Union of the Baltic Cities. Establishing coordination between them would, of course, help avoid overlapping and realise our common interests more effectively.
We focused on fighting cross-border organised crime and emphasised that the corresponding Baltic Sea Task Force on Organised Crime made up of personal representatives of the Heads of Government of the Baltic Sea Region remains an effective mechanism for overcoming this dangerous challenge. This is important not only in terms of exchanging opinions and information about joint opposition to criminal threats, but also in terms of organising and conducting joint operational initiatives that provide practical results and are set up at the police, border and customs services.
We spoke in favour of extending the mandate of the Task Force to countering terrorism, given that money for terrorist and extremist groups often comes from criminal proceeds.
We also discussed the pressing challenges posed by the environment and climate change, pointing to the topicality of goal-oriented environmental activities and the introduction of green economy principles. We emphasised the importance of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM) and the initiatives based on private-public partnership. As we talked about this, we drew attention to the St Petersburg Initiative project.
Issues relating to youth cooperation were important in our discussion. We hailed the launch of the new Baltic Sea Youth Platform under the auspices of the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS). We believe this could become a useful integrated communications forum for youth organisations and authorities from the CBSS member countries that will allow them to transact business, exchange information and cooperate in implementing specific projects, including the Baltic Artek annual youth education forum, which we have held in Kaliningrad since 2010. We suggested that this forum be given a regional dimension in the context of CBSS activity.
In conclusion, we approved the new version of the CBSS’ constituent documents, thereby completing the process of formalising the organisational reform carried out in 2018 ̶ 2020. The reform offers a set of measures to boost the effectiveness of its activities while adding flexibility to our efforts and improving cooperation with other multilateral formats.
Towards the end of the session, a detailed Joint Declaration was adopted. It provides a strong impetus for us all to continue working together to promote comprehensive, depoliticised and substantive cooperation in the Baltic Sea area in the interests of our peoples.
Question: Was Baltic cooperation discussed during today’s meeting, and specifically the Nord Stream 2 project? If so, what was this discussion about? Do you have any information on whether pipelaying operations have resumed in the Baltic Sea? What are the projections for completing this project?
As we know, it took Denmark quite a while before it granted a permit to Nord Stream 2 partners, including Russia, but in the end it did issue the permit. Has this situation affected Russia’s relations with Denmark?
Sergey Lavrov: Nord Stream 2 was not on the agenda, and no one mentioned it.
Everyone can follow developments around this project. The media covered this matter quite extensively with plenty of comments in the Russian press, as well as in the European media. The United States has also been following this issue with special attention. Yesterday US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a telephone conversation with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who I also intend to talk to on the phone. The statement issued by the Department of State following their telephone call said that Mike Pompeo directly called on Germany not to take part in the Nord Stream 2 project.
This topic is on everyone’s lips, and remains open. It is our firm belief that the solution to this issue lies in the legal dimension. There has been much politicised agitation around this project. The decision by the European Union to apply the Third Energy Package (the so-called Gas Directive) has already raised eyebrows. It was a retroactive measure that worsened the terms offered to investors at the time when the corresponding documents on the Nord Stream 2 project were signed.
The company has taken this issue to courts, as has been reported. It will file appeals in Germany, as well as with structures of the European Union and the European Commission. I would not try to find a political underpinning in what the company is doing. It is, however, a fact that the project faces insistent attempts to undermine it.
Denmark granted the permit. However I have read recently that Denmark wanted to raise this issue once again, since there will be a new pipelaying vessel. It has been reported that the Danish government is weighing the possibility of raising new concerns regarding this project.
I do not think that this project can be stopped, and I am confident that it will be carried out. Germany, other European countries whose companies are involved and all of Europe in the end are interested in completing the project since it will enhance Europe’s energy security.
I will not go over scenarios mentioned by experts in the media regarding the legal avenues for resolving this situation. There are quite a few options, but all experts agree (this is their opinion, not mine) that no matter how this legal conflict is resolved, it will lead to higher gas prices for end users, i.e., people in the European Union. At the same time, the same experts also note that making EU countries pay a higher price for Russian gas will make liquefied natural gas from the United States more competitive.
There is no getting away from geopolitical games. There will be competition, involving questionable methods. I do believe, however, that if all parties stick with the legal norms, including EU rules (Nord Stream 2 has been committed to fully complying with them despite their ambiguity), this matter will be resolved to the satisfaction of all project participants and most importantly consumers.
This situation has not affected Russia’s relations with Denmark in any way. They have long been in a state where they are today. Developments around Nord Stream 2 have not changed our vision of relations with Copenhagen, as far as I can see. Moreover we are ready to have an open discussion with Denmark on any matters of concern, represent interests and voice concerns on developments within the purview of the Danish government.
Denmark’s Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod planned to visit the Russian Federation, but the trip had to be delayed due to the coronavirus epidemic.
