Thank you for inviting me here. It’s really nice to be in a place where you’re encouraged to think and search for creative ideas. It’s great that this tradition is being kept up by Russian young people, the Presidential Executive Office and the Government. I am taking part in this process in my capacity as foreign minister, and I’m very grateful for this opportunity.
This is a very picturesque part of Russia. The Vladimir Region is inseparably linked with the development of the Russian state. During a recent presentation of the Vladimir Region held at the Foreign Ministry, Governor Svetlana Orlova and her colleagues showed the region’s value at its best. It was clear that the local people respect the history and traditions, but that they also willingly take up new projects and achieve positive results in areas that the region and the Russian state as a whole depend on for development.
I believe that it’s indicative that this forum is called Terra Scientia on Klyazma River. It is very important to analyse and understand the meaning of global changes, the rapid change in science, technology, the economy and the social sector, as well as international affairs. Understanding the essence of events is no less important that doing your job honestly and diligently. As far as I can see, this audience consists of professionals, mostly in the social sciences. So I think you know a lot about this matter. The feelings you get from learning about global events, which I expect to be expressed through your comments and questions today, are very important for us in our daily work to formulate Russia’s policy in this or that area as part of the implementation of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept.
Today, our foreign policy interests, as I see it, are related to a battle of ideas, including the battle over the choice of development models and values, or attempts to impose a definite choice. We see the end to a long period of historical, economic, financial and political domination by the West. It lasted hundreds of years. This period involves an intrinsic contradiction, considering the evolution of new centres of power, including in Asia Pacific. The objective trend includes the development of a polycentric world order, which will be a lengthy process. It is probably not easy to admit that one’s domination, which lasted many centuries and was nearly absolute, is coming to an end.
We see attempts to preserve this domination artificially, including by pressuring other countries and using sanctions and even military force, in violation of international law and the UN Charter. This is adding an element of chaos to international relations, turning entire regions and countries into pockets of terrorism, violent extremism and many other negative things, which we see happening, unfortunately, over much of the Middle East and North Africa.
We firmly believe that the only practical formula for settling these issues has nothing to do with military interference or any other way of forcing a certain mode of behaviour, which may seem right to the enforcer, on others, but that this formula is based on respect for the right of nations to personal identity and the diversity of the modern world. Both in nature and in society, diversity is the key to prosperity and progress. Overall, principles that should be strictly applied to current issues were sealed in the UN Charter and must be respected.
This year, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. In the next few months, the UN General Assembly will hold a special anniversary session marking the organisation’s 70th anniversary. All of us know that the United Nations was born on the ruins of World War II in order to prevent a repetition of similar tragedies and disasters, and so that no one would ever try to count on one’s own unique nature and provide itself with a carte blanche for specific actions contrary to and in violation of other states’ interests.
We are witnessing one more contradiction in the modern world, namely, the striving of the United States and its allies to raise the issue of democracy inside specific countries, one way or another. They are doing this in a context they deem correct. At the same time, they refuse to even discuss the issues of democracy in foreign affairs. Our Western partners don’t perceive the very notion of democratising international relations. They believe that everything is good the way it is. But this is not the case in reality. Yes, we have the United Nations and its Security Council, but continuing attempts are being made to act unilaterally, and they are trying to justify these attempts by the fact that the UN Security Council is allegedly paralysed. This is not so. Over the past two years, the UN Security Council has passed about 80 resolutions which are being effectively implemented. Russia and China have vetoed some documents that run counter to the interests of resolving the Syrian crisis and that specify support for the armed opposition which has proclaimed its intention to overthrow the country’s legitimate president with the support of foreign sponsors. Therefore one should not take offence at such episodes. We vetoed other documents in response to attempts to politicise such serious issues as the need to thoroughly investigate the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash and others.
The contradiction between this stubborn promotion of the Western perception of democracy regarding the state system of other countries and the simultaneous refusal to conduct real discussions on the practical democratisation of international relations is another typical feature of the modern era.
But it appears that everyone should also think about their own interests. Those who are trying to usurp the right to control other nations will inevitably curtail their own domestic democracy, all the more so as our Western partners are already creating the required infrastructure for this change of policy. This refers to comprehensive internet systems that ensure total control over individuals, and the Western media is discussing this issue with great alarm. You know about such discussions in Europe, Latin America and other regions.
As I said, the Middle East and North Africa have turned into breeding grounds for terrorism and violent extremism. Illegal immigrants from this region are now engulfing Europe, and this is becoming the biggest headache for the European continent. Terrorism and illegal immigrants are the result of attempts to preserve one’s dominant positions in foreign affairs by interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.
In 1999, our Western partners, above all NATO members led by the United States, trampled on all the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. OSCE members then collectively bombed an OSCE member-country in violation of all the principles that form the foundation of this organisation and the United Nations Charter. That was followed by bomb attacks on Iraq with its subsequent occupation and on Libya in violation of the mandate approved by the UN Security Council. Now they are trying to do the same with Syria. As a result, many regions of Syria and Iraq have been taken over by the so-called Caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State, a group that keeps changing its appearance, but becomes ever more menacing and sinister with each change.
It all began with conniving at the Taliban, the mujahiddin, who then fought against the Soviet Union. In order to annoy the Soviet Union and prevent it from defeating those groups, they gave a lot of assistance to those extremists who subsequently mutated into al-Qaeda. This was a more serious terrorist organisation, one not entirely focused on Afghanistan. They also turned an almost blind eye to it, in the hope that it would help replace some of the regimes that the West did not like. What happened with the terrorist movements in recent years is perfectly evidenced by the Islamic State. The group declared that its goals were not limited to the territory of Iraq and Syria; it plans to establish a Caliphate (they are already printing and distributing maps) stretching from Portugal to Pakistan, definitely intending to seize Mecca and Medina (two top Muslim shrines) and proclaim the “right” version of Islam that meets ISIS requirements. The ISIS thugs (you have all probably seen the shocking footage) perform public executions of so-called infidels on live television. This alone has convinced us that, when we see terrorism, whatever its manifestations, we must fight it without resorting to double standards or using extremists to achieve someone else’s political objectives. Firstly, it is immoral. Secondly, the people who try to do this will never be able to control the extremists. Remember September 11, 2001, when the followers of the mujahiddin, whom the US had supported in Afghanistan, attacked Manhattan and committed such terrible crimes that Americans still shudder at the recollection.
