Question: Thank you for finding the time in your busy schedule to talk to us.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you for inviting me. This is a big game, so I have to play it.
Question: Indeed, the stakes are high. I am confident that much of what is being said in Washington is at odds with how you view the actual developments. However, I think you will probably agree with what President Joe Biden said about the importance of avoiding World War III. We need to keep in mind that this threat does exist.
Graham Allison, whom you know well – he is a prominent political scientist at Harvard and former Assistant Secretary of Defence – said that today’s situation is as explosive as it was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, it could be even more dangerous, since there is less clarity about the rules of the game and more mutual distrust. What do you think about the extent of the crisis we are all facing today? How real is it? What can and will Russia do about it?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia is already doing a lot. For many years, as far back as during the Donald Trump presidency, we called for Moscow and Washington to reaffirm at the highest level the 1987 statement by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, who said that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
We tried to convince Donald Trump’s team to reaffirm this statement, considering its importance for our nations and for the entire world. Unfortunately, we failed to persuade our colleagues that this step was needed. However, we reached common ground with the Joe Biden administration quite quickly, and our presidents issued the statement in June 2021 during their Geneva summit.
In January 2022, we fulfilled another initiative to this effect. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council adopted a statement along the same lines, which was supposed to coincide with the opening of the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. All five leaders put their signatures under the statement that a nuclear war must never happen. This is our position of principle, and we are committed to it. The risks are quite high today. I would not like to see them blown out of proportion, but many would love to do it. This threat is serious and real. It must not be underestimated.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were not many written rules, but the rules of conduct were quite clear. Moscow understood how Washington was acting, while Washington understood Moscow’s behaviour.
Today, few rules remain. We have the New START – the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Joe Biden made a good and wise step by supporting Russia’s proposal to extend the treaty for five years without any conditions as his first foreign policy decision. The Trump administration refused to proceed with this formula.
At the same time, the other arms control and non-proliferation instruments have been destroyed. The ABM Treaty limiting missile defence systems and the INF Treaty – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, no longer exist. The US has turned down our proposal to introduce a mutual moratorium, even though we proposed agreeing on verification mechanisms as part of this proposal. The main objection the West has is that they do not “trust” us that the Iskander systems in Kaliningrad do not violate the terms of the INF Treaty. Guided by the principle of reciprocity, we offered them to visit Kaliningrad, while we would visit US missile defence bases in Poland and Romania. This was an honest proposal, but they have been refusing it ever since. The Open Skies Treaty has also run its course. It does not exist anymore.
The New START is the only remaining arms control treaty. We were ready to discuss what will happen in five years (now we have only four years left), and we started this conversation with the Americans, since we all proceed from the premise that this was the last extension. We had two useful rounds of talks in July and September 2021. After that, we held working contacts. They demonstrated that we have serious differences, which were clear to us and to the Americans. We agreed on setting up two working groups and tasked them with defining the subject matter of the treaty and specific threats to be reviewed during future talks.
The United States cancelled almost all contacts due to the fact that we were forced to stand up for the Russians in Ukraine. Those people lived under constant shelling for eight years without any response from the West. On the contrary, all the West did was encourage Russophobic and neo-Nazi actions by the Kiev regime. Ukraine passed laws banning the Russian language from all areas of life: education, the media, and everyday communication, while encouraging neo-Nazi theories and practices.
To follow up on rules, it’s a buzzword the United States and its allies use when they tell everyone to behave. They now insist on compliance with the rules-based order rather than international law. No description of these rules is available.
They say the rules are not many. For us, they don’t exist at all. There is international law. We respect it and the UN Charter. The sovereign equality of states is its key provision and the core principle. The US is flagrantly violating its obligations under the UN Charter when it promotes its rules and wants the whole world to blindly follow in its step and do as its already compliant allies (primarily in Europe and some Asian countries) are doing. It does not fulfil the obligation to respect the sovereign equality of states. In fact, it is blatantly trampling upon this equality and is forcing everyone to follow its rules.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen gave a particularly fitting definition of these rules. She was speaking about something else, but that does not affect the meaning of what she said. She was talking about the idea of reforming the Bretton Woods institutions. Not being bound by any foreign policy conventionalities, she made clear that this reform should by no means lead to the formation of a bipolar world, and the United States should actively work with China in order for Beijing to absorb this message. She couldn’t have been clearer about it. They need a unipolar world as they see it now, and every reform should be carried out exclusively within the unipolar world philosophy.
