Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Kommersant newspaper
New York, September 25, 2019
Question: What will you tell US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the visa situation?
Sergey Lavrov: This is obvious. They have denied visas to ten of our staff members, and this is only as regards the Foreign Ministry. They have also denied visas to Leonid Slutsky and Konstantin Kosachyov, who have visited the United States many times, as well as to Dmitry Rogozin, who planned to attend events on space cooperation. Nearly all of the Foreign Ministry staff members who have been denied visas, including our interpreters, attended the events held by various UN bodies many times before. The only person on the list who has not been allowed to attend various disarmament events in the past is the head of a section at the ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, and this is despite the fact that he was appointed head of our expert delegation. We issued a protest, of course. They told us that there was no discrimination or any violation of US obligations under the UN Headquarters (UNHQ) agreement, including the obligation to guarantee the unrestricted participation of all the member states in UN events. However, we have learned to be wary of American methods – trust them to do the wrong thing. Of course, we will respond and try to respond harshly. Such impudence is not to be tolerated.
Question: How will you respond?
Sergey Lavrov: We will find a way. They have an interest in coming to Russia as well. We know very well their pettiness and dishonesty. When US Congressmen visited Russia last year, they asked for entry permission for Senator Ron Johnson, who has been on the sanctions list exclusively in response to the US refusal to let our MPs visit the United States. We granted that request on the condition that our parliamentary delegation that would make a reply visit will include one or several persons on the US sanctions list. This would show that we are building bridges, at least between our parliaments, and revising confrontational and counterproductive approaches. We were assured that this is how it would be. But when a Russian delegation was planning a visit at the invitation of US Congress this year, they told us that it is categorically impossible to issue entry visas to anyone from the sanctions list. This is how they interpret American exceptionalism: they can do anything, while others must wait for their permission. This is regrettable.
When they denied entry visa to the aforementioned section head at the ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, who was to attend a meeting of the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) in April 2019, we submitted an official proposal not to hold the meeting in the United States if the participating countries are unable to send the persons they want to send to represent their positions and uphold their interests. It appears that now we will have to raise the question about the UN Headquarters.
By the way, when the establishment of the UN and the location of its headquarters were discussed, Joseph Stalin proposed Sochi. It was a far-sighted idea. I believe that in the current situation Sochi would suit the purpose wonderfully, considering the Olympics and all the other events that have been held there after it.
Question: How realistic is this?
Sergey Lavrov: I have cited an example when a two-week UNDC session was postponed for an indefinite time. We are aware of modern realities and the position of the majority of countries, which need the UN and do not need a crisis and which want to have an opportunity to meet to discuss important subjects. The problem does exist. After the incident I mentioned, we have submitted a relevant proposal to the UN Committee on Relations with the Host Country. When it was established in 1971, nobody thought that “relations” would not be interpreted as a two-way street but as active partner control.
Question: Has the conflict potential in the post-Soviet space been exhausted?
Sergey Lavrov: Not yet, although it is not as volatile as it was immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Regarding Central Asia, for example, a conflict between the secular government of Tajikistan and an Islamist party was settled in 2006 after years of negotiations actively mediated by Russia and Iran. The situation seemed to have settled. Representatives of that opposition party were offered official posts, including the government and the parliament. But tensions have recently increased again. We are doing our best to reduce and remove them. I hope we will succeed.
There have been clashes on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They happened twelve and eighteen months ago, when we were actively involved in the efforts to normalise the situation. At that time, we thought we succeeded. Our Kazakhstani colleagues helped us. The problem concerned border delimitation. It will take a long time, just as everywhere else where the problem concerns post-Soviet borders. Nobody thought about the administrative boundaries between villages and towns during the Soviet era. The problem only came to the fore after the former Soviet republics became sovereign states.
Question: The exchange of detainees between Russia and Ukraine has improved the situation, yes, the situation, because there are hardly any relations to speak of between Moscow and Kiev. It has improved the environment for talks. The Steinmeier Formula has been put down on paper. But it was not signed in Minsk on September 18. Is there any chance that the Normandy Format summit will be held this year?
Sergey Lavrov: The exchange of detainees was held independently of the situation in Donbass. We exchanged the Ukrainians who had been arrested on suspicion of committing crimes in Russia, and the Russian citizens who were in a similar position in Ukraine. The exchange took place after a direct contact between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky, which is a positive sign. At some stage, problems developed in Ukraine, because they attempted, as it happened many times before, to waive the arrangements regarding particular persons. But we managed to settle that problem. We owe this to President Zelensky. As far as I know, he played the key part in making the exchange possible. Actually, this has slightly improved relations between Moscow and Kiev. Since Russia is an active member of the Normandy Format and the Contact Group on Ukraine, this can help improve the environment in Donbass.
Question: Do you expect a Normandy format summit this year?
