Sputnik’s Exclusive: Sergei Lavrov, Key points of an interview

Soldiers of the Russian military police and the Turkish military during a joint patrol of the M-4 highway in Idlib province in Syria (© PHOTO : RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY)

…from Sputnik News, Moscow

[ Editor’s Note: In his typical clear and concise style, Lavrov brings us insights into Russia’s diplomatic outlook in Syria and Libya and gives the US a light spanking on its rewriting of history.

The contrast below between Lavrov’s method of diplomacy and Pompeo’s is night and day, with Russia’s standard procedure of working to bring all the disagreeing sides to the table, but then stepping back and letting them work out a solution.

The tactic is quite simple. Talking is better than shooting, but it does not work in all situations; Afghanistan for example, where the Taliban has no problem at all attacking Kabul troops not only after a prisoner release, but also while Doha talks are going on.

We never hear sanctions threats from the Russians as part of their negotiations, which is part of the reason that Trump scores the lowest on ‘faith in America making good foreign policy decisions’ in recent polls of EU countries, including our major allies, Britain, France and Germany.

How many treaties has Russian not renewed or broken, compared to the US? Who canceled the Opens Skies flights, which have gone on for decades and protected the peace? How many countries does Russia have troops in without the permission of the host government?

It would seem quite simple to determine which country is the biggest threat to world peace, if one were able to face the truth to the answers above… Jim W. Dean ]

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– First published … September 18, 2020

During this interview with Sputnik, Russia’s top diplomat has weighed in on a wide array of subjects that define the state of international affairs on a global scale at the moment – from tense presidential campaign in the US, to security in the turbulent Persian Gulf and the tumultuous relations between Russia and the US and the European powers.

On 17 September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined three Sputnik journalists at MIA Rossiya Segodnya Press Centre via a video call to answer questions about key developments in the international political arena in an exclusive interview.

Sputnik: How would you assess the US Caesar act, which hits not only Syria, but also Damascus’s closest partners? What new measures can be taken to improve the country’s humanitarian situation amid the dire economic circumstances?

Sergei Lavrov: This plan envisages sanctions, which they would like to see as a suffocating tool against the Syrian leadership. In fact, like the previous sanction packages – there were quite a few of them, both on the part of the United States, the EU and a number of Washington’s other allies – these sanctions hit, first and foremost, ordinary people, the Syrian citizens.

Just yesterday in New York, the UN Security Council discussed the development of the humanitarian situation in Syria, and our Western colleagues were rather very vigorously and dramatically proving their innocence, saying the sanctions were exclusively aimed at limiting the actions and capabilities of officials and representatives of the regime, as they said, while ordinary citizens weren’t affected, because the sanction decisions provided for humanitarian exceptions for medicine, food and other essential items.

That is not true, because no such products from the countries that announced some alleged sanction exemptions have been delivered to Syria, except some very small batches [of goods].

Syria trades with Russia, Iran, China, and some Arab states; but the number of countries that understand the need to overcome the current abnormal situation and restore relations with Syria is growing.

More and more countries, including the Gulf states, are deciding to reopen their embassies in Syria; more and more countries realise that going on with these suffocating sanctions is totally unacceptable from a human rights perspective.

A humanitarian corridor between Damascus and East Ghouta near the Al Wafidin refugee camp in Syria

© SPUTNIK / MIKHAIL ALAYEDDIN – A humanitarian corridor between Damascus and East Ghouta near the Al Wafidin refugee camp in Syria

These sanctions were announced unilaterally, they are illegitimate. The other day, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres renewed his call, which he made six months ago, to the states that had announced unilateral sanctions against a developing country to suspend these sanctions, at least during the fight against the pandemic.

The West seems to ignore these calls, although the overwhelming majority of UN member states have backed them. We’ll seek the further condemnation of such practices. The UN is adopting special resolutions that declare unilateral sanctions illegal and illegitimate, saying that only sanctions imposed through the UN Security Council should be respected, this is the only legal tool, based on international law.

Speaking about the Syrian issue, we are actively working with our Turkish and Iranian partners within the Astana format. Together with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov, we have recently visited Damascus, where President Assad and his Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to implement the agreements reached between the government and the opposition at the Astana Troika meetings.

The Geneva Constitutional Committee has resumed its work, the editorial commission meeting has been held. The parties are agreeing on approaches to Syria’s future, which will allow for work on constitutional reforms.

On the ground, the number of terrorist-controlled areas is gradually declining; here we’re talking primarily about the Idlib de-escalation zone.

The Russian-Turkish agreements are gradually being implemented, including on the need to differentiate between opposition elements who are open to dialogue with the government and terrorists, who have been recognised as such by the UN Security Council; however, this is happening now, as quickly as we would like it to. Our Turkish colleagues are committed to these agreements, and we are actively cooperating.

The situation to the east of the Euphrates is quite concerning, where illegally-deployed US troops are encouraging separatist trends among the Kurds, literally turning the Kurds against the government, and restraining their natural desire to embark on a dialogue with the government. Of course, this raises concerns both in terms of Syria’s territorial integrity and the explosive atmosphere that the American actions have created around the Kurdish issue.

