Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions at a joint news conference following talks with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Kingdom of Belgium Didier Reynders, Moscow, 13 February 2018
Ladies and gentlemen,
We conducted very substantial talks with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Belgium Didier Reynders.
We met not so long ago, last summer, in Brussels. I thanked my counterpart for his hospitality and I am glad to be able to receive him in Moscow ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Belgian-Luxemburg Economic Union, which is co-chaired by Mr Reynders on Belgium’s part and Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Rogozin on our part.
We pointed out the long-standing and good history of relations between our countries. As you know, in April it will be 165 years since we established diplomatic relations. We agreed to observe the upcoming anniversary at a proper level.
We appreciate, and reaffirmed this today, the Belgian Government’s willingness to develop dialogue with Russia. We welcomed efforts by our Belgian partners to ameliorate the current situation in relations between Russia and the European Union and in Europe at large.
We discussed in detail the state of and prospects for our bilateral cooperation, above all, in keeping with the results of the recent visit to Moscow by Prime Minister of Belgium Charles Michel and his talks with President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. We agreed to work vigorously so that all the agreements reached during the top-level talks could be implemented.
We stated the good dynamics in our bilateral trade. Last year, it grew by 20.1 per cent to $8.9 billion. We proceed from the assumption that tomorrow’s meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation will help bolster this trend.
We pay much attention to promoting direct ties between business circles. We expressed satisfaction that last year (like in the previous years) Belgian representatives visited the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The same year, Belgian entrepreneurs participated in a relatively new format – the Eastern Economic Forum, which was held in Vladivostok for the third successive year. We hope that further events in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and other Russian regions will be of interest to the Belgian business.
We welcome sustainable inter-parliamentary exchanges. Our people traditionally have considerable interest in cultural relations. Last year, the Igor Moiseyev Ballet, the Mariinsky Orchestra and Conductor Valery Gergiev and young soloists of the Bolshoi Theatre gave guest performances in Belgium. The public flocked to the exhibition of paintings by young Belgian artist Jan Fabre at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
We pointed out a very important trend, which I see as promising, for the development of direct ties between the two countries’ universities. Last year, Russia hosted delegations from the Free University of Brussels and Ghent University, which had contacts with the universities of Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd and Petrozavodsk. We will continue to encourage this trend. It is very important to promote contacts between students and the general public.
We held detailed discussions on the situation in the Euro-Atlantic region, including Russia-EU and Russia-NATO ties. We appreciate Brussels’ consistent policy for overcoming current problems between Russia and the West, for restoring and strengthening mutual trust and for promoting a constructive dialogue, because we are facing common threats and challenges anyway.
Regarding the concrete crises, we discussed the situation in Ukraine and confirmed the absence of any alternatives to a full and consistent implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures. We informed our Belgian partners about Russia’s efforts taken within the Contact Group and the Normandy format to resolve acute humanitarian problems, to lift the economic blockade that has been imposed on the Donetsk and Lugansk regions contrary to the Minsk agreements, as well as to ensure the full implementation of the political provisions of the 2015 Minsk Package together with urgent measures to strengthen security and the ceasefire regime and to put an end to any ceasefire violations.
We expressed our serious concern about Kiev’s actions, including the submission of the law on the reintegration of Donbass to the Verkhovna Rada, a law that not only contradicts the Minsk agreements but cancels them. We are also concerned about the strengthening of radical forces in Ukraine, including open neo-Nazi groups. We will continue working to cut short these trends and to ensure strict compliance with the Minsk agreements and Ukraine’s commitments under the Council of Europe and OSCE conventions.
In particular, we have drawn our colleagues’ attention to the fact that the Venice Commission’s valid criticism of the law on education that was adopted and enforced in Ukraine and which contains discriminatory provisions against all minority languages must be taken into account. For now, we do not see that Kiev is willing to consider the commission’s criticism.
Speaking about European security, we want to promote a constructive agenda in the OSCE. In 2010, Astana hosted a summit that set the goal of moving towards creating a community of equal and undivided security in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasia. Now, after several years of stagnation, the OSCE’s interest in building an equal and mutually respectful dialogue on military and political issues is re-emerging. A structured dialogue on security is a specific kind of work. We welcome the agreement to appoint a Belgian diplomat, Belgium’s permanent representative to the OSCE, to head up this dialogue. We hope that in this capacity he will be guided by common interests, the Helsinki Final Act and the principle of consensus.
We have common concerns regarding the crises in the Middle East and North Africa. Russia and Belgium are both interested in finding a political solution to the crises in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and overcoming the problems persisting in Iraq. Certainly, all this is becoming particularly significant in view of the risk of terrorists expanding beyond the region, which is already happening. This is a threat to all of us.