Sergey Lavrov: I would not rule it out, but it does not depend on us. Everyone has heard the story of how the previous Normandy Four summits’ decisions were implemented. Now the need to implement their decisions has been finally recognised in Kiev. I read the statements by Foreign Minister of Ukraine Vadim Pristaiko about the need to sign the Steinmeier Formula, as agreed four years ago. Admittedly, he somewhat backtracked on it, arguing that a formula is just a formula, but to become viable, it needs to be reviewed and altered. He did not explain how, though. But if his play is again to revise what has already been decided, this will definitely not help the process.
I hope our Ukrainian colleagues will not take their cues from Petr Poroshenko, who just distorts various developments related to the Normandy format. I read in his interview the other day that “the Steinmeier agreement is not even a thing. There is no Steinmeier Agreement or Steinmeier Formula supposedly agreed upon with the parties. There were Steinmeier’s proposals when he was Foreign Minister of Germany. In particular, he proposed that after the security component is formed and free and fair local elections are held, the law on the special status shall come into force at the time of the elections, and ultimately after the OSCE recognises the elections as fair, not two weeks after the vote when election commissions calculate the results.”
This is a flagrant distortion of the Steinmeier Formula. As a reminder, the Minsk Agreements require the special status law to be adopted before the elections in Donbass. Ukrainian laws are mentioned there, but it is also mentioned that the procedure for holding elections with the involvement of the OSCE should be agreed with Donetsk and Lugansk. That is all very well, but the opinion of these self-proclaimed republics must be taken into account.
Poroshenko’s statement that before granting the status he needs to know to whom it is being granted is “democratic” indeed. Clearly if he likes the voting results, he will grant the special status. But if they elect the “wrong” people – “separatists” and “terrorists”, as he refers to them – he will deny the special status. All generally accepted norms, common logic and international experience (as confirmed in the Normandy format by France, Germany and Russia), before people go to vote, they must have an idea how much authority the elected people will have. Telling them they should vote first and then we’ll see what powers the elected officials will be given is anything but democracy.
When this whole mess began, Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed a compromise at the Normandy Four Summit in Paris in 2015. The law was agreed (the “it still needs to be finalised” rhetoric comes straight from the devil), and all of its components are contained in the Minsk Agreements. The provisions regarding the competencies of the new government in Donbass were incorporated into the law adopted by the Verkhovna Rada, but, unlike the Minsk Agreements, not indefinitely, but for a year (later extended to three years). Unlike the Minsk Agreements, its entry into force was conditional on the elections. Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed that this law, already adopted, should enter into force on a temporary basis at the time polling stations close in Donbass and permanently with the OSCE approval by the final official report of the Election Observation Mission. This usually happens after a couple of months.
It seems that everything was agreed in Paris in 2015. A year later, they met again in Berlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that the Steinmeier Formula, although it was approved by everyone a year ago, had still not been legalised or documented. Poroshenko replied: “What if the OSCE reports that the elections were not fair?” The Russian President just made a helpless gesture because that was obvious! Indeed, when they say that the law will ultimately come into force when the final OSCE report is released, naturally everyone assumes this will happen if the report says the elections were fair. Since Poroshenko did not seem comfortable with that (unless, of course, it was just another game), we proposed expanding the Steinmeier Formula to say that only an OSCE report confirming the voting was fair shall trigger the law’s ultimate entry into force. Everyone agreed.
But three years have passed. In his recent interview, Poroshenko said another interesting thing: “I would like to tell you something, and it is the first time I am telling anyone about the last meeting in Berlin with Putin, Merkel, the French President and your humble servant. When Putin said, ‘We have the Steinmeier Formula here written by Lavrov,’ I said, ‘Sorry, here is a letter from two foreign ministers, of France and Germany, and Mr Steinmeier, where they state that this is the Steinmeier Formula. Please take a look.’ Putin takes it, reads and says: ‘No, that’s not at all what we have. The Steinmeier Formula was written by Lavrov.’ ”
Honestly, I have known Petr Poroshenko since the time he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. He always tried to be a seemingly decent person. But he failed. This is just a plain lie. In fact, when Vladimir Putin mentioned the Steinmeier Formula in Berlin (a year after Paris) and proposed doing something, Poroshenko began to pull back and explain how he understood it. So the Russian President asked him: “Why are you inventing things? Frank-Walter Steinmeier is sitting right here.” This is how it happened. Lavrov was not mentioned there. Frank-Walter Steinmeier was present, so he could have been asked for confirmation. He would have said yes. Who needs all that nonsense?
Question: Was it not at that meeting that Petr Poroshenko proposed Vladimir Putin “take” Donbass?
Sergey Lavrov: This is not my secret. It was a one-on-one conversation. I will not be surprised if what you are guessing turns out to be true.
Question: What year was it?
Sergey Lavrov: Probably 2015, or maybe 2016.
