Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at the Germany-Russia Forum

Submitted on Wed, 09/19/2018 - 14:01

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's remards and responses to questions at the Germany-Russia Forum, Berlin, September 14, 2018

Mr Matthias Platzeck,

Ladies and gentlemen, my colleagues:

I am grateful to you for the invitation to speak before such a prestigious audience. We highly appreciate the constructive cooperation within the Germany-Russia Forum that is making a tangible contribution to the development of bilateral cooperation and the consolidation of an atmosphere of friendship, trust and neighbourliness between our nations.

Our dialogue with representatives from German public, political and business circles has become a good tradition. Last July we met at the Korber Foundation, and last February we talked with Russian and German business leaders on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

In the current situation in European and world affairs these discussions oriented towards the promotion of mutual understanding between Russians and Germans are very much needed. They demonstrate our mutual interest in the joint constructive search for the best ways of resolving various bilateral and international issues. 

I am sure that today’s meeting will be no exception. It is devoted, as Mr Platzeck said, to integration processes in Greater Eurasia and the prospects for building a common economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. It is hard to overrate the importance of these issues. The prospects of conjugating the potential of all European states without exception have occupied the minds of many outstanding European politicians. At one time French President Charles de Gaulle set forth the idea of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. Such European greats as chancellors Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schroeder and President Jacques Chirac repeatedly emphasised the importance of broad cooperation with Russia with a view to building a common European system of security and economic cooperation. I would like to recall at this point that the first ideologists of Eurasian integration – Russian philosophers, geographers and historians Nikolai Trubetskoi, Pyotr Savitsky and Georgy Vernadsky – wrote about the natural character of common European cooperation as early as in the 1920s and 1930s.  They defined potential cooperation on our enormous continent as a “natural synthesis” of the origins of the East and the West and the unification of their “civilisation codes.”

Upon the end of the Cold War, the obstacles in the way of mutual rapprochement between the two key economic and geopolitical players on the continent disappeared. They could pursue this in the name of building Greater Europe without dividing lines. For our part, we did our best for a Russia-EU partnership to become strategic in the true meaning of the word. Our many initiatives – from removing barriers to personal contact to building a common energy complex in the future – were aimed at reaching this goal.

In 2008 we proposed signing a European security treaty that would legally codify the political commitment of every state not to enhance its security at the others’ expense. Consistent implementation of these ideas could be an important contribution to the formation of common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Symbolically, speaking here at the Hotel Adlon Berlin at the fourth annual economic forum of executives and top managers of leading German companies, President of Russia Vladimir Putin expressed his conviction in the inevitability of Russian-European rapprochement if we want to retain our status as a civilisation, and be successful and competitive. We believe this idea not only remains valid but is becoming increasingly topical every day.

Sadly, not everyone in Europe supports this attitude for expanding interaction with our country. We are aware that there are different points of view where pragmatism does not always prevail. Sometimes there are enduring historical phobias, where Russia is imagined as some kind of threat to the peaceful European way of life. But, of course, Russia is not a threat. We often face attempts to teach us how to make our home better as if they do not understand that a patronising tone in any dialogue, let alone a dialogue with Russia, and ideology-based relations are meaningless and counterproductive.

I am talking about the current situation in our large European home with open disappointment. I am confident that Russia and the European Union are bound to cooperate on a basic, substantial level. The past decade, to a large extent, has been a decade of lost opportunities. Just a few examples. We could have, as Matthias Platzeck said, abolished visa rules, but this issue was deliberately dropped for political reasons by Brussels. We could have greatly reinforced our trade and economic links, but Brussels began creating hurdles for Russia's main exports. Such roadblocks include the Third Energy Package, a project which, properly speaking, aims to create problems for Gazprom in the European energy market, despite the fact Russia has always been a stable supplier of hydrocarbons to Europe.

Under the Eastern Partnership programme, a game was initiated not with a zero sum but with a 'negative sum’ through attempts to throw post-Soviet states into a false choice of "you're either with us, or against us." The culmination of the policy of deterring Russia was the anti-constitutional coup in Ukraine, with national radicals coming to power who abolished the agreement on a settlement of the political crisis in Ukraine signed in February 2014, with Germany, France and Poland acting as EU guarantors. Yet, Berlin, Warsaw and Paris made no attempts to say anything regarding these rebels’ attitude towards European mediation.  

It was also surprising, the haste of the European Union - by direct order from Washington - to agree to suspend time-proven cooperation with Russia and deliberately agree to suffer multibillion euro losses with the sanctions.  Paradoxically, the Americans have neither sustained nor are sustaining losses.

