In an interview for the ITAR-TASS project Top Officials Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Washington and some European countries had made a decision to isolate Russia long ago…
Over the more than ten years in office as Russia’s foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov has appeared at thousands of news conferences and granted hundreds of interviews. Minutes before the interview that follows (which lasted for more than two hours) he first loosened and took off his necktie. Then he unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, but only the top one.
On the feeling of despair and the boiling point
– Sergey Viktorovich, you’ve had a really hot time for the past six months.
– And it’s not all over yet. Generally speaking, there has been no calm in foreign politics for a long time. But in summer I did have some time for recreation. In Russia, mind you.
– Don’t you get despaired due to the lack of calmness in foreign affairs?
– No, never ever. That’s not the type of feeling I may have deep down in my heart. We cannot afford to get desperate. We must keep doing our job right.
– But sometimes one cannot but reach the boiling point.
– That’s no good, either. The two things go hand in hand. Only a novice, who suddenly thinks he has reached the dead end, can be forgiven for losing self-control and for not knowing what to do next. Yours truly has had a chance to see a lot over the decades in the diplomatic service, thank God. Any person needs patience, and in our profession this quality has a double value. Making me jump out of my skin is a hopeless task. But it’s not worth trying, though.
– Can you mention some really tough guys you’ve chanced to have in front of you across the negotiating table?
– Come on, how do you think I must go about this business? I may name some, but all the others will get insulted… All were real professionals!
– Not all, I reckon…
– Why not all? Of course, all. But each of them has certain professional strengths. Some are quite professional when it comes to grandstand play, to blocking everything, to shirking the search for a compromise and to avoiding direct answers. People of this sort address some very different tasks. And nearly all of them lack an independent foreign policy. There are only strict instructions from this or that high office that have to be followed. And they scrupulously toe the line.
Naturally, you always expect your partners to be consistent in their actions, to observe common standards. After all, the United States and the European Union have been demanding all the way that all countries should stick to the principles of democracy and the rule of law in their home affairs. But as soon as we get to the international level, none of them ever mentions these basic values any more. That’s natural, of course. A democratic world order does not fit in with the policies the Western world is pursuing these days in its bid to retain its centuries-old foothold. But this is an ever trickier task. Both the Americans and the Europeans prefer to keep quiet about the supremacy of law in international affairs, or at best they pay lip service to it. Mind you, any attempts to apply this rule in practice, for instance, in Libya, where the UN Security Council’s resolution was turned inside out, or in Iraq, which fell victim to an act of outright aggression without any UN SC resolution being taken, are harshly suppressed. For our western partners “the law is an axle – it turns the way you please if you give it plenty of grease,” as a Russian saying goes. I would like to drive the message home: international law requires both development and interpretation. Someone said with a good reason there are as many opinions as there are lawyers. But certain things are indisputable. Either you refrain from supplying weapons to Libya and thereby honor the UN Security Council resolution, or you sell them… It was both NATO countries and some countries of the region that have abused the embargo. The United States is positioning itself as the citadel of freedom, but quite often it is very far from truth, to put it mildly… In other words, the international system is in commotion, its basics are being shaken loose and rather strongly…
– With our help?
– The other way round. Russia has been consistently pressing for the consolidation of international law. We have never deviated from this policy just an inch. We have urged compliance with the achieved agreements and creation of new instruments facilitating proper response to the modern challenges. Take, for instance, our proposal for codifying the principle of indivisibility of security in Europe and making this principle legally binding for all. This political declaration of ours was aimed at preventing crises like the one in Ukraine. The draft of such a treaty, which Russia proposed a while ago, implied that as soon as any of the signatories (and we had hoped that practically all Euro-Atlantic countries would put their signatures to it) has any fears about their security, consultations should instantly follow, with evidence and arguments put on the negotiating table, a collective discussion held and eventual measures taken to de-escalate the crisis. Our proposals fell on deaf ears. We were told that an extra treaty was utterly unnecessary. In other words, everybody was saying that security in Europe was inseparable, of course, and that in terms of international law NATO would provide proper protection for all of its members. But it does not guarantee the security of all those unaffiliated with it! Possibly, the original plan was to use this pretext for pulling all post-Soviet countries into the alliance and thus bringing the division lines closer to our borders. But the idea proved an abortive one.
– Experience has shown that this a vicious logic and it leads to a dead end. Ukraine has demonstrated this to the full extent. To make NATO and CSTO countries and all neutral countries not affiliated with any political and military alliance (let me remind you that Ukraine had proclaimed its non-aligned status, just like Moldova) feel comfortable and secure, a dialogue should have been started precisely the way we had proposed long ago. Then there would have been nothing like today’s tug-of-war situation, in which Brussels told Ukraine to choose between the West and Russia. Everybody knows the root causes of the crisis: we were not being listened to, Kiev was forced into signing arrangements with the European Union, which had been drafted behind the scene and, as it eventually turned out, were undermining Ukraine’s obligations on the CIS free trade area. When Viktor Yanukovich took a pause for a closer look at the situation, the Maidan protests were staged. Then there followed the burning tires, the first casualties and an escalation of the conflict…
– One of our satiric writers, Mikhail Zadornov, at a certain point dropped this remark: America is prepared to fight a war with Russia to the last Ukrainian.