Question: Either way, the signing of the Steinmeier Formula as it was agreed was supposed to pave the way to a Normandy Four summit. The document was to be signed in Minsk on September 18 at a Contact Group meeting, but this did not happen.
Sergey Lavrov: This is a sensitive matter. We were very disappointed and alarmed by what happened within the Contact Group. On September 11, 2019 Paris hosted a meeting of foreign policy advisors, who had quite a substantial discussion on the way the formula could be approved by the Contact Group. As a result, all advisors of the Normandy Four leaders agreed that the Contact Group had to sign this document.
Let me remind you that there were suggestions that maybe not all members of the Contact Group will sign it. However, the Russian representative made it abundantly clear that the Contact Group is the exact format for resolving matters related to the Minsk Agreements. All representatives of the sides in the Contact Group – Kiev, Donetsk, Lugansk, the OSCE and Russia – put their signatures under the Minsk Agreements. Leaving out any of the signatories was simply impossible.
Ahead of the Contact Group meeting there were doubts that maybe the number of signatories became a stumbling block. However, Leonid Kuchma said that he does not want to sign it altogether, since this would lead to a new Maidan uprising in Kiev. If you keep thinking about Maidan, this leaves the country in the hands of radicals, neo-Nazis and other extremists. You are well aware of the statements that came from Kiev afterwards. They were contradictory.
At the end of the day, the document must be signed. Let me reiterate that this implies reservations Vadim Pristaiko was talking about. He said that the document had to be signed, but this did not mean that everything would be done as set forth in it. As a matter of fact, this means advancing in the dark, trying to understand with every step what is going on with the Kiev elite, and how people from President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky’s team interpret what he said about seeking to bring peace to Donbass, and what this could mean for Donbass.
Question: From Russia’s perspective, can the special status for Donbass be viewed as some kind of a roadblock preventing Ukraine from joining NATO?
Sergey Lavrov: I would not approach this matter in such a simplistic manner. The special status for Donbass is an integral part of the Minsk Agreements. This part of the package is a matter of principle for Donetsk and Lugansk, for people who live there, and who could not stand what was going on in Kiev, just as for people from a number of other regions in southeastern Ukraine. They were firm in their refusal to accept the anti-constitutional government coup. They were reinforced in their determination to stand up for their position when the first thing the illegitimate government did was to cancel a law that guaranteed the rights related to the Russian language and the Russian-speaking minority, even though it was not ratified at the end of the day. However, the initiative to enact it was a telling example of their intentions. Russian speakers can be hardly referred to as a minority. If we are talking about ethnic Russians, they may be an ethnic minority, but regarding the Russian-speaking population, can it be referred to as a minority? Certainly not. It is obviously a majority.
The attitude of Russian speakers to what happened in Kiev became more and more worse when Dmitry Yarosh and his radical acolytes started making vociferous calls for chasing Russians from Crimea. He sent outlaws to seize that Supreme Council of what was at the time the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Let me emphasise that people there, just like in Lugansk, Donetsk and other nearby regions, did not try to liberate Kiev, like Minin and Pozharsky in their time, but simply asked that they be left alone. They did not want to be ruled by an illegitimate government, but wanted governors who were on the same wavelength with the people in the regions they headed. They did not want “Governors-General” from Kiev to put into practice decisions by the new government they did not recognise. This is not a manifestation of terrorism. They did not attack anyone. On the contrary, they were attacked for remaining true to the Ukrainian constitution and the agreements that were signed on February 21, 2014 that were co-signed by Germany, France and Poland. Still, these people were designated as terrorists.
I believe that our colleagues from the European Union are squarely responsible for the fact that this illegitimate government came to power in Kiev on the next day after the agreement was signed. In their approaches to settling the Donbass crisis, they are trying to proceed from the premise that the Minsk Agreements must be honoured, and Russia must be the first to do it. They claim that sanctions are not good, but they were imposed after Russia recognised Crimea and started protecting Donbass. This is not when the crisis started. It started when France, Germany and Poland failed to ensure that their signatures are respected. EU countries, including two major powers, France and Germany, signed the document. These were not merely foreign ministers acting in their personal capacity. They capitulated to a crowd of ultra-radicals who formed a government of victors instead of a government of national accord, as was agreed on February 21, 2014. When we remind our European interlocutors what happened a month and a half before the Crimea events, they feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. But as adepts of the liberal idea, they will never admit fault.
Question: Does this mean that it is liberalism as an idea that is in crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: In Russia, liberalism has been flourishing for several centuries. But the shortcoming of liberalism as it is presented by the West as the only right option is that it is based on the aspiration to ensure that the Western idea and Western order triumph, rather than on the commitment to respecting individual freedoms.
Question: Special status for Donbass is the stumbling block. Ukraine sees this as a threat to the efficiency of the state. What is Russia’s position, no special status – no settlement?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia’s position is more embracing. It is basically the Minsk Agreements.
