Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all I would like to wish you belated happy holidays. I wish you success, health and prosperity in the New Year. We are grateful for your participation in our traditional news conference.
I don’t think I should occupy too much of your time with my opening remarks. Just recently the President of the Russian Federation held a detailed and long news conference. Several days ago Vladimir Putin also met with heads of Russian media outlets, in particular, news agencies. I am sure you watched these major events and listened attentively to his comments, including those on foreign policy issues.
I will briefly say yet again that last year was not easy in the context of foreign policy. There were numerous hotbeds of tension in different parts of the world – from the Middle East and North Africa to neighbouring Ukraine. In the last few months the situation was seriously aggravated by Washington’s threats to resolve the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula exclusively by force. Similar threats were made regarding the Afghan issue for which use of force exclusively was also suggested. Recent statements aimed at sabotaging implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear issue did not contribute to optimism and stability, either.
Regrettably, our American colleagues and their allies still want to operate only on the basis of dictates and ultimatums. They do not want to listen to the views of other centres of world politics, thereby refusing to accept the realities of the emerging multipolar world. The methods to which they resort to contain their competitors are, for the most part, quite dubious and conceived in bad faith, and their range is extensive – from the deployment of a global missile defence system to unilateral sanctions, exterritorial use of their own legislation and, as I have already said, threats to resolve any international issues exclusively in line with their own scenario, without stopping at anything, including the use of crude armed force. As a result, we are witnessing the devaluation of international law, diminishment of the role of international institutions and a growing number of countries placing their bets on an arms buildup which they see in the current situation as essentially the only guarantee for preserving their sovereignty.
In these conditions we did all we could to protect, first and foremost, the national interests of the Russian Federation in our work in the international arena, including the interests of our citizens and Russian businesses that are being more and more often subjected to discrimination. In parallel, we did all we could to defend international law and the international system that are based on the UN Charter. Together with other constructive actors in the international community we upheld the universal values of truth, justice and equitable and mutually respectful cooperation and also tried to prevent the degradation of the international system that is badly out of balance today. We wanted to do everything to halt the descent into chaos and confrontation.
I am prepared to speak about specific areas of our work in my answers today. I will just mention that this year we will continue acting in the same vein as I have just described. Naturally, this concerns the continued struggle against terrorism, in which we have achieved success in Syria, which is undergoing a very important stage – the transition to political settlement. In cooperation with our Turkish and Iranian partners we are organising the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that is supposed to be attended by a broad range of Syrian forces, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We will work to preserve the agreements on the Iranian nuclear programme and normalise the situation around the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process. The unsettled Palestinian issue seriously aggravates the situation in the Middle East. Needless to say, we will continue working on the Ukrainian issue that can only be resolved through the full and consistent implementation of the Package of Measures that was adopted in Minsk in February 2015.
We have a very important political event on our agenda – the election of the President of the Russian Federation. Our foreign missions – embassies, consulates general and Russian centres of science and culture are doing everything necessary to make sure that all Russian citizens abroad who want to take part in the election can do so as conveniently as possible.
Question: Mr Lavrov, you are probably aware that the media often publishes lists of key issues and expressions at the end of the year. If you were to compile such a list in the sphere of international relations for 2017, what key stories and phrases would you include in it?
Sergey Lavrov: I'll stay away from the phrases, or else I may be misunderstood again.
As for the stories, of course, it’s Syria. This issue is a focal point for many interests of many actors. We are trying, as I said, to use the initiative of convening the Syrian National Dialogue Congress to harmonise the interests of all Syrian parties and all external players who have influence on the situation and want to secure their interests in this region, including as part of the Syrian settlement. This is a complex process. To reiterate, we have reasons to believe that the pro-active role of Russia, Iran and Turkey will remain unchanged. It made the Astana process possible one year ago, helped create de-escalation zones, which continue to operate despite individual violations and the attempts to thwart it. It is also important that the Astana process stimulated UN activity, which, prior to the meetings in Astana, remained, in fact, inactive for some ten months. I hope that the initiative of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress will also act as an incentive for the UN to step up its activities. In any case, the Congress in Sochi is aimed at promoting the Geneva talks. We are saying it unambiguously to all our colleagues, including the UN leadership and the countries involved in the Syrian settlement process in one way or another.
The second topic, probably, includes everything else that concerns the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian settlement process is only a part of the complex tangle of issues in this region. I will mention Libya and Yemen. I have already mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process, which has ended up at an impasse. I remain convinced that the dead-end in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process, in moving towards creating a Palestinian state, has a part to play in radicalising the Arab street.
There is another topic - Ukraine, which is artificially inflated to make it look bigger than it is, and is seen as a touchstone in the confrontation between Russia and the West in general. I consider this approach to be erroneous and absolutely politicised. If we were to abandon the assessment, the prism of confrontation between "authoritarian Russia" and the "liberal West" through which the Ukrainian crisis is being viewed, and focus instead on what’s written in the Minsk Agreements (everything is clearly spelled out there and cannot be construed in more than one way), then, I think, the Ukraine crisis would have been settled a long time ago. This would mean that rejecting the ideology-driven interpretation of the situation as supposedly having global significance for relations between Russia and the West would allow our Western colleagues to move away from their thoughtless and reckless support of the policies pursued by official Kiev designed to shirk its commitments under the Minsk Agreements.
Of course, we can talk at length about positive trends as well – there’s no end to such conversations. They include promoting Eurasian integration, implementing the greater Eurasia project with the participation of the EAEU, the SCO, and ASEAN, its openness to new participants in the East and the West. Of course, it is also necessary to talk about integration processes on a broader scale - in the Asia-Pacific region, the activities of APEC, the G20, and BRICS. These associations embody major trends of the modern world, namely, the objective emergence of a polycentric system of international relations.
I’m sure I forgot to mention a thing or two. I was speaking off the cuff about issues that we have on our desks on a daily basis.
Question: Before the New Year the leaders of Russia and China announced that they would like to continue cooperating in international affairs. Could you name the main international issues on which Russia could maintain effective cooperation with China this year?
Sergey Lavrov: I am very grateful that you were given the floor second because you raised the subject that I did not mention when answering the first question about what keeps us busiest.
Of course, the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula is one of the most serious items on the international agenda. Russia and China are actively cooperating on this track. As you know we have a joint initiative with China on transitioning from confrontation to political settlement of the problem that has arisen on the Korean Peninsula. To begin with, we suggest that everybody calm down and freeze all confrontational activities, primarily those linked with military undertakings, whether missile launches, nuclear weapons tests or large-scale exercises that the United States has been holding in this region with the Republic of Korea and later on also with Japan. When these activities are frozen and a moratorium on hostile, confrontational steps enters in force, we will actively support direct contacts between the main stakeholders. Speaking about the nuclear issue, these are primarily Pyongyang and Washington but we will be ready to accompany their bilateral dialogue also in the framework of the six-party process with the participation of Russia, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. This is probably the most important issue on the bilateral agenda that Russia and China are now working to resolve.
I must say that the work on this issue is difficult. I have already said that the United States is almost openly talking about the inevitability of a military solution although everyone understands the disastrous consequences of such a venture. When there were conditions for transitioning to dialogue, provocative actions were undertaken in the vast majority of cases – increasingly large-scale military exercises around North Korea, which provoked another round of tensions. We have a joint roadmap with China and we will actively promote it.
We are also cooperating on the problem posed by the Syrian settlement process. Our Chinese colleagues occupy the same positions as the Russian Federation. I am referring to the need for an exclusively political settlement on the basis of the resolutions of the UN Security Council, which provide for political dialogue without preconditions and with the participation of the full spectrum of Syrian society – both the Government and all key elements of the opposition representing the diversity of political, ethnic and religious groups in Syria.
