Thank you for such a warm welcome. I have been invited for the third time running. I am very pleased to receive these invitations because it is very important for international relations professionals to talk to young people who are interested in diverse issues. All the more so since this forum has gathered sociologists and political scientists – professions that are very closely intertwined and, I believe, necessary to figure out what life is about, including international life.
I will share with you some of our assessments. I will not take up your time with long opening remarks because President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin has expressed his opinion on these issues more than once and our position is well known.
We are going through a critical stage in international relations. The previous era is receding into the past. During this era the West dominated international affairs for centuries, whereas now what we call a polycentric world order is objectively taking shape. This is a natural process because life is moving ahead. New centres of economic growth and financial might are emerging on a par with those that pioneered the world’s development, on a par with Western countries. Naturally, political influence is coming along with all this. These new countries want to uphold their interests by taking part in forming the international agenda and setting the tone, especially in those regions where respective centres of power are emerging – China, India, Brazil and, to a certain extent, South Africa. There are larger countries on the African continent, but sustainable development is only typical for South Africa so far.
Let me repeat once again that this is a trend whereby new emerging centres of power are assuming responsibility for ensuring security and stability in their regions and in the world arena as a whole. It is impossible to stop this process because by and large multi-polarity reflects the truly existing cultural and civilisational diversity of the modern world, and, of course, the desire of nations to determine their destinies themselves and a striving to establish justice – approximately as it was seen by those who wrote the UN Charter that contains all the fundamental principles that remain topical today, being universal for all states. Let me say once again that this is an objective process, which is anything but simple. First, a change of eras is always a very long period (you don’t wake up in the morning and multi-polarity is already here). This will continue for a long time. Second, apart from objective reasons, I want to emphasise that this process is meeting with active resistance, primarily from those who dominated the world before and want to preserve the old order in the new conditions and, deep down, forever. This is manifest in different things. We will talk about this, of course.
25 years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation was disbanded, there was a choice that major politicians in the West thoroughly discussed. The choice was in favour of disbanding NATO and for everyone to focus efforts in the OSCE and develop – based on this universal Euro-Atlantic framework and each participant's equal rights – new approaches to security so that no one would be impinged on. During that period, a new term – equal and indivisible security – was coined. Although the OSCE issued corresponding declarations, NATO was never disbanded. The North Atlantic Alliance was the setting for the actual efforts of its western member states to secure their military and political interests, of course. They have never been seriously engaged in solving any questions of practical importance within the OSCE. What they engage in mostly is ideology-driven discussions, attempts to promote their pseudoliberal values, passing them off as universal ones. The universal values are formalised in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted after the United Nations was founded. Everything to do with imposing one's additional views on certain aspects of modern life, as well as imposing one's approaches, including to human rights, on other countries, certainly does not correspond to the principles that the UN is based on. To repeat, back then the choice was made not in favour of disbanding military blocs, disbanding NATO, but in favour of the illusion that was referred to as “the end of history,” as allegedly the world didn't have any prospects other than capitalism. The illusion turned out to be just that. One cannot call the shots for the whole world, acting as a club of the chosen. This could not work, and it did not work. What’s more, this same model of globalisation, including its economic and financial aspects, which has formed the so-called liberal globalisation club and benefitted their interests, is currently a fiasco, I think. This has become obvious for many people with common sense in the West.
For our part, 25 years ago, when we were experiencing all those events, we proceeded from the fact that we all won the Cold War, and it was a common victory. We wanted to believe that the idea of pan-European, global and equal security, as was recognised by the UN Charter, would come into fruition. Remember, back in the 1990s, our country was still recovering from the consequences of the collapse of the USSR and there was a huge number of difficulties, the debt, setting up borders that appeared overnight between former Soviet republics, social problems and many other issues. At that time, western leaders thought that Russia was weak and would remain weak, and they would incorporate our country into their world order as an obedient partner, and they would call the shots on everything. Back then, one had to be hugely insightful to envision any other scenario in international affairs. The late Yevgeny Primakov looked beyond the horizon and formulated his concept of multipolarity. At that time, there were few of those who were able to foresee that becoming reality. Mr Primakov substantiated this model in his works and showed the disastrousness of a unilateral approach and efforts to organise international affairs. You may recall that following this, in February 2007 Russian President Vladimir Putin, when addressing the Munich Security Conference, spoke from the perspective of the post-Soviet experience, developed these thoughts further and gave specific examples showing it was no longer possible to handle matters as “leader and follower”. At least, we will not allow anyone to speak to Russia like this.
Obviously, it is impossible to impose one form of globalisation on all. Nations want to uphold their national identity and ensure their independence. They do not want anyone to command or prod them. Clearly, those who are still clinging to the unipolar world do not want to yield their positions, although objectively this is impossible to imagine. This era is receding. However, attempts to slow down these processes continue. Hence the unilateral coercive measures that circumvent the UN Security Council, absolutely illegitimate unilateral sanctions, repeated military interventions in the internal affairs of other states, including attempts to change regimes that are resented by some of our Western colleagues, and also the ex-territorial application of national laws, for which the United States is famous now. The European Union seems to have started to pay attention. Results are here for everyone to see – crises and conflicts and decaying states. Statehood is under serious threat in Iraq and Libya. At the same time, havoc was wreaked in other countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The interventions in Iraq and Libya paved the way for terrorists to the rest of Africa, including Central Africa, as well as to Central and Southeast Asia. ISIS is already there and people are deeply worried about this. The path for extremists and terrorists has been opened in Europe as well. Facing the pressure of problems that are tearing it apart, Europe should draw some conclusions, of course. We wish success to the Europeans. Many European countries pursued a policy that led to these crude illegal coercive actions and eventually to what we are witnessing today. This is on top of the internal problems of our European neighbours, which are linked with Brexit and the growing discontent with the Brussels bureaucrats that have started taking too much upon themselves, ignoring the opinions of EU members. In principle, I think we always say that we want to see the EU strong and united. Probably, we still underrate the extent of its independence and ability to address current challenges in a constructive spirit and to conduct an equitable and mutually beneficial dialogue and cooperation with Russia, ignoring the aggressive Russophobic minority that is trying to abuse the EU’s principles of consensus and solidarity and demands that the position of all other members should be based on the lowest common denominator. This lowest denominator is markedly anti-Russian. I hope that serious EU countries that fully understand that it is unacceptable to conduct affairs in such a style will be working for what is absolutely logical – if this is consensus an agreement should take into account all views rather than follow the lead of those who have decided to capriciously impose aggressive and confrontational approaches on everyone. Obviously, now that the West is fighting to preserve its dominance, our American colleagues are using the current situation, including anti-Russian positions of their allies inside Europe, so as to keep it within the bounds of so-called Atlantic solidarity – to preserve the importance of NATO, which cannot function without the United States, and at the same time to pursue their own economic interests. As you know, the recent package of anti-Russian sanctions faced clear resistance in Europe because it bluntly states that gas should be bought from the United States, although it costs much more there. The goal is to keep Europe in the Atlantic boat and simultaneously promote the interests of its energy companies. This is done brazenly by using methods of absolutely unfair competition.
