Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions during the 56th Munich Security Conference, Global Disorder – Other Opportunities for a New Agenda (Munich, February 15, 2020)
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions during the 56th Munich Security Conference, Global Disorder –
Other Opportunities for a New Agenda
(Munich, February 15, 2020)
Ladies and gentlemen,
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in WWII. Sadly, there are attempts to brazenly distort history and to equate the liberators of Europe with Nazi murderers. These attempts will remain on the conscience of those behind them. No one and nothing can belittle the decisive role of the Red Army and the Soviet people in defeating Nazism. At the same time, we will always keep in our minds the spirit of Alliance during the War and the ability of the states to unite and fight the common threat regardless of ideological differences.
Nowadays we are lacking this kind of unity, when the threats and risks to humanity have never been at such an all-time high since the post war period. The strategic stability and non-proliferation treaty system is being destroyed right before our eyes, the threshold for using nuclear weapons is getting lower, regional crises are multiplying and international law is being trampled upon, including through military interference in affairs of sovereign states, illegal sanctions and harsh protectionist measures that undermine global markets and the system of trade. We are witnessing barbarisation of international relations which degrades human habitat.
We need a direct and honest exchange of views on how to save the world for future generations. President of Russia Vladimir Putin proposes starting such a discussion at a meeting of the heads of state representing permanent members of the UN Security Council. To be clear, this is not about creating another private club to take behind-the-scenes decisions about the fate of humanity. Our idea is that the five states which, under the UN Charter, bear special responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, show political will and make recommendations in the interest of improving the entire atmosphere of international communication and restoring trust between all nations.
The credibility crisis is especially acute when it comes to European affairs. The escalation of tension, the eastward advancement of NATO's military infrastructure, the unprecedentedly massive military exercises near Russia’s border and pumping inordinate amounts of money into defence budgets create unpredictability. The Cold War patterns have once again become a reality. Before it’s too late, it is time to say no to promoting the “Russian threat” phantom or any other threat for that matter, and to go back to things that unite us.
The principle of equal and indivisible security should be the starting point of such a dialogue. As you may recall, it was proclaimed at the highest level in important documents such as the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe and the 2010 OSCE Astana Summit declaration.
In today’s world, Euro-Atlantic stability cannot be achieved without truly global cooperation in fighting international terrorism, illegal migration, human trafficking and other cross-border challenges. Many of them have taken on threatening proportions as a result of bloody conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The international community must create a favourable environment for the peoples of the countries of that region to resolve their problems through inclusive national dialogue without any outside interference. I believe it is unacceptable to turn the territory of these countries into an arena of geopolitical confrontation and settling accounts, or use terrorists to achieve self-serving geopolitical goals.
Guided by international law, Russia will continue to promote a settlement in Syria as part of the Astana process and UN mechanisms and to help bring the Libyan parties closer together as the only way to restore the country's statehood destroyed by NATO. Russia’s Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region is designed to provide lasting normalisation of the situation in the region. Of course, we will be promoting a balanced approach in our attempts to find a fair solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on existing international agreements. We will continue to stress that replacing legally binding decisions on the Iranian nuclear programme with illegitimate unilateral moves is unacceptable.
The negative impact of innovative ground-breaking technology on global stability must be prevented. The initiatives designed to prevent the arms race in outer space and to prevent the militarisation of cyberspace are designed to achieve this. We are prepared to join efforts on other pressing issues of the global agenda, including epidemiological threats. In this regard, I would like to note China’s open and responsible approach to international cooperation in combating the spread of the coronavirus.
To reiterate, the global challenges are so huge that countries can cope with them only if they join forces and strictly observe the principles of genuine multilateralism. The attempts, under the banner of multilateralism, to impose someone’s own rules and “privatise” the international organisations’ secretariats are getting in the way of such efforts. The situation at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is an egregious case in point.
It is important to stop these dangerous trends and unequivocally reaffirm the principles enshrined in the UN Charter, including sovereign equality of states and non-interference in their domestic affairs. It is imperative for all the Charter principles to be equally respected by the member countries and the UN and other international organisations’ top officials.
