Russian foreign minister answers questions on Ukraine and world issues

Text of "Answers to questions from the ITAR-TASS news agency by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, Moscow, 4 August 2014" published on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on 6 August; subheadings added editorially.

Question: How do you assess the results of the meeting of the Contact Group on Ukraine in Minsk, and what are the prospects of a future meeting in this or another format? Please comment on the messages that Ukrainian soldiers have gone to Russia en masse. And what, in general, can you say about the topic of Ukraine?

Dialogue needed to resolve Ukraine conflict

Sergey Lavrov: The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has already provided his assessment of the meeting in Minsk, including in his contacts with foreign leaders. We welcome any steps aimed at dialogue rather than continuation of armed confrontation. Any dialogue should be equal to be productive. In other words, representatives of the south-east of Ukraine must be perceived as partners in the situation, which should be settled to make all those who live in Ukraine feel Ukrainians, part of their state, to make them to directly participate in reforms in their country, which were due long ago or even overdue. To be noted, the Ukrainian representatives said this when they were in opposition. Now they are heads of the state, and we would like them not to forget about the requirements to create structures, which allow reinforcing national unity, which they set when they were in opposition. Otherwise, they are no more than the current climate and temporary leaders.

It is also very important to stick to the other agreements which have been reached at the international level. In particular, the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine with the participation of the US secretary of state and the high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy signed a statement aimed at the resolution of three quite urgent tasks on 17 April in Geneva.

The first was to stop the use of force immediately, the second was to resolve humanitarian problems immediately, and the third was to start constitutional reform in a format which envisages the participation of all the Ukrainian regions and is open and accountable to public opinion.

None of those three requirements, to which the Ukrainian foreign minister signed, were implemented, primarily because Kiev chose another path and attempted to replace its internationally-agreed obligations with the so-called "peace plan by [Ukrainian President] Petro Poroshenko", which went in the right direction proposing a cease-fire, but its further points requested this cease-fire so that all the militia lay down weapons and surrender "at the discretion of the winner". This is directly contradictory to the obligations undertaken by Ukraine to start an equal and respectful dialogue with all the regions on how to build their state in such a way to make everything good in it, to make regions feel part of their country, which is respected, which chooses its leaders independently, has certain rights in the area of economics, finance and tax collection, and which guarantees the cultural and humanitarian traditions of its populations, including the use of their native language. I reiterate again that this has not been done. We drew the attention of our partners in the Minsk meeting to the fact that nobody has cancelled these criteria. They were agreed and approved, including by Ukrainians with the participation of the United States and the EU. It is not fair to try to "sweep this under the carpet", and we will not allow this to be done.

Ukrainian troops have asked for help in Russia

As to the situation with Ukrainian troops, according to reports, 438 troops asked to save them from military actions in the Russian territory. A total of 164 of them were border guards. We have helped the Ukrainian forces many times when they asked for help, accepted their wounded colleagues, and provided them with medical aid. For all those who wanted to return we provided such a possibility, nobody was kept against their will. However, to be honest, those who decided to return to Ukraine were later accused of desertion and court-martialled. I expect that the Ukrainian authorities will show their human side and understand that it is absolutely unacceptable when Ukrainians fight against each other, when they are forced to fight their own people, but those who refuse to do this become traitors and parricides.

I do not mean that orders should be disregarded, what I mean is that the current Ukrainian authorities have to fulfil the obligations which they have undertaken. I have already mentioned this. They made commitments on the international stage – both when Viktor Yanukovych was in power and after he was overthrown by an armed coup – to start a comprehensive dialogue with all the regions and political forces of the country. That is their main task. If they start it now, it will allow the resolution of a lot of problems. The militia will be able to relieve the minds of their families and those who rely on them, because they are defending populated areas. This will probably allow the insanity to stop, when day after day we receive more and more messages that there is shooting at populated areas using heavy armaments and missile systems, including Grads.

Russia wants to send humanitarian aid to east Ukraine

Orphanages, hospitals, schools and kindergartens have been damaged. Our appeals (it is not the first week when we address them to international organizations, including the UN, the OSCE, the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and the Council of Europe) to intervene, and, if it is currently impossible to make the Ukrainian authorities agree on a cease-fire, then, as a minimum, to undertake a humanitarian action and organize an international humanitarian mission. We have attempted to send a convoy with humanitarian aid through the Russian Emergencies Ministry many times: food, medical equipment, essentials. Officially, as we have to, we asked the Ukrainian authorities to coordinate such a supply of aid through a note. They gave an outrageous reply, I would even say that it was hooliganism: "We do not require any aid, resolve your humanitarian disaster in Crimea". This was the official note of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. It is outrageous, not humane from any point of view.

