There are plenty of issues to discuss, and Afghanistan comes on top not only in alphabetical order…
The rapid advance of the Taliban and their takeover of Kabul came as a surprise to everybody, including us. Of course, Russia previously had certain contacts with the Taliban, on the basis of the UN Security Council resolution which envisaged facilitating the political process with all parties involved. This, of course, doesn't change the status of the Taliban, as agreed by the world community, and endorsed by the same Security Council. So the issue of recognition is still as open for Russia as it is for other countries.
But you seem to be in good relations with them. There was an official Russian statement saying that Kabul was calmer under the Taliban…
It is. Really.
So your Embassy is still there?
Yes. Well, I believe some of the family members, some of the children may have left. The Russian government organised a single evacuation operation involving four airplanes on a single night, with the assistance of members of the Taliban.
And of the US military?
I would say in necessary coordination, because the US military had control over the airport, of course. But it was the Taliban that escorted our convoy to the airport. Totally more than 500 people, including Russians and other nationals. Many were Russian citizens of Afghan origin. Which is understandable, having in mind the long history of our relations with Afghanistan.
It was actually the second Russian evacuation from Kabul, after 1992. The Soviet Army left in 1989 – and it departed in a totally different manner from the Americans now. Much more organised, without any particular haste, and actually in coordination with the authorities on the ground. And the then government, which had been supported by the Soviet Union, the Najibullah government, managed to stay in power for another three years. And perhaps they would have stayed longer, but unfortunately the Soviet Union was no longer there. Russia at that point was not in a position that would enable it to support that government financially and otherwise.
At the time, the Mujahedeen backed by the West were fighting the Soviet Union. What is the difference between the Mujahedeen and the Taliban?
That’s a good question. Actually, the Mujahedeen were, I would say, a ragtag group of militias which didn't have a centralised command and a single policy. Many of them had their power base in various parts of the country, and that base was also different in terms of ethnic background. You know that Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country. The majority are Pashtuns, but there are sizable numbers of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Hazaris and others. So at one point in the beginning of the 1990s, after the Soviet Army had left and the pro-Soviet government fell, a bloody civil war between the various fractions of the Mujahedeen ensued. And the main frontline was between the Pashtun majority and the so-called Northern Alliance, which basically included Tajiks, Uzbeks and others. And so, if you look at the mixed picture today, you will see that some of those who had prominent positions in the previous government and who actually tried to lead certain resistance movements against the Taliban, they were either ethnic Uzbeks or Tajiks.
Now everybody says “OK, what we expect from the Taliban is to be able to present to the world an inclusive government”. Some people view this from a very narrow point of view – let them have a few women as ministers. But I wouldn't say that covers the whole notion of diversity. For reasons I just explained what is equally important is that an inclusive government would represent various ethnic groups of Afghanistan.
As you may have heard, the Taliban have declared that they will be inviting delegations from a number of countries to their inauguration ceremony. Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, perhaps others. Our reply is that we are interested in maintaining relations, provided they are able to set up and maintain in duration an inclusive government, which would give ground for the UN Security Council to take the Taliban off its terror list.
Actually, we hope that the Taliban would be able to prevent terrorists like ISIS, Al Qaeda and others, to gain ground in Afghanistan, and in particular, to become a threat to Afghanistan’s Northern neighbors. Obviously, we care a lot about what happens in those former Soviet republics – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
So you are afraid that the Central Asian republics may be destabilised by infiltration from Afghanistan?
Yes, we are. And we are speaking not of the risk of the Taliban infiltrating – they have never claimed to have any interests beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The immediate concern today is that certain elements of the previous regime, including some military, would be running away from the Taliban. Some have already crossed the Tajik border. But they were dealt with in a very delicate and civilised way. Of course, Tajikistan had to call, I think, more than 100,000 reservists to beef up their armed forces. Russia staged a number of military exercises with each of the stakeholders and all of them together. Some of those countries are members of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation), others are not.