Such theories are put forward to justify the wish to preserve the western-centric world order. In reality, this is the road to chaos because many players will never be able to come to terms between themselves. It would probably be better to take a look at themselves and start analysing their own conduct to see what is happening in the world and what is producing chaos. If we look at the facts, we will see that the chaos created in Iraq, Libya and the Middle East and North Africa in general, the impetus for these negative processes triggered by outside interference with the use of crude force, is part and parcel of the unipolar world that our western colleagues are now trying to preserve. Speaking about chaos, another analysis seems more appropriate. There are many facts that show that the authors of the controlled chaos theory have many supporters among active politicians. At any rate, this conclusion of many western political scientists is fairly justified. When there is permanent turbulence in regions that are far away from the United States, the countries that are next to these crisis areas have to do more to ease tensions and less to promote their economies and opportunities in the world arena. We suggest getting back to roots, to the UN Charter, as I said in the beginning of my remarks, and ensuring respect for its principles of sovereign equality of states, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and settlement of any conflicts exclusively by peaceful means.
Our western colleagues often demand that Russia and other countries that are trying to act independently guarantee the supremacy of law at home. But as soon as we propose applying this principle to international affairs, they back-pedal. The principle of the supremacy of law that is supposed to be universal is approached with double standards. It is good for imposing one’s own rules on people abroad but no good for adopting an equitable and honest approach to international affairs. No one can be satisfied with what is happening with attitudes to international law today.
Russia will work to consolidate multipolar trends. This is an objective process and attempts to stop it are unacceptable. These anti-historical attempts are being made by those who are on the wrong side of history. Russia is one of the centres of world civilisation. I know that some of our liberal analysts and commentators say that we should not emphasise that we are “special,” that this will lead to nothing good and that instead we should “merge” with the West. Other analysts, also liberal by the way, have come up with the very interesting idea that Russia is the easternmost Western country and the westernmost Eastern country. This is indeed so geographically and geopolitically, and exemplifies the need to respect one’s own culture and history, to carry out modernisation respecting rather than rejecting one’s roots.
The contribution that we are trying to make to international affairs is always creative and constructive. We always want to achieve something. Probably, this is why it is resented by the advocates of the controlled chaos theory who want to use it in their own interests in the hope it is easier to fish in troubled waters. There is absolutely no doubt that we will continue pursing an independent foreign policy as President of Russia Vladimir Putin said, and take approaches to international affairs that are based not on attempts to impose ideas and actions on others but on a search for honest compromise and agreements that balance the interests of all parties involved.
We know that part of the Western elite would like Russia to be weak (this is one of the goals of the sanctions war) and ready to make concessions at the expense of its own interests. We will not do anything at the expense of our interests and this is common knowledge. However, we are always ready to come to terms. Since the emergence of merchants, people in our country have shaken on deals, there was no need to sign anything. One of the traits of our people is keeping promises. If we do not promise, it means we simply cannot do it for whatever reason and honestly say so. We are open to talks and dialogue with everyone without exception, including the EU and the United States. As you know, this dialogue continues although it slowed down a bit and is not as regular as before. Essentially, it has never stopped. The main point is for everyone to treat us as an equal partner. In that case, I am convinced everything will be okay and we will find a balance of interests that can be called justice.
I wanted to keep my opening remarks a bit shorter but went long. Now I’m ready to talk with you.
Question: What, in your opinion, is the idea of the Russian nation and what could it be based on?
Sergey Lavrov: As I understand, the law on the Russian nation is an initiative that is being developed in the Federal Assembly. Regardless of whether there is a law or there is no law, the most important thing is that there is a nation. This is primarily about history, a sense of one’s own identity: this is not a Russian word but it has already become part of our language, as well as other languages, and it means a state where you associate yourself with the country you live in, with the city or village you live in or where your ancestors were born; when you associate yourself with culture, which is constantly enriched and expanded with creative works in music, the theatre and cinema; when you associate yourself with the fact that you, your children, parents, grandparents and great grandparents lived, live and will continue to live in this country. Then perhaps you should be interested in your country becoming stronger. If this is so (I hope that everyone shares this interest), then it will be far easier for us to address our foreign policy tasks. The stronger we are, the easier it is to do that and the easier it is to solve problems, which will enable us to further strengthen our economy, social sphere and defence capability.
Question: You are constantly in the public eye, and I would like to thank you for never embarrassing us in front of millions of people.
Sergey Lavrov: Cross your heart?
Question: It is thanks to you and President Vladimir Putin that Russia remains the best and most powerful country in every sense. Who do you see as a worthy candidate for the post of Foreign Minister when you go?
