Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s live radio interview with Sputnik, Ekho Moskvy and Govorit Moskva, Moscow, April 22, 2015
Question: Why does Russia refuse to recognise Novorossiya, given that it was Lenin who gave this region to Ukraine? Is it possible that Russia will recognise it at some point?
Sergey Lavrov: Novorossiya is a fairly vague term.
Question: The Donetsk and Lugansk republics.
Sergey Lavrov: That’s more specific. We operate on the premise that the Ukrainians are our close neighbours and a brotherly nation. We want the people who live next to our borders and who we are well disposed to, to live well. In order for this to happen, Ukraine must remain united. I’m not talking about Crimea – it’s a completely different issue. President Putin has repeatedly explained the reasons why this happened. The main reason – I’ll make a small digression – was the inability of our Western partners, who acted as guarantors of the agreement signed on February 21, 2014, to force the then Ukrainian opposition to keep its word and live up to its commitment to create a government of national unity. The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, who signed this agreement, didn’t say a word when the coup took place in Kiev the next morning after the agreement had been signed. President Obama, who had called President Putin the day before specifically to ask him to support this agreement and to talk Viktor Yanukovych out of using the army, didn’t even call back with an apology for the whole thing not working out as intended. In turn, Putin asked Obama to convince the opposition to refrain from violence and not to violate the agreement. This is the underlying cause of what happened in Crimea, because the people of Crimea were supposed to share the fate of the people who opposed the Maidan protests and attempts to seize power unconstitutionally.
With regard to Novorossiya – the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics – Ukraine can exist as a state that recognises the diversity of its constituent regions and cultures. We know the historical facts of Ukraine’s emergence as a state: Stalin’s name is repeatedly mentioned in this regard, as well as the decisions dating back to the Soviet times regarding the transfer of certain native Russian territories to Ukraine. We want to see peace and calm in Ukraine. To achieve this, Ukraine must remain united. No one should be allowed to tear it apart. We hear such sentiments already being voiced in certain European countries which, following World War II, gave up some of their territory to the current Ukrainian state. There are not only large numbers of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. There are Poles, Romanians, Czechs and Slovaks as well. In order to keep that country stable and friendly to Russia and Europe, it must not be torn apart. To ensure that doesn’t happen, there can be no bull-headedness with regard to keeping Ukraine a unitary state no matter what, as President Poroshenko and Ukrainian ministers insist, nor can there be what they call Ukrainisation, as they are threatening to Ukrainise everyone, meaning, first and foremost, Donetsk and Lugansk.
In order to prevent this from happening and to keep Ukraine united, as well as to stave off attempts to make everyone fit on the Procrustean bed of nationalist ideology, we pushed for and eventually arrived at signing the Minsk agreements. Under these agreements, it is necessary to move forward with decentralisation and to carry out constitutional reforms with the participation of and in coordination with Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. It is in our interests to keep Ukraine whole and neutral, primarily in the military and political sense. We are all aware that the division of that country means one and only thing: the West (Europe and NATO) will immediately attempt to make Ukraine an anti-Russian state.
Once again, we want to see that country united. But to do so, Kiev must honour its commitments regarding decentralisation and constitutional reform.
Question: Mikhail Zurabov, called “the worst ambassador of all times and nations,” heads the Russian Embassy in Kiev. His diplomatic mission falls under your responsibility. When will you replace him?
Sergey Lavrov: Mr Zurabov, like every other Russian ambassador abroad, has been appointed by the President of the Russian Federation. He carries out instructions received from the centre. The term of his service is determined by the President of Russia. Nobody lasts forever, and this ambassador will eventually be replaced as well.
Question: As we know, the US ambassador is playing a major role in Kiev, while his Russian counterpart’s role is negligible. Am I correct in assuming that nobody will ever be made responsible for that?
Sergey Lavrov: I’m responsible for what is done by our ambassadors that were appointed by the president on the Foreign Ministry’s recommendations. I’m responsible for instructions to Mr Zurabov. They are my instructions, the instructions of the Foreign Ministry. We assess his performance upon the results of every year.
Question: Let’s try to link Ukraine and the United States. It probably won’t be the only time during the interview…
Sergey Lavrov: Ukrainians tried to do this themselves long ago and without success.
Question: I’ll try to do better. Hillary Clinton, a presidential candidate, compared President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea with what Hitler did with the Sudetenland. How would you approach working with a potential future US president that compared the Russian president to Hitler?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not the only statement with which Western leaders and politicians have tarnished their images. There are plenty of other examples. If Mrs Clinton is elected US president, we will treat her as the head of that state.
Question: Does Russia have a stake in the outcome of the US presidential election? Which party is better for us as a potential partner – Republican or Democratic?
Sergey Lavrov: There is a view that it is easier to make deals with the Republicans because they are always tougher and as a result it is easier for them to make decisions that could be interpreted as weakness under a Democrat.
I don’t subscribe to this theory. We have good examples of cooperation both with Republican and Democratic presidents. The most important thing is that they approach relations with the outside world pragmatically, without attempting to return to the remote past and dictate decisions to everyone else.
Question: Which party is more pragmatic today – Democrats or Republicans?
Sergey Lavrov: Only their actions will tell.
Question: Has the Ukraine crisis and subsequent actions taken by Western partners still not convinced Russia that the USA is not to be trusted? Are you yourself disappointed with Barack Obama?
Sergey Lavrov: To begin with, we have been burned before by various illusions. Reagan once said, “trust but verify”. I think now it should be verify and, after verifying, decide whether or not to trust. Verify and trust, that’s how I would put it.
Second, regarding President Obama, I don’t want to get personal. There were high hopes, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But many wars followed, and they were absolutely illogical wars that did not serve the interests of stability in various regions – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya.
Today everybody is fighting the ISIS. Incidentally, we proposed putting ISIS on the UNSC list of terrorist organisations. But the Americans refused, and made a very interesting argument. They said, this is not an independent organisation, this is the same old Al-Qaeda. The reason behind this is very simple. They are loath to admit that ISIS appeared as a result of their actions in Iraq and especially in Libya and Syria. That is why they are trying to pretend that nothing happened, putting all the blame on Al-Qaeda, even though this group has its roots in the 1980s, in the financing of the (Afghan) mujahedeen against the USSR. Now they are trying to pretend that ISIS is not of America’s making.
I don’t want to get into more personal characteristics. I was present several times at talks between Russian presidents and Barack Obama, and he received me at the White House. He struck me as a person who understands the importance of Russian-American relations. He set up an unprecedented presidential commission comprising 21 working groups for every conceivable (and inconceivable) area of cooperation. But the commission was also put to rest under him.
Question: The Russians are used to the fact that almost every war is their war. Can we watch wars from the sideline without intervening? Can we observe the war the US is waging in an arc stretching from Tel-Aviv to Mumbai, flaring up here and there, as if it were not our war? Let them do the dirty work for us, let ISIS and the US weaken each other (that’s a Chinese stratagem), and then finish off the winner.
Sergei Lavrov: First of all, I assure you that we have no desire to finish anyone off. We want stability so that we can work with people normally, trade to mutual benefit and invest. The war against terror is not somebody else’s war. But it must be consistent and should be backed by a coordinated strategy of the whole so-called international community. Barack Obama, receiving Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Washington not long ago, rightly said that all those who want to help Iraq fight terrorism must do so only with the consent of the Iraqi government. Why don’t the Americans apply the same principle to Syria where the US has declared war on the ISIS which they are fighting in Iraq? In Syria’s case they have no intention of seeking the consent of the Syrian government.
Question: No power’s strength is infinite. If Americans have their hands full on the Tel-Aviv – Mumbai arc, they may ease up on Ukraine. This is good for us. The more engaged they are there, the weaker they will be in Ukraine.
Sergey Lavrov: That’s one way of looking at the situation. But I repeat, we are interested in the Americans being part of the anti-terrorist coalition. Russia is taking part in this coalition informally – we have not joined any groups. This is a structure the Americans announced to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But we are helping Iraq and Syria probably more effectively than anyone else by arming their military and security forces.