We have one more highly important joint initiative with China on the draft treaty on the non-deployment of weapons in outer space. It was submitted at the UN Disarmament Conference several years ago. Regrettably, this treaty has not yet been discussed due to the US position. All other countries understand the urgency of this problem but the United States continues nurturing plans to militarise outer space, I mean the deployment of weapons in outer space, which will, naturally, have very adverse consequences for problems of international security. Incidentally, speaking about the Disarmament Conference, China was our co-author in the drafting of another major document – the convention on the suppression of acts of chemical and biological terrorism. This draft is also being hindered by the United States, much to my surprise.
The intensive process of consolidating integration efforts is underway in Eurasia. China has the One Belt One Road initiative. President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of China Xi Jinping agreed to work toward conjoining Eurasian integration and the One Belt One Road initiative. The members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) are elaborating a treaty on trade and economic cooperation with China. In parallel, the EAEU and the SCO are maintaining contacts that ASEAN countries are welcome to join. Many ASEAN countries have already signed free trade area agreements with the EAEU or are negotiating them. What President Vladimir Putin called “the greater Eurasia project” is a very promising initiative. Needless to say, it will be necessary to take into account a large number of specific factors because too many economic interests overlap at this point. This is a winning initiative because it is based on reality. It is not being implemented via the initial formation of some framework and subsequent transition to practical action. Here is an illuminating example: pavement being laid in lawns in England. They first look where it is convenient for people to walk and then put down concrete or pave. Our processes that we call by the common name of the “greater Eurasia project” are proceeding in the same way.
I could probably spend a long time listing the joint initiatives that Russia and China are undertaking in the international arena. But for the sake of brevity I wanted to highlight these major issues.
Question: In 1998, Russia ratified the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry made a real effort to have the treaty signed. Since 2014, the treaty has ceased to be realistic. What are you going to do about it, given that it is automatically extended for 10 years unless it is terminated? Will the treaty be automatically extended or will it be terminated? If there is no decision as yet, what would you advise your leadership to do as an expert on international affairs?
Sergey Lavrov: How can I advise anyone on this if I do not know what advice I should give? State Duma Deputy Konstantin Zatulin brought up this subject in public just the other day. He noted that one of the treaty’s key articles, the one about the mutual respect of Russia and Ukraine’s territorial integrity, was irrelevant now after the free expression of Crimeans’ will. By virtue of their referendum people in Crimea achieved independence and joined the Russian Federation of their own free will.
You know, this does not sound relevant to me. International legal documents are important but these matters are handled by legal experts. I believe that at a political level we continue to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the boundaries that took shape after the referendum in Crimea and its reunification with the Russian Federation. We have many times answered legal questions, including those about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which was also recently brought up. Under this memorandum, Ukraine refused to have nuclear weapons while Russia, the United States and Britain pledged not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Let me remind you that we neither used nor threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, so there was no violation of the Budapest Memorandum. At the same time Ukraine reaffirmed in a separate statement its commitment not to stir up anti-Russian, neo-Nazi and xenophobic sentiments. What happened after Maidan was a flagrant violation of these obligations by our Ukrainian neighbours.
I assure you that, in political terms, we are interested in that, as recently Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated yet again, that the Minsk Agreements are implemented in full, without any exceptions. This fits in with our position based on full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within the existing boundaries that took shape after the referendum in Crimea, which was held in full compliance with international law.
Question: The treaty refers to the boundaries that existed in 1998. Is it necessary to adopt an updated document?
Sergey Lavrov: This topic that you are touching upon is diverting our attention away from the actual theme. The real matter here is that Ukraine signed the Minsk Agreements, which have nothing to do with the Crimea issue. These agreements must be implemented. If we now instead of making the Ukrainian leaders do, at last, what they promised to do and what was later formalised in a UN Security Council decision, start mulling over how this or that line of the treaty should be read, we, as it seems to me, will only give them an excuse to further drag their feet when it comes to the fulfilment of this very important document, which, I would like to point out once again, was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council. Our Western colleagues in both Europe and the United States – we know this from our talks with them – fully understand the tactics of the incumbent Ukrainian leaders regarding the Minsk Agreements. They are well aware that our Ukrainian neighbours are still trying to provoke the use of force in this stand-off in order to divert attention away from the fact they are deliberately not fulfilling the Minsk Package of Measures. Let us not theorise now – I do not want this to be seen as a lack of respect for international law. Utter disregard for it was demonstrated by those who incited, organised and supported Maidan. After all, I will remind you that in February 2014, former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, together with the opposition leaders reached an agreement, which was certified by the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France. A day later the opposition scrapped the agreement. It turns out that those who on behalf of the EU signed this agreement had deceived the Ukrainian people because the agreement provided for the creation of a government of national accord but, instead, a “government of winners”, as it was named by Arseny Yatsenyuk, was formed. Just one day later, if I may refresh your memories, a congress of people’s deputies of the Southeast [of Ukraine] and Crimea was held in Kharkov, with the deputies having been elected in compliance with the Ukrainian Constitution. They decided to take control of their regions until law and order were restored in Ukraine. They did not use force against the putschists but on February 23 the putschists approved a language law. Although it was not enacted, its message was clear to everybody – it was an absolutely anti-Russian and, essentially, a Russophobic law.
A short time after this, on February 26,the putschists – those who had seized power in Kiev – directly authorised the use of force by the Right Sector, as well as such organisations as Hizb ut-Tahrir and a Wahhabite group to take the Crimean Supreme Council building by storm. Many tend to forget about this now. All this happened within five days of the European grandees’ failure to persuade members of the opposition to deliver what they signed up to on February 20. Only after that all processes were triggered. They all started when the use of force against the Crimean Supreme Council was authorised and it immediately became crystal clear that the Crimeans had nothing to do with these illegitimate authorities. This was also a violation of international law, including the Budapest Memorandum I mentioned earlier on, under which Ukraine undertook not to support xenophobic sentiments.
We entirely support [the rule of] international law but, first of all, we want all those who initiate the demolition of international legal documents to come to and behave accordingly.
Question: Last year’s sentiments are reflected in the January poll by the Levada Centre, which shows that 68 per cent of Russians view the United States as hostile country. The figures in the United States are similar: between 64 and 70 per cent of Americans say that Russia is an adversary. Will you comment on these shocking figures? Can you also tell us who, or what, is to blame for this situation?
Sergey Lavrov: President of Russia Vladimir Putin has spoken on this issue more than once. It is not a matter of which came first, the chicken or the egg, but rather an issue of mentality. The people in the United States firmly believe in their country’s exceptionalism. President Barack Obama spoke about this openly on many occasions. President Donald Trump has not used this term, but all actions by the US elite and the country’s activities on the international stage show that they continue to be guided by this perception. It would have been a different matter had they promoted their exceptionalism by providing positive examples of fair game and competition. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the United States and the rest of the so-called historical West are losing the dominant positions they have held for at least five centuries, and while new centres of economic growth, financial power and political influence are emerging in the course of objective historical development, when the international system should be adjusted to involve these new centres of power in an equal dialogue and to develop constructive and widely acceptable solutions, the United States has resorted, regrettably, to illegitimate methods in an attempt to stop the curtailment of its relative role in global politics.
The UN Charter is a very important document. It stipulates a set of standards that must be respected. I do not think that this document should be modified, although we do support the ongoing reform of the UN Security Council. The key element of the UN Charter is the provision on the sovereign equality of states, mutual respect and the coordination of positions. This provision is not respected in the United States, especially under the current US administration. Whenever US initiatives produce a countermotion, if not resistance, the United States immediately and impatiently threatens the “offender” with sanctions. There are many examples of this kind.
