Question: We are meeting ahead of Diplomats’ Day. Do you have any traditions of celebrating your professional day at the Foreign Ministry?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we hold an event on February 10 every year or before it if February 10 is a day off, during which those diplomats who worked especially well last year are decorated with government and state awards. A presidential executive order is usually signed by that time with the names of those who have been awarded state orders or other decorations. We always invite our veterans to these events. After the ceremony, we continue to mingle unofficially at a reception, during which our veterans speak about their experience and give advice to our young employees. These office parties are always very homelike, in the best meaning of this word. Of course, our foreign missions and our offices in Russian regions hold official events to which foreigners, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of the host country are invited.
Question: Let us talk about Russian-US relations. You are No. 65 in the so-called Kremlin Report. You are the first foreign minister to be blacklisted. What did they do this for?
Sergey Lavrov: To tell you the truth, I don’t care about the developments concerning the Kremlin Report or any other goings-on in Washington that are associated with the so-called Russia File. The report and the lists you have mentioned are simply ridiculous. They could be compiled within a matter of 30 minutes. I agree with the former US Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has said that his research assistant could have done it in less than an hour, that is, copied the names from the Russian Government and the Presidential Executive Office phone books, as well as from the Forbes magazine.
When it all began, I had a very bad feeling. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears, considering that I am personally acquainted with very many officials from the Washington administration and the Congress. They are serious, smart and reasonable people. Therefore, I was shocked to see that this mass psychosis has swept their rationality clean. But as this trend continued, and it has been for over a year now, I gradually lost any interest in it. I only monitor it so I can get the facts in my line of duty, but I don’t know what to make of all this. I have read articles by your colleagues who write that we need to find a way out of this dead-end. [Presidential press secretary] Dmitry Peskov has described our relations as “collapse,” and I can offer many other synonyms. I can tell those who urge us to look for a way out “creatively” that we have been doing this and will continue to do this.
We have offered many practical solutions to our American partners. During my regular contacts with Rex Tillerson, we proposed ways to move back from the dangerous and rather silly line. There was no reaction in most cases. The only positive exception is our professional work on amendments to the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, or New START. We were to verify the implementation of this treaty by both sides on February 5, 2018, and we verified it. At the same time, the sides expressed mutual readiness to continue professional and technical consultations to clarify a number of matters regarding signatories to this treaty.
I can cite other examples. We are working quite well in Syria at the military level to prevent unforeseen and unintended accidents. More than that, there are signs indicating that the United States is aware of the real situation in Syria and is willing to listen to us and to take into account our methods of working with the legitimate Syrian government. We also maintain contact on the Syrian question, on regional matters and at the level of foreign ministries.
As for normalising our relations in general, our American partners say they are willing to do this after we take the first step and repent. This has become a philosophy. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is ruled by US, British and other Anglo-Saxon representatives, wants us to repent as well. We must repent of all other sins. And then our Western partners will generously agree to gradually normalise relations. However, they refuse to accept objective reality. They refuse to see the impossibility of the situation where one side is always to blame and the other side is always innocent. Not that we are sinless, but we always offer practical solutions to situations that could develop into a crisis. A case in point is the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. By the way, I am glad that a communications channel has developed between the Russian and US envoys on Ukraine, Vladislav Surkov and Kurt Volker. They have recently held a regular meeting. I would say that the situation is not hopeless. They have agreed to continue their consultations.
So, we are open to any form of interaction our American colleagues are willing to use, but only on the basis of equality and without any preconditions, such as “you must repent for interfering in our internal affairs and our elections before we start.”
Question: Is it possible that they are provoking us into responding?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe they would be glad to see a situation in which Russia will take some nervous or dramatic measures. But we have a balanced policy, which has been formulated by the President and is not based on such improvisation or impromptu actions. We have a consistent line. We pursue it regardless of the external situation but based on the need to create as favourable conditions for our development as possible in terms of security, economic operation and economic conditions for our security, as well as non-discriminating attitude to our citizens abroad. Some people would certainly like to provoke us into taking actions that would allow them to increase the sanctions pressure on us and to take other coercive measures, although they continue to increase pressure on us even without any dramatic reciprocal steps on our part. It is an additional reason for wondering at the abilities of those who continue to mindlessly increase the sanctions. I believe that those who know at least something about international affairs, or life, for that matter, should have long seen that no sanctions will force us to change our policy. We are always ready to discuss our partners’ questions regarding their legitimate interests. But as Americans say, it takes two to tango, which is also applicable to negotiations. It takes two to negotiate.