– What can be said in a situation like this? Cynicism has been part and parcel of politics all along. Possibly, it is inherent in all those who write and speak about politics. We would hate to see Ukraine being used as a pawn. Alas, it has been otherwise so far – not through our fault and contrary to Russia’s wish. Some partners in the West – not all of them – have been trying to use the deep crisis of Ukrainian statehood for the purpose of “containing” Russia, for isolating us, and thereby tightening their looser grip on the international system. The world is changing, the share of the United States and Europe in the global GDP is shrinking, there have emerged new centers of economic growth and financial power, whose political influence has been soaring accordingly. As concerns economy, there seems to be growing awareness of that. The G20 group has been created. In 2010 the G20 made a decision to reform the International Monetary Fund to redistribute quotas from the Western countries so that new, growing economies can receive a little bit more quotas. Then the crisis began to ease somewhat and the United States and the European Union these days are in no mood to stand by those arrangements. Now they are determined to retain positions within the IMF that are by no means proportionate to their real economic potential in the world. A really tough struggle is underway for keeping unchanged the state of affairs in which the Western civilization determines the shape of the world order. This is a faulty policy with no chances to succeed, objective processes are developing in opposite direction. The world is getting really polycentric. China, India, Brazil, the ASEAN countries, Latin America and, lastly, Africa – a continent with the richest natural resources – all begin to realize their real significance for world politics. There will be no stopping this trend. True, it can be resisted, and such attempts are being made, but it is really hard to go against the stream. This is the cause of many crises.
On Ukraine being used as a pawn
– History will put everything in its proper place, but for now the West tends to blame current tensions on Russia. It argues that we started it all. In Crimea.
– Our country prevented bloodshed there. It prevented a rerun of the Maidan type of protests and war, which later erupted in the South-East. As you may remember, when the confrontation in Kiev reached the boiling point, the conflicting parties concluded the February 21 agreement. On the list of its priorities was the prompt creation of a government of national unity, to be followed by a constitutional reform and general elections by the end of 2014. The document carried the signatures of Yanukovich, and also Yatsenyuk, Klitschko, and Tyagnibok, who then represented the then opposition and now making up the ruling coalition. The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland acted as witnesses of that agreement.
– Not Russia, I must remark.
– We addressed the issue at a Security Council meeting only to make a decision that our signature would be unnecessary, because the moment the then Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, agreed to that document, he in fact made colossal concessions tantamount to the authorities’ capitulation. But the opposition thought the gained advantage was not enough and after the attacks on the presidential residence and other government offices in Kiev it was declared on February 22 that there would be no government of national unity and the “government of winners” would be created instead, allegedly saying Yanukovich had fled and claiming the power. We were asking our Western colleagues how is that? Haven’t you signed the document that was expected to restore calm? In reply we heard that Yanukovich is out of Kiev, thus the agreement is no longer valid. What a remarkable piece of logic! Firstly, at that moment he was in the east of Ukraine, in his country. Secondly, it has turned out that the task of national reconciliation was linked entirely with the personality of Yanukovich and his ousting, hasn’t it? Is this what the European values are all about? There has been no answer to this day. Today the West is acting in concert – with the United States and Britain demonstrating particular zeal – to unilaterally support the current regime in Kiev. They are claiming that peace in Ukraine will be possible only when those whom they call separatists and terrorists in the southeast have been suppressed.
Crimea would have flared up, too. I am convinced about that. There were registered attempts at riot damage, just the way it happened during Maidan unrest. Right Sector militants tried to get into the peninsula. There were some instigators inside the Republic.
– At that point the “polite people” appeared in the limelight.
– They have always been there. The Russian Navy has its facilities not in Sevastopol alone. Our troops had the right to move among them. It all happened in strict compliance with the effective agreement with Ukraine. True, at some point Russia increased its military presence in Crimea, but let me say once again ‑ we did not exceed the quota the Russian-Ukrainian treaty on the naval base allowed for.
– Incidentally, T-shirts with a “polite people” print are much in vogue these days. Do you have one?
– I have received a few as a gift. I particularly like the khaki-colored one with a picture of three guys wearing masks and glasses. A really nice piece of art it is. I think it is a good sign that some people can address fundamental political problems with a pinch of humor… Although opinions may differ.
We are told we have committed an act of annexation. We reply: Crimea saw a referendum and it could not be staged. A lot of journalists, including foreign ones, who were doing their job in the peninsula at that moment acknowledged this. True, a group of people, in particular, some members of the Crimean Tatars’ Mejlis are unhappy about Crimea’s reunification with Russia. But now the Crimean Tatars enjoy something they could’ve never dreamed of as part of Ukraine – status of their language and land amnesty. Everything that has fuelled tensions in relations between the Crimean Tatars and the rest of the peninsula’s population is being eliminated. In response to reproaches from our western partners we tell them that in Kosovo their policy was quite different. There was no referendum, as well as there had been no crisis before part of Serbia was declared independent. There were no threats to Kosovo’s people. On the contrary, Belgrade and Pristina were engaged in negotiations and were slowly but surely moving on. Then the Western countries arbitrarily picked the date and set artificial deadline for achieving an agreement while Kosovo’s Albanians played to that very skillfully. After that Europe and the United States hypocritically made a helpless gesture: once you have failed to come to an agreement by the established deadline, we are recognizing Kosovo unilaterally. Period. When we started asking “How come?” we were told that too much blood had been shed in Kosovo. By the same logic we should have waited, first, for a blood bath to happen in Crimea in order that the United States and Brussels condescendingly allowed the surviving Crimeans to determine their own future.