As you know, this issue concerns not only Syria, but also Iraq, Iran and Turkey; it’s a dangerous game in this region. The Americans habitually take such actions to create chaos that they hope will be manageable.

They are far away [from that chaos], so they don’t really care; however, the consequences can be catastrophic for the region if they promote these separatist tendencies there.

Recently, some decisions of this illegitimate American group in eastern Syria have been announced, who signed an agreement with Kurdish leaders, allowing an American oil company to produce hydrocarbons on the territory of Syria, a sovereign state, which is a flagrant violation of all conceivable principles of international law.

There are many problems in the Syrian Arab Republic. However, the situation has stabilised compared to what it was a few years ago. It was the Astana format activities and the initiatives we implemented that played a decisive role in this process.

Solving acute humanitarian problems and restoring the economy, which was destroyed by the war, is currently on the agenda. We’re actively supporting dialogue in these areas with other countries, including China, Iran, India, and the Arab states.

We think it’s important to involve UN organisations and systems in activities aimed at mobilising humanitarian assistance to Syria as a priority step, and mobilising international assistance to restore the economy and infrastructure destroyed by the war at the next stage. There is a lot of work, but at least we know in which directions to move.

Sputnik: I can’t help but ask you about cooperation with the Persian Gulf states. What are the current prospects of Russia’s international cooperation with the Persian Gulf states? Are there any “priority countries” in the region for us? Is Russia considering the role of a mediator in the resolution of the Qatari crisis, which has lasted four years now?

Sergei Lavrov: Regarding the Persian Gulf, I’d say we’re the first of the states that have relations with the countries in the region, who offered to draft a plan for the long-term, stable and neighbourly development of that zone. Even back in the 1990s, the Russian side offered a concept for maintaining security and cooperation in the Persian Gulf zone.

Since then, the concept has been updated several times; its updated version was presented last year, and last September we even held an expert discussion of that concept, with the participation of scientists and the expert community of Russia and Persian Gulf states, the Arab states and Iran.

The concept essentially proposes to capitalise on the experience of consultations on security and cooperation in Europe from the time when, during the height of the Cold War, despite the complicated relations between the USSR, the Warsaw Pact and NATO, the understanding of the necessity for coexistence led all countries of the Euro-Atlantic region – which includes Europe, Canada and the US – to get together and develop norms of conduct based on trust; they spelled out special measures of trust and transparency.

And so we proposed to use the same principles as the basis for cooperation within the framework of this concept for security in the Persian Gulf.

We presented the concept to the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and to our Iranian colleagues, and a number of the council members states expressed their readiness to discuss it; some members of that organisation have also proceeded to take additional time to review the concept.

We continue to engage in dialogue, and the discussions that were held on the scientific community level obviously helped advance these initiatives.

The problem is that recently, as you know, the US authorities have demonised Iran, which got labelled as the main problem of the region in question, as well as of other regions of the world where Iran gets accused of meddling in local countries’ internal affairs, one way or the other. The United States essentially seeks to set the whole dialogue on Mideastern and North African problems on an anti-Iranian track.

First of all, that is futile, as a reliable and sustainable resolution of problems is possible only through agreements between all parties involved, while the entire current logic of the US policy is set on making Iran the focus of all containment and punishment efforts, with regime change being presented as the only thing that would let the whole region breathe freely.

That is a dead end. The sanctions that are being used in a bid to strangle Iran did not work before and will not work now. Iran has expressed its readiness for dialogue on numerous occasions, and that readiness remains – a readiness for dialogue that cannot be based on ultimatums that the US side periodically brings forth. We will help start such dialogue.

Together with the European states and China, we stand for the JCPOA on settling the Iranian nuclear issue, which was approved by the UN Security Council in 2015, and which is now being destroyed by the US, which focuses on their drive to demonise Iran. The discussions in the UNSC continue, with 13 out of 15 of its members opposing the attempts to destroy the JCPOA and to blame Iran for everything that’s been happening.

A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached concerning Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, June 2015.

© AP PHOTO / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI – A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached concerning Iran’s nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, June 2015.

You’ve mentioned disagreements among the members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, when some time ago, some members of that organisation and our colleagues from Egypt engaged in a conflict with Qatar. We’re ready to offer our services as intermediaries in any conflict, as long as all parties involved request them; so far, we haven’t received such requests.

We maintain good relations with all of the countries, including all members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. I know that the US administration is trying to help reconcile the antagonists and is seeking to convince Saudi Arabia and its closest allies to make peace with Qatar.

We wish success to all efforts aimed at uniting countries, rather than those aimed at forming dividing lines. We’re ready to provide assistance if, I repeat, we get asked for it, and if all parties involved would be interested in it.

Sputnik: The Russian embassy in Libya resumed its work just a few weeks ago. Do you think it can become a platform for a dialogue between the Libyan National Army and the Government of National Accord?

Sergei Lavrov: The Russian embassy is still operating from Tunisia. I hope it will return to Tripoli as soon as some basic security is ensured there. A number of embassies operate there, but the security is very poor; so it was decided that Russian diplomats would work from Tunis.

