Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with the international news agency Rossiya Segodnya, December 24, 2018 (source):
Question: The election cycle will begin in the United States in 2019. Should we expect relations to further worsen, or can we hold out hope that top level contacts might develop? Where and when can they be held, considering the cancellation of the planned summit meeting in Argentina? Is it true that the two presidents may meet in January?
Sergey Lavrov: We have grown used to the fact that short-term considerations of the domestic US policy influence our bilateral relations and create additional obstacles to our dialogue. The effect of these factors has recently ceased to depend on the stage in the US electoral cycle. Of course, some Washington politicians may try to play the Russian card increasingly actively with the approaching presidential election in November 2020. We hope that this will not seriously erode the already brittle foundation of our bilateral relations.
Our consistent position is for developing a normal and predictable dialogue with the United States based on mutual respect for each other’s interests. So far, we have not advanced towards this goal because of Washington’s unfriendly actions and continued attempts to use economic, military-political and other instruments to put pressure on us. This has slowed down our interaction in the crucial fields of the bilateral and international agenda, including those related to the maintenance of global stability and security.
On a broader, philosophical plane, the main problem in our ties is that the United States has never considered them as intrinsically valuable. The US establishment views Russia as an object. We are being demonised to keep Europe at bay and to strengthen Euro-Atlantic ties. For example, they are seriously discussing the possibility of using Russia against China. The attempts to provoke a change of government or policy in Russia, which many in Washington believe possible, are based on a desire to turn Russia into an instrument serving US interests.
We know that the Americans have forced some countries to play this role, but they will not succeed in our case, of course. Our relations will not improve as long as the US elite continue to see Russia as an object, an attitude that goes back to the Cold War. “Selective interaction” is a flawed idea. It will not help boost positive trends or a predictable future.
For our part, we view ties with any state as intrinsically valuable. We are ready to develop such relations with the United States as well. As I have already said, the potential of creative bilateral collaboration is huge, but it has remained untapped for decades. I believe that our people deserve a much better situation than we have now.
As for contacts at the top level, President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference following the G20 summit events in Buenos Aires that he was ready for a meeting with his American colleague and that this meeting will eventually take place when the American side is ready. At this point in time, it is difficult to say when or where this meeting may be held.
Question: It appears that the INF Treaty will be scrapped. Are we holding talks with the United States and the European Union about certain guarantees that such missiles will not be deployed in Europe? Are our partners ready to provide such legally binding guarantees? If not, how will Russia respond? Will it have to deploy missiles in Cuba again?
Sergey Lavrov: We are confident that the scrapping of the INF Treaty could have a serious impact on international security and strategic stability. We are forced to issue a warning that we cannot and will not ignore the deployment of new US missiles threatening Russia and its allies. There should be no doubt that we have the necessary resources to guarantee our own security and to strengthen our defence potential still further. But, just like any country with common sense, Russia is not interested in an arms race and new “missile crises.”
If there are still any forces in the United States that deem it possible to use the current pause, taken by Washington, to search for various ways to save the INF Treaty, then we are ready for this. We call for an end to the attempts at blackmail and the circulation of groundless accusations in favour of truly detailed and constructive work to alleviate current concerns. A recent letter from Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu to US Secretary of Defence James Mattis contained an official proposal to launch this work. We have repeatedly suggested launching professional dialogue on the INF Treaty and establishing contacts between the Foreign Ministry and the Department of State. We have received no response so far.
During the July 16 summit in Helsinki, we provided the US side with specific comprehensive proposals on the agenda of a long overdue in-depth discussion on strategic stability and arms control issues. Unfortunately, it appears that the United States is so far in no mood to reach agreement with Russia. They are shying away from dialogue, they are not suggesting any guarantees, and they probably want to obtain a complete carte blanche.
On the whole, we are ready to work in various formats involving all countries that are aware of their responsibility for peace and security.
Question: What are the chances for a direct armed conflict between Russia and the United States, as well as between Russia and NATO? Is Russia preparing for such a scenario?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that everyone in the world realises that an armed conflict between two leading nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, would have disastrous consequences for humankind. There is no doubt that no one can win a nuclear war, and that such a war should never be unleashed.