That is why we are against the use of force or sanctions. We are in favour of addressing any problems through an equitable and respectful dialogue based on a balance of interests. There are several successful examples of this: the chemical disarmament of Syria after an agreement was reached with the Syrian government, and the settlement of Iran’s nuclear issue.
While speaking about fighting terrorism, President Vladimir Putin proposed two parallel tracks: form a coalition to combat ISIS and support all those fighting it, while at the same time intensifying negotiations on a political agreement that would help resolve the Syrian crisis. We urge everyone who is fighting ISIS to join forces. But our Western partners, as well as some countries in the Middle East say: “Yes, it’s a good idea, but we can’t cooperate with the Syrian army because they are not legitimate, so we cannot proceed until we change the regime there.” A year and a half ago they cooperated eagerly with the Syrian government on the removal and destruction of chemical weapons. Aren’t these double standards again, Syria being legitimate not long ago, and the UN Security Council adopting resolutions that welcomed Syria’s agreement to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the removal and elimination of the poison? Nothing has changed. The Syrian government continues fighting extremists. So these double standards are only in the way here. Instead of rallying with all those who are willing to fight terrorism, efforts continue to be diverted to change the regime, for the fifth year running, under the guise of fighting for democracy.
Do you remember how the Arab Spring began? It was actively welcomed by our Western partners as the peoples’ final transition to democracy. I don’t think that anyone in the West has used this term over the last couple of years or that the Arab Spring symbolises a transition to democracy. It has brought immense misfortune. Iraq is on the verge of disintegration. Libya has fallen apart. The threat of terrorism has spread from Libya to vast territories in North Africa and has reached deep into Africa where Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria are swearing fealty to the Islamic State. Therefore, the only way is dialogue, respect for a negotiating partner’s interests, and the desire to find consensus, which inevitably implies compromises without diktat or ultimatums. These principles guide the activities of such relatively young organisations as BRICS and the SCO. I think if the same principles were accepted by our Western partners, there would have been no confrontation over the advance of NATO’s military infrastructure towards Russian borders despite earlier promises to the contrary, nor would there have been the Ukrainian crisis, if things were done through the search for generally acceptable compromise rather than ultimatums, or a “black-and-white” understanding of developments, or the either-with- us- or-against-us dichotomy.
And, of course, we wouldn’t have had the present-day confrontation, if many years ago our Western partners had responded to our appeal to come to terms on how we would perform our old-standing obligations to ensure strategic stability in the Euro-Atlantic area on the basis of equal and indivisible security for all, when no one would ensure his own security at the expense of the security of others. This principle was declared by the OSCE many decades ago and was later reaffirmed at the inception of the Russia-NATO Council. But all of that was done within the framework of political declarations, and since it was never implemented in practice by our Western colleagues, we suggested making this principle legally binding. They immediately took the sideline and even refused to talk to us, declaring that “the legal security guarantees can only be obtained from NATO.” Thus, they gave up on the concept of a single and indivisible space of equal security in the Euro-Atlantic area, which had been proclaimed by their leaders. This NATO-centrism, this attempt to preserve the divides represent a systemic problem, while the rest, including the tragedy in Ukraine, is derived from this division into friend or foe.
We are always ready for a sincere, equitable and constructive dialogue with all those who are willing to work under these conditions, including with our Western partners, be it the EU, NATO, or the United States. They know this full well. But we will never renounce our principles, nor our identity, nor, as President Vladimir Putin stressed, the Russian Federation’s independent foreign and domestic policy. Clearly, someone doesn’t like that, as the President said, we don’t trade on our sovereignty, but it can’t be otherwise.
Let me repeat: We are open to equitable and mutually respectful cooperation with anyone. We have promoted and will continue to promote the Eurasian economic integration processes. We will work to combine this process with Chinese integration concepts, specifically the Silk Road Economic Belt concept, as agreed by our presidents on May 8, when PRC President Xi Jinping was visiting Moscow at the invitation of Vladimir Putin to take part in the celebrations dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Victory and to hold bilateral talks. I am confident that the Eurasian Economic Union has the potential to become a link between the integration processes in the Asia Pacific region and what our colleagues in Europe to the west of the Eurasian Economic Union are working on. In any case, there is no feasible alternative to the course for unification. We will promote it.
Question: A student action group has decided to create an International Educational Convention in Rostov-on-Don. Can we as a region hope that representatives of the authorities would attend it? If so, what should we do to inspire their interest in the convention and a desire to attend it?
Sergey Lavrov: If you are at the planning stage, you should probably share more about your idea. If it is to have an international aspect, that would require the Foreign Ministry’s assistance, and we would be willing to provide it. As I see it, you mostly need the assistance of the Ministry of Education and Science. I’m sure that they know about this at the ministry. If you plan to hold international events, you should invite guests to them, and if you want to facilitate the issuance of visas without any visa duties, which we can do, please feel free to ask for help. We’ll certainly provide it.
Question: I have a question about self-sufficiency. People tend to hear and listen to what a confident person has to say. If we use this formula in international relations, we could say that some countries know the goals they want to achieve, and so they are listened to. When will our officials stop making excuses, appealing to external parties and using other countries’ example as an argument? Can we become self-sufficient at this stage or in the near future in order to support our policy and our world outlook? I believe that if we do, other countries will be attracted to us, as with BRICS and other groups. China, India and even Venezuela can afford to protect their interests on the international stage and their views even when they clash with the views of the majority. Russia is the world’s largest country and one of the most influential and strongest in the world. I believe we can afford to do what these countries do, and that this would only increase the ranks of our supporters. You are a highly respected person internationally. The reason for this is that you often speak simply and honestly, which audiences hear and accept, and which they want to hear. Other international leaders such as Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi said these things too and won respect. Can Russia become a centre of attraction by taking an honest and confident stance on the international stage?
