We are speaking a couple of days before 9 May, Victory Day for Russia. But because of the pandemic there will be no parade on the Red Square and reportedly the anniversary will be celebrated later. Can you explain what this means to Russia?
First of all, I am sure this is a big anniversary not only for Russia, but for all those who remember what happened 75 years ago. Regardless of when exactly Victory Day is celebrated, for some European countries it is 8 May, but it so happened that the act of capitulation of Nazi Germany was signed at around 11 p.m. CET, which was already 1 a.m. in Moscow. This year was supposed not only to mark 75 years – an important figure in itself – but the fact that it may be the last such anniversary which the remaining veterans of the Great Patriotic War would be able to attend. There are not many of them left, and those still with us are almost all over 90.
Unfortunately coronavirus has limited the scope of 9 May celebrations. Although, as President Putin has confirmed, it will be celebrated with the parade at a later date. But I will need to stress that one element of the parade will take place yet on 9 May – that is the aerial parade. Also, there is the Immortal Regiment initiative, which I personally believe is a fantastic thing, it was created at grassroots level and has since overspilled Russia’s borders to other countries, even in South America. Here in Belgium, at the Russian Mission to the EU we had a small event yesterday (5 May) with people joining the Immortal Regiment initiative with portraits of their fathers, grand- and great-grand fathers who fought in the war. So not even the coronavirus can diminish the significance of the upcoming Victory Day. Neither will certain ill-willed attempts to downplay the role of the Soviet Union that contributed 27 million lives for this victory to take place.
Can you tell us how badly is the coronavirus treating Russia? We hear that several members of the government are contaminated, and that the numbers of people contaminated on a daily basis are quite big.
We have not yet passed the peak, definitely. The numbers have started growing much later than in Italy, Spain or UK. This allowed the government and the medical services to better prepare. For now Russia has about 160,000 cases, and slightly over 1,500 fatalities. The number of tests carried out is rapidly growing, in the millions. Yes, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and two other members of the government have contracted the coronavirus. Mishustin, according to latest news that I heard, is recovering, and one of the two ministers doesn’t have symptoms. However that means that the virus can reach anybody. The improving weather and the holidays have prompted people to venture out earlier than they should. So the picture is quite similar to other countries. But hopefully we will overcome this challenge in the coming weeks.
The important thing of course for Russia, for the whole Europe is to prevent a second wave, perhaps in the autumn. And this is a problem that should be addressed on global level. That is why we support the WHO in its efforts and cooperate with a number of countries. You are probably aware of practical assistance in the form of deployment of medical personnel to Italy, to Serbia. Medical supplies have been sent to a number of other countries from Russia. And there was a “very very big plane” flying to New York from Russia, full of medical supplies.
Donald Trump said the US bought it, it was not a present.
To be fully precise, half of it was paid by the US party, the other half was provided by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, and delivery was organised by the Russian Ministry of Defence.
But you see, Ambassador, the coronavirus is also dividing the world. You say Russia supports WHO, Donald Trump doesn’t, he says he has seen evidence that Covid-19 came from some Chinese laboratory, the EU doesn’t take this position, it says let’s concentrate now to combat the virus. What is the Russian position, do you believe Covid-19 was created somewhere by crazy scientists?
No, I don’t. Actually we are pretty much on the same wavelength on this with the EU. I can say officially that the Prosecutor General’s office of Russia has issued a formal statement along the lines that any rumors that the coronavirus had been created artificially are not confirmed by official bodies and must be stopped.
By the way, it looks like nobody is prepared for a bacteriological war, which seems to be the best proof it was not created artificially. The Americans are definitely not prepared, the Chinese where this originated were not, the Europeans – obviously not, and also the Russians – you were not prepared, although the Russian army has probably bacteriological units. But they cannot stop the virus.
Well, at this point I don’t see anybody able to stop the virus. The efforts are aimed at containing the spread of the decease, and in parallel creating a vaccine. As for the preparedness of the Russian armed forces, they have units designed to fight radiation, chemical and biological hazards, you can see how efficient they have been in Italy, for example. That is a big story which is available to the wider public.