But the Ukrainian crisis could have been prevented. I will remind you that the European Union was trying to draw Ukraine into its orbit through signing an Association Agreement that would inevitable have led to Ukraine leaving the CIS free trade area and subsequently sever Kiev's cooperation ties with Moscow. Instead of persistently following this destructive scenario, we proposed agreeing on parameters to harmonise integration processes, which would satisfy all three sides – the European Union, Ukraine and Russia, and would have taken into account both the EU’s requirements and Kiev's existing obligations under the CIS and bilateral relations with Moscow. However, all proposals by Russia on trilateral talks in 2013 and early 2014 were insensitively dismissed by Brussels. And if the expression "learning from the past" has any meaning, we believe that this is a case where we could look back and reach conclusions to help us move forward, including in the context of today’s discussion of the issues on the agenda.

By the way, in this regard it is worth hurrying as the world’s geopolitical landscape is changing rapidly, becoming more competition-oriented. New centres of economic power, above all in the Asia-Pacific region, are building up their potential. The old schemes based on the “those who lead – and those who are led” no longer work as a polycentric world order shapes up. Non-standard, innovative ideas are in demand.

If we take an impartial look at things, then in my opinion, the European Union should assess the advantages to its own interests more seriously, especially the creation of a new model of economic cooperation in Eurasia, one based on the mutual complementarity of national growth strategies and the combined potential of multilateral economic projects.

We, for our part, have started to pave the way in this direction. In cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and based on WTO precepts, we have created common markets for goods and services, and are ensuring conditions for the free movement of capital and workforce and are strengthening the EAEU’s external relations. For one, we have a free trade zone with Vietnam. We are discussing similar agreements with Israel, Serbia, and Singapore and other ASEAN countries. Talks with Egypt and India will get under way soon. An interim agreement has been signed with Iran. In total, we have received around 50 proposals from various countries and associations on establishing partnership relations with the EAEU.

An emphasis is being attached to work that has just begun to interconnect integration within the EAEU framework and China’s One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative. An agreement on trade and economic cooperation between the EAEU and China was signed in May. We are planning to link infrastructure projects within the EAEU and the OBOR frameworks with the Northern Sea Route. All this creates prerequisites for progress towards the implementation of President Vladimir Putin’s Big Eurasian Partnership initiative – a maximum free space for broad economic cooperation involving the EAEU, the SCO and the ASEAN countries.

We hope that the European Union will consider these efforts and then the idea of a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok will acquire a practical form.

We appreciate the fact that many German politicians are showing interest in such cooperation. Mr Platzeck mentioned that matters regarding the creation of a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok are included in the coalition treaty of the current Government of Germany. This subject is regularly discussed during various Russian-German meetings, including at the top level. The main thing is that intentions should be transformed into specific steps.

Naturally, the implementation of large-scale plans is impossible without the general improvement of Russia-EU relations that remain hostage to the Ukrainian crisis in many respects. And the crisis itself persists due in large part to the policy pursued by Kiev’s current authorities who are impeding the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, agreements for which there is no alternative in resolving the current situation in this neighbouring country. We know that in Europe more and more people are becoming aware of the counterproductive approach of a confrontationist line towards Russia, favour a pragmatic policy and do not want to be manipulated to the detriment of their own legal interests.

I believe that we should reach the right conclusions and start repairing our pan-European home and building a common space of peace, security and economic cooperation with regard for the interests of all countries – those that are members and those that are not members of various integration associations. Much here will depend on the state of relations between Russia and Germany – the two largest European powers. History knows many examples of constructive Russian-German cooperation with favourable results for the general situation in Europe.

In this connection, it is indicative that, even under the current circumstances, cooperation between our states continues to develop in a range of areas – from the economy to culture. An obvious example is my visit to Berlin at the invitation of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, which was timed to coincide with the closing ceremony of the Cross Year of Regional and Municipal Partnerships. I regard this as a good helping hand in gradually improving the mutual trust that Europe and the whole world desperately need. Let me stop here. I am ready to answer your questions.

Question: You said that repairs of the European home are on the agenda. What are your main proposals? How can we start major repairs? What else is necessary in addition to what is already being done today? What are we short of?