Sergey Lavrov: As you know, in Russia, government appointments are made by the President, so this will be up to the Russian people to decide.
Question: You have served as Foreign Minister for 13 years. What talks have been the most exciting and the most memorable for you during this time?
Sergey Lavrov: Talks that produce results, I suppose. I would not say that “exciting” is an appropriate word here. There can be riveting talks, when you see that there is just a little left to do, all you need is to find the right phrase and your negotiating partner or opponent will accept the rest, which already suits you.
One example of productive talks is what we achieved with Iran’s nuclear programme and what, unfortunately, our US partners are now calling into question. Even though the Donald Trump administration has confirmed that with regard to the agreements that were signed, Iran is doing everything stipulated under the agreements, nevertheless, representatives of the Trump administration continue to say that these negotiations were wrong and a mistake. It’s a pity that such a successful treaty is now in doubt.
Another example in recent years is that almost a year ago, as a result of negotiations with John Kerry, it proved possible to coordinate our approach on a political settlement in Syria. I believe it was a real breakthrough, which ensured complete coordination of actions by the Russian Aerospace Forces and the US-led coalition. The only condition, also stipulated by that agreement, was the US obligation to separate the opposition that it supports from the terrorists, in particular Jabhat al-Nusra. Although they [the Americans] signed this agreement with us, they failed to fulfil this condition. If they had kept their promise, I believe there would already have been great progress on the political settlement in Syria and preparations for elections would have been under way. However, the US proved unable to do so. I suspect there were people there who, unlike John Kerry, did not want to separate terrorists from the regular opposition.
There is also an array of border delimitation treaties that we have signed with China and Kazakhstan. Negotiations with China lasted for several decades. It was largely because the treaty was signed about 10 years ago that we have now formed an unprecedentedly strong Russian-Chinese tandem, including in the international arena.
These are just a few examples that immediately came to mind.
Question: The name of outstanding diplomat Yevgeny Primakov evokes in all of us a special feeling of patriotism and pride for a person who has made an enormous contribution to Russian politics. Could you talk about the history of your relationship with him? What were the most important words that you heard from Mr Primakov that helped you in your life and in your career?
Sergey Lavrov: We worked together very closely when Mr Primakov became Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, we had already been in close contact in his previous official capacities, when he was Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and worked at the USSR Supreme Soviet and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. However, our friendship became particularly close, strong and personal only after he was appointed head of the Foreign Ministry. At that time I was already in New York. Mr Primakov went there several times, among other things to attend UN General Assembly sessions. He was a man of amazing personal qualities, who constantly thought about his friends, who religiously respected friendship, his family and all those he was close to in his youth, worked with or addressed some matters with.
As I said in my opening remarks, Mr Primakov is the architect of the multipolarity theory. I remember the time when he came to New York in September 1996. We went to a Russian banya [bathhouse]. We walked out of the steam room, sat at a table with some beer (excuse me for reminding you) and dried salted Caspian roach. As usual, we were wrapped in sheets and he said a decision had been made to send me to Washington. I was taken aback and asked him what for. He said that I was politically immature, and pointed out that Washington was the place to be. I begged to differ, saying that I thought New York was that kind of place. I recalled that he was the architect of the multipolarity theory. And where was multipolarity made? In Washington, where you had to phone and wonder whether or not you would be received, or in New York, where you entered the building of the UN General Assembly or Security Council and everything was abuzz with activity there, all countries were represented, with ambassadors walking about, all the information coming right into your hands and where it was possible to work at many venues? He said again that I was politically illiterate and that he would make the decision by the time I went home on leave (to be precise, there was some conference to attend). When I arrived, naturally, I did not ask him that question. He waited and then said that after some consideration he had decided that I should continue working in New York for the time being. Mr Primakov was not an obstinate person. He had never been a “unipolar” man. As a minister, he would never stick to his opinion if you presented good arguments to him.
Question: I have a question about Syria. We watch television and some doubts arise. Are our American comrades and the coalition they lead really fighting terrorism? Or are they only creating a semblance of that?
Sergey Lavrov: I already touched on this issue when I talked about the document that former US Secretary of State John Kerry and I had coordinated but the Americans failed to meet the key condition for the agreement to be fully implemented. They failed to separate the opposition detachments that cooperated with them from the terrorists. They failed to ensure that opposition groups on the ground, based near Jabhat al-Nusra, leave their positions so that it would be possible to finish off the terrorist group that remained there. They failed to do so.
I have mixed feelings about the way the coalition is operating. We have already talked about that. I have no doubt that the coalition is committed to eradicating the so-called Islamic State. All of the coalition’s actions are designed to bleed this group dry, depriving it of support, fragmenting and liquidating it. In this regard, our goals completely coincide. By the way, Presidents Putin and Trump recently stated this when they met in Hamburg. We are in contact through our foreign policy agencies. Both sides believe these contacts are useful.
As for Jabhat al-Nusra, it is a somewhat different kind of animal, as they say. This organisation is opposed to the Islamic State but, just as ISIS, it is on the list of terrorist organisations that was approved by the UN Security Council. By all standards, as such, it is not simply a legitimate but a mandatory target for all those who are fighting the terrorist threat in Syria.
There is ample evidence that certain outside players may be tacitly accepting and even encouraging the US. They are protecting Jabhat al-Nusra. At least, the US-led coalition, which is carrying out active strikes against ISIS, is not so active with regard to Jabhat al-Nusra, if it conducts any serious operations against it in the first place. Not that I remember. There is a suspicion that they are trying to protect it in order to use it later as a battle worthy group in fighting against the Syrian government and bringing about regime change after ISIS is routed (nobody should have any doubts that this will happen although exactly when this will happen is hard to say right now; we are doing all we can to make it happen). I cannot say this with 100 percent certainty but to reiterate, there is substantial evidence that somebody is not averse to playing this card.
