Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference on the results of Russian diplomacy in 2018 (Moscow, January 16, 2019)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference on the results of Russian diplomacy in 2018 (Moscow, January 16, 2019)
It is needless to say that the international situation remained complicated. The conflict potential increased last year, primarily because of the stubborn unwillingness of some Western countries led by the United States to accept the realities of the objectively developing multipolar world, as well as because of their desire to continue to force their will on others by means of pressure and economic and propaganda instruments. There have been attempts to steamroll multilateral institutions and erode their international mission and to replace the universal norms of international law with a “rules-based order.” This term was recently coined to camouflage a striving to invent rules depending on changes in the political situation so as to be able to put pressure on disagreeable states and often even on allies.
It is alarming that various non-consensual initiatives are advocated beyond the framework of international institutions, and that decisions taken behind closed doors by a narrow group of the sel ect few are presented as the opinion of the international community.
We see no cause for optimism in Washington’s unilateral actions taken to undermine the crucial international legal instruments of strategic stability. We saw the latest example of this at the Russian-US consultations on the INF Treaty held in Geneva yesterday. Taken together, this is increasing mutual mistrust and militarising foreign policy mentality.
In this situation, we continued to pursue a multidirectional foreign policy focused on protecting Russia’s national interests. We worked to strengthen the positive trends on the international stage, to find collective solutions based on international law to the problems all countries are facing, and ultimately to promote a fairer and more democratic polycentric world order in keeping with objective modern realities. Towards this end, we closely cooperated with our allies and partners at the CSTO, the EAEU, the CIS, BRICS and the SCO, as well as working constructively in the key global governance bodies, primarily the UN and G20.
As part of our presidency of the EAEU, we worked to strengthen the organisation’s international standing. We did our best to align the EAEU with China’s Belt and Road initiative and to promote the Russia-ASEAN strategic partnership, including in the context of President Putin’s initiative for creating a Greater Eurasian Partnership based on the logic of harmonising our integration processes and open for accession to all countries and associations both in Asia and in Europe.
International terrorism has been dealt a defeating blow in Syria. This allowed to preserve the Syrian state and to launch economic recovery and the return of refugees back home. In keeping with the decisions taken at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, the guarantor countries of the Astana Process – Russia, Turkey and Iran – worked hard to help form the Constitutional Committee by convincing the Syrian Government and the opposition to approve the list of its potential members. This has created conditions for a political process in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 in the interests of a lasting settlement of the Syrian crisis.
We supported the positive trends on the Korean Peninsula based on the logic of the Russian-Chinese roadmap for a settlement. Of course, this calls for reciprocating Pyongyang’s constructive moves.
Another major result of the past year was the signing of the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea at the fifth Caspian Summit. This convention seals the coastal states’ exclusive rights to this unique body of water and its mineral and other resources.
We made significant efforts to ensure international information security and to fight cybercrime. In December, the UN General Assembly approved two resolutions on this matter on our initiative.
We paid special attention to the further development of contacts with the multi-million Russian world. The 6th World Congress of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad on October 31 − November 1 held in Moscow.
We expanded humanitarian, research and educational ties, and supported various initiatives aimed at introducing the world community to the best achievements of national culture and art. We assisted foreign countries in the training of their national personnel.
The FIFA World Cup was a highlight last year – a real triumph of public diplomacy. Millions of foreign guests visited Russia and saw modern Russia together with its citizens with their very own eyes.
This year, we intend to step up efforts in all the key areas. Among our priorities is the promotion of creating a truly universal antiterrorist coalition under the auspices of the UN, mobilising the international community to more effectively combat drug trafficking and other types of organised crime. We will help consolidate positive trends in Syria and on the Korean Peninsula, resolve other crises and conflicts, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Ukraine, where there is no alternative to the full and consistent implementation of the Minsk Agreements. As before, we are interested in restoring normal relations with the US and the EU on the principles of equality and mutual consideration of interests. We will certainly continue to respond appropriately to the increased NATO military activity and its military infrastructure being moved closer to the Russian borders.
Our undoubted priority is to ensure the national security and other favourable external conditions for Russia’s dynamic development and improving Russians’ welfare. We are open for creative interaction with all those who do not make bilateral relations hostage of volatile political environment or use them as a tool to achieve geopolitical advantages, but are willing to cooperate honestly and find mutually acceptable compromises based on mutual benefit.
Question: If the United States withdraws fr om the INF Treaty after all, will Moscow consider the extension of the Treaty?
