Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian
Moscow September 8, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen,
We had substantive talks, which were held at the initiative of my colleague, Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France Jean-Yves Le Drian. This is our third meeting this year.
Today, we have reviewed important bilateral issues on our agenda and key international issues as part of international settlement efforts, primarily as they apply to various conflicts.
We focused particularly on implementing initiatives which were agreed upon at a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron in Versailles on May 29 in the interest of building up bilateral cooperation.
We have just signed a statement on launching the Trianon Dialogue in accordance with the agreement reached by our respective presidents at Versailles. It will be a permanent forum for our civil societies, and will contribute to strengthening trust and mutual understanding between our peoples.
Candidates for positions of co-chairs and executive secretaries of this forum from both sides have been identified. We hope that they will meet in the near future to finalise the coordination of practical issues related to the Trianon Dialogue.
The Russia-France Council on Economic, Financial, Industrial and Trade Issues with the participation of Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire will meet in Moscow before the year is out. We expect that this meeting will open the path for convening the Russian-French Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) at the level of the heads of government.
Of course, we couldn’t overlook our rich cultural cooperation. A week from now, Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky will be in Paris to meet with his French counterpart, Francoise Nyssen, as well as to open two more Russian exhibitions dedicated to the treasures of the Moscow tsars and diplomatic presents from Peter the Great to this day. Preparations for new cultural exchange seasons are in full swing. The Year of Russian and French Language and Literature (2018-2019) will come to replace Year of Cultural Tourism (2016-2017) which is about to end this autumn.
We discussed key international issues focusing on the situation in Syria. We believe there are signs of tangible progress. Three de-escalation zones are operational in southwestern Syria, Eastern Ghouta and northern Homs province. The sixth international meeting on Syrian settlement will take place in Astana on September 13-15, which we hope will lead to the creation of the fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib. It is the most complex one, that’s why its coordination has taken so long. After that, we will be in an even better position to improve the humanitarian situation there.
Humanitarian aid is delivered to the three existing zones without hindrance. All this allows the government troops and the armed groups which signed ceasefire agreements in connection with the creation of de-escalation zones to focus on addressing the main task which is neutralising the remaining international terrorist groups in Syria, primarily, ISIS, Jabhat an-Nusra, and other organisations designated as terrorist by the UN Security Council.
We share our French partners’ concerns that terrorists might try to flee Syria to other countries, including Europe, Central Asia, or Russia, and create new threats there. Our approach is absolutely unambiguous – the terrorists must be defeated. They cannot be allowed to flee.
We are at one regarding the need to promote the political settlement process. We operate on the premise that another round of Geneva talks will be held soon after the 6th Astana meeting, which is what UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is actively working on now. There are also signs of progress there, primarily in areas related to constitutional and legal matters, and counter-terrorist activities. Most importantly, proper conditions are being created, as was done in Astana for an unambiguous, specific and direct dialogue between the government delegation and the opposition delegation.
We discussed the functioning of two subgroups of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), one focusing on humanitarian issues, and the other in charge of security and compliance with ceasefire. Like our French colleagues, we are interested in making all these mechanisms more effective. We discussed better ways to use the resources available to the UN Security Council permanent members to promote this agenda in conjunction with other states.
We appreciate the role played by France and President Emmanuel Macron in the efforts to unblock the impasse in the Libyan settlement. A meeting between Head of the Presidential Council in Tripoli, Fayez al-Sarraj, and Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, sponsored by President Macron, took place in France recently. It was more than an exchange of opinions, and led to signing a critical document laying the foundation for a settlement in Libya. We will support further moves in this direction, and we are doing our best to facilitate such moves, including in our contacts with Fayez al-Sarraj, Khalifa Haftar, and all other key figures on the Libyan stage.
We have another common issue with France, which our leaders are working on. I’m referring to the Ukraine crisis. The Normandy format was created upon France’s initiative. Despite it occasionally treading water, it remains, nonetheless, the main tool for promoting the efforts undertaken by the Contact Group with the participation of Kiev, Donetsk, Lugansk, and the OSCE.