Question: I have been interested in politics and economics since 2013, and I recently made an interesting observation. It appears that the economy has been restructured to a greater extent during the three crisis years than during the 13 years of sustained development. Can this be explained by the Kremlin’s advanced technologies or by the White House’s near-sighted irresponsibility?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not responsible for the economy. Our task is to create the most favourable external conditions for the country’s development. We must see to it that no one offends or discriminates against our citizens and compatriots, that Russian culture and the positions of the Russian language be protected, and that Russian business is not subjected to unilateral discriminatory restrictions. I have already spoken about this but, again, some of our people are saying that we should have thought about all this at that time, that we should not have reintegrated Crimea into Russia, that we should not have helped self-defence fighters in Donbass, and that we should not have launched the campaign in Syria. There are such people. I would like to say a few words about what was in store for Russian-speaking people in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Right Sector leader Dmitry Yarosh said in late February, after the coup and before people started seriously thinking about holding a referendum in Crimea, that a Russian would never understand a Ukrainian, that he or she would never speak Ukrainian, and that there should be no Russians in Crimea for this reason. If those opposing Russian foreign policy believe that we should have left this entire situation to its own devices, all the more so as these statements were followed by an attempt to seize the Crimean Supreme Council building by force, then I cannot agree with this position.
Do you remember the recent debate about a pragmatic stand? As far as I remember, some person speaking on a liberal Russian television channel started asking whether it was necessary to hold Leningrad during the war, whether it would have been simpler to surrender it, and that this would have allegedly reduced the substantial death toll. It seems to me that this discourse is similar to assertions about abandoning the Russians in Crimea and Donbass. All this also concerns the issue of the Russian nation. We need to remain concerned and preserve our genetic code. We would have failed to defend Leningrad and to win the war without this genetic code. I am not urging everyone to take militarised action; I just want to say that we cannot discard certain issues if we are a nation. It would have been a crime to surrender Crimea to the Nazis who staged the coup in Kiev, which led to the current Ukrainian leadership.
Question: I have a question about the Shuren hydropower plant that Mongolia is now trying to build. What is the current status of this process? In January 2017, you said that you would protect Lake Baikal which is currently facing serious problems. A shallower Selenga River could greatly affect the lake. What is the Foreign Ministry’s position? Will you protect Lake Baikal?
Sergey Lavrov: Our position remains the same. We are confident that Mongolia’s power-generating and supply issue can be resolved rather easily, without resorting to construction of a hydropower station on the Selenga River. I have repeatedly discussed this issue with the Mongolian Foreign Minister, and our national leaders have also had these conversations.
Russian Minister of Energy Alexander Novak raised this issue several days ago. The Russian Energy Ministry has already drafted a specific plan that could be suggested to the Mongolian side to resolve the issue of increased power demand. Most importantly, we have provided the Mongolian side with these practical opportunities. Naturally, we will protect Lake Baikal.
Question: There is a view that countries lacking nuclear weapons are unable to conduct an independent policy. Is this viewpoint and principle observed in modern international relations?
Sergey Lavrov: You are correct that this is a point of view, rather than principle. There are several aspects of this issue to consider. There are two groups of countries with nuclear weapons. There are countries that have officially been recognised as nuclear powers. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons lists five countries as legitimate and lawful owners of nuclear weapons; these countries are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. At the same time, it is understood that all parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons shall press for the non-proliferation of nuclear technologies, and that the role of nuclear weapons will be constantly reduced in the context of common efforts to maintain global security, and that technologies for the civilian use of nuclear energy will be utilised worldwide, including the construction of nuclear power stations, the use of the energy of an atom in medicine, etc. As you know, new nuclear powers, including India and Pakistan that didn’t sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, emerged after this. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) signed this Treaty but later withdrew from it. Today, Pyongyang is saying that it has every legitimate right to develop nuclear weapons, and that it continues to do so. You know our position: We cannot accept a North Korea in possession of nuclear weapons. China and Russia have submitted a number of proposals aiming to prevent an extremely serious conflict, a crisis with a huge number of fatalities. Unfortunately, the rhetoric in Washington and Pyongyang is becoming over-heated. We hope that common sense will prevail.
Many people recall the example of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein who had signed a treaty with the UN. Acting in line with that treaty, international experts checked the whole of Iraq and turned everything upside down. All remaining components of the Iraqi nuclear programme were eliminated, and nothing else was found. Nevertheless, they overthrew Hussein, no matter what, because he as a “dictator,” as he was called, was unacceptable for our US and British colleagues. They destroyed the country to satisfy their hatred.
Libya also implemented its own nuclear programme, but the Libyans themselves renounced it. Everyone knows what happened to Muammar Gaddafi.
When we deal with certain countries, including those in the region we are discussing, they speak in undertones about the Iraqis and Libyans who had renounced nuclear weapons and about what had been done to them. You have a right to ask this question, but we, of course, will demand that possession of nuclear weapons should not become a criterion for respecting everyone in a modern world. This is not right.
Question: How hard was it for you to hold talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson? Is it different from talks with former US Secretary of State John Kerry?
Sergey Lavrov: Of course, every person is an individual. Certain specifics are manifested during conversations on everyday topics and during discussions of professional issues. People are different. As far as I can tell, both of them promote US interests the way each of them considered and considers optimal. I am ready to hold talks with any partners. Most importantly, instead of merely continuing our conversations, we need to start coming to terms, as we have with establishing the de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria. As I mentioned, a similar process continues to involve diplomats and military experts. They maintain working and pragmatic contact. This contact meets our mutual interests because the Russian Aerospace Force’s elements are deployed there, and the US-led coalition also continues to operate in the region. True, Russian forces were invited by the legitimate Syrian Government, and the US-led coalition was not invited. This is an established fact. We need such contact in the interests of combating terrorism. They are also maintained to facilitate the political process and to create favourable conditions enabling the government of Syria and the opposition to sit down at the negotiating table and start coordinating their country’s future without any outside interference.
