Interview by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Russia Beyond the Headlines, Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s supplement to Spain’s El Pais
Question: What can Russia do to settle the Ukrainian crisis?
Sergey Lavrov: Our position is absolutely clear: we want peace in Ukraine, which can only be attained through a wide-ranging national dialogue involving all of the country’s regions and political forces. It was this that Russia, the US, the EU and Ukraine agreed to in Geneva on 17 April.
Russia has been actively assisting the emergence of favourable conditions for a peaceful solution to the serious problems confronting Ukraine. During their meeting in Minsk on 26 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko stressed the need for an early end to the bloodshed and a transition to the political settlement of the entire set of problems in the country’s southeast.
On 3 September, Vladimir Putin proposed a seven-point action plan for stabilising the Ukrainian crisis. Based on the results of the Trilateral Contact Group’s meeting in Minsk on 5 September, President Poroshenko’s representatives and the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) signed a Protocol with regard to further joint steps aimed at, among other things, implementing the Russian President’s initiative.
This understanding is an important step in the process of crisis peaceful crisis settlement in Ukraine and designed to serve as a fulcrum point in starting an internal Ukrainian political dialogue that would seek the way toward national accord. We proceed from the assumption that all provisions of this document should be meticulously met.
We note that the ceasefire has been generally observed, although there are isolated incidents in which both sides are blaming the other. The important thing is to prevent them from escalating and leading to renewed hostilities. We are concerned about reports that the Ukrainian siloviki have been concentrating heavy weapons in an area. The Kiev authorities are assuring us that they have no plans to disrupt the ceasefire. We will follow the developments closely. We support the DPR’s and the LPR’s proposal on the urgent deployment of an OSCE observer mission in areas where the conflicting sides are in contact.
The order of priority and modality of measures contained in the Minsk Protocol will be additionally coordinated by the sides. We hope that the effort to implement the document’s provisions will be supported by our foreign partners.
Question: Is it likely that the Ukrainian crisis will be further escalated and lead to a military conflict in Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: Ukraine is facing a choice between peace and a constructive dialogue in society, on the one hand, and authoritarianism and a national radical dictatorship on the other. It is up to Kiev and Ukrainian society to decide.
For our part, we are confident that there is now a real chance to stop the fratricidal war in Ukraine. For this, it is necessary, in parallel with keeping the ceasefire, to start, as soon as possible, a meaningful, open, and inclusive internal Ukrainian dialogue involving representatives of all regions and all political forces. Within this framework, it is necessary to discuss a set of issues related to a constitutional arrangement and generally the future of the country, where all ethnic groups, minorities and regions can live in comfort and safety and where the diversity of human rights will be honoured.
To preclude any further escalation in Ukraine, it is very important for all outside parties without exception to display reserve. We regret that this cannot be said for some of our Western partners who, instead of making an in-depth analysis of the complicated internal socio-political processes in the country, prefer to groundlessly shift the blame for the current developments to Russia.
We note the destructive role of NATO throughout the entire internal Ukrainian crisis. In particular, the alliance has set a course to strengthen Ukraine’s military potential which is known to be used against peaceful civilians. NATO leaders are supporting certain member states’ intentions to expand the deliveries of specialised and military equipment to Ukraine, which could be used by the Ukrainian authorities for reprisals at home. Thus, Kiev has been prodded to resolve the conflict by force.
It is clear that the meaning and tonality of statements regarding the situation in Ukraine, made by participants in NATO’s UK summit, along with the announcement of plans to hold Ukraine-NATO military exercises in Ukraine before the end of this year, are not helping the peace process and are only deepening the rift in Ukrainian society.
Nevertheless, we are ready to cooperate with our Western partners in order to settle the crisis in Ukraine. We hope that the US and the EU will use their influence to impel the Ukrainian authorities to peace.
Question: There have recently been more frequent claims, especially in the Western media, that Russian troops may be sent to Ukraine and indeed that they have already crossed the border into Ukrainian territory. Do you believe this is possible?
Sergey Lavrov: We see such claims as part of an information war. This is not the first time Russia is accused of intervening in the conflict: from the start of the conflict all the blame has been heaped on us. But no facts have been presented. A lack of evidence, suppression of information and distorting of the truth are characteristic of the position of the US and some European countries. This applies to the claims about our troop movements, the investigation into the crash of the Malaysian airliner, the tragedies on Maidan and in Odessa and many other situations.
Question: The Malaysian plane disaster added fresh horror to what is happening in the region. How does Russia assess the progress of the investigation into what happened to the plane in eastern Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: The crash of the Malaysian plane was a horrible tragedy. Not only did it claim many lives, it was exploited to stoke international tensions, bring pressure on various states and make them introduce “sectoral” sanctions against Russia.
Since 17 July, we have been calling for an open and impartial international investigation. Resolution 2166 passed by the UN Security Council on 21 July calls for a comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation in accordance with the guiding principles and rules of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
Considering how widely the tragedy resonated around the world, we believe that such an investigation is critical for establishing the true causes of the air disaster and bringing the culprits to justice. It has implications for efforts to maintain international peace and security. We support strict adherence to the UN Security Council resolution which calls for the Council to monitor the situation.
We urge all parties to refrain from making groundless accusations which undermine the basic principles of international engagement and blatantly interfere with the investigation.
Unfortunately, there are clear signs that the investigation is being drawn out. The report submitted by the international commission does not provide convincing evidence concerning the circumstances of the crash. Key tests and examinations – gathering and displaying the plane debris, searching for the elements that hit the plane, and forensic tests – were never carried out. Without these data, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the causes of the crash. Nor have any answers been given to the questions earlier put by the Russian Defence Ministry and the Federal Agency for Air Transport. The report makes no mention of UNSC Resolution 2166 or the mechanism of reports by the Secretary General on the progress of the investigation that it creates.