– But Donetsk and Lugansk held their referendums, too. I think those who were casting their ballots believed that the very same “polite people” wearing khaki-colored uniforms would appear in Donbass soon. Instead, local civilians saw bombs raining down on them…
– I believe that Crimea was a very special case, a unique case from all points of view. Historically, geopolitically, and patriotically, if you wish. The situation in the southeast of Ukraine is different. There is nothing like the unity we saw in Crimea. Some would like their land to re-emerge as a new territorial entity called Novorossia, while others wish to stay in Ukraine but enjoy greater rights. As a matter of fact, we recognized the results of the referendums and called for their implementation through a dialogue among Donetsk, Lugansk and the central authorities in Kiev. In doing so, Russia did not take a unilateral approach, but relied on the Geneva accords concluded on April 17 by the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the high representative of the European Union. Number one item in their joint statement required an end to the use of force and immediate beginning of a constitutional reform and national dialogue involving all Ukraine’s regions and political forces. Sadly, that arrangement has never been implemented. The use of snipers in Kiev’s Independence Square, the investigation into the violence in Odessa and Mariupol and the circumstances of the Malaysian airliner disaster are being hushed up. This silence makes one suspect that Kiev and its sponsors have a great deal to hide. These are the links of one and the same chain. Continued lies and total inability to negotiate are really dismaying. I feel that some of our Western partners are not quite comfortable, but they have nevertheless opted for a policy of catering to the ambitions of the “party of war” in Kiev. The Europeans are increasingly aware of the fact that they are involved in a geo-strategic project of the United States. To the detriment of the fundamental interests of the Old World. I do hope that the singing of the Minsk protocol of September 5 in the follow-up to the peace initiatives of the Russian and Ukrainian presidents will change the situation and that the agreements between Pyotr Poroshenko and the heads of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics will be implemented without any attempts to disrupt the process.
– Do you believe there is such a chance?
– I most certainly do. Now it has to be used to a full extent. A national dialogue with the South-East was launched after many months of refusal and common sense seems to be gaining the upper hand. Clearly, it was hard to expect one-hundred-percent ceasefire from the very first hours and it took time for those who were confronting each other arms in hand to get the messages, so sporadic incidents were quite expectable. It is important that they did not amplify and did not lead to new hostilities. We support the proposal from the DPR and LPR leaders for prompt deployment of OSCE monitors in the areas of the conflicting parties’ engagement. This item was included in the Minsk agreements of September 5 and now it is acquiring key importance.
– But many in Ukraine have long claimed it is not just struggle with separatists, but a war with Russia. Our country has been openly labeled aggressor. What is to be done about that?
– Kiev is interpreting the events in this way because the United States wants it. The voters are offered very simple election slogans and nobody takes the trouble of analyzing the situation. They keep sticking political labels –”stupid blokes,” “separatists”. They keep saying that everything in Donbass would have been calm and bright but for Russia, which should pull out its regular troops and armaments… What troops? Where from?
– But people carrying Russian passports and firearms are certainly present there.
– And also people with Swedish, Polish and Lithuanian passports… There are even some black fellas. With their unmistakable US accent. I would not claim they are instructors or mercenaries. Trouble spots always attract volunteers, risk-takers and all sorts of adventure seekers. But we are not discussing them at the moment. A full-scale war is underway in Donbass. I have read quite an interesting interview with General Ruban in the Ukrainian press, he said outright: in Donetsk and Lugansk the Kiev authorities are fighting a war with their own people.
– Vladimir Ruban is a negotiator, he is arranging the exchange of prisoners of war.
– You have hit the nail on the head. General Ruban knows the situation from the inside and he is doing a very specific job – he saves people’s lives and he sees his goal in putting an end to the war. The officials in Kiev stubbornly refuse to realize that they will have to negotiate not with us but with their own citizens, including the residents of the South-East. The Poroshenko peace plan had been proposed as the sole alternative until just recently. We welcomed it because it called for armistice and from that standpoint played a positive role. But, firstly, the armistice was declared for a very short time and, secondly, the following condition was put forward: the one who has not gone in hiding is welcome to face the music. Either the militias use these few days to lay down arms, and the Kiev authorities will then possibly decide to grant amnesty to some of them, if they find out those who have surrendered are not responsible for any serious crimes against the regime, or everybody is exterminated. That’s the whole peace plan. Then we shall give thought to how to restore Donbass. The European Union said in its latest documents regarding Ukraine that it was calling upon everyone to act according to the Poroshenko peace plan. We asked more than once: how about the Geneva accords reflecting the four-party consensus? We were informed that it was supported as well but there was no need to state the obvious. That is the sort of child talk we heard in response… Only now, with Vladimir Putin’s seven-point peace initiative it has become possible to embark on the negotiating track in Minsk and to adopt the September 5 protocol. The Russian president urged both parties to terminate offensive operations in Donbass, pull out the Ukrainian forces to a distance large enough to rule out the risk of shelling of villages and cities, arrange for an all-for-all exchange of prisoners of war, open humanitarian corridors and dispatch repair teams to restore infrastructures and arrange for international monitoring of the observance of ceasefire…
– You have read Ruban’s interview, so you must have heard about the row over Andrei Makarevich’s concert in Svyatogorsk…
– That’s a matter of his own conscience. On the one hand, sports and art must stay out of politics and cultural workers’ mission is to restore and strengthen bonds between peoples in times of trouble. On the other hand, artists, actors, singers and musicians are all citizens. Each of them has one’s own position and any person is free to speak one’s mind aloud. When several hundred Russian cultural workers expressed their attitude to Crimea and the situation in the southeast of Ukraine, some of them were denied entry to a number of European Union countries.