I repeat, terrorism must be combatted without double standards. I have already cited the example of ISIS in Iraq. In Yemen the US has backed the “Arab coalition” which has started bombing that country without going through the UN Security Council. The US provides it with logistical and information support and shares intelligence data. Incidentally, it was announced today that the operation has been completed and the focus will now be on advancing the political process, thank God. But the biggest beneficiaries of the bombing in Yemen are ISIS and Al-Qaeda which occupied the positions previously held by the Houthis, who have been pushed out by air strikes. The same thing happened in Libya. To get rid of one person with whom “everyone was fed up” they staged a war and backed the thugs whom they are now hunting down all over North Africa and far beyond.
Question: Speaking about all the external threats to the Russian Federation, there are three directions: east (China is a burgeoning economic power on our borders), south (terrorism) and west (the USA and NATO). Could you prioritise these threats in terms of how quickly we should confront them? Perhaps there are some other threats?
Sergey Lavrov: I see no threat from China. In general I see no threats from the east except one, US global missile defence, which is being created on US territory, the European continent and in Northeast Asia and just happens to hug the perimeter of Russia’s borders. I repeat, I see no threat from China. On the contrary, the Russian-Chinese partnership has a strategic character and, without exaggerating, is making an important contribution to maintaining some kind of stability in international relations, counteracting further destabilisation.
The southern front is terrorism, as I have said. We proposed conducting at the UN Security Council a serious expert review of terrorist and extremist threats in the whole Middle East and North Africa region – that same arc I mentioned. We are convinced that we need to develop a common strategy, follow it firmly and carefully in practice so that we fight common enemies, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and not choose our position depending on whose side these thugs are fighting, on the side of “favoured” regimes or those we would like to get rid of. This is the crux of the problem.
Finally, the western direction, i.e. the US and NATO. There is little cause for rejoicing. We had very good mechanisms for interaction with the North Atlantic Alliance. I am not suggesting that the relationship was ideal, but interaction mechanisms existed between the militaries, on political problems, on counterterrorism, drug trafficking, on training law enforcement personnel for the security services of many countries, including Afghanistan incidentally. All this has been cut off with one stroke. All the formats for interaction (summits, ministerial meetings, foreign policy and defence agencies contacts, numerous meetings of experts) were simply cut off. Only the Russia-NATO Council at the ambassadorial level still remains, though it met only once during the past years (in June 2014). That’s the situation.
One can look at the statistics of the number of NATO exercises and activities they are conducting on our borders, the movement of heavy American weaponry to Baltic and some East European countries, and the speedy development of global missile defence facilities. And this despite the fact that President Obama, when announcing the “phased adaptive approach” several years ago, said that if there was progress on the Iran nuclear programme, adapting these plans would mean scaling back. The progress has been spectacular, President Obama extolled the political agreements which in the next couple of months should translate themselves into a legal agreement, and said that this was progress, that he had done everything to remove the missile and nuclear threats posed by Iran. Nevertheless, if the plans are being adapted they are being adapted in the direction of greater missile defence activity.
Question: What threat is more dangerous: from the south, including China or from the United States and NATO?
Sergey Lavrov: I’m confident we are dealing correctly with China. I feel that they are indeed partners.
Question: What will it be like in a decade or two?
Sergey Lavrov: If we neglect the opportunities to deepen our strategic partnership we may create risks in 10, 20 or 30 years.
Question: Allow me to make a drawing on this piece of paper. Here are a hundred or even a thousand people, and here is just one. When will the empty space be filled in? It will happen sooner or later. This is the Chinese stratagem.
Sergey Lavrov: Let me express my opinion on this score. We are consistently developing strategic partnership with China in all areas of cooperation: economic, cultural, military-political and military-technical. I’m confident that this is the main guarantee that Russian-Chinese relations will be solid and friendly.
We must “fill in the empty space” ourselves. I’m very glad that more and more attention is being paid recently to the need to develop eastern Siberia and the Far East. These regions are very rich but their population is very scarce. It is necessary to do everything we can to encourage people to go there, start families, have children and so on.
Question: Are we lagging behind China technologically? First, we are using Chinese-made things. Second, now we’ll have to buy technology from China rather than Europe. US-Chinese trade amounted to $650 billion in 2014, and the relevant figure for Russian-Chinese trade stood at $90 billion.
Sergey Lavrov: You’re right, but the economies are not comparable. The answer to your question depends on what areas you have in mind. Take computers, for instance.
Question: All made in China.
Sergey Lavrov: Absolutely, but Russia has brains, which produce ideas. These ideas should be embodied in metal, ceramics, plastic and so on. This is what we need. I cannot say that we are lagging behind anyone in fundamental sciences.
Speaking about technology, let’s take space exploration, the nuclear industry or the production of modern arms. We are not lagging behind in these areas. It’s rather the other way around.
Question: Let me make my previous question more specific: what is more dangerous, the ISIS or the United States?
Sergey Lavrov: Today ISIS is our main enemy. This is so if only because hundreds of Russian and other CIS citizens, Europeans and Americans are fighting on the side of ISIS.
In the past it was said, let them fight, let them spend their whole lives fighting over there, as long as they don't return home. But they are already returning. They would fight there, then take a break and play some nasty tricks for “fun” at home. Two or three cases are enough here.
As regards the United States, all government issues and issues of the international order should be resolved at the negotiating table. It is no accident that Americans are sending us official and unofficial signals via the most diverse channels with a proposal to establish mechanisms for interaction and notification (for instance, aircraft flying around one another or dangerous military activities being conducted). It wasn’t us who ruined these mechanisms. If the Americans are interested in them, let them make an official proposal and we will likely accept it.
Question: You said “we must fill in the empty space ourselves.” Why is Russia embarrassed to invite people from all over the world and grant them citizenship via a very simple procedure, like many other countries are doing, such as Greece and Germany, not to mention Israel? We have some simplified procedures for letting our compatriots live in Russia, but they don't really work. Why isn’t Russia appealing to Russians or those who consider themselves Russians, those many people who belong to our culture and speak our language?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it was wrong to stop in the early 2000s the practice of giving any Soviet citizen an opportunity to obtain Russian citizenship after the Soviet Union’s collapse. This practice was imperfect because the disintegration of the Soviet Union was spontaneous and many databases were lost. Many people did everything correctly but got nowhere. For instance, it would happen that citizenship was granted to a person but his or her passport expired and had to be replaced with a new one, but the relevant information was lost. I’m talking about the chaos of the 1990s. If I remember correctly, the rule was as follows: if you were a Soviet citizen and lived in the RSFSR, your passport was replaced automatically. If a Soviet citizen lived in another union republic, he or she had to take some bureaucratic action and write an application, for one. This did not mean they had to prove anything, but the procedure was more complicated.
However, this practice was also stopped in the early 2000s. I think this was wrong. In one of his interviews – I think immediately after his election for the current term – President Vladimir Putin said that it is necessary to simplify as much as possible the procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship for all those who were Soviet citizens or descendants of the Russian Empire’s subjects. I don't wish to go into interdepartmental problems now, but this work is going on.
Question: According to people arriving from Donbass, it’s impossible to get anything done today. That is to say, it is practically impossible to obtain legal status in Russia. These are Russian people who have fled the war. This applies, in particular, to the family of my child’s nanny, which I have sheltered.
Sergey Lavrov: I also know about such families. I could ask for their names and I would do something about it, but this does not solve the problem. As you know, there are decisions that require applications from people who have come from Ukraine to be considered within two months. If this isn't happening, this is bad.
Question: Most people believe that our elites do not have a common historical future to share with us. That is, we have one country, where our children and grandchildren will live, whereas the elites, including our leadership, have another country. Their children and grandchildren will live in a place to which they take the 11.15 am Moscow-London Aeroflot flight. There was a minister who conducted meetings at 7 am because he had to leave at 11.15 am to join his family in London. How can we “nationalise” our elites, and where is your daughter?
Sergey Lavrov: My daughter is in Russia. She works here. She is married. She is the mother of my grandson and my granddaughter.