Sergey Lavrov: I fully agree with you regarding a concept-based attitude to problems. As the saying goes, don’t blame your faults on others. We must start working to become self-sufficient, all the more so since Russia is one of the few countries to which God, nature, ancestors and history have guaranteed this self-sufficiency. But we must use this wealth wisely and judiciously, as the President is urging us to do.
I don’t agree with those who say that everything would have been great in Russia were it not for the sanctions. The President is encouraging us, the government and all other agencies to take a different approach. He tells us that we must never become dependent on others for vital necessities, be it food, medicines or the items that are vital to our defences. I have read many analytical reports, according to which some people will again try to blame our problems on the EU, the US, their intrigues and provocations, all the while waiting for oil prices to grow to a level that will bring back relative prosperity without the need for economic improvements. This is not the stance of the President or the Government; it is not the stance the Foreign Ministry presents on the international stage. When I reply to such questions from foreign media, I say that our work is based on the assumption that this period will be very long. And it will be.
Our Western partners like to provide odd interpretations of agreements and their own decisions. The Jackson-Vanik amendment denied the most favoured nation status to Russia in trade with the United States for as long as Russia continued to ban Jewish emigration from the USSR. The ban was lifted even before the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, everyone who wanted to emigrate has done so, and the majority of those have returned to the Russian Federation of their own free will. But the Jackson-Vanik amendment was in force until Russia joined the World Trae Organisation. Had Russia not joined the WTO, the US would not have repealed it. The US preserved it under various pretexts that were not related to the migration issues, but because one Congressman wanted us to buy more chicken quarters, for example. This is not an exaggeration; this was their level. So, when my colleagues, including my American colleagues, say that the US sanctions will disappear overnight as soon as the Ukrainian crisis is settled under the conditions they consider right, but which have little in common with the Minsk Agreements, I feel sorry for them. They are either lying, or they know nothing about their leaders’ policy.
Of course, we must not shut the door on the world. We advocate an open trade system. We are drawing the public’s attention to plans for creating closed integration groups: The US is now working with Europe to create a trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership that will be closed to non-members. They are also working in East Asia to create a trans-Pacific investment partnership that will also be a closed club. Russia has not been invited to join the trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific partnership. China and several other countries have not been invited to join the trans-Pacific partnership. We are worried that this could objectively disrupt the WTO and undermine common international trade rules. So we will never encourage an autarchy. But, seeing how our Western partners behave, we must do everything in our power not to be dependent on them in situations where they decide to “punish” us for some reason.
I’m getting to the second part of the question now. The policy of self-sufficiency is respected. But not all countries are self-sufficient and independent enough to be able to freely express their opinions on international issues. Some of them are pressured by the donors who provide economic assistance that is vital for their survival, while others depend on foreign trade. However, when a resolution on Crimea was moved for voting at the UN General Assembly, it was approved, but only by slightly more than a half of the UN member-countries. The other countries either voted against, abstained (these were the majority), or did not take part in the voting. This is indicative from the point of view of the current state of relations in the world, considering that these countries were put under enormous pressure by the West before the voting on that resolution.
You mentioned China and Venezuela. These countries have an independent foreign policy. Yet I believe that President Vladimir Putin is still the most popular foreign leader in the world. My belief is not based on conjecture but on objective results of the polls that have been held for years. You can sense this when talking to foreign audiences that don’t represent the establishment but public organisations and bodies. The main reason behind Putin’s popularity is respect for his independent policy, a policy that is not independent because he does as he pleases, but because he respects international law, rejects double standards and keeps his promises: agreements must be honoured. This is all about the Russian President. I believe that these are the main principles in foreign policy and in life in general.
Question: Trade and economic relations between Russia and China have increased rapidly in the past few years. We’ve pursued a number of major projects together, including in the oil and gas industry. Among these is the construction of a pipeline from Russia to China. Novatek has consulted with our Chinese counterparts. How do you think Russia and China can cooperate in the Arctic? Perhaps, we should involve young professionals and researchers as interns in these companies? They are often willing to share their projects without any reward.
Sergey Lavrov: First of all, my best regards to Salekhard. I have very fond memories from a long time ago, when I attended a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council up there. We were all very impressed by the city’s fast growth and the level of comfort under the difficult polar conditions. I was especially pleased to be treated to stroganina (frozen fish or meat shavings) at the farewell dinner.
When it comes to the prospects for cooperation in the Arctic region, we are members of the Arctic Council and the Arctic Five of the Arctic Ocean states. The Arctic Council follows several approved principles that come down to simple things. First, the Arctic countries bear the main responsibility for the progress of the region, the development of natural resources that will ensure a careful approach to the environment which is very fragile there, and for most seriously protecting the rights of the indigenous people living beyond the Polar Circle in the Arctic areas of our countries. The council also decided that we would not isolate ourselves from other countries, but neither would we make the Arctic the common property of mankind as certain parties wish. By preserving the responsibility of the eight Arctic member-states of the Arctic Council, we are open for interaction and are ready to admit observers. Our only condition is that they will only be observers and will only be involved in Arctic Council projects that have been coordinated by the permanent members. China is one of the observers in the council and this approach extends to it too. China has quite good prospects here because it has the necessary resources, technologies, and scientific potential. But our Arctic cooperation with China does not have to be restricted to the Arctic Council. The Russian Arctic is an area where we can work with many partners bilaterally and the PRC is, of course, one of our priority partners.
As for specific progress on the initiatives you’ve mentioned, I’m not responsible for all of these as the foreign minister. But whenever there are any international aspects where we can help, please let us know. We’ll do what we can.
