Question: Good afternoon, Mr Lavrov. The main issue today is Ukraine. Is the war over or is it a temporary respite?
Sergey Lavrov: It is a ceasefire. It is based on a document that was signed after Russian President Vladimir Putin advanced a seven-point initiative. We also expressed our readiness to work further on that document with the involvement of all sides in the conflict: the Kiev authorities and those who support them, and the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics.
It was thanks to this initiative that a meeting was held in Minsk where the document was coordinated. It has more than seven points, because it must reflect the stands of those who are directly involved in the agreement. According to our assessment and the opinion of OSCE observers, the ceasefire has so far been effective, though not without some disruptions that have so far been insignificant, thank God. There has been some shooting, but so far the progress towards a lasting truce has not been disrupted. I don’t want to be over-optimistic, because there are people who would like to derail this process and to revive the military scenario.
Question: Who are you referring to?
Sergey Lavrov: I’m primarily referring to the groups that were formed by the oligarchs who disregard Kiev’s orders and who see the Ukrainian armed forces as temporary allies or companions, as well as a considerable part of the National Guard.
Question: Are you talking about the groups that are financed by Igor Kolomoisky?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, these groups too, but not only them. There are other oligarchs who finance similar combat groups – the Donbass, Aydar, Dnepr, Azov and other battalions. There is also the National Guard, which receives financing both from the Ukrainian budget and from foreign sponsors, but it does not always act in accordance with the orders of Ukraine’s supreme commander.
Question: Here’s what happened next: the ceasefire was signed, but then some time later Petro Poroshenko declared that if necessary Ukraine would build something like a Mannerheim Line on its border with Russia. The Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, said that the terms of the ceasefire don’t fully reflect the interests of the DPR and the LPR because they want greater autonomy, basically independence. So differences arose immediately on two points.
Sergey Lavrov: While we hear a lot of conflicting interpretations of the deal from Kiev, including demands to renounce steps toward peace and resume offensive operations using the entire arsenal of the Ukrainian armed forces, President Poroshenko – despite the statements you quoted – has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to the ceasefire deal. We still hope that, as the embodiment of whatever legitimacy the 25 May presidential election conferred, he will perform his duties as supreme commander-in-chief, take all necessary measures and exercise his presidential powers to make sure that the current Kiev government, which reports to the president and the parliament, does not undermine the decision he has sanctioned and approved.
Question: Is there a concern that Kiev may use the ceasefire as an opportunity to redeploy its troops? The point has been repeatedly made, including by you, that Ukrainian forces are regrouping and that heavy weaponry is being moved to the Donetsk Region.
Sergey Lavrov: Just recently, two or three days after the ceasefire was signed in Minsk, we got information, confirmed by the self-defence forces, that a strike force of artillery and tanks was being formed near Debaltsevo. We drew the attention of the Kiev leadership to these reports. We were assured that there were no such plans and that measures would be taken to clear up any confusion. Based on our information, these movements have stopped, and nothing similar has been reported.
I still have to answer your question about how the self-defence forces interpret the Minsk deal, including the status of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. You see, so far the Minsk deal is just a scheme, a framework that has to be fleshed out with more detailed agreements on practically every issue. This work is being done by the Contact Group which includes the representatives of the Ukrainian sides, Russia and the OSCE.
As for their status, there are some provisions that commit Kiev to preparing a law on interim self-rule of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. But there is also a very brief provision titled “Continuation of inclusive national dialogue” that is hugely important. This provision is big on wishful thinking, because you can’t really talk about continuing a national dialogue when no such dialogue exists. There was a half-hearted attempt to hold so-called “round tables” ahead of the presidential election and Poroshenko’s inauguration. But this work was halted shortly after the inauguration despite the many promises made. And even what these “round tables” have accomplished is far from ideal. The participants did not represent the full spectrum of political forces and Ukrainian regions. And yet the participation of all the regions and political forces in a national dialogue aimed at fundamental constitutional reform is one of the obligations the Ukrainian authorities assumed under the 17 April Geneva statement signed by the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, the US, and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
That is why the reference in the Minsk agreement to an inclusive national dialogue – that is, with the participation of all stakeholders – is a matter of principle for us. All the agreements on passing a law on the interim status through the Verkhovna Rada are essentially an obligation on the Ukrainian leadership. Lugansk and Donetsk will first of all need to see how the law will be written, but that still does not completely resolve the problem. A lasting solution can only be achieved by consensus through an inclusive national dialogue.
Question: Speaking about a lasting solution to the Ukrainian crisis, President Putin and President Poroshenko have spoken over the phone frequently. A diplomatic game is on. How does Russia see the outcome of the crisis? What are we seeking? What is our position? Perhaps the recognition of Crimea?
Sergey Lavrov: Crimea is not being discussed. I assure you that this issue does not come up during discussions between our presidents. What is being discussed is the possibility of Russia using its obvious leverage in order to help Ukraine set in motion the constitutional process promised back on 21 February in the agreement signed by Viktor Yanukovych, Arseny Yatsenyuk, Vladimir Klichko and Oleg Tyagnibok, and recognised by the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, and to help bring it to a successful conclusion so that Ukrainian statehood is based on a nationwide consensus reflecting the interests of all regions and political forces.