Question: Would it be correct to assume that you organise your life and your work so that your children and grandchildren live in Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: My daughter and her husband recently bought a flat in Russia, as they are planning to have more children.
Question: Can we move forward with “disloyal” elites?
Sergey Lavrov: Conceptually, no nation can move forward with a disloyal elite. This goes without saying.
Question: Not entirely. In 1812, our dragoons spoke French and fought French troops on the battlefield. Today our elites live in London.
Sergey Lavrov: I speak English, but I fight neither the French nor the British. I would like to understand to whom you are referring. Business people?
Question: I’m talking about top managers of around 70 per cent of Russian companies that have offshores, as well as officials whose children are studying in the UK and so on, and who are unlikely to return to Russia. We feel lonely without national elites. We don’t have them.
Sergey Lavrov: How do you define the elite?
Question: People who make crucial decisions.
Sergey Lavrov: You’re talking about leaders. The elite are the pride of the nation. It comprises writers, actors, musicians, composers and so on.
We should be specific. We have a Constitution that defines the rights and obligations of our citizens, including the right to choose their place of residence. I will probably confine myself to this. Any question on this issue should be specific. Who do you mean and who is your negative role model?
Question: Do you think that this problem does not exist?
Sergey Lavrov: It does not exist for me because I’m responsible for my area of work. I’m not going to leave. I live and will continue to live in Russia.
Question: Our listener, US Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, has the following question for you: “You have worked with four US State Secretaries (two Republicans and two Democrats) and Secretary Albright when she was Ambassador to the United Nations. Who is your favourite US Secretary of State?”
Sergey Lavrov: I’ve felt comfortable with all of them. I see no reason to make my preferences known. It all comes down to personality. If you are comfortable with someone, then the issues that you are discussing don’t matter much. You will either resolve them, or not.
I don’t only feel comfortable with the people who agree with me and we manage to arrive at some kind of an agreement. US Secretaries of State pursue their own policy, which doesn’t always (and lately, almost never) coincide with Russian policy. However, I’m very comfortable working with John Kerry, as I was comfortable working with Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, although I knew Ms Albright back when she was US Ambassador to the UN in New York. I can let you in on a little secret regarding Madeleine Albright: she allowed me to smoke in her residence which took an entire floor at the Waldorf Astoria. She and I were breaking what was for the time a fairly liberal American law.
Question: Yesterday, Mr Tefft said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy that President Obama would take part in the Normandy format talks if he was invited.
Sergey Lavrov: Was he?
Question: That’s my question for you.
Sergey Lavrov: I missed this interview. How did that remark come about?
Question: I asked Tefft why the Americans are not participating in the Normandy format. Why they are not participating in this particular settlement process in Ukraine. He said that President Obama would be willing to take part in these negotiations, if he was invited.
Sergey Lavrov: The Normandy format was initiated by President Hollande. Perhaps, he is better positioned to answer this question.
Question: Does Russia have a position on whether the Americans should be involved in resolving the Ukraine crisis? They have no presence in Ukraine.
Sergey Lavrov: Everyone, including the President of the United States, supported the Minsk agreements of February 12, which Kiev fails to honour. From day one, they claimed that they had never assumed any obligations to listen to what Lugansk and Donetsk have to say about constitutional reform. That's a lie. Those obligations are spelled out in the Minsk agreements. Later, Kiev adopted a law on special status that turned things upside down and messed up the sequence of actions that Kiev had put its signature under.
If, like the rest of the world, the United States supports full compliance with the Minsk agreements, they have enormous leverage over the side that is not in compliance – the Ukrainian government.
Question: Do you believe that the Americans should participate?
Sergey Lavrov: I’m not sure about that. But the fact that the document signed on February 12 is by far the best compromise is recognised by all. Whether it would have been as good with President Obama involved in negotiations that night is anyone’s guess. This is a good instrument created by four leaders of the Normandy quartet. It must be acted upon. The United States can play an invaluable role, because its influence with Kiev is off the charts.
Question: You mentioned a topic that concerns many people who are interested in international politics. You said that the United States has been waging wars recently, which are not only illegal under international law, but hurt the United States itself. Why is this happening? Some people in Russia see far-reaching plans in such developments, including oil prices, etc. The supporters of these theories come up with a lot of examples, such as the bombing of Libya or toppling the Iraqi government, etc. The Americans that I spoke with, ranging from political pundits to current employees of the State Department, told me off the record that it’s the result of ignorance.
I have two stories to tell you that shocked me. I was talking once with a teacher I had back when I studied in the United States. She asked me when Russians’ feelings about the United States changed. I said that things changed dramatically in 1999 after the US started bombing Yugoslavia. It was an eye-opening experience for Russia and we started looking at the United States differently – at least my generation did. She said that the United States never bombed Yugoslavia. I told her about the bombing of Belgrade in 1999, and she said that it was the first time she heard about it, but that seemed impossible.
Sergey Lavrov: How old was she? And what could she have ever taught you?
Question: At that time, she was 50-something. This is not an isolated case. I told her to go ahead and Google it. When she came back after doing that, she looked like she had seen a ghost. She couldn’t believe she didn’t know anything about it. That’s a typical situation you encounter in the United States.
Sergey Lavrov: Which part of the country was it?
Question: New Hampshire, New England, not the boondocks. There’s an even worse story. I had an off-the-record meeting with a State Department official. I won’t give any names, but this person had lived in Russia for a while and went to other former Soviet republics with missions. We discussed various issues, including the war in Georgia. His wife couldn’t understand what we were talking about. I told her that the issue was about the 2008 war in Georgia. She said she didn’t know anything about it.
Sergey Lavrov: God bless her.
Question: The person was unaware of any conflict. We all remember the US Congress’ recent resolution on Ukraine which said that US President Barack Obama had extended a hand of friendship to Vladimir Putin, who attacked Georgia shortly after that. Barack Obama was not president at that time. Is this a cunning plan or plain ignorance?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the events in the Caucasus in August 2008, Vladimir Putin was the prime minister at that time, and when all of that began, he was in Beijing. He described how he had approached US President George W. Bush, who was there for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, and said he had received the news that Mikhail Saakashvili had attacked Tskhinval and [Russian] peacekeepers. According to Mr Putin, Mr Bush was slightly embarrassed, said it was a pity, and left. So of course it was not Barack Obama but George Bush.
Several months prior to that, in April 2008, President Bush, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other leaders of NATO member countries, had met in Bucharest, at a NATO summit, and adopted a document stating that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members. In my opinion, this played a significant role in Mr Saakashvili “flipping his lid” and deciding that he could do anything he liked. Especially considering that a couple of weeks prior to that, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had visited Tbilisi. Later, I asked her about the subject of their conversation. She said that she had urged Mr Saakashvili to move toward a political settlement.
As for what lies behind these events – the lack of professionalism or the desire to create controlled chaos, when it’s easier “to fish in murky waters” – I’ll say that I believe the Americans are not fools. Whatever they do, they do it consciously, although they have lost quite a few professionals. They used to have very competent and highly qualified Middle East experts. Now they have just a handful. Strategically, the US does not want a situation where “important” parts of the world live and prosper on their own, without the United States. It is important for Washington that somebody always depends on it: Israel in its confrontation with the Arabs and so on.
Question: Managed chaos?
Sergey Lavrov: In the final analysis, this is one way of putting it.
Regarding the Ukraine crisis, the US goal is to prevent Russia and the EU from deepening their partnership. Better still, roll back the prospect of such partnership, especially between Russia and Germany. I have no doubts whatsoever that this is its strategic goal. This is not simply my guess. I have sources that I trust. Plus, the crisis in Ukraine is the raison d’etre for NATO’s continued existence. At one point, Afghanistan was a unifying factor for the alliance. At that time [the US] urged [NATO] not to let its guard down, that it was necessary to forge a coalition with the participation of all NATO member countries and so on. Then the time came to withdraw troops. Everyone was tired of Afghanistan, understanding very well that a political settlement there was a long way off, especially in the presence of occupation forces. A new pretext was needed to preserve NATO’s cohesion.