Question: It was said last year that Russian-US relations hit rock bottom. What next?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not going to talk about rock or any other bottom, which is a popular phrase. I am against making any wild guesses. I am for acting openly and honestly so as not to punish anyone but to bring together all countries that can really and effectively deal with global problems, primarily terrorism as well as other global threats such as drug trafficking, organised crime and illegal migration. There are many problems that have no borders and cannot be driven into a cage around which the other countries will stand rejoicing that this particular problem does not affect them. This is impossible. There are no borders, and so we can only fight this or that evil together. This is what our policy is aimed at. We can protect any aspect of our international activities. We have no secret plans. All our actions are transparent and are based on international law and the UN Charter.
Question: There is a time difference between Moscow and Washington. Do you wake up calmly in the morning or wondering what happened in the US during the night?
Sergey Lavrov: Why should I? I read and watch news in the morning. In most cases, you can expect something will have taken place. For example, there have been hints. There are some surprises, but only very rarely. I was pleasantly surprised when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld our athletes’ appeals. But it did not come as a surprise when the WADA and USADA leadership said that this outrageous CAS decision had cast a shadow over all “clean” athletes and undermined the Olympic principles.
You see, when people fail to contain their negative or evil emotions, they give themselves away. When the leader of an anti-doping organisation has a nervous breakdown over a court decision, considering that the court is sacrosanct in the US, it is proof that this campaign, even despite the negative facts regarding some of our athletes, is politically charged and designed to demonise Russia through the Olympic movement.
Question: Will the agreement on Iran be honoured, including by our West European allies, if the United States refuses to do so?
Sergey Lavrov: The US has not refused to implement the agreement but has demanded that it be revised, which is absolutely unrealistic. But this is what the US demands. It also wants the European signatories – Britain, France and Germany – to start working with Washington on this matter. The three European parties to this agreement have agreed to establish a working group with the US, adding that the deal cannot be renegotiated but they are ready to discuss other concerns regarding Iran. The main concerns are Iran’s ballistic missile programme, which has not been prohibited, the human rights issue and Iran’s behaviour in the region, meaning allegations of Iran’s negative effect on conflict situations. It is notable that neither Russia nor China has been invited to join in this work, although they are party to this agreement as well. I don’t think we would have accepted the invitation, but it has not been extended anyway.
We can hardly accept their logic, because the agreement that was reached with Iran in 2015 has been formalised by a unanimous UN Security Council resolution and is being implemented by Iran unfailingly. The IAEA is responsible for verifying compliance with this agreement. The IAEA Director General says in his quarterly reports that Iran is implementing its nuclear commitments under the deal. The Americans say, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” The deal with Iran is not broken. Moreover, it is very effective. But attempts have been made to fix it, and before fixing it, they are trying to break it. This is very bad.
If there is a desire to discuss Iran’s ballistic missile programme, do it. Those who consider Iran’s missile plans to be of a destabilising nature must provide reliable arguments. Iran is not the only country with a ballistic missile programme. There are other countries with such programmes in the region. This question should be addressed as a package. It is not justifiable to mix nuclear matters with human rights and demand that Iran stop doing something in the region. Iran is an influential country, just as its neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, and even relatively small Qatar has its own interests and international affairs in the region.
I believe that these US actions are openly discriminating, biased and unreasonably exacting. We proposed an alternative solution many times. The idea is that we should start building bridges between the Gulf countries and Iran. Like the confidence- and security-building measures that were adopted as a result of the Helsinki process, so the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and Iran, plus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU and the UN represented by its Secretary-General, together with the Arab League could convene for a conference or meeting, whatever you call it, to start with the simple goal of building up trust through the exchange of information and military transparency. This may be followed by some joint events, visits to military facilities and invitations to military exercises. The procedure is apparent. Regrettably, this initiative has been gathering dust for years because of the persisting bias regarding Tehran, and because of the many problems in relations between Iran and the Arab countries, which our partners cite to prove that this is no time for such a conference. But I think it’s very much the other way around. These problems will stay unless we start discussing them. Therefore, we will continue to advocate this initiative, of course, if all the parties concerned agree on the need for such a conference.
Question: Which compromise between the US and North Korea would reduce the nuclear threat?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t even know. We have moved from Iran so smoothly. Iran’s nuclear deal was very clear: Iran renounced the military aspects of its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of UN and unilateral US and other western sanctions. That was the deal. Today, the United States is demanding the same from North Korea: suspend its military nuclear programme in return for security guarantees and the lifting of sanctions. But the US is now trying to revise or terminate the deal with Iran, which the North Korean leaders might see as a telling sign.