Question: In October 2017, Russia will host the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students. Do you think new international relations will be established after this forum? If yes, what aspects are you expecting young people to be active in?
Sergey Lavrov: One cannot but count on you because you will supervise all areas in Russia quite soon. The youth policy is a highly important issue. We value our relations with the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs very much. The same is true of programmes that are becoming more and more youth-oriented, not only those of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs but also those of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Cultural Cooperation.
I am all for holding as many of these festivals as possible. I hope that I will be able to accept the current invitation to attend this highly important event in the life of Russia and the entire youth movement and other ones as well. I hope that young people will make friends with their peers who live abroad because there is no other way. We live in one and the same world which is becoming smaller and smaller, in the context of global trends and common risks and threats facing everyone.
Question: Russian President Vladimir Putin says all the time that we are Russians, and that we don’t abandon our compatriots, regardless of where they live. How do these words correlate with our silence regarding everyday shelling in Donbass? Russia is spending huge budget funds on the war in Syria. Do we consider Alawites nearer and dearer than Russian people from Donbass? Why did we recognise the results of presidential elections in Ukraine and the Crimean referendum, but not the results of the May 11, 2014 referendum on the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions? I have visited Donbass, and I heard the widespread opinion from local residents that “Russia has betrayed us, just as it betrayed Yugoslavia in the past.”
Today, Russian migration services often refuse to extend temporary residence permit for people who have fled hotbeds of tension and conflict areas and whose homes have been destroyed because, according to official reports, no war is currently taking place in Donbass, and because a ceasefire is allegedly in effect there.
Why are self-defence fighters and Donetsk activists being arrested at the request of Kiev authorities and returned to Ukraine? Why does Russia extradite self-defence fighters, and why are refugees being deported to their demolished housing? Why can’t Russian authorities provide them with Russian citizenship? We have issued Russian passports to Steven Seagal and Roy Jones, who don’t speak Russian. If we provide them with this opportunity, then we must assume responsibility for this. This should not amount to any political ambitions.
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot say anything on the part of the migration service. I know that recently adopted decisions have already entered into force, and they make it much easier to obtain Russian citizenship; this concerns Ukrainians, in the first place. This is an established fact. Amendments have been passed to the Russian Citizenship Law making it possible to obtain Russian citizenship without any official documents from Ukrainian authorities. This solves a multitude of problems.
I don’t remember any cases of deportation, exile and extradition. Perhaps I would be able to tell you something if you give a specific name.
As regards Syria, when they disintegrated Iraq, or rather when the Americans supported Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet era, this led to the creation of Al-Qaeda, which then hit back against the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly noted that it is impossible to tame terrorists. But, unfortunately, such attempts continue to take place, and our colleagues are making the same mistakes. ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, emerged after the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Al-Qaeda and ISIS emissaries operated on our territory and on the territory of our closest allies, primarily in the Caucasus and Central Asia. And after they invaded Syria and virtually unleashed a war against Bashar al-Assad using terrorist and extremist groups and providing them with weapons, advisers, and later, special forces, Jabhat al-Nusra was established. Do you really think that people who have surfaced there will also continue to live there? This is absolutely not so. Their agents are all around us and are operating inside Russia. Those trying to perpetrate terrorist attacks openly associate themselves with ISIS members. We have no right to increase the influx of this contagion and threat. Therefore I cannot say that we have forgotten about our interests in Syria, and that we are thinking about someone else’s interests there. You see, several attempts have been made to resolve the problems of this region; I have mentioned Iraq and Libya by way of example. We don’t need any more such examples. We want conflicts to be resolved with due respect for the interests of the appropriate states, no matter what, rather than under plans that have been compiled somewhere outside this region.
As regards Donbass, first of all, I cannot say that a war is taking place there. Yes, the ceasefire agreement continues to be violated there. It is the Ukrainian authorities who continue to commit these violations, in the first place. We must force the government in Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements if we want to restore peace there, so that all Donbass residents, including Russians and those associating themselves with Russian culture and the Russian language, would be safe. But Kiev does not want to do this. France and Germany, which signed the Minsk agreements, realise that Kiev does not want to do this because it fears that the radicals would overthrow President Petr Poroshenko and seize power. But the Germans and the French are still unable to change this situation. I think that the Americans, who will now become involved, realise what is happening in Kiev. It is in our interests to preserve the Minsk agreements - this unique document that actually secures the rights of the residents in Donbass. Is there any alternative? I believe that no one here wants to fight a war against Ukraine. We must force those radicals and neo-Nazis now ruling supreme in Ukraine to know their place and to submit to the will of the international community. This is much harder to accomplish than to simply bomb any specific territory. We will fail to solve this problem through air strikes and artillery attacks, but we would ultimately drive it deep inside. It is in our interests to prevent Russians from fleeing areas where they live. On the contrary, they must live a worthy life, they must be respected; those countries where they are now living must respect their culture, language, traditions, holidays and history. And I simply don’t see any other way here. Unfortunately, it is impossible to agree with you on this issue.
Question: You have already mentioned the subject of DPRK and the US. This conflict is gaining momentum. In your opinion, can it really escalate into a serious military confrontation? If so, which side will Russia take?
