Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Pravda, Slovakia, published on August 28, 2018

Tuesday, 28 August 2018 12:04

Question: The populists are clearly strengthening their hand in Europe, as demonstrated, for example, by the election returns in Italy or Austria. Isn’t this working in Russia’s favour?

Sergey Lavrov: You know, we are trying not to think in this way or within this paradigm. From the practical point of view, however, it is important to understand that Russian foreign policy is devoid of ideological colouring and the main criterion, which we use to assess our partners, is the extent of their readiness to promote equitable and mutually beneficial relations with the Russian Federation based on compliance with international law and reciprocal respect for each other’s interests. In this sense, the party or ideological affiliation of some or other political forces that have gained power as a result of a democratic vote is not of much importance for us.

I would like to emphasise that Russia is open to constructive cooperation with all partners – and not only in Europe – who are willing to meet halfway. Moreover, we are ready to cooperate to an extent, to which our partners would agree. Based on this assumption, we welcome the intention demonstrated by the governments of a number of European countries, including Slovakia, to maintain a mutually respectful dialogue with Russia. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of people in Europe are interested in seeing a peaceful continent and a prosperous one too and are unwilling to return to Cold War confrontation.

I think that there is no need to say that Russia is a European country itself and that the European Union is not only our neighbour but also the most important trade and economic partner. Therefore, we certainly follow closely the political and social processes unfolding in the European states. Of course, we are not indifferent to what is going on “on our doorstep.”

As for the characterisation of certain politicians as populists, which is implied by your question, I would certainly prefer to avoid using tag-words of this kind and would say that we are speaking, in particular, about politicians, for whom many citizens of European countries vote. This means that these politicians’ ideas and action programmes have managed to respond to the aspirations of the voters, including by suggesting solutions to some of the problems Europe is facing today. 

Question: Russia has been accused lately of meddling in domestic affairs of other countries, including in the US elections, by using social media such as Facebook. According to articles published by some of the Western media, the Internet Research Agency from St Petersburg has been involved in activities of this kind. Could you share your perspective on this situation?

Sergey Lavrov: Let me set the record straight right away. Russia has never interfered in the internal affairs of other countries. This is not what we do. By the way, this sets us apart from other countries that have made such practices their preferred tool for promoting their geopolitical interests. Suffice to recall the outside interference in the events of the Arab Spring or the efforts to provoke an anti-constitutional government coup in Ukraine. Let me also note that for many years now we have been witnessing continuing attempts to influence internal processes in Russia. This goes to say that those who accuse us of some wrongdoings have not kept their noses clean.

As for the anti-Russia information campaign that has been unleashed lately, here is what I have to say about this. The allusions whereby Russia interfered in the US presidential election have been circulating for two years now. There is a strong case to be made for suggesting that this campaign is exclusively and entirely an internal matter for the US. After all, it was initiated by the Democrats while they still held the White House after they had lost the election. So instead of acknowledging the defeat and leaving quietly, they produced imaginary Russian hackers as the culprits of their failure and started selling the fiction of collusion between the winning Republican candidate and Russia.

To be honest, I was really surprised by how easy it was to place these groundless allegations at the heart of the political debates within the US.

For all this time, we insisted that our US colleagues show us some evidence to back their claims. But there is nothing to support their claims whatsoever. We have been proposing setting up a joint working group with the US on cybersecurity for more than a year now in order to discuss as well as remove mutual concerns related to influencing electoral processes in both countries. However, Washington has been reluctant to engage in any kind of professional conversations on this matter. It may be that they are simply not prepared to have a substantive discussion.

As for the Internet Research Agency that you have mentioned, it turned to US courts to challenge accusations against businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and his staff. President of Russia Vladimir Putin has already made a public statement on this subject. First of all, it is not a question of the Russian state being involved. To take an example from the US, you never know what George Soros is up to. Just ask the Department of State about him, and they will tell you that this is Soros’ private business that does not involve the US government. He did not violate any laws to begin with.

Second, does anyone really believe that a Russian restaurant owner could influence the election in the US, a major power, through social media posts? I think that even suggesting this would be deriding from the US political system, as if the democracy there was just a “house of cards.”

Let me also add that 20 years ago Russia spearheaded the discussion under UN auspices on information security. Today, Russia is using various platforms and frameworks for calling on the international community to adopt a resolution at the upcoming UN General Assembly setting forth the rules of responsible behaviour in the information space. We believe that this document, among other things, would prevent attempts to use digital technology for encroaching on state sovereignty.

