Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gives a briefing on Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis in Moscow on 25 August 2014
Today we have deemed it useful to meet and talk about the developments surrounding Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis, primarily in its southeastern regions. As you know, the humanitarian convoy that Russia sent to the Lugansk Region finally reached its destination after days of hardship, coordination, negotiation and re-negotiation. Today this relief will start to be distributed with the participation of representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They are consulting the local authorities on plans for its distribution. We hope that everything will go according to plan and that all those who need assistance (that is, practically all civilians of the Lugansk Region and part of the population of the Donetsk Region) will receive it.
It is absolutely clear that the situation concerning the aid convoy was not healthy. We strove to abide strictly by the norms and principles of international humanitarian law. Initially we received the agreement of the Ukrainian side, which was confirmed by an official message of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry on 12 August of this year. We worked in close contact with Ukraine’s border and customs services. Many of their representatives were, and I think still are, at Russia’s Donetsk border checkpoint. All of them, along with media representatives, had an opportunity to see that the lorries contained nothing but humanitarian aid, and that all of them returned empty to Russia after delivering it.
I’d like to express my gratitude to all those who helped us carry out this important humanitarian mission despite many difficulties (subjective rather than objective ones for the most part). This applies to media representatives as well. Journalists were able to see that all the lorries exclusively contained humanitarian aid many days before they started their journey.
No doubt, this relief has helped the civilian population, but the humanitarian crisis is not over. ICRC press releases report that the population of Lugansk and its suburbs are in dire need of humanitarian aid. In one press release, ICRC staff who are now in Lugansk report to their headquarters on the continued shelling of residential areas in the city, inoperative telephone lines and other communication services, and a shortage of food, medicines and drinking water. They also report that many there have been without news of loved ones for weeks now. The Red Cross has emphasised the urgent need to improve the situation, and called on all sides to refrain from using indiscriminate weapons and from directing attacks against civilians or civilian facilities, such as homes, schools, kindergartens, medical institutions or medical vehicles. Owing to on-site reports by journalists we all know that such sites (kindergartens, markets and churches) are being regularly subjected to shelling and are being destroyed. The local stadium has recently sustained heavy damage. Probably, military experts understand this better than many of those present here, including me, but this does not appear to be inaccurate fire or an accident.
We have read the reports that the OSCE Special Monitoring Group has sent to Vienna in the past few days. They point to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine and directly attribute this to continued hostilities, air bombing and artillery shelling of residential buildings and other life-support systems of Donbass.
The ICRC, OSCE, Council of Europe, UN humanitarian agencies and leaders of many states are calling for continued assistance. Red Cross representatives also stand for this. Yesterday they declared their intention to expand their work in Lugansk and eastern Ukraine in general, and to increase the scale of operations that are being carried out with active donor participation. Russia wants to remain one such donor.
We know that the Ukrainian government sent a convoy to Lugansk containing humanitarian cargo that is also being distributed with ICRC assistance. We know about the plans announced by EU members and some other countries to render humanitarian relief to the civilian population in Ukraine. Russia will continue taking part in all these efforts. For instance, yesterday we sent an official message to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry about our intention to prepare another humanitarian convoy, and enclosed a detailed list of items and amounts of what we plan to send. We expressed our hope for close cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities and approval of all necessary formalities. Considering the available experience, we also hope that this will not take as much time as the first one did. The humanitarian situation is deteriorating rather than improving, and delay will directly violate the commitments of all states with regard to international humanitarian law. We want to agree in the next few days on all conditions for the passage of the second convoy, which will follow the same route and will have the same parameters as the first one, and will deliver its cargo with the involvement of Ukrainian border guards and customs officials. We are convinced that this must be done this week.
We have sent a similar message to the ICRC, in which we invited its representatives to continue cooperation on this issue. We hope that all misunderstandings that took place during the sending and registration of the first convoy will be taken into account, and that there will be no such artificial delays. Let me repeat once again that we are open to the closest cooperation and are prepared for transparency in all we do. I’d like to emphasise that in the final analysis, the first humanitarian convoy delivered its cargo promptly, without any incidents or excesses. This gives us cause to hope that the passage of the second convoy will be much smoother.
We urge our Ukrainian colleagues and the ICRC to actively cooperate in the continuing humanitarian mission. In turn, we are ready to continue using our contacts with the self-defence fighters to make sure that they confirm their security guarantees, not just for the Russian humanitarian convoy, but also with regard to the humanitarian supplies that the Ukrainian side may be sending to the southeast of Ukraine in accordance with their intentions. We made special mention of this in a message that we sent to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. The second thing I wanted to talk about today is the meeting of the leaders of the Customs Union (Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus) and the Ukrainian president in Minsk on 26 August with the participation of the European Commission; three EC commissioners are expected to arrive in Minsk. The meeting participants will focus on economic relations between the Customs Union and Ukraine, and the European Union and Ukraine. This is an important issue, and we have long been calling for such a non-politicised, professional, pragmatic, and concrete discussion about, on the one hand, Ukraine’s commitments under the CIS Free Trade Zone, and, on the other hand, the commitments that Ukraine is ready to take up under the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which it has signed, but not ratified yet.
