December 17, 2018
(SERGEI LAVROV is one of the most respected Foreign Ministers, having been by Vladimir Putin's side since 2004, previously Russia's UN ambassador from 1994 to 2004. He is known for his perfect courtesy, joined to an open, no-nonesense approach to diplomacy and a dry sense of humor.
Question: Mr Lavrov, we met with you in the same format one and a half year ago.
We began by stating that the foreign policy situation surrounding Russia at the time was growing alarming. But you assured us that there would be no war because the Russian leaders were absolutely against it. Our partners, as you said, were certainly not interested in it either. Now, one and a half year later, we can see no improvements. On the contrary, things are growing increasingly alarming. Some of our listeners even feel scared. Others compare the current situation with the late 1930s. One of the readers even asks: “Please be honest and say what we should expect? Will we be attacked?”
Sergey Lavrov: There are comparisons that go farther back into history. Both in this country and elsewhere, there are figures who predict that a situation will arise resembling that on the eve of World War I. They are referring to the pent-up antagonisms existing in Europe, including, by the way, in the Balkans. But it is my strong, firm conviction that the politicians in the key countries cannot allow a big war to happen. The public opinion and the nations themselves will not let them. I hope that the parliaments in each Western country will also display maximal responsibility.
But I absolutely agree that tensions are being fomented in an unprecedented way. We see international agreements collapsing. Not so long ago, the United States unilaterally disrupted the ABM Treaty. We had to adopt measures that would prevent this extremely negative event from undermining strategic stability. Next in line is the INF Treaty, which Washington believes to be outmoded, while accusing us of violating it. In so doing, they are hinting in no uncertain terms that they would like to extend the restriction identical to that assumed by the USSR and the United States to China and a number of other countries, including North Korea and Iran.
We are categorically against this initiative. We are in favour of keeping the INF Treaty. The entire international community has repeatedly recognised it as a cornerstone of international security and strategic stability. Today at the UN, we will make a second attempt to submit a General Assembly resolution in support of preserving this Treaty.
Apart from that, we have presented the US with our concerns regarding how it implements this Treaty. These concerns are based on concrete facts and developments in the military technical sphere, specifically the deployment of a US military base in Romania and deployment plans for Poland. We hear statements by our US colleagues that the only way to save the Treaty is to destroy the 9M729 missile, which Russia has allegedly developed with a range exceeding the limit imposed by the Treaty. In response, Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu, following similar steps at the expert level, has officially suggested that he and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis meet and start a professional discussion. The US did not even reply or at least formally acknowledge the receipt of the invitation. Possibly, if they had done this, they would have had to explain why they are evading a professional discussion and continue to act in the notorious “highly likely” style, as though wishing to say that what remains for us is to repent because we are allegedly to blame for everything.
While we are on this subject, I would like to say this. I have no doubt that US President Donald Trump was sincere when he said during his election campaign that he wanted good relations with the Russian Federation. Regrettably, the consequences of Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton have caused a tsunami in US domestic political life, primarily because the so-called system elites have felt uncomfortable. They saw the current developments as something that was putting power within reach of ordinary voters. Since then, no one has ever corroborated with facts the repeated charges of Russian meddling in the US elections, hacker attacks on the Democratic Party and other US agencies, etc.
Let me note that this Russophobia, as we are convinced, is to a decisive degree linked to the internal political infighting [in the US]. The United States, no matter who would advocate good relations with Russia, sees us as a rival as it does China. It is not accidental that for the lack of facts proving our “sins” against US democracy, the Russophobic campaign has brought no results whatsoever.
In recent days, the US propagandists have pitched in at China. In their view, China is already the “chief hacker” undermining the mainstay of US society. It is regrettable that the interests of the international community, global strategic stability and international security are being sacrificed for the sake of domestic political squabbles. But we will always be ready for dialogue. Even under these circumstances, we never refuse to take part in a professional discussion in areas where our partners are prepared to consider the existing threats and problems in an equal and honest manner.
After a long break, yet another round of talks on fighting terrorism has been held. Our security services are in contact on a number of other issues, including Syrian settlement, the North Korean nuclear problem and Afghanistan. We maintain regular enough contacts, even though we are not always on the same page.
Question: They write, with such friends, who needs enemies?
Sergey Lavrov: We have this proverb in Russian.
Question: When we mentioned the growing tension in the world, we actually meant Ukraine. The Kerch Strait incident is going too far. We also had in mind Donbass, where almost every day they are expecting an attack. Why do we compare poorly to Ukraine, according to the opinion of the world community?
Ukraine has assumed a clear ideological position: Russia confronts us, so we fight Russia, defending ourselves, and so on. We – Russia – are declared the enemy. Soon our church, our priests may become great martyrs, because we do not know what will happen to them. Some get imprisoned, and criminal cases are brought against them. Then, there might be a religious war, we have already gone this far. With the situation so aggravated, we still hold a sluggish, relaxed position, when Ukraine has openly declared us an enemy, and introduced martial law. Why don’t we declare Ukraine a Nazi regime? We have a lot of evidence: the new law on the Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army recognising Hitler’s rabble as heroes. This has already been proven. Why do we not explicitly declare that Nazism is a rabid dog one doesn’t talk to, but shoots? This would give us a moral trump card in the global community. This would not be a conflict with Ukraine, which has declared us an enemy and has already declared martial law, but a fight against the Nazi regime. The Ukrainian people are not our enemy. The enemy is the Nazi regime. Why not declare it directly?
We are putting our diplomats who remain there at risk (our readers write about this). Why not withdraw the Embassy from that country?
Many people ask us when Russia will recognise the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics.
Sergey Lavrov: We are not at war with the Ukrainian regime, which has all the features of the Nazi and neo-Nazi. The Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine who live in Donbass are fighting it.
