Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Kommersant newspaper
Question: Everyone is looking forward to reading two US administration reports: the so-called Kremlin report on high-ranking Russian officials and business leaders who are allegedly close to the government, and a report on the expediency of new harsh economic sanctions against Russia. What will Moscow do if these reports lead to the adoption of harsher sanctions?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a hypothetical question. We have said repeatedly that we do not want confrontation. We believe that the sanctions are unreasonable in that there are no grounds for them. As for their goals, they are futile because, as their authors can see, several years of these sanctions have been unable to change Russia’s honest, open and constructive policy. Our independent and non-partisan position on the international stage is based on our national interests and cannot be changed by external pressure. Our position is determined by the President of Russia based on the interests of the Russian people. I believe that broad public support for our foreign policy is the best proof of the futility of any attempts to put pressure on our elite and individual companies in order to force the authorities to change our foreign policy.
However, although we are not interested in fanning confrontation, we cannot remain indifferent to the attempts to punish Russia by infringing on our [diplomatic] property, adopting sanctions or using sports. There are numerous facts showing that although some of our athletes used doping, just as athletes in many other countries did (these cases are public knowledge, but they have not been used to raise an uproar; instead they have been dealt with in keeping with the established procedure), there is also a pre-programmed campaign that is based on a principle that is also being used in other areas of international affairs and concerns Russia’s relations with its partners. If my memory doesn’t fail me, Richard McLaren wrote in his report that they have no evidence and do not know how it was done, but they know how it could have been done. No normal court in any country would accept such charges. However, these exotic statements have led to decisions to ban Russia fr om the Olympic Games.
This reminds me of the tragedy with the Malaysian Boeing, when the United States, which insisted on investigating this tragedy three days later, stated that they know who was responsible and are sure that the investigation would confirm what they know.
Or take the case of Alexander Litvinenko, when the British authorities said their investigation would confirm what they know without having to investigate this case. This anti-Russia mindset is really unprecedented. There was nothing like this during the Cold War, when the sides complied with rules and observed the proprieties. No attempt at courtesy is being made now.
Question: Do you think the situation is even worse than during the Cold War?
Sergey Lavrov: Manners have deteriorated, although there are also different opinions as to how close we are to material manifestations of confrontation. On the one hand, there were two rigid blocs and two world systems (socialist and imperialist) marked by a certain negative stability. There are no ideological disagreements today. Every country has a free market economy and democracy, no matter what one may think of it. But there are elections, rights and freedoms that are entrenched in the constitution.
Nevertheless, competition remains even in the absence of ideological disagreements, and this is absolutely normal. It goes without saying that each country has its own methods for promoting various interests, there are special services, lobbyists and non-governmental organisations promoting any specific agenda. This is normal. But the situation reeks of double standards when they tell us that Russia must not oppress NGOs that receive funding fr om abroad, and that it has no right to expect that other countries will act likewise with regard to its NGOs working elsewhere.
I would like to single out one more aspect. The military potential is being expanded in the absence of ideological disagreements. This did not happen during the Cold War.
Question: But there was the arms race.
Sergey Lavrov: The arms race was part of geopolitics accepted by both sides. There was a tentative boundary indicated by NATO and the Warsaw Pact for deploying their weapons. The Soviet Union eventually overtaxed itself. All those Star Wars and other inventions played their role but they were not decisive. The USSR disintegrated because the country and its ruling elite did not feel the need for change, and when it felt this need, these changes headed in the wrong direction. But there are absolutely no rules today with NATO expanding to the east. And there is no red line whatsoever.
Question: And what about the Russian Federation’s border?
Sergey Lavrov: If we assume that we can’t have any interests in the Euro-Atlantic region, then the Russian Federation’s border would serve as such a red line. However, we do have our own legitimate interests, there are Russian nationals who remained abroad overnight after the USSR disintegrated, and we maintain cultural, historical and close interpersonal and family ties with our neighbours. Russia has a right to defend the interests of its compatriots, all the more so as they are being persecuted in many countries, and when their rights are being violated, like in Ukraine. It was announced on the day of the Ukrainian coup that the Russian language must be infringed upon.
Question: But they later backed down ...
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, but they said this. After the coup, members of the Ukrainian parliament passed their first law saying that the Russian language must “know its place.” To put it bluntly, the Russian language will be assigned an inferior status. Two days later, they said that Russians would never honour Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, and that they must therefore be expelled fr om Crimea.