Question: But they stipulate the special status as well, right?
Sergey Lavrov: Not just the special status. They also stipulate the restoration of Ukrainian control over the entire region on the condition of respect for its special status. This is very similar to Transnistria, by the way.
Question: Will Donbass become yet another Transnistria, a territory with unresolved political status?
Sergey Lavrov: Unlike Donbass, which has the Minsk Agreements, there are no such documents on Transnistria. Or rather, there was such a document, the Kozak Memorandum, but it was never approved. Our position has not changed. The aspirations of those who live in this or that part of Moldova, Ukraine or any other [divided] country and who associate themselves with the culture and traditions of their forefathers but are willing to live in a unitary state must be satisfied. Decisions that glorify certain Nazi accomplices – Bandera and Shukhevich – were made under President Poroshenko and even before him, under Yushchenko. The special days commemorating the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been replaced with holidays celebrating the birthdays of Bandera and Shukhevich, the establishment of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and so on. These holidays are widely celebrated in western Ukraine. But they will never be celebrated in the Donetsk or Lugansk people’s republics or any other part of Donbass or southeastern Ukraine.
People in the southeast will never stop speaking Russian, something that will gradually lose favour in the west of the country. May 9 will always be celebrated in the southeast, while people in the west of Ukraine will celebrate the infamous accomplices and followers of Bandera and Shukhevich. There will be no summer camps in the southeast where children are taught to hate everything Russian and respect Nazi and SS symbols, as this is being done in the Lvov Region and other parts of western Ukraine.
When parts of the same country differ so radically from each other, don’t the federal authorities see that the country can only be preserved if they show respect for these differences?
Question: Through federalisation?
Sergey Lavrov: However you want to call it, absolutely any way. Take the United States, a federation where individual states have broader powers than the constituent parts in most other federal states. Many things are decided at the level of cantons in the Swiss Confederation, yet it is a very strong and unified state. I see no reason why Ukraine should be afraid that its identity will be affected if it admits that widely different groups of people live in the country. Very different people live in Russia as well. Yes, there may be tensions and conflicts, but arrangements are possible within the boundaries of one country if the rights of minorities are respected.
Returning to the election in Donbass, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadim Pristaiko said, regarding the special status for Donbass and election (I’m not sure this is a precise quote), that elections should be held throughout Ukraine, that Ukrainians are an integral people and they [the authorities] care about all Ukrainians, which is why they [the authorities] must adopt an equal approach and create the same conditions for everyone. But if they care about all Ukrainians, why then are over 3 million or nearly 4 million Ukrainians living under siege? Why do old men and women have to trudge across makeshift bridges over a railway line and other obstacles to receive their pensions? Why should they waste their time and risk their health to receive what is due to them under Ukrainian law in the Ukrainian state which, as the current authorities claim, cares equally about all Ukrainians?
You mentioned federalisation. Terms may differ. Ukrainians prefer decentralisation. This is what has been promised, and some people say there is no need for the Minsk Agreements if they approve decentralisation for all regions in Ukraine, so as a result Donbass would get more than is promised under the Minsk Agreements.
It is unclear what this means, but long before the Minsk agreements were signed and the Normandy Format was established, John Kerry, Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Andrey Deshchitsa, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and I met in Geneva in April 2014. We coordinated a document that was only one page long and that called for settling all problems through talks, and to take into account not only the needs of Donbass but also of all Ukrainian regions. That document welcomed Kiev’s intention to launch the decentralisation process that would respect the opinions of all regions in the Ukrainian State.
It was a positive signal, but the Americans and the EU, not to mention the Kiev authorities, soon forgot about that document. It was a promising achievement, but Deshchitsa was probably given a slap on the wrist by the Kiev rulers, who soon denounced Donbass as a terrorist region.
Question: Some time ago, European leaders indicated that, if there were any improvements on the Ukrainian track, the sanctions would be softened. There have been certain shifts, it seems. Do you expect any softening of the sanctions pressure?
Sergey Lavrov: It is not a matter of concern to us. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that we have already drawn the main conclusion: the European Union is an unreliable partner because it continues to play “either with us or against us” in geopolitics. All our efforts to establish an equal dialogue, to abandon the friend-or-foe logic in our common space have been unsuccessful. The EU had been using this logic long before the Ukraine crisis, the sanctions and Crimea. Back in 2004, the year of the first Maidan, officials in the EU member states demanded that Kiev make a choice of whether it was with Russia or with Europe. When the Eastern Partnership programme was created, we tried to figure out to what extent Russia’s interests would be considered, as our closest neighbours were invited to join it. We got no clear answer. They said we could participate in some isolated projects and could join as an observer. So much for equal cooperation based on a balance of interests.
