Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini

Submitted on Mon, 04/24/2017 - 14:30

Moscow, April 24, 2017

The negotiations were quite useful. We held substantive discussions on the key aspects of the current state of Russia-EU relations that are going through difficult times. At the same time, I can tell you that during these talks no one lectured the other and we tried to hear each other. I believe that this is the only right approach.

Russia continues to view the European Union, first of all, as a neighbour and, secondly, as our main trade and economic partner, which is a fact. We are convinced that development of bilateral ties based on the principles of equality and mutual respect meets the long-term interests of our peoples and, besides that, will help strengthen global and regional security and stability.

We reaffirmed our mutual desire to intensify political dialogue, which, we believe, should become regular. We considered the state of sectoral cooperation, including energy, transport, academic, cultural and humanitarian exchanges, as well as environmental protection. Difficult problems that need joint decisions have accumulated in a number of these spheres. In this context, we drew our partners’ attention to the importance of cooperation through sectoral dialogue formats that had been frozen on Brussels initiative.

We also touched upon the ongoing campaign in the media. I believe that we heard each other as regards unacceptability of the attempts to restrict media or use them for any internal political purposes.

We told our partners about the development of Eurasian integration, in particular from the point of view of its role in the Russia-EU dialogue. We had presented our partners a proposal on establishing direct contacts between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the EU. We are ready to a pragmatic discussion of these ideas, especially considering that they can really help enhancing the competitiveness and integration in the Greater Eurasia that obviously includes the European Union. We have never abandoned the long-term strategic goal of creating a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific based on the principle of equal and indivisible security.

We also talked about some positive advances that have taken place over the past 18 months in the efforts to build up our cooperation on terrorism, drug trafficking and illegal migration. As I have said, we noted with satisfaction the resumption of our dialogue on counterterrorism after a long pause.  

We discussed the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily in Syria. The developments in Libya, Iraq and Yemen are of course a matter of concern for Russia and the European Union. We told our partners about the efforts Russia is taking to promote a settlement of the Syrian crisis through an inclusive national dialogue, making effective use of the Astana process. We expressed our support for the intra-Syrian consultations in Geneva under the UN auspices. These talks should be conducted in strict compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

As you know, we have been working with the European Union in the framework of implementation of the agreements on the Iranian nuclear programme.

We discussed Ukraine. Both sides confirmed that there is no alternative to full implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures. We presented Russia’s fact-based assessment of the obstacles that still hamper implementation of the Minsk agreements, primarily, Kiev’s refusal to affirm the very concept of the document adopted in February 2015 in Minsk. Our Ukrainian neighbours are trying to change the agreements, drastically rewrite them and bend them to their interests, which of course would lead the process to a deadlock. Let me reiterate that Russia has presented the facts. I expect that our EU colleagues in their work with the Ukrainian Government will push for strict compliance with the Minsk agreements. As a guarantor of these agreements, we are ready to do our part of the job in full. We will influence Lugansk and Donetsk so that there are advancements on their part as well when Kiev finally begins fulfilling its commitments.

Overall, the talks confirmed that there are many issues on which our positions differ. It is clear that this is to a large extent attributable to the general context of our relations that resulted from the EU’s reaction to actions by the Russian Federation in the context of the events that preceded the anti-constitutional government coup in Ukraine and the events that followed, dictated by the need to prevent infringement on the rights of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population.

Nevertheless, let me reiterate despite this systemic problem that we do not conceal, we want to continue the dialogue, which is a good thing in itself. Let us hope that in the end of the day a reasonable and fact-based assessment of what happened and is happening prevails. In any case, we are neighbours and have to live side by side. It is better to discuss problems rather than making them artificial obstacles to the dialogue.

I am grateful to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini for our joint work.

Question (for Sergey Lavrov and Federica Mogherini): Have you discussed reciprocal sanctions and prospects for a system-wide revision of Russia-EU relations? Russia made such a proposal a year ago. Ukrainian officials do not hide the fact that the current Verkhovna Rada will not consider the laws that are necessary for full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Does Federica Mogherini discuss this issue with Kiev? Is it possible that sanctions will be lifted before the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, in case there is progress in their implementation?

Sergey Lavrov: First, as Federica Mogherini mentioned, we both agree that yesterday's incident near the contact line in Donbass should be thoroughly and quickly investigated in a completely transparent manner. Whoever is responsible for this incident, this person or these people should be held accountable. Once again, we express our condolences to our American colleagues who lost one of their citizens and wish a speedy recovery to those who were wounded in this incident. To reiterate, we share the view that all the facts should be collected and that we should prevent this tragedy from triggering political speculation.