After my news conference, a German newspaper printed a story that Sergey Lavrov had started distorting facts and presenting a peaceful Crimean Tatar demonstration near the Crimean Supreme Soviet as an attempt to expel Russians fr om the Crimean Peninsula. All one has to do is watch the videos of that period when the Supreme Soviet was surrounded by unruly hoodlums, not to mention the “friendship trains” sent by Dmitry Yarosh to Crimea.
This Ukrainian story amounts to a coup and betrayal of international law by the West when an agreement signed by foreign ministers from leading European Union countries had been simply trampled upon. After that, the European Union started persuading us that it was all right and no longer possible to change anything. To be honest, this is Europe’s disgrace. While stating this historical fact, we are not retreating into our own shell, but we are trying to implement the Minsk Agreements.
Speaking of red lines once again, that was a red line, and another red line was crossed on orders from Mikheil Saakashvili during the initial attack on South Ossetia, wh ere Russian, Ossetian and Georgian peacekeepers were stationed. But Georgian peacekeepers were withdrawn from there several hours before an illegitimate and absolutely provocative attack.
Russia has its own interests, and people should remember this. Russia has its red lines. I believe that serious politicians in Europe realise that it is necessary to respect these red lines, just as they had been respected during the Cold War.
Question: Let’s go back to the Americans. According to the US media, in March 2017, Russia presented the United States with proposals on mending relations in the “non-paper” format, and that these proposals contained several points. Are these proposals still in force, given the increased US sanction pressure and everything that has happened in Russian-US relations over the past 12 months?
Sergey Lavrov: The proposals always remain in force. We never posturise; instead we try to understand the context of actions being taken by the Americans or some other of our colleagues. In this case, we realise that there is a combination of an entire range of factors motivating this unprecedented aggressiveness, as it is now customary to say, of the US establishment.
The Democrats are unable to get over their defeat, after exerting such efforts and taking so many actions, including those to remove Bernie Sanders from the election race, but they don’t like to recall this today. This is the main factor, and this amounted to directly tampering with the election process in gross violation of the US Constitution.
Second, the majority of the Republican Party’s members have found themselves in a situation when they have received an unorthodox President who did not work his way up to the top through all stages of the Republican establishment and who received votes on the Republican ticket during primaries. No matter what one may think of the US President Donald Trump, and no matter how one may interpret his actions that are not very customary for traditional diplomats and political analysts …
Question: He is acting like a bull in a china shop and wrecking all international agreements.
Sergey Lavrov: No matter what one may think of these actions, we are now discussing the causes of that unprecedented indignation on the part of US politicians. The Republicans also don’t like the fact that a system when two parties had established the rules of the game (that is, when one party gains power for two consecutive four-year terms, and another party engages in business, and then the two parties switch their roles) that had existed for many decades (over 100 years, to be more exact) has now crumbled to dust because Donald Trump has taken over. But he did not come to power because he is a messiah, but because society has become tired of the traditional uneventful change of leadership.
If we look at the structure of American society, we will also see that some interesting demographic processes are taking place there. It is hardly surprising that ethnic elements are now causing long and profound debates as to whether racism, which has always been present in American politics, either openly or covertly, is being revived or aggravated. These highly complicated processes will last for a long time. I want to say once again that the Democrats’ defeat, which they are still unable to get over, is one of the reasons. The destruction of the bipartisan system is the second reason. This “amicable” procedure continued throughout many election campaigns. I would like to single out the third element from among many others: there is a frustration felt among the US establishment as it comes to realise that it is no longer possible to influence all global processes in the interests of the United States. Maybe, this is a paradox, but it is true. This will be felt for a very long time.
Even during the Cold War, the United States was much more powerful in the context of its share in the world economy and, of course, in the context of its absolutely dominant position in the global currency system when there was no euro, and when nobody had even heard of the yuan and the rouble. Today, the United States accounts for 18-20 per cent of the global GDP. This is no longer 50 per cent as before, and certainly not the share it had after World War II.
A feeling that it is impossible to run everything from a single centre is also manifested in the anti-Russia campaign. There is also China and other big countries, many of which probably prefer not to notice the US excesses. In our case, this is difficult for Russia to do because the first two causes, the defeat of the Democrats and the wrecking of the system, have somehow led to someone pointing the finger at us. There were some alleged contacts between some people and certain representatives of the US political elite. Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak contacted Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. This is absolutely normal and should not have elicited such a response, all the more so as these accusations with regard to the Russian Ambassador and Embassy in the United States are child’s play compared to what US diplomats are doing in Russia.