Sergey Lavrov: To be honest, I don’t know what “is already being done today.” To start repairing our European home it is necessary to start talking. Practically all channels of dialogue between Russia and the European Union (EU) and between Russia and NATO have been broken off. Practical cooperation with the North Atlantic Alliance has been shut down at their initiative. Of over 20 sectoral dialogues with the EU, not a single one is current. No, probably I’ve been hasty – there are contacts on the migration dialogue that is very important for Germany and the EU. I think one or two others continue. The energy dialogue has not resumed in its former format. There are sporadic contacts between Vice-President of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic and Energy Minister of the Russian Federation Alexander Novak. Sometimes they meet together and sometimes with Ukraine’s Energy Minister Ihor Nasalyk if the discussion concerns issues linked with Ukraine’s role in Russian-EU energy cooperation.

I don’t even remember the last time we held a meeting with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in the Permanent Partnership Council that is designed to review all areas of Russia-EU cooperation without exception in accordance with the still valid Russia-EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. I meet with Ms Mogherini occasionally on the sidelines of international forums and she is interested exclusively in international issues, primarily Syria and Ukraine. I don’t think we have had any other serious discussions. We have somehow failed so far to sit down and figure out where our relations with the EU are as a whole. Summits have not been held since 2013; the Permanent Partnership Council I mentioned is not functioning, and the overwhelming majority of sectoral dialogues have been suspended as well.

If we do not start to cooperate normally at meetings, and discuss our issues and concerns, I think there will be little progress. One indicative example: up to now we cannot exchange information on the movement of foreign terrorist commandos around the world, including our common space because the EU has not shown any interest or activity in completing the work on signing agreements between Russia and the Europol and between Russia and Eurojust. Without these agreements it is impossible to exchange personal data under Russian and EU law. This is an example of a most urgent problem, challenge and threat common to all of us, not attracting our special attention. So we must sit down and start talking. We are ready for this.

Question: Do you have special expectations as regards the German government in this respect?

Sergey Lavrov: We know what role Germany plays in EU, Europe and world politics. Probably, much depends on Germany’s position. We will only welcome Berlin’s initiative to simply start, without any preconditions and special expectations at this point, practical conversation on all the issues on the Russia-EU agenda.

Question: We had reasons and problems. These problems were not resolved either and the reason for it was that Germany and Western Europe generally mistrust Russia. Indeed, we don’t know whether Russia treats us well. This implies a hybrid war, cyberattacks and other aspects that are being discussed. What is really going on there? I don’t even want to talk about Crimea. As I see it, we need confidence-building measures. What could these measures be?

Sergey Lavrov: It is incorrect not to talk about Crimea because this matter deserves to be discussed. We are ready to answer all your questions. It appears that your statement about your inability to learn what is going on in Russia can be explained by an absence of normal dialogue between us. This dialogue should not hinge on a demand that Russia should first confess to all mortal sins, even without any specific facts proving our illegal activities, and that it would then be possible to hold talks with Russia.

You have mentioned cybersecurity and election meddling. We are closely following foreign assessments of Russian policies and actions. We can see the current bacchanalia in the United States and claims that all problems of the American political system are linked with Russian meddling. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been working for over a year. Hundreds of people have been questioned during congressional hearings, and the FBI is conducting its own investigations. Considering the huge number of suspects who have been questioned, it is very hard to conceal anything. The American system is famous for its instant leaks. They are not mentioning even one specific fact. All we can hear is groundless accusations that someone from St Petersburg hacked into US government agencies’ websites.

There was a scandal around Paul Manafort who had worked for US President Donald Trump’s campaign. He was charged with being a key figure in engineering collusion between Donald Trump and the Russian Federation. All charges, except one or two, were dropped during a subsequent trial. None of them had anything to do with Russia. Incidentally, the main accusation that he had functioned as a foreign agent, while failing to register as such, is linked with his work for the Ukrainian Government. No one is talking about this. The media probably mentioned this matter once, and that’s it.

We are calling on the US to resume the work of the bilateral group on cybersecurity that existed in 2013, no matter what. This group stopped functioning after the United States severed many communications channels after the government coup in Ukraine. We tried to resume this process last year. This past March, Geneva was to have hosted the relevant large-scale meeting involving both countries’ inter-departmental delegations, State Department and Foreign Ministry representatives, as well as those of security and intelligence services. The Russian delegation arrived in Geneva where the meeting was to have taken place. While at the airfield, Russian representatives heard the news that the Americans had refused to hold the meeting. Someone somewhere said once again that a Petya/Not Petya ransomware attack had been recorded; the Americans turned around and left. During the summer, American experts approached us during the relevant OSCE events and suggested resuming contacts. We agreed, but there are no such contacts so far.

We addressed this matter again during the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump in Helsinki. US President Donald Trump said that it is the right approach. The same conversation took place the year before, on the sidelines of the G20 summit where we also agreed to resume cooperation on cybersecurity. However, this initiative did not find support with the Trump administration and similar agencies responsible for this field. The US Congress even accused President Trump of being ready to agree to talk with Russians on a topic that proves Russia’s harmful interference with US affairs. Using this sort of approach will not get us very far.

