Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, November 5, 2018 (source):
Question: What is your opinion of the Russian-Spanish bilateral relationship, and what priorities would you like to discuss during your visit to Madrid?
Sergey Lavrov: The people of Russia and Spain share a centuries-long history. Evidence of this are several dates we marked recently, including the 350th anniversary of the first Russian Embassy led by Pyotr Potyomkin, a courtier of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, and the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between our countries.
Madrid is a major partner for Russia in Europe today. A regular top-level political dialogue is contributing to the friendly atmosphere in our bilateral relations. Trade is growing consistently. Last year, it increased by 20.6 per cent to $5.3 billion. This positive trend continued this year as well. The Joint Intergovernmental Commission on Economic and Industrial Cooperation, which will convene for its 10th meeting soon, is working productively.
Our humanitarian cooperation is growing stronger. The Year of the Russian Language and Literature in Russian in Spain and the Year of the Spanish Language and Literature in Spanish in Russia were held successfully in 2015-2016. We continue joint preparations for the Cross-Year of Education and Science in 2019-2020.
We are also promoting tourist exchanges. Success in this sphere was largely due to the Cross-Year of Tourism held in 2016-2017. Over one million Russians visit your hospitable country every year. I am happy to say that the number of Spanish tourists in Russia is growing as well. Last year, some 120,000 Spanish tourists visited Russia.
Contacts between our foreign ministries have become more intensive. Over the past few years, my Spanish colleagues visited Moscow twice. We also met at various multilateral events. I look forward to meeting my new counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation Josep Borrell, with whom I hope to hold a detailed discussion on the key bilateral, European and international topics.
Question: Economic cooperation between Russia and the EU has suffered a serious setback because of Ukraine and Crimea, which led to sanctions and countersanctions. What, in your opinion, should Russia do to move away from the state of confrontation? What is your country willing or able to do to achieve this?
Sergey Lavrov: The current state of Russia-EU relations cannot be regarded as normal. I think our Spanish partners agree with this too. The mythical “Russian threat” is being imposed on the Europeans mostly from the outside. As before, the main irritant is the European Union’s shortsighted decision to introduce – at the direct command from Washington – unilateral restrictions against Russia. Interestingly, the Americans themselves are sustaining no losses. By inertia, the European bureaucracy has also frozen the majority of dialogue mechanisms of practical cooperation that had proven their effectiveness in the past.
The business circles in Europe are the closest to objectivity in their assessment of the situation. A report issued by the Eastern Committee of German Economy in August is highly indicative in this regard. It recommends revising the EU strategy on Russia and launching full-scale economic cooperation.
Sources name different figures of losses the EU states have sustained due to these sanctions. According to some estimates, we can say this sum exceeds 100 billion euros. The important thing is that European politicians should at last see the light.
We have repeatedly said that we are ready to abolish the countermeasures. But it is the EU that should take the first step in this direction, as it was the first to start the spiral of sanctions. We hope that common sense will eventually prevail. After all, objectively, the sanctions are benefitting neither Russia, nor the EU.
Question: In 2015, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement on joint actions to ensure safety of flights over Syria. This agreement proved its efficiency for three years. Will it remain in effect and if so, will it be adjusted?
Sergey Lavrov: President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have indeed reached an understanding on the need for interaction to prevent conflicts in the air between Russia’s Aerospace Forces in Syria and the Israeli Air Force. I am referring precisely to an understanding rather than a written agreement modelled on the October 2015 Russian-US Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents in the Course of Operations in Syria.
Regrettably, the Israeli side did not always deliver on its obligations, primarily where it concerned notifying the Russian military of their combat operations in Syria. In a number of cases, this put into jeopardy the lives of Russian servicemen: a case in point is the Israeli bombing raid on facilities in the environs of Palmyra in March 2017.
We warned them that this attitude could lead to tragic consequences; these signals were conveyed through all channels and at the top level. Simultaneously we stressed that the use of force was unable to resolve Israeli security concerns and could only foment regional tensions.
Nevertheless the practice of delivering strikes at targets in Syria was continued. It is this that led to the tragic downing of the Russian Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance plane with 15 officers on board. I will not go into detail of this tragedy. The details are known and specialists are well aware of the reasons. After the September 17 incident, we could not leave everything as is. Russia’s response was reserved but resolute.