However, we must not lose heart. The nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula is very serious, and not only because we stand for compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation regime, but also because the US military presence in the region is being increased out of all proportion to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear might. The United States is looking not only at North Korea, which is being used to justify the growing US military presence, but also at the South China Sea, where China and ASEAN economies are holding negotiations on territorial disputes through diplomatic channels. The build-up of the US naval and air force presence in the region can objectively, even if unwittingly, move these territorial disputes to a military plane. I view this as a very dangerous game.
Overall, the North Korean nuclear problem has been used to deploy US BMD systems in South Korea and, recently, in Japan. You can see on the map that the US BMD network, together with its European segment, has nearly surrounded Russia, wittingly or unwittingly, and has recently been targeted at China. It is in our interests to keep the other side from strengthening this trend, which is why we need to conduct negotiations.
Some time ago, Russia and China advanced the freeze-for-freeze or dual suspension initiative, under which North Korea would freeze its nuclear and missile tests, while the US and its South Korean partners would freeze or at least dramatically reduce the scale of their military drills. The Americans rejected the idea as unacceptable because nobody has banned military exercises as they are part of legal international practice, whereas the UN Security Council has put a ban on Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and missile launches. Speaking pedantically or legalistically, this is true. But we are not perfectionists. We have to settle problems, rather than prevent their settlement because of our irreconcilable self-righteousness. I have told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and before him, his predecessor John Kerry who said that dual suspension was unacceptable, that the one who is stronger and wiser should be the first to step back when the problem comes to a dangerous line. We still hope that tension can be eased, although there is little chance of that, considering the mood in Washington. North Korea and South Korea have agreed that a North Korean delegation, athletes and dance groups would attend the Olympic Games. At the same time, the two Korean states have agreed to resume contacts between their militaries. In fact, this amounts to dual suspension. At least, North Korea does not intend to make any sudden harsh movements before and during the Olympics. It has also been said that no US-South Korean military exercises will be held until March at the soonest. If this objective process of mutual restraint regarding military drills and test explosions gains traction, there will be a chance for the resumption of the talks. We will do our best to promote this possibility.
Question: Are China-US relations doomed to deteriorate, since both these countries will vie for the status of economic and political superpower in the coming years?
Sergey Lavrov: Competition isn’t going anywhere. As we know, competition is the driver of progress, just like private entrepreneurship, as famous literary character Ostap Bender once said. However, competition must be fair. There are rules enshrined in the UN Charter, which govern international political and military-political matters, and the World Trade Organisation documents, which govern investment, trade in goods and services, and labour migration. There are many other international conventions which regulate particular spheres of human activity, including in the economic sphere.
It starts with the cyclical growth of the global economy propelling one country to the top. Then after a fairly long historical era, other countries catch up with it on economic development. As, for example, was the case with the United States in the wake of the two world wars which did not affect its territory. Its economy grew rapidly, and the United States has maintained the dominant position for quite a long time. I wouldn’t say that the United States has lost much of its standing or clout. However, other centres of power have emerged, such as the European Union, if we take it as a collective association, and if it manages to overcome its current internal squabbling which, of course, weakens it. We have an interest in seeing the EU overcome this confusion and become united and strong. This, of course, includes China and India and, to a certain extent, Russia. Our economy is small compared to that of the United States, China or India. Still, Russia is a geopolitical player, given that, in addition to our own economy, we have the Eurasian Economic Union and the CIS Free Trade Area. Russia is an active participant of associations such as the SCO and BRICS. All of that combined with a pro-active and very concrete foreign policy makes us one of the centres of global influence and one of the centres of what we refer to as the emerging polycentric world order.
However, neither we nor China have ever called anyone our enemy in our doctrinal documents. The United States started doing so during President Obama’s watch. I believe it was in 2014, when, speaking at the UN General Assembly, President Obama called us a threat, placing ISIS next to us. This shows the train of thought of US foreign policy makers. Under the Democrats, and now with the Republicans, a gamut of fundamental doctrinal documents (the US military doctrine and the US nuclear doctrine) designate China and Russia as "adversaries." The same word was used in the law to curb the influence of Russia, including through sanctions. If you want to establish honest cooperation, perhaps, you can, deep down, consider someone an enemy or an adversary, some country that you need to suppress and to isolate, as they write about us openly. However, probably, there must be some generally accepted methods of competition. However, wherever you look ... For example, sanctions against our defence industry unquestionably represent unfair and unscrupulous competition, because, in addition to these sanctions, the United States trots around the globe and demands, through their ambassadors, that Latin America, Asia, and Africa refuse to buy military equipment and weapons from us, promising that the United States will compensate for the equipment shortages in a particular country. This is nothing short of driving competitors out of the market using blackmail and ultimatums.