So basically, you suggest that Russia can play a constructive role in Afghanistan, which probably is an interesting announcement for Brussels…
I believe Russia is well-placed to play such a role. It's not a role that we have been seeking. But the situation is evolving in such a way. We have obligations to our allies in Central Asia, we are concerned with the possibility of terrorist elements infiltrating the area and also with drug trade. You know, I am not trying to whitewash the Taliban, but when they first came to power they introduced death penalty for drug production and trafficking. When, in 2001, the mighty American military machine crushed them and brought other people to power, the production of opiates in Afghanistan skyrocketed 20 times in the first two years, and ever since. So now, 20 years later what we actually saw was an Afghan economy sustained by two primary sources. One was the US financial donations. The other was the drug trade. In the last few years, the Americans were gradually closing down the money river. So Afghanistan was becoming increasingly dependent on the drug business. In fact it was, one may say, a heroin country.
Let’s jump to another country, Ukraine. Should Ukrainians worry that the US would drop them as they dropped Afghanistan? President Zelenskiy was on a visit to the US, what is your perspective?
You know, politics aside, but optically the visit produced a strange picture. No press conference. Okay. But Zelenskiy presenting to the US Administration a reform program of $277 billion without specifying where the money would be coming from? And moreover, he presented it to the US Administration without having presented it to his own people. A lot of Ukrainians were taken by surprise, including some officials. Then this infamous Crimean platform…
The Ukrainians told me they would invite Russia.
Well, they tell a lot of things to a lot of people. In general, what was this summit, or rather a conference about? It was a badly construed initiative designed to achieve certain PR goal that have nothing to do with Crimea.
Well, I think the purpose is very clear. Ukraine wants to make sure that what we call the international community, or the West, continues to consider Crimea as occupied part of Ukraine and not Russian territory.
Obviously that was the intention. Of course, we were sorry to see this performance of so-called solidarity. We took note of the different levels of participation of different countries. Actually none of the G20 countries were represented at the highest level. Understandably, it was to be expected that the leaders of Poland and the Baltic countries would come. The positions will change of course over time, but this process will certainly not be linked to this “Crimean platform”.
You know, the position of the collective West on the status of Crimea has a very poor legal standing. Why should the West consider an arbitrary decision by Khruschev in 1954, in contravention of all the legislation that existed at that time, to be the legal basis for what is happening today? Whereas the referendum which took place in 2014 was a clear expression of popular will of the Crimean population.
But you know that the West will never recognise this referendum.
At the same time the same West recognised Kosovo without any referendum.
Ah, yes, Realpolitik! But you know Realpolitik is not a universal magic wand. We will not beg anyone to recognize Crimea as part of Russia. It's enough for us to know that the overwhelming majority of Crimeans are happy to be part of Russia. Again, turning to history, the West had not recognised the incorporation of the three Baltic republics into the Soviet Union in 1940. That didn't prevent Britain and the United States from acting as allies of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, from the collective West pursuing a policy of détente and cooperation later.
I can give you another example. The Soviet Union was selling gas to Western Europe during the Cold War. And nobody in Western Europe said that this was an instrument of pressure.
Actually there were attempts in those days by the then US Administration of Ronald Reagan to stop the construction of the gas pipeline which goes through Ukraine. Today, Washington is saying that gas transit through Ukraine should be maintained. It's the same pipeline that their predecessors fought against.
Is the traffic through Ukraine going to be maintained? Mrs. Merkel insisted very much…
Again, you know here in the EU I see a very mixed picture. On the one hand, the EU is saying that it is embarking on a Green Deal, that it will be getting rid of hydrocarbons in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the EU insists that Russia should continue to pump gas through Ukraine to Europe beyond 2024, when the current contract expires. Now, the question that arises immediately: will European consumers want the same volumes of Russian gas after 2024? Because if the European Union as the collective consumer does not want Russian gas, then what's the point of making any commitments? Just to please your Ukrainian friends?
Well, I think the Russian assumption is that the EU answer is yes. The EU will need Russian gas. That’s why so many efforts were made to build Nord Stream 2.