Sergey Lavrov: As I already said, yesterday we provided our constructive proposals that allowed the US to make expert conclusions on the 9М729 missile, which they claim was created in violation of the Treaty parameters. However, the US delegation came to the talks with a pre-set position which was presented in the form of an ultimatum demand that we destroy the missile, its launchers and all the related equipment under the Americans’ supervision. They turned a blind eye to our request for analysing our proposals and the real specifications of this missile. Likewise, they refused to listen to our proposals regarding access to information on our concerns about the Americans’ non-compliance with that Treaty if we take action to allay the Americans’ suspicions. They rejected all our proposals. The logic of the American approach as expressed yesterday is as follows: Russia violates the Treaty, while the US does not. Therefore, Russia must do what the US demands, while the US does not have to do anything. This approach is not at all constructive. It obviously is part of the policy for destroying all the agreements in the sphere of strategic stability, starting with the ABM agreement. The INF Treaty is another victim. Many countries fear that the US administration also intends to pull out of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as well. We hope this is not the case. We are ready to keep working in order to save the INF Treaty.
I hope that those European countries that should be interested in this more than others will do something constructive instead of docilely following in the US wake, adopting NATO decisions that only blame Russia, ignoring the facts we provide and are ready to provide. I hope that they will try to influence Washington so that it takes a more responsible position regarding all members of the international community, primarily the Europeans.
As for the START Treaty, we are doing a great deal, as you know, to remove all the possible hitches and to ensure its extension. But we do have logical questions about the US efforts to exclude a significant number of strategic offensive arms fr om the accountability by presenting them as conventional weapons. We have informed US and other Western experts about our concerns. We hope that professionalism and a responsible attitude to the international community will take priority in Washington’s approach to the dialogue on strategic stability.
Question: There were a lot of questions in the United States over the fact that President Donald Trump did not share the content of his conversations with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, including with his official representatives. Is the Kremlin influencing the transparency of these conversations?
Sergey Lavrov: It is difficult for me to comment on what is happening in the United States and President Trump accused of being a Russian agent. I would say this is a lowering of the standards of journalism for the American press and a thankless job. I cannot believe that journalists in the United States sincerely and professionally deal with these problems. There is such a thing as the culture of diplomacy, the culture of negotiations, the culture of communication at the interstate level. This implies following the decorum, approaches and norms accepted in each of the parties in interstate relations. As far as I know, the US Constitution authorises the President to set and carry out the country’s foreign policy. We know that this right is now being attacked by Congress. They write a lot about this, including your colleagues. But this does not make these attacks constitutional or legitimate. I will not comment on the actions taken by the US Administration in accordance with the President’s and his Administration’s powers.
Question: Recently, Russia and Japan began a new round of talks on a peace treaty, which should be aimed at taking bilateral relations to a new level. The treaty must be supported by both nations. Like, probably, the whole of Japan, I do not understand that you set a precondition for us. It lies in the fact that Japan, above all, must recognise all the results of World War II, including the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over the disputed islands. Is this not an ultimatum? You do normally criticise ultimatums in diplomacy. One gets an impression that Russia is again demanding unconditional surrender from Japan. I do not understand Russia’s logic. We are discussing the ownership of the islands. If Japan recognises Russia's sovereignty over the Kuril Islands, then the question will be closed and there will be no problems. Then what are we going to negotiate?
Sergey Lavrov: The recognition of the outcome of World War II is not an ultimatum, not a precondition. This is an unavoidable and inextricable factor in the modern international system.
With the support of the Soviet Union in 1956, Japan became a member of the UN, signed and ratified the UN Charter, in which there is Article 107. It states that all the results of World War II are unshakable. So, we do not require anything from Japan. We urge our Japanese neighbours toward practical actions in line with their obligations under the UN Charter, the San Francisco Declaration and a number of other documents, including those you mentioned.
What does our position regarding the need for Japan to align its approaches with the UN Charter mean? The term “northern territories” is included in your country’s legislation. It is included in a number of laws, including the one adopted in September 2018 which ties implementation of the joint initiative by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on joint economic activities on the islands to the need to return the northern territories. No one agreed on that. This is directly contrary to Japan’s obligations under the UN Charter.
So, this is not a preliminary requirement, but a desire to understand why Japan is the only country in the world that cannot fully recognise the outcome of World War II.
