Question: Mr Lavrov, first of all, I would like to thank you for fitting this interview with Russkaya Mysl into your packed schedule. How would you describe the current EU policy towards Russia? What are the prospects for an improvement in relations between them, considering that both sides obviously depend on each other?
Sergey Lavrov: Unfortunately, the EU’s current policy towards Russia can hardly be described as friendly. The EU has knowingly destroyed almost the entire infrastructure of our relations and is carrying on a policy of illegal unilateral sanctions. It keeps saying that the normalisation of relations with Russia depends on the implementation of the Minsk agreements on Ukraine, which Kiev is openly sabotaging. Media campaigns are orchestrated to accuse Moscow of disinformation, without any substantiation, and all Russia’s proposals to launch a professional dialogue based on facts have been rejected. It has come to open interference in our internal affairs.
Russia and the EU are neighbours. I believe that it is in our common interests to ensure the peaceful, stable and safe development of the Eurasian continent as a whole. We would be delighted to have constructive cooperation with the EU based on the principles of mutual respect and account for each other’s interests, when, and if Brussels is ready for this. Moreover, Russia-EU cooperation is extremely important in some areas such as healthcare, climate change, research and technology. Cross-border threats and challenges – international terrorism, drug trafficking and cybercrime – have not abated and call for joint efforts against them. Together with the main traditional sphere, energy, this comprises a substantial mutually beneficial agenda.
As President Vladimir Putin said at the online session of the Davos Agenda 2021 forum in January, we need to approach the dialogue with each other honestly, discard the phobias of the past and look to the future. And we will certainly enjoy a positive stage in our relations.
Question: US President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that the United States faces increasing “strategic challenges” from Russia. Nevertheless, can the agreement to extend the Russian-US New START treaty be regarded as a desire to reset bilateral relations? How will bilateral cooperation evolve under the Biden administration amid the anti-Russia campaign in the United States?
Sergey Lavrov: The extension of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) was the result of the combined Russian-US efforts. The ultimate impetus to this process has been given personally by the presidents of Russia and the United States. Experts on disarmament agree that the New START is the backbone of strategic stability. It has provided the framework for and presented a correct balance of the two countries’ interests.
As for further cooperation with Washington in the sphere of arms control, it would be premature to talk about any details. We have submitted to the Americans our vision of the parameters of a new “security equation” with the understanding that talks can only be fruitful if the United States is willing to respect Russia’s interests and to ensure a two-way process aimed at achieving equal and mutually acceptable agreements. Russia is ready for this.
We do not expect to see any serious changes in the entire complex of bilateral relations under the Biden administration. The future of our cooperation depends not only on us but also on the American side. We have always been ready for an open dialogue based on mutual respect, a balance of the sides’ interests and a resolve for making compromises. Regrettably, the United States has taken a different track in recent years, and it does not depend on the domestic political situation or who stands at the helm in the White House.
Nevertheless, we hope that our American colleagues will come to see that the biggest current challenges, from arms control and regional crises to the coronavirus pandemic, can only be addressed through uniting or at least combining the efforts and potential of the leading global players. In this sense, sustainable and predictable cooperation between Russia and the United States as the guarantors of international stability would meet the interests and demands of the international community as a whole.
Question: What effect might Britain’s exit from the EU have on Russia’s interests?
Sergey Lavrov: We have pointed out on numerous occasions that Brexit is an internal matter of the UK and the EU. At the same time, we are paying close attention to the development of interaction parameters between the UK and the EU and the influence of this process on the sides’ cooperation with other international partners, including Russia. For our part, we can say confidently that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has not encouraged London to normalise interstate dialogue with Russia.
Over the past few years, the British government has pursued a harsh anti-Russia policy combined with a steady increase in sanctions pressure. In the year after Brexit, London adopted three packages of sanctions against Russian officials and organisations. The British authorities have been making absolutely unsubstantiated attacks on Russia and using harsh anti-Russia rhetoric in the public spotlight regardless of their EU membership. As the result, our bilateral cooperation has almost come to a standstill, mutual trust has been lost, and the temperature of our relations is hovering around zero.