Question: Then maybe we should break off the relations with them? How can we have a relationship with the Nazi regime?
Sergey Lavrov: We have relations with the Ukrainian state. The Ukrainian state is much more important for us than the regime that came to power thanks to the West betraying all norms of international law and international behaviour.
The Ukrainian people have nothing to do with it. The overwhelming majority, I am sure, wants peace in the country, wants to get rid of this shameful regime and return to normal relations with the Russian Federation. For that, the internal problems of Ukraine will have to be resolved, of course. They are much wider, and much deeper than just the DPR and the LPR. As a reminder, it all happened because the West has committed criminal connivance, I should say. Back in February 2014, the European Union, through the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland, and France, guaranteed an agreement between Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. The next morning, the opposition destroyed that agreement. Neither France, nor Germany, nor Poland, nor the United States, which did not sign the document, but actively supported it, lifted a finger. They did not even apologise to those who had hoped that the agreement would lead to a peaceful settlement.
Three days later, Dmitry Yarosh who led all the military operations on the Maidan, publicly stated (it was his official statement and is still available) that “Russians should not be in Crimea, because they will never glorify Stepan Bandera or Roman Shukhevych and will never think in Ukrainian.” Therefore, he said, Russians in Crimea “must either be destroyed or expelled.” After that, unrest began among the Crimean people. When Yarosh later tried to organise an attack on the Supreme Council, it erupted in a protest, which led to a referendum and eventually to the decision to return Crimea to the Russian Federation.
Now we are obliged to fulfill the Minsk Agreements.
Question: They collapsed long ago. You spoke about this 18 months ago. Nobody remembers that now, except Donbass.
If you come to the village of Zaitsevo, where every household has buried someone, and if you mention the Minsk Agreements, I don’t know what they will do to you. They honour them, and the fact that they are being killed on a daily basis – is that Minsk Agreements as well?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that there is no alternative to the Minsk Agreements, and I also said that back in 2016. The UN Charter has also been violated many times, and it has also malfunctioned on many occasions. But we must not give in to panic. Are you suggesting that we recognise the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics?
Question: Yes, of course.
Sergey Lavrov: And then what?
Question: After that, we would defend our territory, recognised by us, and we would help our fraternal peoples.
Sergey Lavrov: Do you want to lose the rest of Ukraine? Do you want to leave it at the mercy of the Nazis?
Question: As I see it, we should go to war against the Nazi regime because they declared martial law against us, they have called us enemies, and they attack our ships.
Sergey Lavrov: We will not go to war against Ukraine, I can promise you that.
Question: What should be done about the church?
Sergey Lavrov: You suggest recognising the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and declaring war (I don’t know how you imagine that Russia would attack Ukraine). That would just amount to a nervous breakdown and weakness. If we want to preserve Ukraine as a normal, adequate and neutral country, we must ensure that people living in Ukraine have a comfortable life. I disagree with your position if you want the rest of Ukraine to celebrate the creation of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, as well as the birthdays of Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera, rather than May 9, as their national holidays. The Minsk Agreements formalise the principle of Ukraine’s decentralisation and the use of the Russian language where Russian-speaking people want to speak it. Today, this regime is moving to wreck its own constitution, which guarantees the rights of the Russian language, as well as its international obligations; but this does not mean that we must abandon all Ukrainians who are governed by this regime to their own devices.
Question: Why don’t we officially recognise it as a Nazi regime, and why don’t we say that we will not have any dealings with it because it is impossible to have dealings with Hitler?
Sergey Lavrov: This is an appealing position. Somewhere in the village of Zaitsevo people will probably rejoice for a week if we now sever all relations with this regime. And what will happen next? After that, you will need to explain why progressive and civilised humankind lost Ukraine.
We want to keep it. Today, we have the right under international law to demand this from Ukraine and, most importantly, from the West, which now controls Ukraine.
Question: What do you think of the OSCE’s work in that region? Its representatives are coming here while in fact working against us, spying against the Donbass defenders and communicating their information to Kiev. After the OSCE visits a town or a village, they become subject to strikes. It is a known fact. The OSCE is never on our side.
Sergey Lavrov: First of all, it is not true that the OSCE brings shells to their targets. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) is indeed under very serious pressure – mainly from pro-Western Ukrainians; but the mission is also susceptible to our influence and is gradually making steps in the right direction, although it takes a while to be pushed first. I will give you an example. We have been asking the SMM to stop writing such things in their reports as “this week, so many strikes took place, so many civilian facilities were destroyed, there were so many civilian casualties”, but to specify from which side of the contact line [the strikes came], which victims and what kind of destruction. A year ago, with great difficulty, we managed to get the OSCE to write its first report on this matter which said that the eastern side of the contact line – where the self-defence forces are living and defending themselves – account for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties and destruction in the civilian sector.
Ukraine tried hard to stop this report, to stop it from being published. But it failed. The OSCE eventually did what it was supposed to do and the required statistics became publicly available.
We have one more concern regarding our Western partners (who, I believe, discredited themselves in this Ukrainian story starting in February 2014, when they failed to compel the opposition to fulfil the agreement with the government). This, in fact, has to do with the media. You, for example, go to Donbass. Our television crews are working at the contact line 24/7 to show the frontline from the perspective of the self-defence forces. When our Western partners claim that the self-defence forces are to blame for all the clashes and attacks, that they provoke them, we show them our journalists’ work, which is always available on air and is broadcast repeatedly on the news. We ask them: if they are so sure that the Ukrainian government is acting in the right way and they want to show the truth to international audiences, then why are there no Western journalists working on the western side of the contact line the same hours as our journalists? There were a couple of cases when, I think, BBC reporters travelled there for a few days and, by the way, filmed a rather objective report (perhaps this is why this practice was stopped).