– That is what Latvia did with Kobzon, Gazmanov and Valeria.
– That is sad. The national identity is heavily distorted. I recall how the European Union and NATO expanded about ten years ago: not only the East European countries that had once been members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, but also the three Baltic republics were hastily made their members. I would leave the European Union aside – that is about economy. If there is no prejudice to the fulfillment of obligations to other states and organizations, who may be against it? As for NATO, we are deeply convinced that the alliance has lost the meaning of its existence and is feverishly looking for a new one. After Afghanistan it became clear that this theme no longer consolidates the alliance, so Brussels happily jumped at the opportunity to play the Russian card and to portray us as a threat. Now this idea is being fuelled, including at the latest NATO summit in Newport, although it was during those same days that Russia’s efforts brought about some chances of getting out of the Ukrainian crisis!
We have repeatedly asked our Western colleagues: is it necessary to expand NATO, probably it would be better to bear in mind the OSCE, the equal and indivisible security for all? We were told: you see, the Baltic countries have some phobias after being part of the USSR, they longed for independence, finally they got it, but they are still afraid of you. When we have them in NATO, they will calm down and your relations will become cloudless at once. So what do we have? Ten years have passed, the umbrella of the alliance has been opened over the Baltics, but have they rid themselves of those phantom fears? On the contrary! For instance, with regard to many fundamental issues of pan-European cooperation, Lithuania is even getting ahead of the US. And now the Baltic countries together with Poland are asking NATO to target its missile defense system at Russia! Who in his right mind can today seriously talk about our invasion of Europe? That is ruled out!
– But some do talk about it. Now because of us Ukraine has a similar phobia. In that country, there has never been an attitude to Russians as enemies.
– Not because of us. Rather, there are attempts to make us look like that. You know, when the broadcasts, the Internet and the printed media are filled with anti-Russian propaganda, a mostly rude, false and shameless one, it is hard to expect a different outcome. Our television channels in Ukraine are blocked, all information is presented in a partial, biased fashion. But this does not mean that everybody has been brainwashed. I talk to Ukrainians, I have met with refugees from Lugansk and Donetsk and I have first-hand knowledge that there are honest politicians in Kiev who are interested in bringing an end to this hysteria.
I believe that attempts to drive a wedge between our peoples will fail, although by and large this is the chief aim. Somebody is very reluctant to see the restoration of historical brotherhood of Russians and Ukrainians. Mistakes have probably been committed by both sides, but we, at least, are trying to be honest, we do not resort to outright lies and we do not use double standards.
I would also like to talk about the Middle East. When the Arab Spring began, we proposed to our colleagues in the United States and Europe to get together and analyze in the most serious way what was going on, to contact the League of Arab States and to establish a multilateral process that would allow us to exchange assessments and develop a common course. That did not work well enough. Let us recall Egypt, where President Mubarak, who had been safeguarding the interests of the United States in the Middle East for 30 years, after he abdicated, was put in a cage and, barely alive, was being brought to the courtroom again and again. Nobody even took the trouble to explain to those who came to power in Cairo that they should act differently, in a civilized way, if they wish to preserve and strengthen their country. Then there was Libya – one of the most socially prosperous states of the region. True, it had an authoritarian regime, some called it dictatorial, but what do we have today? The country does not exist anymore. It is split into semi-feudal principalities run by terrorists. And the West does not know what to do.
My French colleague publicly acknowledged that during Gaddafi’s rule Paris had been supplying weapons to the opposition in defiance of the UN Security Council’s resolution prohibiting it. Then these people moved to Mali, and the French had to send an armed contingent there to fight them. I asked my colleague whether he found such behaviour strange. He laughed and replied: “C’est la vie”. If this is some kind of politics, I do not like it.
In Syria, the drama is not over yet. In this case, we also persistently called upon the Americans and the Europeans to address this issue before the problem spilled over to the neighbouring countries. It should have been stated clearly: the world community supports the legitimate Syrian government in its struggle with the militants, there is no place for them in the existing system. In reply we heard: do not exaggerate. Soon the group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant appeared. Russia’s attempts to declare it a terrorist one and to include it in the respective lists of the UN were met with US objections. Only when this organization captured a third of Iraq and a US citizen was publicly executed, B.Obama recognized: yes, they are terrorists. Today the Americans are bombing them on the Iraqi territory, but they do nothing with them in Syria, because there, they are fighting against B.Assad, whom the United States wants to overthrow. That is the logic of double standards: terrorists can be good if they bring grist to the proper geopolitical mill.