This issue is largely related to the current crisis in Ukraine, because the accusations against President Viktor Yanukovych in November 2013, to the effect that he postponed the signing of an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU, served as the pretext for unleashing violent acts and armed protests, which eventually led to an armed coup. Until that moment, and afterwards as well, we have regularly invited the sides to sit down and try to figure out how to resolve a situation in which, according to what we believe is an objective assessment, Ukraine's commitments to the CIS Free Trade Zone are clearly at odds with the steps that it plans to take under the Association Agreement with the EU. We are all in favour of finding ways to harmonise Ukraine’s economic relations with the Customs Union, the CIS Free Trade Zone and the European Union. We are convinced that with good will and the desire to be guided by the WTO rules and other rules of international law arising from the signed and applicable agreements, we can reach accord on all these issues.
As you may be aware, Russian and Ukrainian experts held economic consultations the other day, the interim results of which will be reported tomorrow in Minsk. I hope that they will help open businesslike talks, free of ideology, based on the legitimate interests of all involved parties. Of course, we hope that, one way or another, the participants of tomorrow's meeting will focus on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and all of them will make a call to deliver humanitarian aid without delay to all those in the southeast of Ukraine who need it. Of course, everyone hopes that the meeting in Minsk will allow the sides to exchange views and identify the status of the political process designed to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. We’ve been hearing lots of statements to this effect lately, particularly about the need for political dialogue, and that there are other formats in addition to Minsk that need to be utilised as well. References are being made to the Normandy and the Geneva format. Preference for the Geneva format (which comprises Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union) was mentioned, in particular, by Ukrainian Prime Minister Areseniy Yatsenyuk and Ukrainian presidential envoy in charge of crisis resolution, Irina Gerashchenko. They argued that this format, with the participation of not only the EU, but also the United States, is the best. As President Putin mentioned on several occasions, we are ready to work under any format as long as it brings about a result, and we can start moving away from military confrontation and civil war in Ukraine toward national dialogue and national unity, the need for which was mentioned back on 21 February in an agreement signed by then opposition members Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitaly Klichko and Oleg Tyagnibok. Two days later, the agreement of 21 February was simply broken by the then opposition members, and no one has mentioned it following the coup. It is important to channel the issue of national unity back into the political discourse. This is the key to resolving the devastating conflict that we are now observing in Ukraine.
As I already mentioned, we are ready to work unconditionally in any format. We are open to direct bilateral talks under the Normandy or the Geneva four-way talks arrangements, whatever is suitable. The main thing is to make sure that form does not stand in for content. Speaking about content, and accepting as a given Kiev’s purported preference for the Geneva format, I’d like to remind everyone that the Geneva format started on 17 April when a statement containing the Ukrainian side’s commitment to the immediate beginning of a constitutional process was adopted, including the immediate launch of an all-Ukrainian, inclusive, transparent and open dialogue involving all regions and political forces.
Expressing our willingness to work under any configuration, we proceed from the following: that which has already been agreed will be followed through on. The same applies to the Normandy format (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France). The foreign ministers of the member countries have met several times, most recently on 17 August. On 2 July, during a meeting at the ministerial level, the participants adopted the Berlin Declaration, which says that an immediate unconditional ceasefire is the overarching immediate goal. The inclusive nationwide constitutional process did not start in April (although back then there was a call to do so immediately). By the same token, the unconditional ceasefire is nowhere to be seen, either. We keep hearing Kiev talking about the need to take certain steps as a precondition for a ceasefire.
To conclude my opening remarks, I’d like to reiterate that we are willing to work under any format, help Ukrainians agree among themselves, and coordinate all issues that need to be coordinated in order for them to live in one state that respects all minorities, as well as the cultural, linguistic and religious preferences of each region. Of course, the decentralisation of authority and the competencies of the regions must be negotiated and agreed upon, because imposing anything on the Ukrainian regions from the centre is not easy to accomplish under normal conditions, and is simply impossible now. We hope that all our foreign partners will be guided by the same principles in their approach to the Ukrainian crisis, all the more so since these principles are enshrined in a number of documents that were adopted with the participation of the European, American and Ukrainian sides.
Question: Will Russia present a concrete plan at the summit in Minsk, or will it insist on honouring previously signed agreements and on the cessation of hostilities without preconditions?
Sergey Lavrov: I am somewhat puzzled by your question, as you are asking whether Russia is going to insist on the implementation of past agreements that called for an end to the fighting without preconditions. Is this a bad plan? How is it different from the general approach taken by the international community toward any other conflict in Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere in the world?