They can’t wait for us to break off the relationship with Ukraine and withdraw from the Minsk Agreements. Just like after the coup of February 21, 2014, they will wash their hands of them and say, “so it died” – meaning they are not bound by anything. It will be a huge mistake.
Question: If President of Ukraine Petr Poroshenko now sends troops to Donbass or warships to break through the Kerch Strait, what will we do?
Sergey Lavrov: I am sure that there will be provocations. The day before yesterday we heard Petr Poroshenko speak at a show called Unification Council for Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Actually, he has never stuck to the diplomatic language before, but this time he crossed all lines imaginable and unimaginable. I have never heard such rudeness from a leader who considers himself a politician. He seemed to actually lose control a few times. Apparently, something is happening to him. But this is not my problem.
Commenting on the martial law he wanted to introduce for 60 days, then 30, first across the country, then only in Russian-speaking areas, where he has a very low popularity rating (it is low enough everywhere, but there he is not popular at all, and does not even enjoy minimum understanding), Poroshenko said they would not extend martial law unless there are armed provocations along the contact line in Donbass or, as he put it, “on the administrative border” with Crimea.
The 30-day martial law expires on December 25. We have information (official Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has mentioned this more than once) that Ukraine has concentrated around 12,000 troops and a large amount of equipment on the contact line. American, British and, apparently, other instructors are actively helping them. An American drone regularly patrols the area. We have reported this. According to additional information that we tend to believe, in the last ten days of December, President Poroshenko is planning an armed provocation on the border with the Russian Federation – Crimea.
He will get a response. He won’t find it funny, I can assure you.
This is our country, our border, and we will not allow him to try in any way to defend “his interests” as he sees them and violate those rights that the Crimeans have defended in full accordance with international law. Moreover, according to our information, he is discussing this provocation on the border with Crimea with his Western curators and “trustees.”
According to our data, which seem credible, he is advised to maintain low-intensity hostilities to support the ongoing outcry in the propaganda space about “Russians attacking Ukraine” and “Russians need to be further sanctioned,” but in no case should military operations be allowed to reach a phase to elicit a full-blown response. Nasty, petty provocation. Our respective services take all necessary measures to prevent such excesses from happening.
Question: I would like to talk about Russian-US relations again. Mr Poroshenko is behaving boorishly, but I think he is emulating US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who made unacceptable comments about the Russian Government after our bombers arrived in Venezuela, telling us how we must spend public funds.
As for President Donald Trump, he doesn’t seem to know his own mind. You said he was really willing to meet with President Vladimir Putin. He said when boarding the plane for the G20 summit that he was looking forward to a face-to-face with President Putin. But when he disembarked in Argentina several hours later, he said he had called off the meeting. He did an about-face, as the saying goes. Maybe they really don’t want to conduct a constructive dialogue with us?
Sergey Lavrov: They are extremely pragmatic people. They want to talk when this can benefit them, especially now that the business mentality is taking a hold in US foreign policy.
This is a very short-sighted position, because it can help you get something today but will undermine your long-term positions and harm your strategic interests. The Americans live in two-year cycles. Every two years they need to show everyone that they are tough guys who can do what others can’t, and that everyone else is soft.
Look at the unilateral sanctions that have been imposed not only on Russia or China but also on some of the US allies. The United States continues to threaten others with sanctions and imposes new sanctions simply for violating a US law that prohibits trade with Iran. There are no such laws in France or Germany. But when their companies engage in business that is perfectly legal from the viewpoint of their own legislation or international law, they are forced to pay billions of dollars in a deal that would allow them to work in the United States. This is racketeering.
There are also sanctions that concern settlements in US dollars. In the near future before the next elections, these sanctions may benefit US companies, weaken their rivals and increase employment in the United States, but in the long run they will undermine trust in the dollar. This will harm the fundamental interests of the US because many countries are thinking of reducing their dependence on the dollar.
Question: Do the Americans see this danger?
Sergey Lavrov: Analysts possibly do. But politicians think in the moment, they want to win the election, and they don’t care what happens afterwards.
As for Mr Pompeo, it’s a long time since we met. I think he is no longer involved with US policy towards Russia. But both of us understand that we need to meet and to talk.
As of now, US foreign policy has been clearly delegated to John Bolton. He has come to Russia several times. He has met with President Putin and his counterpart, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. I have held rather lengthy talks with Mr Bolton. There is a kind of dialogue.
We have not met for a long time at the level of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US Department of State. The last time was in New York in September, when the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council held a traditional meeting. But it was not a bilateral meeting. Our deputies and department directors hold meetings, although the Americans often pull stunts and cancel meetings with barely a day’s notice. But as I said, we don’t hold on to grudges.
Sergey Lavrov: Because a grudge is a heavy burden to carry.
Question: Well, a grudge is, indeed, a heavy burden to carry. For example, what is Russia doing in the Council of Europe, where it has no right to vote? Why does such a sovereign state as Russia submit to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg? Why don’t we withdraw completely from such organisations, where we don’t play any role at all? We can use this money to build schools. What are we doing there? And how much do we pay to the European Court of Human Rights?
Sergey Lavrov: We don’t pay anything to the European Court of Human Rights. We pay for its decisions. Do you know what percentage of our payments to the ECHR has to do with Russian courts’ decisions on payments to our citizens that the Russian Treasury violates and withholds the payments?
Question: In that case we must get back to our own problems. Why are we running to foreigners for help?