Getting back to your question, the development of a polycentric world order takes a long time. The process is ongoing, and it will be painful for those who are losing their positions for the simple reason that the global economy develops in cycles. At present, it is not the United States or the West that are leading global growth. Of course, this takes some adjustment, and the process is rather painful, as I have said, but there is no other option. On the other hand, there is a different course of action, which the United States and some of its allies are trying to apply. It involves threats, ultimatums and punishment, including the punishment of companies and European businesses, for example, Volkswagen, which allegedly failed to comply with some standards, or other companies for failing to allocate funds to someone. This is being done through the exterritorial application of US laws. To cut a long story short, I believe that this heritage is visible in the actions of both the current US administration and the previous administration of President Obama. Regrettably, this legacy has been preserved despite President Trump’s election promises and has even become more intensive and aggressive in some cases. The actions of the US administration are evidence of the United States’ fear of honest competition in many areas, such as energy and gas supplies to Europe. I am sure you know about the attempts to replace Russian gas with US LNG, which is much more expensive. The examples in energy include resistance to the Nord Stream 2 project, which has been denounced as a politically motivated project that will split Europe and strangle Ukraine. This has been said openly in the United States. It is forcing Europe to abandon the project, although the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany will be 2,000 kilometres shorter and 30 to 50 per cent cheaper that transportation via Ukraine.
I think that sanctions in the defence sector, which have been adopted against Russian military exports and the companies that produce these goods, are clearly designed to prevent the strengthening of our positions to the detriment of American positions on this market. It is an understandable striving, but one should compete fairly rather than threaten developing countries with sanctions if they buy Russian weapons, something that happens more and more often.
Look at the situation in the media, with which you are familiar. We see attempts to limit competition in the attitude to Russia Today and Sputnik in the United States and France, the deportation of our journalists and the closing of our networks in Moldova, Ukraine, Latvia and several other countries. Or take the recent initiative of President of France Emmanuel Macron, who has proposed rules for fighting fake news where only one party will decide if a piece of news is fake. There will be no discussions, evidence or arguments, or at least they are not stipulated in the initiative that has been made public.
And lastly, take sports and the situation in this area in light of the upcoming Olympic Games and the decisions regarding Russian athletes. There is no doubt, as President Putin has said, and there are facts showing that some of our athletes used doping substances, but no national team has ever been collectively banned from the games before. In addition to a desire to injure Russia in some way, I also see this as fear of honest competition.
It is obvious that Russian society take note and analyse media reports on Russian-US relations and the United States – I have cited some examples of such reports made in the print media, on television and online. Public opinion is an important indicator. However, I believe that the main contribution to this situation is made by the US administration, which is demonising Russia. We have to respond to the hostile actions I have mentioned. We try to do this carefully rather than by retaliating with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We cannot tolerate absolutely illegal actions (I have not mentioned the unprecedented seizure of diplomatic property: we have completed preparations for launching legal proceedings). We have to react to them and to write about this, just as you are doing. Since our audiences, readers and social media users take note of the facts I have mentioned (there are many more such facts), I do not know how we can convince the Russian people to respond to a question about their attitude to the United States by saying that the US is the best country in the world and they want the same in Russia. I think I will stop for now.
Question: What is your view of the eight rounds of the intra-Syrian peace talks in Astana and the talks in Geneva?
Sergey Lavrov: The Astana peace process is being covered by the media quite thoroughly. As I have already said, we began the talks after the Obama administration failed to deliver on its obligation to separate the US-controlled opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorists. That agreement was reached by President Putin and President Obama after their meeting in China in September 2016. Later, US Secretary of State John Kerry and I formalised it on paper. The Americans could not fulfil it because they were either incapable or did not want to really suppress Jabhat al-Nusra. Our suspicions remain valid and are receiving more and more substantiation.
The United Nations was sitting on its hands at the time. Turkey, Iran and Russia decided to begin a process that would be based on the actual situation on the ground rather than on speculations. We started cooperating with the armed opposition and the Syrian Government, who later met in Astana for several rounds of talks. Four de-escalation zones became the provisional outcome of the talks. One of the zones was created with the involvement of Russia, the United States and Jordan. The level of violence in those zones has since decreased significantly.
Right now, however, provocateurs are trying to shatter the situation in Idlib and East Ghouta. The groups in Idlib who signed the agreement on behalf of the opposition and who are being controlled by our Turkish counterparts are subject to some external influence, as I understand it. Just recently, they carried out several raids against the Syrian troops. At the same time, there have been provocations against our base in Khmeimim. We could not but respond as those acts were direct violations of the de-escalation agreement. Our western counterparts’ current attempts to make it look like it was the Syrian army that breached the agreement are dishonest. The situation was absolutely the reverse. We do rely on our Turkish partners to finish establishing the remaining observation points around the de-escalation zone in Idlib as soon as possible. They have so far established only three out of twenty. This was discussed during the contacts between our leaders. We were assured that Turkey would accelerate its efforts. I hope this will help stabilise the situation in Idlib and prevent any further disruptions.
The status of East Ghouta is similar. Western media and politicians are sounding the alarm over the Syrian army continuing the operation in East Ghouta despite the agreement to de-escalate. All actions of the Syrian army are responsive because the militants allegedly close to Jabhat al-Nusra continue to shell residential neighbourhoods in Damascus, including the Russian Embassy area, from East Ghouta. It would be absolutely wrong to pretend nothing is happening and not to try to prevent these unlawful actions.
But the work continues. The Astana peace process produced agreements regarding additional humanitarian measures, prisoner exchange and a number of other issues that are helping to build trust on the ground and start a process of nationwide reconciliation based on the de-escalation zones at the local level. The said agreements will be put into practice.
We have repeatedly stressed that the Astana peace process is not competing with the UN efforts. There is always a UN representative at the international meetings in Astana. The Syrian National Dialogue Congress is also aimed at promoting the talks and not the other way around. UNSC Resolution 2254 states that the talks must involve a government delegation and representatives of as many oppositional groups as possible. The delegation formed by Saudi Arabia with Russia’s support that was sent to Geneva was, in my opinion, not diverse enough and mostly represented the external opposition. Those were people who live in Riyadh, Moscow, Cairo, Paris, London, the UAE or Istanbul. The Syrian National Dialogue Congress seeks to involve the opposition based in Syria in the political resolution and peace process, including not only the opposition directly opposing the Government but also the peaceful tribes whose territory has not been shaken by major military activity and who are not technically parties to the conflict but live in that country. Of course, it is important to consider the views of these tribes when making decisions on Syria’s future through its constitution or otherwise.
Question: Do you see any changes in US President Donald Trump’s approach to the Syrian crisis as compared with his predecessor, Barack Obama?
Sergey Lavrov: There are hardly any dramatic differences. Unfortunately, in both cases, what we see is not a desire to help resolve the conflict as soon as possible, but rather to help those who try to make practical steps to change the regime in Syria. I already said that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, like John Kerry, has repeatedly assured me that the only purpose of the US presence in Syria, including the Air Force and special forces ‘on the ground,’ together with the coalition, is the destruction of terrorists, including ISIS. Even keeping this in mind, according to the Americans, ISIS has not been completely destroyed, that separate hotbeds and disbanded fighter groups have remained, the actions we observe now show that the US does not really want to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity.
A new US initiative was announced only yesterday, allegedly aimed at helping the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to create certain areas of border security. By and large, this means the isolation of a vast territory along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, east of the Euphrates River. These areas are now controlled by the SDF, but there are complicated relations between the Kurds and the Arabs there. The announcement that this zone will be controlled by US-led groups and forces of up to 30,000 troops is a very serious matter, which raises fears that they have taken a course for breaking up Syria. This is being done without any reasons arising from UN Security Council resolutions or earlier reached agreements from the Geneva talks. We, like our Turkish and Iranian colleagues, like many others, I am sure, now expect the US to give detailed explanations.