Along with the UN, global governance needs flexible multilateral mechanisms that promote a positive agenda and try to strike a balance of interests. This includes the G20 and BRICS, whose participants represent cultural and civilizational diversity of the modern world.
The SCO, the EAEU, the CIS and the CSTO contribute to developing constructive approaches to Eurasian challenges. President of Russia Vladimir Putin put forward an initiative to form a Greater Eurasian Partnership open to all associations and states of our vast common continent, including EU members.
Russia is and always has been opposed to coercive measures and has welcomed political and diplomatic means of resolving disputes, which, let us be honest, inevitably arise due to human nature itself. But peace has never been something you can get for free. It requires constant, sometimes the most laborious efforts.
Prominent nuclear physicist, Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrey Sakharov once said: “Nuclear war might arise fr om an ordinary war. The latter, as is widely known, arises fr om politics.” It is hard to disagree with that. All diplomats, politicians, the global community, including everyone present here, are responsible for preserving peace. I am sure that we can do it if we take a responsible approach.
Question: We all are concerned about the developments in Idlib, but I would like to ask a question about the relations between Russia and Turkey in general; it is a certain riddle to me. How would you describe these relations, are you allies or opponents?
Sergey Lavrov: Is this a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’?
Our relations with Turkey are very good. It does not mean that we have to agree on everything. Actually, I think that there can be no full accord on any issue between any two countries. If there is one, it would look like pressure has something to do with it.
The Syrian conflict appeared at the stage of the so-called Arab Spring, when Libya was destroyed, and Tunisia and some other countries of the region were on the brink of destruction. When extremists, terrorist groups almost besieged Damascus in the summer 2015, nobody thought of any humanitarian norms or a political process; everyone expected a military solution that would result in the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad government. Russia has answered this legitimate Government’s call for help. Now we have managed to help the Syrian Government and the army to reverse the situation, primarily with regard to counteracting terrorism.
At some point we all relied on the UN. The Geneva process was established, and I personally took part in these efforts together with former US Secretary of State John Kerry. The talks were middling at best, and we could not reach any positive result. Later on, our UN colleagues decided to postpone the Geneva meetings until better days. Then, seeing that the impasse had become chronic, Russia together with Turkey and Iran proposed to begin a political process under the auspices of these three countries. Moreover, we suggested that the opposition should be represented not by immigrants who live in other capitals, but by those who had a real influence on the people fighting with the Syrian army on the ground. We managed to do that by launching the Astana process. We are sincerely grateful to Kazakhstan for providing us with a hospitable platform in their ca[ital. I do not want to seem too presumptuous, but, given there are no other examples, the Astana process remains the most efficient instrument to assist the UN in reaching the objectives of Resolution 2254 of the UN Security Council.
It was not easy, because Russia, Iran and Turkey have different goals as regards Syria and the entire region. I will not dwell on it, we all know what I mean. We were united by the desire to prevent the destruction of the Syrian Arab Republic, the cradle of many great religions and civilisations, where Muslims, Christians and other confessional groups have been coexisting for many hundreds and thousands of years. We wanted to establish peace in the country and to begin a political dialogue. We managed to do that, and helped the UN initiate the process which is now underway as part of the Constitutional Committee. It was formed and was ready to operate as early as at the end of 2018. We all know the story: our Western colleagues in fact categorically demanded that the UN did not support proposals made by the Syrian Government and the opposition. An entire year was spent on infighting over two or three names that our Western colleagues did not like for some reason.
We lost a year. The situation could be different now. Nevertheless, we do not harbour resentment and try to proceed from reality. And the reality is that we have finally convinced everyone in doubt to approve this committee. It has held two sessions, and preparations are underway for a third one. Today I have met with Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Syria Geir Pedersen. We are not overreacting at the fact that the committee is making slow progress, but, of course, we do not want to give the impression that it will function forever. Most important is that the Syrians reach an agreement among themselves.
