US and China relations is where the attention is concentrated in contemporary global politics because they are the Great 2. This is in the sense that one is the established power while the other is the rising power. Historically, a rising power ends up clashing with the established power. But, is this inevitable? That is the question that has dragged much attention to how the US and China are sorting themselves out. Interestingly, the first meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping seems to have ended more smoothly than feared. Instead, it is US-Russia relations that is in the news, particularly in the aftermath of US rain of Tomahawk missiles on Syrian military facilities Thursday. And Syria is where Russia is the power on the ground. What might be unfolding between the US and Russia today becomes an important question to which Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister’s March 24, 2017 interview in the US based National Interest provides a major insight. The interview published on March 29th, 2017 by the magazine is, however, a marathon. It is over 7,500 words in length and only a full time student of foreign policy and diplomacy might have to read it sentence by sentence. But, in a highly interlinked world, US-Russia relations is never a distant issue for anyone anywhere. Hence, Intervention’s reproduction of the interview but in installments. The interview was conducted in Moscow by Paul Saunders, associate publisher of the magazine – editor
Question: I’d like to start by asking you about your forthcoming meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; we’ve read in the press that the two of you may be meeting soon.
Sergey Lavrov: So they say.
Question: Could you perhaps tell us about your expectations and goals in dealing with Secretary Tillerson?
Sergey Lavrov: Well, after the American election, soon after Election Day President Putin and President-elect Trump talked over the phone. It was a good but very general discussion touching upon the key issues in our relations, and of course the key international issues. And they agreed that they would continue being in touch, and after the inauguration they talked again, and they reconfirmed the need to look for ways which would be effective in handling international problems. And of course to see what could be done to bring the bilateral relations to normalcy. They also agreed that Mr. Rex Tillerson and I would look into the agenda in some more details, and would also discuss the preparation for the presidential meeting which should take place when both countries, both leaders feel comfortable.
And we met with Rex in mid-February in Bonn on the margins of the G-20 ministerial meeting, and covered quite a lot of the bilateral agenda. I briefed him about the relationship on bilateral issues with the Obama administration, the problems which accumulated during that period. We did not go into the substance of this, I just briefed him so that his team, which is still being assembled, could take a look at these issues and determine what kind of attitude they would have on them. And we discussed Syria, Iran, the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East in general, relations between Russia and the West. It was a very general, but rather substantive discussion, obviously it was the first contact and Mr. Rex Tillerson is just getting into the shoes of his new capacity. We discussed the possibility of personal meeting and have been continuing these discussions. As soon as we finalize them it will be announced.
But my feeling is that from the point of view of personal relationship, we feel quite comfortable. I feel quite comfortable, I believe Rex had the same feeling, and our assistants should work closer, but of course this could only be done when the team in the State Department is complete.
Question: Of course. If I could follow up on your answer there, you mentioned bringing normalcy to the U.S.-Russia relationship. What do you think “normal” is?
Sergey Lavrov: “Normal” is to treat your partners with respect, not to try to impose some of your ideas on others without taking into account their own views and their concerns, always to try to listen and to hear, and hopefully not to rely on a superiority complex, which was obviously the case with the Obama administration. They were obsessed with their exceptionality, with their leadership. Actually the founding fathers of the United States, they also spoke of their leadership, and they believed that the American nation was exceptional, but they wanted others just to take the American experience as an example and to follow suit. They never suggested that the United States should impose, including by force, its values on others.
And the Obama administration was clearly different. Actually, long before Ukraine, long before Crimea, in early December 2012, there was an OSCE ministerial meeting in Dublin. And Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and was the head of the delegation, we had a bilateral meeting with her, she was trying to persuade me on something which was a difficult issue on the agenda, but I recall this situation because in the margins of this ministerial meeting she attended a meeting in the University of Dublin, and she delivered a lecture in which she said something like: “We are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent the move to re-Sovietize the former Soviet space.” December 2012.
What kind of action she was considering as the move to re-Sovietize the space, I really couldn’t understand. Yes, there were discussions about Ukraine, about Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, forming the Customs Union, and if this was the reason, then of course it showed very obviously the real attitude of the Obama administration to what was going on in the former Soviet space and the area of the Commonwealth of Independent States, its obvious desire to take over this geopolitical space around Russia without even caring what Moscow might think.
