Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, Moscow, April 3, 2019 (source):
Question: It is widely believed that creating the best environment for domestic development is one of the main goals of foreign policy. How well is Russian foreign policy coping with this task?
Sergey Lavrov: It is not just “widely believed.” It is a postulate incorporated in foreign policy documents, such as the Foreign Policy Concept and other fundamental strategic papers which form the basis of our work and our country’s foreign policy activities.
It’s hard for me to give assessments. You run the risk of immodesty or underestimating yourself. But, trying to be objective, I will say that, in the current circumstances, I think, we are doing all the necessary things. The result may not be 100 percent, but, in general, it’s in positive territory.
Question: Many think that Russia’s foreign policy at the moment is characterised by a sense of complete hopelessness. Things are hopeless in our relations with the United States and Ukraine …
Sergey Lavrov: If you build your foreign policy around relations with the United States or any other individual country, or even a group of countries, for example, the European Union or NATO, you risk ending up in a situation where you will be punished, which is what we are now witnessing.
What are we being punished for? For us wanting the Russian-speaking people, our compatriots, not to be persecuted or discriminated against, not to be threatened by radical nationalists and outright neo-Nazis, as was the case, for example, in Crimea. Shortly after the coup, Dmitry Yarosh, as “the hero of Maidan and the ruler of Ukraine’s fate,” proclaimed that Russians should be expelled from Crimea or destroyed there, because they will never think like Ukrainians and never worship Bandera or Shukhevych.
We also want a “belt of neighbourliness” around us, not military bloc infrastructure, the doctrinal tenets of which have deterrence of Russia as the main, if not the only, rationale for their existence, as is the case with NATO expansion. As soon as a country is drawn into NATO in the absence of any visible threats to its security, US military bases are immediately created on its territory. A third NATO-US base is being built in Georgia now.
We also want the perimeter around us to be safe. We want a world order based on international law, because it guarantees predictability. We need predictability for our plans so that no one tries to alter the UN Charter or the existing rules. We need predictability and an order built around international law so as to be able to develop our business and economic relations with foreign countries, or investment, so that no one dares to run from government to government of the countries with which we enjoy positive relations and demand that they kick out Russian investors. I gave you a rough overview, but this is the challenge we are working on now.
I do realise that opportunism is now prevalent in the international arena. It all began long before the events in Ukraine, back in 2011. I have repeatedly mentioned that as soon as Edward Snowden chose freedom and refused to go to a place where he would face the electric chair, the Americans immediately began to try to punish us. Then, there was the Magnitsky Act. All this was before Ukraine. Ukraine just lit a fire under their efforts, but showed them that we will not put up with the oppression of Russian people who want to preserve Russian culture or, at least, have respect for it. This was the only possible solution.
Of course, we are now in a situation where our leadership has realised that we cannot rely on the countries that used to be our strategic partners, such as the EU, which did the bidding of the United States in its desire to regain world dominance. Our policy in the international arena now must look to the future. We shouldn’t just be guided in our politics by how sorry we are that we are not allowed to do certain things on the continental shelf, for example. We need to continue to ensure that the system based on the Western model of economic development or even the dominance of the dollar, which has been crudely abused recently, ceases to be something what we rely on in our actions.
The Chinese are now creating their own system. We are creating the Eurasian Economic Union and coordinating it with China’s Belt and Road initiative. This is a long process of departing from the dollar and dependence on Washington’s whims and on what kind of administration will come to power there next and how it will manipulate things from Congress. But without these long-term plans, we will never rid ourselves of this dependence. We need to create a strategy that ultimately, albeit after an extended historical period, will ensure our country’s stability and independence.
Question: Have we correctly assessed our own stamina in this game over the long term? Or will we crack under Western pressure?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that although there were periods in our more than a thousand year history when we came close to cracking, our people are able to pass any trial with honour and dignity. I am convinced of this.
Question: Is it possible that in trying to break away from Washington, we will become excessively dependent on Beijing? Have you noticed the public outcry over the plans to build a plant on Lake Baikal?
Sergey Lavrov: The plant on Lake Baikal is a separate subject. I have taken a particular interest in it. This was presented as if a pipe is being built to go directly to China. I think environmentally literate people, including not only our officials – ministers, their deputies and experts – but also representatives of NGOs should go there and take a look.
I read a big story by a journalist who went there. Of course, the assessments are fairly alarming but this is not about the pipe as it was initially presented but about water bottling. Bottled water from Lake Baikal has long been sold in the Russian Federation. It is certainly possible to find here some balance between the interests of preserving this unique lake as a part of world heritage on the one hand, and the interests of our exports, including to China, on the other.