Why is everybody calling for the continuation of talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, and nobody is objecting to the fact that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are involved in the negotiating process on the Palestinian side? Why is it acceptable to call for the Taliban’s participation in Afghan national reconciliation, even though its leadership has long been on the UN’s terrorist list along with Al Qaeda leaders?
Why are they willing to discuss political settlement with known terrorists while refusing to talk to people defending their language, culture, and religion, whom they call separatists?
Of course, we are going to insist that previously signed agreements be honoured. It is our position in general that all parties should keep their word. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, our partners often have a hard time abiding by agreements. We don’t want to encourage this trend. If something has been agreed, it has to be implemented.
Question: Will the presidents of Russia and Ukraine meet in Minsk tomorrow in addition to the meeting of representatives of the Customs Union, EU, and Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: A number of bilateral meetings have been planned in Minsk, but the exact composition of the meetings will be announced later.
Question: Western experts claim that the parading of POWs through Donetsk yesterday is a violation of international treaties, particularly the Geneva Convention. What’s Russia’s position?
Sergey Lavrov: To answer that question, I need to know which article of the Geneva Convention Western journalists are referring to.
Question: German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that strengthening border control should be a focus of the meeting in Minsk. Is Russia prepared to support this? Are you considering the possibility of strengthening border control with the help of the OSCE?
Sergey Lavrov: Not only are we prepared to do this, we already have. If anything, we have exceeded our obligations in this respect. At the 2 July meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France in Berlin, we decided that, based on the talks between the leaders of Russia and Germany, multilateral monitoring should be organised at those border checkpoints controlled by self-defence forces, not the Kiev authorities.
At the time, there were three such checkpoints. My Ukrainian counterpart, with the backing of the French and German foreign ministers, discussed with us the possibility of placing OSCE observers at Russian border checkpoints in areas controlled by militias.
We were ready to invite OSCE observers to all three checkpoints. However, as we discussed in Berlin, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin was informed that one of these crossings had been recaptured by Ukrainian forces. At his request, it was decided that the OSCE observers would be invited to two rather than three, as originally planned. Mr Klimkin said, to quote him almost verbatim, that no observers were needed on the border crossings controlled by the Ukrainian government, as they had the situation under control.
Since then, OSCE observers have arrived at the Gukovo and Donetsk checkpoints, and have been working there and regularly reporting their findings to Vienna, in addition to reports by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (the OSCE monitors at Gukovo and Donetsk are not part of the OSCE mission in Ukraine). They have been reporting regularly what they see there. They haven’t noticed anything crossing the border illegally – neither goods nor people nor ammunition. Nor have any questions been raised about the transparency of the border crossings controlled by self-defence forces in Ukraine.
At the 17 August meeting in Berlin, additional steps were discussed that could improve control over the border. We were ready to take them. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that Russian and Ukraine are sovereign states. Sovereignty means not only rights, but also responsibilities, and states are required to maintain control of their territory, including borders.
We bear full responsibility for the entire stretch of the Russian-Ukrainian border on our side, and Ukraine bears similar responsibility for its side of the border. To assist the Ukrainian government during the armed conflict, over six months ago the OSCE sent a monitoring mission there, consisting of 500 observers, which can be increased if necessary.
The mandate of this mission was recently extended. At the 17 August meeting in Berlin, we were prepared to support the call to expedite the acquisition of equipment needed for the mission, including UAVs, which is covered by the mandate, provided it meets the stipulated goals of the monitoring mission. I would like to emphasise that this right was given to the OSCE by its Permanent Council.
We also backed the German proposal to organise regular, real-time information exchange between the representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE working on both sides of the border to report any incidents. This is in Russia’s interest, since our territory is periodically shelled from Ukraine. While we believe the shelling is not intentional, it doesn’t make it any less dangerous for people who are being injured and whose property is being damaged.
That’s what we were prepared to agree to, and the appropriate wording was approved and included in the draft protocol, which we intended to sign in Berlin. For my part, I backed all the proposals coordinated in writing by the German side, which initiated that meeting. I am not sure why these agreements haven’t been published yet. Apparently, there have been some delays.
Once again, I’ve listed all the steps we have already taken and are prepared to take additionally to dispel any doubts about our willingness to ensure proper control of the border and to prevent people or equipment from crossing illegally. All of this has been reflected in the reports of the OSCE observers, who have yet to report any illegal activity.
Question: The previous question mentioned Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which deals with humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners of war. Does the parading of POWs through Donetsk constitute a violation?