Question: Over the past 24 hours, the Turkish armed forces have made at least forty strikes on the positions of the Syrian Kurds from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the Afrin area. What is Russia’s position on this matter?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a common area for our work. We are working for a full compliance with the ceasefire agreements. The Kurds are definitely part of the Syrian nation and their interests should be taken into account in the work we are doing, including in the preparations for the NDC. I have mentioned the new US project to build border security forces relying on the SDF which is mostly formed by Kurdish groups. You know that this has already caused a negative reaction from Turkey. I said that this raises serious questions about respect for Syria’s territorial integrity. But there is also a problem when it comes to the relations between the Kurds and Turkey. This new one-sided ultimatum step and project does little to calm down the situation around Afrin.
Question: The conflict between Erbil and Baghdad is still going on. Dozens of Kurdish residents have been killed in Kirkuk, and about 200,000 Kurds became refugees. What role can Russia play in resolving the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad?
Sergey Lavrov: The answer is very simple: the role that will be acceptable and in which Erbil and Baghdad will be interested. We support the territorial integrity of Iraq, we stand for the settlement of all problems through negotiations and national dialogue. If the parties need a mediator’s efforts, if they mention Russia’s efforts as a potential mediator, then, I assure you, we will take this positively.
Question: US President Donald Trump said in terms of an ultimatum at the end of last week that it was the last prolongation of the freeze on anti-Iran sanctions. What could the Iranian nuclear deal collapse lead to? What will Russia’s reaction be?
Sergey Lavrov: We have already responded to this situation. We are confident that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for the Iranian nuclear programme is among the international community’s most important achievements toward stabilising the situation in the Middle East, confirming the unacceptability of undermining the WMD non-proliferation arrangement. Our position has been repeatedly brought to the attention of the United States.
Ever since the first doubts were raised in Washington about the desirability of preserving the JCPOA, we have repeatedly, together with the Chinese and European signatories, conveyed to Washington our convictions about the detrimental nature of this step and its unpredictable consequences. Unfortunately, this did not fall on the right ground. So far, our efforts have not been crowned with success.
We will continue to work to make sure that the US recognises the reality that Iran is fulfilling all its obligations under the JCPOA. This is being regularly verified by the IAEA Director General. The IAEA has not mentioned a single problem with the nuclear programme obligations Iran had assumed.
Now the US is trying to modify the text of the agreement to include clauses that will be absolutely unacceptable for Iran. We will not support them. Access to any facility on first request is beyond the scope of the agreement, as is the indefinite nature of Iran’s waiver of the rights it has under the NPT and in accordance with the IAEA Statute. At the same time, Iran is being pressured in a broader sense. The US demands that it stop the development of ballistic missiles, which has never been negotiated. Iran has never assumed any such commitments. And in a more abstract way, the US demands that Iran cease interfering in the affairs of neighboring countries and the region as a whole, and stop violating human rights at home. A whole package of sanctions against that country is being prepared, including for its ‘transgressions’ outside the agreement’s framework. This is quite regrettable.
In a few months, there will be another review. If the US really slams the door, I do not even want to think about the consequences. Iran will no longer consider itself bound by the JCPOA. I very much hope that our European partners, whom the Americans will certainly begin to entice to side with them, will adhere to what is written in the JCPOA that was approved by a UN Security Council resolution and is mandatory for execution by all. Sadly, the United States once again gives reason to doubt its ability to negotiate.
Speaking of one specific consequence, I have to return to the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula. If Kim Jong-un is required to wrap up his nuclear military programme, in exchange for a promise to lift the sanctions, then this is precisely the essence of the agreements between Iran and the international community. If they just put it aside now and tell Iran it should stick to its obligations, and they re-impose the sanctions, put yourselves in North Korea’s shoes. They are promised that sanctions will be lifted in exchange for abandoning its nuclear programme, so they do, but the sanctions are not lifted. Or, on the contrary, an agreement is reached, and then the Americans just say the next morning that they are ‘men of their word’ – they give their word, then break their word. This is a popular joke.
By the way, a meeting on North Korea opens today in Vancouver, called by the Americans and Canadians, involving the countries that were members of the UN-led coalition during the Korean War of 1950-1953. When we heard about this meeting, we asked why this composition? Greece, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg. They were in that coalition. How do they relate to the efforts to resolve the current problem of the Korean Peninsula? What will they do there? The Americans told us that it was important to expand support for our common efforts, but the agenda is to develop a mechanism for additional pressure on Pyongyang. Just a couple of weeks ago now, another resolution was adopted. Two days later, it was announced that a meeting in Vancouver would be convened. We and China were not invited, but we were told that the meeting would start tonight, January 15, while the main meetings would be held on January 16; and they invited Russia and China to come and join them in the evening to hear what they had agreed on. You certainly understand that it was unacceptable. We insisted that the UN should not accept the invitations either, as the invitations had been sent to UN representatives.
A few words about the American diplomacy manners these days. As far as I know, the day before yesterday, there was a briefing at the US Department of State. The spokesperson, who actually talked about the meeting in Vancouver, was asked why China and Russia had not been invited. The answer was evasive, but essentially spokesperson said that Moscow and Beijing had been informed about the preparations for the meeting and that both countries had allegedly supported the effort. These are plain lies. We said bluntly that we considered that effort and that meeting harmful.
Let’s see how the situation unfolds. But for the time being, it is difficult for me to say what will happen to the European position on the Iranian nuclear programme. In my opinion, they are already beginning to call for certain compromises. It looks like the situation is likely to slide in a very dangerous direction.
Question: In 2017, Russia made a huge contribution to the Syrian conflict settlement and generally acted as a peacemaker. How successful, in your opinion, was Russian diplomacy in settling other conflicts, specifically one in Nagorno-Karabakh? Are there plans to settle the conflict in 2018? Are there plans to cooperate with Azerbaijan this year?
Sergey Lavrov: As far as a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement is concerned, the Russian Federation cannot have any concrete plans to solve this problem because it can only be solved by the parties themselves. Russia, along with the United States and France as the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, is doing its best to create conditions for this settlement. In recent years, we have made a real effort to generalise the parties’ positions, identify converging approaches to some or other aspects of this settlement as well as we have simultaneously tried to suggest as it were the compromises that can lead the parties to a common denominator on matters in which they still diverge.
This work has been pursued in an intensive and regular manner, including over the past year. The parties have all our proposals, the co-chairs’ proposals (Russia, the US and France share a common stance). The parties know what the co-chairs think, but it is up to them to decide. Of course, we expect some positive impulses to follow from both parties.
We are glad that both countries’ presidents and foreign ministers met last year. Representatives of the co-chair countries participated in these processes. I think, it would be important now to take additional steps to induce more calm on the line of contact. This would also help a transition to a political settlement.
Let me comment generally: This problem cannot be solved once and for all by just one document. We need a stage-by-stage approach reflecting an understanding with regard to what is possible now and defining the ways of working on matters that require additional discussions in the interests of achieving a final settlement, including that of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
As for plans to promote relations with Azerbaijan, let me say that they are based on a most intensive dialogue between the presidents and the foreign ministers. This year, my Azerbaijani colleague and I have exchanged visits; humanitarian events, including a joint humanitarian forum, are held regularly; mutual trade and investment grow, and plenty more. This work is proceeding under its own steam and there is no need for any specific documents on how to regulate it. We have intergovernmental commissions in various fields and officials concerned draw up appropriate schedules. We are highly satisfied with our strategic partnership with the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Question: Occasionally it may seem that everyone has forgotten the situation involving Julian Assange, but in reality this is not so. There is a feeling that all the legitimate efforts of the Ecuadorian authorities don’t work. At first they gave him political asylum. Not so long ago, we learned that they had granted Ecuadorian citizenship to the Wikileaks founder. The latest development was the attempt to give him diplomatic status, but London refused to go along with it. Nothing works! What is your take on this situation? Soon it will be six years since this man, regarded worldwide as a champion of truth and freedom of expression, has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Would Russia do the same as Ecuador in a similar situation and grant Mr Assange citizenship?