With regard to the sanctions, this topic came up in our conversation. As you know, we ourselves never raise this issue, but it came up inevitably, because, as you rightly noted, it is part of those artificial problems that accumulate in our relations with the European Union. Federica Mogherini said an interesting thing to the effect that the EU wants everyone to implement the Minsk agreements. Obviously, this includes the Kiev Government, the self-defence forces in Donetsk and Lugansk, and the European Union because Germany and France de facto acted on behalf of the EU, all the more so since all these agreements were approved by the UN Security Council. If these agreements are to be implemented by everyone, then probably Russia should make sure that Lugansk and Donetsk, who put their signatures under the Minsk agreements, fulfil their part of obligations to the full extent and in a constructive manner, while Germany and France should ensure that the Ukrainian Government does the same. We strive to do our part of the job faithfully, but, unfortunately, Kiev is avoiding a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk, although it is mentioned in black and white in the Minsk documents.

In turn, we discussed how our European colleagues work with Kiev. If Federica Mogherini wishes to do so, she will tell you what Brussels is doing in order to have Kiev fulfil its commitments. If the EU's position is that everyone should fulfil their part of the obligations, then why are the sanctions imposed on Russia alone? The obvious sabotage by Kiev of everything that is written in the Minsk document should have some reaction from those who patronise this government.

Since Federica Mogherini said the word "Crimea," I will mention, in parentheses, that Crimea is part of the Russian Federation in full accordance with the will of the people of Crimea. I have not heard EU challenging statements made by numerous British prime ministers when it came to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). At all times, whenever the UN General Assembly issued a resolution with a call to Great Britain urging that Argentina and Great Britain should sit at the negotiating table, London invariably said that no one can challenge the right of the people of the Falkland Islands to self-determination. We are asking for at least the same attitude towards the people of Crimea who are much closer to Russia.

As for revision of the Russia-EU relations, we proposed not exactly revising them, but rather taking stock of them. Revision in Russian means a slightly different thing than the English term "review." A little less than a year ago a paper came up, and today we saw that it is part of a dossier that the delegation brought to Moscow. We expect that this paper will continue to be examined and that the answer will come and be based on the practical interests of our partners rather than the ideological biases of individual EU members.

Federica Mogherini now said that we share many common interests with regard to cooperation in solving international problems, and gave a list of them, which includes the Middle East, North Africa, the Palestinian problem, Afghanistan, the Korean peninsula, the climate, and much more. We also agree that these are common problems and we need to join our efforts in finding a solution to all these international issues.

Why don’t we let our imagination run free and imagine that we have resolved all these issues, the situation around Russia and the EU calms down, and we find ourselves stuck in an interesting situation where, on the one hand, we are neighbours, and the advantages of our interaction are clear to everyone, especially in today’s highly competitive era. So, everything will be settled, but, on the other hand, we won’t be partners, and I’m not even sure what to call such relations. We also discussed this.

The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation states that we reaffirm our interest in a strategic partnership with the EU. As for EU’s new document on foreign policy, which was adopted last year just like our concept, we did not find the word "partnership" in it. It used to be there before. Now it says that the development of relations with Russia is a "challenge" for the EU. I'm trying to ponder this subject. The Brussels policy to somewhat "freeze" bilateral relations with us and to keep them in that state (in an attempt to "punish" us for the people of Crimea exercising their free will), and at the same time to cooperate with us in order to resolve international issues looks half-hearted and ambiguous. The issue is not about what we are going to do in a particular region of the world. It is important, but, in the interests of our respective peoples, it is imperative to answer the questions of how we are going to live side by side, and whether we will seek compromises or impose our point of view on the partner?

The ideological dispute is getting particularly acute now in Europe. The values ​​are being interpreted in completely different ways. We do not want Russia to be drawn into that dispute. We wish the European Union to reach a consensus within individual countries and in Brussels so that the EU is united and strong, and no domestic games divert the European Union from maintaining partnerships, including with the Russian Federation.

Our relations are still not systemic, but we very much want all these artificial barriers to be removed and give way to a normal, honest and mutually respectful dialogue based on facts, rather than ideological preferences.

Question: You had talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently. Reportedly, the possibility of restarting the investigation into the incidents in Khan Shaykhun and at the Shayrat air base was mentioned during these talks. Is it really possible to resume the investigation given that the majority of the OPCW members voted against the Russian-Iranian proposal?