Question: Russia’s allies in Syria are President Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Turkey. But there are also US and European NATO forces, as well as the armed opposition in Syria. Can all of them unite to fight Islamic radicals and to restore peace in Syria?Sergey Lavrov: In our opinion, this would be the best solution, which we have long been advocating. Terrorism is a global challenge that can only be neutralised if we join forces on the basis of international law.
President Vladimir Putin, in his address at the UN General Assembly in September 2015, put forth the initiative on creating a broad UN-led anti-terrorist front. Unfortunately, our Western partners did not support it, which is regrettable because terrorists are threatening all members of the international community without exception. Nobody will be able to sit it out in a safe haven.
I would like to add that the status of the military presence in Syria of the countries you mentioned is far from equal. For example, the Russian military have been deployed in Syria at the request of the legitimate government. The Americans entered the country without the permission of its government, which runs contrary to international law and actually amounts to foreign occupation of a sovereign state.
Question: Do you believe US President Donald Trump’s declared intention to improve bilateral relations? If so, why do you believe it?
Sergey Lavrov: Donald Trump has declared his intention to normalise Russian-US relations more than once in public comments and during bilateral contacts. I believe that he really wants to improve the atmosphere for our dialogue and find points of contact on many issues, and this is not because he has a special feeling for our country. The incumbent US President is a pragmatic man who holds America’s interests above everything else. And he knows that stable and predictable cooperation with Russia would certainly benefit the American people more than useless confrontation.
There are very many global issues that concern the interests of both Russia and the United States. As the world’s largest nuclear powers, we bear special responsibility for strategic stability and global safety. There are other spheres where we will have to work together, from the fight against terrorism and other challenges to the settlement of regional crises, the development of trade and economic ties, as well as the issues of the environment and climate.
It is common knowledge that the United States is going through a difficult stage in its internal development, which is having an effect on normal interaction. The Russian card is being actively used in the political infighting and Russophobic sentiments are being whipped up in Washington. We hope the US elite will eventually settle their internal problems and their infighting will no longer poison the Russian-US ties. This would allow us to resume full-scale cooperation and help improve the international situation.
Question: Do you think it is possible to identify and settle concrete problems in relations with the United States, such as disarmament, despite the atmosphere of general mistrust that is the worst since the Cold War?
Sergey Lavrov: We are ready to work pragmatically to find solutions to the problems that have complicated our relations. First of all, we are ready to launch a constructive dialogue in the spheres where the interests of Russia and the United States objectively converge and where there is an opportunity to achieve positive results. However, identifying and settling concrete problems has so far been impossible because of the US position.
For example, we have long proposed dealing with the numerous irritants in bilateral relations, such as the unacceptable situation with the arrest of Russian citizens in other countries upon US requests, or the situation with Russian adoptees in the United States. Many of them can be settled if there was good will on both sides. However, Washington has evaded looking for solutions, citing an unfavourable atmosphere in bilateral relations and the situation in Ukraine and Syria.
Our joint work is being seriously hampered by the internal political problems in the United States. Regrettably, even the Russian-US disarmament talks, which are vital for global stability, have been made hostage to this infighting. It is notable that the Republican administration has announced the intention to pull out of the INF Treaty ahead of the November 6 midterm elections to Congress. It likely hoped to strengthen the positions of republican candidates in this way.
Question: Ideology was the main cause of confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War. What is the main reason for the Russia-West differences now?
Sergey Lavrov: In brief, the main reason is the striving of some Western countries to preserve their leading international positions at all costs, to continue to force their will and values on everyone and to attain their mercenary goals at the expense of other members of the international community.
These sentiments are especially strong in the US political establishment, which is stubbornly refusing to accept the objective realities of the nascent polycentric world order and continues to see the United States as the one and only global leader whose orders all other countries must follow.
Logically, they see Russia’s independent foreign policy and independent stand on the main current problems as a threat to the US and, on a broader scale, to Western domination. This is why unilateral economic sanctions and other restrictions have been applied against Russia, including the military build-up near our borders and the unprecedented anti-Russia information campaign.
We would like to hope that the Western capitals will eventually see that this is a dead-end track. For our part, we have always been and remain open to a constructive and pragmatic dialogue and relations based on international law and mutual respect and in the best interests of each other.