At the same time, we have to state that Washington and its allies, fixated on their own geopolitical ambitions, are not ready to adapt to global realities that are not changing in their favour. This explains their striving to hamper these processes, no matter what, and their increased aggression in foreign affairs. Confrontation is being incited, and channels for dialogue are being frozen. We are particularly concerned about efforts to scrap international agreements in the area of strategic stability.
This conflict-oriented line, relying on military force, inevitably serves to further destabilise the global security system and facilitates an arms race. A situation could arise where the price of a mistake or misunderstanding could prove fatal.
It goes without saying that we are exerting all necessary efforts to defend our national interests and to strengthen this country’s defence capability. President of Russia Vladimir Putin has repeatedly mentioned this. At the same time, we are expecting common sense to prevail. Despite their different positions, Russia and Western states jointly bear tremendous responsibility for the future of the entire human race and for finding effective responses to the numerous challenges and threats of our time.
We are urging Western leaders to act predictably, to unfailingly honour international law and to rely on the UN Charter. Such issues would then just fade away.
Question: The people of Ukraine are to elect their president in the spring of 2019. The main candidates have already been announced. Is there any hope that some of them will be able to improve relations between Moscow and Kiev? Or should we not expect this in any event? Will Russia then be prepared to take such tough measures as the introduction of a visa regime and the severing of diplomatic relations?
Sergey Lavrov: I will refrain from commenting on the main presidential candidates because elections are a domestic Ukrainian affair.
But, of course, we have no choice but to feel concerned with the current election campaign situation. The level of Russophobia, being imposed by Ukrainian authorities, exceeds all reasonable limits. The incumbent authorities in Kiev are guided by their own ambitions, rather than by the interests of their country; and they are also guided by “recommendations” and sometimes by direct instructions from other capitals. This affects rank-and-file Ukrainians. This is confirmed by the unresolved domestic conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Hopefully, adequate people capable of conducting constructive dialogue and perceiving reality in a responsible manner will eventually gain power in Kiev. We have not taken any unilateral actions to curtail relations with Ukraine, nor do we have such intentions. On the contrary, we advocate the preservation as well as the creation of conditions for the restoration of diverse ties and contacts.
Question: This year, it became possible to make substantial headway in resolving the situation around the DPRK. When will sanctions against North Korea be finally mitigated? Will Russia demand that a ban on North Korean workers be lifted, perceiving it as an initial measure? Isn’t it high time for reinstating the format of six-sided talks? Is a six-sided summit possible? When and on what conditions can it take place?
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, positive nascent trends took shape on the Korean Peninsula throughout 2018. On the whole, the regional situation developed under a 2017 road map, drafted by Russia and China. Military activity was scaled down considerably as a result of North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches and the decision of the United States and the Republic of Korea to put off large-scale military exercises. Inter-Korean relations have improved, and the first ever summit involving US and North Korean leaders has taken place. As an inalienable participant in the overall process of resolving the situation around the Korean Peninsula, Russia helped achieve these results, and it will continue to do this: a lot of work lies ahead.
First of all, I am talking about the need to implement US-North Korean agreements and those between the two Korean states. We expect that Pyongyang and Washington will manage to more actively establish “new” relations in all spheres throughout 2019 under their leaders’ Joint Statement, to strengthen mutual trust and to help establish lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and its denuclearisation in line with our common efforts. We also support the striving of Seoul and Pyongyang to expand their mutual ties and to facilitate practical inter-Korean cooperation. For example, we are interested in resuming work on a trilateral project to link the Trans-Korean Railway, now being studied by both Korean states for the purpose of restoring and upgrading it, with the Trans-Siberian Mainline.
We believe that a gradual revision of sanctions against North Korea should become an important part of these processes. This does not imply the instant abolition of international restrictions: This will become possible only after the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. But one should not delay launching a revision of the current regime of sanctions. One should not pretend that Pyongyang has not made any constructive moves in its striving to achieve the sub-region’s nuclear free status. We are confident that the UN Security Council should respond to them quickly and positively.