Sergey Lavrov: As you probably know, we are now facing a situation that we are actively discussing: the future of Russia’s Council of Europe membership is in question. There is no doubt that our decision to join this organisation was sincere and met the country’s interests. You should discuss this matter with judges, representatives of the Supreme and Constitutional courts and the Ministry of Justice. A huge set of laws that make life easier for Russian citizens and protect their life and rights was passed during our cooperation with the Council of Europe and as a result of our perception of the practices that could be applied to Russian legislation. Russian citizens are forced to apply to the European Court of Human Rights after a Russian court has ruled that the state must pay them. If the state has failed to pay a citizen in compliance with a Russian court’s ruling, do you think that therefore he or she does not deserve this payment?
Question: Of course, they deserve them. But instead of taking the case to a foreign court, we need to sort things out at home. What is your opinion of this?
Sergey Lavrov: In some cases, we were unable to rectify the situation without the ECHR. I will tell you more: Russia is now by no means the main client of the European Court of Human Rights.
We make an overwhelming majority of payments under Russian courts’ decisions. Please keep that in mind.
Question: Are we going to leave the Council of Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: To show that we don’t care?
Question: If they don’t take us seriously, yes, we should show them that we don’t care.
Sergey Lavrov: No, we shouldn’t do that. Instead we should have a sense of dignity.
Speaking of the Council of Europe, we have no right to vote only at the Parliamentary Assembly, which would be an unimportant body if it weren’t for its function to elect judges, the Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.
No one has deprived us of any rights at the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which is a regulatory, rather than consultative, body.
Today, we are trying to convince the Council of Europe that this situation cannot last indefinitely, and that, under the Council of Europe Statute, all member countries have equal rights at all its bodies. The incumbent Secretary General’s legal findings state that the PACE decision runs counter to the Council of Europe Statute and should therefore be modified.
We have repeatedly explained to our colleagues that there can be no halfway decisions here. They tried to assuage our concerns by proposing to reinstate our right to elect officials, including judges, the Secretary General and the Commissioner for Human Rights, but to withhold all other rights for the time being. We emphatically rejected this offer.
The moment of truth will come in June, when the new Council of Europe Secretary General will be elected. If we don’t take part in this election, it would send a message that the Council of Europe is losing its importance for us as an organisation that does not respect the principle of equality.
Question: You mentioned dignity. As I see it, our dignity is being trampled in various situations.
Poland has destroyed many monuments to Soviet soldiers. Actually, 600,000 of our boys were killed there. Why doesn’t Russia give an appropriate response in line with diplomatic traditions?
Do you want to hit our monuments? In that case, we will send bulldozers to Katyn, and we will demolish your monuments if you touch ours.
Sergey Lavrov: Are you serious?
Question: Absolutely. Why can they wreck our monuments?
Sergey Lavrov: I wish you were not serious. I was hoping this is a joke.
Question: Unfortunately, my colleague is voicing a common opinion that is expressed by our audiences. What can you say on this score?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe this position has nothing to do with Orthodox Christianity or Christianity in general.
Question: Are they acting like Christians?
Sergey Lavrov: Of course, not.
Question: So, where is our symmetrical diplomatic response? You do something nasty to us, and we will reciprocate. Where is our dignity?
Sergey Lavrov: Our dignity tells us that we must be above all this, and that we must never descend to the level of these neo-Nazis.
Question: We are always above that. We were above it in the Skripal case too.
But what about the Skripals? Where is our consul? Where is Yulia Skripal? Local lawyers ask me why our consuls are not suing to see Yulia Skripal – dead or alive. After all, she is a Russian citizen. The West operates only through courts. The state should sue and demand access to Yulia Skripal. All conventions are on our side. Why are we being so sluggish?
Why don’t we sue, when British Prime Minister Theresa May accuses our President of having committed murder? We could hire Swiss lawyers and sue. Could it be that there are things we don’t know and an action of this sort is being pursued?
Sergey Lavrov: If you followed our Ministry’s reports, including the information delivered by the ministry spokesperson at her briefings, you would have a somewhat different picture of what is happening.
We have been acting in full conformity with international law, because English law is of no help in this case. There is the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which makes it mandatory for the British government to grant us access to a Russian citizen. Sergey Skripal is an arguable case because he has dual citizenship, but Yulia Skripal is only a Russian citizen.
Question: But we can apply to the British court, can’t we? Lawyers in the UK explained this to me. And Swiss layers also said we could apply to the British court for the Russian citizen to be delivered to us or at least in order to arrange her meeting with a Russian consul.
Sergey Lavrov: No court will help us. There is an international obligation, the Vienna Convention, which is absolutely irrevocable. And we will demand that it is obeyed.
Question: What stage are the talks at now?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not yet through with the courts. Let me remind you how we tried to deal with the Litvinenko case, when [Litvinenko] was also allegedly poisoned.
The court did not want to prove anything. The court just made the investigation secret and conducted it in a format that banned the demonstration of security service documents.
In this instance, when we demanded information on the Skripals that was linked, among other things, to the British exploiting the Skripal theme at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we got an official reply to the effect that this issue was related to British security. For this reason, it is not subject to any disclosure or London’s meaningful reply.
Question: But international law has precedence over their law, hasn’t it? Does the Vienna Convention have precedence?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes it does.
Question: Can’t we achieve anything through the courts?
Sergey Lavrov: We will continue to press for a meeting with our citizen.
Question: But isn’t it their minister who said that Russia should “shut up and go away?”
Sergey Lavrov: He (the UK Defence Secretary. – Ed.) is a man whose oversized amour propre is superimposed upon an inferiority complex. I saw his colleague too, and it is very sad that the UK assigns foreign ministers of this sort to handle foreign policy.
He contacted me when five ministers of foreign affairs of the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council were meeting in New York. The five of us were just sitting around a table. After that he went out and started saying that he had challenged me on 12 counts and accused me of everything.
Question: What did you say to him in response?
Sergey Lavrov: I didn’t say anything: you can’t talk with people like that.
