Question: Initially, the in-person talks were held in Belarus followed by online talks. You met with Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba in Antalya, Turkey, on March 10. What’s your take on the negotiating process?
Sergey Lavrov: I did not fly to Turkey in order to forestall the Belarusian negotiating track agreed upon by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky which is now being implemented via video conference. President Zelensky asked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to speak with President Putin in order to set up a meeting between Dmitry Kuleba and me in Antalya since we both planned to take part in the Antalya Diplomacy Forum.
Based on this request, President Vladimir Putin instructed me to hold a meeting and find out what Dmitry Kuleba has to offer (which is what I asked him to do). He stated that he did not arrive there to reiterate public statements. This statement got my attention. Dmitry Kuleba failed to vocalize any new ideas during the 90-minute conversation in the presence of Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu, despite multiple reminders to the effect that I wanted to hear things that had not been saying publicly. I did my part and made myself available to listen to what he had to say. Anyway, we had a conversation, which is not a bad thing. We are ready for such contacts going forward. It would be good to know the added value derived from such contacts and how the proposals to create new channels of interaction correlate with the functioning of an existing and steady negotiating process (the Belarusian channel).
I’m not going to comment on the details, which are a delicate matter. According to head of the Russian delegation Vladimir Medinsky, the talks focus on humanitarian issues, the situation on the ground in terms of hostilities, and on matters of political settlement. Overall, the agenda is known (it was repeatedly and publicly announced by President Vladimir Putin in his elaborate remarks) and includes matters of security and saving lives of the people in Donbass; preventing Ukraine from becoming a permanent threat to the security of the Russian Federation; and preventing the revival in Ukraine of neo-Nazi ideology, which is illegal around the world, including civilized Europe.
I base my opinion on the assessments provided by our negotiators. They state that the talks are not going smoothly (for obvious reasons). However, there is hope for a compromise. The same assessment is given by a number of Ukrainian officials, including members of President Zelensky’s staff and President Zelensky himself.
Question: President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky said that the positions of Russia and Ukraine during the talks have become more “realistic.”
Sergey Lavrov: This is about a more realistic assessment of the ongoing events coming from Vladimir Zelensky. His previous statements were confrontational. We can see that this role and function has been reassigned to Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba, who started saying that Russia’s demands are “unacceptable.” If they wish to create additional tension (as if the current tension were not enough) in the media space, what can we do?
We saw a similar tendency with respect to the Minsk agreements. Dmitry Kuleba was riding ahead on a dashing horse, along with those who were hacking the Minsk agreements into pieces. He publicly stated that the agreements would not be fulfilled. I would give negotiators an opportunity to work in a calmer environment, without stirring up more hysteria.
Question: President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky said that they are “reasonable people” and they realize that they are no longer welcome in NATO. What made him change his rhetoric? NATO aspirations are stated in one of the articles of the Ukrainian Constitution.
They have been saying it all along that Kiev actually wants to be part of the alliance.
Sergey Lavrov: The rhetoric has changed because more reasonable thinking is paving its way to the minds of the Ukrainian leaders. The issue of dissolving the Soviet Union was resolved in a very odd manner: very few parties were asked; the decision was split “between three,” so to speak, and it was done. Later, certain common ground was achieved in the form of the Commonwealth of Independent States. It is good that the other former Soviet republics were shown some respect, at least post factum.
In the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, adopted before the Belovezh Accords, it was stated in black and white that Ukraine would be a non-aligned and militarily neutral state. In all the subsequent documents characterizing the formation of Ukrainian statehood, the declaration was always listed among fundamental documents. After the anti-constitutional coup in February 2014, the Ukrainian Constitution was amended to include statements on continuous movement towards NATO (in addition to the European Union). That undermined the integrity of the previous process and the fundamental documents that the Ukrainian state is based on – because the Declaration of Sovereignty and the Act of Ukraine’s Independence are still listed among the founding documents of the Ukrainian state.
This is not the only inconsistency. The provision of the Ukrainian Constitution on ensuring the rights of the Russian and other ethnic minorities remains intact. However, a huge number of laws have been adopted that run counter to this constitutional provision and flagrantly discriminate against the Russian language, in particular, against all European norms.
