Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with the RBK TV channel on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, St Petersburg, June 19, 2015
Question: Moscow’s reaction to the seizure of Russian property abroad in connection with the Yukos case is expected to be very tough. How will Russia respond to this?
Sergey Lavrov: The response will be reciprocal. This is inevitable. It is the only way of acting in the international arena. Reciprocity may be positive or negative, as in this case. Now we are working to reverse the seizure of the accounts of our diplomatic agencies in the first place. In France they also started by seizing accounts of the Embassy, our UNESCO office and the trade mission, but then backtracked and retained control only of the accounts of our companies with state participation. Belgium took the same inappropriate actions, announcing their decision to close the accounts of our diplomatic agencies—the Embassy, and the offices at the EU and NATO. This completely contradicts the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that provides for the immunity of all diplomatic property – real estate and everything linked with it. Representatives of the Belgian Foreign Ministry are sending us signals that they were not in the know and that they have an independent judiciary. These explanations are unacceptable because in accordance with international law the immunity of diplomatic property is guaranteed by the state, which in this case is acting through its Foreign Ministry in relations with foreign partners.
Question: There are several caveats that may be important in certain circumstances, like they were in the Noga case.
Sergey Lavrov: There are no caveats in international law in this case.
Question: You mentioned negative reciprocity. Will we reciprocate by seizing their accounts or will we just protest the seizure of ours?
Sergey Lavrov: Our economic operators will request that a Russian court take similar steps in response to these inappropriate actions – seizing the property of foreign companies with state participation.
Question: I guess emotions are running high on both sides. Participants of every SPIEF speak about the investment climate. The seizure of our accounts is disgraceful but if we take similar actions there won’t be any investment climate to speak of.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t rule out that these actions were timed to coincide with SPIEF. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but even if this is a pure coincidence it is still working against those who want to do business in Russia normally, without any artificial obstacles. The seizure of our accounts plays into the hands of those who’d like to complicate such cooperation, whether intentionally or not.
Question: US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Russia has generated, if not optimism, at least a hint of optimism. It seemed that it had started the ball rolling and that Mr Kerry felt that it was impossible to manage without Russia on certain issues. Is this really the case and what could these issues be?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not think that there is any serious global issue that could be resolved without Russia. Look at the current policy priorities of the United States and the West as a whole. Other than Ukraine, they include Syria, Libya and the problem of refugees who are fleeing Africa via Libya to Europe in search of a better deal and creating a headache for the European Union. Another one is Iraq, which has seen no improvement since the American invasion and subsequent withdrawal, in the sense that the country cannot be expected to cope with its problems on its own. There is also Yemen, Iran’s nuclear programme, and the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, among many others. None of these issues, none of these serious problems can be resolved without our country. Russia is present in all forums that have been established to address these problems and naturally plays a very important role in ensuring lasting stability in the Middle East, including the search for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I would describe Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit as evidence that they have finally come to understand this. Last year, I met with Mr Kerry more often than with any of my other colleagues – I believe 17 times. So far this year we have had four one-on-one meetings, not counting dozens of telephone conversations. We proceed from the premise that all of the aforementioned problems are not Western problems. They have a global character and Russia has a vested interest in seeing them resolved so that stability and order come to these strategically important parts of the world and so that that it is possible to effectively cooperate with them in the trade, economic, and humanitarian spheres, among many others. We don’t address these problems as a favour to anyone. We work toward global stability, which is in our own interests. We have never shirked collaboration with the Americans or NATO or the European Union. They have decided to punish us for the fact that the Ukrainian people did not rise in unison to praise a coup and a significant segment of the country refused to accept the putschists. It is very important for us to help the Ukrainian people resolve this crisis, which we did not create. They have decided to blame us, not themselves, for the fact that the situation in Ukraine came to the point of an unconstitutional coup d’etat. This is their choice. They have closed off communication channels and are now quietly beginning to look for ways to reopen them without losing face. We won’t be “mean” and will respond in kind (that will be positive reciprocity) if we are invited to unfreeze communication channels.
Question: Moscow is often held responsible for the breach of the Minsk agreements. Do we have any influence on the unrecognised DPR and LPR? Do we have working contacts with them? The question is, why are we, of all parties, blamed for this? Do representatives of these republics consult us before they make high-profile statements? How are our relations with them organised?
Sergey Lavrov: We certainly have ways of influencing them. They largely depend on us. Take, for example, humanitarian aid, which no one else supplies there in such amounts. Of course, they also depend on us politically because we believe that in the context of this settlement, their legitimate rights as part of the Ukrainian nation must be respected.
Question: Still, only as part of the Ukrainian nation?