Even when President Trump was in office, the United States spoke in favour of reforming the WTO. As it turned out, China has beat them and continues to beat them on the platforms created by the Americans as part of globalisation and the WTO rules that it created. It is not accidental that Washington blocked the WTO dispute resolution body, to which China submitted scores of complaints. The Americans are taking advantage of procedural tricks to block appointments to fill vacancies in that body so it does not have a quorum and remains non-operational.
When it came to the WTO reform, Washington stated that it should be carried out by the United States and Europe, whereas China should be “kept out” of it. Acting unprofessionally and giving out its plans is a hallmark of our Western colleagues, who feel free to do anything they want. They openly state that they will be in charge and that NATO is entitled to do as it pleases. They can say that NATO is a defensive alliance, so there’s “no need to be afraid” and “this organisation does not threaten anyone’s security.” Next thing you know Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is saying that NATO bears global responsibility for security, including in the Indo-Pacific region.
By the same token, once the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union were gone, they moved the “line of defence” (since they are a defensive alliance) eastward, closer to our borders on five occasions and told us not “to fret,” since it is inconsequential for our security. Rather impolitely, they made it clear that we are not the ones to decide on our security needs.
Now, they are going to move the “defence line” of their “defensive” alliance to the South China Sea, which goes hand-in-hand with creating AUKUS and QUAD, and dragging Japan, Korea and half of the ASEAN countries into AUKUS. They are trying to tear down the architecture that has been taking shape over the span of many decades and relied on consensus and the participation of all major players, including the United States, Russia, India, Japan, China and Australia. This is now also subject to change in line with unipolarity, which they are trying to save by hook or by crook.
Everyone’s mantra is that a third world war must be staved off at all costs. President Zelensky of Ukraine and his team’s unending provocations should beconsidered in this context. They almost go as far as requesting NATO to send its troops in to protect the Ukrainian government. However, everyone keeps saying that they will provide Kiev with weapons, which adds fuel to the fire. They want to use these arms deliveries to make the Ukrainians fight against Russia to the last soldier in order to make this conflict last longer, so that Russia, as they hope, suffers more from it.
As they keep supplying weapons and promoting their efforts in this area, all leaders (except Poland) state that sending NATO troops in is out of the question. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki came up with the idea of a kind of “peacekeeping operation” in Ukraine, clearly interested in sending Polish troops to Ukraine under peacekeeping flags. Next, we can imagine how the historical memory of the Poles, who will find themselves in their former territory – western Ukraine – will work.
How are we supposed to behave? Can this be compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis? In those years, there was a channel of communication that both leaders trusted. Now there is no such channel. Nobody is trying to create it. A few timid attempts made at an early stage have not produced any notable result. We have been desperate to reach NATO all these years. Contrary to their promises, the alliance continued to expand; contrary to our warnings, they have been pumping weapons into Ukraine and in every possible way encouraging its Russophobic tendency (the regime established under Petro Poroshenko and strengthened under Vladimir Zelensky). We repeatedly warned them against drawing Ukraine into NATO. As a last resort or a goodwill gesture, we proposed that the Americans and NATO members sign appropriate security agreements that would ensure the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic area, including Ukraine. Everyone understood that Ukraine was an apple of discord, which revealed a far bigger problem and became a trigger in these processes. We proposed signing an agreement with the United States and NATO on providing guarantees for all countries jointly, collectively, without expanding any military-political blocs.