Today, we and the concerned parties are discussing measures that should be implemented. Indeed, this might call for extending a possible deadline for the stay of North Korean migrant workers in third countries or for applying new exemptions from the sanctions regime to implement inter-Korean projects. Or this might imply any other moves aiming to convince North Korea that it has made the right choice in favour of renouncing nuclear weapons. In this context, we are urging other partners to abolish in full their own unilateral sanctions, as regards cooperation with North Korea, and illegitimate attempts to persuade other countries to implement them, and do it as soon as possible. Obviously, the current situation does not facilitate establishing trustful relations between the parties to the settlement.
We constantly discuss the need to establish multilateral contacts, similar to the previous six-sided process to resolve the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula, with all the countries involved. Of course, we don’t insist that its work be reinstated in the same form. But, in principle, we are confident that it is possible to resolve the entire range of the sub-region’s problems on a multilateral basis and through joint efforts alone. We are launching this work in various configurations. Certain results have been achieved. On October 9, 2018, Moscow successfully hosted the first trilateral meeting of deputy foreign ministers from Russia, China and North Korea. A joint communique, issued after the meeting, set forth joint approaches towards the Korean settlement. We are ready to involve other states in this format; moreover, Russia is ready to take part in other possible multilateral events. I hope that a joint multilateral mechanism to maintain peace and security in Northeast Asia will be established as a result of our work with all partners. We believe it has a great potential: quite possibly, the leaders of regional states will start meeting on a regular basis and hold regional summits, like those taking place within the framework of other regional and international organisations.
Question: Considerable progress has been made on Syria in 2018, primarily in collaboration with Turkey and Iran. However, the Syrian government does not yet control many regions in the country. Will we discuss plans for these regions with the United States, for example, in southern Syria and east of the Euphrates, just as we coordinated plans for Idlib with Turkey?
Sergey Lavrov: Relations with each of these parties are unique unto themselves. We are cooperating with Turkey and Iran within the framework of the Astana format. It is an effective mechanism of interaction that is based on international law and UN Security Council documents on a settlement in Syria, primarily Resolution 2254. It is an effective mechanism because its decisions are coordinated with the Syrian government delegations and the armed opposition. We are working with our Iranian and Turkish partners to facilitate reaching such decisions and also act as the guarantors of their implementation. This is why we are called guarantor countries. This is the practical implementation of the provision that Syria’s future must be determined by the Syrians themselves in a political process they themselves conduct and control with international mediation. Evidence of this approach is the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which was held in January 2018 and became the first truly inclusive intra-Syrian forum. The congress boosted a political process towards a settlement in Syria and revitalised the Geneva track and work on the Syrian Constitution. I would like to remind you that the guarantor countries of the Astana process also co-organised the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. We have recently forwarded to UN representatives a list of candidates for the Constitutional Committee, which the Syrian government and the opposition coordinated with the mediation of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The Russian-Turkish arrangements on Idlib, which were formalised in a memorandum we signed in Sochi on September 17, became possible thanks to the previous decisions adopted in Astana to create a de-escalation zone in that part of Syria and to deploy Turkish observation posts along its internal perimeter and Russian and Iranian posts along the external perimeter. Therefore, the deployment of Turkish military units there was coordinated with the Syrian government, which welcomed the Sochi Memorandum I have mentioned here. The memorandum was also supported by Iran, the third guarantor country of the Astana format.
To the contrary, there are no legal grounds for the US military presence east of the Euphrates and in the 55-kilometre security zone around the illegal US base at al-Tanf in southern Syria. Washington’s references to Article 51 of the UN Charter, which gives the member states the right to self-defence, are absolutely untenable in terms of international law. ISIS has been defeated in Syria, yet the United States has not pulled out of the country. In fact, the United States has occupied nearly 30 percent of Syrian territory. Self-governments that reject the authority of the central government are being created there with US assistance. This is destabilising the military and political situation in the country and hindering a settlement.
The Russian Aerospace Forces have a different status. The Russian military have been deployed in Syria in full compliance with international law. By the way, three of the four de-escalation zones – in Eastern Ghouta, Homs and the South – were eliminated primarily thanks to the work of Russian negotiators directly with field commanders on the ground.
It will not be easy to settle the problem of the illegal US military presence in Syria. Washington advances ever new conditions that would infringe on the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, although these principles have been sealed in the basic UN Security Council resolutions. We will see what President Donald Trump’s declared decision to pull out of Syria comes to.