We remember that President Zelensky recently said that NATO must close the sky over Ukraine and start fighting for Ukraine, recruiting mercenaries and sending them to the frontline. That statement was made very aggressively. The reaction of the North Atlantic Alliance, where some clear-headed people still remain, had a cooling effect. This reasonable approach in the current situation deserves to be welcomed.
Before the final decision was made to begin the special military operation, President Vladimir Putin spoke about our initiatives concerning the security guarantees in Europe at a news conference in the Kremlin, explaining that it is unacceptable that Ukraine’s security be ensured through its NATO membership. He clearly said that we are ready to look for any ways to ensure the security of Ukraine, the European countries and Russia except for NATO’s expansion to the east. The alliance has been assuring us that we should not be worried as it serves a defensive purpose and nothing threatens us and our security. The alliance was declared defensive in its early days. During the Cold War, it was clear who was defending whom, where, and against which party. There was the Berlin Wall, both concrete and geopolitical. Everybody accepted that contact line under the Warsaw Pact and NATO. It was clear which line NATO would protect.
When the Warsaw Pact and later the Soviet Union were dissolved, NATO started, at its own discretion and without any consultations with those who used to be part of the balance of power on the European continent, working its way to the east, moving the contact line further to the right each time. When the contact line came too close to us (and nobody took our reasoning seriously in the past 20 years), we proposed the European security initiatives which, to my great regret, were also ignored by our arrogant partners.
Question: Many people in Russia and Ukraine are asking themselves whether the situation could not have been resolved peacefully. Why didn’t this work out? Why did it become necessary to conduct a special operation?
Sergey Lavrov: Because the West did not want to resolve this situation peacefully. Although I have already discussed this aspect, I would like to highlight it once again. This has absolutely nothing to do with Ukraine. This concerns the international order, rather than Ukraine alone.
The United States has pinned down the whole of Europe. Today, some Europeans are telling us that Russia started behaving differently, that Europe had its own special interests differing from those of the United States, and that we have compelled Europe to share the United States’ fervor for the cause. I believe that what has happened is entirely different. Under President Joe Biden, the United States set the goal of subordinating Europe, and it has succeeded in forcing Europe to implicitly follow US policies. This is a crucial moment, a landmark in contemporary history because, in the broad sense of the word, it reflects the battle for a future international order.
The West stopped using the term “international law,” embodied in the UN Charter, many years ago, and it invented the term “rules-based order.” These rules were written by members of an inner circle. The West incentivized those who accepted these rules. At the same time, narrow non-universal organizations dealing with the same matters as the universal organizations were established. Apart from UNESCO, there is a certain international partnership in support of information and democracy. We have international humanitarian law and the UN Refugee Agency dealing with related issues. The European Union is setting up a special partnership for dealing with the same matter. However, decisions will be based on EU interests, and they will disregard universal processes.
France and Germany are establishing an alliance for multilateralism. When asked about the reason for setting it up at a time when the UN – the most legitimate and universal organization – embodies multilateralism, they gave an interesting reply that the UN employed many retrogrades and that the new alliance prioritized avantgardism. They also stated their intention to promote multilateralism in such a way that no one would hamper their efforts. When asked what the ideals of this multilateralism were, they said that they were EU values. This arrogance and misinterpreted feeling of one’s own superiority also rule supreme in a situation that we are now reviewing, namely, the creation of a world where the West would a priori manage everything with impunity. Many people now claim that Russia has come under attack because it remains virtually the only obstacle that needs to be removed before the West can start dealing with China. This straightforward statement is quite truthful.
You asked why it was impossible to peacefully resolve the situation. For many years, we suggested resolving the matter peacefully. Many reasonable politicians from the US and Europe responded in earnest to Vladimir Putin’s proposal at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. Unfortunately, decision-makers in Western countries ignored it. Numerous assessments by world-famous political analysts, published in many leading US magazines, such as Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs, and European magazines, were also ignored. A coup took place in 2014. The West unconditionally backed Ukraine and the coup’s perpetrators who had gained power in Kiev. The West emphatically refuses to set any framework in relations between NATO and the territory of Russian interests. These warnings were also voiced but were disregarded, to put it mildly.
You should read the works of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who said back in the 1990s that Ukraine would become a key issue. He said openly that a friendly Ukraine would make Russia a great power, and that a hostile Ukraine would turn it into a regional player. These statements concealed geopolitical implications. Ukraine merely acted as a tool for preventing Russia from upholding its legitimate and equal rights on the international scene.