They listened politely. And then they said that they could not restrict NATO’s expansion because it would be contrary to their “open-door policy.” We reviewed the Charter of the North Atlantic Alliance and found that Article 10 did not mention any “open doors.” It says NATO can invite new members by consensus if they meet the criteria (apparently, democratic control) and, most importantly, if the new members contribute to the security of NATO member countries. No “open doors” or anything. They took in Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania. How can those countries contribute to NATO security if it is a “defensive” alliance? This shows that NATO’s expansion has nothing to do with its statutory goals. This is an expansion of territories under American command, and an attempt at strengthening and perpetuating that same old unipolar world. We’ve had talks between the delegations from Russia and the United States. I met with Antony Blinken. Our team went to the North Atlantic Alliance to present the proposed agreement in the Russia-NATO context. The talks showed there was no inclination among any members of the other party to consider our legitimate security interests.
We told them, friends, you’re on our borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly and publicly pointed out that they had reached our doorstep despite all our requests, statements, and warnings. They just kept advancing and were not going to change anything. They say their actions are not aimed against us, and they are not threatening our security. What are we supposed to make of this? Now they are cosying up to India, trying to involve that country in their formats in every possible way. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to India, and before that, American representatives did, too. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman publicly (all this is done blatantly) stated: the United States must “help” India understand what it needs to ensure its security. It is not some tiny island country they are referring to, but a great civilisation. They are saying similar things about China, too, they say they will “explain” what punishment will follow if Beijing supports Russia.
At the same time, when the United States suddenly decides something more than 10,000 kilometres away is threatening their interests – the former Yugoslavia, or Iraq, or somewhere else in the Middle East – they send troops, bomb civilian targets without hesitation, without any legal scruples or attempts to read up international law or the UN Charter. This is what happened in Belgrade: bridges, passenger trains, the television centre… Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was not a television centre, but an outlet of aggressive Serbian propaganda. In much the same way, President of France Emmanuel Macron has denied RT television channel and Sputnik accreditation for the Elysee Palace, calling them “propaganda tools” rather than media outlets.
These mannerisms, habits and attitudes are deep-rooted. They razed Iraqi Mosul and Syrian Raqqa to the ground. Dead bodies lay there for weeks. That, all the way across the ocean – a threat to the security of the United States of America. In Kosovo, they established the largest military base in the Balkans (maybe not only in the Balkans). No one is going to withdraw it. The “reason” for doing that was the “instability” that Slobodan Milosevic was allegedly generating in that region, oppressing the Kosovo Albanians. Let me emphasise once again: they seem to believe they’re entitled to uphold their own security wherever they please, while we are denied the right to defend our own borders and territories where Russians live, who have been oppressed there for many years, subjected to bombing, abuse, infringements on their rights to their language, culture, and traditions.
This is the problem – they have an incorrigible confidence in their own rightness and exceptionality. They have this term, “exceptional nation,” which both Democrats and Republicans use the same way. This sense of superiority brings back some memories, especially now that Russophobia and real racism with regard to things Russian is being cultivated at the highest level. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau recently announced that Vladimir Putin and all those who support him must be punished, adding that not only Russia, but all Russians will pay for this.
Question: I believe that Washington would not refute what you have said here. But they would formulate it differently. They would ask: Mr Minister, do you insist that authoritarian states should have the same rights as democratic countries?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, I do.
Question: Since you do, and they see this as unacceptable, this is one of the main conceptual differences between Moscow and Washington. They say that NATO is a defensive alliance and Russia has nothing to fear from it. But they mean – after all, you are not silly or naïve – that this is only true if you “behave.”
Sergey Lavrov: I am fully aware of this.
Question: If the “alliance of democracies” called NATO believes that a country “misbehaves,” that country is faced with unpleasant consequences, depending on what it has done. I believe that NATO does not even make a secret of this.
What should be done about the crisis around Ukraine in the context of the challenges you have mentioned and the huge gap in our approaches to international relations and modern civilisation in general? Are any talks on a peaceful settlement in Ukraine possible, given the acute conflict and the vastly divergent approaches of Russia and US-led NATO and the mistrust between them?
Sergey Lavrov: The United States, just like all other countries that pride themselves on being flawless democracies, have signed and ratified the UN Charter, with its underlying principle of the sovereign equality of states. It does not say that democracies should have more rights than autocracies, dictatorships or monarchies. It does not mention any differences between the rights of the UN member states.