Question: Major foreign companies organise creative competitions for gifted young people across Russia and then provide them with grants to study abroad. Do you approve of such programmes? Are they under control?
Sergey Lavrov: This question is not within my province, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it is disappointing when intelligent, good students go abroad and don’t return. However, when they leave, receive an education, come back home and start using the knowledge they received abroad to set up their own business or do their work, I can only welcome this. When they leave and don’t return, it’s disappointing; this is a loss for the country, and I believe that if they had the opportunity to fulfill themselves in Russia the way they would like to, then they wouldn’t think twice about it. Such opportunities should be provided to them.
Here at the forum, I see young people who have already acquired some status and who have plans. Some have received an academic degree and some are beginning to work on programmes that are of technological and scientific interest. This forum is being closely watched by the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other branches of government, including the ministries that are responsible for creating the best possible conditions for our young people to study and work in Russia. Keep telling us what needs to be done.
Surely, number one issue is money, but there are also other ways of making your studies in your own country more attractive and those of using more modern approaches. Your advice is welcome. To reiterate, I do not have a professional interest here. I can only comment on this topic as a citizen. I believe that all that can be done should be done to ensure that our young people remain here and that they do go to study abroad, because we need these educational exchanges. More and more young men and women come to study at Russian universities. We would like our young people to receive such an education abroad, but, of course, we would also like them to use all this knowledge in their home country.
Question: There is a list of countries that Russian citizens are advised against visiting. Are student exchanges, including in the law enforcement system, possible under these circumstances? If so, what countries is this kind of cooperation possible and the most effective with?
Sergey Lavrov: Through my professional activities, I come up against just one aspect of this issue, namely regarding incidents that happen to our citizens abroad, when, contrary to the norms of international law and bilateral treaties and agreements (in particular, on the provision of legal assistance in administrative and criminal cases), our citizens are arrested arbitrarily and extradited to a country where they face prosecution. Practically in all cases, it is the United States. Everyone remembers cases where our businessmen Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko were illegally extradited to the US. Recently, another Russian citizen, Roman Seleznyov – without the knowledge of the host country (Maldives) – was prevented from boarding a regular flight when he was returning to Russia, forced into an American airplane and taken to a US base from where he was then sent to US territory. There are many cases where our citizens are arrested on US warrants in Europe and then the European courts decide to extradite them to the US even though we provide arguments in favour of such a citizen returning to his home country, where the required investigative activities would be conducted.
A large share of these abducted people are those who in some way or other previously worked in the law enforcement system. I know that following a series of such unlawful acts against our citizens, my colleagues at the Federal Penitentiary Service and the heads of some law enforcement agencies took measures to limit their visits to countries where such provocations can happen. Naturally, we will continue to demand that all Russian-US agreements be honoured. In all of the cases that I have mentioned, in accordance with a 1999 treaty, the US was supposed to have informed us, issued charges against our citizens and, on this basis, continued to cooperate, but instead, it simply kidnapped Russian citizens.
With regard to exchanges between Russian and foreign law enforcement agencies, I can see no impediments there. Such exchanges are usually discussed and agreed upon among the heads of the relevant agencies, and then relevant documents are signed. I have not heard of any abuses with respect to such exchanges.
Question: I’d like to thank you for your remarks, and the organisers for the invitation and making the event so comfortable. I came to this forum to present the I Can project, a series of educational and motivational lectures for students from Tula and the Tula Region. In the future, I plan to take this project to the federal level. At the age of these children, it’s important to have a role model who can show them that you can achieve anything, and that it depends only on you. I want to create a project where people with disabilities can pass along their knowledge and expertise. Here’s my question: Who was your mentor when you were young? Who helped you succeed? I realise that this issue may not be part of your professional area, but I’d be grateful if you could support my project.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you for what you’re doing. You mentioned that you want to take this project to the federal level, but I think it deserves an international dimension. Moreover, let’s face it, some other countries began to focus on this aspect of life much earlier than we. Fortunately, the situation is improving. We will stand by your side in promoting international contacts, and sharing experience and expertise as part of this programme.
With regard to your question about who helped me form as an individual, it's probably my mother, if we're talking about the time until I graduated from university. I had good teachers, too. When I joined the Foreign Ministry, there were people from senior management who helped me realise that I need to be proactive and never hesitate to come up with initiatives. I’m very grateful to them.
Question: Mr Lavrov, on your first day at work, what were the difficulties you had to overcome and what emotions did you have?
Sergey Lavrov: I remember that day, but there were no difficulties or emotions involved, because all emotions disappeared as soon as I learned that I had been hired by the Foreign Ministry and had to go immediately to our Embassy in Sri Lanka, a country that had just ceased to be called Ceylon. My position was with the Foreign Ministry’s Department of South Asia. I spent one month getting ready for my assignment, and then went to Sri Lanka and started working there. Probably, it was just another day for me. My colleagues greeted me warmly, I remember that. I don’t think there should be any excessive emotion involved – all you need to do is come and start working, rather than getting emotional.
Question: You said in one of your statements that no country or group of countries may interfere in the fate of the entire world. As we are all aware, the situation in Iraq is unfolding in ways that leave much to be desired. The Kurdish militia – Peshmerga – is at war with the Islamic State group. A group of countries, including the United States, advocates for the creation of a Kurdish state. Does Russia support the creation of a peaceful independent Kurdistan?
Sergey Lavrov: You are right, our position includes constant reminders to everyone that no one, no one country or group of countries, can impose their will on everyone else. Nations should determine their own destiny and should do so based on the UN Charter and through a national dialogue.
Iraq has gone through terrible times, when, under false pretenses, aggression was carried out against it in 2003, which was condemned not only by Russia, but many other countries as well, including Germany and France. As a result of this aggression, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, which was the alleged reason for the use of force, was not confirmed. The US administration behind the occupation dispersed all the security forces, which were mostly Sunni (the Ba’ath Party was at the helm at the time), and began to cooperate with the Shiite majority (Iraq is populated mostly by the Shiites). Then, for a long time, Iraq became a battlefield in the fight against terrorism, which ended without any coherent results. Foreign troops have been withdrawn, while Iraq has been left to fend for itself (with a certain number of advisers from the United States and other countries staying behind).
