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21 february / 2019

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers at a meeting with the Association of European Business in the Russian Federation (Moscow, February 21, 2019)

Our dialogue with business fr om the European countries has become a good tradition. Last year, in November, President of Russia Vladimir Putin met with German business community leaders, and in October with Prime Minister of Italy Giuseppe Conte and the delegation of the heads of Italian companies accompanying him during his visit to Russia. Several days ago, in the margins of the Munich conference on security policy, Foreign Minister of Germany Heiko Josef Maas and I met with Russian and German business leaders at a very early business lunch.

Despite the current difficulties that nobody hides, there has been a feeling during these and other meetings that business circles are tired of the sanctions and of confrontation and are interested in resuming full cooperation. We support this attitude. By the way, this attitude is already producing practical results. Trade between Russia and the EU has increased for the second year running. Last year it increased 20 percent to almost $300 billion. This is certainly much less than the record $440 billion in 2013, but the trend towards a resumption of the growth in trade is obvious.

In principle, despite Brussels’s policy, we are seeing the revival of political dialogue as well. We continue cooperating on a number of sectoral issues. Contacts in science and technology and culture, as well as dialogues on migration and counterterrorism are making headway. Of course, these are one-time, sporadic contacts, but they are positive nonetheless. They confirm that there is no objective reason for the further degradation of relations, but we have to admit that conditions for a return to normal Russia-EU relations are not here yet.

Regrettably, not everyone in Europe supports the desire to normalise Russia-EU relations. As you know, the anti-Russia propaganda campaign is ongoing. Russia is being stubbornly presented as the main, “strategic” threat to European security. Unilateral restrictions are diligently extended. Literally just the other day, the EU again yielded to the pressure of its domestic Russophobes, as well as to the US and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, we see what’s behind this. We see that Russia’s demonisation in the eyes of the broad European public is aimed at creating a convenient cover-up for resolving geopolitical issues. NATO continues pursuing a course of building up its military activities and deploying its military infrastructure near Russian borders. Apart fr om Macedonia and other Balkan countries, NATO is stubbornly drawing Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. The US’ withdrawal from the INF Treaty is not optimistic, either. This was obediently and unanimously supported by all NATO members although there are at least some discrepancies on this issue. Such actions lead to the escalation of military-political tensions, including in our common neighbourhood.

It is regrettable that the peace and security of the European nations have become hostage to the destructive policy of Washington and a small but extremely aggressive group of Russophobes in the EU. Mutual trust, on which we have worked so persistently for so long, has been seriously undermined. The system of multi-level Russia-EU cooperation – from summits to sectoral dialogues – has been suspended. I don’t need to tell you that European manufacturers are losing tens and maybe hundreds of billions of dollars. Is this all for the sake of giving the Kiev regime an opportunity to continue the war against its own people? I don’t think this is in the interests of the Europeans.

It is hardly worth speaking here in detail about the failure of the attempts to impede Russia’s economic and technological development. These attempts will not work. Our economy deals with this problem. It is flexibly reacting to the fluctuations in foreign economic markets. We are taking measures to enhance our investment appeal, in part, by establishing special economic zones and territories for accelerated socioeconomic development. The Foreign Investment Advisory Council (FIAC) headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has a good reputation. Indicatively, more than half of its members represent major European companies. Its work has improved the international investment position of this country. Russia has gone up by several positions in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings.

In general, we want new, positive opportunities to open for foreign business. I believe Europe is coming to realise this, judging by the recently released position document of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, that we talked about not long ago at the meeting of Russian and German business in Munich. This document contains an appeal to revise EU strategy towards Russia and embark on full economic cooperation.

Today, the global geopolitical situation continues to change rapidly, first and foremost owing to the emergence and consolidation of the new centres of economic power. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has come to play a tangible role. In a short span of time it has traversed a fairly long road – from elimination of customs barriers tо the formation of a common market for goods, services, capital and workforce. The EAEU’s aggregate GDP is about $2 trillion and the total number of consumers exceeds 183 million. The success of this integration effort is reflected not only in the growth of trade but also in the expansion of its foreign economic contacts – over 40 states and associations are working to sign trade liberalisation agreements with the EAEU.  

China, which is carrying out its “One Road, One Belt” concept in close partnership with Russia and the EAEU, is also working to ensure peace, stability and prosperity in Eurasia. The foundations of a common market with reliance on universally recognised WTO standards are being laid in our vast area. This synergy – in the vein of President Vladimir Putin’s initiative on establishing the Greater Eurasian Partnership that implies large-scale economic integration free from all barriers – is beginning to produce results. Last year, Russia-China trade amounted to a record $100 billion. The two countries are successfully developing cooperation in energy, aircraft manufacturing, space and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Success lies in the reliance on the values of equality, respect and consideration for each other’s interests. Imagine, these are values as well.