Regarding the talk about the Americans training the Ukrainian army, I will say that, first, the US said it has been doing this for 20 years now. If this is so, they’re worthless as military instructors. The Ukrainian army is a shambles. Second, the US trained the army in Afghanistan and Iraq, but have these armies had any success combating terror? I don’t think so.
Question: When you mentioned the Russian-German union, I recalled that this concept has existed for more than a century. It belonged, in part, to Empress Alexandra. What are the prospects of this union? Are we going to divide Poland again? Russia and Germany are together; limitrophe states keep a low profile; we divide and suppress them quickly and spread from Cologne to Vladivostok…
Sergey Lavrov: You borrowed this concept from Empress Alexandra. I think that this union, in the form of an open partnership between Russia and Germany, is necessary not for dividing lands but to shake up the European Union. The line for upholding the interests of its member-countries should prevail in the EU. EU policy should not be placed at the disposal of some marginal entities that are following instructions from overseas.
Question: Do you think the United States is prohibiting Germany from creating this union, which looks so natural to you?
Sergey Lavrov: It is difficult to prohibit Germany from doing something. For the Germans this would be a national disgrace. I don’t think they will accept any interdictions, but Washington can do and is doing much to prevent Russian-German rapprochement.
Question: Are there any facts? Or do we simply know about it and that’s it?
Sergey Lavrov: There are facts but I cannot reveal them. We know what work the Americans are conducting in capitals, what messages they are bringing to Germany and many others. In one Eastern European country liberated by the Red Army American emissaries even demand that its government should speed up the dismantling of monuments to the heroes of World War II.
Question: Will you name it?
Sergey Lavrov: No.
Question: Who downed the Malaysian Boeing? What do you know about this?
Sergey Lavrov: I’d be grateful for information that could throw light on this tragedy. We are very concerned over the conduct of the investigation. It will soon be a year since the tragedy, and quite recently there was a report that Malaysian experts were finally allowed to visit the crash site. They brought out another two tonnes of fragments and remains with the assistance of representatives of the DPR security service. Why couldn’t this have been done immediately? Why were there so many incomprehensible delays? Why was it shrouded in a veil of secrecy? The investigation was conducted contrary to the rules of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and UN Security Council resolutions that required monthly progress reports. The Security Council is not receiving any reports at all. We are the only ones that are making a fuss about this.
The Dutch have published recently some interim information, asking to call back all those who can confirm the presence of a Buk missile in the vicinity of the crash site. Why aren't they showing other videos, and why aren't they asking to confirm this episode, or another, such as the one that involved a man who worked on the airfield and saw a fighter leaving with two missiles and returning with one? The eyewitness mentioned the pilot’s name. Why is nobody responding to our numerous questions about the promised data on the conversations of air traffic controllers?
Question: They were published in full by the Dutch press.
Sergey Lavrov: By the Dutch press? The conversations of Ukrainian air traffic controllers? If they were published in the Dutch press, why are our media keeping silent? I haven’t heard this. Please send me the relevant materials. (Note by the Foreign Ministry: a full transcript of the conversation between air traffic controllers has not been published).
The data promised by the US from satellites and AWACS aircraft that operated in the area in question on that day have never been published anywhere either.
Question: Sometimes it seems that Russia speaks through the Donetsk and Lugansk defenders (or separatists if you like) and the United States responds through Kiev. You and US Secretary of State John Kerry act as their “messengers” while the US and Russian Presidents do not meet or call each other. The level of trust is probably zero. This looks surreal.
Sergey Lavrov: The trouble is that, as I said, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation the day before the coup d'etat in Ukraine. Obama asked Putin to dissuade Viktor Yanukovych from sending in the army (which he was not going to do anyway). Putin assured him Russia would make every effort to calm things down, even support the agreement which, in fact, confirmed the surrender of the legitimately elected president. We were prepared to do it for the sake of stability in Ukraine. The Russian President, in turn, asked Obama to use his influence with the opposition to ensure they behave and not disrupt the process or use violence, as there had been plenty of sniper shootings, and the Party of Regions building was set on fire. Obama promised, and in the morning the government was overthrown. Yet, no one bothered to call from the United States to say that they did not forget about the agreement to ensure that all parties behaved, but they tried and failed. This is the least they could have done.
The same thing happened when we met in the Geneva format (US Secretary of State John Kerry, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) and adopted a Declaration that contained a provision for the immediate start of a constitutional reform process through dialogue involving all the regions and political forces. John Kerry was among those who signed it. When I reminded him about it a month later, he said it was very important, and the US was still trying to persuade Kiev. But now, when I mention the coup, the conversation with Obama and the Geneva Declaration of April 17, 2014, he says that was a long time ago, and right now we need to focus on addressing the current situation.
Question: But Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama haven’t talked.
Sergey Lavrov: I am not talking about that. Americans say ‘let bygones be bygones.’ But today’s situation stems from what happened then, from the fact that Ukraine was not forced to live up to its commitment of February 21, 2014 to form a government of national unity. Instead they were allowed to seize power and put together a ‘government of winners’, and say things like Russians should be removed from Crimea because they would never go to the Greek Catholic Church, or speak and think in Ukrainian and praise Bandera – something Dmytro Yarosh would say. This was said at the end of February 2014, before the Crimean events.
Frankly (I hope President Putin won’t be mad at me), the Russian President tells his partners that if they had forced the then opposition, which was determined to seize power, to abide by the terms of the February 21, 2014 Agreement and to avoid engaging in militant and violent Russophobia, the threats and attempted takeovers of buildings in Crimea and other places, President Viktor Yanukovych would have remained in office until the end of the year. He would not have been re-elected of course, but thousands and thousands of deaths would have been avoided. Tens of thousands of people would not have been wounded, and Russia would have continued selling gas to Ukraine at a discounted price and eagerly providing the remaining tranches of the 15 billion dollar loan. Things would have been done as agreed. What was the point of not doing just that?
Question: Crimea’s reunification with Russia.
Here is a question from a listener: she wants to know how you have time to get such a nice tan with your busy schedule.
Sergey Lavrov: Just dark complexion, I take after my mother and father.
Question: You smoke.
Sergey Lavrov: Not much.
Question: You are always smoking in photos.
Sergey Lavrov: That’s only one photo and it’s ten years old.
Question: Are there any meetings or telephone conversations planned between President Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama?
Sergey Lavrov: Not that I know of, but if the US President is interested in this kind of contact, I am confident that President Putin will respond.
Question: Will Sergey Lavrov ever run for president? You are ridiculously popular, no less than Sergey Shoigu.
Sergey Lavrov: I love my job and I will be working my hardest at this post.
Question: Many of the things you do at this post would be useful to a president.
Sergey Lavrov: I find it very easy to work with the president. I hope he is as comfortable working with me.
Question: We in Asia know better than to take such answers literally. Our listeners are probably thinking, he said ‘no’, so he means ‘yes’. The only question is whether he will run in 2018 or 2024.
Question: Continuing the US subject that we addressed an hour ago, I will say that when we meet with US diplomats they are terribly upset by the situation surrounding Edward Snowden. That was before [the crisis in] Ukraine. To the Americans, this is a shame that they perceive as a slap in the face, and they feel terribly hurt by Russia and personally by President Vladimir Putin over the fact that our country granted asylum to Mr Snowden. Do you think that Russia’s decision to grant asylum to Mr Snowden was a mistake, a planned action or just chance, and that we could not have acted in any other way?
Sergey Lavrov: It was just chance and we could not have acted in any other way. Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the issue in the most detailed way. Frankly speaking, I’m surprised that US diplomats are still giving you trouble on this issue. Over the past year, I did not hear anything about this either from US Secretary of State John Kerry or from his staff. Nor has anybody given the Russian Embassy in Washington any trouble.
Question: To set the record straight, we would like to say that, together with Alexey Venediktov, we attended a closed event with a high-ranking US diplomat. As soon as the subject of Russian-US relations came up the first thing he said was: “What about Edward Snowden?”