I have spoken with many of my colleagues who serve in the US administration and the US Senate and Congress, and they told me that invading Iraq and driving out all the Sunnis was a mistake. According to experts, the Islamic State group’s most capable units are manned by former officers from Saddam Hussein's army. They are in no way associated with the ideology-driven Islam. They simply lost their jobs, and were hired to work for ISIS rather than the Ba'ath party, which they were members of, and which the US occupation authorities dispersed and banned. More often than not, historical events come back to bite you later. Now, the Americans are trying to convince the Shiite leaders of Iraq to treat the Sunni minority fairly, which they themselves kicked out from everywhere. It’s rather ironic, so our approach is simple: we are not going to engage in such things and say that today we must crack down on the Sunnis, and tomorrow it’s time for the Shiites to make some room for the Sunnis. This is social engineering, a way of manipulating the state from the outside, from afar. This is destructive to the point where no one has to be convinced of it. Therefore, we believe that all Iraqis – be they Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds – must agree among themselves on how they are going to live. Issues between Baghdad and Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), such as the distribution of constitutional powers and, in particular, the distribution of oil revenue, have not been addressed for quite a while, but then they were sorted out. Implementing agreements is difficult, but we see no other way of reaching a peaceful settlement in any country of this region except through national dialogue. We will never adopt the kind of stance that was recently quite unashamedly announced by US Vice President Joe Biden, who stated bluntly that Iraq should be split into Shiite and the Sunni parts, and the Kurds given all they want. This is a very irresponsible statement. Most importantly, it is unacceptable for anyone overseas to tell Iraq how it should go about reforming or dividing itself. We don’t play such games. We are in favour of nations determining their own destiny. In matters relating to all Iraqis, we actively promote, support and encourage a national dialogue with the participation of all stakeholders.
Question: What would be your projection in terms of the further development of Russian-American relations in the context of the upcoming presidential elections in the United States?
Sergey Lavrov: The forecasts are of little value. We prefer to be based on real facts.
Of course, we are watching the US election campaign. It is believed that since the days of the Soviet Union, our country got on more easily with Republican presidents than with Democrats, as the latter tended to be idealists and more dependent on ideology in foreign policy matters, while Republicans were more realistic. Perhaps there's a reason behind this belief. But I will tell you frankly that I do not see a big difference. In any case, whoever becomes the president of the United States will need to define his or her policy towards Russia. It is an obvious fact that the current US policy towards Russia is arousing criticism and growing discontent, also among the Democratic Party. Republicans have criticised President Barack Obama for his choices in almost every area of foreign policy. Perhaps they are simply willing to pay any price to undermine the chances of presidential candidates from the Democratic Party. We’ll see. No one has actually disrupted the dialogue with us, but we are not going to beg them either. In any case, once we receive a proposal to begin restoring — however slowly and gradually — the channels and mechanisms of cooperation and dialogue that were frozen by our American partners, I am sure that we will not jerk them around, but rather agree to communication being resumed. By the way, we are already receiving signals from the Americans in this regard. They are not very clear, but obviously there is an understanding that suspending the Presidential Commission with 21 working groups was not a constructive idea.
Question: What specific actions are necessary to stop the bloodshed in the Middle East and control ISIS? Is there a danger that other terrorist groups could take ISIS’s place once it is down?
Europe has been flooded in a wave of illegal immigration from the Middle East. Is there such a threat to Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: President Vladimir Putin has focused much on the Islamic State group in recent weeks, including discussing it in detail in the course of his meeting with the successor to the Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman in St Petersburg on the sidelines of the International Economic Forum. It was also discussed during the visit of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, as well as during talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Sochi. Further on, President Putin discussed these issues with US President Barack Obama and a number of his Middle Eastern partners. This week, many of them are expected at the International Aviation and Space Salon MAKS-2015, where top-level contacts are also planned.
Our approach is simple and straightforward– given the rapidly spreading influence of the Islamic State group in areas that are not just part of the self-proclaimed caliphate (as there are agencies established that duplicate the functions of the government), something needs to be done about it. Our plan is to bring together all of those who are already fighting the terrorists – primarily the armies of Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga militia (our colleague from Iraqi Kurdistan should confirm that this is true), that are actively opposed to the Islamic State. In addition, the so-called moderate opposition groups, formerly the Free Syrian Army, are fighting in Syria. They are Syrians who are financed from abroad. President Vladimir Putin has suggested that, first of all, the armies of Iraq and Syria, as well as the Kurdish militias from these countries, should join forces. Second, the countries funding Syrian opposition groups should also persuade them to coordinate their actions with the army units and fight ISIS.
But all efforts seem to be hampered by the stubborn reluctance of some of our partners to deal with President Bashar al-Assad while he is in power, and their determination to direct the opposition armed groups to fight Syria’s government forces as much as against Islamic State. This, apparently, is the fragmentation of efforts. Moreover, when our American colleagues train and finance the so-called moderate Syrian opposition forces in neighbouring countries, it turns out that a significant number of those whom they train to eventually go to fight are extremists arriving in the region from US prisons (there used to be such prisons in Iraq) or prisons in other Middle Eastern countries. They have either served their sentences or made a deal, and are now training to go to war with the Islamic State. But if so, it is not surprising that about half of them eventually change sides and end up on the side of those who they were trained to fight. According to some, some of the instructors who Americans hired for the job are former Jabhat al-Nusra militants, a terrorist organisation on the UN Security Council sanctions list.
Recently, I read a revealing confession of former Director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency Michael T. Flynn, who publicly stated that in 2012 the White House received an intelligence report warning that their planned actions in the Middle East could actually contribute to the emergence of extremely radical forces in that region (Syria, in particular).