Yes, the UN Security Council is a different matter. All of us know why Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted on the establishment of the Security Council of five permanent member states and the right of veto: he did not want the UN to follow in the footsteps of the League of Nations. If not for this institution established at Roosevelt’s initiative, the UN could have long fallen into oblivion, just as the League of Nations did. There is nothing good in a situation where great powers cannot use their prerogatives and cannot come to an agreement with each other. The right of veto forces them to hammer out agreements, at least, this is how it was for years.
Today the Americans and other Western countries are trying to erode the value of the right of veto. They want to shift this prerogative of the Security Council to the UN General Assembly, where they hope to force a majority vote by arm-twisting, blackmail and even threats regarding the delegations’ bank accounts and schools for their children. It is a dangerous trend. The Security Council with five permanent members and the right of veto is the last remaining pocket of international law. They are trying to replace everything else.
It was for a reason that US President Joe Biden held a “summit for democracy” in late 2021. There are plans to hold a second summit this year and to create an organisation that will operate as anti-UN and will replace the UN.
It is not a new trend. For some years now, the West, primarily France and Germany, has been creating all manner of platforms, calls and partnerships, mostly in Europe, on issues that are on the UN agenda, such as a partnership on international humanitarian law. It has a limited membership and is not open to everyone. When we ask why they do not want to discuss these issues at the universal scale, for example, at the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, they reply that there are too many “retrogrades” there. They say that there are autocracies and insufficiently democratic countries among UN members, and that they need to develop progressive ideas. Germany and France have created the Alliance of Democracies and the Alliance for Multilateralism.
When asked why they have forgotten about the UN, the supreme example of multilateralism where all countries in the world are represented (with the exception of a few states that have not been recognised yet), they reply that members of such organisations have to be convinced to accept multilateralism and that they need a “vanguard of multilateralism.” They say that they will use the EU’s approach to “multilateral cooperation” to form a group of like-minded nations. This is a superiority complex and an unwillingness to discuss any issues in formats where they can be contradicted and opposed. They don’t want it, because this will take time which they need to implement their neoliberal reforms as soon as possible. Also, I believe that they think they may lose in a fair debate when both sides present their arguments.
Just take a look at the list of countries invited to the summit for democracy. The United States never regarded some of them as democracies. They were criticised for actions which Washington regards as undemocratic, but they have been included in the “alliance of democratic countries” because the United States wants to make use of their strategic position in its own interests. Washington wants to put them under a “democratic umbrella” as a form of flattery, so as to be able to use them to its advantage.
We have been using such terms as “democracy,” “autocracy” and “authoritarian states.” American political analysts have recently started referring to India not as a major democratic country but as an “electoral autocracy.” I have mentioned this fact to my Indian friends. They smiled in acknowledgment. There are many methods of holding countries in suspense.
With regard to the talks about Ukraine, we know for sure that the United States and the UK (which is going out of its way with its indefatigable efforts to compensate for its loner status after leaving the EU) are advising President Zelensky not to speed up the talks, but to toughen his position each time instead. We saw this after the meeting in Istanbul, where, as President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said in his interviews and conversations with his colleagues, we received, for the first time, their written proposals which were signed by the leaders of their delegation. We were ready to use them as a basis for further talks. Of course, they had to be revised in order to become a consensus document, but we received them positively. So far, the only written proposals we have were submitted in Istanbul. It was not a draft treaty, but rather a set of talking points. We quickly drafted a treaty based on these points and handed it over to our Ukrainian colleagues. Then, they came up with their own ideas, which were drastically different from what was done in Istanbul, which was a huge Lenin-style step back. This step back (or rather two) was taken on the advice of our US or British colleagues. The Poles or the Baltic states may have played their part as well.
Question: So Ukraine has toughened its position?
Sergey Lavrov: They have gone back on the positions that the Russian side was willing to accept as a basis. We have drafted a document which translated their proposals into treaty language. Kiev representatives told us it was not like that and they wouldn’t write it down and suggested postponing it. Nevertheless, after that we continued to participate in online discussions and provided our arguments to back up our position. A week ago, after another videoconference, we gave them a revised version of the treaty, which included their subsequent comments, as it is usually done. We’ve been waiting for their response for a week now.