Sergey Lavrov: The United States grabs, kidnaps and abducts Russian citizens all over the world, despite a Russian-US document whereby it should at the very least inform us about the fact that a certain citizen has committed a crime and he needs to be investigated. It keeps seizing and abducting Russians. Such incidents continue. One happened just recently. We're dealing with it.
Now, what about Mr Snowden? He boarded a plane. He was en route, I believe, to some place in South America, and he was to change planes. While he was flying to Moscow the United States annulled his passport, which it announced officially. We even had no legal grounds to take him off the plane and put him on another. As he disembarked, he requested asylum and it was granted to him because he was persecuted, and it was a complex situation. There are people in the US Administration who understand that something is wrong here, and that those who are demanding his extradition are not 100 per cent correct.
Question: We at Russia Today consider him a hero.
Sergey Lavrov: Many people in the United States consider him a hero, and they have event erected a makeshift monument to him.
It was just chance. When we were confronted with it, we had no other option but to give him an opportunity to remain in safety in a place where he wanted to be.
Question: “No one is extradited from the Don?” [reference to 18th century Don Cossacks who refused to extradite fugitives from justice].
Sergey Lavrov: “No one is extradited from the Don.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated repeatedly that we proceed based on the assumption that he will not engage in political activity, that this is a purely humanitarian gesture and that if he wants to go somewhere, this is his right.
Question: I constantly hear complaints in remarks by all of our official representatives. We have turned into a country of complaints. There are complaints about Ukraine. No offence meant, but I’d like to list the complaints you have just made: Libya and Yemen [among others]. You said Yemen has double standards and Ukraine does not honour the Minsk agreements. Even during the last hour, speaking with us, you complained about Syria, Libya, Yemen and Ukraine. Are we a country of complaints? Are we constantly in retreat? Are we being hurt all the time?
Sergey Lavrov: Why do you call this a complaint? You asked about our take on this situation. I tell you that our partners are taking the wrong line in combatting terrorism and I give examples.
Question: A major aspect is initiative in the world. We don’t have the initiative, either in Yemen or Syria. We used to have it, but now we don’t. We didn’t have it in Libya and we don’t have it in Ukraine. We keep saying that “they” violated agreements or did or didn’t do this or that. We keep talking like a nagging shrew, we keep complaining.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t agree.
Let’s start with Syria. I believe that we have made a huge contribution to preventing a repetition of the Libyan scenario there, and I hope it won’t be implemented there in the future either. We prevented the approval of foreign military interference. The scale of current interference is incomparable to what would have happened had not Russia and China vetoed the adoption of such a resolution (in the UN Security Council). We initiated inter-Syrian meetings, the second round of which has just ended in Moscow. During one of them a 10-clause Moscow Platform was adopted. It was the first time that the broad opposition, rather than one of opposition groups, agreed on something with Syrian government representatives. This has created conditions for the UN, which was “slumbering” on the issue of Syria for the past two years, to start acting. There will now be contacts under the UN auspices, which have been largely made possible through our efforts.
We have done a great deal in Yemen to prod the situation towards a political solution. We are not doing this single-handedly; we have partners who fully share our approach to the regional issues.
I don’t want to praise our actions in Ukraine, but the Minsk Agreements, both the ones reached in September and those we signed in February, which are the main underlying document, were a direct result of the initiatives advanced by President Vladimir Putin following his talks with President Poroshenko. We are definitely not complaining.
Question: Can this be considered our victory?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not about victories.
Question: Unfortunately, the Minsk process has stalled, and we understand that this is happening because of the US stance. How long will the Americans keep this process stationary? The answer is, as long as they want. It can be two years or even ten years.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think they will be able to do this for ten years or even for two years.
Sergey Lavrov: Because the Ukrainian state is immensely fragile, and keeping it in this situation means running the risk of letting it break.
Question: The Americans won’t allow this to happen?
Sergey Lavrov: I think they are aware of the risk.
Question: Please explain something for me. The S-300 missile systems, the delivery of which we have decided to resume to Iran because this is not prohibited by sanctions, and the global BMD system are both air defence systems. However, Russia claims that the S-300 is a defence system that won’t complicate the situation in the region, but that the BMD system, which is a defence system, is complicating the global situation. It sounds like two different systems of logic. Are they both defence systems, or is only one of them a defence system?
Sergey Lavrov: No, the logic is the same in both cases. First, the S-300 cannot be used for protection against nuclear weapons. The BMD system is designed for protection against strategic weapons, offensive nuclear weapons.
The S-300 is only good for protection against non-strategic missiles, against air strikes. BMD is quite another matter; it concerns the capabilities of strategic nuclear deterrence forces. This is why we are closely monitoring what the Americans are doing. We have clearly explained the political aspects of our position; on the practical side, we are taking the necessary measures to prevent the BMD system from disrupting strategic balance and parity.
Question: Will the potential deliveries of the S-300 – as far as I know, the delivery schedule has not been coordinated yet – exacerbate the situation and change the balance of forces in the region?
Sergey Lavrov: What do you mean by “exacerbate”? That those who want to deliver a strike at Iran will have to think at least twice before doing it?
Question: And will also supply drones to Ukraine? I’m referring to Israel.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know anything about Israel’s plans to supply drones to Ukraine.
Question: Is this speculation?
Sergey Lavrov: There have long been speculations on this issue, but no evidence.
As for the S-300, President Obama’s initial reaction was quite unusual. He said he was surprised the ban held this long, since 2009, that we could have delivered these weapons earlier. He then said that we suspended the delivery at the US’ request, but he still didn’t think that the ban would hold for five years. But yesterday he said a completely different thing. He said they object to the talks on the deal. So much for whom to trust and how to deal with our American partners, who keep zigzagging and changing their minds.
We are in the right, and we haven’t violated anything. In the past, we did it (suspended the delivery) to encourage Iran to take a more constructive stand at the talks, and it worked – we have reached an important stage at the talks, we have coordinated the political framework for a settlement, which is now being translated into practical agreements. The developments in Yemen and the rest of the region point to huge risks. We don’t want Iran to become another target for the illegitimate use of force.
Question: Carlos Mendez Mendoza from Mexico is asking why Russia does not deploy nuclear weapons in a Latin American country to contain the advancement of NATO to its borders advocated by the US.
It is from Latin America that many questions of this kind are coming. Rodrigo from Brazil is asking whether Russia will set up a military base in Venezuela. Juan Guillermo Lima Clara, also from Brazil, wants to know whether a BRICS army is in the pipeline. All in all, Latin America loves Russia and wants more of it. Where do we stand on this issue?
Sergey Lavrov: Regarding nuclear weapons, I think that everyone understands that we must cut short any actions aimed at nuclear proliferation. This goes for geographical proliferation, as well as having new countries acquire nuclear capability. The US has violated the NPT by deploying tactical nuclear weapons in five European countries. What’s more, there is a NATO programme whereby citizens of these five countries, i.e. NATO members other than the US, are involved in maintaining and learning how to handle tactical nuclear weapons systems. This poses a great risk for the NPT. We are calling attention to this matter. It is not our belief that Russia’s security should be enhanced by deploying nuclear arsenals beyond its borders.
Question: And what about conventional weapons?
Sergey Lavrov: As for conventional weapons of the Russian Federation, including its navy, air force and strategic aviation…
Question: Also, the question from Venezuela on military bases.
Sergey Lavrov: I’m talking about conventional weapons. Russia seeks to ensure that its armed forces have the capability to carry out a mission in any part of the world. This goes for the long-distance campaigns of our navy and long-distance flights of our strategic aviation. We use airfields and ports, and are ready to talk to other countries about creating logistics and technical support hubs. Our ships and aircraft have visited, among others, Venezuela and other countries in the region. We are interested in doing this on a regular basis. That said, we don’t see any need for a military base as the US understands it, i.e. a fortification filled with cutting-edge weapons. What we need are places where our ships and aircraft can land, take on fuel, where their crews can get some rest, replenish. We’ll increase the number of these kinds of locations.