You just mentioned the Olympic Games. I believe they also represent unfair competition. It appears that the Americans can no longer beat us in a fair sports competition. They believe that in order for them to regain and retain the unconditional title of a world sports leader, competitors should be gradually taken out of their way. Now, an anti-Russian campaign, "interference in the elections," came about and things like it. Anything goes.
I can see such an approach in a number of areas, namely the use of unilateral coercive, illegitimate and illegal measures to achieve unjustified and unfair advantages.
Question: Which areas in particular? You have already mentioned sports, politics and economy. What's next? Will they get to the culture?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think they will get to the culture. By the way, culture is the sphere where we are now also becoming competitive, but we are doing so in a fair manner. Take cinema, for example. The share of Russian films has grown significantly and continues to grow. Our films are of high quality, and they beat box-office records. This is an example of fair competition. We started making films that our people enjoy watching.
Question: Do you watch them?
Sergey Lavrov: I did.
Question: What was the last film you saw?
Sergey Lavrov: Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to watch The Upward Move, but some time ago I watched Legend Number 17 and Stalingrad. I rarely get the chance to go to the cinema, so I mostly watch films on disks or online.
Question: We are now clear about the enemies of the United States. Who are our enemies and friends in the world?
Sergey Lavrov: We are not calling anyone enemy, and we are absolutely sincere about it. The Foreign Policy Concept approved by President Putin a couple of years ago says that we plan to honestly and effectively cooperate on the basis of a balance of interests, equality and mutual benefit with any country which is willing to cooperate with us based on the same principles.
The United States, too, is interested in continuing to cooperate with us in outer space exploration (the International Space Station and rocket engine purchases). We do not want to shoot ourselves in the foot and do harm to ourselves just to spite someone, so we are implementing this mutually beneficial project. We have several more projects. Speaking about our energy plans and prospects a short while ago, President Putin mentioned that the first tanker carrying liquefied natural gas from Yamal LNG went to the United States. This means that they also see certain benefits for themselves in that. I think that the more such concrete transactions we have, the more chances there are for us to gradually overcome our abnormal political relations. We know from practice that relations between states need a solid economic foundation. When this foundation is solid and the volume of economic interaction is large, then those wishing to make abrupt political moves will think twice before "punishing" or "forcing" anyone to do anything.
Question: So, our friendship with China is not rooted in opposition to the United States?
Sergey Lavrov: No, it is not. China doesn’t want to use our friendship against United States, either. We have never been friends with anyone in order to oppose someone else. Take, for instance, the North Atlantic Alliance. Every day, the Americans give a pep talk to its members to promote solidarity and the claim that Russia is a threat. They have been saying these things on a daily basis for many years now as they continued to expand the presence of NATO military infrastructure on the territories of their Eastern European members next to our borders. There are already American, Canadian, German, British and Italian brigades deployed next to our borders. This is nothing short of heavy-handed discipline. Meanwhile, in bilateral contacts, many members of NATO and the European Union tell us that they realise the nonsensical and counterproductive nature of this situation. However, solidarity and the consensus principle compel them to follow a path which they do not particularly like.
We are not prohibiting any member of the Collective Security Treaty from doing anything. We have commitments that the CSTO member countries together provide stability in our common region, suppress threats of terrorism and organised crime, and ensure the inviolability of the constitutional order in our respective states. However, all the CSTO countries are taking part in the programme of interaction with NATO. Russia is also a formal member of the Partnership for Peace Programme. We even have a Russia-NATO Council. We have no intention to bar our partners from communicating with anyone, if there is mutual interest.
Of course, commitments must be honoured. This is a general rule, be it the Collective Security Treaty, the Eurasian Economic Union, or any other multilateral treaty. However, in all other areas, each country independently determines its foreign policy. This makes a big difference between us and the United States, which, I reiterate, has been obsessed, in recent years, with the idea of forcing not only their allies, but many other countries across all regions to adopt hostile position with regard to Russia or to stop maintaining good relations with us. It's sad. A great power and a great nation, but its behaviour is not befitting the status of a great power.
Question: Aren’t we afraid of the Chinese?
Sergey Lavrov: We shouldn’t be afraid of anyone.
Question: 1.5 billion people...
Sergey Lavrov: Numbers don’t matter. An approach based on arithmetics will not get us far in international relations. We must rely on concrete facts. We have unprecedentedly good relations with China now. Our relations have never been so good throughout history. Our plans are absolutely honest, open and mutually beneficial. They rely on mutual respect and our mutual interests.