Sergey Lavrov: The rights of the people of Donetsk and Lugansk as part of the Ukrainian people must be fully respected in the settlement process. Do we have 100 percent influence? Absolutely not. These people have their own vision of the situation. They live there under artillery attacks; their family and friends are killed and injured and social infrastructure is destroyed. People live in appalling conditions. People in a number of areas are in despair. In my opinion, we do not even have the moral right to tell them what actions, what steps they should take. However, we got them to do the most important thing. Despite their declarations of independence and sovereignty referendums, after the Minsk agreement were reached, Donetsk and Lugansk committed themselves to search for solutions to all of their problems within the bounds of the Ukrainian state, provided of course that the Minsk agreements are fully implemented in good faith and in the sequence that they provide for. Now, regarding the allegations that Russia is not honouring the Minsk agreements.It is an open document approved by a UN Security Council resolution. One need only start reading it point by point to understand that almost nothing depends on Russia except for influencing the parties, which is precisely what we are doing. To reiterate, we have persuaded Lugansk and Donetsk to endorse the Minsk agreements by signing them and to ensure that the implementation of this document leads to the integration of the Ukrainian state within which these territories should receive a special status, which is also provided for in the Minsk document in the context of the decentralisation of powers.
Question: How are Donetsk and Lugansk different from Crimea? Why did we make one decision regarding Crimea, but in a virtually identical situation in another part of Ukraine our decision is different?
Sergey Lavrov: There is no unanimity in Donetsk and Lugansk. Donetsk and Lugansk did not hold referendums on accession to the Russian Federation. I don’t think this would be correct from a political perspective. Politically, no one is interested in the disintegration of Ukraine. Crimea is a special case psychologically, historically, politically, and so on. The people responded to the attempts to put a muzzle on [ethnic] Russians in Crimea. This was what the people responded to. Regarding Ukraine, I do not believe in playing up to those who would like to break it, and there are those who would like to do this both in the West – those coveting these lands – and there are also hotheads in the East. As Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated, Russia backed the Minsk agreements without any reservations. They are completely in sync with our vision of how to resolve this crisis. Trying to question their viability and the integrity of the Ukrainian state now would be tantamount to abetting all sorts of extremists. We do not want this. We want Ukraine to do everything it’s responsible for, including decentralisation, constitutional reform and amnesty for all participants in the events in southeastern Ukraine. Whatever point [of the agreement] you take, practically all of them provide for coordination between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. The Ukrainian authorities refuse to do this, which is the main, key problem impeding the implementation of the Minsk agreements and accord on all issues related to Ukrainian statehood. In this respect, our Western partners, including US Secretary of State John Kerry during his May 12 visit to Russia, and our German and French colleagues, are starting to accept the need to intensify pressure on Kiev so that not only Lugansk and Donetsk are ready to honour the Minsk agreements but so that Kiev is also ready to do the same – moreover, not the way it sees fit but precisely as provided for, i.e. carry out decentralisation and constitutional reform and organise elections to bodies of local self-government with the approval of Donetsk and Lugansk. To reiterate, so far, Kiev is trying to do all this unilaterally. The constitutional commission, which was established, does not include a single representative from the self-proclaimed republics. The draft constitution that they wrote was sent for discussion not to Donetsk and Lugansk but to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which stated last year that it would be prepared to consider Ukraine’s draft constitution provided it understood the status of this document – how broadly it was discussed in society. And it was not discussed in society. Direct dialogue is the key to everything. Unfortunately, even within the framework of the Contact Group, when four working subgroups were established on the basis of the Minsk agreements, which were signed by Donetsk and Lugansk, among other parties, our Kiev colleagues want to create some parallel tracks without Lugansk or Donetsk and they want us to represent their interests. This is conceptually at odds with the entire Minsk document.
Question: US President Barack Obama once said there are three principal threats: Russia, Ebola and the Islamic State. I am not prepared to discuss Ebola or Russia with you. What do you consider the principal threats to peace? Is the Islamic State one of them?
Sergey Lavrov: This is the threat of terrorism, violent extremism, everything that is going on around the so-called Islamic State (it is not alone there: there are also Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, in Iraq, and so on). This common threat should unite us all because hundreds of people from Europe, the United States, the Russian Federation and neighbouring countries, including Central Asia, are fighting in the ranks of these thugs. We have no doubt that this is our common and main threat.
Question: Earlier today, you spoke a great deal about the Middle East. Do we still have any influence, including diplomatic influence, left in the Middle East?
Sergey Lavrov: No doubt, our influence remains. Moreover, it is growing as countries and nations in this region come to realise that it is suicidal to rely on US “recipes” alone. These “recipes” have brought about what we are now seeing in Iraq and Libya and what can happen in Syria, unfortunately. Therefore they understand the need for checks and balances and stability, which should depend not on just one key player but on several. Russia is one of them.