Sergey Lavrov: As for whether it was humiliating treatment of POWs, as you have put it, let’s leave the matter to the lawyers to sort out. I saw footage of that parade and didn’t notice anything that could even remotely be considered mistreatment. In contrast, the actions of Ukrainian forces (not necessarily the army – there are lots of battalions obeying no one but the oligarchs who finance them; there is the National Guard, partially manned by Right Sector; there is Right Sector, which continues to act on its own, defying the National Guard) and the way they treat civilians – these are clear war crimes. I have seen nothing of the sort from the self-defence fighters when they take prisoners or when Ukrainian servicemen defect to their side. They are given assistance, including medical treatment, and they are at least buried like humans instead of being dumped by a bulldozer into a ditch, with tank treads used to smooth it over. There have been chilling reports of how Ukrainian soldiers treat their fallen comrades.
As the sad history of so many conflicts teaches us, national reconciliation involves establishing the truth and bringing to justice those who committed war crimes. South Africa had its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Similar mechanisms were created in other countries as well. All this will have to be addressed, otherwise the nation won’t be able to reunite. But first, the war has to be stopped. As we make efforts to achieve that, it’s important to think not just about the southeast, but about the whole of Ukraine.
Earlier, I mentioned the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission’s report, which, apart from describing the humanitarian crisis in the southeast, warned that efforts to foster the political process might run into some complications. The OSCE monitors fear that the arrests of dissenters in “liberated” territories are turning into a “witch hunt”. They cite atrocities committed by Aydar, a so-called volunteer battalion, in the Lugansk Region. Large numbers of people are fleeing the southeast across the border to Russia. But there is a problem with those who are hoping to wait out the war in other Ukrainian regions - so-called internally displaced persons. The OSCE observers note that displaced persons arriving in western Ukraine face problems, including hostile locals. There is marked alienation. The children of refugees are denied access to schools, to say nothing of Russian-language schools. Some neighbourhoods refuse to receive them at all. That’s a comment on national unity, for whose sake Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Oleh Tyahnybok and Vitaly Klichko signed their names on February 21, while in the opposition. If they advocated national unity for the sole purpose of seizing power and then forgot all about it, that’s a crime against their own people. I hope this will become clear to people.
As for how to restore national unity and who is standing in the way, let me quote Ihor Kolomoiskiy’s protégé, Odessa Region Governor Ihor Palytsa, who came out against letting displaced persons into the region and giving money for the reconstruction of Donbas. I don’t know what was offered in return. Maybe the idea is to degrade the living conditions of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine so much that it becomes impossible to live, and then, after the Russians leave, others can settle there, like western Ukrainians. But that sounds like ethnic cleansing.
Question: Today, the Ukrainian side announced that a column of Russian military hardware had invaded an area near the village of Markino in the south of the Donetsk Region. Fighting reportedly took place. They provided no further details except that this happened near the Sea of Azov in the south of the Donetsk Region. Do you have any information to add?
Sergey Lavrov: I haven’t heard about that, but there has been enough disinformation about our “incursions”. A few days ago, it was reported that Ukrainian troops had allegedly destroyed some kind of military column moving from Russia, that airborne assault vehicles had been seized, that there had been papers inside showing who had been placed on leave, from what unit and when. Even assuming that this is somehow true, who would carry such a “library” with them on a mission like that? It’s ridiculous. By the way, no one has been able to confirm the information published in The Guardian newspaper. Perhaps tomorrow some foreign newspaper will publish the “news” you’ve mentioned. As for the previous episode, it has not been confirmed by American intelligence agencies or by any other independent sources (if, of course, American agencies can be considered an independent source).
Question: Have you received any additional information on the tragic crash of the Malaysian Boeing? Is it possible to ask the Ukrainian President for information on the transcript of the cockpit exchange with air traffic controllers at tomorrow’s meeting?
Sergey Lavrov: We raised these questions a long time ago. It seems that everyone else has lost interest in this investigation. After the initial harsh, near-hysterical statements accusing Russia and self-defence fighters with such zeal, these people now seem to have been struck dumb. In effect, we alone are trying to keep this very serious issue in the focus of attention. We are calling for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2166. Adopted shortly after the disaster, this resolution urged for an immediate ceasefire on the crash site. We were practically the only country to express concern when the Ukrainian Government stated publicly that there would be no ceasefire, and that they should first seize this place from self-defence fighters. I think the Ukrainian Government announced the ceasefire only on 29 July. In other words, the resolution of the UN Security Council was not carried out for more than 10 days. When we urged the Security Council to pay attention to this and demand the fulfilment of its resolution, the Americans, Brits and Lithuanians prevented this from happening. Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin drew attention to this issue at a recent Security Council meeting. We have heard no distinct explanations for not presenting the full transcript of the black boxes. The Ukrainian side has so far failed to tell us why it has not given us the transcripts of the cockpit exchange between air traffic controllers from Dnepropetrovsk and all aircraft that flew over the area at the same flight level at that time.