Question: Not long ago, I heard the current adviser to the President of Ukraine, Alexey Arestovich, speak. A couple of years ago, he said that neutral status was too expensive for Ukraine. “We can’t afford it,” he said. What do you think about this statement? Is that true? Following up on what worries ordinary Ukrainians – security guarantees – what is Russia ready to do? What kind of guarantees can it provide?
Sergey Lavrov: Neutral status is being seriously discussed in a package with security guarantees. This is exactly what President Vladimir Putin said at one of his news conferences: there are multiple options out there, including any generally acceptable security guarantees for Ukraine and all other countries, including Russia, with the exception of NATO expansion. This is what is being discussed at the talks. There is a specific language that is, I believe, close to being agreed upon.
Question: Can you share it with us yet or not?
Sergey Lavrov: I’d rather not, because it is a negotiating process. Unlike some of our partners, we try to adhere to the culture of diplomatic negotiations, even though we were forced to make documents public that is normally off-limits. We did so in the situations where our communication with the German and French participants of the Normandy format was misrepresented to the point where it was the opposite of what really happened. Then, in order to expose the culprits before the international community, we were forced to make things public. No attempts at provocation are being made now as we discuss the guarantees of Ukraine’s neutrality. Hopefully, the first attempts at a businesslike approach that we are seeing now will prevail and we will be able to reach specific agreements on this matter even though simply declaring neutrality and announcing guarantees will be a significant step forward. The problem is much broader. We talked about it, including from the point of view of values such as the Russian language, culture and freedom of speech, since Russian media are outright banned, and the ones that broadcast in Ukraine in Russian were shut down.
Question: But they can always tell us that they are an independent country and it’s up to them to decide which language to speak. Why are you – Russia and Moscow – forcing us to speak Russian?
Sergey Lavrov: Because Ukraine has European obligations. There is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. There are multiple other commitments, including in the Council of Europe, which we are leaving (this has been announced officially). However, we will never renounce our obligations regarding the rights of ethnic minorities, be they linguistic, cultural, or any other. We will never “withdraw from the documents” that guarantee freedom of access to information.
In the 1990s, everyone was rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the Soviet Union becoming an absolutely obedient and obsequious partner of the West. Back then, we did our best to show that perestroika and new thinking were opening up a groundbreaking chapter in the history of our state. We signed everything that the West wanted us to sign at the OSCE, including the declaration proposed by the West and supported by us which contained obligations to ensure freedom of access to information in each country and to transboundary information sources. Now, we are unable to get through to the West so that it itself starts fulfilling this obligation, which they themselves initiated.
This Russian language-related requirement is enshrined in the obligations. Ukraine did not turn them down. Can you imagine the consequences of Finland banning the Swedish language? There is 6 percent of Swedes in Finland, and Swedish is the second official language. Or, Ireland banning English, or Belgium banning French? The list goes on and on. All these minority languages are respected, regardless of the fact that they have a parent state, whereas our case represents an exception. This is a case of outright discrimination, and what is known as enlightened Europe is just keeping quiet about it.
Question: We have decided to withdraw from the Council of Europe before being expelled. Why?
Sergey Lavrov: By and large, this decision was formulated long ago. Not because of a series of suspensions and reinstatement of our rights, but because that organization has fully degenerated. It was established as a pan-European organization of all countries, with the exception of Belarus which was given observer status. We did our best to help Belarus participate in several conventions, which is possible in the Council of Europe. In general, Belarus was considering the possibility of joining it.
However, over the years the Council of Europe has turned into a kind of OSCE, (excuse my language), where the initial idea of interaction and consensus as the main instruments of attaining the goal of common European cooperation and security was superseded by polemics and rhetoric, which was becoming increasingly Russophobic and was determined by the unilateral interests of the West, in particular, NATO countries and the EU. They used their technical majority in the OSCE and the Council of Europe to undermine the culture of consensus and compromise and to force their views on everyone, showing that they have no regard whatsoever, do not care one iota for our interests, and only want to lecture and moralize, which is what they have actually been doing.
Our intention to withdraw matured long ago, but our decision to withdraw has been accelerated by the recent events and the decision enforced through voting. The Parliamentary Assembly issued recommendations for the Committee of Ministers, which has voted to suspend our rights. They told us not to worry, that we would only be unable to attend the sessions but can still make our payments to the budget. This is what they have openly said.