This was the reason for the crisis in Ukraine, when the U.S. and European Union bluntly told the Ukrainians: either you are with us, or you are with Russia against us. And the very fragile Ukrainian state couldn’t sustain this kind of pressure, and what happened happened: the coup, and so on and so forth (if you want I can discuss this in some detail later). But my point is that they considered normal that the people in Obama’s team should call the shots anywhere, including around such a big country as the Russian Federation. And this is absolutely abnormal in my view.
At the same time, when we visited Venezuela with our naval ships, they were raising such hell, as if no one could even get closer to what they believe should be their backyard. This mentality is not adequate for the twenty-first century. And we of course notice that President Trump is emphasizing the need to concentrate on U.S. interests. And foreign policy for him is important as long as it serves the United States’ interests, not just some messiah projects doing something just for the sake of showing that you can do it anywhere. It’s irrational, and in this he certainly holds the same position as we do in Moscow, as President Putin does, that we don’t want to meddle in other people’s matters. When the Russian legitimate interests are not, you know, involved.
Question: You just mentioned at the end of your statement that the United States shouldn’t meddle in others’ affairs, and obviously many Americans today feel that Russia has meddled in American affairs, in the 2016 election. Your government has denied that. But how do you explain what happened in the United States? Do you feel that Russia had any involvement or any responsibility at all for what transpired?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that these absolutely groundless accusations—at least I haven’t seen a single fact that this was substantiated. I believe these accusations were used as an instrument in the electoral campaign, which for some reasons seemed to the Democratic Party to be an efficient way to raise support among the American people, playing on their feelings that no one shall meddle with American affairs. This is a Russophobic instrument. It was a very sad situation because we never wanted to be unfriendly with the American people, and apparently the Obama administration, the elite in the Democratic Party, who made every effort during the last couple of years to ruin the very foundation of our relationship, decided that the American people should be brainwashed without any facts, without any proof. We are still ready to discuss any concerns of the United States.
As a matter of fact, in November 2015, long before this hacker thing started, we drew the attention of the U.S. administration to the fact that they kept hunting Russian citizens suspected in cybercrime in third countries, and insisting on them being extradited to the United States, ignoring the treaty on mutual legal assistance which exists between Russia and the United States, and which should be invoked in cases when any party to this treaty has suspicions regarding the citizen of another one. And this was never done.
So what we suggested to them in November 2015, that we also don’t want to see our citizens violating law and using cyberspace for staging all kinds of crimes. So we would be the last one to try to look aside from them. We want them to be investigated and to be disciplined. But since the United States continued to avoid invoking this treaty on legal assistance, we suggested to have a meeting between the Justice Department and the Russian prosecutor-general, specifically at the expert level, on cybercrime. To establish confidential, expert, professional dialogue to exchange information.
They never replied; when we reminded them that there was a request, they orally told us that they were not interested. But in December 2016, more than one year after our request was tabled, they said, “Okay, why don’t we meet?” But this came from Obama administration experts, when they already were on their way out. Some technical meeting took place; it was not of any substance but at least they responded to the need to do something about cyberspace.
And of course on cybercrimes the discussions in the United Nations are very telling. When we are leading the debate on negotiating an instrument which would be universal and which would be mandatory for everybody, the U.S. is not really very much eager, and is not very enthusiastic.
Speaking of meddling with others’ matters, there is no proof that Russia was in any way involved either in the United States, or in Germany, or in France, or in the United Kingdom—by the way, I read yesterday that the Swedish prime minister is becoming nervous that they also have elections very soon and that Russia would 100 percent be involved in them. Childish, frankly speaking. You either put some facts on the table or you try to avoid any statements which embarrass you, even if you don’t believe this is the case.
It’s embarrassing to see and to hear what we see and hear in the West, but if you speak of meddling with other countries’ matters, where facts are available—take a look at Iraq. It was a very blunt, illegal intervention, which is now recognized even by Tony Blair, and those who were pathetically saying that they cannot tolerate a dictator in Iraq. Take a look at Libya, which is ruined, and I hope still has a chance to become one piece. Take a look at Syria, take a look at Yemen: this is the result and the examples of what takes place when you intervene and interfere. Yes, I’m sure you can say about Ukraine, you can say about Crimea, but for this you have to really get into the substance of what transpired there.