My second question is about attempts to disrupt preparations for the Syria National Dialogue Congress. A State Department spokesperson declared the other day that the US was not going to recognise the legitimacy of this platform on a par with Geneva and Astana. Will we take cues from the United States? Will we manage to hold this congress as planned, given the huge number of difficulties – I mean differences between the guarantor countries and some even greater differences between other international players, problems with Kurdish participation and that of Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura?
Sergey Lavrov: The question about how Russia would behave, if Julian Assange applied for Russian citizenship, is hypothetical. We regard these situations primarily from the humanitarian point of view. This was the case with Edward Snowden, who asked for asylum, which we granted, taking into consideration the consequences with which the charges brought against him were fraught. He lives and works here. His has an absolutely non-conformist position and, as you know, he comments freely on all subjects. I just cannot comment on “what would have happened, if…”. Julian Assange is not in the Russian Federation now, but I fully agree that this problem should definitely be solved in one way or another. We accept the actions taken by the Ecuadorian authorities with understanding. I hope that all other participants, too, will be guided by common sense, including our British and Swedish colleagues, who seem to be ready to display goodwill and finally resolve this problem.
As for our US colleagues’ attitude to the Astana initiatives and the Syria National Dialogue Congress, we invited the Americans and they participated in the Astana meetings, including by sending a State Department representative from Washington on several occasions. I would be glad if the Geneva process led us at full speed towards a settlement. Regrettably, the initial attempt to reduce the Geneva process to talks between the Government and the opposition émigrés, without involving opposition forces from within Syria, was doomed from the start. We attended these meetings, but we constantly said that the UN Security Council resolution, of which we invariably remind [our opposite numbers], called for the participation of the entire spectrum of Syrian society. People who have lived abroad for years can hardly be regarded as representatives of the entire spectrum.
Hence the emergence of the Astana process: people confronting the Government with arms in hand had to be brought to the negotiating table to come to terms with the Assad Government on a ceasefire and joint moves to support everyday life in these de-escalation zones.
In the same way, following the main stage in the fight against ISIS, the Syria National Dialogue Congress is due to use this opportunity to start the political process. It is aimed at involving the people not covered by the Geneva structures. And they are a majority, if we speak about the Syrian participants in all these events.
We believe the UN will thank us on seeing the results of this congress. We will expand their capabilities as much as we will the number of participants. The constitutional reform and the subsequent election rules should be such that they enjoy support from the entire Syrian people, and not just those who held secret, backstage meetings at the Palace of Nations in Geneva.
Question: In light of the events that you’ve mentioned, with sanctions being tightened, with the loss of your diplomatic compounds, and investigations underway into alleged Russian meddling in the United States, the current relationship between Russia and the US seems possibly worse than under President Obama. After one year of President Trump and considering the possibility of additional sanctions in the coming weeks and months, do you personally ever regret that Donald Trump became president, and do you ever wish that Hillary Clinton were sitting in the White House instead?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, this is not what diplomats do – regret something that has happened. We work with facts, and facts are what we have today, so we just do what needs to be done to advance Russia’s interests under the current conditions.
Question: My first question is about Libya. How much could Russian diplomatic actions help in the settlement of the current Libyan crisis?
My second question concerns the Vatican. What other important events in bilateral relations can we expect after the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, visited Russia in August 2017?
Sergey Lavrov: Speaking about Libya, we are not playing the key role in the international efforts there. As you know, Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj and Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar held a meeting in Paris. They reached some agreements that seemed promising, but failed to gain traction, though. We also welcome the efforts taken by Libya’s neighbours – Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. We support the energetic efforts by UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé, who has put forward an interesting roadmap. At the least, the several rounds of talks held under his auspices in Tunisia give grounds to believe that the situation is moving in the right direction, even if slowly, including the preparations for the elections. Everyone agrees that it will be a vital stage.
Unlike many other countries, we have been working with all Libyan parties without exception from the very beginning, just as we did in any other conflict, including the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the Tobruk Chamber of Deputies, Mr Khalifa al-Ghawil and many others. Initially, some of our Western colleagues placed all their stakes only on one of these people, but now they have taken a more balanced position – better late than never – and agree that it will be extremely difficult to reach a desired result without bringing all the key figures together at the negotiating table.
As for our relations with the Vatican, they have been rather intensive even before Cardinal Parolin’s visit. President Putin has had meetings with Pope Francis several times. We can report practical results in the area of humanitarian cooperation and exchange of exhibitions, as well as an agreement on visa-free travel for the holders of diplomatic passports, which the Vatican described as historical, became effective last year. We also have common interests, including in the context of developments in the Middle East and North Africa. We have held several conferences together with the Vatican and some of our other colleagues on the protection of Christians in these bloody conflicts on the sidelines of UN and OSCE events. The latest such conference was held on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council in December 2017. There are many more examples of our prolific relationship with the Vatican.
Question: For many years now, the Winter War has affected the relations between Helsinki and Moscow. Perhaps it continues to affect them even today. In the past years, the Russian media have produced some publications with which Finnish historians cannot agree – specifically, some false statements. Can you give us the Foreign Ministry’s clear stance on who was responsible for the shelling of Mainila and started the Winter War of 1939?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, I think it is for historians to establish. The Foreign Ministry is not supposed to have a stance on historic facts. The said period was not the best time in our relations. Russia and Finland are on very good terms at present, I think. Did you happen to watch the Valaam film yesterday? I believe President Vladimir Putin clearly said everything, that we are looking forward and value Finland’s role in saving the monastery together with its treasures. I don’t think it is a good idea if we go down this road and diplomats begin to argue about who started shooting first 70 or 80 years ago. Historians, on the other hand, must research this question, without a doubt. Speaking of which, Russia has joint history commissions with many countries. I would not mind if we set up one with Finland.
Question: Exactly one year ago I asked you about Western Europe’s reaction to the development of the EAEU. You answered that the reaction is ambiguous and each country had its own response. Has the attitude shifted?
My second question concerns Uzbekistan. What are the Foreign Ministry’s plans regarding this country?
Sergey Lavrov: As concerns Brussels’ attitude towards the EAEU, it is true, a year ago they did everything to avoid even recognising any functional value of this integration group. Obviously, for political and ideological reasons, just like NATO refuses to recognise the CSTO as an organisation with which NATO could have a dialogue, although there was certain progress at some point. Now the European Union is finally making steps toward accepting the reality and is at least ready for a dialogue between the European Commission and the Eurasian Economic Commission on regulatory issues, even if only technical ones, but at least relevant to the actual transfer of goods and, therefore, hopefully creating a foundation for additional actions toward extending cooperation. We can move this way forward taking baby steps which will get bigger as the time goes by.
Russia and Uzbekistan have been allies for many years, and this alliance was documented in a treaty. Our relations continue to follow this line. We have noted with satisfaction that in the past year Uzbekistan has been more involved in multilateral events, including the CIS and the SCO. We welcome this change. Last spring President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Russia and talked with President Putin about expanding our strategic partnership and alliance. All these aspects reflect the current work of our multilateral structures in the post-Soviet space. So my belief is that our prospects are really quite good.
Question: (via interpreter) Canada has suggested it might be prepared to be part of peace-keeping mission in Ukraine if the peace-keeping mission involved all of eastern Ukraine whereas I believe Russia’s position is interest just along the contact line. Do you see any way of bridging those two positions?
Sergey Lavrov: Our proposal regarding the UN mission to protect the OSCE observers is not limited to its deployment only on the contact line. OSCE observers have a mandate that says they can move, in agreement with the parties, on both sides of the contact line. They regularly visit the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Lugansk up to the border with Russia, where they travel as many as twenty times a week. Our proposal is to ensure UN protection for these OSCE observers everywhere they go and patrol, in accordance with their mandate.