When asked at a news conference about his take on our proposals, President Zelensky said he received nothing and saw nothing. We asked the Ukrainian negotiators whether they reported it to the President. They said President Zelensky was pressed for time. This goes to show what the President of Ukraine thinks of the talks as he solemnly declares that he “prefers peace.”
Question: As I was getting ready for this interview with you, I contacted the Washington administration. They deny that they are encouraging Kiev to drag out the talks. Instead, they are saying that they see their mission in supporting President Zelensky, and Kiev’s position in the talks with Russia is the position of the President of Ukraine, not the United States. The thing that interests me now more than anything else is the growing US military assistance to Zelensky’s government. I think that Washington is afraid of the President of Ukraine (this is my personal assessment). He managed to position himself in a unique manner as the leader of a country that is the “victim of aggression” by a stronger state and, at the same time, as someone who is personally desirous of supporting democracy throughout the world. Washington is saying that helping President Zelensky with as many weapons as possible is not so much a policy seeking to prolong the war, but compensation for the fact that the United States is unwilling to get involved in the hostilities.
Sergey Lavrov: I disagree. They are already putting it differently, “Vladimir Zelensky must defeat Vladimir Putin.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Russia must be defeated. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said that victory must be achieved on the battlefield. They are not embarrassed by not sending their troops. It’s not that they want to support the newly minted “hero.” Zelensky is portrayed as a “beacon of democracy,” but, in fact, he is promoting a ban on everything Russian and encouraging foundations for strengthening neo-Nazism and Nazi theory and practice in his country at the legislative level.
But it’s not about that. They want to do their best to make sure that Zelensky inflicts irreparable damage on Russia and defeats it “on the battlefield” (although sensible people understand the situation). Then the Russians will have to ask for mercy and agree to much less favourable terms than they planned on initially. There are speculations of that kind out there.
Question: The words about “mercy” are coming from “commentators” in Congress rather than the White House.
Sergey Lavrov: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks almost the same language.
Question: Boris Johnson is a special case.
Sergey Lavrov: I agree, but Vladimir Zelensky is a special case, too. They are quite similar in terms of their ability to cater to the public and to imitate. For example, they only imitate actual negotiations. Zelensky had one week to study Russia’s proposals. Today I read remarks by Verkhovna Rada Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk who noted that, based on this crisis, Ukraine would not remove a constitutional provision regarding its intention to join NATO. How can you explain this? We are discussing Kiev’s neutral and non-aligned status with security guarantees covering a specific territory in all of our talks. Zelensky is saying openly that they are ready for a neutral and non-nuclear status. At the same time, the Verkhovna Rada Speaker is noting that nothing will be deleted from the constitution and that Ukraine will continue to pursue NATO membership just like before.
What is seen in the West as a talented presentation of the Ukrainian president’s interests and approaches is peculiar. He is a good actor, but funny things happen to him sometimes, and they reveal what state he’s in. We will see a thousand discrepancies if we take a closer look and delve into the gist of his remarks. He contradicts himself every other day with certain statements, then renounces them and goes back to his earlier position. This is true.
You have the impression that the administration in Washington has coined the image of a person who has virtually subordinated the entire Western democratic world and who has come to embody and symbolise democracy. Again, where were our Western colleagues when this democracy banned all things Russian, including the Russian language, education and media outlets, and when it destroyed Russian Orthodox churches? In their time, Bandera and Shukhevich, when commanding the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, serving Hitler (the Galichina Division of the Waffen SS), destroyed Polish Catholic churches, and they said they would destroy everything Polish and kill all Poles. Even the Poles are now trying to keep silent about this. School textbooks no longer mention the Volyn massacre. But at that time, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, commanded by Shukhevich and Bandera, declared that eliminating the Poles was its goal. This is very close to current statements by Ukrainian neo-Nazis on eliminating Russians.
Question: Putting Washington’s intentions aside, I suggest that we discuss what the US administration is doing. How do we characterise this? I am referring to the unprecedented and surprising, at least for me, scale of US military assistance to Vladimir Zelensky’s government. There was $800 million two weeks ago, and another $800 million a week ago. On their recent visit to Kiev, the US secretaries of state and defence pledged another $700 million.