Sergey Lavrov: I have already mentioned this in my answer to another question. I believe that the risks are very high, especially considering this rhetoric. Direct threats to use force can be heard, and the US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said once again (the first time he said it was a couple of weeks ago) that this could result in a huge number of casualties. Nevertheless, the talk about a preventive strike on North Korea and Pyongyang’s statements on the need to strike the US military base on Guam continue. Of course, this is a matter of grave concern for Russia. I will not make any ‘what if’ guesses. We are doing all we can to prevent this. As I said, Russia and China have put forward a very reasonable plan that implies a dual freeze: DPRK leader Kim Jong-un freezes all nuclear and ballistic missile tests, while the US and South Korea suspend large-scale military exercises, since North Korea constantly uses them as a pretext for carrying out tests and making statements that it would rely on its nuclear capability to ensure its sovereignty. If this bilateral freeze is enacted, it would be possible to come to the negotiating table and start from scratch by having all participants sign a paper that would emphasise sovereignty for all participants, including North Korea. After this could conditions be put in place to achieve our common objective as approved by the UN Security Council, which is to ensure the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. This implies that DPRK gives up on its nuclear programme, and the US does not deploy its nuclear weapons in South Korea, since hints to this effect can already be heard. I raised this matter with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and before him with John Kerry, and they had the same answer. I asked why this double freeze cannot be enacted. They said that nuclear tests and missile launches by North Korea are illegal under a binding UN Security Council resolution, while no one has ever banned any military exercises. What they are doing is legal, while what DPRK is doing is not. When it comes to this I have my own personal opinion. I believe that when a fight becomes imminent, the stronger and smarter opponent should be the first to step back from the red line. Let us hope this is the way it plays out.
Question: It is a great honour for us to have you here right after your trip to Southeast Asia. This is really important for us.
As we all know, Andrei Gromyko went down in the history of diplomacy as ‘Mr No,’ while several years later Andrei Kozyrev became ‘Mr Yes.’ How would you describe yourself?
Sergey Lavrov: I will leave it up to those who observe my work. I am not getting into this.
Question: It is well known that you have a great affinity for poetry. Do any verses come to mind during talks?
Sergey Lavrov: Mostly Ivan Krylov’s fables.
Question: As you know, the Palestinians marked a so-called Day of Wrath in late July following Israel’s introduction of additional security measures at the Temple Mount. During this Day of Wrath, a Palestinian committed a brutal murder in the settlement of Halamish. Hamas leader reacted to this murder inadequately, calling the perpetrator a hero, not a criminal. What more does Khaled Mashal need to say and Hamas need to do for Russia to recognise them as a terrorist organisation?
Sergey Lavrov: Khaled Mashal is no longer the head of Hamas. It has chosen a new chairman for its Politburo (this is what Hamas calls its main executive body), Ismail Haniyeh, who lives in the Gaza Strip. This is in part a philosophical question and in part a practical one. Some countries (Western countries for the most part, and Israel, of course), consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. As far as I remember, in 2007, as elections were approaching in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, it was clear that Hamas was very, very popular. It was clear in this situation that the elections could produce a result that would not be conducive to peace talks. I hope I am not revealing any great secrets in what I am saying now. Condoleezza Rice was US secretary of state at that time, and we asked the Americans to consider ways to get the Palestinians to postpone the election indefinitely, so that we could do more to facilitate the peace process. The Americans said they would do nothing of the sort and that the elections would go ahead as democracy demanded. The elections took place, Hamas won in Gaza, and the Americans then said that they did not recognise these elections. But we warned them. They said that Hamas was a terrorist group and therefore there was a need to isolate Gaza. We had also asked the Israelis to convince the Americans to postpone the elections, but they did not listen to us.
As for what Hamas is really all about, this is a subject that we could debate at great length. But this is a fact that they are very popular among the Palestinians. I spoke with my Israeli colleagues again recently. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Defence Minister and former foreign minister, attended the annual Conference on International Security held by the Russian Defence Ministry. I know Mr Lieberman well. We discussed this matter with him and other Israeli representatives. We think, and the majority of my interlocutors in Europe and the region would probably agree, that the lack of a settlement of the Palestinian issue and the failure to establish a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel (which was promised by the UN in 1947) is probably one of the biggest factors enabling terrorists to recruit ever more supporters to their ranks from the Arab street.
I do not associate myself with those who use this argument, but no matter what our views, there are young people in Palestine, in Gaza, who live practically under blockade, and these preachers cultivate in them a spirit of hatred, telling them that the Palestinians were promised a state and were deceived, and they use this as their main argument. A more comprehensive analysis is required in this situation. Fortunately, we see some steps now towards resolving the Gaza Strip issue and uniting Hamas and Fatah, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, around the principles enshrined in the Arab Peace Initiative and in the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s platform. This platform and the Arab Peace Initiative recognise Israel’s existence. I think it is regrettable that we have been unable to make any progress on this issue for so many years.
Now, people are even starting to question the solution to the Palestinian issue that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state. This is the so-called two-state solution that the UN planned: a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine. People are starting to say that maybe there are other options that could be acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians. Probably there are. If they can reach agreement on something, wonderful, who would quarrel with this? They need to be brought back to the negotiating table. In August last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas to take part in direct talks, and got them to agree to sit down at the negotiating table without preconditions. But we are still waiting for these talks, unfortunately.
If people are going to look for solutions to the Palestinian problem other than establishing a Palestinian state, what remains? We already know the other options: Palestinian Arabs remain part of Israel and Israel takes full control of the West Bank and Gaza. Then there are two possible options: Israel gives the Arabs, Muslims living in this expanded Israel, full rights - and in this case no one knows what will happen with the democratic process and what results elections will produce in 5, 10, or 30 years; or it denies them these rights, and then they will end up living practically in apartheid, like in South Africa in the past.
I am speaking very frankly because I think it is not the right approach to ask what a group must do to be recognised as a terrorist organisation, be condemned, or have action taken against them.
I believe that diplomats should seek satisfaction not in punishing someone, but in, as one girl asked, talks that are the most exciting and emotional. In this particular case, we must think, above all, about the region’s future. We guarantee 100 per cent that no matter what the circumstances and no matter what the solution chosen (it is a question of settling an external form of the deal and of settling the future of Jerusalem), we will take into account Israel’s legitimate security concerns. Our Israeli friends know this; they are well aware of our policy overall. This is not to mention that Israel is home to more than a million of our compatriots, who have full rights as citizens and hold some senior positions in the country. In our efforts to work for security in the region, including Israel’s security, we cannot ignore the fact that so long as the Palestinian issue remains unsettled, it undermines this security. Those who speculate on this unresolved issue and seek to pursue their own dirty work have here an excellent tool for beguiling and brainwashing young people and drawing them into the terrorist network.