We do not challenge the right of the state of occurrence” (Ukraine) to determine how the investigation into the crash that occurred in its air space would proceed. At the same time, we are convinced that this arrangement should ensure a genuinely international investigation and transparency in terms of how the investigation is organised. It is important that the specialists from different countries who form the group of international experts work closely as a team without outside interference and have equal and fair access to all the investigation materials.
The truth must be established. This is our firm demand, considering that some member states are not particularly enthusiastic about conducting a transparent and accountable investigation.
We cannot allow the investigation into the circumstances of the crash of flight MH17 to be soft-pedalled like many other Ukrainian tragedies, including the shooting of civilians by snipers in Kiev in February, the massacres in Odessa and Mariupol in May and so on. We will continue to insist that all guilty parties be brought to justice.
Question: The conflict has already claimed many victims. Tens of thousands of people had to flee their homes because of the shelling. How would you describe the humanitarian situation in Ukraine?
Sergey Lavrov: We consider the humanitarian situation in south-eastern Ukraine to be catastrophic. Our assessment is widely shared by many international organisations: the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Council of Europe.
Kiev has launched a punitive operation in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions to defeat the self-defence forces militarily, using heavy artillery, aviation, multiple rocket launchers and even ballistic missiles and “phosphorus bombs.” Donetsk and Lugansk have been the targets of massive air raids. As a result, more than two thousand people have been killed and more than five thousand wounded, and that includes many children.
The civilian population has suffered the most. Vital infrastructure, including electricity and water supply, government buildings and houses have been destroyed. Because of the lack of security and damage, 200 schools in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions failed to open at the start of the school year. In Lugansk about 250,000 people have been without water for more than a month.
During the past five months, more than 830,000 Ukrainian citizens have moved to the Russian Federation. Since the beginning of the year, 254,000 people have filed applications with Russian services for refugee status, temporary asylum, and programme for the voluntary resettlement of compatriots. There are more than 57,000 people at the temporary accommodation centres deployed in Russia.
The UN OCHA, in its bulletin on Ukraine of September 5, noted the continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country’s southeast, the increase of the number of displaced persons and civilian casualties. The biggest concern with winter approaching is providing people in the southeast with warm housing and absolute necessities.
Question: Russia has already sent humanitarian aid to south-eastern Ukraine. Will this continue?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, of course. As Putin and Poroshenko agreed during their meeting in Minsk on 26 August, we intend, together with Ukraine and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to send a second batch of humanitarian aid, including food, medical supplies and power generators. We expect the aid to be delivered with the participation of the Ukrainian border and customs services and Red Cross representatives, with distribution of the aid to those who need it to be carried out under the auspices of the Red Cross.
Question: There has been a lot of talk about a new Cold War between Russia and the West following the economic sanctions the USA and EU member countries imposed on Russia. If these countries continue to ratchet up the sanctions, how might Russia respond?
Sergey Lavrov: We have repeatedly stated our position on the use of sanctions in general. We believe that attempts to influence crises through unilateral measures, going UN Security Council resolutions, violates the norms and principles of international law, and threaten international peace and stability. And besides, such measures cut both ways and often hurt those who impose them more than the target. For example, the economic damage to EU countries from these sanctions will be considerable.
Obviously, continued sanctions pressure on Russia will not help to settle the internal Ukrainian crisis but will merely deepen the confrontation and complicate efforts at dialogue. We see the new round of EU sanctions against our country, which came into force on 12 September, as a response by Brussels to the results of the Minsk meeting of the Contact Group on Ukraine – a response that is totally out of synch with reality. The European Union – residing, as it does, beyond the looking glass – is actually sending a signal of direct support to the war lobby in Kiev, which is not interested in implementing the Minsk protocol and restoring peace in the country.
Washington and Brussels must understand that we reserve the right to do whatever is necessary to defend our legitimate interests, including our national security in all its dimensions.
At the same time we hope that pragmatism and common sense will eventually prevail in the approach of our partners. The USA, the European Union and other countries should listen to the voice of reason and break the pointless vicious circle of eye-for-an-eye punishment, which they initiated themselves.
Question: Will Russia and European countries be able to restore mutual trust in the foreseeable future?
Sergey Lavrov: Obviously, relations between Russia and the European Union are under severe strain. The destructive line our European partners have taken on the Ukrainian crisis – applying double standards to the situation in Ukraine, unjustifiably blaming the Ukrainian tragedy on us, attempting to exert pressure through sanctions – seriously undermines confidence in Europe.
However, I am convinced that our relations have not yet reached the point of no return. We hope that the safety net that has been created over the years will prove strong enough and will enable us not only to return to the status quo that existed before the conflict, but to move forward. To this end, it is necessary to abandon the faulty logic of sanctions and threats and begin a constructive and pragmatic search for solutions to the problems that have piled up. It is important that common sense and an awareness of the dead-end nature of the policy pursued with regard to our country prevail over hawkish sentiments.
We have consistently argued that there is no reasonable alternative to continued mutually beneficial and equitable cooperation between Russia and the EU, because there is too much that binds us geographically, economically, historically and in human terms. We believe that in spite of the current difficult situation, everyone must recognise there is no alternative to forming a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific based on the principles of indivisibility of security and broad-based cooperation. All the more so since all the prerequisites for achieving this strategic task already exist – the common civilization and cultural roots, the considerable complementarity of our economies, adherence to common trade rules in accordance with WTO standards on the basis of which the European Union is developing and as well as the Eurasian Economic Union which is now being created, the need to search for sources of growth and innovation-driven development. If we ignore this reality we will inevitably be confronted with more and more crises like the one in Ukraine, which would not serve the long-term interests of our shared continent in continued stability and prosperity.