In this sense, our relations with Turkey are very important considering Russia’s opportunities, as well as Iran’s, by the way, in its contacts with the Syrian leadership and Turkey’s ability to influence the opposition and members of military groups on the ground. Let me note that Russia is interested in seeing other countries in contact with the opposition positively influence it as well; first of all, the Persian Gulf monarchies. Our goal is to unite efforts and help create comfortable conditions for the Syrians to work in.
Let me make another point directly connected with Idlib, which you mentioned at the very beginning: the defeat of terrorism is unavoidable. Our American colleagues have already announced several times that they defeated ISIS and destroyed terrorism in Syria, as well as in Iraq. But let me note that, in addition to ISIS, there also is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which, like ISIS, is considered a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council. Now it controls a larger part of the problematic Idlib security zone. This is one of the last terrorist strongholds, but at least the only one on the western bank of the Euphrates.
Today I have met with Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu, my colleague and friend. Our agreements with Turkey include ensuring a ceasefire, establishing a demilitarised zone, and, what’s most important, separating the normal opposition from terrorists. These agreements do not mean we will stop our uncompromising fight against terrorist groups. This is a difficult task. Terrorists try to use civilians as a human shield. We have seen this in the infamous refugee camp of Rukban and in the Al-Hawl refugee camp, controlled by Kurd squads in cooperation with the Americans, above all, and in other regions of the world. The task is not easy, but contacts are underway between Russian and Turkish experts, diplomats, military personnel and security officers to find ways to execute the Idlib agreements I have mentioned. The next contacts are scheduled for next week.
Question (retranslated from German): I find your statements on Syria inconclusive. How can the Russian Government guarantee Syria’s sovereignty while Turkey has a military presence in Idlib, Afrin and other parts of northern Syria? It is obvious that Turkey is there to stay. I was not convinced by what you said.
Sergey Lavrov: This is not complicated. The purpose of what we are doing in Syria is not to convince you. You are a journalist, as far as I understand. You have every right to view what is happening there based on your understanding of these developments. We are doing on the ground what is required under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Among other things, it guarantees the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. It is the UN Security Council that guarantees Syria’s sovereignty, not Russia.
Apart from the Idlib problem, the developments on the eastern bank of the Euphrates are the main challenge, since this is wh ere the gravest violations of this sovereignty are taking place with the establishment of parallel government institutions with clear separatist aspirations. We regularly raise this issue with our US colleagues who maintain their proactive presence on the eastern bank.
I have already mentioned the problems associated with the Rukban and Al-Hawl camps. There are also problems with the Al Tanf zone. All this has to do with the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic. We act in strict keeping with the UN Security Council resolutions. Our utmost priority is to fight terrorism, address the humanitarian needs of the population and facilitate the return of refugees. By the way, the European Union is adamant in its refusal to take part in efforts to enable people to return to their homes, waiting for real progress in the political process. Before that, they refused to commit to any efforts until the Constitutional Committee was launched. It is now up and running, but the European Union has not provided any assistance to enable the return of refugees, as we can see.
The UN Security Council resolutions also provide for a constitutional reform and political process as another priority. It is for this purpose that we established the Constitutional Committee. Together with Turkey and Iran, we helped Syrians agree on this essential mechanism. This is what we are doing. It is up to you whether these efforts look convincing or not. We are used to criticism. It helps us find creative solutions. We are looking forward to your feedback and constructive advice.
Question: While I see a kind of consistency in what you say about Syria, when you talk about integrity and sovereignty, but when you go to Libya, you do not support a UN-recognised government, but you support Marshall Haftar, which is a recipe for partition. My question is: what do you really want to achieve in Libya, since you back a faction, which basically means splitting the country apart?