As for the Skripal case, I can assure you that we will not drop this issue. I am absolutely convinced that we must demand answers, just like with the Malaysian Boeing. And the longer our partners delay with a response, the more out of line they will look.
Question: But we have been sued by the relatives of those who have died in the Boeing crash.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, they have sued us. There is one thing we need to understand. They say that we have done it to the Skripals and that we must say whether it was done on orders from President Putin or whether he had lost control over the secret services which did this without his consent. Nobody else had a clear reason [to poison the Skripals], so it is highly likely that Russia is responsible, they say.
This is baby talk, not a serious investigation.
We put concrete questions to them: Where is Yulia Skripal? Why has her cousin been denied a visa which we requested officially many times? Unfortunately, you can’t sue for a visa.
We ask similar questions about the Malaysian Boeing. Why haven’t they included in their investigation the material that has been provided by Almaz-Antey, the producer of the Buk systems? Why haven’t the Ukrainians provided their radar data, unlike Russia, or the transcript of what their air controllers said? Why haven’t the Americans provided their satellite information? No answer. But we will continue to ask these questions and we will keep reminding everyone that a day will come when these shameful intrigues will end.
Question: Maybe we should not remind but demand? There are already jokes about your recommendations on social media. Can I tell one of them?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, certainly. I have read many things about myself.
Question: Sergey Lavrov enters a room for talks with Mike Pompeo, opens his briefcase and takes out a jar of fat chance, a dead donkey’s ears and a heap of fig leaves. He lights a cigarette and politely says “Hello” to Mike Pompeo.
Maybe this is how we should talk with them, not “express concern” or “draw their attention” to problems?
Sergey Lavrov: The meeting I had in this joke was not with Pompeo but with Taro Kono.
Really, do you want us to use four-letter words in international discourse, so that we will all be in the same league? No, I think that if Jupiter is angry, it means he is wrong.
I have read your reports from hot spots, and I respect you for what you are doing. We have criticised our Western colleagues for not sending their journalists to Donbass to report the truth. There are few Western journalists in Syria as well. When somebody wants to drive you mad and you resort to foul language in response, I would caution against this, even if we are not full of grace ourselves. We must not exceed the bounds of decency even if we ourselves set the boundaries.
Question: Is it true that the Foreign Ministry cellars are stocked with coffers of your great patience?
Sergey Lavrov: We have no cellars.
Question: I have worked in Armenia and Georgia. The situation there is dramatic.
I am shocked that we have let go of the situation in Georgia. The Americans are building a deep-water port in Anaklia, a stone’s throw from Sochi. Initially, they planned to deploy their nuclear submarines there, which would be extremely dangerous for us. A NATO base is under construction near Tbilisi. They have signed an official declaration to this effect. And there are three bio laboratories in Georgia.
The Americans are training nine motorised battalions. When I asked who these battalions would be used against, the answer was, “Against our enemies, against Russia.”
President Elect Salome Zurabishvili said at her inauguration that she would do her utmost to fight the Russian occupation.
The situation is very serious, considering that the Americans have failed to build a naval base in Crimea. But now they will build it on our doorstep, on Abkhazia’s border with Georgia. Yet we remain silent.
The Georgians who are on our side – 40 per cent of people in Georgia are for rapprochement and 80 per cent for dialogue with Russia – say that we are feeding them.
Their shops are stocked with Russian goods. There were 1.6 million [Russian] tourists.
Sergey Lavrov: I know this.
Question: They ask why we keep silent, why we don’t say to them that either they shut down the bases, which are a direct threat to our security, or we close the border to their goods.
Sergey Lavrov: Where did you find these highway advisers?
Question: Why do we sell Georgian wines? They are making money through us, and at the same time they are fighting against our “occupation.”
Sergey Lavrov: You surely know that Ukrainians earn millions of roubles in Russia.
Question: We must respond to this. Why do we remain the whipping boys?
Sergey Lavrov: We don’t say that we know all the answers. How can we respond? Close the border? Sever all ties?
Question: The Georgians themselves have proposed closing the border and suspending trade and money transfers until the construction of a base on Russia’s doorstep is stopped. They complain that we don’t have a policy towards Georgia, that we are glad that Mikheil Saakashvili is no longer in Georgia. But we forget that there are very many other anti-Russia forces working there.
Sergey Lavrov: Just imagine how it would be if we severed the relations which we have been developing in recent years.
First we launched chartered flights. Now we have scheduled flights, and their number has increased to include Tbilisi, Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Kutaisi. The planes are filled with tourists. Our trade is on the upswing. I believe Russia has become Georgia’s largest trade partner. Our civil societies hold regular events. People are meeting, talking and trying to understand which point in our relations we have reached.
Imagine that we stop all this simply to please your friends, who feel hurt. We stop all this, but they complete the base anyway and train the battalions, and the bio laboratory continues working. Who will stand to gain from this?
Question: Should there be some response from our side? What should we do?
Sergey Lavrov: I would like to ask you, do you think that we need to respond just to establish our importance or what?
Question: We do need to show our importance.
Sergey Lavrov: And that’s all?
Question: No, that’s not all. There are levers of economic pressure, similar to military ones. If Georgia lives at our expense, it will howl when it has nothing to eat.
Sergey Lavrov: I assure you, they will find a way to live. I would like to look at this from a different angle. Are you proposing to choke Georgia? What for? You say 40 percent of the population supports contacts with Russia. Break these contacts, and it will be 2 percent.
Question: But we will need to explain why we are doing this. We can say: it threatens our security.