My best NATO sources tell me that the Russian military forces in Italy were interested in some spots very close to the bases where the US keeps its nuclear bombs.
[Laughs] To contaminate nuclear bombs with the virus? Come on, let’s be serious! But, you know, I wouldn’t exclude many more ridiculous stories. There have been lots of them recently.
So you think Russia is a victim of fake news?
Russia has been a target of fake stories ever since it became a world power. Or even before that. You can see some caricatures in 19-century European newspapers depicting Russia as evil. They haven’t changed. One of the newest inventions is a story that I heard on one European channel, that the real start of the Cold War had not been Winston Churchill’s speech at Fulton, on 5 March of 1946, but the episode at the Potsdam conference (17 July-2 August 1945), when Stalin allegedly concealed the fact that Hitler’s remains had been found and identified. Thus he lied to his allies and destroyed trust among them. This is an effort to bend historical facts pretty much. Actually at the same time the United States delivered nuclear attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki (6 and 9 August 1945) and immediately started planning attacks on the Soviet Union. The Brits had a plan which was called The Unthinkable – a new war right there, in 1945. The Americans created their own plan called Totality which designated 17 cities in the Soviet Union as targets for a nuclear attack. So this has never ended. But we are used to that and know how to react.
By the way, while we discuss the 75th anniversary, and you mention Potsdam, I cannot help thinking about your allies – the United States, represented in Potsdam by Harry Truman, and the United Kingdom, represented by Winston Churchill. Germany was the enemy that lost the war. But look at today: your relations with the US are just terrible, with the UK – the same. Nevertheless your relations with Germany are good. Despite announcements that a Russian agent may have engaged in cyber-attacks against the Bundestag. [Ambassador reacts by laughing.] 75 years after World War Two, where are you with your allies?
That is a good question. I believe it’s not so much the state of bilateral relations with the US that is an issue of concern, it’s more the impact of current US policies on international and global security. You may remember, we have had a whole line of international agreements with the US, first as the Soviet Union, then as the Russian Federation, on nuclear arms control, nuclear arms reduction and other security-related treaties. Of all those, only one is currently remaining – the START-3 Treaty, which by the way expires on 21 February 2021.
What we have heard from Washington is that it would be better to have a new treaty, which would include China. They are saying that without asking the Chinese. We are not refusing any negotiations on any further agreements. But we insist we should not create a vacuum, we could at least start by extending the existing agreement for another five years. Washington is not saying no, it’s not saying yes, but the clock is ticking.
Maybe they want to push your country to engage with China, because Beijing doesn’t want to hear about anything like that, am I right?
Maybe. But nobody has asked China so far.
Donald Trump probably expects Vladimir Putin to do so.
I don’t expect President Putin to be negotiating on Trump’s behalf. What would the Democrats say if they see Putin negotiating on Trump’s behalf?
Are we missing something from the big picture? I read that the US has plans to dig for minerals on the Moon.
[Smiles] You know, they have a President who is very much concentrated on concluding deals. A very contractual approach to politics. It’s not to say that the US is in a position to start mining on the Moon, but they want to put a stake there. Whereas there is an existing international agreement on the Moon of 1967 which says that the Moon as other celestial bodies cannot become anybody’s property. As simple as that.
You say Donald Trump likes to conclude deals, and that’s understandable, he’s a businessman. But what deals has he cut with Russia so far?
Actually space exploration is one of those areas where we successfully cooperate. The International Space Station, which is orbiting the Earth, is now around 100 metres long, soon you will be able to see it with a naked eye. It’s true that the Americans don’t have a spacecraft to fly to the ISS, so their astronauts use Russian Soyuz launchers.
Until Elon Musk lends a hand…
If and when. They may have to wait a lot. And even those missiles launched from the US, use Russian-made engines. So in spite of the unfriendly gestures as so-called sanctions, this area is working.