There are people out there who are willing to turn the matter that you have just mentioned to their advantage. Life proved that such reasoning is untenable. For example, take the specific example of our economic interaction with China in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia. If we look at the statistics and the specific projects, it becomes clear that we are simply developing mutually beneficial projects that in no way jeopardise Russia’s territorial integrity. Such a policy will continue. We have ambitious, profound, far-reaching, and promising plans for cooperation with China across all areas.
Question: And what about planned cooperation with Japan? Is the territorial problem the main issue so far?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, Japan perceives it as the main issue, but Russia does not. We would like to sign a peace treaty, as had been agreed in 1956 when the Soviet Union and Japan passed the Joint Declaration. We believe that it is possible to resolve any problem, including the peace treaty (the Japanese side directly links the resolution of the so-called issue of the “Four Islands” called the “Northern Territories” in Japan, but, in reality, this is the South Kuril Islands), on the most favourable terms being created by deeper cooperation between the concerned countries in all areas without exception, including trade and economic cooperation, political cooperation, cultural and humanitarian cooperation, and international cooperation.
It took Russia and the People’s Republic of China over 40 years to resolve the issue regarding the jurisdiction of two islands on the Amur River. In the long run, we resolved this issue only when our relations attained a truly unprecedented, strategic and partner-like level.
President Vladimir Putin repeatedly told Japanese prime ministers, including Shinzo Abe, that we must create an atmosphere in our societies that would make it possible to address all these issues on a mutually acceptable basis.
Trade and economic relations have very significant potential that is far from being fully tapped. Japanese companies invest a lot in Russia. President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have agreed to pursue joint economic activity on the four islands. Five specific projects, including aqua-culture and tourism, have been approved. These so far rather modest projects are important, interesting, and they also create jobs. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s eight-point programme stipulates more ambitious plans, as well as some interesting projects. But these are only the first steps. I am confident that the mutually complementary nature of our economies, raw materials, geographic potentialities and Japanese technologies offer infinite potential for further mutual progress.
It goes without saying that we maintain very good humanitarian and cultural ties. Japan annually hosts the Festival of Russian Culture. Last year, Cultural Seasons were held in addition to the festival.
Of course, foreign policy is one of those areas where we need to dramatically expand our partnership.
Japan’s relations with the United States also matter. Japan and the United States have signed a bilateral treaty. President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have repeatedly noted this aspect. A discussion involving foreign ministers and security councils’ secretaries also took place. In 1960, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States of America and Japan was signed. Under this treaty, the United States has the right to deploy its military bases on any part of Japanese territory. We would simply like to understand how all this influences the overall security situation in this region. It is very hard to discuss peace treaty issues without comprehending these aspects. The inviolability of the outcome of World War II, the very first issue that arises when the sides start discussing the peace treaty issue, is probably the most crucial aspect for Russia, and we have repeatedly discussed this issue with our Japanese friends. Our Japanese colleagues don’t recognise the inviolability of the outcome of World War II with regard to these four islands. They are openly telling us that this amounted to an injustice. But the UN Charter states clearly that everything accomplished by the victorious Allied powers is inviolable and is not subject to any revision. This issue is also directly linked with this subject matter because we have noted repeatedly that Russia as the legal successor to the Soviet Union is committed to the Declaration of 1956 that contains an obligation to transfer, not return (as our Japanese colleagues are asking), the two southernmost islands to Japan as a goodwill gesture after the signing of the peace treaty. By the way, various issues regarding this transfer’s deadlines and their terms are, of course, subject to additional discussion. But the essence of this declaration that we have repeatedly confirmed (in the person of the President of the Russian Federation) is that it relies on the inviolability of the outcome of World War II. Of course, we and our Japanese colleagues will have to conduct serious consultations and discussions on this score.
Question: But are we really making any headway on this issue? You see, it appears that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes to Vladivostok only once each September and says that they are ready to address this issue somehow, and that’s it.
Sergey Lavrov: No, he also visited Moscow. I believe that he will come again, I have listed those things which, it appears, help create a background. It goes without saying that this issue cannot be resolved at one go. But, for example, joint economic activity is a step towards launching joint work on these islands. We are drawing the attention of our Japanese colleagues to the fact that the Russian Federation stipulates a number of attractive privileges, including the territory of ahead-of-schedule socioeconomic development and the Free Port of Vladivostok. There is no need to establish some supra-national body as some of our colleagues had suggested some time ago. We are also ready to sign an intergovernmental agreement on how to expand this joint economic activity more effectively, if it turns out that Russia’s numerous privileges are not enough.