Sergey Lavrov: I have to disagree with you since the UN Security Council recognised Marshall Haftar and the Libyan National Army he heads as a party to the conflict, as was also confirmed during the recent Berlin Conference on Libya. The UN Security Council welcomed the outcomes of the Berlin Conference on Libya, calling on Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj and Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar to address matters related to respecting the ceasefire, implementing agreements on economic affairs in this country, and advancing the political process (preparing elections, the constitution, etc). Therefore, Khalifa Haftar is not a symbol of separatism but rather a side to the conflict as recognised by the international community, including the participants in the Berlin Conference on Libya and the UN Security Council. This conflict started with the breakdown of the country called Libya following a plainly unlawful campaign carried out, as you remember, by NATO in 2011.
To answer the question on what Russia is doing in Libya, we are trying, alongside other external actors, to help Libyans restore what has been destroyed following an egregious violation of the UN Charter. That is my brief answer to this question.
Question: Did you discuss with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo President Donald Trump’s participation in the meeting of the UN Security Council permanent members proposed by Russia? Is the US position now clear? Did you discuss extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)? Did you manage to reach any agreement?
Sergey Lavrov: We discussed an entire range of issues. You can find this in the materials circulated by the press services of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US State Department. We touched upon all the problems on the agenda of our strategic dialogue, including those in the competence of the UN Security Council permanent members and arms control issues. We agreed to continue an in-depth, professional conversation on them.
I had a feeling that there was certain movement towards a more constructive approach from our US partners.
Question: President of France Emmanuel Macron has said many times that it is necessary to involve Russia in European security and to change the strategy towards Russia. Are there any real proposals in the area of European security for Russia, including from France?
Sergey Lavrov: In fact, there are proposals from France. I would say that France demonstrates true political and geopolitical vision, pragmatism and readiness for a dialogue, given all the reservations made by President of France Emmanuel Macron regarding his view on the sanctions and Russia. He called on everyone to accept reality. Russia exists and influences a lot of processes in the world. Moreover, Russia is right next to Europe. This sounded off key, considering that most of the European and American speakers spoke about a decline in the West’s influence, some with concern, some with regret. But the conference’s motto, Westlessness, was reflected in several facts: first, our Western partners started to look for culprits inside the Western camp and pointed at Washington, accusing it of forgetting about Europe’s interests, carrying out its own policy and ignoring the Europeans’ problems and its responsibilities to them; on the other hand, fingers were also pointed at Russia and China. At China, above all. Perhaps this was something new for such large discussions: that China has firmly taken the top place in the list of main threats our Western colleagues voiced.
In fact, it turns out that 99 percent of the conference was about who is to blame and who will be the best at presenting their accusations to everyone else, be it Europe, China or Russia. Of course, in a situation like this President Macron’s speech was absolutely sensible and aimed at searching for solutions instead of culprits, or making excuses for idleness and inactivity.
You have mentioned his proposal to launch a dialogue on security architecture with Russia. Yes, there are concrete proposals. By the way, after the US destroyed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) and it ceased to exist, President of Russia Vladimir Putin sent detailed messages to all the leaders of Western and other major countries with Russia’s view of the situation and called on them to save the last agreements on this type of nuclear arms from disappearing. He noted that Russia had introduced a moratorium until US-produced missiles of the corresponding class were operational and deployed anywhere in the world – and then reciprocal measures would follow. However, until then Vladimir Putin has announced a moratorium.
In his message to the leaders of the Western world, he called for the same moratorium, which most Western colleagues either ignored or replied that Russia had deployed prohibited missiles in the Kaliningrad Region and now called for joining the moratorium when others do not have anything deployed. So nobody except Mr Macron noticed that in his message Vladimir Putin expressed his readiness to discuss possible measures to verify such a mutual moratorium. Mr Macron noticed this and said he was interested in such a dialogue. France and Russia will discuss these topics, but to make concrete decisions we need multilateral talks, as well as consultations involving the US, which, after destroying the INF Treaty, is now laying the groundwork to deploy these once prohibited armaments both in Europe and Asia. The US does not hide this. Japan, Korea and islands in the Pacific Ocean are mentioned.