Sergey Lavrov: Firstly, the special session of the OPCW Executive Board ended up essentially split with only a two-vote difference between those who blocked our proposal and those who supported it. Nevertheless, according to the rules of procedure, it was not adopted. This is strange, because this decision envisaged nothing more than the opportunity to conduct an independent, impartial and transparent investigation with inspectors on site, including the site of incident in Khan Shaykhun. According to the White Helmets (at least, no other detailed account was provided), chemical weapons were allegedly used by the Syrian Government there. The airfield allegedly used by the Syrian war aircraft carrying chemical munitions was also supposed to be inspected. I reminded the Secretary of State that on the very day of the incident, on April 4, our American colleagues, including himself, asked us to urgently help them send inspectors to the airport to check whether munitions loaded with chemical substances were stored there. When our initiative in The Hague was brought up, neither our Western colleagues nor the OPCW Secretariat agreed to send inspectors to that airfield, claiming that the OPCW only investigates the sites where chemical agents had been actually used. I drew the attention of Mr Tillerson to this disconnect and asked him to get back to his original position about the need to inspect the airfield.

Secondly, I also explained to him that in order to ensure transparency, it is necessary for us to be provided with information. Reportedly, the samples had already been taken and were being analysed. Where were they taken? By whom? In what laboratory are they being analysed? Was the rule that no one should make any manipulations with them on their way from the site where they were taken to the laboratory complied with? There are a number of requirements that have long been applied in all such instances. We wanted to get information about how these requirements were met in the course of taking samples which, according to our partners, has already taken place.

The Americans also claimed that they were willing to support the OPCW and the body it created, the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), and not to question their integrity and professionalism. We were told that we voted, including in the UN, for creating such a fact-finding body, so how can we question its actions now? We are not questioning the fact that we adopted such a resolution, but, among other things, it says that the expert membership of this body should be based on the broadest possible geographical representation. I already had the opportunity to mention that the FFM consists of two segments, one of which is dealing with complaints coming from the Syrian Government, and the other complaints against the Syrian Government. Both these segments are headed by British nationals.

Four months ago, after eastern Aleppo had been liberated, we, in conjunction with our Syrian colleagues, gathered samples in Aleppo which, in our opinion, indicate that chemical agents were used there by the opposition. Four months later no results have been reported to us. In response to our inquiries, they keep telling us that they need more time. However, the segment of this body dealing with complaints about the Syrian government, in a matter of a few days following the incident in Khan Shaykhun, already managed to come up with the statements which confirm the accusations made immediately after the incident by the White Helmets and other NGOs about the use of sarin. In one case, we have four months and nothing happens. In the other case, without any information about the provenance of the samples, or the lab they were taken to, four days later they claim that this was a case of using chemical weapons. I reiterate that this is done by two segments of the same body, both of which are headed by British nationals. Perhaps, they should trade places, and this will help make things more constructive. But seriously speaking, this is not a laughing matter. This is an attempt to create a distorted reality, and then exploit it in an attempt to move away from implementing the Security Council resolution on Syrian settlement based on a Syria-wide dialogue and to embark on the path seeking to overthrow another regime in this region. We will expect that the OPCW, strictly based on its mandate which requires the widest possible geographical representation of the experts, would send specialists to Khan Shaykhun and the airfield, and make sure that all of this is done in a transparent manner rather than shrouded in secrecy from the member countries which pay for the work of this body.

Question: Very serious statements have been made about alleged violence in Chechnya against LGBT people, including murder, torture and the like. Is the EU concerned about this today? Over 30 members of the LGBT community are now hiding in Russia, waiting for a chance to leave the country. Should the EU or the individual EU countries propose a plan for saving these people, so that it’s easier for them to depart?

Sergey Lavrov: Federica Mogherini has said that the EU would like to resume human rights dialogue with Russia. But it was not Russia who blocked almost all other channels of sectoral dialogues. We are willing to talk, but this should be done comprehensively rather than by choosing what one partner wants to discuss and leaving all other issues for later. Our human rights dialogue will be resumed as soon as all sectoral dialogues are relaunched completely. This is what we discussed when we touched upon human rights.

Today we did not discuss the alleged disappearance or torture of LGBT people in Chechnya. We have seen the EU statement made several days ago regarding the alleged disappearance, torture and even killings of LGBT people. However, the statement with these allegations also contained the phrase “if confirmed.” We would prefer that the EU wait and see whether these allegations are confirmed before presenting such harsh allegations, if our partners really want to establish the truth.

I would like to repeat what President Vladimir Putin has said more than once, which is that we are concerned about human rights violations against any Russian citizens, and it does not matter to which category they belong. We are against any discrimination. We have a law protecting children from particular influences, which is extremely important now considering the goings-on in social media. But this law in no way prohibits anyone from doing anything.

As for the specific concerns about the alleged violations of the rights of LGBT people in Chechnya or any other region of Russia, any facts, not suspicions, will be immediately investigated. The Russian authorities reassured of this many times. So far, we have no information at our disposal to confirm these allegations, but we are concerned about any violation of human rights. It is crucial that these  accusations are backed with facts and not used for political purposes, even though it has become fashionable in European countries to use the Russian factor for domestic political purposes.