On West’s double standards
– Bashar Assad might be bowing and praying to Allah to thank him for the Maidan protests.
– Do you mean that the events in Ukraine distracted attention from Damascus? This irony may be true in a way, although we are certain that forgetting about the need to end hostilities in Syria would be wrong. Once absolutely uncompromising, Washington and its European allies have now been drifting closer to our approach. A year ago some of my Western counterparts suddenly started saying that the risk of terrorists seizing Syria and turning it into a training camp for militants is far more serious than Assad remaining in power.
– What would you tell those who claim that the effects of the Ukrainian factor on the world politics are blown out of proportion? There is Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, the Ebola virus disease in Africa and the old-time non-stop crisis in the Gaza Strip…
– The Ukrainian issue for us is certainly the most important one. For everybody else the issue looks somewhat exaggerated simply because the United States is regarding Ukraine as a scene for a geopolitical clash where the future of the world is at stake. Will the US-led Western world be able to retain its dominating position, or will it have to negotiate with other centers of power? I asked John Kerry and European foreign ministers why the West advocated for an early ceasefire and national accord practically in all conflicts – those in Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Palestine – but not in Ukraine. Only the Poroshenko peace plan and no other option. It turns out that it is possible to negotiate with Taliban and the Islamic Jihad, and utterly impossible to have contacts with those who have been dubbed as DPR and LPR separatists. Why were the people of South-Eastern Ukraine denied the right to be heard? That is beyond good and evil! Just as the fact that the first humanitarian convoy from Russia was unable to reach Lugansk for two weeks, although the city had long experienced problems with water and electricity supply and a shortage of many essentials. Kiev was procrastinating in all possible ways without giving any chance to extend a helping hand to those in dire need for it. Apparently, it was aware that otherwise it would be rather hard to present our country as an aggressor. Back last May we proposed the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry to provide humanitarian assistance to the South-East. Our proposal was denied. The issue was discussed again last July, and we received consent in principle. It was then followed by a long and boring discussion of the details. First Kiev proposed one route, then changed it for another. Those were not negotiations but an endless ping-pong game.
This tug of war lasted for more than two weeks. Finally, we lost patience and on August 22, after our official notification of the Ukrainian side and the International Red Cross, the convoy entered the Lugansk Region. Waiting on and on was no longer possible, for it would look like a mockery of common sense. Instantly, there was a shower of lies about Russia’s craftiness. There was an impression that it was a deliberate provocation aimed at luring us into a conflict.
– According to you, there are no calm times in diplomacy, you are the second long-liver in the government after Sergey Shoigu, and you have great experience. It is enough to bring to mind the year 2008, a war with Georgia and your alleged remark ‘f**king lunatic’ intended for Mikhail Saakashvili…
– It was not me who said this. The story is as follows. In the wake of events in South Ossetia, my European counterpart visited Tbilisi, and on the way back asked to be received in Moscow. In a private conversation, he told me about his talks with Mikhail Saakashvili, that had made his hair stand on end, and used that very expression. And then I repeated it to former British foreign secretary David Miliband, who once phoned me to censure Russia for allegedly offending peaceful Georgia and its president. I did not add any insulting word about Saakashvili for myself. But some three months later, Miliband’s advisers leaked the episode to mass media for some reason, besides strongly distorting it.
On sanctions and alliances
– Nevertheless then there was ‘reset’ of relations with America, relations with the West were sorted out, and now all has gone backward after the events in Ukraine and the situation around Crimea.
– If it was not for Crimea and South-Eastern Ukraine, the West would have invented something else. The goal was set to unbalance Russia at any price. The task was formulated long ago. Take Syria, for example. A couple of years ago they turned against us accusing us of protecting the dictator tyrannizing his own people. By the way, it was said then that Assad was using famine as arms. Revisiting the current humanitarian disaster in Donbass – maybe the idea was to starve everybody there to death and then populate the free territories anew with true Ukrainians?
– I’m getting back to the issue of lost trust. You will agree that back last winter, everything looked quite nice for Russia: a successful APEC summit in Vladivostok, triumphant Olympic Games in Sochi, G8 presidency, but then….
– Let me repeat: when there is a will there is a way. It was not yesterday that Washington and some European countries decided to isolate Russia.
– And as a result we are now engaged in a war of sanctions.
– Russia retaliates. It is the very case when others were the first to begin it. Much is being written now about whether we should have done it or not. You know, when you are punished like a guilty school student… Russia cannot remain indifferent in this situation. But whatever the attitude to the ban on food imports from the European Union, Norway, North America and Australia could be, and I have heard different assessments, I don’t think this is a tragedy. Everything is solvable. It is important at this point to be prompt: when supplies from one country end, an adequate replacement will be needed from another importer or a Russian producer. I believe nobody will argue that fruit and vegetables from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Central Asian republics are tastier and have a quality better than those arriving from Europe. At least I like them more.
– Are the checks of McDonald’s restaurants also a part of Russia’s response to sanctions? Right before the start of mass checks into McDonald’s outlets across Russia, the company placed on air a TV spot advertising a new burger with sanctioned parmesan…
– I have long stopped going there. However, I went to the very first McDonald’s restaurant that opened on Pushkin Square in 1990 with my daughter. Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich has already said that nobody is planning to ban this fast food chain. Necessary checks will be made, sanitary norms will be brought back in order… As for parmesan, any kind of cheese can be produced if one invests effort and knowledge. This is not a problem.