I’ve read articles saying Russia should say “thank you” for the sanctions, because it has become much more self-reliant, which helps now, in the Covid-19 context. There is such an effect, do you agree?
There is a Russian proverb you will understand: Не было бы счастья, да несчастье помогло. (There would have been no happiness unless misfortune helped). Actually you are right that the increased self-reliance of Russian economy has mitigated the effect of the coronavirus. Anybody from the Russian agricultural sector would say – we are better off with those sanctions, including those introduced by the EU. Because previously Russian agriculture had to compete with heavily subsidised EU agriculture. Anyway, we are not aiming to cut off Russian economy from the economies of the EU and other partners, we are open for cooperation, there are ongoing projects, including the famous Nord Stream 2, which is about to be completed.
A European think tank recently advocated ‘flexible’ sanctions vis-à-vis Russia, meaning a softening when there is a progress. Is this a good idea in your perspective?
I am not bothered by the fate of the sanctions. We do not negotiate the sanctions (or, to put it correctly, illegal unilateral restrictive measures), their removal or rolling back, with the EU. It was their decision and it’s up to the EU to change its course. I would say this policy has driven the EU into a cul-de-sac. And it has produced a negative impact on our relations and on the economic position of the EU itself, because EU producers and exporters have been suffering – twice, if we take into account Russian reaction as well. And now what we see is that the US, which had initiated many of the anti-Russian sanctions, is now sanctioning European companies – not only those dealing with Russia, but also those trying to deal with Iran and other countries. So this is a boomerang that has returned to the EU.
But the bottom line is that there is no progress on the issue of Eastern Ukraine and of course you will say it’s not Russia’s fault…
Of course it’s not. We are not part of the conflict. We are part of the solution.
If you are part of the solution, then you are not doing enough.
Well, we are doing more than anybody else. I wouldn’t say there is zero progress. There is some minimal progress like the exchange of detainees that took place, but that’s all there is. Even those arrangements that had been agreed in the Contact group and outside of it, Kiev has been backtracking on them. Like creating the Consultative Council which would include representatives of the two Donbas self-proclaimed republics. Kiev had agreed to that, and then backtracked. And obviously not because of Russian pressure.
How about your EU agenda, have you had teleconferences with EU counterparts?
Not personal meetings unfortunately, but phone calls and teleconferences.
And what’s new on the agenda?
Lots of things. Conveying the message that we should not make any pause on our bilateral tracks, as we do cooperate on a number of things. We continue our joint efforts to save the Iran nuclear deal in spite of what is happening and what is being done by others. We are watching what the EU is trying to do in different places, like Libya, and of course I am pushing back on claims regarding the so-called Russian disinformation. You know, it has become a focal point for many, but it hasn’t become any more convincing. Let me give you an example: the 24 April EEAS special report.
The one which became famous because of China?
Yes, but it also provides fake news itself, as all the other reports, however. For instance, it attributes to some Russian media a claim “Frequent hand washing doesn’t protect you from Covid-19”. But actually the second part of the sentence was just cut off. Originally it added “if you have close contact with other people”. Probably, the authors of the report were counting that European readers would pay for this pure misinformation (and it is paid, indeed, from their taxes) without fact-checking, which they themselves so insistently call for?
But, Mr Ambassador, I will give you another example. It’s a Russian website claiming that Covid-19 was created in a laboratory in Kazakhstan, financed by the US. I wrote an article about this days ago. It really sounds like Russian disinformation.
It may sound so if you do not go deeper and analyse the whole original text, where many important reservations are made. No one should regulate the work of journalists, if they faithfully follow the principles of the profession. Come on, you know my country well enough. You cannot say that every Russian news website is financed or managed directly from the Kremlin. And I already mentioned the position of the Prosecutor General of Russia.
I know what the official position is, but there are outlets spreading fake news and they have millions of readers. Fake news always sound interesting.
There is such a problem, indeed. But it definitely should not be resolved by artificial undemocratic regulations and blanket tagging as “Russian propaganda” all the outlets saying uncomfortable things.