Of course, there is still a number of other passing details. I do not want, again, to go over the problem of the military-political alliance with the United States, the deployment of US bases in Japan. All this was covered in sufficient detail.
Our leaders also spoke about the need for qualitative improvement, as you rightly said, of our relations in the economy, trade, culture, science and international affairs. To resolve any complex issues, not only under a peace treaty – there is a number of other issues to be resolved with our Japanese colleagues. Of course, it is necessary for us to feel like we are partners in the international arena, not countries standing on the opposite side of the barricades. But Japan joined a series of sanctions imposed on Russia which hardly fits into the understanding of achieving a qualitatively new level of relations. Japan joined the anti-Russian statements adopted by the G7. On all UN resolutions that are of interest to Russia, Japan votes not with us, but against us.
Question: Last year Russian diplomacy achieved impressive successes in Syria. What actions in the spirit of unity and the struggle of opposites will be taken in the east of the Euphrates after the departure of US troops?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a very important issue. On the whole, the Syrian settlement process is making headway, although slower than desired and with problems that were hard to predict before. Nonetheless, progress is obvious. We are convinced that the fight against terrorism should be completed. Now the main hotbed is the Idlib zone wh ere almost all of the militants have been taken over by Jabhat al-Nusra, a banned organization that the UN Security Council qualified as terrorists. We are highly interested in the implementation of the Russia-Turkey agreements on the Idlib zone. But they do not give carte blanche to terrorists that continue shooting at Syrian troop positions and civilian facilities from the Idlib zone, including the demilitarised area, and who are trying to attack the Russian Khmeimim air base.
We hope that President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be in contact soon. A meeting has already been scheduled, and this will be the central issue of the talks.
As for the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the US has indeed announced its intention to withdraw from there. It is common knowledge that it has established about two dozen military facilities there, including fairly big and strong military bases. It is no secret either, that the US supplied arms to the Kurdish self-defence units that collaborated with it. This gives rise to the following question that is of interest, in part, to our Turkish colleagues: what will happen with these arms and military facilities? We are convinced that the most rational and the only correct solution to this issue would be to put these territories under the control of the Syrian Government, Syrian armed forces and Syrian administrative structures with the understanding that the Kurds should be provided with all the necessary conditions in the places of their traditional residence.
We welcome and support the contacts that have been established between Kurdish representatives and the Syrian authorities with a view to coming to terms on ways to restore life in a unified state without outside interference.
There is a problem with the American plans. First it was announced that the withdrawal would take place in two months, then in six rather than two months and later on that the withdrawal may be delayed. That brings to mind a quote by Mark Twain “Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.” This is also an American tradition.
There is still another big problem – the Al-Tanf zone with a radius of 55 km, which was illegally set up by the US. It contains Rukban refugee camp access to which is practically closed. A humanitarian convoy that was organised with our support and the consent of the Syrian Government entered this zone several weeks ago. Contrary to US assurances, representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent and the convoy were not allowed to meet with the refugees directly. Control over this was given to militants, including terrorists that live, conduct training sessions undisturbed and receive material and other support in Al-Tanf.
Nobody knows for sure what happened with these humanitarian goods – whether they were received by the refugees to whom they were sent or if militants used them in their own interests. Now our UN colleagues are calling for a second convoy to this place. The situation is indeed hopelessly bad – there are between 30,000 and 50,000 refugees there without access. Supporting the position of the Syrian Government, we insist that this time complete safety and transparency be ensured and measures taken to make sure that the goods are delivered to the refugees rather than illegal armed units.
In addition, as a power that occupies that part of Syria, the US is fully responsible for the destiny and living conditions of the civilians there. After all, the US service personnel in Al-Tanf are supplied with all they need from Iraq. If food and other essentials are delivered to US troops, it is easy to do the same for the refugees, using the same routes.
Question: US President Donald Trump has recently called for a 20-mile safe zone in the north of Syria. President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan also spoke in support of this plan. How would you assess it?
Sergey Lavrov: We will assess it in the context of the general evolution of the situation in Syria. I have already spoken about President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. The idea of a 20-mile safe zone was floated in this context. We should take a long view of all this, including the restoration of the central authorities’ control over the entire territory of Syria as soon as possible. This issue will be discussed, among others, when the Turkish President comes [to Russia] for the next round of talks with President Vladimir Putin. I would like to repeat that the ultimate goal is to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as has been agreed by Russia, the United States, Turkey and all other UN member states. At the same time, we will keep working to ensure full respect for the interests of all the parties involved and of Syria’s neighbours. Of course, the security interests of all countries in the region, including Turkey, will be included in the agreements which we will try to coordinate.