Question: Earlier, you mentioned that NATO had discussed with you the flights of Russia’s long-range aviation and navy campaigns, lamenting the lack of coordination mechanisms and proposing new ones. Could you tell us who raised this issue with you, on what level, when did it happen, and what are the prospects for such coordination?
Sergey Lavrov: As I’ve already said, not unless they raise this issue with us officially.
Question: So far there have been no inquiries to this effect, correct?
Sergey Lavrov: There were no official inquiries, only suggestions during conversations mostly focused on aviation flights, exercises on the border between Russia and NATO. Ships have not been discussed.
Question: Can you share your perspective on the possibility of Russia and Iran forming a full military alliance. We have common enemies, it seems.
Sergey Lavrov: We have a military-political alliance in the form of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Iran has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is not a military structure, but is involved in addressing common threats, including terrorism. There is the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure within the SCO, in which both SCO members and observers are involved. This is the mechanism we created to counter our common enemy, which is terrorism. We are cooperating with Iran within this framework quite successfully.
Question: Imagine a Russia-Iran military alliance. Why not? By the way, this is the most recurrent question from our listeners in Iran. Many people are asking about it. They are saying that Russia’s stance on Iran used to seem cold, but now you can ask anyone on Iranian cities’ streets and they will tell you that Russia stands up for Iranian interests and helps the country.
Sergey Lavrov: I strongly believe that neither Russia, nor Iran need a military alliance. We haven’t received any proposals to this effect from Iran. I think this is totally unrealistic and unnecessary.
Question: Sorry for interrupting you, but Iran’s Defence Minister, during his visit to Moscow three days ago, made a public proposal on the creation of a military-political alliance between India, China, Iran and Russia.
Sergey Lavrov: This is a different matter. India, China, Iran and Russia all operate within the SCO where members or observers are working together proactively in the counter-terrorist body. They can also cooperate during regular military exercises, which are mostly focused on combatting terrorism or dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters and other emergencies. I’m confident that this is enough for promoting such ideas. Iran’s Defence Minister attended the Security Conference in Moscow along with Defence Ministers from several dozen other countries.
As for the sentiment among Iranians towards Russia, I think that this is the way it is.
Question: I have another question. You seem to be talking more positively about an alliance with Germany than with Iran. Don’t you think the focus on Europe has become obsolete?
Sergey Lavrov: I was not talking about a military-political alliance with Germany, but about cooperation that is designed to encourage the EU to act independently. This is what I said.
Sergey Lavrov: As for our role regarding Iran, it has been recognised universally. The agreement that has been formulated politically and sealed in Lausanne is based on the concept of mutuality and phasing, which we advanced several years ago. On the practical plane, it includes proposals on the scale of Iran’s nuclear programme, which have to be put on paper still but which have been approved in principle ad referendum. Many of these solutions have been prepared by Russian experts. By and large, this agreement takes into account our cooperation with Iran in nuclear energy, which has never been restricted even despite the sanctions. This agreement will soon be confirmed as an absolutely legitimate aspect of our cooperation with Iran.
Of course, we’ll develop our military technical cooperation with Iran. This includes the S-300 systems. The UN Security Council restrictions on arms deliveries to Iran will be lifted. The outlook is very good, and so we’ll be able to do a great deal in the military technical area.
Question: You mentioned the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. What is the probability that terrorists or states that support terrorists can get hold of WMDs, including nuclear weapons? Has this threat increased? Or are the great powers keeping it at bay so far?
Sergey Lavrov: There is such a threat. Many years ago, when I was Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, we initiated a UN Security Council resolution, which the United States and the other permanent council members – France, the UK and China – supported. That resolution provided for preparing, with international supervision, solid national measures and practices for reducing the risk of nuclear materials and weapons components falling into the hands of non-state actors. This term includes terrorist and other criminal groups. That resolution created the basis for an effective system for the exchange of information and experience, and the spread of the mechanisms that have been used effectively by some countries to other countries. Based on that resolution, we drafted the Russian-American global initiative to combat nuclear terrorism. It is an example of how progressive methods, technology and equipment can be used to expose and prevent potential threats.
Question: The risks haven’t grown then?
Sergey Lavrov: At the least, we haven’t recorded any cases or facts of non-state actors getting hold of nuclear weapon components.
Question: It is common knowledge that President Barack Obama and the Americans have repeatedly suggested making further cuts in Russian and US nuclear arsenals. What is the current Russian position?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, the nuclear zero concept is largely a myth. We didn’t just set the goal of scrapping all nuclear weapons in the world. We set the goal of making the world safe. This means that we should take into account new technologies that have been created and are being created in the military and military-technological spheres since the invention of nuclear weapons, technologies that influence strategic stability and are possibly more effective from the military point of view. The US, for example, is developing hypersonic weapons that will be non-nuclear but they will be strategic. This programme is known as Prompt Global Strike and its aim is to deliver this sort of strike at any location in the world within one hour of being so decided. These weapons will be more “humane,” of course, if you wish, by comparison with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki radiation disasters. But they will be more powerful than nuclear weapons and more effective militarily.
Apart from that, there is a big issue that is related to US plans to launch weapons to outer space and to tackle the same objectives from there. We hope that neither nuclear nor non-nuclear weapons will be deployed in space. A few years ago, the Russian Federation and the PRC proposed a draft treaty on non-deployment of weapons in space, which was supported by everyone, including Europe. But the draft was turned down by the US which doesn’t want to sign the treaty and this of course leads to certain conclusions.
Also, we should, of course, take into account the BMD factor. If we imagine for an instant that no one has nuclear weapons, while the Americans have supersonic and hyper-powerful strategic non-nuclear weapons and a BMD system protected from everyone, the combination we get is quite dangerous. When someone has both the “shield” and the “sword,” the temptation is certain to increase.
There is the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) that can come into force only if ratified by a certain number of countries that it mentions, including the United States. While running for his first term of office, President Obama promised to ratify the CTBT. Yet another promise of his was to close the Guantanamo Bay Base, which he didn’t carry out, nor ever will. Today the Americans are saying that the stumbling block is Congress that cannot authorise either the closure or the ratification, for which reason we should forget about any other aspects of strategic stability except nuclear weapons.
Let’s not forget that there is a huge conventional arms imbalance in favour of NATO and if we look at the size of military budgets, there is no point in further argument. Therefore, we should apply a comprehensive approach to any further cuts in strategic offensive weapons, taking into account all factors, including non-nuclear strategic weapons, BMD, non-deployment of weapons in space, and a number of other aspects.
Question: There is an initiative which, I quote you, was supported by almost the entire world, including Europe, but was not supported by the US. The day after tomorrow, most of the world will commemorate a horrible tragedy – the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It’s a major event for Armenia, many people have come to the country – state leaders, stars, including Hollywood stars… President Putin will travel to Armenia, as will you. We receive a lot of questions on this issue from Armenia as well as from Turkey and Azerbaijan. With your permission, I will ask two of them.
Nedjad Gadjiyev from Azerbaijan asks: “Don’t you think that Vladimir Putin’s decision to visit Yerevan for the anniversary of the Armenian genocide will spoil Russia’s relations with Turkey and possibly with Azerbaijan?” And a question from someone in Armenia: “Don’t you think that this surge of opinion in connection with the anniversary of the genocide – after all, Armenia was visited by Kim Kardashian, who is likely more popular in the US than even Barack Obama – will lead to the US recognising the Armenian genocide with all the ensuing consequences?”
Sergey Lavrov: I will not make guesses regarding what the United States will or will not do. It’s up to them to decide. Each country takes decisions on its own. We took ours long ago. As far as I know, so did many other countries. The day of remembrance for victims of mass crimes cannot be interpreted as a pretext for spoiling relations with both governments based in the territory where these crimes were perpetrated and with other governments. Let me give you some examples of reconciliation after World War II: the reconciliation between Russia and Germany and between France and Germany. There are many other examples, primarily in Europe.