Sergey Lavrov: Once again. The most serious threat here is the biological laboratories. I am confident that they will not go anywhere with their battalions. They understand that we have allied relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and we will not allow anyone to attack our allies. There are bio labs not only in Georgia, but also in Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. It will be useless to talk about it with Ukraine. We are talking about it with Georgia through the relevant organisations, the Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxin Weapons. Similarly, we are talking with Kazakhstan and Armenia. Georgians have already invited diplomats to their bio lab to look around. We thanked them because it was a large group of diplomats and we noted that we would be more interested in sending professionals who understand what is being done in this bio lab better than diplomats. We need to know how big a threat these experiments pose to the Russian Federation and neighbouring countries.
On principle, I am categorically against a foreign policy that amounts to breaking off relations every time someone does us wrong. Otherwise we would have to break off relations with America and Britain. Do you by any chance have friends there who offer you advice?
Question: America clearly responds with sanctions. We do not impose sanctions. Introduce sanctions against Georgia. Armenia is our strategic ally. Why did we allow the building of three US bio labs there in 2016? We have the best friendship in the Eurasian Economic Union.
Sergey Lavrov: With Armenia, we are completing the work on a document that will guarantee the non-presence of the foreign military in these biological labs and full transparency.
Question: And Kazakhstan?
Sergey Lavrov: The same.
Question: Will they remove these labs? Or make sure there are no foreign nationals?
Sergey Lavrov: You are not listening to me. I have just told you that an agreement is being prepared that will guarantee that there will be no foreign military in the bio labs and everything that is done there will be transparent, with guarantees, without any threats or risks.
Question: Consider this example: When you come to Armenia, you find 19 Russian diplomats and 2,500 American workers there – an impressive ratio, of course. I do not understand how we can have only 19 diplomats in such a strategically important country. Political strategists in Armenia say: “Russia really uses clumsy force against the former Soviet republics. It never works with the opposition, so for Russia, Nikol Pashinyan came as a huge surprise. Russia never works with the civil society, but only with people in power who are hated in society and whose ratings, according to your Russian officers, are below zero. What is it, the blindness of your diplomacy? I do not know; it is unexplainable. There are normal people in the opposition with whom you could be cooperating.”
Sergey Lavrov: Who writes all this to you?
Question: Political observers with whom I spoke in Armenia.
Sergey Lavrov: This “your diplomacy” – have Armenians written this?
Question: Yes, Armenians. Why isn’t Russian diplomacy working with the opposition? Remember the last time we argued about soft power? There are 5,000 US NGOs that are canvassing young people who then grow up pro-America and anti-Russia, but there are no Russian NGOs or media there. We have already spoken about this many times.
Sergey Lavrov: So what is your bottom line? As I understand it, the options are either to send 3,000 diplomats and create 5,000 NGOs there, or to break off diplomatic relations.
Question: This is where I think soft power is the best option.
Sergey Lavrov: Why?
Question: At least the people’s attitude to Russia was good; now it has grown worse. It will continue deteriorating. The youth is growing up.
Sergey Lavrov: We are treated well in Georgia. And you propose breaking off relations.
Question: What ideas are being fed to young people? They are raised on the idea that Russia is bad. They are now arguing who was the first to attack.
Sergey Lavrov: Where – in Georgia?
Question: I just watched a talk show where they are proving to children that it was Russia who attacked Georgia ten years ago. And the children are listening.
Sergey Lavrov: There is a report prepared for the EU by a group of experts led by Heidi Tagliavini, which clearly blames Saakashvili for starting the war. Nobody in the EU has contested this conclusion. Now they say that our response was unacceptable. This is sheer hypocrisy.
As for soft power, I fully agree on this. There are two or three times fewer Russian diplomats in Armenia or any other CIS country than American ones. Our diplomatic staff numbers 2,500 together with rotation personnel.
Question: The Americans have the largest staff in Bagdad and second largest in Armenia.
Sergey Lavrov: They have their own criteria for their work. And we have our traditions and financial limitations, because their non-governmental team working in the former Soviet republics costs big money. In most cases, these NGOs are financed by the Agency for International Development of the US State Department, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is affiliated with the Democratic Party, or other similar organisations. George Soros is very active there, just as in many other parts of our space and beyond. Of course, they have the advantage in numbers. We cannot respond in kind; we cannot create the same number of puppet organisations. Very many of them have a provocative negative agenda.
I agree that we must work with all political forces, which we are doing. We are working with everyone not only in the South Caucasus but also in other post-Soviet republics. We are working with registered opposition groups. We don’t work with nonregistered or underground groups. I believe that this is correct. We have maintained ties with various parliamentary groups, including the nine MPs who represented Nikol Pashinyan’s party when Serzh Sargsyan was president of Armenia.
It is another matter that we have probably acquired immunity against revolutions, because everything the West is doing in the post-Soviet space is preparing revolutions. This may be our problem, but we definitely cannot be blamed for this. We have survived several revolutions, which claimed a great number of lives and destroyed cities and villages. We don’t want to see a repetition of this, and we don’t wish it on others.
Therefore, the conclusion is simple: we must work with society and people, promote projects of interest to them in culture, language, sport, education and people-to-people interaction. I believe we can report certain positive results in this sphere. But we must not stop now. You can’t have enough of such events. We have established interregional forums, days of culture and educational exchanges with nearly all CSTO countries. We are opening branches of our universities there. I have recently visited Azerbaijan where MGIMO University is opening a branch. It is a very popular form of cooperation.
Question: Yet the most influential instrument is mass media. But Margarita Simonyan cannot work for all of us. We need our own local media outlets that will look to you in their work. Very many people would like to work in this way. But they simply don’t have the money.
Sergey Lavrov: Exactly.
Question: Do you mean that we don’t have the money for this?
Sergey Lavrov: The Foreign Ministry doesn’t.
Question: Why cannot we ask our oligarchs? They could be made responsible for certain areas.