When the European Union was insisting that President Yanukovych sign an association agreement, including a free-trade zone with zero tariffs on most of the goods and services crossing the border between Ukraine and the European Union, and at that point it was noted that Ukraine already had a free-trade area with Russia, with some different kind of structure, but also with zero tariffs. So if Russia has zero tariffs with Ukraine, Ukraine would have the same with European Union but we have some protection, under the WTO deal with the European Union, so the only thing we said: guys, if you want to do this, we would have to protect our market from the European goods which would certainly go through Ukraine to Russia, trying to use the zero-tariff arrangement. And the only thing suggested, and Yanukovych supported, is to sit down the three—Ukraine, EU and Russia—and to see how this could be handled. Absolutely pragmatic and practical thing. You know what the European Union said? “None of your business.”
Then-President of the European Commission Mr. Jose Manuel Barrosso (my favorite) stated publicly that we don’t meddle with Russia’s trade with China, so don’t meddle with our deal with Ukraine. While the situation is really very different and the free-trade area argument was absolutely ignored. And then Mr. Yanukovych asked for the signature of this deal to be postponed, for him to understand better what will be the consequences—for his industry, for his finances, for his agriculture—if we would have to protect ourselves from potential flow of cheap goods from Europe. That’s so, and then the coup was staged, in spite of the fact that there was a deal between Yanukovych and the opposition, witnessed by Germany, France and Poland.
Next morning, this deal was torn apart under the pretext that Yanukovych disappeared, and therefore all commitments were off. The problem is that he did not leave the country, he was in another city of the country. But my main point is that the deal which they signed with him was not about him; it was about his agreement to go to early elections – and he would have lost these elections – but the deal started by saying, “We agree to create a government of national unity.”
And next morning, when they just tore apart this deal, Mr. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, then a leader in Ukraine’s Batkivshchyna party, and others who signed the deal with the president, they went to this Maidan, to the protestors, and said, “Congratulations, we just created the government of the winners.” Feel the difference: “government of national unity” and “government of the winners.” Two days later, this parliament, which immediately changed their position, announced that the Russian language is no longer welcome.
A few days later, the so-called Right Sector, the group which was an instrument in the violence in Maidan, they said that Russians have nothing to do in Crimea, because Russians would never honor the heroes of Ukraine, like Bandera and Shukhevych, who were collaborating with Nazis. These kinds of statements led to the people in the east of Ukraine just to say: “guys, you did something unconstitutional, and we don’t believe this is good for us,” so leave us alone, let us understand what is going on in Kiev, but we don’t want any of your new ideas to be imposed on us. We want to use our language, we want to celebrate our holidays, to honor our heroes: these eastern republics never attacked anyone. The government announced the antiterrorist campaign in the east, and they moved the regular army and the so-called voluntary battalions in the east of Ukraine. This is not mentioned by anyone. They are called terrorists—well, they never attacked a person.
And investigations of what actually happened on that day of the coup is going nowhere; the investigation of the murder in Odessa on the second of May, 2014, when dozens of people were burned alive in a trade-union office building, is moving nowhere. Investigation of political murders of journalists and opposition politicians is not moving anywhere. And they basically passed amnesty for all those who were on the part of the opposition during the coup. And they prosecute all those who were on the part of the government.
But even now they want to prosecute Yanukovych in absentia, but one interesting thing maybe for your readers to compare: there was a deal on the twenty-first of February, next morning they said, Yanukovych is not in Kiev, so our conscience is clean and we do what we please, in spite of the commitment to national unity. About the same time there was a coup in Yemen. President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. Not to some other city in Yemen, but he fled abroad.
More than two years passed, and the entire progressive international community, led by our Western friends, insists that he must be brought back to Yemen and that the deal which he signed with the opposition must be honored by the opposition. My question is why Ukraine’s situation is treated differently from the situation in Yemen. Is Yemen a more important country? Are the deals which you sign, and the need to respect your word and your deals, more sacred in Yemen than in Ukraine? No answer.
Sorry for getting into all these details, but people tend to forget, because they’re being brainwashed every day with very simple phrases like “Russia is aggressor in Ukraine,” “annexation of Crimea” and so on and so forth, instead of laboring your tongues, people should go there. Those who go to Crimea, see for themselves how the people live there, and they understand that all these hysterical voices about violation of human rights, about discrimination vis-à-vis Crimean Tatars, is a lie.