We certainly would like Armenian-Turkish relations to be normalised. We want resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which will help normalise relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia is doing a lot to this end. A few years ago, we supported a process initiated by Ankara and Yerevan, which wanted to draft documents on the opening of borders, mutual recognition, development of cooperation, etc. The documents were signed but, regrettably, they never came into force because at that stage Turkey failed to have them ratified. Russia will do all it can to make this happen.
Where the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is concerned, I think we have done and are continuing to do more than anyone else to find solutions to this highly complicated, albeit resolvable, crisis. We are working jointly with the Americans and the French as the troika of cochairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group. We maintain regular contact with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. President Vladimir Putin also discusses this theme regularly during his contacts with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. There is a chance to find a generally acceptable basis for progress. We hope that the upcoming contacts, including in Yerevan, and the Azerbaijan Foreign Minister’s visit to Moscow in May of this year will accelerate this issue. In our view, a solution is long overdue.
Question: I have a question about Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the Victory Day celebrations. A year ago, the Russian media speculated that this year we would have a joint Victory Parade, inferring that Belarusians would march alongside Russian troops in Red Square, because of a tight union between our countries. It appears that over the past year Belarus decided against “compromising” itself with a close friendship with Russia. President Lukashenko will be in Belarus on May 9. I know that a military parade will be held in Minsk. But if my information is correct, we planned to hold a joint parade a year ago?
Sergey Lavrov: Don’t worry, units of the Belarusian armed forces will take part in the Victory Day parade in Red Square. As for why President Lukashenko won’t be in Moscow on May 9, the Russian President’s Executive Office has issued a statement. Mr Lukashenko will be in Moscow on May 8 for the events planned for that day, after which he will return for the Victory Day parade in his country. But Belarusian military personnel, along with servicemen from the CIS and many other countries, will take part in the Victory Day parade in Moscow.
Question: Do you have a feeling of “conspicuous absence”?
Sergey Lavrov: No.
Question: Or that Mr Lukashenko has “traded” us for Europe’s pardon?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think so.
Question: I’d like to talk about the moot case of Nadezhda Savchenko. She is under investigation in Russia, in pretrial detention, but she is a member of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada and hence has parliamentary immunity. She is also a member of the PACE, in which Russia is represented so far, and hence has that body’s immunity too. International organisations continue to remind us of this. Besides, the Minsk Agreements stipulate the release and exchange of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons, based on the principle “all for all.” So, I’m saying that this is a legally moot case, regardless of the charges that have been brought against her but have not yet been proved in accordance with Russian laws.
Sergey Lavrov: Nadezhda Savchenko is suspected of committing a grave crime, of complicity in actions that resulted in the death of Russian journalists. I don’t believe we can remain indifferent to the investigation. As for the legal aspects of this case, I have the following to say. Savchenko was arrested before she became a member of the Ukrainian parliament and the Ukrainian delegation at the PACE. This is the first fact we must take into account. The second fact is that we are talking about functional immunity here. It is applied to persons performing their state functions, in her case as a member of the Ukrainian parliament or the PACE – nothing more.
As for exchanging people “all for all,” Nadezhda Savchenko is not a hostage. She has been arrested on suspicion of being involved in a crime. In her case, one could cite a different part of the Minsk Agreements, which concerns pardon and amnesty for persons in connection with the events that took place in southeast Ukraine. But an amnesty can only be granted to those who have been tried and found guilty. If a court rules in favour of Savchenko, we will have no further questions for her. But if a court decides that she is guilty, then Savchenko could be included in the amnesty, if I am interpreting the Minsk Agreements correctly.
Ukrainian diplomats have consular access to Nadezhda Savchenko, who has also been visited by her sister and, several times, by German and Ukrainian doctors. I hope that everyone is aware of this humanitarian aspect of the situation, and that our foreign partners will not try to use it to their own advantage.
Question: I have a question about international jurisdiction. It appears that the UN Security Council has become absolutely impotent. There have been numerous clashes of interest between its permanent members, in particular between Russia and the United States. Decisions on the most important questions have been blocked. I see this as impotence. What does Russia think on changing the powers of the UN Security Council? For example, France has proposed regulating the use of veto.
Sergey Lavrov: Are you referring to political Viagra?
Question: Yes. Do you have this political Viagra for the UN Security Council?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think that the Security Council is completely helpless. This is what people say who don’t like the use of the right to veto, for example when the Americans prevented the adoption of a resolution on the Palestinian settlement, or when Russia and China voted against a resolution that would have unleashed a war in Syria with the Security Council approval. These are two very different standpoints, don’t you think?
We spoke against approving a war because we had in mind the negative examples of Libya and Iraq, while the United States blocked resolutions that were designed to promote a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Anyway, the number of the UN Security Council resolutions adopted in the past few years is much larger than the number of resolutions that were voted down. For example, it adopted very important resolutions on peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Chad. Developments in Ukraine have overshadowed these crises. But they are a very big problem for a huge continent. People cannot lead normal lives in their countries or use their rich natural resources because of the never-ending conflicts between them. In a way, this is a historical curse, because the way the colonisers marked state borders was by drawing a straight line with a ruler, dividing ethnic groups into two or even three parts. Problems have been brewing because Hutu, Tutsi and other ethnic groups were divided between several countries.
Question: Prior to that they were also continuously divided.
Sergey Lavrov: Here, they were “sawn” in half and “doled out” to different countries, and things became even more complicated.
When colonialism was terminated as a result of national liberation struggles, the wise African leaders, who were establishing the Organisation of African Unity, agreed not to touch the borders. Of course, now it is difficult to control what is going on there. It is important to provide help, and the UN Security Council is actively working on this.
I’ll mention another Security Council decision, which doesn’t look “impotent” at all, specifically the resolution for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. A highly effective mechanism was put into place, which brought the sought-after result in a year. I wouldn’t so indiscriminately disparage the UN Security Council. It was created to enable the great powers to come to terms among themselves. If they don’t agree and one of them wields veto power, it means the idea that has not been adopted is not good enough to ensure cooperation between the great powers. This is part of the UN Charter, so there should be no complaints. Veto power is part of the crisis resolution process.
Question: There are a lot of questions about the sanctions. It may be interesting for you to know that for the most part Russia is criticised for retaliating too weakly. Western, not Russian, people write: “When will Russia ban Coca Cola and McDonalds?” and “When will US companies be barred from the Russian market?”
Do you expect the sanctions to be lifted in September?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, honestly, I can’t say that I’m terribly concerned about this issue. I’m concerned about the general character of relations, primarily with the European Union and of course the US. We are certainly not interested in being in a constant state of crisis. Why am I not concerned by the sanctions as such? The main reason is that in any event, we need to develop the production of the overwhelming majority of goods, especially high-tech goods, that are related to our goals of ensuring national defence capability and of course food security. I believe we can feed ourselves. However, this does not mean that we should reject the diversity that is offered by the imports from our partner countries, especially when trade is balanced, mutually beneficial and based on understandable rules.
Not long ago I was at a restaurant. The cheese menu read: “Cheeses according to French and Dutch recipes.” I asked where they were made. They said: “In France and the Netherlands. We write this so we don’t get caught in the act.”
Question: Forty minutes ago, the European Commission accused Gazprom of violating antitrust and competition rules. A massive raid has begun. Is the Foreign Ministry involved in defending Gazprom’s interests in (other) countries?
Sergey Lavrov: We certainly are. In my opinion, we’re actively promoting our simple and logical arguments: All of Gazprom’s standing contracts with its partners were signed in full compliance with the legal regulations that existed at that time in the European Union. When the EU adopted the so-called Third Energy Package, which requires that production, transit, consumption and distribution be separated, there were attempts – which continue – to extend these requirements retroactively to old contracts. This is absolutely unacceptable if only because we have the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU of 1994, which is still in effect. It states that the signatories pledge not to take any action that can worsen the business environment. We have bilateral agreements on protecting investment with a number of EU countries, which forbid the worsening of the business environment. We have arguments [to back our case with]. An antitrust investigation is something the European Commission planned and warned about a long time ago. The company’s offices were searched.
Question: You’re a sensible person and you realise that the rules of international politics today are that there are no rules anymore. Do you believe in legal tools?