We did not respond to a series of unfriendly measures with regard to the Russian Ambassador who refused to modify his actions, to renounce his independence and to apologise for what had never happened. And this made them even more agitated. Understandably, they started blaming us for all US sins and setbacks. They are using us as a certain lightning rod in the context of the developments in Mexico and France.
Question: Even in Malta.
Sergey Lavrov: Absolutely everywhere – it is Russia, Russia, Russia. This is a simple and uncomplicated method for straightforward propaganda. Voters respond to very simple CNN headlines, such as Russia has once again meddled in something. These statements will catch on, if repeated a thousand times.
Question: It looks as if you are trying to find excuses for President Trump. However, nobody forced him to sign the bill on arms deliveries to Ukraine or the August bill approving new sanctions against Russia.
Sergey Lavrov: I am not trying to idealise anyone. You should bear in mind, though that when a bill is adopted by a sweeping majority – 95 per cent in this case – the president no longer thinks about the essence, legitimacy or correctness of the bill or the ability to implement it, because a veto, if he decided to use it, would be overridden anyway.
Question: What about the bill on arms deliveries to Ukraine? President Barack Obama did not sign it.
Sergey Lavrov: The answer is the same. He [President Trump] knows that Congress will force him to sign it. If President Trump refuses to do what the overwhelming majority of Congress wants him to do, which is reality, Congress can override his veto anyway. And then we would see American mentality regarding domestic policy. When Congress overrides a presidential veto, it’s seen as a defeat for the president even if the veto was fair, justified and, in the long-term, in American interests. That’s all.
When President Trump received me at the White House, talked with President Putin in Hamburg and later on the phone, I did not see that President Trump was resolved to take any actions that would be contrary to his election promises of good relations with Russia. It has just happened this way. The current developments are the result of a combination of at least three factors – Hillary Clinton’s defeat, President Trump’s non-systemic character, plus the need to explain why the United States does not always succeed on the international stage (there are other factors as well). While the United States becomes more deeply involved in this deplorable process and sees that Russia is acting calmly and without hysterics (we have responded to some US actions, but I would describe this as the least reaction possible), we continue to act according to our plans, promoting a policy of conflict resolution and working on the markets out of which Americans would like to push us. This is irritating the proponents of the Russia-hating agenda. This is sad. There is a glimmer of hope, though, because some Congressmen and members of the US political community, as well as some diplomats have admitted confidentially that the situation is completely unreasonable and needs to be improved. On the other hand, they also blame it on those who tried to drive Russia into a corner, because it is clear that they have failed to push us into isolation, as you can see from the schedule of meetings and visits by the President of Russia and other members of the Russian Government. They admit that they have gone too far, but they suggest that we should do something that could be interpreted as a concession. Of course, this creates the impression that the US great power mentality will not do any good to it. They are urging us to do something with Ukraine.
Question: Does a concession imply strengthening control over the self-defence forces in Donbass so as to force them to stop shooting, to withdraw their weapons completely and to start complying with the basic provisions of the Minsk Agreements?
Sergey Lavrov: We would like all parties to withdraw their weapons and stop shooting, including the Donetsk and Lugansk forces and the Ukrainian army as well. A lot of evidence by our colleagues, including from BBC and other media outlets who have visited the contact line this year, show that battalions like Azov are not controlled by anyone except their own commanders. They don’t listen to anyone. The Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian armed forces have no influence over them, as you can see from their blockade, which President Poroshenko publicly denounced. He made a public pledge to lift that blockade, which fully contradicts the Minsk Agreements, and even sent forces to lift the blockade, but his attempt was a complete failure. After that he decided that it would be better to make a U-turn and issue an executive order to legalise the blockade. So, the shooting must stop and the weapons, including heavy weaponry, must be pulled back, but this must be done by both sides.
I talked at a news conference about the striving to lim it the geopolitical palette to Ukraine and to urge us to pull a Donetsk or Lugansk self-defence battalion back so that our partners would have a reason for easing the sanctions. It is a disgrace that high-ranking officials would suggest this.
Question: Will peacekeepers come to Donbass before this year is out?
Sergey Lavrov: This does not depend on us. If it did they would long have been there.