Question: Are we talking about an unaligned Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a matter of principle to us. We are convinced that the choice reflected in Ukrainian law serves the interests of the Ukrainian people, the legitimate interests of all neighbours and partners of Ukraine, as well as the interests of European security. We have been given numerous assurances by our Western partners that they are well aware of the importance of an unaligned Ukraine for Euro-Atlantic security.
Question: Nevertheless Ukraine intends to renounce its unaligned status and even wants to put the issue to a vote in the Verkhovna Rada.
Sergey Lavrov: I wouldn’t say that initiative came from Ukraine; it was just a few politicians, in particular Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, surprisingly, who proposed putting legislation before the government that would end Ukraine’s unaligned status and put the country on the path to joining NATO precisely at the moment when the Minsk deal was being worked out. These actions are a direct affront to the country’s president. I think he is working not in the interests of his people, but in the interests of those who want to set the Ukrainian and Russian peoples against each other and to drive a deep wedge between Russia and Europe, first and foremost, Washington. The US doesn’t hide its partiality. Ukrainian radicals and extremists, including those in governing bodies, practically get carte blanche from the US, and there is no traction for arguments in favour of objectively looking at the situation and supporting a national dialogue, reconciliation and respect of the rights of minorities – all the values the West seeks to promote in any other conflict. Washington has proved repeatedly that its aim is to aggravate the crisis as much as possible in order to use Ukraine as a bargaining chip in its latest attempt to isolate and weaken Russia.
Question: A technical question. There is President Poroshenko who is the guarantor of the Ukrainian constitution and who is conducting the negotiations, while at the same time there’s Prime Minister Yatsenyuk making a statement on the country’s unaligned status. I could also mention the Ukrainian defence minister who wrote on Facebook that nuclear weapons should be used against Russia. Mr Lutsenko says that Europe is already supplying high-precision weapons and that the war must go on. What are the implications for the dialogue you’re conducting? Who are the negotiations being held with? How can Poroshenko keep the process under his control?
Sergey Lavrov: The President of Russia has repeatedly said that he is satisfied with how direct contacts with President Poroshenko have been established. We are engaged in a dialogue with him and those who support his position, which is Ukraine’s official policy. There are more than enough provocateurs. You have named some, but there are many more. Of course, we draw the attention of our Western partners to this when they speak about Europe’s collective interests. We agree that these interests must be upheld, but the West is doing practically nothing to rein in the radicals.
Remember that during the last elections to the Verkhovna Rada in December 2012, under Viktor Yanukovich, Oleg Tyagnibok’s Freedom party cleared the one percent barrier required to get seats in parliament. The European Union issued a strong statement calling on all the other political forces in Ukraine not to cooperate with these Neo-Nazis. Their party programme still upholds the June 1941 document which supports Hitler’s aim of creating a new order in Europe and the world. On that occasion the European Union took a very strong stand, like it did in 2000 when a radical party won an election in Austria and the EU simply forced the Austrians to renounce the results of the democratic expression of the people’s will and remove the party from power. But today Oleg Tyagnibok is seen as a partner in dialogue and is a member of the coalition. Nobody has voiced any protest about it.
Question: Will his party win seats in the Rada in the upcoming elections?
Sergey Lavrov: I follow the polls, but I’m not in a position to say anything definitive about the chances of the Freedom party or of many other political parties, with the exception of the association formed by Poroshenko and the party that is being led to new victories by Oleg Lyashko.
When we are told that Oleg Tyagnibok won few votes in the presidential election, we note that Oleg Lyashko did no worse and no better. He was the runner-up to Poroshenko and won considerable support form voters. I think Europe is in a very uncomfortable position. The Europeans must be aware of the threat posed by this kind of encouragement of nationalism and to some extent Neo-Nazism, but they cannot say it aloud because of their political commitments.
Question: You met Poroshenko personally. What is your impression of him?
Sergey Lavrov: I worked with him during his brief stint as Ukraine’s foreign minister. He came to Moscow; we held talks and discussed current issues in Russian-Ukrainian relations, of which there are always many. We came to terms on some of them, which allowed us to make progress.
After Poroshenko was elected president, we had a few brief meetings at international events, including the meeting in Minsk attended by the presidents of the Customs Union countries, Ukraine and high-ranking officials from the Eurasian Economic Commission and the European Union.
It seems to me Poroshenko is interested in a peace deal and needs support, primarily from the West, which was hoping Ukraine would transition from the post-Maidan situation to something more legitimate. This is why presidential elections were announced. I think the West should support Poroshenko’s desire to make a peace deal, because everyone, or almost everyone, is trying hard to frustrate his efforts.