Since Mr Macron proposed a multilateral dialogue – between NATO and Russia – it was interesting to read the interview that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg granted to the French newspaper Le Figaro. Asked about his attitude to President Macron’s call to start a dialogue with Russia, Mr Stoltenberg said that there was a dialogue, an institutional one, and that all the issues, including arms control and transparency, were being discussed. In all evidence, he meant the Russia-NATO Council by the institutional dialogue. It exists formally and met several times over the past years, but each time the proceedings were reduced to a dialogue made up of monologues. At least, Russia made proposals to begin a detailed discussion on issues that might promote and strengthen trust as well as transparency. All that NATO replied were slogans like “Ukraine,” or “Let’s consolidate the Vienna Document 2011,” which was adopted in a completely different military and political situation, when there was not so much NATO infrastructure near the Russian borders, and so on. Over these years, they have advanced in our direction and pumped their “military muscle.” They organise military exercises involving over 40,000 personnel and 35,000 units of equipment, with half of them being American, which has been unprecedented for decades.
Today, when the 2010 balance has been dramatically disrupted, they suggest that we start talks on how to calm the situation. This will not do. What is more important is that our NATO colleagues and Mr Stoltenberg are being sly when saying that they are open to a dialogue with Russia. They are open, but to a dialogue that they understand as an opportunity for airing their grievances against Russia, primarily over Ukraine. Despite their current propaganda for the NATO-Russia Council, there was not a single NATO-Russia Council meeting that took place without an attempt, in the form of an ultimatum, to impose on us a discussion of the Ukrainian problems in this format. We always answer (and I said so to Mr Stoltenberg during our meeting here in Munich) that NATO has nothing to do with Ukraine. We have dialogue with those Western countries that are engaged in Ukrainian settlement, first of all the participants in the Normandy format, France and Germany. We also stay in touch with the Americans, because they would also periodically join the Ukraine conversations over the last couple of years. But NATO as such has no relation to the Ukrainian problems. NATO can only aggravate these by its constant incantations to the effect that they are expecting Ukraine, with their arms open, to join the alliance. This can only aggravate the crisis and undermine efforts aimed at implementing the Minsk Agreements.
Speaking about other things, let us not forget (I also reminded Mr Stoltenberg about this) that it was NATO that discontinued all practical forms of our collaboration, including in what it concerns the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, equipment supplies to the Afghan security forces, counterterrorism on a more general, global scale, as well as other practical areas of our erstwhile cooperation.
Perhaps it is no longer professional to pretend that NATO still maintains a constructive approach for the sole reason that they occasionally condescend to suggest convening the Russia-NATO Council for yet another round of discussions. By and large, there is emptiness behind all their talk that NATO has conducted with us a dialogue on arms control, transparency measures or trust building.
Several days ago, when I reminded NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg here in Munich that Russia was still expecting replies to our detailed proposals, he only got away with some awkward remarks that all of these would be considered later. The proposals were made by the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces about a year ago, and they are utterly specific. First, to come to terms on pushing both Russian and NATO exercises back from the line of contact to an agreed specific depth. Let us sit down and arrange it. Silence!
Second, ensuring security over the Baltic Sea and in the Baltic region as a whole has been neglected for quite long. The Russian military have suggested that we negotiate for military aircraft using transponders in the Baltic airspace, like civilian planes do now. And the second most important measure is to coordinate the minimum admissible approach distance for both Russian and NATO warships and military aircraft. Silence again! Of course, the circumstances being what they are, we would look forward to the ideas reiterated by President Emmanuel Macron more than once getting into NATO’s head, so that we can understand, if it is sick or otherwise.
Question: When will the next Normandy format summit be held? And is there a reason to meet?
Sergey Lavrov: There can be only one reason to meet – if the decisions of the previous summit, in December 2019 in Paris, are implemented. So far, we have not seen any progress in any of the areas. Kiev is stalling the disengagement of forces and equipment. Allow me to remind you that disengagement along the entire contact line was agreed upon even before the Paris summit. Yet, during the actual meeting, President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky categorically refused to sign this obligation and insisted that disengagement should be agreed on in three specific locations only. The three locations are still being discussed, and the Ukrainian side does not seem too eager to agree on this matter at all.