We are also raising these issues in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which was mentioned by the Security Council resolution as a coordinating mechanism. But so far no transparency has been observed there either. But we’ll be steadfast in seeking the truth in this respect, as we are doing regarding the investigation of the snipers on the Maidan last February, the tragedy in Odessa, similar events in Mariupol and the air force attack on the Lugansk regional administration. Attempts are being made to hush up some less important issues that continue to raise serious questions. I’m referring to the lack of any information on the results of the investigation into the use of helicopters with the UN logo by the Ukrainian army, which was caught on film. This issue, just as many others, have passed into oblivion. We remember all these cases and won’t allow anyone to hush them up and remove the need to bring to justice those who have committed them.
Question: The US Air Force has carried out about a hundred strikes on the positions of Islamist militants in Iraq, since the beginning of August. What is Moscow’s position on this? Can you comment on Australia’s statement about its readiness to join these bombings?
Sergey Lavrov: I need to make a brief preface before answering this. When the Arab Spring began, we offered our Western partners and our partners in the region the opportunity to work together based on a common approach. We suggested the unity of our views on the need to combat international terrorism as the foundation for our cooperation. While reaffirming in words their commitment to this noble mission (it is reflected in numerous resolutions of the UN and its Security Council) our Western partners were still guided by political expediency. If they did not like a particular regime they were ready to side with any of its enemies. Recall what happened in Libya. Instead of simply closing Libyan airspace, which was allowed by the Security Council, NATO aircraft actually entered the war on the side of those who wanted to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. There were large numbers of Islamists and terrorists among them. Having illegally received arms, including from Europe, and with fire support from NATO aircraft, these people overthrew Qaddafi and violently dispatched with him, after which they began to gain ground not only in Libya but also in more than 10 North African countries. These terrorists invaded Mali, where they began to be opposed by the French, who had supported them in Libya. The absence of a clear-cut approach makes it very difficult to be consistent and achieve success.
At first, the Americans and some Europeans also supported the Islamic State (formerly called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) because it was fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. It was welcomed, just as the mujahidins who later created al-Qaeda, which in turn boomeranged on 9/11.
The same events are taking place now. ISIL has gotten out of control (if it was ever controlled by some Western country, which I doubt). But the United States condemned ISIL as a terrorist structure and started fighting against it only when it started acting outrageously, and seized practically a third of Iraq’s territory, including key infrastructure and life-support facilities, and when there appeared to be a real threat that they might capture even Baghdad and wreck the largely US-initiated political search for compromise figures for the Iraqi Government. Moreover, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said it is necessary to fight against the Islamic State not only in Iraq but also in Syria, where it originated. Honestly speaking, we support this according to the principle I spoke about in the beginning – we should be united by the striving to defeat international terrorism and prevent it from seizing new territories and creating terrorist states there. But it is necessary to counter terrorism in accordance with international law, observing the sovereignty of the relevant countries.
There were reports that US drone strikes are being carried out on the positions of the Islamic State in Iraq, by agreement with the Iraqi Government. I hope this is the case. If, based on appeals by the US military, plans have emerged to fight this structure on the territory of Syria and other countries, they should be carried out in cooperation with their legitimate governments.
Speaking about criteria, and the extent to which we all act consistently and negotiably, let me recall the G8 summit that took place in Lough Erne, Ireland in July 2013. Its documents, which were adopted unanimously and without debate, stated that they urged the Syrian Government and the opposition to pool their efforts for combating terrorists and ousting them from the country. Needless to say, we actively supported this approach. It took more than a year to start thinking of how to translate this correct idea into practice. This is certainly regrettable because we lost a lot of time.
I’d like to emphasise once again that we’ll be ready to work together and coordinate our actions, primarily with the countries that have been directly subjected to the terrorist threat: Iraq and Syria. We will help them consolidate their ability to resist armed terrorists. We are also ready to cooperate with those countries that share our goals in the anti-terrorist struggle. We will be steadfast in supporting the principle under which any military actions against terrorists must be taken with the agreement of the relevant countries, and with respect for their sovereignty. I believe this is a very important pledge of the success of these efforts in the long-term perspective. Otherwise, we will again wreak havoc and create new hotbeds of tension.
Question: Even though the humanitarian convoy returned to Russia immediately, and the lorries were empty on their way back, Europe still claimed Russia was not respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This situation is frightening to Europe. What is Russia going to do to regain the confidence of the international community?
Sergei Lavrov: I believe that Europe and the United States will get over it. First, sovereignty and territorial integrity are things that, above all, must be secured by the state itself. Numerous UN documents explicitly state that everyone must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a state which ensures the right of its people to self-determination and does not use force to deprive citizens of this right. This has to be the point of departure. I’m referring to the Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the UN Charter of 1970, which is still valid today.