Sergey Lavrov: They are giving money not only to Ukraine, but also to all Eastern European countries. Kiev received roughly half of these giveaways.
Question: Fair enough. My question is: what will the consequences be? I am not so much asking you about your assessment, even though it is very important, but what Russia will do about this? Or maybe Moscow believes that no matter how hard they try out there in Washington, this will not change the balance of power in any meaningful way?
Sergey Lavrov: I read several anonymous statements by serving US military personnel on what happens with these weapons when they cross the Ukrainian border and where they end up. They said they do not have any information on where all these weapons go.
Apart from tanks and armoured vehicles, Ukraine also receives thousands of portable air-defence systems, the weapons terrorist use. It is not a coincidence that we had an agreement with the United States for many years to inform each other about any deliveries of MANPADS abroad. This way, they knew that we did not allow these formidable weapons to fall into the wrong hands, while we also knew that they would not make any mistakes or ill-advised moves. The Javelin is also a portable missile system. It may have been invented as an anti-tank missile system, but it can also be used to carry out terrorist attacks. Where do all these weapons go? Let me emphasise that we are talking about thousands and thousands of units here.
In Ukraine, Azov and Aidar neo-Nazi battalions and other units that do not report to the commander-in-chief, and are proud of it, have a special, autonomous, untouchable status within the armed forces. If experience is any guide, like any country with a weak government, these weapons will spread around, including to the countries supplying them to Ukraine. In these countries, there are also groups, especially in the context of migration processes, who would love to lay their hands on these weapons. The American military ignores where these weapons go. Maybe they do know some things, but there are definitely things they ignore. What will the Russian Federation do? When Turkey sold the Bayraktar drones to Ukraine, which happened a long time ago, they were used for reconnaissance purposes in Donbass for many years to help the Ukrainian Armed Forces shell this region in what amounted to a flagrant violation of the Minsk agreements.
Vladimir Zelensky has buried these agreements publicly. He refused to honour them, just like the decision taken at the December 2019 Normandy summit in Paris, even though there was nothing about Lugansk, Donetsk or Russia there. All he had to do was pass a law granting Donbass special status. Nothing more. He did not have to do anything else. But he was the one who had to do it! Nobody else could have done this in his place. He subscribed to this. But then, for three years he went around lamenting that Russia failed to fulfil the Minsk agreements. This is ridiculous. He has been simulating talks with the Russian Federation the same way he imitates democracy, while in fact cancelling democracy, culture and imposing the dictate of radicals.
These weapons will be a legitimate target for the Russian Armed Forces during the special operation. They have already targeted warehouses, including in western Ukraine. How can it be otherwise? NATO has de facto entered into a proxy war with Russia by arming its proxy. War is war, as the saying goes.
As for arms supplies, this is another example of American bad faith in terms of international law and the fact that they are guided by the principle “do as you please.” The United States had about two dozen Soviet and Russian Mi-17 helicopters. In better times, we had a comprehensive project within the Russia-NATO Council to work together to promote a settlement in Afghanistan. It was called the Helicopter Package. We supplied helicopters, and they paid for them. We provided maintenance for these helicopters, and they were delivered to Afghan security forces. Today, Washington said aloud that it was going to hand over these helicopters to Vladimir Zelensky. We drew their attention to the fact that they had acquired the helicopters under a contract with Rosoboronexport, which states that these helicopters can only be used by Afghan security forces, while prohibiting any transfer to third countries without Russia’s consent. The obligation not to transfer the helicopters to third parties is set forth in end-use certificates, first signed before 2013 under the Helicopter Package when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, and then by John Kerry. Therefore, sending these helicopters to Ukraine amounts to an outright violation in a very important sphere of international relations.
Question: Do I understand correctly that with the current level of Russian-American relations and the confrontation in Ukraine, the chances of a diplomatic settlement remain slim until there is greater clarity about the military dynamics in Ukraine? At this stage, it is about the armed forces and the dynamics of military confrontation during the special operation, which can drive progress in diplomacy and open up new opportunities or, on the contrary, close them.