Sergey Lavrov: I said they exist and of course they should be used.
Question: What do you think Gazprom’s relations with Europe will be like in five years or so?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that agreements will be reached. I’m sure that the new projects currently under discussion, mainly the Turkish Stream (or whatever they decide to call it), are in Europe’s interests. This is our feeling.
There are contacts between Russia and European Energy Commission representatives. Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, who met with Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak in January, proposed resuming the energy dialogue. We’re in favour of this. Let’s sit down and reach an agreement. Of course, rules are not written so they can never be changed. They are written to record a level of development that has been achieved in a certain area.
I’m confident that the Third Energy Package is good for new projects. Nevertheless, it cannot retroactively affect what was created when these new rules didn’t exist.
Question: Many officials, including [in] the Russian government, like quoting Alexander III, who said that Russia has only two allies: the army and the navy. Everyone laughs and applauds, forgetting that exactly a year after that remark was made, the Entente was created, while the Russian tsar stood saluting the Marseillaise, when the French president arrived here on a visit. Naturally, Russia, just as Britain, has its interests, but not permanent allies.
Now that [our] relations with NATO, the West and the United States are frozen, what is our interest and who is our consistent ally, except the army and the navy?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, I’m often asked this question. Russia has formal allies: the CSTO. There is a lot of speculation on why not everyone “sings the same tune,” pardon the phrase. We don’t have rigorous discipline. We respect our partners’ political nuances. The most important thing is that we have absolutely unanimous positions and actions in ensuring the security of CSTO member countries: military and technical cooperation and collective forces both to repel threats and for peacekeeping operations. Of course, they are our allies.
We have true strategic partners: the SCO members and the BRICS countries. I see no need to declare all [countries] our allies, as in NATO: You will only become an ally when you become a member.
Why did our attempt to ensure equal and undivided security through the OSCE fail? Because it was not legally guaranteed. NATO member countries, above all, the Americans, said in no uncertain terms: Only NATO members can have legal security guarantees. This is a provocation which means that they effectively invite everyone to break away from other partners and join the alliance. This is the eastward expansion of the dividing lines that everyone undertook to eliminate after the Cold War.
Ally is a word that is now becoming part of the “either with us, or against us” dilemma. This is wrong. We are for developing relations with all those who are willing, on the basis of mutual respect and a balance of interests.
Question: There is the view that after the events in Ukraine, Crimea and the southeast [of Ukraine], our long-standing and close allies became jittery. I’m referring to the post-Soviet space.
We are not talking about the Baltics now, because writing and talking about Russia’s alleged plans to attack them is pure schizophrenia. But people start to wonder and become nervous, for example in Kazakhstan, which has a large Russian minority. Is this happening or not? Or do they understand our position, our actions? What can you say based on your communication with them?
Sergey Lavrov: They understand us. Even when you say that Crimea is a reason for someone to become concerned, President Putin has clearly explained what happened there in Andrei Kondrashov’s documentary “Crimea: The Way Home.” He made the decision only when he saw what kind of people had come to power in Ukraine and how they got there, after the Western countries’ promises and guarantees sealed in an agreement on February 21, 2014 were spurned and calls were made to cleanse Crimea of Russians.
I’d like to remind you about President Obama’s interview with CNN late last year, in which he praised his far-sightedness and got personal, comparing himself and Putin. It was clear that he was piqued. He said that Putin had been presented as the chess master who has outmanoeuvred the West, but the West has struck back, and look at where the Russian economy is now! He takes pride in “ruining” the Russian economy and leaving it “in tatters,” as he put it. While praising his policy and denying Russia any ability to plan ahead, he acknowledged that the United States had brokered a deal to transition power in Ukraine. He alleged that Putin was caught off balance and had to improvise in Crimea. It was a Freudian slip. In fact, Obama admitted that the Russian President was right and that he told the truth when explaining what convinced him to take the decision on Crimea.
Question: Never mind Obama. We’ve heard all these arguments before. What about Kazakhstan and Belarus? Does President Nazarbayev understand this? Does he share President Putin’s vision?
Sergey Lavrov: I can assure you that our neighbours understand this very well. (Addressing Margarita Simonyan) You can tell this to the lady who taught you in New Hampshire.
Remark: Thank God she didn’t teach me history or political science.
Question: As I see it, there is also the economic aspect, aside from the army and the navy. There are economically attractive countries. Paul Kennedy wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that some countries are attractive to other countries, and there are also countries which all other countries avoid. Is it difficult to be the foreign minister of a weak and weakening Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: I’ve never noticed anyone avoiding me or Russia. I fully agree with you that the economy is the keystone, above all because everything a state does must improve people’s lives, which is impossible to do without a strong economy.
Speaking about the need to fill in the empty space, this concerns the resources we have in Siberia and the Far East, which we need to develop. The main thing, as President Putin said more than once, we need to diversify. We won’t get far on oil and gas dependence.
Question: In fact, I intended it as veiled flattery. I wanted to say that the price of mistakes is immense for weak countries or countries in a precarious position. The Americans can make mistakes and still come out smelling of roses, and all other countries will continue to look up to them. The United States can be the last to join the North Korean issue, and then elbow its way to the forefront. But you cannot make such mistakes. Is it very difficult?
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot assess my own work. Only those who don’t do anything don’t make mistakes. I will listen to what people have to say about us, primarily Russian citizens.
Question: Mr Lavrov, do we need a world policeman or world policemen? We see the development of conflicts in some countries and between countries. You mentioned Africa, Rwanda, where 800,000 people were slaughtered with clubs and machetes. They didn’t perish in a missile raid. But nobody interfered, including the UN Security Council. It is taking too long to act. My question is, Do we need to interfere to restore order? Or should we let them kill each other? After all, we have our own zone of interests.
Sergey Lavrov: I have cited the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and decisions. A large number of peacekeeping operations have been held in Africa in the past few years, including in Congo. The mandate has been upgraded to introduce special force intervention units. These operations are conducted in accordance with specific rules, but this is a fundamentally new achievement. To a large extent, the enhanced attention to African issues can be explained by the lessons of the Rwandan genocide. It was a long time ago, when I was stationed in New York.
As for world policemen, the UN Charter stipulates the use of armed forces of the member states. The UN founding fathers believed that they might need a military component and that it should not be some coalition force created outside the UN. There is the UN Interim Force in Lebanon and the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights. But these are the forces that keep the peace, the peacekeeping forces. In other words, when agreements are reached [between conflicting sides], UN peacekeeping forces are deployed to the area to ensure their implementation. They are not sent in to police the conflict areas or to suppress those who start using armed force.
Question: Do you want such a force to be sent to Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: No.
Question: Why not?
Sergey Lavrov: Because everything Kiev has proposed and done seems to be aimed at splitting the country, to smother the DPR and the LPR or to evict them from the Ukrainian state. This is the goal of the economic embargo, the suspended benefit payments, and refusal to speak with those who signed the Minsk Agreements on behalf of Donetsk and Lugansk. They only agree to speak with those who will replace these people.
The deployment of the UN peacekeeping forces implies digging trenches and dugouts. It implies physically cutting off part of the country. I don’t know why they need this. Maybe Kiev wants to distract our attention from their misinterpretation and distortion of the Minsk Agreements. Compliance with the agreements is monitored by the OSCE, and its role is set out in detail in a document that was prepared after 17 long hours of negotiations in Minsk. No one mentioned UN or EU peacekeepers in Minsk.
Question: A minute before we end this interview, I will ask a question that is troubling many in Russia. People in Russia like you for your inner fury in the best sense of the word. My personal favourite is the rumour according to which you have told the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, using a four-letter word, “Who are you to f*** lecture me?” Is it true?
Sergey Lavrov: I did tell Miliband, “Don’t lecture me.” As for the four-letter word, it was a quote from a colleague of ours who had just returned from Tbilisi – it was on August 12, 2008 – and told me: “I’ve returned from Tbilisi. Mikheil Saakashvili is a f*** lunatic.” Miliband was trying to convince me to negotiate with Saakashvili.