To be honest, the relations between the two countries are not perfect. We see that Denmark has been less constructive on a number of issues related to Russia’s interactions with the EU and NATO, compared to some other members of these organisations. We do not make too much drama about it. We are ready to talk to anyone, including to our colleagues from Denmark.
Question: Are you planning to discuss with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas the German regulator’s decision not to withdraw Nord Stream 2 from the purview of the EU gas directive?
Sergey Lavrov: This German decision takes into account the interests of the German state, the German Government and the German business community. Perhaps it is also necessary to take into account Germany’s EU obligations. I am not going to mention this matter during my conversation with Heiko Maas. We have arranged to discuss other things. Neither will I try to force the German Government to adopt this or that decision, as our US partners are attempting to do, specifically during a telephone conversation between Heiko Maas and Mike Pompeo, about which the US Department of State has reported with so much pomp.
Question: We would like to ask you about statements made by US representatives, who have announced that the first batch of 50 ALV machines will be supplied to Russia on Wednesday and that the next delivery is scheduled for the beginning of next week. Is this really a good-will gesture and will this equipment really be supplied gratis? Are we planning to continue the reciprocal anti-virus collaboration with Washington, including by sharing medicine and information on efforts to develop a vaccine. Could you comment on a statement made by President Donald Trump, who has actually presented the WHO with an ultimatum to the effect that the US will withdraw from the organisation unless it is modernised in some way or other within 30 days?
Sergey Lavrov: As you may know, President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump repeatedly discussed Russian-US collaboration in fighting the coronavirus infection during their direct telephone contacts. At a previous stage, President Putin offered to help the US by supplying certain types of medical equipment. This assistance was rendered. During one of their latest telephone conversations, President Trump said that the United States had built up the production of ALV machines and that they would like to support the Russian Government’s efforts to fight the coronavirus. This was a sincere offer that came from the bottom of his heart. And we accepted it as such. President Putin has agreed with it. Currently, this offer is taking on a practical dimension and is being implemented. You were right in saying that our US partners are planning two flights that will deliver these machines for medical institutions in the Russian Federation. I hope they will help to cope with the situation that has taken shape in this country.
Both our aid to the US and the US aid to Russia is complementary. We have paid for the supplies to them, and the US is paying for the ALV machines for us. Of course, we are ready for further cooperation. We are open to collaboration with all countries. We think it of fundamental importance to organise transparent collaboration with regard to the development of a vaccine. This is one of the key tasks, with many countries and many laboratories working hard to accomplish it.
We would like this work to involve mutual assistance, transparency, and joint efforts, rather than become a purely commercial undertaking motivated by the desire to be the first to make a killing while solving this problem. Stable contacts have been established between the relevant institutions in Russia, the US, China, all European countries, and states in other regions. We are promoting all possible forms of collaboration, while being guided by WHO recommendations.
The World Health Assembly’s session is coming to a close today. I have not yet seen its final results, but its Declaration has been approved. It is highly pragmatic and aimed at solving specific problems. It also seeks to avoid any politicisation. It has declared the need to establish professional and impartial facts with the exclusive aim to understand how the pandemic has come into being and what measures the WHO must take to prevent this experience from being wasted and to use it if similar pandemics emerge in the future (regrettably, specialists believe that this is quite likely). The Declaration focuses on the task of developing a vaccine and making it available to all countries throughout the world without any hindrance.
I am confident that the WHO, like any other organisation, needs to be streamlined. But this cannot be done in one go that will solve all the problems within thirty days or identify all the sticking points arising at this stage, as well as the ways to overcome them. What is needed is a sober-minded analysis of the situation, primarily the facts. Regrettably, we have become accustomed to our Western colleagues paying, in a number of cases, the least attention to the facts. To be more precise, they disregard them altogether as they promote their political initiatives internationally.
We would not like the fight against the coronavirus to fall victim to this sort of geopolitical games and ambitions. I hope that the understandings incorporated in the WHA Declaration will help international cooperation to assume precisely this trajectory.
Question: US President Donald Trump has recently announced the development of a ‘super-duper’ missile that would be the fastest hypersonic missile, three times faster than Russian or Chinese missiles, and 17 times faster than what the US has right now. Donald Trump said that the US had no choice and had to face up to strong adversaries. What do you think about statements of this kind and missile development during the pandemic?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not particularly versed in technical questions to measure hypersonic speeds and their number for any given device. Professional experts who have a far better understanding of the subject have already commented on the suggestion that the missile will travel 17 times the speed of sound.
I will not get into this discussion. My job is to make sure that there are no new problems in our relations with the United States. It is quite clear that we need to substantially improve our relations on matters like the strategic stability dialogue and arms controls. Our US colleagues have been consistently dismantling all the treaties and restrictions that existed in this sphere, starting with the ABM Treaty. The INF Treaty has recently ceased to exist. We have been trying to revive talks and to agree on a moratorium, but our efforts have not yielded any results, which is due to NATO’s position. The Open Skies Treaty is now under threat. The United States has officially refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. All there is left is the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START). We want it to remain in force for at least another five-year term so that we can review all the new ideas on today’s strategic stability without haste and involving all those who are ready to take part in these talks.