Sergey Lavrov: Those of our people who have big money buy media outlets, including in Russia. If they do the same abroad, we would not complain.
Question: The Americans do this. They have more money.
Sergey Lavrov: But they don’t buy on behalf of the state.
Question: They set up a state fund to finance such projects.
Question: Why not lease the Kuril Islands? The sovereignty would be ours either way. Hong Kong was once leased on these terms. China leased a village and got a major modern city.
Question: There is such a thing as zugzwang in chess, when any move leads to a worse position. We have not had this peace treaty, so why do we need this “piece of paper?” We have diplomatic and economic relations, but no military relations. Nor will there be any in the future. Why do we need a peace treaty with Japan, if we consider the Kuril issue on this basis?
Sergey Lavrov: We are interested in having good relations with Japan.
The situation is very simple. We are people obeying international law. In 1956, the USSR signed an agreement with Japan, the so-called 1956 Declaration. When the USSR was dissolved, the Russian Federation was recognised not just as the legal successor state (all constituent republics except the Baltic states became legal successors) but the USSR’s only continuing state. This is the legal status under which we assumed all the obligations as well as all the assets of the USSR. This was one of the grounds for signing, within the CIS, a treaty on the “zero option” for properties abroad. We assumed all of the USSR’s debt obligations as all the properties were transferred to us (something that is happening today). This is why, when President Vladimir Putin was elected and this issue came up for the first time during his presidency in some situation (I think it was a meeting with then prime minister, Yoshiro Mori) he said that as the successor to the USSR we assumed the 1956 Declaration and were prepared to sign a peace treaty based on that.
In Singapore, we agreed to declare that we had come to terms on revisiting negotiations on signing a peace treaty based on the 1956 Declaration. In this regard, it is very important to understand what this document is all about and basically what situation has taken shape around it. It says: You shall sign a peace treaty. After that, the USSR – as a goodwill gesture and with regard for the interests of the neighbourly Japanese people, not as a move to return [the islands] – will be prepared to transfer the Habomai Ridge and Shikotan Island. President Putin has repeatedly explained, including at his news conference in Singapore and later in Buenos Aires, that this was not a directly applicable obligation of the USSR that had transferred to Russia and that the parties would have to discuss how, to whom, when, and in what form to transfer [whatever there is to transfer].
This was in 1956. After that were the events of 1960, when Japan and the US signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, under which the Americans could deploy their military bases practically wherever they wanted, in any part of Japanese territory. Under the same treaty, the US is creating the Asian segment of its antimissile defence system and deploying antimissile launchers that can be used to fire Tomahawk missiles.
Japan has withdrawn from the Declaration of its own free will. Of course, the USSR responded to the signing of the US-Japan security treaty. Therefore, when we say “based on the Declaration,” we cannot ignore the fact that the events of 1960 have taken place since then, which, from the point of view of a US military presence on the Japanese islands, are increasingly of a very serious nature as a threat to our security. We have explained all of this to our Japanese colleagues at talks with foreign ministry and security council representatives. We are waiting for a response. For us, this is a problem of direct practical importance.
But, most importantly, when we say “based on the 1956 Declaration,” this expresses Japan’s unconditional recognition of the results of World War II. So far, our Japanese colleagues are not ready for this, and they are sending all sorts of signals to the effect that this will not work out. This is a serious issue.
Recently, my Japanese counterpart went on record as saying that he apologised to the Japanese media for having avoided answering the question about the upcoming talks, on several occasions. He stated that he was unwilling to discuss the subject because Japan’s position was unchanged but, if he said this he would provoke his Russian colleagues to state their point of view. Consider that it was not he who provoked us. It is just that we were never ashamed of our position. If Japan’s position is unchanged then we are in the same position we have always been in. This is basically a refusal to recognise the results of World War II, while recognising the results of World War II is an inalienable first step in any talks, let alone any legal negotiations.
Question: Should we perhaps leave this matter to the judgment of future generations and place it on record as is?
Sergey Lavrov: We do not refuse to talk, but I have outlined the terms and the framework, within which these talks will proceed.
Question: May I ask you a few private questions that are often asked by our readers – in the blitz mode?
Sergey Lavrov: Go ahead.
Question: You are one of the most popular and best-known politicians in our country. How do you feel in that capacity?
Sergey Lavrov: I have never thought about it. It is a pleasure for me to communicate with people when I go somewhere, whether on a working mission or not. I talk to young people. It is interesting to listen to questions and comments. If my work meets with a positive response, I am pleased for our Ministry.
Question: As you know, the former Soviet Foreign Minister Alexei Gromyko was dubbed in the West as nothing other than “Mr No”. Andrei Kozyrev must have been a “Mr Yes”. How would you describe your own image in similar terms? Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Sergey Lavrov is “Mr what?”
Sergey Lavrov: Whatever, but certainly not “Mr Yesman.”
Question: In your interviews, you nearly always refer to our foes as partners. Why?
Sergey Lavrov: Sometimes, I fail to express irony through intonation.
Question: In one of your interviews, you said that you respect Vladimir Vysotsky’s work. What words from his songs would you use to describe the current international situation?
Sergey Lavrov (laughing): “Lukomorye exists no more…” and so on and so forth.
Question: Your opponents were talking such nonsense lately. What self-composure you have. Is it hard to deal with a negotiating partner if you feel that he or she has a grudge against you?
Sergey Lavrov: I have grown used to it.
Question: What helps you remain so calm and coolheaded?
Sergey Lavrov: Maybe life has hardened me over the past years. In New York, I had a good schooling in terms of responding to all sorts of crisis situations at the UN Security Council. Someone would dash in and say that something had erupted, broken out and it was necessary to urgently adopt a resolution, when we wanted to work the matter through and take no abrupt steps.
Question: Were there episodes during your service as minister, when things grew very alarming and even frightening?