Russia is ready to build its relations with the EU along similar principles. The EU remains our important neighbour and major trade partner. We are united by many things in the historical, cultural and human plane since the times when values were truly common to all Europeans. As before, we are open to cooperation with our European partners on building a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which can unite all states without exception in this vast and most competitive Eurasian region.

The EU should probably assess the prospects of creating an innovative model of cooperation in Eurasia, which could become the foundation for a system of equal and indivisible security that meets the realities of the 21st century. We could start with small steps – the development of stable contacts between the EAEU and the EU. There are obviously ideological obstacles in this respect. On a pragmatic basis, we welcome the contacts that have begun between the European Commission and the Eurasian Economic Commission. For now they are discussing issues of technical and standards regulation but probably this is not a bad thing. We are actively supporting them.      

Russia is striving to enhance the coherence and complementarity of cooperation in Europe in actions rather than words. Energy cooperation is an obvious example. Last year Gazprom broke its record of gas distribution volume to the European market. We continue carrying out major infrastructure projects, including Nord Stream 2 that is designed to diversify gas supplies to European consumers using the shortest and least expensive route. The construction of the Turkish Stream continues according to schedule. Alternatives for extending a ground-based gas pipeline branch towards Europe are being discussed. Considering the sad experience of South Stream, rock solid legal guarantees on behalf of the European Commission will be required for a final decision.

We know that more and more people in Europe are coming to understand that the confrontation line with regard to Russia is simply pointless. They strive to implement a pragmatic policy and do not want to sacrifice their citizens’ well-being and future for the sake of dubious geopolitical projects. We are ready to expand cooperation with the EU to the extent that they want. We would like to perceive it as an integral, solid and independent partner that would become consolidated on the basis of every European nation’s genuine national interests, rather than on an artificially supported anti-Russia platform.

Business circles and business diplomacy can and should make a useful contribution to restoring mutual trust. This is what your Association is doing. We appreciate your readiness to expand cooperation and to implement mutually beneficial joint projects. In turn, we will continue to do our very best to create the most favourable working conditions for you here.

Question: As an American, I am worried that Russian-US relations have reached their lowest point. Can things fall any lower, or is there still a chance for us to improve our relations? What options do you see for restoring positive momentum?

Sergey Lavrov: I believe that this problem is rooted in the domestic developments in the United States.

Frankly speaking, we are not enjoying the current developments, but we did not start it. It is stretching the truth to say that this is the punishment for Ukraine and Crimea. It all began back under President Barack Obama, long before Washington launched its “colour revolution” project in Ukraine. It began with Edward Snowden, who was stuck in Russia because he could not fly anywhere – his passport was cancelled. The US President, the Secretary of State and the FBI and CIA directors put pressure on us to surrender him without delay. We said we could not do so because all the accompanying information indicated that he was facing the death penalty. This is why Obama banned bilateral contacts and cancelled his visit ahead of the G20 summit in St Petersburg. By the way, we were preparing for that meeting an agreement on the further reduction of strategic offensive arms, which should have followed on the 2010 Prague Treaty, as well as a largely coordinated declaration that set out an agenda on strategic stability for many years to come. Obama’s inability to forgo personal resentment buried a very important document, which could have been put to very good use now.

Next, sanctions were imposed over the Magnitsky case. A closer look at the problem revealed that Bill Browder, who raised the ballyhoo, had problems with the law, and not only Russian law. The Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia brought charges against Browder in the United States. American courts had to accept numerous facts supporting our suspicions. However, the court’s operations were clearly interfered with by those who did not want to ease pressure on Russia, that is, by Browder himself and his supporters. In other words, Ukraine was just another pretext.

The US elite disliked the changes that took place in Russia after Vladimir Putin became our president, when we gradually got back on our feet and regained our independence. Most importantly, we started thinking independently and stopped listening to the advisers who were entrenched in our key ministries in the 1990s. We are not happy about the current situation. Some people say that Russia is wallowing in pride and is showing off its arrogance. Nothing of the kind! Only those who do not understand our thousands-year long history can say such a thing. This is sad.

One negative consequence of the 1990s is that American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history.” He was completely wrong, but many people took his writings as a signal to action. There were clever Sovietologists of the Cold War period, but no school of Russian studies has taken shape in the West. Few professionals shifted their views to Russia and the post-Soviet space after the demise of the Soviet Union. As for the current political scientists, I am at a loss to say who is really influential. There is Dimitri Simes and several other people I know personally, such as former ambassador to Russia Bill Burns. But they do not have any serious influence on decision-making, if at all. It is a lot simpler there [in the US].