As for dependence on China – many speak about it. Moreover, the US and Europe already understand that Belt and Road initiative is a competitor to what is happening in the world now. It is not even limited to Eurasia but also involves Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. This reflects the fact that China has become a strong economic and financial power. Political influence comes with economic and financial power. It is inevitable.
We proceed from the premise that we will never take part in projects that are aimed at gaining unilateral advantages without account of the partner’s interests. The status of our relations with the PRC, which are now on an upswing unlike anything we have seen in all previous centuries, allows us to resolve issues by seeking compromise.
The EAEU has signed an agreement with the PRC. It is not preferential. We are not opening our markets to be instantly flooded with Chinese goods. The Chinese understand this and suggest forms of cooperation that will allow us, the EAEU, and, of course, them to benefit.
We haven’t yet determined all the concrete forms of cooperation. But I have no doubt that we stand to gain from transit from China to Europe via the Russian Federation both over land and the Northern Sea Route because any transit projects are bound to develop the territories through which they pass. The Belt and Road concept provides for five to six routes that may be used by the Russian Federation to offer transit services and simultaneously develop adjacent territories.
Question: Russia speaks a lot about protecting the rights of Russians in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Why isn’t the Russian government as active in protecting the rights of Russians in Central Asia?
Sergey Lavrov: I wouldn’t say that we don’t do enough in this respect but it is always possible to do more. We monitor the situation quite closely. The main thing here, as you understand, is not to clamour but to seek practical solution to all our concerns. Rest assured that we raise this issue with our Central Asian partners and will continue insisting that they take it into account in their work.
We understand the aspiration of every nation that respects itself and its national history to consolidate its own identity and the identity of its people, its destiny. Regrettably, once this process starts, it sometimes gets out of hand. We have seen the statistics. Quite recently I chaired a meeting of the Government Commission on Compatriots Living Abroad. Among other things, we listened to a report on implementing the assistance programme for the voluntary resettlement of compatriots living abroad to Russia. We are talking about the return of tens of thousands of people from Central Asian countries, and we told our colleagues about this. If they are interested in preserving the multi-ethnic and multi-religious identity of their countries, they should take some measures to allow Russians and Russian-speakers feel like full citizens. This is what these citizens want, both there and in the Baltic states. What’s more, it is unfair of Estonia and Latvia to deprive our compatriots of the right to vote, because during independence referendums their votes were counted. The overwhelming majority of these people voted for independence. In other words, they wanted and want to be loyal citizens of these states. There is some progress in this respect but obviously not enough.
Question: How does Montenegro’s and Macedonia’s accession to NATO threaten Russia’s national security?
Sergey Lavrov: I have already mentioned that, unfortunately, NATO sees its raison d’etre entirely in containing the Russian Federation. In the past, the Afghanistan campaign was the glue holding it together. Now it has receded into the background. Americans are trying to navigate the situation there on their own. I’ll note as an aside that they are unlikely to succeed. We certainly need to look for collective solutions to advance the Afghan settlement process. In this context, in addition to the Moscow format uniting all neighbouring countries (China, Iran and the whole of Central Asia), the trilateral discussions of Russia, China and the US, attended to by special representatives, have also been very useful. I believe that this is a good example for other situations. It is no use trying to decide the fate of this or that country single-handedly, it is vital to look for collective formats to support unification processes.
When NATO all of a sudden started trying to draw Montenegro and Macedonia into the alliance, they shamelessly took advantage of the situation with the country’s name. The referendum in Macedonia was organised in a flagrant violation of the Constitution, which in Macedonia requires that only one question is put to a referendum, while they put three: Are you for EU membership, NATO membership, and are you prepared to change the country’s name for this? A fraudulent question altogether.
It was dishonest to accuse us of trying to oppose this referendum. The only thing we drew public attention to was the need to observe the Macedonian Constitution, according to which the ministers had no right to sign the Prespa agreement. This is for the president to do, and President Gjorge Ivanov outlined his position against this process very clearly. He was simply ignored, which was a gross violation of the Macedonian Constitution. And our Western colleagues, including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini who visited Skopje, all said that people must say “yes, yes, yes” at the referendum.
Now that Montenegro has become a NATO member and Macedonia is being dragged into it, I am convinced that new military facilities will appear there. This will not make anyone happy. The military infrastructure is moving eastward again. These countries will be forced to spend money on US weapons and the situation in Europe will not become any calmer.
Question: What is Russia trying to achieve with its policy in Belarus? Many politicians in Minsk, including the President, think we are trying to deprive Belarus of its independence. Are these apprehensions justified?