As for Canada’s interest, this is not up to me. It is up to the conflicting parties to determine the nations involved, in accordance with our proposal and the common UN practices, that is, this needs to be coordinated with Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.
Question: (via interpreter) And I’ll come back to what you said about the North Korea meeting in Vancouver today. Do you think anything productive can come out of that without Russia there?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia was not the only country that was not invited; China wasn’t either. With all due respect to those who initiated this, I do not expect anything productive from it; I will be glad if only nothing counterproductive happens. But this looks unlikely, because the agenda sounds like “increasing pressure on North Korea”.
Question: A question about broken promises. You have made multiple references to February 21, 2014, the date the Agreement was signed. So why is the medal for the so-called return of Crimea dated February 20, which was a day before the signing of the Agreement?
Sergey Lavrov: Frankly, I never saw that medal. I think it was some technical misunderstanding.
Question: Last week, President Vladimir Putin said the Russian Federation was ready to return armored vehicles and ships from Crimea to Ukraine. Mr Putin also said that Russian-Ukrainian relations will improve once the Donbass issue is resolved. How important is it for Russia to preserve those pseudo-state entities in eastern Ukraine? The Minsk Agreements say nothing about the DPR or LPR, which you mention so often.
Sergey Lavrov: It refers to some districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Since this is not a court hearing and I am addressing journalists, I’ll permit myself to speak about events in a descriptive manner.
The Minsk Agreements refer to some districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Speaking about fulfilment of the commitments, one of the first points, after the points on cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of troops, says that direct consultations are to start between the government of Ukraine and representatives of some districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. It refers to direct consultations. Ukraine still claims that it has not made such a commitment and resorts to various configurations designed to show that it is not talking with them, but is talking with Russia, the OSCE, the Germans and the French.
As regards weapons, when it all happened, weapons began to be pulled out of Crimea at once, as early as March. When your leaders proclaimed a counter-terrorist operation describing as terrorists those who had never attacked them, we stopped transferring these arms because we realised that they could be used against the people who had categorically rejected the government coup by those who had declared anathema on the Russian language, those who, like Dmytro Yarosh, said a couple of days after the coup that Russians would never recognise Stepan Bandera and should therefore be driven out of Crimea. Look at his statements. Yarosh was at the time the mouthpiece of Maidan. I am convinced that the people of Crimea had no option but to defend their identity, their multi-national and multi-confessional culture against such thugs. They simply had no choice.
In my opinion, there can be no doubt that we are ready and interested in full compliance with the Minsk Agreements.
Question: Russia and Poland are neighbours, but the list of Warsaw’s grievances against Moscow is vast, almost infinite. Moscow keeps saying that Warsaw is a partner. Warsaw says that Russia is an enemy. How should the relationship be built with such a tricky “partner?”
Sergey Lavrov: One should take a philosophical view of what we hear from Poland. We have repeatedly made it clear that we would be ready for very close, mutually beneficial and pragmatic cooperation. We have always had extensive cultural ties, shared many music and film festivals, made reciprocal visits and had joint film productions. That reflected the closeness of ordinary people who are not engaged in politics, but in matters that are more interesting for the public.
Unfortunately, you are right. We have been designated as enemies. We are not going to respond in kind although we see that Russophobia is consciously, consistently and massively being spread in Poland as a national idea. The war on monuments, the claim that they have the right to pull down monuments off the burial sites although the intergovernmental agreement on mutual care of World War II monuments (the Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Republic of Poland on Burial Places and Memorial Sites of Victims of War and Reprisals of February 22, 1994) clearly states that it covers all the monuments. And there is much else. We see the role Poland is playing within NATO and the European Union in opposing any suggestions concerning a more realistic attitude towards Russia.
Let me repeat that we will be ready for dialogue, but our Polish colleagues must understand that dialogue can only take place if mutual interests are taken into account, and not through attempts to dictate to us while feeling that the American and other “hawks” in the North Atlantic Alliance are behind them.
Question: You have mentioned the French initiative on fighting fake news. If this initiative becomes law in France, will it be used primarily against the Russian media?
Sergey Lavrov: As far as I know, only you, that is, Sputnik, plus Russia Today are unwanted at the events held at the Elysee Palace. I can presume that you were largely the cause for this French initiative.
Of course, the initiative as it has been set out by President Macron concerns all sources of fake news, and decisions on whether a piece of news is fake will be taken without any exchange of arguments or rational consideration. At the least, this is how the situation looks now and this is how the initiative was formulated. The decision will be taken by a court without any witness testimony.
The initiative has an interesting element. We have noted that there is no judgement process involved in deciding what can or cannot be regarded as fake news. The suggestion is that liberal democracies know which is which. This is not a quotation but the gist of the initiative in the context of the division of states into liberal democracies, non-liberal democracies and authoritarian states. It will be interesting to see how this initiative develops and what practical form it will take.
Question: During your meetings with your Belarusian colleague last year, you spoke a great deal about moving towards mutual recognition of visas. Will you complete this work in time for the FIFA World Cup?
Overall, do you ever discuss Russian-Belarusian differences regarding border issues during bilateral meetings? Nearly a year ago, Russia introduced, without any notification, full-scale passport control not only at international checkpoints but also on the Moscow-Brest route. Passports are checked at airports and railway stations. Is there any hope that our border, which does not exist on paper but does exist in reality, will ever become transparent, as we agreed more than 20 years ago?
Sergey Lavrov: It will, if the matter depends on us. But for the border to become transparent, we need to synchronise our actions, the same as we need to coordinate everything else related to living in the Union State.
We signed a special agreement on equalising the rights of Belarusian and Russian citizens, so that Belarusians staying at hotels or resorts in Russia and Russians staying at hotels or resorts in Belarus will pay the same price. We still need to coordinate some elements. But overall, we would like to have no border between us, like in the past. But when our Belarusian friends announced their decision to approve visa-free travel for citizens from 80 countries without any prior notification, at a time when Russia was facing increased terrorist threats, this created discrepancies because we had visa regimes with many of these countries. We thoroughly analyse visa requests from these countries’ citizens. A situation was created where those who needed a visa to enter Russia could freely enter Belarus and then move to Russia without any verification. This is why we had to do what we did. We have warned everyone that we will have to check all foreigners who want to enter Russia from Belarus. Foreigners travelling from Belarus to Russia by air must use only the airports that have international checkpoints. This is really obvious.
We believe that no unilateral moves should be made regarding anything that is of concern to both states. This is why we have proposed coordinating a mutual visa recognition agreement, which is almost ready. I hope it will be adopted in the near future. We are ready for this.
Question: At the end of last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it was aware of the dark PR campaigns the British media are preparing about the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. Could you tell us more? Because as members of the British mass media we know absolutely nothing about this.
Sergey Lavrov: As far as I know, today or possibly yesterday, The Guardian published a piece about the World Cup, about something being wrong here again. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said what we heard. You also write about what you heard or saw. So we heard that there is such a request.
Question: Russia is going to hold presidential elections in March and, according to the procedure, the Government of the Russian Federation will resign. What are your future plans? If you do resign, who do you think would head the Ministry?
Sergey Lavrov: We have the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which clearly defines the procedure for the formation of the Government. I assure you that this procedure will be strictly followed.
As for me, I am not used to doing anything except ensuring the most effective work of our Ministry. This is my main task right now.
Question: As you know, the Sputnik agency has a great information presence in Latin America. We communicate with regional leaders and experts. All of them agree that they want more cooperation with Russia. This is being especially highlighted now that under the current US leadership, the relations between Latin America and the United States are not developing too well, and they are looking for new partners. There is great interest in cooperation with Russia. Does Russia have an interest in cooperation with Latin America? Could you possibly cite any projects that could illustrate this?