We reiterate our commitment to the Minsk agreements and the Package of Measures, which was approved by UN Security Council Resolution 2202. We expect all the countries that have influence on the Kiev authorities to try to persuade them to stop hampering the implementation of this agreement. In turn, we will use our influence with the proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic to make sure that they also participate constructively in the same vein.
As you are aware, Russia takes seriously the concerns that occasionally emerge in connection with security risks for the OSCE special monitoring mission members. As President Putin recently mentioned at the BRICS summit in Xiamen, we submitted a resolution to the UN Security Council that envisages the creation of a UN mission to protect the OSCE SMM members as they perform their duties.
We expect that if this initiative is implemented, the safety of the OSCE observers will improve and, probably, those who do not want to ensure the disengagement of the forces and facilities of the sides to a safe distance will have fewer reasons to use the risks faced by the OSCE observers to promote their own agenda. I expect that, just like our leaders agreed during telephone conversations in the Normandy format, appropriate efforts will be undertaken to develop concrete and concurrent steps to improve security and promote political reforms.
Like France, Russia – and President Putin also mentioned this during his recent news conferences – condemns the DPRK leadership’s provocations when it launches ballistic missiles, or explodes nuclear bombs in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. A new UN Security Council resolution is in the works. It is too early to talk about the form it will take. One thing is important for Russia (and, I hope, for France, too): along with pressure exerted on the North Korean regime in order to make it stop the provocations associated with its nuclear and missile programmes, it is imperative to emphasise and increase the priority status of the efforts to resume the political process. There is no alternative to these efforts if we want to settle the Korean Peninsula nuclear problem in a reliable and lasting manner.
Question (addressed to both ministers): President Vladimir Putin has put forward proposals on using UN forces in Donbass. What do you think about these proposals? It seems to me that there are some disagreements between Russia and Ukraine over the number of these forces. Do you think these forces should be deployed only along the border line or across Donbass’s entire territory? And do you think there are forces in Russia that could join this contingent?
Sergey Lavrov: President Putin described his initiative in detail at a news conference in China on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, but I will clarify some details.
This initiative is solely aimed at ensuring the strict implementation of the Minsk agreements. As French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, the strict implementation of these agreements is our common goal. The Minsk agreements have provided and continue to provide for comprehensive measures to ensure security and the withdrawal of the sides’ heavy military equipment and then other forces and assets from the line of contact. They provide for organising humanitarian aid supplies, restoring economic ties between Donbass and the rest of Ukraine and of course, implementing political reforms, primarily granting these territories a special status on a permanent basis, enshrining this status in the Constitution, granting an amnesty and holding general elections. The Minsk agreements state in no uncertain terms that as soon as this is done, the Ukrainian government’s control over the entire Russian-Ukrainian border will be fully reinstated. This is written in black and white; there can be no confusion.
When we began to work in the Normandy format and in the format of the Contact Group to ensure the practical implementation of these agreements, the Ukrainian government put forward a precondition to the effect that until the entire array of security issues were addressed there could be no question about political reforms. Our colleagues from France and Germany have been working hard to break this impasse. Work is under way at the level of Normandy-format experts, primarily aides to the heads of state and government, to coordinate the so-called roadmap that will provide for both steps to strengthen security and alternate steps to advance political reforms in keeping with the Minsk package of measures. This roadmap has been under discussion for a long time and within the next few days there will be another meeting at the level of aides to the Normandy-format leaders. I hope progress will be made. Soon, it will be a year since the Normandy format leaders coordinated concrete measures in Berlin that are very easy to put into practice, specifically the creation of “pilot” security zones along the line of contact, subsequently extending this regime to the entire line of contact and the disengagement of forces and assets. Three pilot zones were designated. In two of these pilot zones, disengagement took place. In the third zone (Luganskaya), it has been impossible for months to carry out what the leaders agreed on. The reason is that the Ukrainian side insists that before forces and assets are disengaged there should be at least seven days of complete silence in this particular area along the contact line. I had an opportunity to talk to the OSCE SMM, which, I believe, has on eight occasions recorded the lack of any ceasefire violations in the space of a week. Every time the Ukrainian side refused to go ahead with the disengagement of forces and assets under various pretexts. I believe the conclusion is very simple: The Ukrainian side does not want any progress in the security sphere because this will require it to take steps with regard to political reforms, which is not part of our Ukrainian colleagues’ plans.