Sergey Lavrov: Needless to say, these apprehensions are not justified. We cannot take this position as regards the fraternal Belarusian people. We are not trying to achieve anything in this respect. We want the aspirations of Russians and Belarusians, which were embodied in the Union Treaty, to be implemented in practice. If attitudes in our societies require some additional steps to be taken, we are ready for this. Following the meetings with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko several times at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, President of Russia Vladimir Putin instructed the experts to consider the future development of our integration processes and establish what adjustments need to be made to the Union Treaty in either direction. This work is now ongoing. We have an approved document – Priority Areas and Primary Tasks for the Development of the Union State in 2018-2022. It deals with a very simple task – to even out the conditions for economic cooperation and for average citizens. For example, the cost of resort treatments for its own citizens and for foreigners is different in Belarus. Now it is being levelled out under the Union Treaty. Similar efforts are being made to make people feel the same in either Russia or Belarus. This is probably the main criterion for the unity of our countries.
Question: Russia is not prepared to give up an inch of its land. Japan is not willing to give up its demand for the return of the disputed islands. Aren’t attempts to sign a peace treaty between the two countries just a waste of time?
Sergey Lavrov: It is always necessary to talk when a neighbour – and Japan is a very important neighbour – wants to move forward on an issue that you have diametrically opposed views of. We are trying to use an argument that I consider indisputable. I am convinced that any new agreements should be discussed on the basis of respect for the UN Charter that fixed, as immutable, the results of World War II. This is where the stumbling block is. This is an indispensable first step in the work on the peace treaty as the Japanese call it (we’d give it a broader name), but our Japanese colleagues flatly refuse to recognise this.
As for the peace treaty as such, my repeated talks with Foreign Minister of Japan Taro Kono, talks between the groups headed by our deputies as well as top-level meetings show that, as the Japanese see it, this treaty should consist of two lines: the border runs here, and everything will be fine from now on.
We think this formula was good for an agreement on the morning after the end of a war. Now that our relations have become more mature, embracing the economy and investment, as well as broad and intensive humanitarian and cultural contacts, we think we should develop a larger treaty that determines new goals for developing our cooperation, turning it into a strategic partnership and adding a new dimension to our economic, investment and humanitarian relations and, last but not least, to our foreign policy cooperation. Japan does not vote differently from the US on a single issue on which the positions of Russia and the West differ. You know about the US military presence on Japanese territory and the existence of the union treaty on their military-political alliance. Obviously, Japan is one of the closest if not the closest US ally in this region. US policy is openly anti-Russian and this is a fact. Considering these two facts, it seems premature to say that our relations are at a point where these complicated issues can be resolved.
Question: Have you seen any grounds for optimism in the results of the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: To be honest, I haven’t seen any grounds for either optimism or pessimism. What’s the point of guesswork? This is a process that should take place and will be completed. I do not doubt this or that the West will recognise this election.
OSCE observers released their preliminary report on the results of the first round of the presidential election, which abounds in examples of flagrant violations: corruption, bribery, pressure on voters and many other things. However, all this is described in a neutral tone. I think if they wrote about us, they would present these facts emotionally. Now they are doing it in an understated way and conclude that this did not affect the legitimacy of the election. Neither was it affected by the flagrant violation of OSCE rules when our observers were kicked out and over three million Ukrainians working and living in Russia were deprived of the right to vote. These are facts of life in Ukraine.
I think that the results of the election and the way it was organised came as no surprise to those who have been following domestic developments in Ukraine and its external ties. They are already calling each other puppets… It’s probably interesting to watch from the side but I don’t think that Ukrainian citizens are happy about this kind of democracy.
Question: Are the prospects of Russia-Ukraine cooperation still vague?
Sergey Lavrov: We are open to dialogue if the aim is not chatting and looking for excuses to do nothing but rather the practical implementation of the Minsk agreements. I have no doubt that Petr Poroshenko does not want to do this and won’t do this. When Viktor Medvedchuk just suggested seriously discussing what autonomous rights may be granted to Donbass, he was called a traitor. Poroshenko said this will never happen although he himself signed a document on the special status of Donbass, which is described with sufficient detail in the Minsk agreements.
These provisions on what rights Donbass should have were formulated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally, among others, but her ward has got out of hand. This is a fact. On the one hand, he doesn’t listen to Germany or France because he has American “patrons”. On the other hand, they find it embarrassing to pressure him in public because by doing so they will admit that what they call their “mediation” has failed.