Sergey Lavrov: This is not entirely up to us; much depends on those who lead Ukraine and exercise external control over the Zelensky administration. I mentioned Istanbul. At that face-to-face meeting, the Russian side for the first time received the Ukrainians’ proposals in writing. We were ready to accept that as a basic draft; we gave our clarifications, but conceptually agreed with what was proposed there – a neutral status, security guarantees, their volume and the procedure for providing them. In a rough approximation, anyway. But they deviated from that concept.
I won’t give away any big secrets, but here’s one example. The Istanbul document said there would be no foreign military bases in Ukraine, and no exercises would be held there involving foreign forces unless there is consent from all the guarantor countries of this treaty, including Russia. This is what was written, verbatim. But the version they served us with after our positive reaction said, no exercises except with the agreement of the majority of the guarantor countries. See the difference? It’s obvious. And they did the same with a number of other proposals they had made in Istanbul. Let me emphasise once again that those proposals were generally received positively.
As for where and when we can expect to complete the negotiation of the agreement, we must keep in mind that the Istanbul meeting took place against a certain backdrop on the ground. The situation is different now. We have a feeling that the West wants Ukraine to continue fighting. They seem to believe this would wear out, wear down the Russian army and the Russian defence industry. But this is an illusion.
Are you the last Sovietologist left?
Question: Not quite. There are several more, even within the administration. But the political dynamics in Washington are not on their side.
Sergey Lavrov: The old guard, yes. As my American friends told me, back in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet studies ceased to interest people. They did not think it would be a very promising field of study. Just like Middle Eastern Studies at some stage.
Now, back to the relationship between the situation on the ground and a hypothetical or, say, eventual peace settlement. There is a connection indeed. As we underscored from day one, as Vladimir Putin said in his statement announcing the special operation, we primarily wanted the Ukrainian people to be able to decide what to do with their country or their lives.
Question: If I understand you correctly, Russia will continue its policy and is so far not ready to depart from the demands it put forward at the start of the special operation. Will Moscow do what it deems necessary in terms of military operations?
Sergey Lavrov: There is no doubt about it. What we deem necessary has been announced by President Vladimir Putin. I am referring to the need to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure in the context of demilitarising it. To quote President Putin, Ukraine has been turned into an “anti-Russia” and a direct threat to this country. But the Russian military must meet very strict requirements to minimise damage to the civilian population.
We will expose the fake news that was proliferating after Bucha. They are attempting to represent the situation at Azovstal as created by Russia. Allegedly, Moscow is preventing civilians from leaving the plant. They are lying through their teeth, including the lie that we have not opened humanitarian corridors, even though this is announced for all to hear every day, with buses and ambulances being sent [to the corridors]. Ukraine is using civilians as human shields both in Mariupol and in other areas, where hostilities and the Russian operation are in progress. Its other ruse is to fail to notify people or prevent them from leaving, detaining them by force. Those who have managed to escape on their own describe how they are treated by the soldiers from the Azov battalion and other “territorial organisations.
Like any situation involving the use of armed force, everything will end in a treaty. But the parameters will be determined by the stage the military operations are at when this treaty becomes a reality.
Question: This is a very interesting and important conversation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. You are a master of diplomacy. It seems to me that you have displayed an iron will to do what Russia deems necessary, but you have never closed the door to diplomatic negotiations. You even said that Ukraine’s initial position was interesting and could be used for an agreement. This is a rather complex position. Did I express this incorrectly?
Sergey Lavrov: No, this is correct. But, you know, goodwill is not unlimited. If it is not reciprocated it cannot promote the negotiating process. Many people in Russia are convinced (I have talked about this) that Ukraine’s position is actually determined by Washington, London and other Western capitals. Russian political scientists say, “Why do we talk to Zelensky? We should just talk with the Americans, come to terms with them and reach an agreement.” But we continue to negotiate with Mr Zelensky’s team.
As far as the Americans are concerned, this would be of some use, but I don’t see them showing any interest in meeting on Ukraine or any other matter.