– The problem is to keep the situation in balance and not to bring it to absurdity, isn’t it?
– Right, but one does not want to look an idiot either. Rosselkhozbank, extending credits to our agricultural producers, is among those targeted by the sanctions. This means that domestic farmers will face difficulties with financing, and their products will be less competitive as compared with imports from the European Union, which gets you know how many billions in subsidies. We can only dream about such subsidies. And there is one more moment. The countries that imposed sanctions, and these are mostly NATO member countries, are increasingly often maintaining that Russia is not their partner any longer, but an adversary. And we must realize how to treat these statements. How much sense does it make that food security of a state, supply of food to the population, even if at the level of 20-30 percent, depend on those who consider us an enemy? Russia cannot become a hostage to others’ plans to build up a sanction pressure. What if the European Union and the US decide to put more pressure on us, and even agree to allocate many more billions of dollars or euros as subsidies to their farmers? We don’t know their secret plans.
– But so far they have not done anything of the kind. We banned imports ourselves.
– But I am saying once again: there are a lot of countries dreaming to replace Europeans and Americans on our market. Argentina and Brazil, for example, boast excellent meat.
– And the prices?
– No, the prices will be absolutely reasonable. South Americans want to get a quota in our market. This is done within the framework of possibilities offered by the WTO.
– In other words, you don’t feel any discomfort in your work, Sergey Viktorovich?
– So it is. I answer absolutely sincerely. Firstly, this is professional challenge, if you will. Secondly, it is rather my colleagues who feel inconveniences when they have to obscurely explain over the telephone or through our ambassadors why they are postponing a visit to Moscow that was coordinated. For God’s sake! Love can’t be forced. At different international forums, ministers from the countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia, come up to me one by one, taking me aside and asking me confusedly to take it easy and understand; saying that they don’t want to but are compelled to. Consensus, solidarity… This are the arguments in the overwhelming majority of the states, which understand who is orchestrating these processes without any damage for itself, soothing its geopolitical ambitions.
Maybe tense periods in international relations are inevitable. But they end sooner or later. And this one will be left behind. But at first everybody must get used to the idea that the world will not be one-polar any longer. Meanwhile, we have to see relapses and muscle flexing.
– Russia’s non-alignment status can be considered as a vantage point?
– You see, classic alliances of the Cold War era have run their course. I have already mentioned NATO’s wavering in search of reason for existence. We have the Collective Security Treaty Organization, our own military-political alliance. But there is no discipline of the rod in it. Sometimes we hear – look how united are the members of the North Atlantic Alliance in their voting at the United Nations: the US has given orders, and all have raised their hands (but everybody knows that many of them were strongarmed before that). As for representatives from the CSTO member countries, they may support Russia’s initiative or abstain, or simply miss a session, like it was when the UN General Assembly discussed a resolution after the Crimean events. My answer is always simple: yes, we expect that our allies will follow the agreements of the CSTO member countries about a common foreign policy course, but we also understand that today’s world is multi-faceted and multi-vector, and that is why we don’t seek to ban anyone from having nuances in approaches to the settlement of this or that problem, and we surely don’t strongarm or blackmail anyone.
– Kazakhstan and Belarus, our partners in the Customs Union, did not support Russia’s food embargo….
– This is their right. Yes, they said that they were not joining sanctions, but stressed that they will not allow to use their territory for the violation of rules introduced by Russia. This is what distinguishes old alliances from new ones. Today’s unions should be flexible. By the way, our strategic partnerships are not limited to the CSTO. We must mention BRICS, bringing together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In both cases, apart from mutual economic interests, we are speaking about countries that are like-minded on fundamental issues of world order.
– What does our readiness to unilaterally withdraw from international agreements mean?
– This is written in most international documents. There is a standard procedure: as a rule a country must officially notify other parties to the treaty and depositaries of its wish half a year in advance. And this is all. A civilized approach. There can be different treaties, and attitude to them changes. One must figure out in advance what one’s move will entail. When the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in the early 1970s, everybody realized that it was a real contribution to curbing the arms race. If you give up on the total protection of your territory, you are less tempted to attack an enemy. And the opponent behaves the same way. Under George W. Bush, the US decided to withdraw from the treaty, and I remember Vladimir Putin asking the American colleague whether it was necessary to undermine this element of stability. Bush answered that missile defence was not aimed against Russia, but was meant to control Iran, and that is why, Russia could take any measures to ensure its own security. But back in his time Bismarck said that it is not intentions but potentials that are important in the art of war. Or, for example, take the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. It was signed at the moment when NATO was opposed by the Soviet Union and other countries of the Warsaw Treaty. After the socialist bloc ceased to exist, the document was changed, adapted to new realities. Russia ratified it, but the West said it would sign it only after our peacekeepers withdrew from Transnistria. Why on earth? There is no mentioning of it in the treaty. As a result, the document became meaningless because of NATO’s refusal to join it.
On the right to call and Vladimir Putin
– Have your itineraries changed a lot due to the latest crises?