We have informed our colleagues about the outcome of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. One of its main achievements was the final statement consisting of 12 principles of state-building in the new Syria, as well as a call to set up a Constitutional Committee. We believe it is a very important instrument for the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254 that requires establishing an inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue involving the Syrian government and the entire opposition, and overcoming the crisis based on mutual agreement by the government and the opposition.
There is an entire range of other topics we have discussed today. They all help us understand each other better. Our dialogue has a very busy agenda. I think regular contacts between foreign ministers are quite helpful.
Question: You met with some of your European counterparts. Did you notice any change in their attitude to the sanctions introduced by the EU over the Ukrainian issue?
Sergey Lavrov: Actually, we never ask any questions about the attitude of our colleagues from the European Union, from those countries that introduced sanctions against us, what they think on this issue. We read assessments, which are, in fact, unanimous in saying that the sanctions are doing harm to our bilateral relations. There is work by authoritative research institutions showing that those who imposed sanctions suffer a greater impact through them. But as we have repeatedly said, we will not ask anyone to change this policy. We hope, as President of Russia Vladimir Putin has repeatedly underlined, that common sense will prevail. A policy driven by ideologically charged goals that set political and geopolitical considerations above economic interests will take us nowhere. We welcome the awareness that this course will lead nowhere.
In the meantime, while this course continues, we are preoccupied with our own economy, advancing our own capabilities to enable us to be independent of similar excesses, because in the western camp there is a small, yet aggressive minority trying to disrupt attempts to normalise relations with Russia. Quite often, this minority leads the others by the nose. We can still see this. However, we are always ready to resume mutually beneficial dialogue on the basis of equality and mutual respect, without ultimatums or demands to repent or apologise. We openly explained all our actions on the basis of international law. All those, who wanted to hear, heard us.
Today, we certainly spoke about Ukraine and Crimea. More and more western politicians, including members of parliament from Belgium and other EU countries, visit the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, both entities of the Russian Federation.
All those, who really want to understand what is happening there, can do it directly, go there and see everything with their own eyes, rather than criticize from a distance. Today, there is a tendency to address problems remotely, especially when it comes to accusing some states or other that displease our western colleagues. Similar “remoteness” applies to the view that is critical of the situation in Crimea and sees it as annexation in spite of the objective fact of the free expression of the will of Crimeans. Similar remote verdicts are handed down in the case of chemical weapons used in Syria. This has become a tendency of sorts. It is better and much more honest to see everything with one’s own eyes and visit the site in question. With respect to chemical weapons in Syria, one must visit the scene of the incident, rather than rely on fake videos. If the case in point is whether human rights in Crimea are being violated or not, one must travel to Crimea, rather than listen to falsehoods spread by certain countries, including, of course, the Ukrainian leadership.
In my opinion, the answer is clear. I slightly expanded the scope of my analysis, but I hope that this was not useless.
Question: What do you think about the Pentagon plans to allocate $550 million to train the “Syrian Democratic Forces” and to establish border security forces? How will this affect the political settlement amid current tensions?
Sergey Lavrov: We have always, especially recently, had many questions regarding the US activities in Syria, which are being carried out without an invitation, as are, strictly speaking, the actions of the entire US-led coalition. Nevertheless, in the interest of fighting terrorism, as you may be aware, we went ahead and reached some agreements with the US military. Our Aerospace Forces have a communication channel with them, which is mostly used for de-confliction purposes and also for coordinating important missions to eliminate terrorist groups. We agreed to such cooperation based on the assumption that our US colleagues at the highest level, including US Secretary of State Tillerson, formally told us that the only goal of the US Armed Forces in Syria is to defeat ISIS.
It is now clear that ISIS failed as a caliphate project, primarily owing to the efforts of the Syrian army acting with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces. However, we do not deny the US-led coalition's contribution to this accomplishment. Nevertheless, having defeated the caliphate concept and its rudiments created on Syrian soil, we are still not through with them and have yet to destroy the scattered terrorist units that spread across Syria and try to crawl into neighbouring countries. This remains an important part of our work.
Now, our American colleagues are providing different explanations for their presence in Syria. They are saying they must stay there not only until the military goals are achieved, but until a stable political process gets underway, which must end in a stable transfer of power that is acceptable for all (read, for the United States), which means regime change. In general, judging by other signs, which I will now disclose, we have a suspicion that the United States wants to stay there for a long time, if not forever.