Today I am sending an official appeal to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the ICRC and the UN again appealing to them to organize something like an international humanitarian mission, to send humanitarian aid to Donetsk and Luhansk under the aegis of the ICRC, as well as to the populated areas around these large megalopolises. There is no water or power supply in Luhansk, its infrastructure needs to be fixed immediately.

I expect that the international community, which is enthusiastic and concerned about other cases of humanitarian crises, for example, in the Gaza strip, will pay attention to the south-east of Ukraine, where the population is suffering no less than civilians in Gaza. There is only one difference: the Gaza strip launched missiles at Israel, which was forced to respond, although it was not proportionate. To be noted, Russia expressed its position that everybody should use and demonstrate maximum restraint.

Things were different in the south-east of Ukraine, people took weapons to protect themselves from the Ukrainian army, the National Guard and battalion created by God knows whom and paid by private individuals, who intend to suppress legitimate manifestations of those whom the new authorities started to promote, suppressing the Russian language, rights of regions and so on. This is not a response by force to force, it is about the use of force against those who spoke in favour of protecting their legal rights: language, cultural and historical.

I expect that international organizations will respond to the crisis in Gaza, which is absolutely necessary to stop the incidents which lead to sufferings of innocent Palestinian nationals, but hopefully they will also not forget about the aggression in the south-east of Ukraine, which they are currently attempting to put aside from the community.

West’s Middle East policies based on "personal attitudes"

Question: The crises in Ukraine and Gaza removed the situation in Syria from newspaper headlines. Some time ago, Russia’s initiative actually prevented a strike at Syria related to the elimination of its chemical weapons. There have been elections since then. How do you assess the situation in this country today? Did the prospects of a Syrian settlement get closer?

Sergey Lavrov: These prospects are getting closer, but unfortunately only because more and more lives are being lost in this terrible conflict, which is already acquiring a trans-border nature. The former Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], which now goes by the Islamic Caliphate, has not only seized some Syrian regions, but is also occupying more and more land in Iraq. According to media reports, this terrorist group has already occupied the hydroelectric dam in Mosul. These are the same terrorists, who, when they acted in Syrian territory, were considered by our western partners (primarily Washington) as a force which probably did not comply with "high western values", but still they were fighting against the "bloody regime". When we drew attention to the fact that it was dangerous to connive with such groups, what our close US partners said actually was that terrorists using all the other forces should first overthrow President Bashar al-Asad and then they would deal with them.

For now, this group is unfortunately "dealing" with Iraq. The Americans have started to worry. This is another proof that the United States has no well thought-out strategy in this region, and all our attempts to start an intelligible talk at an early state of the Syrian crisis unfortunately failed. Our propositions were very simple: nobody should constantly adapt their internal climate on the international stage, as well as foreign policy, to their personal likes and dislikes. It happened in this way in Libya, when, as you recall, everybody was "angry" at Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, whom they accused of all the sorrows of the region. Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi was overthrown using radical groups, who received arms from France and several Persian Gulf states, despite the embargo which existed that time for supplies of weapons to anybody in Libya. Nevertheless, they were supplied, and we heard public statements from Paris and some Persian Gulf states – "yes, we are doing this, because Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi must be overthrown". Later, these French fought the same "guys", whom they armed to overthrow Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, in Mali. This is a true fact. These groups are still not "finished off", they are creating more and more problems and putting obstacles in the way. It seems that it is getting quieter in Mali, although the problem is still there, like it is there in the Central African Republic, in Chad, and many other countries of the African regions.

Now the same mistake is being repeated in Iraq, where, after they overthrew Saddam Husayn, the US governor-general actually drove off all the structures where Sunnis were represented (it was army, security forces and police). Now these Sunnis are attempting to take revenge, although it was clear from the very beginning that the problems of such a complicated country like Iraq can be resolved thought national consent only.

Russia proposes fight against terrorism as basis for Middle East policy

Instead of such actions, which are dictated purely by a personal attitude to one or another country’s leader, Russia proposed choosing some uniform essential criteria, in particular, the fight against terrorism. If this criterion were selected as a common denominator for actions by Russia, the United States, Europe, the Persian Gulf states, the Middle East and other countries, many things would become clear. For this we need to make an honest choice and refuse cooperation with those who can today be your ad hoc help in overthrowing a leader, whom you do not like personally, but later you have to decide what to do with them when they have become a burden. If we do not choose clear approaches and, primarily, consolidate on the anti-terrorist platform, we will constantly face such problems. Hundreds and thousands of lives will be the price of such twists, as we continue to observe in Libya, where the state has been destroyed.