At one time we were accused of supporting Bashar al-Assad and keeping him in power. I have already mentioned what Syria would be like today if we had let Assad be toppled – just look at Libya. No one is accusing us of anything now. Our US and European partners, perhaps quietly, even in a whisper, are starting to talk about the need to publicly acknowledge the truth that they have long acknowledged in private conversations, namely, that Middle Eastern and Western interests are threatened not by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but the possibility of terrorists seizing power in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
They have begun building bridges and doing what we have been urging them to do. I’m not saying this to brag about how farsighted we are. Russian diplomats also make mistakes. I mention this to emphasise that we have always been consistent. We have always kept the focus on our primary goal and have understood terrorism to be the main threat to all of us, including Sweden, Russia, United States, Europe and other regions. This threat has become too close and dangerous. The ability to see the real problem allowed us to stick to positions that other states are increasingly adopting now.
Similarly, we opposed strikes in Syria. They tried to ignore us, but eventually they agreed that disarming Syria of its chemical weapons was a better solution than bombing. I have already said that with regard to ISIS, the West is now moving away from its original hope that ISIS would help topple Assad and towards our position and our approach.
I believe that with regard to Ukraine, too, they will eventually realise the futility of hoping to achieve peace by betting on civil war and the Ukrainian leadership’s ability to militarily defeat some of its own people. I’m confident that if the European policy is stripped of such tactical layers and flat-out ideological bias, European culture will be receptive to calls for national consensus and reconciliation. Just like Swedish is an official language in Finland, where Swedes make up only 6% of the population, Russian can also find its rightful place in Ukraine, where at least one-third of the population are ethnic Russians and over half of the population speak and think in Russian.
There is nothing in our position to be ashamed of. We do not stand for war, but for talks. We are for actually doing what we have agreed: 21 February – a national unity government. The West, including my colleagues and friends from Germany, France and Poland, signed this document and then forgot about it. 17 April – the need to immediately begin a constitutional dialogue that is inclusive, transparent and open to the participation of all regions and political forces.
This agreement was signed by Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States. Then everyone, except Russia, forgot about it. On 2 July, the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France called for an unconditional three-day ceasefire. No one, except Russia, has any memory of it. Now everyone is talking about preconditions.
Eventually things will right themselves. Europe will return to its core interests, values and principles, and will stop supporting the indiscriminate use of brute force, which has resulted in the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in southeastern Ukraine. I'm sure you’ve been watching Russian television, and as a professional you know that what you are seeing is not fake or staged, which we are occasionally accused of doing. In particular, I remember how – a month or so ago, after we had run into yet another problem concerning Russian reporters –Andrei Lysenko of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine said that members of the Russian media stage and videotape scenes of fighting in which they play the role of the Ukrainian military. Thus, according to Mr Lysenko, the presence of Russian reporters in Ukraine poses a threat to civilians. What he was really saying is that militia fighters played by reporters are attacking Ukrainian forces, and the civilian population is suffering as a consequence. I hope that everyone is clear on the hypocrisy and the unacceptability of this kind of “analysis”, to put it mildly. That’s all I have to say on this issue.
Question: What do you make of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments in Kiev the day before yesterday that Russia should seal its border and cut off the flow of arms to self-defence forces in order to stop the war?
Sergei Lavrov: I’ll repeat that, at the request of Chancellor Merkel, we considered the possibility of deploying OSCE observers at our checkpoints that are not monitored by the Kiev authorities.
I mentioned that we went above and beyond our obligations, but did not explain why. Here’s what happened. On 2 July, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine were coordinating the Berlin Declaration, which called for an unconditional and immediate ceasefire and stated that the checkpoints not monitored by Kiev would be manned by OSCE observers and Ukrainian border guards. Importantly, this arrangement was supposed to last for the duration of the ceasefire.
As you are aware, we haven’t managed to achieve a ceasefire yet, because Kiev continues to impose new conditions in violation of its commitment to accept a ceasefire without preconditions. Nevertheless, after a meeting between President Putin and Chancellor Merkel in Brazil in mid-July, we went as far as allowing OSCE observers at our checkpoints without waiting for a ceasefire. In connection with the humanitarian mission which has taken place and will hopefully continue, Russian border guards are also present at one of these checkpoints. We have also supported Germany’s proposal to quickly provide the OSCE mission in Ukraine with UAVs.
I don’t know what else we can do. I reiterate that we are fully responsible for our side of the border. The Ukrainians are responsible for theirs. They are also being helped by the OSCE mission, which we are willing to support, as Germany has requested, by providing all the equipment needed for monitoring and surveillance. Any unsubstantiated charges directed at us are futile. We are responsible for the border. If anyone has evidence of illegal border crossings, please let us know about it. Otherwise, it will be like the situation with the Malaysian airliner, when we heard accusations and claims about irrefutable evidence followed by deafening silence. We are interested in the truth, and we want to see everything that our American partners and Ukrainian air traffic controllers have to show us. But let’s not get drawn into a serious discussion of groundless allegations.