We are having a similar problem here. Cybersecurity is on the bilateral agenda for our relations with Germany. The first meeting of the Working Group on Cybersecurity was scheduled for last March but eventually got postponed at the request of Germany.

You said that the reason why there is no normal dialogue is lack of trust for Russia. But without a dialogue, you will not be able to dispel your doubts and get rid of the mistrust. Today I mentioned a state coup in Ukraine in February 2014 when, as a result of the mediation by the EU, the-then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition, including the opposition which is now represented in the Ukrainian leadership, signed an agreement. Germany, France and Poland verified the agreement and acted as guarantors of its fulfillment. The morning after the signing, the agreement was terminated, a coup took place and, instead of building a government of national unity under clause 1 of the agreement, the coup initiators announced the creation of a government of winners. This is a slightly different mindset. I don’t think the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine was happy with the first action of the new leadership in Kiev. The first action was to abolish the law that guaranteed the rights of the Russian language as well as other minority languages. The day after the coup, one of the radical leaders, Dmytry Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector extremist neo-Nazi organisation, publicly threatened all Russians in Crimea with deportation because a Russian person will never understand a Ukrainian and will never honour Ukrainian heroes (he meant Roman Shukhevych, Stepan Bandera and other Nazi henchmen). Therefore, Russians must be banished from Crimea. I think that message to Crimean residents played a key role in the action they took afterwards by holding a referendum. Even more so because his threats were followed by sending so-called “friendship trains” with militants to Crimea and attempted occupation of the Crimean Supreme Council.

Speaking about trust, of course, we asked our German and French colleagues what they think about their mediation formalised on paper being simply ignored. Moreover, the opposition did completely the opposite of what it was committed to doing. Neither Berlin nor Paris responded. By the way, in February 2014, US President Barack Obama spoke out in favour of that agreement. He specifically called President Vladimir Putin and asked him not to talk Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych out of signing that document. And we did not talk him out of do it. We said that if there is an agreement between the officials and the opposition then we will, of course, support its signing. After what happened, US President Barack Obama did not even try to somehow explain why the United States, which wholeheartedly supported signing the agreement, not only put up with its termination but most actively backed the officials that took over Kiev by an armed coup d’etat. Since all this is related to Crimea, let’s consider how we can avoid being stuck with certain assessments of the events and instead try and understand why this happened. Once again, we need to do it not for the sake of filing complaints against each other but to learn from these mistakes and draw conclusions. We are all in favour of this.

Now, hybrid wars. What is happening in the West where the policy regarding Russia is being built absolutely suits the definition of a hybrid war. There are direct military actions when, despite all reassurances, NATO is expanding its military presence and infrastructure near our borders. More military divisions and weapons are being deployed. The media is shaming Russia for any reason whatsoever and the NGOs operating in Russia as well as other countries are most actively used for interfering into our domestic affairs. There are dozens of NGOs that operate in Russia and receive funding from abroad. We do not prohibit their activities but ask those who operate on foreign money to inform us about this and register as foreign agents. This is exactly what the Americans are doing.

For example, since we are talking about interference with domestic affairs and hybrid wars, in the summer of 2015, the United States passed a law supporting stability and democracy in Ukraine according to which the US Department of State undertook to promote democracy in Russia both directly and through NGOs. The United States allocated $20 million per year. This is stated in the law which is not a confidential document. Just imagine if the Russian parliament passed something like this with respect to US public organisations. Imagine the reaction and hysteria we would get from overseas.

Let’s compare facts and not claim that our way of life and approach to international affairs are the only good alternative. Only compromises will help us find solutions to most of the pressing matters but for that we need to start talking. I am glad that we are trying to build it today.

Question: You have come up with a good concept for returning once again to the issue of Ukraine and the unresolved conflict in Donbass. We can also see a major humanitarian problem there. Its solution was formalised on paper, but the decision is not being implemented, and this is making everything even more complicated. You have mentioned Ukraine’s mistakes in this connection. Do you have any idea of a Russian approach to maintaining peace in this country and region?