Question: We’ll return to the issue of NATO later. For now, I’d like to ask what seems a logical question to me. Here’s a brief example. Ukrainian experts have expressed scepticism and even criticism about Ukraine not being invited to join NATO right now. We see that the West has not made good on most of the promises it has made to Poroshenko. I believe under the circumstances he should move closer to the Russian position. Why doesn’t he, or am I just missing it?
Sergey Lavrov: Recent discussions involving our presidents (the bilateral meeting in Minsk and subsequent phone conversations that produced the 5 September agreements) show that there’s still hope for progress. I mean the establishment of peace and genuine national dialogue on the future of Ukraine.
Question: We have a team of journalists in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. They said there was a lot of confusion when the agreement was being signed and after. The situation changed, and there was an opportunity to take complete control of these regions and seize Mariupol as the agreement was being signed. Some analysts even compared the situation to the Hasavyurt accords. Why was the agreement signed at that time?
The text of the agreement is very strange. Every provision is open to a broad range of interpretations. The diplomats who worked on it could have been more specific. Was this dictated by circumstance, or is it based on some logic? Are these seven points intentionally vague?
Sergey Lavrov: Twelve.
Question: Many things in this agreement require some basic clarification.
Sergey Lavrov: Let me answer the first part of your question, to begin with. Why was this document signed now and does it reflect the interests of self-defence forces and, more broadly, the people of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions? We wanted it to be signed much earlier. The self-defence forces were also ready to sign a ceasefire deal. The deal was supported at the 2 July meeting of the Russian, German, French and Ukrainian foreign ministers in Berlin. A ceasefire was supposed to begin in three days, but Ukraine refused. It also refused when the UN Security Council demanded a ceasefire after the crash of the Malaysian airliner. More than 10 days after the resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and safe access of international inspectors to the crash site, Ukraine refused to comply and said it would provide inspectors access to the wreckage and begin a ceasefire only after it takes control of the region.
Ukraine has repeatedly opted to use force to seize as many populated areas as possible in order to strengthen its negotiating position. This logic could also be applied to self-defence fighters (or some of them) who would also like to seize more territory and only then start the ceasefire. However, if we encourage that kind of thinking, it will never stop. One side will always want to snatch a little more territory before sitting down at the negotiating table.
We are not getting ahead of ourselves. It is unacceptable to delay an opportunity to save lives for one, two or three days. If the opportunity presents itself and the political will is there, you have to get both sides to make commitments in writing without delay. By the way, the deal was signed by Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky who represented the Donetsk and Lugansk republics. They enjoy the respect and support of the people in these regions. I’m sure they are acting out of the considerations I’m talking about – to save lives and prevent the further destruction of critical infrastructure in these regions.
As for the contents of the deal, it is a framework agreement and most of it is not supposed to be carried out right away except for the ceasefire. This is understandable, and it’s being done. We want the OSCE to increase as soon as possible the number of observers in the conflict areas and where the sides need to be separated. As for the other provisions, they should be firmed up later. Take, for one, the law on temporary self-rule in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions that was mentioned today. We don’t know what it will look like, because this is Ukraine’s responsibility. When they put their signatures under this provision, the self-defence forces made it clear that their attitude to the law would be based on what’s in it and on an understanding that this is not the end of the road but the beginning of a very complicated political process that imposes obligations on Ukraine and the self-defence forces. I’m referring to the inclusive national dialogue that will result in consequential decisions on the Ukrainian Constitution and on how the regions will fit into a larger system that I hope will allow everyone to live together in peace and respect each other’s traditions, customs, culture and values. People have very different value systems in western, central and eastern Ukraine. Today we are dealing with the mess created by the failure of the one-time opposition brought to power as a result of the coup and its Western sponsors to abide by the agreements signed on 21 February. Those agreements provided a specific sequence of events to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine after -Maidan. Most importantly, it called for a government of national unity that was supposed to draft constitutional reforms to be approved in September. Elections were supposed to take place at the end of the year on the basis of the new Constitution. The sequence was very logical and clear, but a coup took place two days after the agreement was signed. The president’s residency, the Government House and other government buildings were occupied. Speaking on Maidan Square, Yatsenyuk said: “I congratulate everyone who held out on Maidan Square. We’ve overthrown the dictator and formed a government of the victors.” This was an immediate signal to the country’s southeastern regions. It is not a national unity government that came to power, but a government of the victors, which means you’re the losers and that’s how we are going to treat you. Then constitutional reform was virtually forgotten. The Verkhovna Rada drafted a secret document that nobody has seen, which was immediately sent to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe where it stayed for several weeks before being returned to Kiev. We know this happened, although it hasn’t been discussed much. The Venice Commission wisely declined to comment on a document with such a vague status. Its representatives told Kiev: “First agree within the country on how you want to reform the Constitution and we’ll respond accordingly.”
Question: So this was a government of the victors rather than a government of all Ukrainians?
Sergey Lavrov: Exactly. This action and the remarks about it being a government of the victors, as well as the attempt to repeal the law on national language policy, were powerful signals to the southeast. They were perceived as a declaration of war.
To be continued...