Question: The whole of Europe is anxiously watching the situation around Brexit. Tension in relations between Russia and Britain is at its highest, particularly after the Skripal case. What Brexit scenario would be especially interesting to Russia, given its interests in Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a matter for Britain and its subjects, and for the country’s Parliament. Certainly, it is not all the same to us in what way this might affect the European Union since the EU is our top trade partner as an organisation (while China is the top one at a national level), even despite the fact that our combined goods turnover fell fr om its record high of 400 billion euros to around 270 billion euros due to the sanctions.
There are many processes going on in connection with Brexit, and not just Brexit alone, which will influence the functioning of the European Union. It is very important for us to understand how this might affect our relations, above all, trade and economic relations. As for talk about what option is “more interesting” – this psychology is characteristic of countries and politicians seeking to interfere in and trying to “orchestrate” processes in other states. We do nothing of the sort. I cited examples how preparations for the Prespa Agreement in Macedonia were openly “orchestrated” without any scruples. Attempts are now being made in Germany, through the US ambassador, to orchestrate the positions of German companies with regard to Nord Stream 2. We do not use such approaches.
We say nothing about Brexit, but someone writes that Russia is “rubbing its hands” and “gloating”. Nothing of the kind. We always said, long before Brexit shaped up, that we are interested in a single, strong and, most importantly, independent European Union. It remains to be seen what will happen. Of course, we are ready to cooperate both with the EU and Britain, in case the latter eventually pulls out of the EU. As for what are the best forms in which this could be carried out, we will consider that after we understand what has really happened.
Question: At the end of last week, the US media announced the country’s intention to strengthen its position in the Arctic in response to Russia and China’s excessive claims in the region. In particular, a report, citing Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, indicated that Washington plans to send warships to the Arctic this summer, in the first US Navy operation to ensure freedom of navigation in the region.
Earlier, at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Alaska in May 2017, you said there was no potential for any conflict in the Arctic. How do you assess the US intention to increase its military presence in the Arctic? Could this step serve as another reason for the heightening tension between Russia and the United States? Will Russia take any retaliatory action if the United States sends warships to the Arctic?
Sergey Lavrov: The United States is an Arctic power. In accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States is entitled to use the sea routes in this region, like all other Arctic and non-Arctic powers.
If we are talking about warships of any country planning to use the Northern Sea Route, then there are rules for this. Last autumn, a French warship passed along the Northern Sea Route. My French colleagues and I discussed all the details, no questions arose.
We presume that everyone will respect these rules, because it cannot be otherwise. The Russian Federation is responsible for ensuring the effective functioning and security of the Northern Sea Route.
Regarding the reasons why the United States wants to pay more attention to this region, I repeat, it is an Arctic power. I see no problem here if they respect the law, including the Russian laws on the use of the Northern Sea Route. Whether they want to create additional potential for conflict through this, I do not know. I do not want to jump the gun. In a number of other regions, the United States is doing this, including the South China Sea, wh ere they are trying to intervene in territorial disputes between China and the countries of South-East Asia. I really hope this will not happen in the Arctic, this way of creating factors that aggravate relations between countries in the relevant parts of the world. This will not facilitate cooperation within the Arctic Council.
Question: This year, the US started a trade war against China. Russia is also facing a more complicated global situation. Some experts believe that this situation is only strengthening our solidarity. Do you agree with this? How will our foreign relations develop?
Sergey Lavrov: There is a lot of speculation about how relations are developing in the Russia-China-US triangle. Many people want to go back to the time of President Richard Nixon when the US decided to normalise its relations with China to contain the Soviet Union. Many people want that.
Recently, some members of Japan’s governing party have voiced the idea of signing a peace treaty with Russia, above all, to contain China.
When everything that happens in the relations between our countries is regarded as an attempt to “drive a wedge” into them and divide our positions, it only causes deep regret, because it reflects the “either with us or against us” mentality.Russia and China have not made friends to oppose anyone. We are friends because we are neighbours and strategic partners in international affairs; we share many common interests and see the same need to make the world more stable, secure and democratic. This is the foundation of our strategic partnership and comprehensive cooperation. We also have a shared interest in trying to preserve the global trade system and making it easier to understand and govern, as well as less dependent on the unilateral whims of any state. I believe we have to work in this area for many years to come, but we intend to deliver results.