I would not say that we have failed to make any headway here. We have considerably advanced our relations, primarily the top-level political dialogue which is, indeed, candid and honest, and based on trust. Much is being done in the economic sphere, but we can accomplish much more. Humanitarian ties and tourist group exchanges remain at a very good level. So far we see a need for expanded cooperation; ideally speaking, we should aspire to foreign policy coordination.
We have noticed that our Japanese colleagues have resumed the work of the 2 + 2 mechanism. Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and I visited Japan last year and met with our colleagues, Japan’s Foreign Minister and Defence Minister, there. This is another step towards strengthening trust and raising the quality of the political dialogue.
Question: The USSR was very influential in Latin American countries and in Africa. Can Russia restore it? Do we need this?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, it should be natural. The influence of the USSR to a large extent was based on the socialist and communist ideology. The countries which chose the left, socialist way, even if they only declared it, were favoured by the USSR. To be fair, I must say that in the majority of these countries the USSR really created the basis for the modern national economy. Many infrastructure facilities were built, mostly in Africa and Asia, fewer in Latin America. With Cuba and Nicaragua, relations were excellent from the very beginning. When the USSR collapsed, the country did not have time to pay attention to foreign countries, especially to the remote ones in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We had to deal with our close neighbours, face challenges when the borders were not defined and various terrorists from the Middle East began to creep in. Russia was in turmoil itself and long-distance foreign policy projects were forgotten. But we overcame our domestic issues and strengthened Russia, built relations with the neighbouring countries and began developing business energetically; state and private companies started emerging. These companies got interested in additional projects. In search for such projects it was logical to use what remained from the Soviet times. Now this “legacy” is actively being used in Africa, Latin America and in Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It is not an artificial thing promoted by “a Politburo decision to move business to Africa.” It is lively interest in business. Sometimes businesses ask for state support. In any case, we provide political support and sometimes provide state export loans.
In the next two-three weeks I will again visit Africa. I will see how things are going in our partner countries: Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Our companies are involved in a lot of interesting projects there.
Question: We have already broached the subject of Syria. Is stability in Syria for a long time or are we ready to resume military operations in case it is necessary?
Sergey Lavrov: It was stated that if ISIS, which had been defeated in its plans to establish a caliphate but is still present somewhere in the region in the form of separate groups, “raised its head” in Syria again, then the remaining part of our contingent at the Khmeimim Airbase would help the Syrian army to suppress these outbreaks.
Question: It is not a secret that the US is supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. Why is Europe keeping silence?
Sergey Lavrov: Europe is not keeping silence, it is objecting quietly and in ways other than publicly. As far as we know, in conversations with the United States they express disagreement in reply to Washington’s insistent demands that Europe join these supplies. The US is attempting to lure into their schemes the countries that are characterised by Russia hate tendencies – our Baltic neighbours, and they are trying to lure Poland as well. According to our information, major, respectable European states are well aware of the danger of these actions and are trying to bring their neighbours to their senses, because the Americans and the Canadians have already started these supplies. This is deplorable.
Question: How will we respond?
Sergey Lavrov: We can’t forbid the Americans supplying anything anywhere, but, of course, we will draw conclusions. That this is watched closely by representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk, which have the wherewithal to stand up for themselves, is also an objective fact. I think this also should be kept in mind.
Question: Could we perhaps move from words to deeds and, for example, recognise the Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic?
Sergey Lavrov: Unlike some of our international colleagues, we are people of our word. We always keep and act upon the word we gave, especially when it became a subject of talks and was approved by the UN Security Council. The Minsk Agreements have not been abolished by anyone. I think that anyone who takes the first step to break off the Minsk Agreements will be making a huge mistake. Properly speaking, the Kiev authorities are within one pace of this mistake, if they finally sign into law the reintegration bill that has gone through the second reading. We will wait and see.
I think the West is increasingly certain of the need to bring President Petr Poroshenko and his fellow Ukrainian leaders to their senses in what concerns the provocative reintegration bill, which is a draft so far, as well as the education law, which was already adopted, although the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe has tried to change its clauses that discriminate against all minority languages. As far as we know, visiting European emissaries transmit these messages in Kiev and insistently recommend them to realise that their approaches are counterproductive and their actions need to be corrected. So far, they cannot say so in public, but if the current regime in Kiev continues to behave the way it does, public statements will appear soon too, because Europe is quite wary of the processes in Ukraine, particularly the dramatic growth of influence enjoyed by the radicals and neo-Nazis.
Question: During the rare telephone conversations and meetings you have with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin what language do you speak?
Sergey Lavrov: Russian.