The Foreign Ministry pointed out in a statement that our withdrawal from this organization will not affect the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens under the European Convention on Human Rights, from which we are withdrawing as part of our withdrawal from the Council of Europe. First of all, there are constitutional guarantees and guarantees under the international conventions to which Russia is a party. These universal conventions are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which the United States has not signed); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the US is not among its signatories) and many other conventions and covenants most of which have been incorporated into the national legislation. Our lawyers are working with the Constitutional Court and the Justice Ministry on additional amendments to Russian laws to prevent any infringement on the rights of our citizens as the result of our withdrawal from the Council of Europe.
Question: Several counties have been trying to develop a dialogue between Moscow and Kiev. France was the first to do this, followed by Israel, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will come to Moscow today. Turkey has stepped up its activity. Why are these three countries so active on this issue?
Sergey Lavrov: They are not the only ones to offer their services. The President of Russia had a telephone conversation with the President of the European Council Charles Michel yesterday. He has had contacts with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President of France Emmanuel Macron, and Prime Minister of Israel Naftali Bennett. My foreign colleagues have contacted me as well. For example, Switzerland, which has traditionally posed as a country where compromises are reached, is ready to mediate.
In this context, it is strange that mediation services are being offered by the countries which have joined the unprecedented sanctions against Russia and have proclaimed the goal (they make no bones about stating this openly) of setting the Russian people against the Russian authorities. We take a positive view on the mediation offers coming from the countries which have refused to play this Russophobic game, which is aware of the root causes of the current crisis, that is, the fundamental and legitimate national interests of Russia, and which have not joined this war of sanctions. We are ready to analyze their proposals. Israel and Turkey are among these states.
Question: Do they come with proposals, asking if they could help establish dialogue? Or how is this taking place in reality?
Sergey Lavrov: This happens in different ways. Right now, I cannot go into detail, but both want to help achieve accord at the talks conducted via the “Belarusian channel.” They know the state of the talks, what proposals are on the table, and where there is a bilateral rapprochement. They are sincerely trying to speed up the rapprochement. We welcome this, but I would like to stress once again that the matter of key importance is having a direct dialogue between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations and solving what we consider fundamental issues related to the effort not only to ensure the physical security of people in eastern Ukraine and for that matter in other parts of Ukraine but also to enable them to live normal, civilized lives in the country that has a duty to ensure the rights of those who are known as ethnic minorities, rights that have been trampled underfoot in every sense.
Let us not forget about the tasks of demilitarisation. Ukraine cannot have weapons that create a threat to the Russian Federation. We are ready to negotiate on the types of armaments that do not present a threat to us. This problem will have to be solved even regardless of the situation’s NATO aspect. Even without NATO membership, the United States or anyone else can supply offensive weapons to Ukraine on a bilateral basis, just as they did with the anti-missile bases in Poland and Romania. No one asked NATO. Let us not forget that [Ukraine] is perhaps the only OSCE and European country that has legislatively legalized the neo-Nazis’ right to promote their views and practices.
These are matters of principle. I hope that the realization of their legitimacy, justifiability, and key importance for our interests and therefore the interests of European security will enable those, who are graciously offering their good offices, to promote relevant compromises in contacts with Ukraine, among others.
Question: We have named certain countries that are helping to settle this crisis. Has the United States offered any services in this connection, like “let us help to establish contacts?” After all, it is no secret to anyone that Russia-US relations were at a very low level. Now they have hit rock bottom, haven’t they?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, there is such a figurative expression. Of course, the situation is unprecedented. I can’t recall anything like the frenzied policy that Washington is conducting right now. To a considerable extent, this policy is generated by Congress whose members have lost all sense of reality and are throwing all conventions to the winds. I am not even mentioning the diplomatic proprieties that have long since been abandoned.
The United States certainly has played a decisive role in shaping the position of the Kiev authorities. The Americans have maintained a huge “presence” in Kiev’s “corridors of power” for many years, including the uniformed agencies, the security service, and the top brass. Everyone knows this. The CIA and other US secret services have their missions there.