– I wouldn’t say so. It was Berlin before Minsk, and Paris a bit earlier. And now – Africa, a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Dushanbe, and then New York.
– What will be your mood on your trip to attend the UNGA?
– I haven’t thought about this trip yet, there is a host of other things before it… A session of the UN General Assembly is a familiar event. A representative of each country will mount the rostrum to say something.
– But the mood will surely be different now.
– We will first listen and then draw conclusions.
– Have there been any visit cancellations?
– Mine have not been cancelled. The Japanese counterpart was planning to visit Moscow in April, but for technical reasons he asked to postpone the meeting till later… It is another thing that is astonishing: representatives from countries that have nothing to do with the European Union and sanctions against Russia say that US ambassadors everywhere went to national authorities demanding that they freeze any contacts with Moscow! Don’t go there, don’t receive them. Is this normal? It is somehow amusing to work in the situation when Americans resort to such methods. Honestly! I would have never imagined that a country that is on the whole respectable could behave like this.
– Have you told it John Kerry to his face?
– Of course, we discuss different issues with the secretary of state.
– You are never lost for words, Sergey Viktorovich. Rumors have it that there is a stone on one of the shores of the Katun River in the Altai Territory. Engraved in the stone is a scripture saying that on that very same place Minister Lavrov told his British colleague Jack Straw to get lost. The scripture is followed by the date.
– Sources have confused you. The stone is not on the shore of the Katun River, but in my sauna. I took it home with me as a rarity. Here is what had happened. I was with a company, which mostly consisted of my former fellow students from the MGIMO-University, and we were traditionally rafting down the river. One evening we reached another overnight stop. We were dragging out the rafts, setting up tents, starting a fire and cooking dinner. Everything was as usual. Using a satellite phone I called Moscow and asked how things were in general. I was briefed that Jack Straw, with whom we had established very good relations, had asked to get in touch with him as soon as possible. You know that phone batteries do not last forever, I had to save power in them and we agreed that London would call me in half an hour. I switched on my phone exactly after that period of time. The Brits called me and told me that Straw was busy at that moment and asked whether it would be convenient if they called me again in ten minutes. After ten minutes the situation repeated, and then again and again until I asked – asked politely – to tell Jack that I would not be able to speak with him that evening. This is what it was all about. One of my friends heard the dialogue and then left a very footloose interpretation of it engraved in the stone.
– It seems that Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin is your true companion in terms of ability to clearly formulate. He is also capable of explicitly expressing everything.
– Vitaly is my old friend. In April 1992, we were both promoted to posts of Russian deputy foreign ministers and since then our paths often intersected. For example, when he worked in the Balkans, I was responsible for that area.
– It is said that you were actively persuading Vladimir Putin to appoint Vitaly Churkin to the UN?
– It was my proposal and I put forward arguments in its favor. Considering the importance of the position, I asked the president to receive Vitaly prior to his appointment and personally talk to him.
– How long have you been acquainted with Putin? And how were you appointed to the post of minister?
– We first met in Moscow in November 1999. Vladimir Vladimirovich was the head of the government at that time and I was the permanent envoy to the UN and flew to Moscow for the visit of an Iraqi deputy prime minister, whose reception was held on the Krasnopresnenskaya Embankment. Elected president in 2000, Putin arrived in New York for the Millennium summit. We have seen each other more than once since then.
On March 6, 2004, I received a telephone call from head of the Presidential Administration Dmitry Medvedev who invited me to Moscow. I departed on the very same day. The following day, Vladimir Vladimirovich received me and offered the post of minister. Since then, we have maintained permanent working contact, practically on a daily basis.
– When holding negotiations outside Russia how often do you consult with the president?
– Before trips I speak on the point in view, which I intend to stick by, and after receiving instructions I maintain the direction, which was worked out. I will not reveal all our secrets, but as a rule we have several options for further actions. However, there are essential cases sometimes, when any sort of a compromise is ruled out. Then I explain it straight to Vladimir Vladimirovich. In extremely serious cases, when texts must be edited and their content might imply double meaning, I call him on the phone and inform about the peculiarities. This is how last September we reached an agreement with Americans on the chemical weapons in Syria. The document contained some disputable moments and I used to call the Kremlin from our mission in Geneva.
– I know you use a cell telephone. You differ from others who prefer using rotary dialers only.
– But the cellular communication is not appropriate for contacting the president and discussing work-related issues. It is only used for organizational tasks such as who, where, when…
– How did [Edward] Snowden and [Julian] Assange change the present-day world order in your opinion?
– We learnt nothing fundamentally new. As I recall now, when I started reading the information disclosed by Assange I did not find any revelations concerning personal characteristics of any given person on the world arena or concerning the description of work methods used either by governments or secret services. We had already known all of this.
– Did you take a look at Hillary Clinton’s memoirs?
– I thumbed the book through. It contains an alphabetic index and I looked through the sections about myself, colleagues in the UN administration and about a number of European countries. It was interesting.
– The former US secretary of state was very specific in describing our president.
– Well, definitely! This is considered in the West to be an indispensable part of any program. However, sensible opinions also expressed there, but they are usually expressed by diplomats and politicians, who have already retired. Those who are in the government’s employ or intend to run for a high office are sticking by the party’s line and in a bid to implement the current American agenda they, in fact, are trying to outdo each other.