As for the trade and economic effect of Brexit on Russia, we are monitoring the London-Brussels dialogue, which is not nearing completion even despite the signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in December 2020.
We have pointed out on numerous occasions that we would be interested in promoting economic ties with the UK regardless of Brexit. We believe that Britain will remain an important trade partner for Russia. For example, in 2020, our bilateral trade amounted to $26.6 billion or 53.6 percent more than in 2019. We are ready to relaunch the relevant bilateral mechanisms, including the Intergovernmental Steering Committee on Trade and Investment and the High-Level Energy Dialogue.
At the same time, there is no doubt that we will be unable to make use of the considerable potential of cooperation without a balanced political dialogue and a responsible attitude to bilateral relations, including in the public space. We remain open to developing cooperation with Britain in so far as it is ready for it.
Question: Russia plays a key role in preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme. At your joint news conference with Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, you highlighted the tremendous significance of this document as an achievement of multilateral diplomacy. Is it possible to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran in cooperation with European countries?
Sergey Lavrov: A window of opportunity for saving the nuclear deal remains open. The complete and consistent fulfillment of the comprehensive 2015 agreements by all countries that drafted and concluded them is an essential condition. We closely cooperate with all JCPOA participants in order to achieve this goal. For example, we also maintain regular contact with European partners for elaborating possible decisions to rectify the current situation.
However, not everything depends on us or the European parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action here. The position of President Joe Biden’s administration on the nuclear deal is an essential aspect. In our opinion, Washington’s steps sending a message to Tehran showing serious US intentions to rejoin the JCPOA could help resolve the situation concerning Iran and its nuclear programme.
We hope that it will become possible to improve the situation in the near future and to return the JCPOA implementation process to the initially coordinated framework, all the more so as Tehran has repeatedly voiced its readiness to once again start fulfilling the JCPOA provisions, which it suspended, as soon as the lost balance of interests is restored. In turn, we are ready to help reach the relevant agreements in every way.
Question: How could you explain NATO’s position with regard to Turkey, which is playing a double game on the international scene and venturing far beyond its borders, using weapons? Can Russia prevent the escalation of tensions in the Middle East by using its influence in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: It would be more logical to address the question of NATO’s attitude towards Turkish actions to our Western colleagues.
On the whole, it is common knowledge that Ankara attaches great significance to NATO membership and is committed to a number of common intra-NATO obligations in this connection.
At the same time, Turkish leaders seek to pursue an independent foreign policy favouring national interests. Turkey’s NATO allies criticise Ankara for its reluctance to blindly follow in the wake of Washington’s policy and for independently choosing methods of ensuring its own defence capability. They have even imposed certain anti-Turkey sanctions in some fields. The example of Turkey shows the real-life situation with intra-NATO democracy.
Regarding Syria, it is common knowledge that Russian service personnel are staying there at the invitation of the country’s legitimate government. We now have every reason to say that they have made a decisive contribution to defeating terrorism and guaranteeing the security of the Syrian Arab Republic. We continue to help stabilise the situation on the ground, to advance the political settlement process and to provide humanitarian assistance to that country for the purpose of post-conflict recovery and the return of refugees and temporarily displaced persons to the places of permanent residence.
These comprehensive efforts have made it possible to reliably stop the spread of terrorism and radical pseudo-Islamic ideology. We have prevented the threat of a forcible government change in the Syrian Arab Republic; such a government change would only continue the bloodshed in this country and wreak further havoc in the entire region.
Russian approaches towards the Syrian peace settlement are based on international law, respect for the Syrian Arab Republic’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. I am convinced that we should address all other Middle East challenges based on these universal principles. Proceeding from this understanding, we have drafted the Russian concept for establishing a mechanism of collective security and stability in the Gulf zone. The well-known initiative of President Vladimir Putin on forming a truly universal anti-terrorism coalition under the auspices of the UN still has good potential. Certainly, its implementation would help mitigate tensions in the Middle East region. Russian efforts aiming to facilitate a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement under the well-known international law framework, with reliance on the Middle East Quartet of international mediators, remain in high demand.
Russia has no covert agenda in Middle East affairs. We are acting in the interests of international peace and security, while striving to stabilise the Middle East and North Africa.