Sergey Lavrov: Probably not, considering that I was already accustomed to crisis situations in my work prior to my appointment to this post. Maybe, that experience helps.
Question: Do you feel like putting work aside
And sailing down the river with a guitar,
Making a campfire at sunset
And talking of peace and love?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, certainly. Moreover, I even do that.
Question: What is the largest fish that you caught during your river trips? Where did it happen and how much did it weigh?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not remember, because, actually, I am not really a fishing sort. When we go canoeing down the river Katun, two of our group members handle the fishing and I break camp and watch the campfire.
Question: Suppose you had a time machine, who of our country’s rulers of the past years or even centuries would you like to talk to and what essential question would you ask that person?
Sergey Lavrov: Among our fellow countrymen – Alexander Gorchakov. Much has been written about him and all his diplomatic achievements are well known. I would ask him exactly the same thing that you asked me – about his self-composure that enabled him to return Crimea.
Question: Who of the US presidents of the past would you like to talk to and what would you ask him?
Sergey Lavrov: Maybe, Harry Truman. After Franklin Roosevelt’s policy, he made a sharp turn towards the “cold war”. It would be interesting to understand why. Though, as a matter of fact, it looks like everyone understands everything. The USSR was a real ally of Britain and the United States in the war, but maybe a situational ally, after all, though that situation was about the life or death of the whole of humanity. Almost. And it was a genuine alliance. Nevertheless, they never fully considered us to be one of theirs, and back then they already saw a threat.
Question: If you had the opportunity to turn back the clock and influence some event in our country or elsewhere, what would you change?
Sergey Lavrov: First, I have no opportunity to turn back the clock. Second, I do not want to. Third, we all know that history has no “ifs”. Whatever God does is for the best. There are many proverbs, for example, “it does not hurt to dream.”
Question: Will the Eurasian Economic Union survive as an entity, considering our problems with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakhstan?
Sergey Lavrov: It will survive. In any event, we have common interests. In the five years of its existence or even less (there used to be a Customs Union, followed by the Eurasian Economic Union), we are making great strides forward, as compared with the deadlines that allowed Europe to achieve the same level of integration.
Question: It was easier for us.
Sergey Lavrov: Nevertheless, economic ties were disrupted considerably after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Question: President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko says that he is planning to leave the Eurasian Economic Union.
Sergey Lavrov: Just like other countries’ leaders, we judge the policies of other countries by their deeds, rather than words. When US President Donald Trump conducts talks, he also makes all kinds of statements.
Question: Is this blackmail?
Sergey Lavrov: It is preparations for talks, if you like. I cannot say that US President Donald Trump is blackmailing anyone, although he exerts tough pressure.
Question: What would be the first thing you saved if the Foreign Ministry building caught fire?
Sergey Lavrov: God forbid. We don’t need any self-fulfilling prophecies, and we have a good fire safety system.
Question: What do you eat to improve your mood?
Sergey Lavrov: I prefer tasty food.
Question: Could you be more specific? All of us like tasty food.
Sergey Lavrov: Sauerkraut shchi and borsch. I like soups very much.
Question: How do you relax? And what is your favourite music? How do you manage to stay in shape all the time? Perhaps you like rap music?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not into rap music. I like bard singers, including Vladimir Vysotsky, Bulat Okudzhava, Yury Vizbor and Oleg Mityayev. And I love the outdoors.
Question: If on New Year’s Eve you found a magic lantern that could grant any personal wish, what would it be?
Sergey Lavrov: A personal wish? I don’t know. Never thought about it. I am not used to making wishes. I am more of a realist than a dreamer.
Question: So when the Kremlin chimes welcome the New Year in, you never make a wish?
Sergey Lavrov: No. On my rafting team, we have this principle – never drink to anything in advance. We do not celebrate what is to come, but celebrate what happened. If it’s someone’s birthday, we raise a glass of champagne. But we never toast what is still to come. It is even considered wrong.
Question: Figuratively speaking, if we take Russia’s foreign policy in recent years, was there anything you would toast with a glass of champagne with your colleagues?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not assessing the work of my Ministry now. One of our most significant projects in recent years was the chemical disarmament agreement in Syria, which helped us avoid an act of American aggression. This agreement was documented in a UN Security Council resolution, but, unfortunately, after that, the OPCW, whose job was to physically remove and destroy toxic substances from Syria, suffered a hostile takeover from the inside.
Question: Do you mean following the Skripal case?
Sergey Lavrov: No, this was not following the Skripal case. It primarily had to do with Syria. It was a separate story. Some of our western partners are now trying to replace international law with a “rules-based order.” But what they mean is not any universally agreed rules, but those they consider convenient for themselves. Western media are already openly writing about it. In particular, the British newspaper The Times wrote that the departure from international law is leading to a very unstable system, where relationships will be determined by the balance of power, brute force or economic and financial pressure such as blackmail, and bilateral agreements. This is roughly what the Americans are trying to do now, breaking the multilateral structures, including the World Trade Organisation, and moving from relations with the EU to resolving all problems bilaterally. Therefore, the agreement on chemical disarmament in Syria was indeed a serious achievement. Now, under various far-fetched pretexts, the Americans and their closest allies are trying to claim that not everything has been destroyed. Although international organisations, namely the OPCW, in the presence of observers, including those from the United States, verified the destruction of all chemical facilities and substances in Syria. Such are our partners.
Question: Do we still have any influence in that organisation?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes.
Question: Do you remember the most unusual New Year gift you received or gave?
Sergey Lavrov: My “hard drive” does not store such things. They have been erased from memory. These days I am more busy thinking about work than about the New Year.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the listeners and readers of Komsomolskaya Pravda a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. All the best to you, good health and good luck.