Neither has there been much progress in cooperation on demining, which is another important agreement from the Paris summit. In this case, movement keeps stumbling on the pathological unwillingness of the Ukrainian authorities – formerly led by President Petr Poroshenko and now President Vladimir Zelensky – to comply with the requirements of the Minsk Agreements on establishing a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk. It is clearly impossible to disengage forces and equipment on the ground without a direct dialogue, and equally impossible to agree on demining. And yet, according to statements by officials in the Ukrainian administration, they are ready to negotiate with the residents of Donbass, but not with the people elected by the residents to ensure a normal life in these territories, which continue to be the target of an unlawful and unacceptable trade and economic blockade by Kiev.
Furthermore, we have not seen any advancement on the political track, namely with regard to Ukraine’s commitment, also made in Paris, to include the Steinmeier Formula in Ukrainian legislation and to stipulate all aspects of the legal status of Donbass in Ukrainian law permanently. This is almost a direct quote from the decisions made in Paris. So we are waiting for all these decisions to be fulfilled. Before convening a new summit, we need not only to accomplish what we have agreed on earlier, but also to understand what draft decisions we are taking to the new summit. And that will only begin when the process of implementing the previous decisions is completed. So when our colleagues cite April as the tentative date for the next Normandy format summit, it should be taken as wishful thinking, just some idea they have. Again, the Normandy summits are held to approve lists of agreements and recommendations that cannot be implemented without substantive and constructive work in the Contact Group, wh ere Kiev, Donetsk, and Lugansk are also represented.
We can see that both our Ukrainian colleagues and their European partners are trying to play with this, and trying to shift the entire settlement process from the Contact Group to the Normandy format because, according to their logic, Russia is a party to the conflict. But that logic is flawed, and not mentioned in either the Minsk Agreements or UNSC Resolution 2202, which unanimously made these agreements a part of international law. Therefore, this work has to be done in the Contact Group. Otherwise, our Western colleagues will have to admit defeat in their role as guarantors of the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
Question: Turkey claims it is complying with its obligations in Idlib. At the same time, a source reports that Syrian militants are getting weapons from Turkey, including man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems. You said Turkey has not fulfilled its key duty of separating the moderate opposition militants who are willing to negotiate with the Government from the terrorists. What steps are being taken to avoid aggravation of the situation in Idlib? Who is responsible for the escalation? Will new agreements be discussed at the talks today during the Turkish delegation’s visit to Moscow?
Sergey Lavrov: You correctly noted that the key agreement on Idlib, which was documented in Sochi in 2018 as a Memorandum approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, concerns separating moderate opposition militants that are willing to negotiate with the Government from terrorists labelled as such by the UN Security Council. This primarily refers to Jabhat al-Nusra and all its variants (the most recent, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). This differentiation is the key to everything else. Because of the lack of progress on this track another agreement was necessary – to create, until the separation is achieved, a demilitarised strip inside the Idlib de-escalation zone, so that all those who were and continue to shell Syrian troop positions, Syrian civilian infrastructure and our air force base, should leave. So far, this agreement is also being implemented with some difficulty, although our Turkish colleagues have deployed observation posts there. Admittedly, their presence made the situation worse and the terrorists continued to attack the Syrian positions and our air base – something that could not be left unanswered, of course. These attacks have been suppressed by the Syrian armed forces with our support.
As for possible ways to resolve the situation in Idlib, you were correct that another round of negotiations between the interdepartmental delegations of the Russian Federation and the Turkish Republic is taking place in Moscow today. All the facts are on the table; the military representatives of the two countries that are on the ground in the Idlib region in Syria are considering changes in the situation and are in constant contact with each other. They have a complete understanding among themselves, as we heard from both the Russian and Turkish militaries. I hope that they will be able to propose ideas on de-escalating this situation based on the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and Turkey.