As for Russian mediation between the Libyan National Army and the Government of National Accord as Libya’s main rivals, the embassy, ​​of course, maintains contacts with all Libyan parties; but the issue is much broader here, so Moscow is also actively involved in building bridges between the conflicting parties.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, as well as the Ministry of Defence, is trying to promote practical steps to agree on a compromise solution that will help resolve the Libyan crisis, which is not easy. Let me remind you that all the problems that Libya is facing go back to 2011, when NATO, in gross violation of UN Security Council resolutions, conducted direct military aggression in Libya to overthrow the Muammar Gaddafi regime.

Gaddafi was brutally murdered to the cheers of the then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; that was broadcast live, with some level of pride. That was hideous.

The picture of Muammar Gaddafi being burned

© SPUTNIK / ANDREY STENIN – The picture of Muammar Gaddafi being burned

Since then, we, Libya’s neighbours, those who want to restore Libya as a state destroyed by NATO, have been trying to establish some kind of international process. There were a number of attempts: conferences in Paris, Palermo and Abu Dhabi were held; there were the 2015 Skhirat agreements. Over a long period of time, most external players have sought to interact with the political force, on which they seemed to count on. We have opposed such an approach from the very beginning.

Given our existing contacts and historical ties, we started working with all Libya’s political forces, be it Tripoli, where the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord are located, or Tobruk, where the House of Representatives is. The leaders of various groups have visited Russia.

We also made efforts to organise personal meetings between Libyan National Army Commander Haftar and Head of the Government of National Accord Sarraj. They visited Moscow earlier this year, before the Berlin conference.

It was largely due to the efforts we made together with our Turkish, Egyptian and Arab colleagues, colleagues with whom we’ve managed to draft the proposals that ensured the success of the Berlin Conference, which our German colleagues had been preparing for several months. The Berlin Conference adopted an important declaration, which was then approved by the UN Security Council.

Unfortunately, at that stage little attention was paid to ensuring that the ideas developed by the international community were approved by the Libyan parties. Some of our partners thought that as soon as the international community, represented by the Security Council and the Berlin Conference, made some decisions, the only thing to do would be to persuade the Libyan rivals to agree with them. Today, practice shows that we were right when we warned against such an approach, since everything has come down to the fact that the Libyan parties have failed to fully work out the agreements adopted in Berlin.

Berlin has created a pretty good foundation, but the details have to be finalised today. We’re observing quite positive developments here: both the Head of the Tobruk parliament, Mr. Saleh, and the Head of the Government of National Accord, Mr. Sarraj, spoke for a ceasefire and a stable truce, as well as for resuming the 5+5 format to resolve military issues, and resume negotiations on economic affairs, primarily on the need for a fair solution to the issue of using Libya’s natural resources.

Mr. Saleh announced a very important initiative regarding the need to consider the interests of not only Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but also Fezzan, the southern part of Libya, which often hadn’t been mentioned during previous discussions. Therefore, there are already ideas on the table that have already been tested in contacts between the parties.

The Morocco meeting between the Libyan rivals played a key role; now, together with our colleagues, we are still contributing to these common efforts. The other day, consultations with our Turkish colleagues took place in Ankara. We are still working, communicating with both Egypt and Morocco.

I had a phone conversation with my Moroccan and Egyptian counterparts. I also talked to the Italian Foreign Minister, who, for obvious reasons, is also quite interested in promoting the Libyan settlement. I think a very promising outcome has emerged now, and we’ll try to actively support this process and contribute to the [Libyan] settlement. We consider it very important to appoint a Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya as soon as possible, since this appointment has been postponed for more than six months now.

The former Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya resigned in February, and for some reason Antonio Guterres hasn’t yet appointed his successor. There are reasons to believe that some Western states are trying to promote their candidates; but our [Russian] position is simple: it’s necessary that the appointment of Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya be coordinated with the African Union. This is obvious: Libya is an active African Union member, and the African Union is vitally interested in helping solve this problem.

I’ve spoken about the current situation in detail. There are grounds for cautious optimism.

Sputnik: Other than the disagreements with our Western partners on contemporary issues, there are also matters related to us disagreeing with them on the interpretation of history. At this time, mass protests and demonstrations that have taken place in the US have led to more radical events. Essentially, a revision of a considerable portion of American, international, and world history and culture has begun: monuments are being defaced, the description of some events is being changed. Similar attempts have also been made regarding World War II and the Soviet Union’s role in it. In your opinion, what kind of consequences might the United States’ attempts to revise history entail, and what kind of consequences on a global scale might we be looking at?

Sergei Lavrov: You are correct. We’re very concerned with what is happening in this sphere – the sphere of world history and Europe’s history.

Essentially, an historical aggression is taking place, aimed at revising the contemporary foundations of international law which came into being after WWII in the form of the United Nations, the principles of its charter; attempts are being made to undermine these very foundations.

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  1. Thank you, Mr. Dean. If I cast a vote in November, please to guess whose name(s) would appear on the “write-in” box. It’s honorific. Not an attempt to put anyone in harm’s way. Cherchez le Jeuf.

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