Question: Last week, French President Francois Hollande proposed that the prime ministers of the Normandy Four should meet. Is the idea under consideration now?
Sergey Lavrov: I have already spoken about our stance on the various formats: the Minsk format, which is gathering tomorrow, the Normandy format and the Geneva format, which Arseniy Yatsenyuk said is preferable. We are open to any formats, provided they are used not to make unsubstantiated demands on Russia but to come to an understanding on how to implement the available agreements and elaborate new ones. We don’t want to create the impression that all decisions have been made already and only need to be implemented. In fact, we have agreed only on the principles, but these are essential principles. Who could find an argument against a ceasefire without preconditions? Such a ceasefire is the goal in any conflict, when we really want to stop blood from being shed.
Then, there is the principle of a nationwide dialogue, which must include constitutional reform, and must be open and explicit and involve all regions and all political forces. Who could object to this? True, the implementation of all these principles requires more talks, and they might be facilitated by external support: from Russia, Europe and the United States.
As the Geneva statement says, all Ukrainian regions and political forces must necessarily be represented. There is a dialogue being held at the working level between Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and the self-defence forces on the participation of the regions and who should represent them. But then, if the process must involve all Ukrainian political forces, what should be done about the Communist Party? Whatever your views about this might be, it’s a parliamentary party for which a certain part of the nation voted. Now, it has been banned and ousted from parliament. Will it take part in the dialogue or not? What will the West – particularly Germany – say about this? Does the situation reflect the German attitude on the inclusiveness of the process or not?
All this should be discussed. We are open to all options, and what matters most is whether Ukrainians find them acceptable. So we are in favour of any format, provided it meets the interests of the entire nation, not only of those who have proclaimed themselves rulers.
We have recognised President Poroshenko and we depend on him to utilise the public confidence he received at the 25 May election, with all its nuances, to stop the war and not to whip up the conflict and drive it in ever deeper. National accord should be the main goal of every leader. I hope nationalist pronouncements in Ukraine will be not as loud as those being made now by some radicals, including parliamentarians, in particular, the Svoboda Party and deputy Oleh Lyashko. We hope that the Ukrainian leadership will orient itself based on the interests of its country and the entire Ukrainian nation instead of flirting with ultra-radicals.
Question: The European Union summit will gather on 30 August. What does Russia expect from the new appointments of the European Council President and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs? The nomination of Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini is arousing strong protests due to her allegedly too close contacts with Russia. How would you comment on this?
Sergey Lavrov: I met Ms Mogherini only once, during her visit to Moscow, and never since. She phoned me on several occasions to express her concern about the Ukrainian situation and to ask to inform her about our opinions, which I did. I would not call this “close contact”. I have much closer contacts with Mr John Kerry. Is he running for any office?
All this is up to the European Union. I’m sure they will reach a compromise. I know the European Union needs to put together certain combinations to take into account the opinions of Europe’s north and south and of the old and new Union members. I confess I don’t know much about it but I am sure your leaders will come to an accord.
As we constantly stress, Russia is interested in a strong and independent European Union, which is our strategic partner. It is unreal to think we can change anything, however hard one might try. We have too much in common, and our ties are too close; I mean not only commercial, economic and investment contacts but also our interest in peace and quiet in and around Europe. Everyone has the right to pursue his own policy, but nobody in other parts of the world should trespass on the interests of the European Union and Russia.
Question: What are the prospects of President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan with regard to the Ukrainian crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: There is no connection whatsoever between the Ukrainian crisis and President Putin’s invitation to visit Japan. We don’t tie in Russian-Japanese relations with the Ukrainian conflict or with climate change. Honestly, we feel that our relations are self-sufficient. That’s what our leaders, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin, said when they met.
The Russian President was invited to Japan. He has accepted the invitation, and Japan has confirmed the terms of the visit. That’s what we are proceeding from, and all the rest is just idle wickedness.
Question: Information is being circulated in South Korea about Kim Jong-un’s upcoming visit to Russia. Can you confirm this information?
Sergey Lavrov: There are no such plans for now.
Question: What do you expect from the meeting in Minsk? Do you anticipate breakthroughs on any issues? Will there be any common ground for agreements, or is it just an interim meeting?
Sergey Lavrov: It will be a leaders’ meeting, a summit involving the EC commissioners. Foreign policy, economic and energy officials will also be present at this meeting. Of course, we must make our contribution to it. We are not just waiting for things to happen, but working and putting together materials that explain our approaches. They don’t involve ultimatums, unlike the Ukrainian side during gas talks (Russia, the European Commission, and Ukraine). The Russian side accepted the initial proposals made by Brussels, while Ukraine rejected them. Then we put forward additional ideas for how to reach a compromise. As you may be aware, eventually they came up with a package that was much more advantageous for Ukraine than the terms of gas purchases under the Yanukovych government. It, too, was rejected, because the Ukrainian negotiators were thinking in terms of ultimatums.