Since it has been constantly claimed that OSCE observers cannot work when their lives are in danger, we have long been raising the question of arming them but there is no such practice at the OSCE, no experience in armed missions. By contrast, the UN does have such experience. Therefore, our proposal is as follows: To ensure that OSCE observers monitor the implementation of the Minsk agreements in good faith, efficiently and effectively, let us provide them with armed security details, whose composition will naturally be determined by the parties to the conflict: Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. These are not UN forces but an OSCE observer protection mission. It is fully in keeping with the logic of the Minsk agreements. When the Ukrainian side responded to this initiative of ours, they said it was not good enough because we should begin by deploying UN peacekeepers not on the line of contact but along the border with Russia. I have just cited the Minsk agreements whereby the Ukrainian government gets control over the entire border with Russia after it implements everything that Ukrainian President Poroshenko has subscribed to. Therefore, with regard to the issue of getting the UN involved in ensuring the implementation of the Minsk agreements, I can see no discrepancy between Russia and Ukraine – I see a discrepancy between Ukraine and the Minsk agreements.
Question: The impression is that the Syrian government forces are gaining the upper hand. Do you think that now we and our allies have more room to manoeuvre and more opportunities to shape the political process insofar as concerns Syrian President Assad? Do you think that he will also be involved in the political process and will have a role in Syria’s future?
Sergey Lavrov: We have discussed this in detail. I believe it is important to speed up all the mechanisms that are in place and should work efficiently. We see the Astana process working effectively – not without difficulties, because we have to search for a balance between sometimes very conflicting interests with the participation of our colleagues from Iran and Turkey, as well as observers from the United States and Jordan, and of course, our colleagues from Staffan de Mistura’s team. This is working slowly but surely because all those involved in these efforts are concerned primarily about bringing the civil war in Syria to an end, as well as about the need to free up available forces and assets and concentrate them on the main priority: suppressing terrorism.
The Geneva process is also functioning (also not without problems). However, within the framework of the Geneva process, a critical mass has already been created that should make it possible in the foreseeable future – based on the agreement to establish de-escalation zones – to open a direct, concrete dialogue, a negotiating process between the government and the opposition. These efforts are being significantly facilitated by our partners in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia, which has put forward an initiative to unite all the opposition groups that were mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (the so-called High Negotiations Committee, the Moscow and Cairo groups). We actively support these efforts, believing that it is necessary to unite on a platform in keeping with the criteria of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 to the effect that the Syrians themselves, and they alone, can determine their country’s fate. This requires a constructive dialogue between the government and the opposition without any preconditions and ultimatums, of course.
There is the mechanism of two subgroups that have been working in Geneva for many months, meeting every week: a subgroup on humanitarian issues and a subgroup on the ceasefire. Regarding chemical weapons, I agree with French Foreign Minister Le Drian that their use anywhere, including of course Syria, is totally unacceptable. There is a joint investigative mechanism created by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has received the results of lab tests made in France, among others – analyses of the samples taken in particular in Khan Sheikhoun. Even though in keeping with its mandate, this joint investigative mechanism is directly obligated to investigate concrete episodes, we have still been unable to send them to the site of the incident and to the airfield from which Syrian aircraft with chemical bombs on board allegedly took off. This mechanism has just been to Damascus and again it is putting forward some conditions. We are convinced that objective conclusions can be drawn only by inspecting Khan Sheikhoun (the site of the incident) and the airfield from which Syrian aircraft with chemical ammunition allegedly took off. I entirely agree with Mr Le Drian: The chemical weapons problem is one of our priorities in both Syria and Iraq, especially since there is sufficient evidence that ISIS militants have access to homemade chemical agent production technology and even to some enterprises that can be used for this purpose. I am confident that if we ensure the efficient and effective work of all mechanisms that are in place and at our disposal, where all regional and extraregional players without exception, who can influence the parties to the Syria conflict, are represented, we will achieve results. To reiterate, permanent members of the UN Security Council should be aware of their full responsibility for the implementation of Resolution 2254 and we consider it necessary to effectively use this asset.