Question: After a long wait, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump had a meeting in Helsinki while, as both leaders admitted, they do not fully trust each other. However, the negotiations continue. What will actually change after these meetings when it comes to bilateral relations and global policy?

Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, it would be naïve to assume that complete trust would be established after the Russia−US summit. It is only natural that each of the presidents is defending his country’s interests, which Vladimir Putin mentioned during the follow-up news conference with Donald Trump in Helsinki on July 16. But of course, our interests do coincide on some matters concerning both bilateral and international affairs. It is also obvious that the negative dynamics of the relations is damaging to both countries and creates additional serious risks for the entire architecture of international security.

In Helsinki, the presidents confirmed their mutual intention to search for points of contact and scenarios to overcome the existing differences. They agreed that Russia−US cooperation on a constructive and mutually beneficial basis is extremely important in a whole range of spheres. Specifically, this concerns the maintenance of strategic stability, fighting international terrorism and other modern challenges, settling regional crises and developing bilateral trade and economic links. Now we are working out specific steps that could be taken to align efficient cooperation in various fields.

The problem is, however, that our relations continue to be strongly affected by the domestic political situation in the United States. As I noted earlier, some forces in the Washington establishment are inflating the Russophobic hysteria and attempting to block any progress in bilateral affairs. It is not a coincidence that right after the meeting in Helsinki, Donald Trump was bombarded with criticism from his opponents and the Congress started developing new initiatives against our country.

This being said, the US Administration is also not being very consistent. Despite the reassurances from the Americans that they are ready for dialogue, we are still facing unfriendly steps that are escalating the already not so simple situation in our relations. Thus, on August 8, the United States announced new anti-Russian measures on the pretext of our alleged involvement in the Skripal case. Immediately, we started receiving threats of further pressure unless we can convince the United States that we no longer use chemical and biological weapons. It is difficult to take such requirements seriously. They look particularly strange considering that, unlike the United States, we completely destroyed our chemical arsenal. That was attested by the OPCW.

For our part, we will continue to act in a calm and pragmatic manner responding to all the attacks based on a reciprocity principle. Obviously, attempts to communicate with Russia in the language of ultimatums have no prospects. At the same time, we remain open to building adequate and mutually respectful relations with Washington based on actual consideration for each other’s interests.

Question: Ukraine is one of the most difficult topics for Western countries when it comes to Russia as they saw reunification with Crimea as annexation and hence introduced anti-Russian sanctions. Moscow responded to this measure with its own retaliatory restrictions. Is it possible that Crimea will be returned to Ukraine in order to relieve the controversy?

Sergey Lavrov: This matter is final. Crimea is an inseparable part of the Russian Federation. The process of integrating the peninsula with the national political, legal and socioeconomic environment is complete. Essential facilities of the regional infrastructure are under construction as planned. The peninsula residents are now entitled to all social security and support prescribed by Russian law. There is an atmosphere of inter-ethnic accord in Crimea – mostly thanks to the consideration for the interests of all ethnicities.

I want to stress that reunification of Crimea and Russia was conducted according to well-defined international legal terms. The local population exercised its right to self-determination documented in the UN Charter as an anti-constitutional coup took place in Kiev and Russian-speaking residents of Crimea became subject to open threats from Ukrainian ultra-nationalists. Their will expressed in a referendum allowed them to avoid the tragedy of a fratricidal conflict that the Kiev authorities unleashed against their own citizens in southeastern Ukraine, in Donbass.

Representatives of foreign public, political and business communities visiting Crimea, including from Europe, can see for themselves that the Crimeans are committed to their free choice made in March 2014 that connected their fates to Russia. I want to take this opportunity to invite readers of this newspaper to visit Crimea and see for themselves the life on the peninsula today and realise that the actual situation is different from those strange reports that sometimes circulate in the European press.

Question: Russia provides military support to the Government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who, according to some sources, does not shy away from using toxic agents against his own people. What are Moscow’s motives for supporting the regime in Damascus? 

Sergey Lavrov: Russian service personnel are staying in Syria at the invitation of the country’s legitimate Government, and they are supporting the people of Syria in their struggle against international terrorism.