Question: What’s the obstacle now and is Russia ready to make some concessions to get it out of the way?
Sergey Lavrov: There is only one obstacle: nobody wants to discuss our proposals in a hands-on manner.
Question: The Americans seem to have offered some amendments. Are they being discussed?
Sergey Lavrov: Nobody offered us any amendments though amendments are exactly what we want. I have talked with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin and with our French and German colleagues. They say it is a sound and good step, but something else is needed. OK, let us sit down, you will tell us what you have in mind and we shall see to what extent it serves the goals of implementing the Minsk Agreements. In any case, the draft resolution says that we must be absolutely committed to the Package of Measures principles which envisage coordination of all actions between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. They tell us that they need to think about what else can be done. But it’s all smoke out the chimney, nobody sits down with us to start a discussion. The ideas put forward outside the context of the work on our draft resolution follow a different direction. Our draft means that the Minsk Agreements are immutable, part of the agreements envisages a mission of OSCE observers because it does not always work in safe conditions and it needs to be protected. Wherever they go they have to be followed by armed UN guards. This is the logic of the Minsk Agreements jurisdiction. We are told that if we accept the peacekeeper concept let us make them responsible for everything that happens on the right side of the contact line, let them provide security right up to the border with Russia. Then we will hold elections and everything will be fine.
Question: Doesn’t it make sense?
Sergey Lavrov: You think it makes sense?
Question: UN peacekeepers are a force that can be entrusted with maintaining security in the region.
Sergey Lavrov: The Minsk Agreements say that first there has to be an amnesty, the law on the special status has to come into force (it has been passed but not put into effect) and be incorporated into the constitution, and only then elections should be held. The people whom they are trying to “strangle” with an illegal blockade, who have their mobile communication cables cut off to isolate them from the outside world, at least on the part of the Ukrainian state, must be sure that they are not considered to be war criminals, or terrorists, as they have been dubbed in Kiev which has declared a counter-terrorist operation although no one in these regions has attacked them. Make a note of it: it was they who were attacked. These people must be assured that, first, they are safe and that amnesty covers everything that has been done by both sides. Second, they must be assured that their status guarantees (this is written verbatim in the Minsk Agreements) the Russian language, culture, special links with Russia irrespective of what happens to the Kiev authorities, that they would have a say in the appointment of judges, prosecutors and have a local police force. These are about all the main proposals. It’s not so complicated. Especially considering that about twenty Ukrainian regions, if I am not mistaken, officially proposed to Kiev a year and half ago to start negotiations on decentralisation so that they would have powers delegated to them and there would be special agreements with the centre. In short, federalisation in the normal sense. You can call it decentralisation, because people shy away from the word “federalisation.” But when we are told that they would do all this – enact an amnesty, grant special status, organise elections – but first the whole region should be given to international forces which would “call the shots” there, we say no way. This is a red line and everybody knows it, and yet these ideas are planted with the unseemly aim of exploiting the topic of peacekeepers.
The Minsk Agreements have been approved by the UNSC. They clearly state that everything that needs to be done should be agreed between Kiev and the so-called designated parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. We trust the UN, the OSCE, which incidentally is doing some good work in very adverse conditions. But you cannot just throw away the political part of the Minsk Agreements. The promise that they would be fulfilled later, after the UN military administration takes over all this territory, is dubious. If those who have put forward this idea persuade Donetsk and Lugansk, by all means that would be welcome. This is exactly what the Minsk Agreements envisage and what the UNSC has approved. But I believe that those who are promoting this concept simply want to strangle these two territories.