Sergey Lavrov: There is not only interest. We already have quite a serious potential, which is being tapped in practice. We have regular meetings at the highest level. We will soon receive the President of Argentina Mauricio Macri. We are expecting eight teams from Latin America that qualified for the 2018 World Cup. I am sure that the delegations accompanying these teams will also help us develop contacts in the political, economic and cultural spheres. We have, in fact, visa-free travel agreements with all countries except four or five in Central America and the Caribbean. I am sure that in the next 1.5-2 years, we will be able to turn the entire CELAC area into a visa free zone for the Russian Federation.
We have developed a mechanism for dialogue and partnership with CELAC; a year and a half ago, the CELAC Quartet visited Sochi, where we adopted a major roadmap for the development of partnership. We also have contacts with subregional organisations in the continent, including ALBA, MERCOSUR, the Andean Community and the Central American Integration System, under which we have requested the status of an extra-regional observer. And of course, we have quite developed bilateral relations with all countries without exception (some more, some less), but we do maintain dialogue with all of them.
Our trade with Latin American countries, if my memory serves me rightly, has already exceeded 10 billion dollars. It mainly involves high-tech products, military technical agreements, space arrangements, including ground support for our GLONASS system, nuclear power engineering, and much more.
In general, I proceed from the fact that a lot has already been done, although there is certainly no limit to perfection. We have long term plans for each of these areas.
By the way, I should especially emphasise that we also closely cooperate in the UN. We have similar positions with the overwhelming majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries on all key issues within the UN scope. We jointly promote respect for the UN Charter, and for the settlement of all disputes by peaceful means.
We particularly support the principle that Latin America has long elevated to the rank of law, that it is unacceptable to support any unconstitutional coups. This is a very important element of Latin America’s multilateral stance. I am pleased to say that for the first time, on the initiative of our partners, and with our support, this principle was enshrined in the UN General Assembly resolution in December 2016.
Question: The First Global Forum of Young Diplomats was held in Sochi in October 2017. How do you regard the prospects of this initiative and do you think it is possible or practicable to create a World Association of Diplomats?
Sergey Lavrov: I think such a plan exists and it was announced at the First Forum. We would only be glad if it meets with support among the young diplomats of corresponding countries.
Question: What do you think of the US initiative and intention to hold a meeting between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the foreign ministers of five Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union in the “5+1” format in one of these countries? Does American activity in the region perhaps have an anti-Russian undertone?
Sergey Lavrov: The US is not the only country developing such formats. Central Asia also has a “5+1” format with the European Union, China and possibly Iran.
Naturally, we have absolutely nothing against our Central Asian neighbours and allies having the broadest spectrum of external partners. We expect that these relations will fully respect the commitments we have within the framework of the CIS, CSTO, SCO and EAEU as regards the countries taking part in this association.
We hear that the US is inclined to abuse this format a bit and to promote the ideas connected with what was known under previous administrations as the Greater Central Asia project. As you may remember, the project was aimed at focusing all the plans involving Central Asia toward the south, towards Afghanistan, while keeping the Russian Federation out of it. I am sure that if this is really the case and if our American colleagues promote these plans at their meetings with our Central Asian friends, they will all see the fallacy of these attempts which are prompted not by the interests of economic development and the improvement of transport infrastructure, but by sheer geopolitics.
Our approach, which we call the Greater Eurasia project, is informed with the opposite kind of ideology. It is not connected with cutting off someone from some part of the Eurasian continent, but with openness and a gradual advance of integration processes, eventually uniting the Eurasian continent and leaving it open for other partners to join.
Question: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has accused Israel of putting an end to the Oslo peace agreements by its actions and described Donald Trump’s proposals for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict as the “slap of the century.” Can you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: We have already commented on the situation connected with Donald Trump’s announcement concerning the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. We have commented even more frequently and for a longer time on the harm and the risks involved in this impasse in Palestinian-Israeli settlement. We understand very well how the Palestinians feel today. For many years they have been making unilateral concessions, step by step, without getting anything in return. As I have said, they were ready for direct negotiations with the Israelis without pre-conditions. We were ready to host them on Russian territory and to provide a venue for this purpose. So far, however, no contacts without pre-conditions have taken place. In the current situation, I am afraid the chances of such contacts happening are nil, which is sad. At the same time, over the past few months we have repeatedly heard that the US is about to unveil “a grand deal” which would put everything in place and please everyone. We have yet to come upon any such document or statement. |
Let me repeat, the fact that the Palestinian problem has not been settled is one of the most serious factors that enable radicals to recruit ever new generations of terrorists. My Israeli colleagues felt offended by these remarks, but this is objective reality. All serious analysts in the region see the relevant statistics.
Having said that, let me stress that we should not give up. We do not want to see a total halt in communication between the sides. I very much hope that we will shortly be able to consult with our Quartet partners (along with the US, they include UN and EU) and hold a brainstorm session on what to do next. The situation must not be allowed to get out of control.
I am aware that there are voices in Palestine that call for disbanding the national administration, declaring Palestine to be an occupied territory and handing to Israel full responsibility for how Palestine lives and functions, how the life support systems work and how people live there. I hope that we will be able to somehow come out of this crisis situation. I repeat, we will consult with our Quartet partners. We are planning, among other things, to have bilateral contacts with the US.
Question: In 2017, Russia and Pakistan had intensive contacts on combating terrorism and drug trafficking, plus the issues of Afghanistan as well. What will the situation be like in 2018? What is expected in the area of relations between Russia and Pakistan?
Sergey Lavrov: You were absolutely right to point out how actively we had collaborated in combating terrorism. We have a stake in suppressing the terrorist threat that is spreading to the territories of Pakistan and Afghanistan and “spilling over” the Pakistani-Afghan border. The agreement we made on supplying Pakistan with special equipment, such as, first and foremost, helicopters for antiterrorist units, only further confirms the seriousness of our intentions.
In addition, we are interested in promoting our economic cooperation. Like India, Pakistan joined the SCO as a full-fledged member last year. This expands opportunities for joint work in various areas, since the SCO is a structure aimed at both ensuring security in our common region, including combating new threats, and at developing economic and humanitarian cooperation. I believe that this will enrich the Russian-Pakistani ties as well.
Incidentally, with regard to the SCO’s role in fighting radicalism, let me note the important, signature nature of the document signed by the SCO leaders last year. I am referring to the Convention on Counteraction to Extremism, which has established a highly important framework, including the principle of unacceptability of using terrorist and extremist groups to put pressure on sovereign states. There are plenty of examples of this, as we know, including the mayhem in Libya, when Muammar Gaddafi was being toppled. These attempts were once made and continue to be made in Syria, too. I believe this Convention to be highly relevant. India and Pakistan will join it. Apart from the SCO member states, many other countries are also showing an interest in joining the Convention, since it is open to everyone, not just the SCO members.
Question: It is no secret that the United States is preparing a helicopter base and an LNG terminal near Alexandropoulos in northern Greece near Russia’s planned gas hub on the Turkish-Greek border. It looks as if the United States is trying to shut the door, both symbolically and practically, on Russia’s energy cooperation with Greece, the Balkan states and Southern Europe. Do you think that this kind of pressure can complicate or worsen Russian-Greek relations?
In the next few days, dispute talks will be resumed over the name of Greece's neighbouring country, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Greeks believe that the name "Macedonia" is unfair because the greater part of the ancient state of Macedonia belongs to Greece and that the name “Macedonia” represents a possible territorial claim over Greek territory. Russian officials said in the past that you might revise the name under different conditions. Can you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: Russian officials said this? We have recognised Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia, and only as this.
Question: What if conditions change? Will a new compromise be possible then?