Sergey Lavrov: I have an idea of this approach which is not new and which is called the Minsk Agreements. This document was the result of uninterrupted 17-hour talks involving the presidents of Russia, France, Ukraine and the Chancellor of Germany, and it was unanimously approved by a UN Security Council resolution. Indeed, the document devotes much attention to issues on which the well-being of the population and the solution of humanitarian problems depend. For example, it notes the obligation of the Kiev authorities to help restore economic ties and to resume banking services from which Donbass residents were cut off. As you know (I hope you are following Ukrainian developments), instead of accomplishing these tasks, Kiev has long since imposed a total economic, trade and transport blockade of these territories. In most cases, people are not allowed to pass through checkpoints. Ukrainian authorities barely manage to pay pensions. Regarding banking services, German and French leaders pledged to provide mobile banking services under the Normandy format, but so far they have failed to do this.

For many years, the Ukrainian Government has failed to cooperate with Berlin or Paris in addressing the problems of ordinary people in the conflict zone. As you know, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are conducting a joint operation on their territory. Before that, a counter-terrorism operation took place. People who refused to support a coup d’état were called terrorists. But if you recall the facts, you will see that these people did not attack anyone. When the putsch took place, when they saw political and philosophical concepts of the new government, primarily anti-Russia concepts directed against the Russian language and culture and the Church, they asked to be left alone, saying they wanted to understand what was going on in Kiev, and that they would live on their own for the time being. They did not attack anyone. On the contrary, they were attacked and branded as terrorists.

This is a small part of what we can recall and discuss while focusing on the genesis of the Ukrainian crisis. But the Minsk Agreements are the most important thing. They need to be honoured, with due respect for their key provisions. Many parameters of this small document directly oblige Kiev to hold consultations with Donetsk and Lugansk and to coordinate all key issues with them, including constitutional reform, the special status of Donbass, an amnesty and the holding of elections. Kiev does not plan to do all this. It constantly creates artificial tensions along the demarcation line and deceives its Normandy format partners by refusing to disengage forces and hardware in the well-known Stanitsa Luganskaya place. In two other towns, where the disengagement took place, Ukrainian forces sneaked back. The OSCE Monitoring Mission knows this, as is proven by its reports. Of course, this is a glaring example of Kiev’s reluctance, under far-fetched artificial pretexts, to formalise the so-called Frank-Walter Steinmeier formula. This formula was coined by your esteemed President and my colleague when he worked as minister of foreign affairs.

In October 2015, the Normandy Four leaders met in Paris to discuss the issue of holding elections because, according to the Minsk Agreements, the law on the special status of these territories should first be approved and enacted. The law has been drafted, its contents have been coordinated, but it is has not entered into force. President Petro Poroshenko asked how he could enact the law on the special status if he did not know who would be elected during these elections. This implied that a special status would not be needed if they elected acceptable candidates. Therefore elections come first, followed by the [special] status, he noted. At that time, the then German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested a compromise: the law will come into effect on a preliminary basis after polling stations close on the day of elections, and it will come into full force, permanently, after the OSCE circulates its final election monitoring report. This process usually takes two months. Everyone agreed, and this came to be called the Frank-Walter Steinmeier formula. A year later, in October 2016, the Normandy Four leaders met here in Berlin, with President of Russia Vladimir Putin reminding his colleagues that an agreement had been reached in Paris, but that experts and foreign ministers, members of the Normandy format and the Contact Group, had failed to formalise it on paper and to move on because of opposition from the Ukrainian Government. President Petr Poroshenko said the Frank-Walter Steinmeier formula stipulated that the law come into force on a permanent basis on the day of publication of the concluding OSCE election monitoring report; and he wanted to know what would happen if the report recognised the elections as unfair and unjust. This argument took 12 months to prepare. President of Russia Vladimir Putin promptly responded that this was the intent and suggested writing down that the law would be permanently enacted on the day the OSCE report was published, if the report recognised the elections as free and fair.

This took place in October 2016 in Berlin, and we are soon going to mark the second anniversary of this agreement. The Ukrainian Government flatly refuses to formalise the document on paper. Representatives of the Normandy Four leaders had another telephone conversation the day before yesterday. French and German representatives once again tried to coordinate the formalisation of the Frank-Walter Steinmeier formula on paper, but their attempt met with the resistance of the Ukrainian representative. I could discuss this matter for a long time, so let’s move on to something else.

By the way, I don’t shy away from the Crimean issue. Most European Union countries, including Germany, have a discriminatory regulation under which the passports of persons who received them in Crimea after March 2014 are not stamped with Schengen visas. If we read all human rights conventions, as well as OSCE and Council of Europe obligations regarding freedom of movement, we shall see that this is a direct violation of humanitarian obligations by those introducing such discrimination.