You mentioned the creation of border security forces, the allocation of large amounts for training the Syrian Democratic Forces based on the Kurdish militia. This was done in a situation when many questions arose about Turkey having such plans, especially when the creation of security areas along the entire border between Syria and Iraq was announced. We are all aware of what Turkey thinks about particular units of the Kurdish militia. One can have different assessments of this position, but it is something that is quite real. Ignoring this position would be at least short-sighted. We are now witnessing the results of such short-sightedness, including in the area of Afrin. I would like to point out right away that Russia, from day one, has remained a supporter of the Kurds’ direct participation in all efforts that seek a settlement for Syria. Kurds are an integral part of Syrian society. Resolution 2254 of the UN Security Council is based on this premise, as it calls for the creation of a settlement process with the participation of the Government and the entire spectrum of the opposition and Syrian society. Without the Kurds, we will not be able to resolve the Syrian crisis once and for all. However, moving towards such an inclusive, with the participation of the Kurds, settlement involves achieving general consensus between all Syrian players inside the country and all external participants of the processes that are unfolding in and around Syria.
I believe that the United States is constructing its policies around dangerous unilateral steps rather than painstaking work towards consensus. These steps are increasingly looking like part of a policy to create a quasi-state on a large part of Syrian territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River all the way to the Iraqi border. This is increasingly reminiscent of a plot to undermine the territorial integrity of Syria. Local authorities that act independently from Damascus are being created in this area. Funds are being sent there to ensure proper functioning of these authorities and to supply them with weapons. The United States helps create law enforcement agencies there. We asked these questions many times, but we never got any specific answers, just general talk about how we should not worry and that they support the territorial integrity of Syria. However, in fact, things don’t look that way.
I very much hope that the UN, which is responsible for implementing UNSC Resolution 2254 and for establishing an inclusive Syrian dialogue, now, after the powerful impetus given by the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi on January 30, will take full account of the need to prevent any steps by external players that undermine the settlement principles enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Question: You spoke about Syria at length. My question is how the congress in Sochi can be integrated with the Geneva peace talks? Are these two parallel competing forums or do they have a common goal?
How are you going to engage all international actors in order to achieve success in the talks? What might be the role of the EU and, particularly, Belgium? Do you have any specific proposals for your Belgian counterparts on how to include them in these political negotiations?
Sergey Lavrov: Getting the answer to the first question is easy by just reviewing the final statement of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Anyone, even someone not much involved in these efforts, will see the connection between the Sochi congress and the Geneva talks. It is clearly said in the statement that the congress participants and all Syrians are asking the UN Secretary-General to instruct Staffan de Mistura to assist with further work on constitutional reform, finally approve the composition of the Constitutional Committee, its powers and rules of procedure. I thought you had already reviewed the results of the congress. They are published on the Foreign Ministry website. I will not go into too many details. I hope after the news conference you will read the document carefully. It has long been available.
As concerns international actors and their involvement, we invited a great number of observers to the congress based on the following criteria: all UNSC permanent members, for obvious reasons, all Syria’s neighbours (Iraq, Jordan, Libya) and Egypt as the country where the Cairo opposition group was formed at the time. Another group was formed in Riyadh, therefore, we also invited Saudi Arabia. The third group, the one mentioned in UNSC Resolution 2254, is the Moscow group. Russia was, naturally, represented in Sochi. We also invited Kazakhstan as the host country of the Astana process.
All the invited parties sent high-level representatives as observers, except for our Western partners. The United States, France and the United Kingdom, who claimed they were not present in Sochi in any capacity, did not tell the whole truth. All the three countries sent diplomats from their embassies to Sochi even though they said that the diplomats would not be serving as observers but only work on the sidelines. However, this was the logical, I think, circle of external actors attending the congress in Sochi. What happens next is up to Staffan de Mistura.
There is a support mechanism created long ago, the International Syria Support Group, co-chaired by Russia and the US. It has been a long time since the group convened at the ministerial level but its two targeted sub-groups, on the ceasefire and humanitarian issues, meet on a regular basis, every week, in Geneva. The meetings are attended by representatives of European foreign policy agencies from a large number of EU members. I assume that Belgium, as one of the key EU members, regularly receives information on how your colleagues in the EU see the situation within the said formats.
Certainly, when the constitutional process begins we will proceed from the premise that our UN colleagues will ensure its transparency and keep all the involved members of the international community up to date.
Russia, for its part, will continue to support these efforts through its participation in the Astana process along with Turkey and Iran. In late 2016, this process managed to spur on our UN colleagues’ relaxed efforts. With the exception of the first two months, the UN platform remained empty throughout 2016. But as soon as we announced the formation of the Astana platform, the UN immediately took the initiative. I am glad we managed to shake them up, just like the congress in Sochi shook up our counterparts. We are grateful to Staffan de Mistura for that. He participated in the Sochi Congress in person and it will give a helpful boost to his further efforts.