Question: And your counterpart too?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes. He was born in Kursk.
Question: What do you think is the reason behind such Russophobia in the world? Did it come as a surprise to you? Did you expect such ‘bullying’?
Sergey Lavrov: We have already commented on this matter as did President Vladimir Putin. In short, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union those who were at the helm in new Russia, with their actions, policy towards the West, their publicly expressed willingness to become part of the civilised world, created the impression in the West that that willingness was due, firstly, to the fact that our country had never been part of the civilised world and, secondly, to the fact that the civilised world meant the West and Russia was dying to get there. That illusion grew stronger during the turbulent 1990s when we had Western, American and European advisors in various key ministries and privatisation was based on their models.
In the 2000s, Russia started increasingly more to rely on its own traditions together with its place in history and to realise that it was not a country without roots but a country with a history which goes back a thousand years. Our people felt the influence of that history and they were proud of it and they wanted to continue their journey through life and build their state through the perspective of that history. This came as a shock to those who were disillusioned and believed that Russia would take anything. I think they are still recovering from that shock. When they realised that their attempts to keep us in check had failed, it was then that all the ‘bullying’ and ‘intervention’ started.
It began much earlier than the notorious ‘election interference.’ It began with the Magnitsky Act when nobody wanted to get to the bottom of that incident and speculated on a personal tragedy, on a person’s death in order to legitimise that bullying of Russia. Later on our American colleagues inappropriately reacted to what happened with Edward Snowden as Barack Obama cancelled his visit to Moscow where he was going before the G20 Summit in St Petersburg. There was much more, too. Then new sanctions followed. And only after that, Ukraine became the excuse for putting more pressure on us. And now there is also ‘election interference.’ After over a year of investigations, there is not a single fact, not a single bit of proof confirming those allegations. It is impossible to get them. If there was evidence it would eventually ‘leak.’ I know how this system works in the United States. Everything ‘leaks’ when a great number of people is involved in all kinds of hearings, inquiries, you name it. They are trying to use the hysteria to distract attention away from the actual events. For the health of the American system, I believe it is necessary to investigate what happened in the Democratic Party both in relation to Bernie Sanders (against whom the Democratic Party leaders conspired) and, what is now being investigated, the so-called ‘Nunes memo’ that is, what was the FBI’s role in the political infighting between the Democrats and the Republicans. I am certain these are unpleasant facts for many. I hope they will throw cold water at many and those who still have some sanity in them will withdraw from the Russophobic campaign that does no credit even to the politicians in Washington.
Question: You have been through both successful and not so successful talks. Is there anything that could still surprise you?
Sergey Lavrov: I have never evaluated any events in terms of whether they surprise me or not. I have long taken everything happening in the world at face value. Perhaps at the early stage of my diplomatic career there were things that were particularly curious or, as you said, surprising. Now, after so many years in the diplomatic service you already know what to expect. Now we already understand that we can expect much more from the United States than we expected before. You get used to everything. It is important to consider your country’s interests when you decide whether to react to certain events in other countries or their actions. Do they concern our basic interests or is it better to ignore certain steps taken clearly in the Russophobic frenzy? Therefore, I just try to be objective. Life is life. It is important to analyse what happens.
Question: How many years does it take for a diplomat to become a psychologist?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think a diplomat must necessarily become a psychologist. You can be a born psychologist or study to become one. But knowing psychology is useful for a diplomat, because diplomacy is the art of reaching agreements. It is much more interesting when you see your counterpart not just as another human being but as an individual whose soul you begin to understand and whose thoughts you can read, or think that you can read. It helps when you can take into account your counterpart’s personal qualities, disposition, hobbies and interests.
Question: Is there any difference between men and women in diplomacy? You often deal with women. Do you make allowances for women?
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot make allowances for them, because this would be politically incorrect. We respect women just as we respect men. Women are the better half of humanity.
Question: It is said that you once made former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland cry. Are you sorry about this?
Sergey Lavrov: That never happened. It’s a lie.
Question: You often make jokes. Nobody takes offence at your jokes, which quickly go viral. Do you do this on purpose?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I never try to make a joke. But I don’t think it is a crime when a phrase pops up during a conversation.
Question: Some of your statements are very emotional. For example, you have taught ethics to journalists and have talked about US pencil-pushers. How have the pencil-pushers responded to this?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know. See, we are already talking about my relations with journalists. I respect journalists very much. I sometimes tease them, but they also tease me. I see this as normal. It helps strengthen good relations between diplomats and journalists. We always talk with our ministry’s pool of journalists during business trips. It is very interesting to see which questions come to their mind during the talks. Some questions include hints, which we later use.