I took part in a conversation where participants posed the issue in a very interesting way: supposing that the Crimean referendum did reflect the true expression of the will of the population, then a refusal to issue visas to Crimea residents amounts to punishing people for their political convictions. On the other hand, if we assume that this was an annexation (as in the scenario being promoted by our Western colleagues), then it also turns out that civilians living in Crimea are not to blame for anything. An external “aggressor” “attacked” and “annexed” them. So why should the people suffer? Regardless of the logic, this does not explain the position of Europeans who do not stamp visas into the passports of Crimean residents. This is if we care about humanitarian matters.

Question: Your country is conducting intensive military operations in Syria. Europe and Germany are receiving immigrants in connection with developments in this country. What are Russia and its diplomacy doing to prevent any aggravation of the situation in Idlib where chemical weapons are expected to be used? One million children, three million people, including militants and people whom we call terrorists are staying there. The expulsion of three million people cannot serve as a price for combating them.

We are hearing Russian proposals on rebuilding Syria, and Germany could become involved in this process. We are happy to know that Russia is ready to work in this region.

Sergey Lavrov: Let’s discuss everything by order of priority. The Russian Aerospace Forces are helping the Syrian Government. Russian military advisors working on the ground are helping the Syrian Army to deploy its forces more effectively to combat terrorism. Some obvious successes have been posted in this area. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra militants and their supporters have been expelled from most of the Syrian regions.

Russia is not the only country to deploy its service personnel, military units, military advisers and special forces in Syria. Unlike Russia, other countries were not invited to Syria by the country’s legitimate Government, and their presence there is therefore illegal. However, we are pragmatic people, and we are not ideologically motivated; therefore we perceive this reality which should induce all external players now operating in Syria to reach an agreement in the interests of the Syrian nation, eliminating all threats to the Syrian state and fulfilling UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states expressly that only the people of Syria can decide their country’s future by drafting a constitution and holding UN-supervised elections in line with its provisions.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are working in the Astana format. A summit was held fairly recently. We are also working with Jordan, Israel and the United States via bilateral channels. Military representatives have communications lines making it possible to avoid unintentional incidents; and these lines can be used when it is necessary to resolve essential matters besides reviewing deconflicting issues.

Immigration, a serious problem, has affected us to the smallest extent and on an incomparable scale.  We realise how serious it is for many EU countries, in terms of socioeconomic and philosophical aspects. We are counting on the wisdom of Europe. I am confident that efforts will continue to be made in order to find mutually acceptable solutions.

I would like to recall that the current tidal wave of immigration was caused by the aggression against Libya when NATO countries bombed the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in violation of a UN Security Council resolution and helped those hunting the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi.  In the long run, they helped to brutally murder him to the jubilant yells of US officials who watched all this on television live in the White House in Washington DC. This is when the tidal wave of immigration began. Libya turned into a black hole, handling streams of terrorists, extremists and weapons to Sub-Saharan Africa. In the opposite direction, millions of refugees flowed into Europe.

I recall a situation when in the second half of 2011, soon after Libya was reduced to its current state (and no one knows how to rectify this situation), former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asked me to support France in the UN Security Council discussion of ways of dampening the threats engulfing the Republic of Mali. A French contingent was deployed there, and they wanted the UN Security Council to approve its use for thwarting attacks of terrorists from Libya. I replied that the fight against terrorism was not even a subject for discussion, and that Russia would support any decisions facilitating this fight. However, I reminded my colleague that terrorists whom they wanted to counter in Mali were the same people armed by them in Libya, so that they could topple the Gaddafi regime. They were armed in violation of a UN Security Council resolution stipulating a complete embargo on weapons shipments to Libya. The French military openly said that they were helping the opposition that was bringing democracy to Libya. 

As for the situation in Idlib, it is the only remaining major stronghold of the terrorists, who are resorting to their favourite tactics of using civilians as a human shield. They have brought the larger part of the armed opposition under control and regularly try to attack Syrian Army units and our airbase at Khmeimim, using, among other things, drones. Dozens of drones take off from the Idlib area and one of them even managed to drop explosives. Since this incident all drones have been neutralised, destroyed – we know how to handle them. So, it is not true that the people in Idlib are simply stuck there like in a besieged fortress and are seeking a truce. They have launched vigorous attacks from there, using the aid they are receiving in this or that manner from abroad.    

We have talked to our Turkish colleagues, who know that a territory in their country is occasionally used by evil people to worsen the situation in Syria. They are taking steps to put additional border security measures in place. Under an agreement we have reached, Turkey has established 12 observation posts in Idlib. This tends to slightly ease tensions. Turkey has undertaken to work towards the separation of the armed opposition, that is prepared to have a dialogue with the government, from terrorists, to prevent the latter from bringing armed groups that are not extremist or terrorist under control.