Another aspect concerns immigrants and refugees, which constitute millions of people. This is the result of the Iraq war and troop withdrawal before the terrorist threat was neutralised, and of the Libyan bombings aiming to change the regime. Weapons supplied to Libyan rebels from Europe were used to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, and then those fighters went to dozens of other countries, including Mali, where those who supplied weapons to overthrow Gaddafi had to fight them. These are absolutely paradoxical metamorphoses.
So there must be no double standards. If you fight terrorism, do so honestly. But cooperating with extremists and criminals to overthrow an authoritarian dictator everyone has had enough of is a dead-end; it will boomerang on those who play these games. Human trafficking and immigration flows are going above all through Libya, which is wracked by confusion in the absence of a central government. In fact, there are two governments there: one that the UN recognises and another that it doesn’t. These governments are negotiating with each other, but they don’t control the country. There are very many separate groups there. Not long ago we helped liberate our guys, Ukrainians and Belarussians, there. We held talks through a special connection, but not at all with the two active political forces mentioned above. Without going into detail, I can tell you that it was some other group.
The situation with illegal immigrants is also dangerous. Illegal immigration has become a business in Libya, where no one is in control. There are special channels for sending these people to Europe.
Is this dangerous for Russia? According to some estimates, in absolute figures Russia is the second most attractive country for immigrants who are working and those who would like to work here. Of course, we’d like to see immigrants primarily from the CIS countries. We have a common history, language and mindset with the majority of them, although attempts have been made to create division lines between us. There is no reason to believe that the wave of immigration into Europe will affect the influx of immigrants to Russia.
As you know, strict measures are being taken, primarily by the Federal Migration Service and the Foreign Ministry, to create order in this process. Our priority is to prevent the illegal entry of immigrants and the deportation of those who have been working here illegally, with a restriction on their re-entry for a certain period of time. But the main thing is to help labour migrants out of the economic shadows, to offer them suitable terms for legal employment and residence, and to create pension funds for them. In the past, these people had their passports taken from them upon arrival in Russia, and other obstacles were created to prevent them from complaining. We have mounted a fight against these practices, and our partners, primarily our partners in the CIS countries, have seen the first results. The wave of immigrants that has swamped Europe will not affect the situation in Russia at this stage. I believe we have the resources to preclude any negative consequences of the [European] problem for Russia. At the same time, we are ready to cooperate with our European colleagues.
They have already approached us with a proposal to consider elaborating a Security Council resolution, which will ensure an integrated approach towards the problem of illegal immigrants coming from Africa to Europe. We agree and say that we are open to such joint work, but we need to understand their needs. They need a lot, though, including the ability to intercept vessels not only in open-waters but in Libya’s territorial waters as well. They are even talking about ground operations in Libya. However, to do so, we need the consent of the Libyan state, which isn’t there yet. Well, those who are now recognised by the UN as the legitimate Libyan authorities do not control most of the country’s territory. Why did that happen? Because the countries that are now flooded by illegal immigration have actively participated in toppling the Gaddafi regime using illegal methods. As we keep reminding everyone about this, they say to us: “Come on, what got into you? Let bygones be bygones.” They suggest thinking not about who is to blame, but rather about what to do now. However, the trouble is that there is already a pile of such errors. In Iraq, as I already mentioned, our American colleague said that it was a mistake. In Libya, too, it was a mistake. But we warned them each and every time about these mistakes, but they didn’t listen to us. However, later they came to see us to discuss the Iraqi issue. They invaded Iraq despite the position of Russia, France and Germany and the Security Council resolutions, but then approached the Security Council with the proposal to adopt a reconciliatory resolution.
The same goes for Libya. They suggest adopting a resolution to start a national dialogue. We are willing to help, including in addressing immigration problems, but let's be honest about choosing our priorities. What’s more important — pushing through a completely politicised, and, I would even say, “unscrupulous” resolution on establishing a Boeing tribunal at a time when we’ve been desperately trying for a year to start a fair and transparent investigation, while all of the key evidence is still being withheld? Why did they put this resolution to vote? Just to reinforce an artificially created image of Russia as a country that is directly or indirectly implicated in this terrible crime. Then, they tell us that Russia is blocking the investigation. Nothing is further from the truth. We were the only ones who spent the entire year following that tragedy demanding that the Security Council enforce the implementation of that resolution. No coherent reports have been provided. There was some sort of an interim report, in which last year's Security Council resolution wasn’t mentioned altogether. The Dutch security authorities are currently conducting an investigation. They recently held several meetings. We asked them a few questions, such as why they only now released the news about the pieces of the Buk MLRS, which they found a few months ago? We ask them to show us these pieces, but we receive nothing is response. We asked them where they found these pieces, but they didn’t tell us either. However, they have submitted to the UN Security Council a resolution that clearly and unambiguously supports those who accuse militias and Russia. It was even drafted so that the tribunal was supposed to follow Ukrainian legislation as opposed to international regulations. Then, why the tribunal? Ukraine is a sovereign state, and it can create any judicial mechanism of its own.
I digressed for a simple reason — they knew full well that we would veto the resolution. So, they put it on the table for us to veto it, so that they could point at us later. At the same time, they are asking us if we can help them in the Security Council to agree on things, so that they can deal with illegal immigrants. We say we can, but they should decide what’s more important for them — fighting off waves of illegal immigration or engaging in propaganda in the Security Council. If it’s the former, we are willing to cooperate. Recently, we have agreed on important decisions as to how to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria by whoever it may be. We worked for three months. The Americans, who suggested doing this work together, could have just put this resolution on the table in its original, absolutely unacceptable form, and again received a veto on our part. However, this time they acted pragmatically and rationally and started talking with us. As a result, we reached an agreement, and everyone is clapping their hands, rejoicing that negotiations work. They do work, but you need to start with negotiations, not ultimatums. Therefore, we have nothing to worry about. My respect to Kursk, Rostov and other Russian regions, which take in Ukrainian refugees. I’m aware that these people, especially children and women, receive a warm welcome, that the federal authorities help them, and that the host regions carry a huge burden.