But nobody's saying how much gas EU countries will need after 2024. And at the same time, they are demanding that Russia should sign up today for a certain amount of gas to be transmitted through Ukraine. You see, it's pointless to try to pump gas if people don't want it.
By the way, does Russia have concerns about the EU innovative taxation ideas, like carbon border tax?
Of course we are following it with great interest. We are concerned, because of the five sectors that have been chosen for this new mechanism, which is just emerging – steel, aluminium, cement, fertilizers and electric energy – all of them are major commodities that Russia is exporting to the EU. I personally have been in contact with the European Commission. We know that there are ongoing discussions among EU member states, also within the European business community, because some of EU businesses had been outsourcing their so-called dirty polluting production to other countries. It may hit them back now.
Look, the intentions to improve the environment, to combat climate change are actually good. But these may be the sort of good intentions that pave the road to hell. We are interested in maintaining direct contact with those who are trying to formalise this. Within a few days we’ll have a video conference which will include people from the Ministry of Economic Development, the Customs service, Taxation service and others on the Russian side, and the EU Commission.
So what do we expect from this virtual meeting?
I expect that each encounter of that sort will bring more clarity. We know the timelines, we know that this thing will not become reality until 2023 and will not introduce any obligations until 2026, but time flies. So we need to have those discussions now, without delay. We know that in parallel there are discussions in Geneva at the WTO, where a number of countries have expressed their concerns over these EU plans. At least two dozen countries have been expressing their dissatisfaction.
And one question that arises for any non-EU country: there will be a pricelist for those certificates, but ultimately where will the money go? It would be natural to assume that it will go for the good cause of improving environment in the most affected Third World countries. But the EU has other plans. It has already counted that money into its overall financial EU Next Generation planning. When we hear that this is going to be good for the whole world, but the income will be used for fiscal reasons, that changes the whole concept.
Quick question on vaccines. How is the Covid situation in Russia?
The infection rate is slowly going down. Much slower than we would wish, though.
No fourth wave?
No, rather the decline of the third one.
The level of vaccination?
Unsatisfactory, I should admit. 39 million fully vaccinated, 7 more million in process, which makes roughly 30% of the whole population.
Because of anti-vaxxers?
There is no active anti-vaxxer movement, but there is a wide spread of opinions. Perhaps the older generation is so used to obligatory procedures that when there is a voluntary one they choose not to do it.
Did you get the jab? Was it Sputnik?
I got the first dose. Not Sputnik, another one. Because with these bureaucrats here, with Sputnik I will have to pass a PCR test each time I go to the Commission for example.
You know, the international community has missed a perfect chance of uniting forces to combat a common enemy, one that has no ideology or political view, one that doesn’t discriminate among different races, nations or cultures. Instead, we are facing a competition.
Do you think there is anti-Russia bias?
There is anti-Russia bias all across the board, on anything, including vaccines.
But the European Medicines Agency says it has not certified Sputnik because they didn’t receive all the necessary documentation.
And a fifth vaccine was certified by EMA before it was even tested. You see, our intention is not to inoculate the whole world with Sputnik. My primary task is to promote the need for mutual recognition – not even of vaccines, but of certificates, for people to be able to travel.
You think this is protectionism? The Big Pharma?
It is protectionism, multiplied by interests of major pharmaceutical companies – vested interests, yes.
This is the beginning of the new political season. What are your expectations?
My expectation is that it will be a lively season. I hope to see some positive movement in our bilateral relations. We intend to pursue dialogue along the tracks that are perhaps less controversial than others, like this carbon tax mechanism, like Iran – JCPOA, which is still a slowly burning issue.
Yes, though the EU doesn’t have a major role to play there. Libya, yes. Maybe the Middle East Quartet will be revived at some point. We want to continue our political dialogue. Of course when high EU officials choose to attend events like the infamous Crimean Platform, that doesn’t improve the climate. Anyway, I myself and my staff here will try to keep the flame of Russia – EU dialogue from being extinguished by some ill-willed or reckless individuals.