This policy persists. Now, on the heels of the Eastern Partnership, the EU is promoting a programme for Central Asia also drafted without any consideration for Russia’s interests or the bonds of history, the economy, traditions, culture, human relations or security issues tying us to our allies and strategic partners there. To the best of our knowledge, they are now working to link the Eastern Partnership, which involves the European and South Caucasus republics of the former Soviet Union and the new EU strategy for Central Asia. When such large programmes are being worked out, nothing can be hidden. We know that its clear ultimate goal is to discourage Russia’s Eastern and Central Asian partners from cooperating with us, weaken our ties as much as possible and proliferate and impose the approaches to organising life, addressing political problems and international affairs based on patterns that suit the EU.
This is consistent with the point that there is international law – and there is a “rules-based world order.” I will talk in detail about this at the UN General Assembly. This is a system-wide phenomenon.
Question: According to reports, the presidents of Russia and France, Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron, had very successful talks in Bregancon. How does this fit in with what you just said?
Sergey Lavrov: Unfortunately, it fits in easily. We began our conversation today with a discussion of the US’s outrageous trick – the denial of visas to our delegation. I have no doubt that this was done by mid-level officials, and neither President Donald Trump nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is aware of this situation. There is a bureaucracy in Washington, raised on anti-Sovietism and now on Russophobia, which is trying to wait through any positive vibes from the White House that might bring relations with Russia back to normal. France is similar; I know for sure there are similar people in government agencies, the same mid-level layer. This does not override the sincerity of French President Emmanuel Macron. I was at that meeting and I know that he was sincere and wanted to go back to those beautiful declarations of the 1990s in Europe, including at the Paris summit, at the summit in Istanbul, where the Charter for European Security, the Platform for Co-operative Security was adopted. This was important, since the platform assumed equal participation not only of all countries in the Euro-Atlantic area, but also of all the organisations within it, including NATO, the EU, the CIS, and the CSTO. And the EAEU would fit in nicely there. Bureaucracy, which has been given too much influence over the past years, remains a big problem.
The very fact that leaders of Emmanuel Macron’s calibre emerge in Europe is very positive. Of course, translating all this into life will require hard work, including overcoming the bureaucratic obstacles arising from the phobias I mentioned. Furthermore, not everyone in Europe is ready for such a conversation. The EU and NATO have problems with reaching consensus and observing the rule of solidarity, with a minority being able to block a constructive decision. These problems are still there.
Question: Can you share more details on the exact proposal Emmanuel Macron made at his meeting with Vladimir Putin at Fort de Brégançon?
Sergey Lavrov: What makes Emmanuel Macron’s proposals so interesting is that he does not seek to impose any schemes or solutions. His idea is that we all live within a single geopolitical space, and have much in common in historical terms, both good and bad. Historically, we, meaning the west and the east of Europe, sometimes reached the right conclusions from past wars, and sometimes our conclusions were misguided. There must be a way to put an end to this cycle of mistakes and miscalculations. We need to adopt a modern mind-set, and think in terms of the 21st century. If we treat all people with respect and care about their safety, and want to facilitate individual development in peace and security, we need to sit down and come to an agreement. Every person in every country should be able to live and prosper so that the geopolitical aspirations of those in power in our countries do not stop people from fulfilling their aspirations. Vladimir Putin shares this philosophy. We are ready to build consensus around the need to launch this conversation.
We are not currently talking about coming together and deciding that one country joins a certain organisation, and another country does not, or that we will not deploy weapons here, while you refrain from doing it there. These details will come later.
How did the Helsinki process begin? There were experts who came together after receiving a powerful impetus from their leaders: presidents, prime ministers and secretaries general. They came together without any preliminary document, it was drafted for the summit and took years to prepare. What served as a driving force for this process was the idea that we need to strengthen security while maintaining ideological moulds, we want to prevent war. This should be the starting point.
Today, floating the idea of holding a summit could be an option. For example, in 2010 the OSCE held a summit in Astana. A declaration was adopted reaffirming the principles of indivisible security across the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasia. But nothing was done.
Convening yet another summit to reaffirm once again all these principles is not a problem. But without giving experts an impetus to prepare the groundwork, which is a lengthy process, nothing will come of this. If we applaud statements by our leaders – for example Donald Trump who said that there should be no war and that the United States should be friends with great powers or that he wants to reach deals with Russia, China and Iran, or the statement by Emmanuel Macron who voiced an opinion that we fully share – without going any further and doing anything, we will leave it to a faceless bureaucracy to act on the ground. This bureaucracy is entrenched in governments and feels strong, and probably relies on Cold War stereotypes to promote itself.
Question: After the June events in Georgia, Moscow cancelled direct flights there. Tensions have subsided since. Can we expect air service to resume in the foreseeable future?