During a telephone conversation back in early April, President of Russia Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump discussed the need to fight the coronavirus, the situation on the global oil market, our bilateral affairs, as well as strategic stability talks. They instructed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Russian Foreign Minister to agree on ways to revive the strategic stability dialogue. Mike Pompeo and I had a conversation on this topic. We agreed that Marshall Billingslea, who will be the US point of contact on this matter, will contact Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who is in charge of these questions within the Foreign Ministry. The two had a preliminary, introductory telephone conversation on May 8. The Americans promised to offer a specific timeframe for arranging a videoconference to have a meaningful conversation on strategic stability matters in an inter-agency format (including ‘super-duper’ matters, and everything relating to nuclear arms control), with the participation of the corresponding representatives from defence ministries and security services. We are still waiting for the proposal on the timeframe for our consultations via videoconference.
You have mentioned US President Donald Trump saying that Washington had “no choice” and referred to strong “adversaries” to justify the need to develop the missile. The very notion of “strategic stability” is disappearing from the vocabulary of the current US administration. Instead of strategic stability as the desired objective in our relations and in relations between all major powers, they use the new notion of “strategic competition” among major powers. This means that they now emphasise competition rather than efforts to bring about stability. This could be a subject for a philosophical debate. In order to understand the true causes of this conceptual shift, we need direct dialogue, but unfortunately we do not have it so far.
Question: Could you please comment on the statement made by US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher that considered the possibility of the deployment of US nuclear weapons in Poland instead of Germany. The Foreign Ministry already said this would be a violation of the Russia-NATO Founding Act. Do you think this hypothetical step would have any practical consequences?
A clarifier on security – some time ago, Russia proposed to countries in the Baltic region to reduce the number and scale of military exercises. Have you had any response from the states on the other side of the line?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the statements made by US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher, indeed, our Ministry has made a detailed comment. As you understand, we are talking about US nuclear weapons deployed on the territory of European countries including Germany (one of the five host countries of such weapons). This in itself does little to stabilise the situation, because stabilisation would require moving the nuclear weapons to their national territories, as the Russian Federation has long done.
The United States not only keeps its weapons deployed in the five NATO countries, but it is vigorously implementing the so-called NATO nuclear sharing arrangements. Under those arrangements, service members from the armies of non-nuclear states are being trained in handling nuclear weapons. This is a direct violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the one that marks its anniversary this year.
As for the possibility of transferring American nuclear weapons from Germany to Poland, as you rightly noted, this would be a direct violation of the Russia-NATO Founding Act, whereby NATO pledged not to deploy nuclear weapons on the territories of its new members either at that moment or in the future.
I doubt that these procedures will be actually launched. For me, what warrants attention in this story is not exactly nuclear weapons, but the way the US ambassadors to European countries unreservedly spell out their country's position and even dictate their position to the host country. Everyone knows that US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell is never at a loss for words, nor does he hesitate to use a microphone to publicly lecture German officials and the German government.
When this topic came up in the context of a proposal to stop hosting American nuclear weapons in Germany, made by one of the parties on Germany’s coalition Government, US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher immediately said, in that case, Poland would take it. It sounds like two large European countries – Germany and Poland, are the subject of discussion of further steps that actually concern the sovereign competence of these countries. US ambassadors are openly discussing these and other possible steps in real time through public statements. This fact is more eloquent in showing what is happening with strategic stability than the hypothetical probability of some relocation of US nuclear weapons from Germany to Poland.
Question: What do you think of the proposal to cut the military exercises?
Sergey Lavrov: This proposal was made last year when Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov met with his NATO counterpart. He presented a draft package of confidence-building measures including the proposal to move the exercises away from the line of contact between NATO countries and the Russian Federation. An additional confidence-building measure was also proposed, to agree on the minimum distance for rapprochement of military aircraft and warships.
Following up on the initiative of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on aviation security in the Baltic, we proposed an agreement for military aircraft to fly with their transponders on. So far, no clear answer has been given to these proposals (a year after they were made). Valery Gerasimov not so long ago met with General Tod Walters in Baku and reminded him that we are still waiting for an answer. There has been no response either.
Our military said they are reducing the scale of their exercises and are not planning any exercises close to the line of contact with the North Atlantic Alliance for the period of the coronavirus infection that we are all going through. But the main problem is a lack of former useful and effective mechanisms for direct contact between the military of Russia and NATO. Our NATO colleagues only agree to meetings at the Chief of the General Staff level, but the former mechanisms for practical cooperation between members of the military are completely frozen, to our utmost regret.