However, there is no other document except for the Minsk agreements. They can certainly be supplemented. For instance, it is possible to provide OSCE observers with UN armed guards, as we suggest in response to the apprehensions of Ukrainians about their safety. But the core of these agreements must remain unchanged. The main point is that all issues are settled directly between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk.
Question: I really don’t like how America is now trying to carry out regime change in Venezuela by crudely exerting pressure. But does the government of that country deserve our support? It took a lot of effort to reduce the economy of such a rich country to its current state.
Sergey Lavrov: I agree with your view on the socio-economic situation in Venezuela. Honestly, we have been trying to impress on our Venezuelan colleagues that they need to carry out reforms. Special consultations were held at their request. There is no lack of relevant recommendations. Having said this, I must say that we don’t accept the methods by which the US is trying to improve the life of the Venezuelan people. This is arrogant, great power behaviour. This deliberate anything-goes policy is not limited to Venezuela. Nicaragua and Cuba are said to be next in line, so this may happen to any other country whose regime or government is disliked by Washington. What about coarse statements to the effect that countries beyond the Western Hemisphere should not have any interests there? And what is the US doing? Look at the map of its military bases and you will see that the whole world is dotted with them. Meanwhile, each of them poses serious risks.
Whether we like the Maduro Government or not is not the point. The foundations of international law are being shattered, which creates a situation that does not encourage development or predictability. It encourages an anything-goes policy and may tempt the US (and maybe others as well) to conduct such experiments on countries in any part of the world.
Question: Last time when we tried to save a friendly regime from the danger of a US attack in Latin America, it ended in the Cuban missile crisis. Are we in danger of something similar this time?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think there will be a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis. Even those countries that came together in the so-called Lima Group, insisting that the solution to the Venezuelan crisis can only be President Nicolas Maduro’s departure and an early election, really stiffened up when the US started saying that all options are “on the table,” hinting at a military invasion. I can guarantee that in the event of an attempted military invasion, an overwhelming majority of Latin American countries will immediately come out in categorical opposition.
Ultimately, Venezuela must choose its path of development itself. The fact that Nicolas Maduro, in response to the appeal of Mexico, Uruguay and Caribbean Community countries, agreed to talks with Juan Guaido and his team, while Juan Guaido flatly refused to accept the intermediaries’ appeal, speaks volumes. The US does not want to see a national consensus in Venezuela. It wants its protégé to be in power there to do everything he is told, first of all, concerning oil.
Question: What are Russian military doing in Venezuela, though? Are we not trying to create a second Syria there?
Sergey Lavrov: Not at all. We spoke publicly about this and we have nothing to hide. There is an agreement that we signed with Hugo Chavez in 2001. It was ratified by the national parliament, so it is completely legal and conforms with the Venezuelan Constitution. Under this agreement, we gave Venezuela defence equipment which needs servicing. It is time for regular servicing and nothing more.
Question: Recently they showed two sports nutrition sellers on Russian television who reported they went to Salisbury to see the cathedral. Did you trust these people?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it is necessary to figure this out. If they said they went where they were photographed it means that they were there. If they did something improper as our British colleagues say, then let them also show us photos where they are exposed in some criminal activity rather than just simply walking on the embankment. Only lazy people wouldn’t scoff at the phrase “highly likely.” This is indeed ridiculous. But at the same time it’s also dangerous because a similar approach has started to be used in international organisations.
We spoke about the chemical issue. The Salisbury case is based on the premise that Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned, then a policeman was poisoned and cured, and a month later some woman with no fixed address died having found the same perfume bottle. This is a mystery.
London’s numeral refusals to accept our proposals to use the agreements signed between us to cooperate and study the facts cast serious doubts as to how all this happened. Not to mention the fact that neither Sergey nor Yulia are presented to the public. Leaks about the sale of her flat appear from time to time.
As for chemical agents, there is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention or CWC). This is under the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The convention is based on consensus.
Following a UN Security Council decision, the OPCW established, in cooperation with the UN, a group to investigate an incident in Syria. Such phrases like “highly likely”, ‘”there are grounds to believe”, “there seems to be no other option”, etc. are very apparent in this group’s report. Recently another report was released. It was compiled by OPCW representatives themselves because the UN Security Council disbanded the joint group that discredited itself with the aforementioned report. Now, in violation of the principle of consensus on which the CWC is based, a minority of participant countries voted for the creation of an auxiliary body in the OPCW Technical Secretariat with the illegal mandate to determine those who are responsible. They released yet another regular report on what happened in Douma, Syria. It contains over 20 references with phrases like “highly likely” and not a single assertion.