Sergey Lavrov: I would probably opt for restoring these flights. It is my opinion that this would be the right thing to do after the majority of people in Georgia understood the counter-productive and provocative nature of what happened in the Georgian parliament during the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy. What happened was that an opposition party outrageously disrupted the event, hurling groundless accusations against Russia in order to unleash a Russophobic campaign. But there was nothing there except for a procedure that was coordinated in advance, but was disrupted by a hysterical crowd. Posters were prepared in advance, by the way. This was an intentional move on their behalf. What caused this Russophobic hysteria was not the arrival of the Russian delegation in the plenary room.
I always wanted Russia and Georgia to be friends. In 2005, at the instructions of Vladimir Putin, I took part in talks with Salome Zourabichvili who was the Georgian Foreign Minister at the time. The talks were about the withdrawal of Russian military bases. At the time, two bases had already been closed, and two were still there: one in Batumi, and the other in Akhalkalaki. Salome Zourabichvili came to Moscow, and I travelled to Tbilisi, where I was received by Mikheil Saakashvili. We agreed on the principles for the withdrawal of our bases. At the end, we reached an agreement. Let me emphasise that we were sincere in our desire to work with Georgia on combatting the terrorist threat that had been simmering for a long time in the Pankisi Gorge and would spill over every now and then. Alongside the agreement on the complete closure of the military bases we signed an agreement whereby the infrastructure left behind by our military base in Batumi would be used to set up a Russia-Georgia Counter-Terrorism Centre, with 80 per cent of employees and military personnel from Georgia and 20 percent from Russia. Their task should have been to monitor the situation and identify terrorist threats, including how they could spill over from the Pankisi Gorge to Russian territory. Everything was signed and approved in a single package. As usual, Saakashvili took what he wanted and refused to carry out the agreement on establishing the counter-terrorism centre.
There is a contagious disease that affects politicians who believe that if they are liberals, they can do anything they wish.
Question: As we know, by the summer of 2019 Russia had approved a visa waiver for Georgia.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, it was in the pipeline. Taking this decision was not smooth sailing. For well-known reasons, the process of preparing for а visa waiver for Georgia was difficult. Finally, Vladimir Putin took a decision to move in this direction, so that people in our two countries could communicate and establish contact, and so tourism could be promoted. Of course, this escapade last June has pushed the entire process back.
Question: Pushed it back or ended it?
Sergey Lavrov: I hope it has only pushed it back. Responsible politicians have appeared in Georgia and are now coming to the fore. Let’s see how things will go there.
Question: The prevailing view of the outcome of the 2008 war in Georgia among Russian diplomats is that, by recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has put an end to all speculation about Georgia’s accession to NATO.
Sergey Lavrov: That was not about putting an end to anything, this was not what we were after. I will reiterate that we do not want NATO to surround us too closely, to bite into our borders, hold military exercises or deploy weapons which it pledged not to do in the 1990s when the USSR was dying out. As for our actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we were guided solely by the interests of the people living there. When Mikheil Saakashvili, who backtracked on all the promises he had given to the Russian authorities, gave a criminal order to move troops into South Ossetia and shoot at civilians and peacekeepers, Russian and Ossetian, but not Georgian, because he had ordered the withdrawal of Georgian peacekeepers in advance, we were not thinking about a NATO presence there. We were thinking about saving those people as we knew they would just be slaughtered. This sentiment prevailed among the Georgian troops who were given the order. Of course, NATO’s expansion towards our borders is posing a threat to Russia.
Question: Even so, NATO generals have said many times, including this year, that Georgia should be accepted into NATO without Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What will happen should their plans materialise?
Sergey Lavrov: Even Jens Stoltenberg spoke about this. I promise you that we will not start a war, but our relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and with those countries that declare that their priority is to join it will be seriously undermined.
Question: They have already been undermined. Could it get worse?
Sergey Lavrov: Not to this extent. There are many countries that do not make a big fuss over their NATO membership and develop normal neighbourly relations with Russia. But when NATO is obsessed with uninterrupted expansion, we only see it as a desire to surround Russia with a hostile ring and hamper the development of our country since NATO has designated us as an enemy. This is an attempt to impose order on us that is based on the rules that the West is pushing in place of international law.
NATO is no safer after the accession of Montenegro and will be no safer when Macedonia, which is getting prepared for NATO membership, joins it. There is no sense, in terms of security, in drawing Serbia into NATO. So, it looks like there is one objective, which is to deter the Russian Federation and to do it aggressively.
There has been debate in NATO for a long time now about the organisation’s new mission after the break-up of the USSR. Theorists in Brussels have already begun to suggest that NATO, instead of being a defensive organisation – its objective under the Washington Treaty is the defence of its territories – should be tasked with bringing democracy and safety to the whole world. This is an aspiration to hegemony and the feeling of their own exclusiveness – liberal thinkers are allowed to do whatever they please while others must obey.