It is necessary to keep in mind that Idlib is one of the four de-escalation zones that were created in Syria under a resolution by the Astana Three. The establishment of one such zone to the south was coordinated with the United States and Jordan and its parameters have been accepted by Israel – this was important because Israel was apprehensive about the presence of extremists along its border close to the Golan Heights. The previous three zones have been closed for political reasons because it was agreed that the militants would pull out [of these relevant areas] and opposition groups would separate from the terrorists. These opposition groups have signed local truce agreements with the government. Today, the situation in this area is quiet, although an area of 110 kilometres in diameter unilaterally established by the Americans at Al-Tanf for absolutely unknown reasons has remained and was brought under control by the Americans. ISIS fighters and other terrorists remain in this area, feeling free and easy there and using it to occasionally launch attacks, including on the Palmyra and Aleppo areas.

As for Idlib, one should understand what agreements were reached to facilitate the creation of the de-escalation zones. The agreements declare a truce that – is explicitly stated – does not apply to terrorists. The agreements urge opposition groups to separate from the terrorists and establish contact with the government forces through our mediation and through the mediation of Turkey or Iran in order to negotiate local conciliations. We will definitely do everything that we are doing now, fully taking into account the challenges that the civilian population is facing.  

In addition to the efforts to set the stage for reaching local agreements with certain groups that are located in the Idlib zone, a humanitarian corridor is being created for those who want to leave the area like we did in the zone to the south – in the Province of Homs and Eastern Ghouta. Next week, on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet again. On September 7, in Tehran, they discussed how to address Idlib-related issues in order to minimise the risk that the civilians might be exposed to. Currently, our and Turkish diplomats and military are engaged in dialogue.  Next Monday, the two presidents will look into this situation.  

They are now claiming that Syrian forces have launched an offensive with Russian support. But this amounts to an unfair distortion of the facts. Syrian and Russian forces only respond to attacks from the Idlib zone. I have already noted that about 50 drones were launched towards the Russian military base. It is very difficult to detect them using conventional air defence systems; radar cannot detect the drones as many of them are made of wood, but we have intelligence data about where in Idlib these drones are assembled from components being smuggled into the region. As soon as we receive such information, we strike such illegal factories manufacturing deadly weapons. I assure you that we will deal with these matters in the most cautious manner possible; we will set up humanitarian corridors, encourage the so-called local conciliations and do our best to avoid hitting civilians. We will not act the way the [US-led] coalition acted in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, when no local ceasefire agreements were discussed with the armed opposition, when no humanitarian corridors were established (Raqqa is just about as large as Idlib), when buildings were razed to the ground, and when dead bodies lay unburied for months on end. We are expecting the UN to update us on the situation in Raqqa, and on how actively conditions are being created to ensure the return of the local population. For information’s sake, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are already returning to Eastern Aleppo (many similar emotional statements were also made prior to its liberation) and Eastern Ghouta (from where people left before these areas were liberated from terrorists).

We have already said everything about chemical weapons. Each day, we provide facts proving that another provocation is being prepared, that it will, most likely, be carried out by the so-called “White Helmets” NGO, being portrayed by our Western partners as a model example of humanitarian activities. For some reason, unlike the above-mentioned depoliticised International Committee of the Red Cross that operates all over Syria, this organisation solely operates on extremist-controlled territories.

When they say that the Syrian government will use chemical weapons anytime now, and that France, the United Kingdom and the United States will then deal a crushing blow against the “regime,” as they call it, this essentially amounts to an invitation to extremists to stage another attack, just like they did in Eastern Ghouta, and this will make it possible to attack the Syrian government. This is also a provocation in its own sense. They have failed to provide even one fact that the government is getting ready to launch a similar attack, but no one responds in any way to various facts being presented daily by Russian military representatives, including the way this attack is being prepared, how many barrels with chlorine have been delivered to Idlib, what kind of explosives are to be used, and what communities are involved.

Just like in any other affair, including the Salisbury incident and the chemical problem in Eastern Ghouta, where the Western Big Three had attacked at a time when everyone was shocked by a video showing “White Helmets” representatives hosing down a boy, it is necessary to rely on solid facts.  Later, we located that boy and his father, we brought him to the Hague where he said he was simply staying inside a compound; all of sudden, some people wearing white helmets rushed inside and started hosing him down. It was Russia, not the West, that insisted that OPCW experts go there. When they were a several-hour ride away from Eastern Ghouta, the United States, France and the UK struck that place. As per our demand, the OPCW was to have submitted its report with expert findings. This report has not been submitted so far, with the OPCW Technical Secretariat’s officials replying to our questions that they will complete the report anytime now. All this looks very bad in the context of openness and the need for all of us to combat chemical weapons and terrorists, instead of trying to use both issues in geopolitical games.