Let me remind you that by mid-2015, ISIS was energetically expanding its “caliphate” and was in control of almost 70 per cent of Syria’s territory. The criminal activity of terrorist groups spewed beyond the Middle East and assumed global proportions. Bloody terrorist attacks were perpetrated in various parts of the world, including European cities. Europe was swamped with a tidal wave of refugees. The actions of the so-called US-led anti-ISIS coalition that was established in circumvention of the UN Security Council and without prior coordination with Syrian authorities were extremely ineffective.

The resolute actions by the Russian military, bolstered by energetic diplomatic efforts, dealt a crushing blow to ISIS militants and other terrorist groups which, I repeat, posed the most serious threat to the entire international community. Most importantly, it was possible to preserve Syrian statehood.

Today, our efforts in Syria are primarily aimed at facilitating the fastest possible political settlement under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, with due account for the outcome of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Russia and its partners are helping with the return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons to their former places of residence. The time is now ripe to restore the damaged infrastructure and the country’s economy.

The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic is being accused of using chemical weapons; however, so far no evidence has been submitted, not even in connection with the high-profile April 7, 2018 incident in Douma. No traces of the alleged chemical attack were found; nor were there any casualties, victims or eyewitnesses. But a number of people starred in a staged news report showing the so-called “White Helmets” rescuing people allegedly affected by the chemical attack.

Despite the lack of evidence, the United States and its allies launched large-scale missile-bomb strikes against Syrian territory on April 14, in violation of the fundamental principles of international law and the letter and spirit of the UN Charter. Those strikes jeopardised the entire peace settlement in the country. This graphic example shows how various parties act with regard to Syria.

Question: US President Donald Trump has noted that the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is dividing Europe. Does this imply political or economic arguments? What do you think about this?  

Sergey Lavrov: Speculation that Russia allegedly strives to weaken Europe or to divide it is absurd. We invariably advocate expanded wide-ranging and equitable cooperation in the entire European continent on the basis of the equal and indivisible security principle. The well-known initiative by the President of Russia Vladimir Putin to create a common economic and humanitarian infrastructure between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans aimed to accomplish this task.

Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project. It is aimed at diversifying gas delivery routes and eliminating transit risks. In the long run, the project is intended to meet growing European fuel and energy demand and to strengthen the entire European continent’s energy security. By the way, it is expected to increase the level of positive economic interdependence between Russia and the European Union based on mutually beneficial relations and stability in the European continent.

We understand the purpose of the US president’s statement, which you mentioned. Washington wants to promote its economic and energy interests in Europe. In particular, it wants to force EU countries to finance the construction of expensive infrastructure and to start buying liquefied natural gas from the United States, which would cost 30-40 per cent more than Russian pipeline gas. It’s up to the Europeans to decide what option they prefer.

Question: Slovakia supports the EU's anti-Russia sanctions, but at the same time did not expel any Russian diplomat in connection with the so-called Skripal case, taking a more reserved position on this matter. What place does Slovakia occupy in Russia’s foreign policy, and how are our bilateral relations developing?

Sergey Lavrov: This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Over the years, a high level of mutual trust has developed between our states. I note with satisfaction the reciprocal commitment to the progressive development of our bilateral cooperation.

We maintain a mutually respectful political dialogue. I highly appreciate the good relations with my Slovak counterpart, Miroslav Lajcak. We are strengthening our inter-parliamentary ties. In particular, last November, Speaker of the National Council of Slovakia Andrej Danko paid an official visit to Russia.

Interregional exchanges are being promoted. At present, more than 50 agreements have been concluded between the constituent regions of the Russian Federation, local administrations, and the Economics Ministry of Slovakia. The International Association “Sister Cities” and the Union of Towns and Cities of Slovakia are working energetically to strengthen contacts between regions and sister cities.

Slovakia is an important trade and economic partner of Russia in Europe. The commodity turnover is growing and amounted to 5.3 billion dollars last year. The development of local manufacturing facilities by Slovak companies operating in Russia is also helping consolidate the positive trend.

Russian-Slovak relations are traditionally characterised by a rich cultural and humanitarian interaction. We are ready to continue supporting various projects, including those already implemented, as part of the 2018-2022 programme of cooperation between the two countries' Culture Ministries, signed in March 2018.

Apart from their cultural affinity, our peoples are united by the glorious pages of their joint fight against Nazism. We are sincerely grateful to the Slovak leadership, to the local authorities and citizens of that country for their careful attitude to the memory of the Soviet soldiers who gave their lives to liberate Slovakia and the whole of Europe from the horrors of the brown plague. We greatly appreciate their taking care of Russian military graves and memorials located in Slovakia.

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