Question: Belarus is another complicated post-Soviet country. This December, Moscow and Minsk are expected to sign a package of documents on more extensive bilateral economic integration. All this is in line with the 1999 Treaty on Establishing the Union State. But the treaty includes a joint foreign and defence policy. However, we see nothing like this today, and it appears that we will not see it in December as well. Why not? Actually, Belarus has declined to recognise Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia…
Sergey Lavrov: We don’t completely share Belarusian foreign policy concepts either. This means nothing.
Question: Belarus refuses to accommodate a Russian military base in its territory…
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, this is a very unpleasant circumstance. But the contents are more important than the form. With regard to contents, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly said (including when replying to questions about the base) that Belarus is a 100 per cent ally of Russia, and that the Belarusian Armed Forces should be seen as those defending our common interests and our common territory.
Regarding foreign policy, we have our own clear Joint Action Programme. Russia has no similar document with anyone else. This document sets forth meticulously and punctually specific coordinated steps that we would take.
As for the recognition of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the situation with Crimea, we do not force anyone to do anything. I know how a list of countries recognising the independence of Kosovo was compiled, and we will never behave in such a way with regard to our partners and allies.
Question: You do not force anyone because you cannot or because you don’t want to?
Sergey Lavrov: We were raised differently. I cannot even imagine a situation where we would want to act like this. As for our ability to act, this, regardless, has something to do with our principles that we would not like to be violated.
When they try to accuse us of something… for example, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Linas Linkevicius has, suddenly, become concerned about how talks on establishing the Union State are proceeding. In his opinion, further integration between Moscow and Minsk allegedly creates a threat to Lithuania because it would bring Russia closer to Lithuania’s borders. To begin with, we already have a common border with Lithuania. But he is a peculiar person who has been working for a long time. Not everyone can maintain accurate vision and a sense of reality.
Going back to talks with Belarus, our representatives and those of the Belarusian government have repeatedly noted that they are proceeding in strict compliance with the agreements contained in the 1999 Union Treaty. Nothing else is being discussed. The document sets forth high priority goals to be achieved. The governments of both countries are working intensively following the instructions from Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko. Another summit is scheduled for December. Everything we can see in our governments’ economic blocks, shows that they realise the need to reach agreements.
Question: Moscow is proposing that the NATO countries declare a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles in Europe, but our counterparts in the alliance say they don’t see the point. According to them, ground-based 9M729 cruise missiles are allegedly already deployed in the European part of Russia, and this is the reason the United States withdrew from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles.
Sergey Lavrov: Before saying things like this, they must explain why they have carefully and consistently avoided all our invitations to discuss the substance of their accusations. Not to mention the fact that the Americans have not told us what the problem was or cited the product number or the date of the test until three years after they accused us. We immediately confirmed that there had been tests, that the missile had been deployed, and invited them to come and see. The missile was tested at a permitted range. If they were confident that we violated the requirements, then they would have some evidence – satellite images, at least. We asked them to show us, but got a categorical refusal in response – you know this yourself, go destroy these missiles.
Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, when the “Russian interference in the US election” epic began, that the United States had irrefutable evidence. At the next meeting, I asked him – if this evidence is irrefutable, show me! Then we will just eat the dust and apologise. He says, no, I won’t show you anything, ask your special services. They would know.
Question: The US media claim the United States got hold of “irrefutable evidence” through Russian CIA informant Oleg Smolenkov.
Sergey Lavrov: They say they have irrefutable evidence on the Salisbury case as well, and on the Eastern Dhouma, and many other incidents. But once you dig into it, there is nothing.
Back to the INF Treaty, my deputy Sergey Ryabkov met with his American counterpart Andrea Thompson last January at our initiative. We made proposals then on how to mutually increase transparency in the implementation of the INF Treaty. We said we would like to look at the MK-41 launchers in Romania and Poland, where they are now being deployed. We wanted to see the target missiles and drones to discuss how much this all corresponded to the logic and letter of the agreement. But she refused to discuss anything at all. We invited the Americans to a demonstration presentation of our missile, and offered to hold a special briefing for them. But she refused this as well. The United States will only be reassured by the complete destruction of the missiles, launchers and all associated equipment under their control. This is a rather arrogant stance. Not only did they refuse to visit the range and see the missile – they also forbade their NATO allies to go there. Only the Bulgarians, Turks and Greeks went, disobeying the hegemon. And when we asked the Germans, French, and other large NATO countries why they didn’t come – or if they had their own opinions at all – they replied that the Americans convinced them that the show would be a fake. But we were willing to have experts there who could answer any of their questions. Why wouldn’t they come and try to catch us hiding something? Obviously, the Americans alone were in a position to ask the most uncomfortable questions, because only Russia and the US have this kind of technology, but they refused.
This leaves no doubt that the plan was to accuse us and then provoke the collapse of the treaty. John Bolton calmly and unemotionally told us last October – do not worry, Trump’s statement (about the US’s intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty) is not an invitation to negotiate; it is a final decision. And that was it – that closed the issue for them.