Like other NATO members (the Canadians, the British), they have sent hundreds of their instructors to train combat units not only within the Armed Forces of Ukraine but also in the so-called volunteer battalions, including Azov and Aydar. However, some seven or eight years ago, in 2014, immediately after the coup d’etat, the Azov battalion was officially struck off the list of recipients of US aid. This was done precisely because it was regarded as an extremist, if not terrorist, organization. Today, all pretenses have been removed.
Now any person or group in Ukraine that declares Russia its enemy is immediately taken under the wing of overseas and Western patrons.
They are talking about the supremacy of law and about democracy. What supremacy of law, if the EU, in violation of its own law on the inadmissibility of arms supplies to conflict zones, takes the decision to do the opposite and send offensive arms to Ukraine?
We do not see any sign that the United States is interested in settling the conflict as soon as possible. If they were interested, they would have every opportunity, first, to explain to the Ukrainian negotiators and President Zelensky that they should seek compromises. Second, they need to make it clear that they are aware of the legitimacy of our demands and positions, but do not want to accept them, not because they are illegitimate but because they would like to dominate the world and are unwilling to restrain themselves with any commitments to take into consideration the interests of others. They have already brought Europe to heel, as I have said.
The US has been telling Europe for years that Nord Stream 2 could undermine their energy security. Europe responded that they should find out that on their own. They took the decision and their companies invested billions of euros. The Americans were claiming that this was contrary to the EU’s interests. They offered to sell them their liquefied gas. If there are no gas terminals, they should be built. The Germans told me this a few years ago. It was during President Trump’s administration. Europe was complaining that this would considerably increase gas prices for their consumers. Donald Trump replied that they were rich guys and will compensate for the difference from the German budget. That’s their approach.
Today, Europe was shown its place. Germany eventually said that its regulator was taking a break, and this precisely defines the FRG’s place in the arrangements that the Americans are making on the world scene.
Question: Has Germany become a less independent state under the new chancellor? Would it have acted the same under Angela Merkel?
Sergey Lavrov: The Nord Stream 2 was commissioned, albeit temporarily suspended afterward, under the new chancellor. I hope that experience will bring an understanding of the need to uphold national interests, rather than to fully rely on the overseas partner who will make all the decisions for you and then do everything for you as well. Clearly, the enormous number of US troops on German soil is also a factor that interferes with independent decision-making.
Articles are being published to the effect that the “politics of memory” is vanishing. It has always been considered a sacred thing in Germany and meant that the German people would never forget the suffering they brought during World War II, primarily to the peoples of the Soviet Union. After I read this, I realized that many people are aware of it. These are open publications. German political scientists are talking about this and, of course, ours do so as well. Several years ago, I spotted something that was probably the early phase of this emerging trend. We were holding ministerial and other consultations with the Germans (I’m talking about foreign policy talks) at the level of department directors and deputy ministers. I never saw this at the ministerial level. The thought that was conveyed to us during the talks was that “we, the Germans, have paid our dues to everyone and owe nothing to anyone, so stop bringing this up.”
Speaking of the Germans, there is a thing that is worth mentioning. We are now talking a lot about attributes of genocide or racial discrimination. Take, for instance, the siege of Leningrad. For many years and with all my colleagues, starting with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Guido Westerwelle, Heiko Maas, and most recently Annalena Baerbock, I very persistently, with each of them, raised the topic of paying compensations to the Leningrad siege survivors.
The German government has made two one-time payments but only to Jewish survivors. We asked why only Jews, because many ethnic groups, including Russians and Tatars, lived in Leningrad and continue to live there. Many of them are still alive. How are they supposed to understand the fact that only the Jews have received some kind of help from the German government when at the time they were boiling shoes, burying children and transporting corpses on sleds together? The payments in question are not big. But, first, for many of them, they matter, and second, they serve as the recognition of the fact that everyone has been impacted by the siege.
Their answer was interesting. The Jews, they said, are victims of the Holocaust. These payments cannot be made to other survivors, because they are not Holocaust victims. Our attempts to reach out to the German legislators and politicians and tell them that the siege of Leningrad was an unparalleled event in the history of WWII, where there was no distinction between Jews, Russians, or other ethnic groups, failed. We reached out to Jewish organizations. It is a matter of honor for them as well. We will continue this work going forward. January marked yet another anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad.
The President of Russia signed an executive order on one-time payments to all siege survivors, including the Jews. We have not seen any sign of conscience awakening in Germany so far.