Question: What skills, in your view, will the younger generation have 50 years from now? You travel a lot, you visit different countries and attend conferences. How do you manage all this? What is your secret?
Sergey Lavrov: The secret, I think, is simple. I owe this to my mother and father.
As to what skills the younger generation will have 50 years from now, ask yourself the same question when you are as old as I am now. It is very difficult to predict anything and not because certain basic things are unknown today. It is clear that this generation should be knowledgeable, advanced, better than us, cleverer than us, I hope, more capable of making agreements than we see in the world of today, and less egoistic than some of our partners today. But what specific skills is it necessary to have? We cannot keep up with technologies. A month can be of decisive importance, so who knows what it’s going to be like 50 years from now? Perhaps we will live on Mars, at least half of those willing to do so.
Is there anyone from MGIMO University here?
Sergey Lavrov: I was afraid there was no one.
Question: I am a journalist from Sterlitamak. I have a very relevant question. Should we expect foreign interference in the 2018 presidential elections? What will Russia’s response be to this? Will some retaliatory measures be taken?
Sergey Lavrov: Give my regards to Sterlitamak. I was on holiday there several times, on the Belaya River, when I was young. President Vladimir Putin repeatedly said in his interviews, during the Direct Line , and later in his addresses and talks with his foreign counterparts that we saw how the US Embassy and the US consulates-general operated in Russia. They [US diplomats] personally attend opposition rallies, they invite people and discuss something with them. Our diplomats in the United States and other countries do not permit themselves anything even closely resembling this [behaviour].
One example is the so-called Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Everyone knows that CIA officers were at work in the Ukrainian Security Service headquarters during the revolution and a year before it. It is not concealed. The US ambassador to Ukraine summoned the opposition leaders to the Embassy and they conferred there.
On February 20, 2014, an agreement was signed at last between Viktor Yanukovych and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vladimir Klichko and Oleg Tyagnybok, that is, the main opposition leaders. The next morning, when the agreement was broken off, we contacted the Germans and the French (they witnessed the agreement and put their signatures to it) and said that they should be responsible for restoring the agreement. After all, they were asked to authenticate it 24 hours before, but one of the parties later broke it off. They refused because Viktor Yanukovych was no longer in Kiev. A strong argument, of course! But he was in Kharkov attending a congress of his party. If a president cannot make it (regardless of one’s attitude to him), this does not mean that he should be declared deposed. Item one of the agreement said that a government of national unity should be created. But when a coup was carried out, Arseniy Yatsenyuk went to Independence Square and congratulated all those people on Maidan Square on the establishment of a government of winners. National unity and a winner are two different things. This means there is a loser.
There is yet another interesting fact (when you present it to Western colleagues, they become flustered). A coup happened in Yemen at about the same time. Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi bolted all right, and not to Kharkov but to Saudi Arabia, where he lives to this day. For the entire international community, he is the Yemeni president, and they are urging his return to settle all the issues that arise after a coup. This is our Western partners’ position. Here are double standards for you: Yanukovych went to Kharkov and he is no longer president; President Hadi left for Saudi Arabia three years ago, but he should return to head the government and rule the country. We are looking for ways to facilitate the settlement of the Yemeni crisis as well, but all these double standards and the constant desire to somehow deceive someone somewhere are not of great help in this matter.
Back to your question about interference in elections: I do not know the US Embassy’s plans, but there were many cases where US diplomats were noticed committing unlawful acts. Of course, our relevant services should take appropriate measures. For example, very many Russian citizens are employed by the US Embassy as local personnel. Under the Vienna Convention, if you hire personnel in a country where you have an embassy, this can only be technical personnel – a driver, typists, stenographers, etc. – and they have no right to engage in diplomatic work, including, naturally, its political aspects. But there are frequent cases, which we have recorded, of local employees of the US Embassy travelling to various regions, conducting polls, and asking about people’s attitudes to this or that governor or the federal centre in general. Under these circumstances, we only politely ask our US colleagues to dismiss these people.
I think this is part of the US tradition, and they may not regard this as interference because, first, for them anything goes, and, second, this runs in their blood. Anywhere, in any country, be it Eastern or Central Europe, there are a lot of facts showing that the local US embassy is literally in charge of processes, including actions by the opposition.
I hope that after all these evidence-free accusations against us (because not a single hard fact has been presented for the 9 or 10 months that Washington has been harping on our interference in the US elections), the acuteness of this topic itself will make the US establishment, as they say, put on their thinking cap. If this happens here, we have our laws and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which says in very concrete terms what diplomatic representatives can or cannot do. We will be guided by the Convention and our laws.
Question: How long will the sanctions war with the US continue? Are there currently any ways for the Russian Federation to resolve this situation?
Sergey Lavrov: It is hard for me to tell you how long the current situation will last. Everything seems to suggest that it will not end tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. You are probably aware of the mood in Washington, in Congress. They are serious and steadfast in their attitude. Every year, the US Department of the Treasury must report to US Congress on who is doing what in Russia. Of course, this is an outrageous law, there is no doubt about this. For us, the conclusion is very simple, taking into consideration that our US colleagues and the Europeans that are following suit adopted a policy of punishing Russia for showing concern for Ukraine and its Russian population. We have to draw a conclusion. The decision to impose punitive and demonstrative sanctions is underpinned by irrational thinking. We must proceed from the premise that we should rely on ourselves without hoping for any grace from those who currently deny it to us.