Then they began talking about China, asking us to persuade Beijing to accede to some new agreement with the United States and Russia. But where do we come in? China and Russia have no problems in this area. If the Americans have problems they deem necessary to address in a multilateral format, they should enlist the consent of those they want to bring in. We will join if asked. But asking us to do their work for them is dishonest and unfair.
Question: Has Oleg Smolenkov done any damage to Russia? Or could he, given where he worked?
Sergey Lavrov: I have never met him. And I have no idea whether he could have done any damage or not. The problem is, yet again, facts. If we agree on the need to restore confidence, then any suspicions arising in relation to each other should be voiced and discussed by professionals, not through the media.
Question: But could he have been privy to Russia’s negotiating position on certain issues and, for example, transmit this intelligence to the American side?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not know.
Question: Suppose you arrive to negotiate something with the American side, but they already know it. Has this ever happened?
Sergey Lavrov: Never. Not once.
Question: What about Russian diplomatic property in the United States? Vladimir Putin instructed his subordinates to sue the Americans. Will we do this? Is there a chance to get our summer houses back?
Sergey Lavrov: This is daylight robbery. We have appealed to the UN Committee on Relations with the Host Country and are working with this. The Americans are very stubborn and do not want to resolve a problem that we consider obvious. It is illegal and violates every possible standard. This was the result of agony in the Obama administration that clearly wanted to bang the door and spite everyone for the loss of the Democrats in the election.
Our partners did not behave in a manly fashion but we have what we have. We have quite a few arguments. We are working with US lawyers. We will continue to prepare this case for a court hearing. American justice and legal proceedings are too bureaucratic, and it is necessary to analyse all the options.
Question: The Americans claim that there were spies at these summer houses and that Russians did not go there for recreation but were spying on them.
Sergey Lavrov: They called them “spying nests.” When they made this decision they promised to let our experts periodically visit these houses and see their condition. Since December 2016 we have not received a permit for a single visit to any house in Washington or New York. The assertions that these places were used for spying can only be verified by facts. They are similar to Salisbury, Eastern Ghouta in Syria and interference in the election.
These houses regularly hosted sports events. I personally played football there against the Chilean Permanent Mission team. The head of the mission was the captain and later became a minister. We took a sauna together, took a steam-bath and had cocktails. This spy nest was really serious.
Question: What about the creation of Russian-US expert and business councils? Is anything being done in this respect?
Sergey Lavrov: This was supported by US President Donald Trump at the G20 meeting in Osaka. In the presence of First Deputy Prime Minister Anton Siluanov and US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and other officials on both sides, he said that this was a good idea, that it was necessary to establish these councils. It is ridiculous in general that we have such pitiful trade. Let’s establish a business council to promote mutually beneficial projects. Since then we have been waiting for a response. We agreed that the council should include managers from private companies and corporations rather than government officials. The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) that represents the position of our private businesses suggested members for the business council to its American partners. There is some dialogue between the RSPP and its American colleagues but they have not yet reached a final agreement. In parallel, there is also the US Chamber of Commerce headed by Alexis Rodzianko and the American-Russian Business Council. They also want to take part in this process. Let’s wait and see. We have many agencies, such as RSPP and individual corporations.
Question: So, for now there is no progress, right?
Sergey Lavrov: We could also look at the role of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. We have enough agencies. The main thing now is for this political impetus to be perceived at a level that sometimes makes decisions that do not exactly speed up the implementation of instructions made by the heads of state.
Question: What about the creation of the expert council?
Sergey Lavrov: The situation is pretty much the same. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Sochi last May, he brought up this issue and told Vladimir Putin that Donald Trump remembers how this was discussed in Helsinki, that he believes this is a useful thing and that it is necessary to involve experts in the drafting of a long-term vision of the global strategic situation. However, no specific agencies were set up.
Question: Will there be war in the Middle East? Drones, tankers, very alarming …
Sergey Lavrov: All this reminds me of some unreal situation that is being artificially created by those who do not want to save the Middle East from another war. We proceed from a very simple premise: during the elections Trump said that he would be the president that would put an end to all war. He reaffirmed this position when he became president. There are probably people in the United States and beyond that do not like this too much.
There are specific proposals. We suggested a Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Area. It provides for the consolidation of all countries in this region – the coastal states on the Gulf, Iran, their neighbours, five UN Security Council permanent members, the EU, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. This proposal is on the table. In any event, it is better to get together and voice concerns with each other rather than accuse each other without grounds and say “you did this, I’m sure” but refuse to hold a dialogue. The other day Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif invited the countries of the region to discuss how they should live together. This was a specific proposal.
Others say: Iran is to blame, or the Houthis, or Hamas, or Hezbollah… but they don’t suggest any constructive ideas. Blaming one side and building one’s policy based on this may not produce positive results. Our approach is always based on the need to talk. I do not see any alternative to this.
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