Question: A recent joke concerned UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s coat. You said there was nothing in the pockets of Boris’ coat. What do you have in your pockets?
Sergey Lavrov: Nothing but my hands.
Question: What do you need during talks: your assistant, a pen or a notepad?
Sergey Lavrov: There are pens on the table, and I also have one in my pocket. Notepads are placed on the table by the organisers. In 90 per cent of cases, I have my deputies, department directors and other personnel with me at the table. Sometimes our foreign colleagues ask for one-on-one talks, and we try to satisfy this request. This usually happens before or after important talks. It is a normal diplomatic practice when you need to send a confidential signal or ask a delicate question.
Question: You were attending a reception in the Foreign Ministry Mansion in December 2016 when you learned that Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Turkey Andrey Karlov had been shot. Diplomacy changed from a socially pleasant profession to a dangerous occupation in the blink of an eye. How do these disparate things go together?
Sergey Lavrov: We thought that times had changed, and that what happened to our Ambassador Alexander Griboyedov long ago would never happen again. But it did. There are still many risks in the profession of diplomat. There are more risks in the countries where conflicts are underway (this is how US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens died when he was in the US Special Mission in Benghazi). But we never expected this to happen in Turkey. There were no protests or civil war there, unlike in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen. Our colleague, comrade and friend, Andrey Karlov was addressing a friendship society at the Ankara Centre for Contemporary Art.
I am grateful to all those who remember him. A street has been named after Andrey Karlov in Turkey, and a street will be also named after him in Moscow, the sister city of Ankara and the city where Andrey Karlov was born.
Regarding Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin, who died a natural but unexpected death, measures are being taken to perpetuate his memory. I would like to thank people for their kind-hearted response to this tragedy.
Question: There is an expression “the talks continued over lunch.” Do you eat during talks?
Sergey Lavrov: We do, everybody does. When I graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), I immediately left for Sri Lanka, where as a young diplomat I worked as assistant to Ambassador Rafik Nishanov, whose 90th birthday we have celebrated recently and I wish good health to him. I was not only responsible for writing up reports on correspondence, and also translating it. When the ambassador and his wife gave breakfasts or dinners, I sat at the table. In Russia, interpreters sit at the table. In some countries, they sit behind the people who dine. Here, interpreters also sit at the table: it is a part of our diplomatic etiquette. I was young and hungry and I understood that I had to find time both to interpret and to snack. I learnt how to do that.
Question: Do interpreters eat now?
Sergey Lavrov: They sit at the table, but most of them ask not to be served food, because they want to concentrate on interpretation. I am not discouraging them, but it is possible to find time for both things.
Question: There is a fireplace at the Foreign Ministry Mansion where business lunches are held. Who sits with their backs to it?
Sergey Lavrov: Guests.
Question: Is this a way to warm them up for talks?
Sergey Lavrov: No, it is just the way the hall is constructed. It is customary for the host to face the door.
Question: To keep an eye on things?
Sergey Lavrov: It is a custom.
Question: What other nuances are there? For example, do you give chopsticks to your Asian partners?
Sergey Lavrov: It is not a question of where our partners are from, but what they eat. If our Asian partner were served borshch and chopsticks, it would not be very polite.
Question: Do you offer alcohol to your quests?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we do, and so do everyone except Muslim countries; and even some Muslim countries offer wine.
Question: Have you offered Crimean wines?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we have.
Question: How do guests find them? Do they drink them?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, they do.
Question: Do you read newspapers in print or on your iPad?
Sergey Lavrov: Both ways.
Question: Do you have time to read anything else besides documents?
Sergey Lavrov: Seldom.
Question: Are voices ever raised during talks?
Sergey Lavrov: That depends on the person. There are no rules that we must negotiate at a 0.3 decibel level. Some people have a soft voice and some speak louder.
Question: Have you had to raise your voice?
Sergey Lavrov: You could say so. Because when you discuss and prove something, present your arguments, especially if it is your proposals or amendments to some documents, of course, you defend your point of view and become more emotional. Sometimes emotions are needed to make your thoughts clearer.
Question: It would be strange to ask you what country you want to visit. But is there any place you would like to go back to?
Sergey Lavrov: Lake Baikal.
Question: Recently, a football tournament for the diplomatic corps took place. Was it your idea?
Sergey Lavrov: We have associations of Russian diplomats as well as the Council of Young Diplomats and the Main Administration for Service to the Diplomatic Corps (GlavUpDK); and many embassies enjoyed their joint initiative.
Question: Do you like playing football?
Sergey Lavrov: I do like and I also play.