By the way, talking about punitive policies, this idea can be seen even in the title of the act, which talks about “countering the aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea.” They put everything in one single basket in order to restrict the administration’s margins of manoeuvring, since the president always said that he wanted to impose harsher sanctions on Iran. Unlike the US, Russia never conceives its foreign policy initiatives to the detriment of any of its partners. The same cannot be said of those called by a poet the “slanderers of Russia.” This is the difference.
You have been probably following the news. A lot is being done in this area. Take, for example, import substitution. No matter how you criticise this initiative, and no matter what the challenges are, it remains a large-scale effort that is yielding results. We have achieved progress in engine design. Russia no longer depends on Ukraine, since it stopped working with us to its own detriment. This year, Russia is set to become the world’s top crop exporter with 25 million tonnes, ahead of the US, Canada and Australia.
Question: What do you feel when you realise that a meeting with a foreign official can affect the future of Russia, as well as other countries? What principles are you guided by at these meetings?
Sergey Lavrov: The future of our state depends on our people and the state. When I am talking to a foreign leader, I do not have this feeling that the future of a country depends on this particular meeting. I have never even thought about it this way. What is at stake at a specific meeting is the topic on its agenda: a treaty or coordination of an intergovernmental agreement.
Of course, there are momentous meetings, but they are held at the top level, since it is the head of state who is in charge of foreign policy and takes concrete steps in international affairs. There were quite a few decisions of this kind, primarily to strengthen frameworks like the SCO, to establish the EAEU and form BRICS. This is something that affects Russia’s possibilities and expands them. The EAEU, the SCO and BRICS summits have attracted great attention for a reason. It really reflects the trend toward a polycentric world order that I already mentioned in the beginning.
Question: What is your personal opinion about the situation with Alexey Navalny?
Sergey Lavrov: What situation are you talking about?
Question: All these rallies…
Sergey Lavrov: This is not related to foreign policy. I believe that we are all citizens of the Russian Federation, and we have laws that should be respected.
Question: What advice would you give to beginner public servants, what professional skills should they develop, while working for the benefit of our Motherland that we are proud of and which we love very much?
Sergey Lavrov: This depends on the state agencies where you would like to work.
You should acquire more knowledge, develop your analytical thinking ability and be able to communicate because any work, especially that at state agencies, requires communication skills and a respectful attitude to any partner to a greater extent than any other place of work. These qualities are quite similar to those needed by diplomats. Therefore, if you prefer a state agency similar to the Foreign Ministry, then I don’t see why not.
Question: Are there any chances that we will witness another “colour revolution” in the near future? What preventive measures, if any, does the Russian Federation implement?
Sergey Lavrov: Where could we see it?
Question: In post-Soviet countries.
Sergey Lavrov: I hope not because not a single “colour revolution” has made life better. This does not apply to post-Soviet countries alone, and this concerns other parts of the world where they are trying to change governments and to support the opposition from the outside. I believe that the experience of the past 15 years shows that nations which are becoming, if you will excuse me, guinea pigs in these plans are beginning to realise this. But these plans are not being renounced. As I have already said, US embassies are trying to actively influence the situation in every country, and they are trying to influence the opposition, first and foremost. The Americans have the following philosophy: Even if they perceive a specific government as legitimate and even if they don’t have any special claims towards it, they want it to remain tense by showing that they are also working with the opposition. By the way, this is what the “controlled chaos” theory basically looks like. Wider perturbations would make it more convenient for them to look at this “broth” and to add various spices to it, as they see fit.
Question: According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), the people of Russia consider such countries as Belarus, China, Kazakhstan and Japan to be their allies. At the same time, Russia and Japan disagree on the issue of the Kuril Islands. There are also disagreements with China, which deploys its missiles on the border with Russia. For its part, Belarus does not recognise Crimea as part of Russia. So, does Russia have any powerful economic and political allies at this stage?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, any country has every right to deploy weapons on its own territory. We have no information that China is deploying its weapons against the Russian Federation. We maintain extremely close ties with the People’s Republic of China, including military ties. We hold numerous joint exercises and drills; therefore I would not list this argument as an indicator of something different.
I have already discussed the actions of our allies. You see, our national culture has no “rod of discipline” concept, nor does it strive to establish such discipline. We have experienced such historical periods in the past, and we know about them. If we compare the attitude of our allies to certain Russian steps with the attitude of America’s allies towards Washington’s actions, then we can see that they usually mention the allegedly united and monolithic NATO alliance by way of contrast. But I know how this monolithic essence is achieved. I have already talked about how the European Union charts its positions regarding relations with Russia on the basis of the aggressive Russophobic minority’s approaches. They also have a similar falsely understood solidarity, and many countries are becoming sick and tired of this solidarity. We will not force our neighbours and our partners to toe the line. But, of course, we notice steps which, in our opinion, do not duly heed our interests. Certainly, we take them into consideration, and we will consider them in our future work.
On the whole, I would like to once again underscore that we strive to find common ground with our partners in all our actions. This concerns the CIS, the East, the South, Europe, the United States, Latin America, Africa and everywhere else. We always strive to search for common approaches and to understand their positions. We try to understand various motives for their actions that might not fully agree with the actions of the Russian Federation. We never do anything to deliberately play dirty tricks on any of our partners or to damage their positions. This is in contrast with the actions of some Western states, as regards the Russian Federation.
As of late, we can hear more and more reasonable statements from those who understand the abnormal nature of the current situation when such absolutely natural partners as Russia and the European Union are going through a rough patch simply because someone has declared at a certain stage that, in the current situation (in connection with the Ukrainian crisis), politics must prevail over economics. This was proclaimed in response to the European businesses’ apprehensions that the foundation of strategic partnership should not be demolished. Many now realise that this was, doubtless, a mistake. Hardly anyone would have the guts to admit this, but it is an established fact that, in reality, they very much want to normalise the situation, while realising that this would take a lot of time.
I hope very much that you will think about how to bring nations and countries together, how to help them work together because there are too many threats facing all countries without exception.
Thank you very much, and I wish you every success.