Sergey Lavrov: I have spoken about the subject of gas. We see some fear of honest competition in US actions. Since it is unable to compete honestly now, the United States have started using unfair methods of competition and political pressure to force European countries to build the necessary facilities for buying more expensive gas. The choice rests with European countries. We believe that they must be aware of their economic interests. If they are willing to pay more in this situation, then this is their decision.
Our projects on the diversification of gas routes to Europe include Nord Stream 2, which I have mentioned, and Turkish Stream, which can be possibly extended to Europe. As of now, we are only building a line for the Turkish consumers. A second line will be built only if we receive ironclad guarantees from the European Commission that they will not do what they have done to the planned South Stream pipeline towards Bulgaria, which seems to be willing to discuss the possibility of hosting a second line of the Turkish Stream pipeline again. We can do anything if we are doubly sure that the European Commission will not derail this project.
Of course, we are monitoring the discussions that are underway at the European Commission to introduce retroactive rules to hinder the implementation of Nord Stream. It is a dirty game. I hope that the purely economic nature of this project, as well as the support the leading European energy companies have given this economic and commercial project, will prevent any foul play.
As for the resumption of talks and efforts to settle the dispute over the name “Macedonia”, they were in limbo for a long time and only resumed when the United States decided that Macedonia should be admitted to NATO. Since Greece is a NATO state you don't need any concessions. But Macedonia, which is being encouraged to join NATO, needs them. It is as simple as that.
No matter which name Greece and Macedonia agree on for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, it will be generally recognised if it is adopted officially and sealed in the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia. I hope that everyone can see the real meaning of the current developments. The point at issue is not to ensure respect for any common or specific features of two kindred peoples, but to ensure that one of them joins NATO.
Question: Last year, two Russian citizens, Grigory Tsurkanu and Roman Zabolotny, were captured in Syria. There was video evidence of their captivity. My colleagues from the channel talked to Grigory Tsurkanu’s parents, who sent inquiries to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Executive Office of the Russian President, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of Defence of Russia. There has been no information on their fate, on what happened after their captivity. Defence Ministry sources suggested informally that, perhaps, this information has been classified, although, officially, they were not army servicemen. According to one version, they might have been members of a private military company. Do you know anything about these persons? Can you check if the inquiry reached the Foreign Ministry? Is there information on Russians taking part in operations in other countries on contract?
Sergey Lavrov: There is nothing I can add to what you have said. We know about the reports that you have mentioned. We look into the fate of any Russian citizen wherever he or she might be, if we receive reports that he or she was either reported missing or got into trouble. The whereabouts of our two citizens whom you have mentioned is unknown. Steps are being taken, above all, by our military, to determine their location, and collect and verify corresponding information. As soon as anything becomes clear, we will readily report this.
As for other countries, this practice is widespread in many states. This was the case in Iraq and other countries of the region, where so-called Blackwater, which was renamed later, used to operate. I think that we need to clearly define the legislative basis so that these people are also covered and protected by the law.
Question: In May of this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Russia. Are you planning to visit Japan? What prospects, objectives, possible documents or agreements do you envisage for these meetings? When will the meeting in Tokyo take place – before the Russian presidential elections or after?
A new problem has sprung up between our two countries recently – the deployment of Aegis Ashore in Japan. Our Government explains to us that this system is different from the US antimissile defences in Europe or THAAD in South Korea. Japan will buy and control this system, while staying outside of the US global antimissile system. It was also announced that the system cannot use Tomahawk cruise missiles. What would you like to say about these statements?
Sergey Lavrov: Let me start with the good things. In fact, we really are expecting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There is an understanding on a meeting between the foreign ministers ahead of this visit. The timeframe for the ministerial meeting will be determined by mutual consent at mutually acceptable dates.
Now about our concrete plans. Prime Minister Abe and President Putin will certainly consider the implementation of the agreements on joint economic activities on the South Kuril Islands. Five priorities, albeit sufficiently modest, have been outlined, but we hope that some more serious cooperation areas will be added. This is being tackled by specialised joint working groups at the level of deputy foreign ministers. We are pleased to have resumed the “2 + 2” dialogue at the level of foreign and defence ministers. Last December, Chief of Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov visited Tokyo and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Land Forces Oleg Salyukov had been there before him. In the autumn, the Intergovernmental Commission held a meeting, while at the same time my colleague, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, visited Moscow. We held separate talks and now we will have to decide on a new meeting.
Apart from joint economic activities, bilateral economic cooperation has been developing quite well. There is Japanese investment in the Russian Federation. Japanese banks have extended sizeable credits for Yamal LNG. This is a long-term investment that adds stability to our investment cooperation.
Humanitarian cooperation is traditionally in high demand as far as our populations are concerned, along with annual festivals of Russian culture. Last year, cultural seasons were organised. We are really happy with many areas of our interaction with Japan.
One would like greater international coordination, which we mentioned during the “2 + 2” meeting. Of course, we would like to see more Japanese independence during discussions of key international matters at international organisations.
The ABM problem is darkening our relations, let me say this outright. We discussed this in detail with our Japanese colleagues and they brought up the same arguments you have mentioned, namely that the Aegis Ashore system was different from what was in South Korea and Europe. We don’t have these details. Our data say that the system to be deployed in Japan is based on universal launchers that can use offensive arms.
We heard the allegations that Japan would control this system and that the United States would have no relation thereto. We have serious doubts that this is so. We would like to receive more convincing information within the framework of the security dialogue between Security Council secretaries of Russia and Japan. We don’t know any cases anywhere in this world where the US, having deployed its weapons systems, would hand the control over them to a host country. I have strong doubts that they will make an exception in this case.
To reiterate: We are open to dialogue and have a stake in the ABM dialogue, which we proposed 11 years ago, being finally started. We have a number of questions about how this is being done by the United States, lest it becomes yet another most serious destabiliser of the international situation. So far, our American colleagues say that we should not worry and that the systems are not directed against us, as they did under both the Obama and Bush administrations. But there is a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Question: In 2014, you signed a treaty on the border with Estonia with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet. In 2015, the first reading for its ratification was held in the Estonian Parliament. You know well that Estonia and Russia agreed that the ratification will take place in parallel in both parliaments. Estonia has been waiting for two years now for the first reading in the State Duma of the Federal Assembly. When you had a meeting with Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand in New York in 2015 you promised that the State Duma will soon start the process of the ratification. When will this take place?
Sergey Lavrov: This question has more to it. Back in 2005 we signed this treaty andgenerally committed ourselves to ratifying it without any politicised reservations. However, the Estonian Parliament ratified it with a reference to the Treaty of Tartu, which directly meant the preservation of territorial claims to the Russian Federation. This was a violation of the commitment that my Estonian colleague assumed but could not abide by. We then revoked our signature under this document and said that when they revise their package of documents and cancel the reference to the Treaty of Tartu, we will be prepared to start talks and sign these documents anew. This is what happened eventually. We signed the treaty and again agreed, as you said correctly, to conduct this process in parallel. But you forgot the main condition – a commitment to ensure a normal non-confrontational atmosphere between our ruling circles. We kept our commitment. We made no attacks against Estonia as we did not before, no matter what treaty we signed or ratified. However, the Estonian Government showed no restraint. On the contrary, its Russophobic rhetoric was running high. We said honestly that in such an atmosphere our society and parliament will simply fail to understand us if we promote this treaty. At the same time I would like to reassure you that the border does exist. I hope the treaty will be ratified one day. Nobody questions the border. But for the treaty to enter into force and for us to live a normal life, it is necessary to stop being one of the three or four main activists in NATO and the European Union, which are going all out to impose unbridled Russophobia on them. I am being open about this. We have very good relations with the Estonian people. Our citizens are friendly and communicate well with each other. Apparently, the politicians should be guided by the interests of their own people rather than some opportunistic considerations that reflect the geopolitical interests of some other states.