Question: Maybe coming back, just for a moment, to the U.S. election, and setting aside the question of evidence, because your government has its perspective, the U.S. intelligence community has its perspective—I don’t think those differences are likely to be reconciled. Setting that question aside, many Americans believe that Russia did interfere in the election; it’s contributed to a particular political climate in the United States. Do you view that as an obstacle to the U.S.-Russia relationship, and do you believe there is anything that Russia can or should do to try to address these widespread concerns?
Sergey Lavrov: You said a very interesting thing. You used the word “perspective.” You said, “Russia has its own perspective; the American intelligence community has its own perspective.” Perspective is something which many people have. We speak about facts, about proofs. And with all these perspectives, these hearings which sometimes are shown on CNN, on Russian TV, I haven’t heard any, any proof. Except the confirmation that the FBI and the NSA started watching what the Trump team is doing sometime in July. I heard this recently.
And I take this as acceptance by those who were doing this, for whatever reason, and they clearly said that this was not because of the suspicion that he had something to do with Russia but this was a routine process during which they find a trace leading to the Trump headquarters. Fine, this is a fact: they admitted that they started this. So what? If by admitting this they make their perspective regarding Russia a fact, I cannot buy this.
And then you said, they have their own perspective, and that the American people believe Russia had something to do with the American elections. Categories like perspective and belief are not very specific. And we speak about some very serious accusations. I understand that in the West, people who indeed profess Russophobic feelings, and unfortunately they are—they used to be very powerful, they are still very powerful even when they lost the elections, and Russophobic trends are obviously seen even in the Republican camp. You know, it’s very easy to find some external threat and then to put all the blame on this particular external threat.
When in 2014 the Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, two days later I think, in the UN Security Council, when we insisted on adopting a resolution demanding further investigation, the American officials said yes, we believe investigation must be held, but we already know the result.
What about the presumption of innocence? The same happened with Litvinenko, the poor guy who was poisoned in London, when from the very beginning they said, we will have an investigation but we know who did it, and they never made this trial public. And they never accepted the offer of assistance which we were ready to provide. And so on and so forth.
Now, yesterday, this terrible murder of the Russian and Ukrainian citizen, who used to be an MP in Russia, and did not stay in the current parliament, and President Poroshenko two hours after the guy was murdered says that this was a terrorist attack from Russia—who also blew up the munition depot near Kharkov. It was said a few hours later by the president of a democratic country, whom our American and European friends call a beacon of democracy. I thought democracy was about establishing facts when you have suspicions.
And democracy is about division of power, and if the chief executive takes upon himself the functions of the legal system, of the judicial system, that does not fit with my understanding of how Western democracy works. We’re ready to discuss anything—any facts, I mean. We’re ready to assist in investigations of whatever issues our partners anywhere might have. Whether this is going to be an obstacle to normal relations, I don’t think so. I believe the Russian people, at least if we are asked, I would say no, if it depends on us. I understand that there are some people in the United States who want this to become an obstacle, and who want to tie up the team of President Trump on the Russian issue, and I believe this is very mean policy, but we see that this is taking place.
What can Russia do to help? Unfortunately, not much. We cannot accept the situation, but some absolutely artificial hysterical situation was created by those who severed all of the relationship—who dropped the deal on the Bilateral Presidential Commission between Moscow and Washington with some twenty-plus working groups, a very elaborate mechanism of cooperation—and then after they have done this, after they prevent the new administration from doing away with this absolute stupid situation, to ask us to do something? I don’t think it’s fair.
We said what we did, that we are ready to work with any administration, any president who would be elected by the American people. This was our line throughout the electoral campaign, unlike the acting leaders of most European countries who were saying absolutely biased things, supporting one candidate, unlike those who even bluntly warned against the choice in favor of the Republican candidate, and this somehow is considered normal. But I leave this on the conscience of those who said this and then immediately chickened out and then started praising the wisdom of the U.S. electorate. We said that we would be ready to come back to the relationship and to develop the relationship with the United States to the extent, and to the depths, to which the administration is ready to go. Whatever is comfortable for our partners, we will support and provide it. We talk on the basis of mutual respect and equality, trying to understand the legitimate interest of each other and to see whether we can find the balance between those interests. We will be ready to cover our part of the way, as President Putin said, but we will not be making any unilateral steps. We offered cooperation on very fair terms, and we will judge by the deeds of course.