Let me remind you of something interesting. Minsk proclaims amnesty, special status and elections – in that sequence. During the work of the Contact Group, the Normandy format, Ukraine says: let us do it the other way round, let us first ensure total security, including by advancing to the border, and then take care of all the rest. We have been telling them all these years that full Ukrainian control over that part of the border with the Russian Federation is the last point of the Minsk Agreements. First, all that we’ve been discussing just now has to take place. They then say, how do you imagine a special status if they do not know who will be elected in the local elections. We ask them if they mean that they would grant a special status only to the people who suit them. They reply, yes, this is what we want. It is not very diplomatic to behave like this if your own president has signed up to a very different sequence of actions. Even so, we agreed to a compromise which is now called “the Steinmeier formula” whereby the law on special status comes into force temporarily on election day and on a permanent basis when the OSCE, which will observe the elections, issues the final report. That usually takes a couple of months. The Ukrainians agreed and said, let us proceed in this way. This was agreed by the heads of state back in October 2015 in Paris. For a whole year attempts were made to put it on paper, but the Ukrainians refused. Another meeting took place in Berlin in 2016. We asked why there was no progress on the “Steinmeier formula.” To which the Ukrainians said that they did not know what the report would contain. OK, let us put it down that the special status law comes into force on election day on a temporary basis and on the day the report is published, on a permanent basis provided the report certifies the elections as free and fair. OK. The deal was struck. More than a year has elapsed. But the Ukrainians still do not want to put this formula on paper. That’s one example. Another striking example. While the previous one has to do with politics, this one has to do with security. Under Minsk it was agreed in Berlin in October 2016 to start separation of heavy weapons and to prevent their return to the line of contact. Three pilot points –Zolotoye, Pokrovskoye and Stanitsa Luganskaya – were agreed. At Pokrovskoye and Zolotoye everything was done quickly, but in Stanitsa Luganskaya there was a hitch. Ukraine said it needed seven days of silence before they start withdrawing heavy weapons. Since then the OSCE has reported publicly more than a dozen periods when silence lasted seven days and more. The Ukrainians say that these are our statistics, and that their statistics registered two or three shots. The Germans, the French and the OSCE understand this is blasphemy. But owing to their political commitments, our Western partners, unfortunately, cannot publicly bring pressure on the Kiev authorities and cannot force them to do what they had promised the leaders, among others, of France and Germany. This is lamentable. I understand that if you have thrown your lot in with a politician and publicly back the government that came to power in Kiev after the coup, it is probably very hard to depart from that position without losing face. We understand, we do not kick up a row over Kiev’s total sabotage of the Minsk Agreements, we will calmly work towards the fulfilment of what has been agreed upon. Too many hard-won agreements are being put to the test, the Minsk Agreements, the agreements on Iran and a number of others.
Question: On Thursday, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada adopted the so-called “Law on the Reintegration of Donbass.” The European capitals had a neutral reaction to this, whereas Moscow was very critical. Why? What do you think about the practical consequences of the law?
Sergey Lavrov: Speaking legally, the “Law on Reintegration” nullifies the Minsk agreements that were unanimously approved by the Security Council in the resolution adopted several days after the meeting of the four leaders in the Normandy format in Minsk. This is obvious for us.
As for the reaction, we have no doubts and, moreover, we have documented information that both Europe and Washington are fully aware of the game being played by the current Kiev authorities that are dragging out their commitments under the Minsk Agreements. I hope that officials from Berlin, Paris, Washington and other capitals are expressing this to their colleagues from Kiev during private, closed contacts. Having taken these absolutely non-negotiable authorities under its wing, the West can no longer criticise what its mentees are doing. This is sad. Understandably, it is linked with the misinterpreted feeling of one’s own prestige and reputation; but this is how things are. We will work for the implementation of everything that is written in the Minsk Agreements. The attempts “to bring down the sight” and lead these discussions astray, a desire to find new agendas, new forms and methods of work are unacceptable. We will calmly and firmly uphold the honest package that was signed by President Petr Poroshenko and the leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Question: My last question is about Iran that you mentioned. Can Russia stand to gain anything if the Americans pull out of the Iranian deal? In this case they will look isolated and odious, while Iran will be more pliable on some issues.
Sergey Lavrov: Russian leaders do not follow this school of thought. Many political scientists ask us why we are worrying about these things. They say the worse the better: let the United States prove its non-negotiability and destructive role in world affairs, be it in Iran or Syria wh ere it is also taking unilateral actions that have already provoked Turkey to anger.
Question: And Iran will also be more pliable.
Sergey Lavrov: That’s not the point. If the fabric of legal agreements approved by the leading countries in a conflict is destroyed, there will be a free for all wh ere everyone defends its own interests. This would be very bad. I consider this unacceptable, whether it’s Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen or the Korean Peninsula. There is also the 2005 agreement on the Korean Peninsula, which states in clear terms what is required from the DPRK and others. Two weeks after this was written, the Americans suddenly dug out an old story with some account in a Macao bank and started seizing North Korean accounts. We can argue about the extent to which this was fair, if North Korea was right and the United States wrong but a fact remains a fact. There was an agreement to abstain from confrontation and any provocations from a particular moment. This did not happen. Speaking on the system level, the biggest problem now is negotiability.