– You have said that you maintain permanent working contacts with Putin. How does it usually work?
– We talk while on foreign visits, during which I always escort the president, we meet before receptions of foreign leaders in Russia. Vladimir Vladimirovich can listen as no one else can. This is neither a compliment nor flattery, but a statement of a very important trait of character. Putin always gives an opportunity to speak out and never delivers ultimatums. Not a single sensible idea, which can help find a constructive solution to a problem, whether it is an economic issue or a crisis similar to the one in Ukraine, can escape his attention.
– Have you ever managed to make your boss change his mind? It is known that before the signing of the so-called “Dima Yakovlev law” you met with Putin, What did you discuss with him?
– I reported my assessment of legal aspects and possible consequences after the adoption of the document. It entered into force in December 2012, a few months earlier we signed in Washington an agreement with the Americans on cooperation in adoption of children, which took much efforts because we had more and more problems with the Russian children in the United States, there were abuses, rapes and even murders. The Department of State abdicated responsibility, arguing that according to American laws such cases are under the jurisdiction of separate state court systems. As a result, we achieved the adoption of the intergovernmental agreement, and when reporting to Vladimir Putin in December 2012 I suggested that the denunciation not be included in the “Dima Yakovlev law”, because I hoped it would allow us to monitor the situation with the children adopted earlier. Throughout 2013 the agreement remained in force, and frankly speaking, I found my assessment of the American government’s ability to fulfill the assumed commitments too optimistic. There was no progress on any issue we raised before the State Department, including the notorious Ranch for kids, an orphanage in Montana which admitted children abandoned by their new American parents. Over the three years we failed to get there.
On rafting, Elk and love for FC Spartak
– They say, that upon your confirmation to the post of foreign minister, you spoke with the president to reserve the right for annual rafting in mountain rivers with friends without security guards. Is it true?
– It was my request which was supported by Vladimir Vladimirovich.
– Have you gone rafting this year?
– In early August, but not for a long time. I did not have time for more.
– Was it your friends who nicknamed you “elk”?
– The nickname stuck to me when I was a student. When I went to MGIMO, all four summers I was in student construction brigades. We started in Khakassia, then there was Tuva, the third year we spent in the Far East and the fourth – in Yakutia. I was a foreman, made everyone work a lot, and, probably, that’s why I was given this nickname. I did not argue.
– But even before construction brigades you were digging under the television center.
– Yes, before the first year in the university we were sent to Ostankino, we were digging a construction pit for the building of the television center.
– The TV set in your office on Smolenskaya Square is not used as furniture, is it? Do you turn it on?
– Occasionally. I watch all Russian news channels, CNN, BBC, and Ukrainian News One.
– Do you understand Ukrainian?
– I get the general meaning, but I’m unable to comprehend everything. Both literally and figuratively.
– Do you still speak your first foreign language, Sinhalese?
– I studied English at school. I started learning Sinhalese and French in MGIMO. I can still write in Sinhalese but I’m not sure I can speak it. I have had no opportunity to keep my Sinhalese fluent, I have not practiced for a long time. Actually, since I left Sri Lanka in 1976.
– Do you still drink Ceylon tea?
– I haven’t thought about it. I need to find out. They make black tea and I don’t ask where it is from. Maybe from Sri Lanka. Generally speaking, I pay little attention to food. As long as I am not hungry.
– You said during an Evening Urgant program that during your tenure as minister your have visited 136 countries. Has the list expanded by now?
– Frankly? I named the first figure that came to my mind. Of course, no one, including me, has counted these trips.
– What about football matches, Sergey Viktorovich?
– Playing or attending them?
– We go to the field on Sunday mornings, and we also try to do that on Wednesday evenings, but it happens seldom because I am busy. There are seven players in each team and we use handball goals. Over the past few years I had little time to go the stadium. I was looking forward to the opening of the home arena for Spartak. I hope fans will find it comfortable and cozy. When the team played in Luzhniki, it was not very interesting to watch football sitting all the way behind the racetracks. I wished I had binoculars! It is better to watch it on TV, when you can enjoy the details of videoplaybacks.
– When did you become a fan of FC Spartak?
– I guess, ever since I was born. As far back as I can remember. I’ll try to respond more precisely: since to first grade of school. My mom was away on business then, I went to school and stayed with my grandparents in Noginsk – a city that I believe should get back its original name given by Empress Catherine II – Bogorodsk. Their house was situated on the outskirts of the city, and the Spartak stadium was nearby. In summer, we played football there, in winter we played hockey, took part in the Zolotaya Shaiba (Golden Puck) tournament. That’s there that my love for the team originates from. Spartak became a part of my life.
– Are you afraid that we may have problems with the hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup after Crimean clubs joined the Russian Football Union?
– I hope sports will not be affected by politics. We remember similar boycott stories that happened 30 years ago. First, it happened with the Olympic Games in Moscow, then the Los Angeles Games were boycotted by Soviet athletes. It made life better for no one. Of course, the bloodlust of those who want to play nasty tricks on us at any cost is endless, but nevertheless, I repeat, we hope for common sense of the FIFA and UEFA leadership. But you are bringing up serious issues again, and our time is up. I have to knot my tie…
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Interviewed by Andrei Vandenko
Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.