Question: May I ask you to return from the Middle East to our region and our neighbours? It is common knowledge that Russia is the main partner and strategic ally of Belarus. Many Belarusian citizens see Russia and the entire multi-ethnic Russian nation as their homeland. Nevertheless (maybe, this is related to the upcoming elections in October 2015), many media stories are noting that Belarus has started leaning towards the West, and that Belarus is currently modifying its stance on the Ukrainian conflict. Can you comment as an official statesman who can speak to the Russian position on this issue?
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you. This is a very good question because many people are now saying that Russia is turning towards the East, Asia and the Pacific because of current Western attitudes. This mentality is typical of those who understand no other logic than “friend or foe” or “either stick with us or oppose us.” This is exactly what lies at the root of most problems in Europe and runs counter to political declarations that guarantee equal and indivisible security when no one opposes the security of others, and when everyone chooses their own friends in line with common and indivisible security. And most of our Western partners are still guided by a “friend or foe” logic.
I recall the very first Euromaidan in Ukraine in 2004. The then Belgian Foreign Minister Karel Lodewijk De Gucht, who later became the European Commissioner for Trade, said openly in the autumn of 2004 that the government and people of Ukraine should decide whether they want to stick together with the European Union or Russia. The very same calls were voiced during the Euromaidan rallies of 2013.
So our answer is very simple, and it is contained in the Russian foreign policy concept and the Belarusian concepts: We will expand our relations with anyone who is ready to do so on a basis of equality, mutual benefits and mutual respect. We have absolutely no prejudices. Moreover, we are interested in the normalisation of relations between Belarus and the West. All these years, during my entire tenure as minister, Belarus has been subjected to various Western sanctions which apply to Belarusian leaders and certain companies. During all our meetings with the European Union and the United States, we have maintained that this is a dead-end, that, instead of isolating, the country should be involved in specific projects.
We actively pressed for involving Belarus in the work of the Council of Europe, with some success, although Belarus has not joined it so far. We tried to involve Belarus (and such decisions were made at our initiative) in certain Council of Europe conventions that are open to non-CE countries, etc. To say that Belarus-Western relations are detrimental to relations with Russia means once again acting under the “either/or” concept that paints the modern world as black and white. On the contrary, our world is much richer and more diverse.
We have a plan of jointly agreed-upon foreign policy actions, and we draft this plan every two years with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. The presidents approve this plan at meetings of the Supreme State Council. Each year, we hold joint meetings of both ministries’ boards. To the best of my knowledge, this year’s meeting is scheduled for October. So it’s not logical to live with the mediaeval implication that “you no longer love me if you have another friend” in our interdependent and increasingly globalised world.
Question: First, thank you very much for your public discretion as regards Ukraine against the background of all this outrage. Thank you for not saying a single bad word about the Ukrainian people.
Sooner or later this policy of chaos and populism will be over and Ukraine will embark on the road of national development. Strong animosity toward Russians has been ingrained in the minds of Ukrainians at the reflexive level. Will the Russian Government or business community take some action to restore the status of a friendly nation?
There is some Committee for Ukraine’s Salvation operating on Russian territory, which wants to serve as a counterbalance to the current Kiev regime. It is rumoured that it has won Moscow’s support by having declared this from Russian territory. Members of this committee position themselves in much the same way by dividing the nation into “right and wrong”. For them the West, which created all this chaos, is on the wrong side, whereas the victims and Eastern Ukraine is on the right side. Is it appropriate to pursue this path, which is drawing Ukrainians further apart?
Sergey Lavrov: You started by thanking me for not saying a bad word about Ukrainians and finished by mentioning the Ukraine Salvation Committee that has been established and is ostensibly pursuing a line towards splitting the Ukrainian people. These two comments are interlinked and I have never heard any bad words about Ukrainians from the Russian leaders, of course, and from the members of this committee who were shown on television.
They made fairly angry statements about the previous president and the current authorities. Commenting on such actions, we call a spade a spade. And we are calling for the implementation of the agreements made with the participation of France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
I’d like to recall the willingness to negotiate of the leaders who staged the coup d’etat. Now many statements are being made about the need to return to the Geneva format with US participation. In April 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Ms Catherine Ashton occupied this position at that time), the Acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister and myself met in Geneva. We adopted a statement on the need to start immediate nationwide dialogue with the participation of all regions and all political forces of Ukraine with a view to carrying out a constitutional reform. That was in April of 2014.
More than a year and a half has passed since that time. Ukraine’s April 2014 commitment to immediately embark on constitutional reform has gone nowhere. Nobody is carrying out any reforms, although the plan was set out in the minutest detail in Minsk in February. Nothing is being done. This is not the fault of the Ukrainian people but of those who are responsible for these reforms: the President and the Government which, according to some estimates, is preventing the President from fulfilling his agreements. We will not hush up these issues because we also took part in these agreements.
I’d like to ask you to please let me know if you see some negative assessment of the Ukrainian people, and not just in government media but any Russian media (both in print and online). I don’t remember anything like this. What is really a source of strong concern are the reverse actions of the Ukrainian leaders, who have set themselves the aim of changing “the genetic code”, if you will. I am confident they will get nowhere.
When President Poroshenko says that we are not fraternal nations, that the Ukrainian nation is successfully marching toward Europe while the Russian people are in deep crisis, does he demonstrate a friendly attitude? Or when we are told (by President Poroshenko again) that the Minsk agreements have given the Ukrainian leaders leeway to rearm and consolidate their army? For what purpose? To fight against Ukrainian people in Donbass?