I’m not sure about the positions set forth in the materials for tomorrow's meeting, but I can assure you that we don’t speak in ultimatums. We are fully aware that the culture of international dialogue – or any dialogue for that matter – requires, above all, the ability to listen to partners, to recognise their legitimate interests, and to find a balance between their interests and your own. This will guide our approach to economic issues.
Again, we are not just sitting around and waiting. We are constantly being told: “Russia must change its position; we expect you to change your behaviour.” We hear this less often now, because, as I mentioned before, our partners are changing their tune on the Assad regime, chemical disarmament, and ISIS. I really hope that our Western colleagues, during the Minsk meeting and in other formats –such as Normandy or Geneva – won’t expect us to magically resolve everything for them. That won’t happen. Instead they should come prepared to impress upon the Ukrainian side that it has a responsibility toward the country and that this is not a fight against Russia for Ukraine, but a fight for Ukraine as a state, where everyone – Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians and Hungarians, and many other ethnicities – can live in peace. If we work hard, I’m positive that we can achieve all that we want to achieve. If the focus is on the interests of Ukraine, then Russia and Europe, as Ukraine’s largest partners, can really help it overcome the current crisis.
Question: Yesterday, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the five Arab countries that make up the Friends of Syria Group was held, which outlined steps to combat terrorism. What’s your reaction, given that the participants include countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates?
As we know, events in Libya spiralled out of control despite the fact that Article 7 of the UN Charter was invoked. Now, the same article is being applied to Iraq and Syria. If events in these countries spin out of control as they did in Libya, how will you respond?
Sergey Lavrov: Both these questions are related to fighting terrorism. Our position remains unchanged. I’ve discussed it in considerable detail today. We are aware that the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt had a meeting yesterday. But we don’t know what they talked about. I hope that our partners will inform us and other countries, so that we can contribute to solving the problem confronting the region. I’d like to see Syria included in the Friends of Syria Group, because the country and the government of Bashar al-Assad also face the threat of terrorism.
Until recently, our Western partners blocked UN Security Council resolutions condemning the horrible terrorist attacks that took place in Syria. Their logic was straightforward: we cannot condemn attacks on Assad, because he provoked a popular revolt against himself. So, it turns out that terrorism can be justified. This undermines the many UN and the UN Security Council documents that say there is no justification for terrorism. As I mentioned earlier, Western politicians are coming to realise the growing and rapidly expanding threat of terrorism, including in the five Arab countries which you have mentioned. I have spoken with my colleagues from Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and other countries, and I’m convinced that they are coming around as well. Very soon they’ll have to decide what’s more important to them: regime change and their personal antipathy for Assad, while risking the total collapse of the situation; or finding pragmatic ways to work together against the common threat of terrorism. We favour the second option because personal antipathy was the driving force behind overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and we see now what’s going on in Iraq. Personal animosity was largely behind the decision to topple Gaddafi as well, and we are now seeing Libya fall apart and turn into a quasi-terrorist state. There used to be a parliament in Libya, then another one was elected; then the first parliament said the second one was illegitimate. God knows when it will all end.
Regarding a Chapter 7 resolution on foreign terrorists who come to fight in the Middle East, I have already said that any actions to combat terrorism must be taken in cooperation with the appropriate authorities of each country.
Question: If the Ukrainian authorities reject the humanitarian aid or, like the first time, keep delaying their decision, have you considered the possibility that the situation could repeat itself?
Sergey Lavrov: You know, I don’t even want to consider the possibility of a repeat of all the tedious procedures designed to delay the delivery of humanitarian aid. I reiterate that the latest documents released by the ICRC and the report by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine clearly show that no one is trying to downplay the humanitarian crisis in southeastern Ukraine anymore, at least not respectable international organisations. They are increasingly voicing concern about the deepening humanitarian crisis. The Red Cross said it plans to expand its humanitarian activities in southeastern Ukraine, especially in Lugansk and surrounding areas. The OSCE has expressed support for the continuation of humanitarian efforts. We will join these efforts. We want to coordinate our actions with the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian leadership, which is also planning to send additional humanitarian aid to the Southeast. We will work together to provide security guarantees on behalf of the self-defence forces, and we are willing to cooperate on humanitarian supplies that the European Union and other donor countries promised to send. I believe that international organisations, including the World Food Programme, the UN Office for Refugees and the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, will also contribute to this cause.
Our approach to this issue is absolutely transparent. We are ready to provide complete transparency, as we did with our first convoy. We have no secrets. We are not trying to exploit a humanitarian crisis, and we believe that no one should be permitted to.