The same thing is happening in Iraq, which is also "bulging at the seams". We are attempting to prevent such a scenario, because then the Kurdish problem will blow up, and this is terrible. We see this in Syria, where they are attempting to do the same for the sake of overthrowing one man. When we communicate with our western partners, they have kept saying the same thing to us for a year or two: "We understand everything – the threat of terrorism, which has won in Syria, is much worse than President Bashar al-Asad in power." They make such statements directly. We propose to be based on this and fight against terrorism. In response, they whisper that this is not so, but the US president and heads of several leading European countries have already said that Bashar al-Asad is nonhand- shakeable. And that is all. As we say, "a spoken word takes its flight", however, in this case, if we are guided by this Russian proverb, nothing good will come of it.

NATO searching for a reason to exist

Question: A remarkable date of 20 years since the removal of troops from Europe is approaching. Maybe it is not that big, but it is remarkable for the Russian-European angle. How do you assess this date and how do you see this situation after 20 years?

Sergey Lavrov: It is a complicated question. I will not go deep into the history. I will only say that many people criticized the haste in which this was done. They criticized the situation when Russia received almost nothing in exchange, even to simply accommodate the officers and soldiers who left Europe, as humans deserve. They were in tents somewhere in the field together with their families. It is evident for me that this haste was dictated by the need. Moreover, when the Soviet leaders agreed to deadlines and even set them, the Western partners were seriously and pleasantly surprised. They expected other deadlines and financial conditions.

However, we need to take into account the following. It was probably not euphoria which prevailed, but apart from momentary expectations to make it into history, the leaders of that time probably sincerely wanted to start a new life and see partners in Europe, hoping that Europe and the West in general would see us as partners. They hoped that everything would be equal, friendly and fair. They hoped that if there was no Warsaw Pact, and the Soviet Union, and the troops had been removed, why did they need NATO and other attributes which belonged to the "Cold War" era? These hopes were in vain. As you know, NATO did not stop and still continues to expand. This organization is searching for a reason for its existence. Afghanistan helped for some time. Now everybody has understood that Afghanistan is something that drags NATO solidarity to the "bottom". It is useless to do what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did: the situation with the drug threat and the drug industry has worsened considerably.

Russia seemed to be a good target in NATO’s search for its reason for existence. I assure you, if there was no Ukraine, they would use another aspect of Russia’s domestic or foreign policy for speculation. We are observing this. Firstly, these are our disagreements on Syria with the West, which I have already mentioned. When the West announced that the President of Syria Bashar al-Asad could not be a partner any more, Russia believed that regimes should not be overthrown, we should agree. They accused Russia of everything that was happening in Syria. Then the former employee of the CIA and the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, showed up. They were also offended and "had a go" at Russian policy because of him. Then there were the Olympics – no idea why. Either it was because these Olympics happened, or because they seemed "too expensive" to the West. Or somebody thought that they were too successful, and Russia won. I do not know. We felt this prejudiced attitude long before the Ukrainian events.

Unfortunately, with all the good intents which our Western partners in Europe and America demonstrated to us, there is still the inertia of the "Cold War" and the inability to confront the continuing attempts to drive all the Europeans under the NATO "roof" and to talk from under it with a "strict voice". We regret all this, because it is not a far-sighted policy. It is based on a desire to establish their own order at any cost, and use sanctions and take revenge (I cannot find another word for it) in all other ways against those who do not agree, who are independent and do not want to go on the leash of the unipolar world.

New US ambassador will follow Washington’s line

Question: I would like to ask you about the forthcoming arrival of a new US Ambassador, John Tefft, in Moscow. We and our colleagues and see him as "Count di Cagliostro" or as Gogol’s "Government Inspector". There is so much talk about his personality, although a quite professional diplomat is coming, nothing more. Have you communicated with John Tefft? What do you expect from him? Is there "light at the end of the tunnel" in the development of Russian-American relations?

