Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov makes a speech and answers questions following his talks with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Moscow, 18 November 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have had constructive talks with the Foreign Minister of Germany and will continue them during a business lunch. I am happy to welcome Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow.
Russian-German relations have been a vital factor of European politics for decades. Although we have diverging views on the situation in Ukraine, our dialogue has never stopped. In my view, this is an important and notable fact. The other day, President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G20 summit in Brisbane.
Today our talks focused on Ukraine. We agree that it is our common goal to stabilise Ukraine as soon as possible, to ensure a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry in keeping with the Minsk Protocol, as well as to take other actions stipulated in that document. Russia has called for the unconditional continuation of the Minsk process. It is a unique format in that all conflicting sides are represented in this process mediated by Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
We pointed out that the mechanisms used to address various aspects of the military situation in southeastern Ukraine include the implementation of the “clearing house” initiative proposed by the German Foreign Minister, Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It provides for the exchange of information about incidents by the sides’ military representatives.
We believe that the next step following the cessation of any and all hostilities should be joint efforts to develop economic and political ties as stipulated in the Minsk Protocol, which points to the need for a comprehensive national and political dialogue between the sides. Bear in mind that in a statement adopted in Geneva in April this year, Ukraine pledged to start an inclusive constitutional process involving all regions and political forces in the country. A current priority is to continue a stable and direct dialogue between Kiev and Donetsk and Lugansk in the context of the recent elections held in Ukraine and in the Ukrainian regions that are controlled by the Donetsk and Lugansk representatives. Russia will continue to provide assistance to creating conditions for a stable and direct dialogue.
We exchanged opinions on Russian-German cooperative contribution to the efforts to settle the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme and to fight the terrorist threats in the Middle East and North Africa, in particular the threat of the Islamic State.
We also discussed relations between Russia and Germany and the events planned by our countries’ official agencies and civil societies.
We have agreed to maintain contact. We value our German colleagues’ willingness to carry on a confidential, straightforward and mutually beneficial dialogue.
Question (for Frank-Walter Steinmeier): You said in your opening remarks that new approaches should be sought in order to reduce tensions between Russia and the European Union. One of Russian proposals is to expand contacts between the EU and the EAEU [Eurasian Economic Union]. Russia suggested this even before the Ukraine crisis, but the EU declined. Why? When could a meeting be organised to discuss this proposal?
Sergey Lavrov (in follow-up to Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s reply): I’d like to add a couple of words with regard to prospects for cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union.
We value highly Germany’s proactive role in promoting this dialogue. As Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, certain EU member-countries (there are 28 in all) are still prejudiced against what can be done jointly with Russia; there remain old phobias and suspicions. But this will blow over – time is a healer. Thanks to the initiatives outlined by Frank-Walter, which, indeed, tally with the Russian ideas that were voiced by President of Russia Vladimir Putin with regard to a unified economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok and the idea to form a free trade area between the EU and the Customs Union – and in the future the Eurasian Economic Union – I am certain that all of this combined will work towards creating a positive critical mass that will eventually produce a result.
There were prejudices not only in respect of economic processes in the post-Soviet space but also of our efforts to establish security cooperation. As you may remember, NATO has long and consistently refused to even recognise the CSTO as a partner, although in Afghanistan the advantage of combining our efforts – the CSTO on the external borders of Afghanistan and NATO as the ISAF backbone – was obvious. Had our NATO colleagues responded positively to our offer of cooperation on the anti-drug trek, I think, the effort to fight the threats emanating from Afghanistan would have been much more effective. Let me stress it again that we value highly Germany’s proactive role in promoting partner relations with Russia in different areas.
As far as security is concerned, I remember how in June 2010 Chancellor Angela Merkel put forward her Meseberg initiative on establishing an EU-Russia Political and Security Committee intended as a working – not just consultative – mechanism that would consider in concrete terms various conflicts representing a problem for both the EU and Russia and would also develop joint practical approaches to resolving these conflicts. Neither Russia nor Germany is to blame for the fact that the Meseberg initiative failed to make it through the “sieve” of internal EU clearances. But we’ve actively supported the initiative itself and I hope that we will go back to something like this in our relations with the EU when “the dust settles down” and the passions subside.
Question (for both ministers): Both of you said that the Minsk process was the only viable way forward. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said today that none of the provisions agreed in Minsk had been fulfilled and blamed this on Moscow. He stressed that the self-defence forces used the ceasefire to move the dividing line several kilometres in their favour, taking over about 40 localities. NATO claims that there are many Russian servicemen in Ukraine, several thousand of them. How can this process, which has taken the wrong turn, be influenced to give cause for optimism?
Sergey Lavrov (after Frank-Walter Steinmeier): I understand that there is now constitutional chaos in Ukraine, and it’s not always clear who is responsible for what. However, everyone agrees on at least one thing: responsibility for foreign policy and military actions rests with the president. However, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk speaks out on all issues of Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy. It is gratifying that he has called on all sides to come to an agreement. I’d like to remind you that Mr Yatsenyuk signed the agreement of 21 February 2014, which begins with the provision on creating a national unity government that would draft a constitution that will be acceptable to all Ukrainians and serve as the basis for holding general elections. Everyone knows what happened the next morning after that agreement was signed: instead of creating a national unity government, an armed anti-constitutional coup was staged. The rest is the consequence of that event.