Regarding our opinion on how to restore the infrastructure, we want Syria to resume peaceful life, to resolve humanitarian problems, and we want the refugees to return, including those from Europe. Thousands of refugees are already pouring in from Lebanon. With Russian support, the Lebanese government actively cooperates with organisations facilitating their return. The Russian military and the Syrian government have already conducted an inventory of communities whose conditions already allow refugees to return and to start settling down in their homes. These communities already have running water, sewage systems and elementary medical services. We have already circulated this information in countries receiving Syrian refugees, including Germany. We are asking their authorities to find out whether there are people from these villages, towns and cities (that already have adequate living conditions) in their respective countries and to inform them accordingly. We are also working in this direction together with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.   

What else can be done? It appears that it is necessary to become involved in this work and to stop dividing Syrian territory into “good” and “bad” areas. Today, our Western colleagues, including the EU and the United States, are saying that they will provide humanitarian aid alone (but they don’t want the government to receive too much of this aid). Speaking of restoring the infrastructure and the economy, they are ready to take part in this process only if the so-called political transitional process begins, and when they become convinced that this process is heading in the “right” direction. But they now invest millions and tens of millions of dollars in a region which is illegally occupied by the United States and US-controlled opposition units, primarily Kurdish units, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. They are doing exactly what the West refuses to do anywhere else in Syria. In other words, they are creating more favourable conditions for the population, and, by all appearances, this concept runs completely counter to the solemn assurances of our Western colleagues that they would respect the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.

It goes without saying that unilateral sanctions, imposed on the Syrian government by the EU and the United States, influence the state of the country, including efforts to create favourable conditions for the return of refugees. These sanctions have considerably impaired its ability to provide medical services and lots more needed to get life back to normal. There are many aspects here, and the West could study them in order to see what could be done.

Question:  You said there is an obvious shortage of forums for pan-European dialogue. In principle, the Council of Europe embraces the region that you’ve described. What contribution is Russia willing to make to return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe?

Sergey Lavrov: Are you serious? You know that what is now happening in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe only further aggravates the shortage of forums. The aggressive Russophobic minority does everything it can to keep this forum from actually being pan-European, to make everyone else fall in line and to punish the Russian Federation. When this Russophobic minority – and we know what deputies in the Parliamentary Assembly we are referring to – passed the rule-breaking decision on depriving our delegation of the right to vote, we still showed goodwill. We suggested coming to terms to make all the delegations in the Council of Europe equal, as is written in its Charter that describes the authority of the Parliamentary Assembly. Depriving any delegation of the right to vote is a flagrant violation of the fundamental principles of the functioning of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. When this happened, we went to a specially established mechanism for talks with the heads of the Parliamentary Assembly, including Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland. These meetings did not produce any results although Mr Jagland and President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Michele Nicoletti were sincerely doing all they could to overcome this crisis.

For about a year and a half after we were deprived of the right to vote, we continued paying our dues to the Council of Europe but honestly warned everyone that this could not continue because it was a violation of the principle of equality that is fundamental to all bodies of the Council of Europe, be it the Committee of Ministers, the Committee of the Regions or the Parliamentary Assembly. When  our patience came to an end because Mr Jagland and Mr Nicoletti’s efforts did not produce results, we said that starting at a certain point we would not be able to pay our dues because by that time more than half of the judges of the European Human Rights Court were elected by the Parliamentary Assembly without the participation of the Russian delegation. Later, the Parliamentary Assembly elected Dunja Mijatovic the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, again without the Russian delegation. The Secretary General election will take place next year. If the issue is not resolved by then, we will consider the legitimacy of all these Council of Europe committees to be questionable.

Responding to criticism for not paying membership fees, which is punishable by expulsion from the Council of Europe, last summer, we said that as soon as everyone returns to the foundations of the Council of Europe Charter and the full rights of our parliamentary delegation are restored without exception, we will immediately pay all we owe to the Council of Europe. This remains our current position. It depends on the parliamentarians, whether they will be constructive or not. If those countries that want to punish Russia for everything, and we know tentatively who they are, manipulate the Parliamentary Assembly, it will probably discredit the deputies from the other countries that are interested in dialogue even on the most complicated issues. Crimea, the crisis in Ukraine, and migration problems, to name a few, may be discussed. To be honest, if a country that leaves the EU of its own free will determines the EU policy on Russia, it does no credit to the EU.