The election defeat of the Democratic Party provided the pretext for preventing the normalisation of relations with Russia. Three weeks before leaving the White House, Barack Obama seized Russia’s diplomatic property. It happened in a country wh ere this cannot be done for any reason, wh ere private property is a sacred right and others’ property must never be taken. It was a time bomb, and its clock is still ticking. The Democrats have done their best to use the Russian card so as to do maximum damage to the current administration. When a great nation spends three years speculating about foreign interference that allegedly predetermined the outcome of its presidential elections, we see this as disrespect for the great American people.

Speaking about the election turbulence, I would like to refer to the Democratic Party. Contrary to what the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is trying to prove, there are solid facts showing that the Democratic Party violated the law when illegal methods were used to force Bernie Sanders to quit the race. Everyone has forgotten about this, talking about Russia all the time rather than about what is happening in the United States.

We are open for dialogue as long as the United States is. President Vladimir Putin has said this more than once at his meeting with US President Donald Trump in Hamburg in 2017, in Helsinki last year, as well as during their contacts at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. We do not want to interfere, and we do not want to give any reason for accusing us of interference in the internal fighting and conflicts in the United States. What we have is a constructive agenda. We have outlined a number of cooperation areas, including the establishment, upon our presidents’ approval, of a business council comprising five, six or seven top officials each from the largest Russian and US corporations. I am sure that such a high-level council could become a major stabilisation factor, at least for our business communities.

We have also proposed establishing, if our presidents approve this, a small council of leading Russian and US political scientists who can be charged with preparing a positive agenda. We have offered an extended programme for a dialogue on strategic stability, including on the INF Treaty and a future agreement on strategic offensive arms, as well as on cooperation in space and on ways to prevent its militarisation with unpredictable consequences. They have put all this on back burner. We have not received a clear or constructive response to these proposals. When the United States initiated the procedure to withdraw from the INF Treaty, President Putin said at a meeting with Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and me that we had more than once told our American partners about all our initiatives, and that our partners surely know about them. If they opted for disregarding these initiatives, we will no longer knock on a locked door and will stop reminding our partners about our initiatives. Our American colleagues can tell us when they are ready. We will be willing to start the talks.

Question: In your remarks, you noted that progress was made in EAEU - EU cooperation. We are aware that such cooperation was earlier allowed in the sphere of technical regulation. What do you think should serve as a catalyst to promote such a dialogue and expand it to Greater Eurasia?

Sergey Lavrov: I think life itself should be a catalyst. Many of our partners are already aware that a number of powers have been delegated from the national level to the Eurasian Economic Commission, and all inquiries should be sent there. You correctly noted that ​technical regulation was among the first areas in which contacts began. By the way, Germany has done a lot to overcome the ideological bias that has always been there. There will simply be no other options as the Commission continues to acquire its supranational powers.

Speaking of ideological bias, an interesting situation has shaped up around the multilateral organisations that include Russia as a member, such as the EAEU, the CSTO, the CIS, and even the SCO. As soon as we begin to promote projects involving the establishment of contacts between each of these organisations and, for example, the UN, mostly the Americans begin to get in the way and demand that the secretariat not sign particular documents. In June 2018, an anti-terrorism meeting was held at the UN office in New York, to which the Americans attempted not to admit representatives of the SCO regional anti-terrorism body. In the end, we overcame it. This bias is so far from the real needs of cooperation that discussing it at length makes no sense whatsoever. But the EAEU, albeit not without difficulty, including the anti-Russian sanctions, which impact our partners in this union as well, is looking for and effectively finds ways to improve things. The Union is developing progressively and the trade is growing quite steadily. The trend is quite good and will continue. Take a look at the specific EAEU competences – we cannot continue to work on a bilateral basis and to ignore this integration association.

The Greater Eurasia project is unlike the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership project. As I understand, the new US administration didn’t like the latter as it implied agreeing upon the entire package of rules and their subsequent entry into force from A to Z. The Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership was prepared in the same way, and also crumbled at this stage. They operate following their own processes. When President Putin talked about the practicality of discussing the Greater Eurasian space concept, he meant the EAEU and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The EAEU and China have a cooperation agreement. Russia and China also have signed a separate agreement. There’s also the SCO, which (although it mainly deals with terrorism and security) also has economic and financial projects, which are expanding. There’s ASEAN, which is interested, among other things, in expanding economic contacts with the SCO and the EAEU. Vietnam has already concluded a free trade agreement with the EAEU. Singapore is in the process of talks. ASEAN is also thinking about starting such talks with the EAEU.

That is to say, life sprouts. Here’s how they make a path across a lawn in England. First, they create a lawn and then let people trample on it in order to make a path across it. Once they have done this, they make a permanent path. We would like to use this logic to promote the idea of ​​a Greater Eurasian project. Don’t forget that Eurasia is our shared continent, the world’s largest, and all residents of this continent will clearly benefit from this flexible combination of efforts and the space which was predicted by great Europeans, starting with Charles de Gaulle. As soon as ideological blinders and shackles fall off, the EU, I think, will also benefit from becoming part of these processes, while preserving its identity.