Incidentally, we know for sure that this report was subject to alteration. Here is a specific example. In the initial version the report said that two barrels with chlorine were found. They were presented by these experts, or by those who wanted to expose the Syrian regime, with evidence that chemical agents were dropped from the air. One of them was in a room with a broken roof. The hole was the size of the barrel but it was lying on a bed and a blanket and pillows were in place. The initial version said it was likely that these barrels were brought from the street by hand, whereas the final version said that they were most likely dropped by a helicopter. There is no need to prove anything in this case.
Question: Is the war in Syria over or not? Is it possible that we will become bogged down in that country’s affairs for decades to come?
Sergey Lavrov: No, the war is not over. We must completely eliminate the hotbeds of terrorism. A very disturbing one is Idlib where several thousand terrorists still remain, including individuals from former Soviet republics and Russia as well. We are engaged in serious efforts with Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s government there. Our military experts are in regular contact about this. Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists have set up a new structure with a new name there and are trying to take over all other armed groups, including those that are considered to be moderate and open to dialogue with the government. This has not been a smooth process and now, finally, Russian and Turkish forces have started joint patrols of some areas in the Idlib security zone.
The second hotbed is on the east bank of the Euphrates. About a thousand terrorists are in captivity there guarded by Kurds who are working with the Americans. Most of them are West European citizens who were naturalised there in the past. It is very alarming that their countries of citizenship do not want to accept them and intend to strip them of their citizenship, while the US has announced that if those people are not taken back by their countries, they will just be released. This means that cooperation on terrorism, sadly, is not comprehensive. Every country behaves selfishly in such situations. Speaking at the UN in 2015, President Vladimir Putin suggested setting up a truly global, universal front to combat terrorism, and this remains an essential goal.
We have resumed our counter-terrorism dialogue with the US following a long period where it attempted to avoid this. We are also restoring dialogue with the EU and, as a specific proposal, we are promoting the idea of their joining the Federal Security Service databank which accumulates information about all movements of the so-called foreign terrorist fighters. Such persons can fight in Syria, then leave that country under pressure from government troops and allies, and later can resurface in Malaysia or Indonesia. It is very important to download information about such people, so as to rapidly track where they have disappeared to. We are certainly against their return to the Russian Federation.
Question: Based on a summary of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report published by the United States Department of Justice, it allegedly contains definitive proof of our interference in US political processes. What will be our response when the report is published in full?
Sergey Lavrov: Depends on what is written there.
We offered to cooperate long ago, on the basis of suspicions that they can back up with facts. Beyond that, we had and have now an organisation called the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centre. Both they and we have such a round-the-clock centre in the event someone suspects something nefarious. When at the end of the summer and beginning of the autumn of 2016, accusations began coming out that we were interfering in the US election campaign, we suggested that the US should send these anonymously voiced suspicions to us through the channels of that centre, which is a very reliable, professional channel. The US refused. Later we suggested this again several times. Correspondence on cyber threats from Russia, hacking and suchlike continued from September 2016 until January 2017, that is during the entire remainder of Barack Obama’s administration. When they started to hysterically accuse us even before the report came out, we suggested publishing this correspondence honestly and professionally for people to know our response to all this. They refused. As decent guys, we cannot do this alone, but we warned them that we would reveal the fact that they refused to publish this correspondence.
Question: There is an opinion that only those who do nothing that make no mistakes.
Sergey Lavrov: Petro Poroshenko said that.
Question: Does it mean you do not agree?
Sergey Lavrov: Why not? I agree.
Question: If you agree, can you tell us about the biggest mistakes in the Russian foreign policy of the past few years?
Sergey Lavrov: If you ask me about the biggest achievements, I will not tell you anything either. I will let the people decide. There is a saying: we learn from past mistakes. This is true. I will not tell you what past mistakes we have learned from in the past years while I have been foreign minister so as not to give away certain things to our partners whose views we contest.
Question: Last month, it was 15 years since your appointment as foreign minister. Which days in this position were the most challenging for you?
Sergey Lavrov: Every day is a challenge. Of course, experience matters. Any person in any position will first look around and try to understand the best way to organise the work. To a certain extent, I was lucky: President Vladimir Putin offered me this post when I was Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, where we dealt with the entire international agenda one way or another. I had a certain degree of experience and was ready to engage with my colleagues. In New York, I had talks and confidential conversations, gave and received information on a daily basis. But, of course, the responsibility at the ministerial level is completely different. I receive certain directives from the President, but on many issues I have to make decisions on the go. This is a responsibility. I really do not want to ever lose this feeling of responsibility.
Question: Are you getting tired of this burden of responsibility?
Sergey Lavrov: The work is very interesting. I can’t complain.