Other events happened later that pointed to the ability of the sides to come to an agreement, including the Geneva Statement adopted by the United States, the EU, Ukraine and Russia in Geneva in April 2014, in which Kiev pledged to immediately launch an inclusive constitutional process involving all regions and political forces in the country. The word “immediate” was put on paper on 17 April this year, but no process has started to this day and, as far as we know, there are no plans to do this. According to discussions underway in Kiev, a constitutional reform is only scheduled to be held within the Verkhovna Rada and will not involve Ukrainian regions.
As for the situation on the ground, I fully agree with Dr Steinmeier that we should all support the ongoing coordination of a concrete dividing line. Instead of making panic statements that camouflage a desire to undermine any attempts to implement the Minsk agreements, I suggest that we focus on ways to encourage the sides to mark a clear dividing line and then, as Dr Steinmeier has said and is also stipulated in the Minsk Protocol, to start withdrawing heavy weaponry (in accordance with the criteria agreed by the sides), thus making it possible for the OSCE mission to monitor the ceasefire, which it is ready to do. This will take some effort. Some villages will have to be placed on one of the dividing line’s sides. This is a difficult decision that will affect people’s lives – some want to live under the protection of the volunteer battalions, while others don’t want these battalions to control their everyday life.
This is a difficult process, but it will be much more reliable, lasting and stable than making arrogant statement in Kiev aimed at preventing us from focusing on the main goal. The main goal is a direct dialogue between Kiev and the southeastern authorities. Many people in Kiev and in some distant countries that can influence it would like the Minsk agreement to fall through, the future of the country to be sealed without the involvement of those who are fighting for the right to live in the southeast, and subsequently to enforce the decisions agreed without their involvement in them. I’m categorically against this. I consider this a provocation pure and simple, and I fully agree with Dr Steinmeier, who said that the Minsk agreements are not ideal – but nobody and nothing is ideal under the sun – but that they are the only document that the key players – the conflicting sides in Ukraine, the EU, the United States and Russia – agreed to sign and have signed. If we did this in earnest, let’s work now to implement these agreements, instead of staging scandals and accusing others of violations. The agreement was primarily reached between Kiev and the self-defence forces. Russia as a signatory, the OSCE as an attending party, the EU, which supported that agreement, and the United States, which said it supported it, must do everything possible and use their influence towards a consistent implementation of these documents.
Question: German Chancellor Angela Merkel harshly criticised Russia at the G20 summit in Australia. She said that Russia had trampled on international law and warned of the danger of such a policy for Europe. Will you comment, please? What was the atmosphere at your talks today?
Sergey Lavrov: In principle, we are polite people; we always speak courteously and don’t stoop to scolding anyone. As the Foreign Minister of Germany said correctly today, we’ve known each other for ages. I’d like to say that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Russian President have known each other for ages too. I can assure you that they always treat each other with respect. They don’t always agree, but they present their opinions and arguments in a courteous way as partners should, which allows them to find common ground even in the most difficult situations.
We sense a desire on both sides to solve problems on the basis of mutual respect and without forcing opinions on each other. For example, today Dr Steinmeier and I commented on the agreement of 21 February 2014; we talked about it and recalled that event. But our American colleagues, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, have often said it is no good to keep delving into history, that February and even April are long past and now is the time for action. But if we don’t pinpoint the mistakes that we made along the way, we will get caught in the same trap again and again. The document of 21 February this year was signed by Viktor Yanukovich and three opposition leaders in the presence of .European ministers, but it was discarded the following morning. Mr Yanukovych was not in Kiev, but he remained in Ukraine until the day after. But this is not the point. We have been told that the agreement could not be implemented without Yanukovych. As I said today, the first clause of that agreement stipulated the creation of a national unity government, which would draft a constitution that will be acceptable to all Ukrainians and will serve as the basis for holding general elections. I don’t think that the departure of President Yanukovych, who actually vacated his seat, from Kiev to the country’s southeast precluded the attainment of national unity in Ukraine. How is an individual connected with the need for national accord? I don’t think the termination of that agreement was a correct choice. After the coup, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, who signed the provision on a national unity government, went to Maidan and said, “Bless us, we have created a government of winners!”
This is where it all started, with the winners’ mentality. Some of our Western partners had the mentality of Cold War winners, and the Ukrainian authorities, who seized power in Kiev through a coup d’état, have the same mentality. After all they defeated a legitimate president.
I fully agree that there is no need to delve into the past. The main task now is to stop the armed confrontation in the southeast, to mark the dividing line and to withdraw heavy weaponry, as Dr Steinmeier has said. When talking about long-term stabilisation in Ukraine, we must not forget about the goals of national accord, unity and reconciliation, as well as a constitutional reform, which Ukraine accepted as necessary by signing the Geneva Statement of 17 April 2014. By the way, one of the signatories, the then Foreign Minister of Ukraine Andrei Deshchitsa, no longer holds this post; he has been given a diplomatic position outside Ukraine. But this doesn’t mean that his absence will preclude the implementation of a constitutional reform that would enable all Ukrainians to live comfortably in their country.