Sergey Lavrov: I do not know John Tefft personally, although some of my colleagues know him. He truly is a professional, career diplomat. In terms of this, I agree with you absolutely that there is no need to create a boom around the arrival of a new head of the diplomatic mission in Moscow. He is a career diplomat and in these terms it will probably be easier, because such a diplomat does as he is ordered. Washington makes the decisions. When he was ambassador to Georgia and Ukraine, he did not play "his own game". John Tefft is a disciplined man, who worked in the US Department of State all his life, because he did as he was ordered, unlike his predecessor, who, to a known extent, was a "freestyle artist". He was appointed politically and could allow himself liberties, and did this.

At the beginning this complicated our understanding: was this his independent action or the line followed at the instruction of Washington? In the case of John Tefft there will be no such doubts. All his actions will be those of Washington, and it will be easier for us to understand what the United States wants.

As to "light at the end of the tunnel", we have never created a tunnel from our side, we did not cement brickwork from our side, it was open. I do not know what the US armoured train is doing on their side, if it is on a side-track or symbolizes peaceful people. It is hard to understand Washington’s real approaches to their relations with us. The presidents of Russia and the United States communicate, they talk regularly. They had a phone conversation just recently. They have normal personal relations. I can say the same about my relations with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, whom I contacted a few days ago. We agreed to think about whether we can meet in the near future. The signals in such contacts are sufficiently positive. Of course, our partners always insist that they cannot share our approaches on Ukraine, but they are interested in achieving peace as soon as possible, they have no and cannot have any hidden agenda in Ukraine. They constantly propose organizing some contacts, continuing discussions with us, Europeans and Ukrainians. We are ready.

I have already referred to the Geneva Statement, which was adopted by Russia, the United States, the EU, Ukraine and Russia on 17 April. There was also an event in Berlin, where Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine adopted the Berlin Declaration on 2 July. We are ready to work in different formats (with the participation of the OSCE, as during the Minsk meeting), which can promote dialogue between the Kiev authorities and regions, primarily the south-east. They offer us to hold Russian-American or Russian-European consultations having invited, let’s say, the Kiev authorities to see what can be done. I reiterate again that we will agree to any format, but we can hardly achieve anything until those who represent the interests of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, the south-east, receive a place at the negotiating table, until they are perceived as the people representing large Ukrainian territories and the people living there, until the approach to them changes, when they are called terrorists and separatists without understanding that this distorts the entire situation, when they stop persuading the rest of the country that they are separatists and schismatics [secessionists].

Armenia and Azerbaijan need to negotiate over Nagornyy Karabakh

Question: The forthcoming meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Sochi was announced recently. At the same time, the situation in Nagornyy Karabakh, in the area of contacts of Azerbaijani and Armenian units, has escalated. What do you expect from this meeting? Can we expect a breakthrough, or is it just a step towards a Nagornyy Karabakh settlement?

Sergey Lavrov: Separate meetings between the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, with the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, and then Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, are scheduled for the end of this week in Sochi. When they all get to one place at one time, it will probably be impossible to avoid talks about Nagornyy Karabakh. The way it happens will depend on the leaders.

Of course, we are worried about the events on the so-called "contact line". The parties accuse each other of provocative actions. Such things happened before, and, unfortunately, we have been observing periodic outbursts of such kinds for many years. However, this time everything is presented and perceived in a worse way. Many people died. Together with other countries, including the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the Nagornyy Karabakh settlement (these are Russia, the United States and France), we have insistently appealed to show maximum restraint, to avoid any actions which can lead to another outburst of violence. We will talk to our partners from Azerbaijan and Armenia about ways of helping in trust-building and reducing confrontation risks in which we and the OSCE Minsk Group (primarily the co-chairs) can assist.

Some time ago, at one of the meetings between the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, quite a modest statement was coordinated: on the need to develop trust measures in case of shooting. That time they needed to exchange dead bodies and captives and to agree on additional steps which would calm the situation down on the "contact line".

This conflict is perceived from both sides quite emotionally. We, as one of the co-chair countries, are undertaking a lot of efforts jointly with our US and French partners to help to deal with several issues which are preventing them from concluding a document laying down the political principles of a settlement, so that the parties form a package which is acceptable to them. The adoption of such extensive political statements, laying down the principles, by which they will be guided when settling the conflict, would certainly contribute to a normalization of the atmosphere. It is not easy to do so. There have been many attempts and each time it seemed that the important limit for consent was almost achieved, but then something went wrong. Therefore I will not make any forecasts. I believe that we need to insistently and stubbornly continue helping Armenians and Azerbaijanis in their search for wording which will be acceptable to both parties.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, Moscow, in English 6 Aug 14

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