When right after the coup, having trampled underfoot the agreement signed by Viktor Yanukovych with the opposition in the presence of Germans, French and Poles, and endorsed by them, the Kiev authorities began adopting laws depriving the Russian language of the status (which isn't so high) that it should be granted at least in accordance with the relevant convention of the Council of Europe. When so-called Friendship Trains came to Crimea; when the Right Sector (notably Dmitry Yarosh) said that a Russian will never think like a Ukrainian in Crimea and will not glorify Bandera and, therefore, there should be no room for Russians in Crimea. All these statements shape human attitudes. But this was said not about the leaders of some part of a Ukrainian political party or force but about the people of Ukraine, a vast part of the Ukrainian people.
Actions against our actors, writers and movies are much in the same vein. And those black lists are completely unreasonable. We asked UNESCO experts whether there are any commitments to keep culture outside politics. At one time attempts were made to turn sport into an active part of politics. Now some people are trying to “rape” culture for the same political reasons. I don’t think these attempts will succeed. Probably, for a certain period, and this is obvious now, seeds of something close to hatred have been sown. People are being irritated and are unable to critically perceive what is going on. I think more and more people in Ukraine realise that it is impossible to be permanently under external control, as President Vladimir Putin has said.
A day before the coup d’etat, Moscow was called up by the leaders of the United States and leading European countries, who asked us to support the agreement that the opposition signed with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, although in this agreement he renounced practically all prerogatives as the head of state. Under the agreement he committed himself to use neither police nor the army. Nonetheless, President Vladimir Putin supported this agreement, emphasising that we are backing it because the authorities and the opposition reached this inter-Ukrainian agreement of its own free will. When the coup was staged on the following morning, and administrative buildings, and the presidential and government residences were seized, nobody among those who asked us to support the agreement called Moscow – not even to apologise but at least to say, “Well, we asked you to support it but see what happened.” President Putin told them that he will back the agreement on the condition the opposition refrain from inconsiderate steps, particularly the use of force. They said: “Yes, yes, yes, we’ll do this by all means.” But nobody even called or lifted his hands in dismay at what happened.
During the fairly recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri (I believe it was last year), African Americans attacked the police. Blood was shed. Several African Americans were killed, and the police were hurt as well. The National Guard was summoned, which quelled the riot in a fairly tough manner. Human rights activists were critical of this, but President Barack Obama said that any form of violence against the police is unacceptable.
Later, I asked my American colleagues whether the principle that violence against the police is unacceptable also applies to what happened during independence rallies in Ukraine in February 2014. Furthermore, I reminded them that in the first half of February, when things were quite tense, some Western capitals, along with NATO Secretary General (Anders von Rasmussen back then), made several statements urging President Yanukovych not to use the army against civilians and rally participants. He didn’t issue such an order. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, he signed an agreement with the opposition groups, in which he waived this right in writing.
Following the coup, new authorities came to Kiev. In addition to emotional unofficial appeals to promote everything Ukrainian, they started calling to push the Russians aside and away. Then, they officially announced an anti-terrorist operation aimed at a vast portion of their own country only because people there refused to accept this coup, and then threw the army at these territories. I asked my Western colleagues, “How about you urging Yanukovych not to use the army against his own people? Can you do this again, but this time say it to the new authorities?” They have laid low since then, and the most that the West could say at that time was to call upon the new Kiev authorities to use force proportionately. Just imagine. This is what we have to deal with.
We are deeply convinced that the Minsk agreements contain the key to resolving the Ukraine crisis, I really hope so. French President Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Poroshenko meet in Berlin today. I hope that after all, the leaders of these major European countries, who signed the Minsk agreements on February 12, will think about their reputation, because it is at stake, and will make sure that Ukraine fully complies with these agreements in the agreed upon sequence. I think that, in addition to their reputation, France and Germany are sincerely interested in calming down the situation in Ukraine and making sure that there’s peace, and that people stop suffering, because this situation is fundamentally at odds with all the underlying principles of the European Union.
For obvious reasons, I have digressed. We can never have any bad blood with the Ukrainian people. I have many friends who are ethnic Ukrainians, and we still get together and talk. I’m convinced that common sense will prevail. No one wants to fight for some vague ideas or dig ditches with barbed wire. If this is your country, why isolate yourself with an artificial wall and make a show out of it?
Once again, the Minsk-2 agreements have all the conditions for Ukraine to be able to overcome the crisis, so that all those who live in Ukraine, regardless of whether they are Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Hungarians, Bulgarians or Poles, can feel protected in terms of their cultural rights and values. The decentralisation, which is so vigorously discussed, could provide them with the right to use their mother tongue and enjoy certain economic advantages as compared with complete centralisation, etc.
Question: What do you think about youth exchanges? What is their role in grassroots diplomacy? What would you wish for all the young people here so that they can continue to maintain such relations?
Sergey Lavrov: Without youth exchanges there will be no continuity. No one wants to create any kind of unions looking to the future, so that later, when everybody currently working retires, everything comes to an end. Therefore, youth exchanges must exist.
It is no accident that youth associations are formed within BRICS, the SCO and many other processes that take place on the international arena. Frankly, this is not the first time that I’m talking with young people who engage in such associations. You are not directly part of any of these associations, but I spoke with the young people from the BRICS and SCO associations, and it’s clear that they have fun working there, they do some real work and engage in entirely new processes that reflect dissatisfaction with the pace of change in the international arena, where our Western colleagues are parting with their dominant positions very reluctantly. However, these objective processes continue. BRICS and the SCO would like to accelerate them, but they would like to do so without any confrontation, being fully cognisant of the fact that we live in one world, and that we must build neighbourly, equal and mutually beneficial relations with everyone, including our Western colleagues.
This should be a combination of being part of something new, which is being built through BRICS, the SCO and other processes, while understanding that it should be done not in confrontation with other actors who are losing their influence, but in conjunction with them. This is a huge field open to creativity, creative approaches, and searching for new ways of doing things that may help bring together and harmonise these two seemingly irreconcilable approaches.
I wish you success in all your endeavours. I think that those who choose international studies as their career never regret it.