Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions following the High-Level Week of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly
It is gratifying that you are interested in our attitude to international matters, the work of the UN General Assembly and the participation of the Russian delegation in it.
As usual, we have a packed schedule that includes dozens of meetings with the heads of state and government and their foreign ministers, talks with the UN Secretary-General and the President of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, as well as traditional contacts with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and within the framework of BRICS, the CSTO and the Middle East Quartet.
The session is taking place at a difficult period of time. There is no need to speak about this at length. There are numerous unsettled crises and conflicts, and the number of problems on the global political and economic stage has, regrettably, not decreased. Today we tried to present our understanding of the causes for this non-optimistic situation in our statement. We tried to analyse the concept of the rules-based order, which is being actively promoted by our Western colleagues, in order to see if it corresponds to the universal, generally recognised and collectively coordinated norms of international law. In our opinion, this concept does not correspond, and sometimes openly contradicts international law. This is why we will be working towards convincing all countries to resume a policy of respect for the UN Charter and other norms and principles of the universal international law. I assure you that very many of our partners share this view and support our efforts.
This year, the opening of the UN General Assembly session coincided with Russia’s presidency of the UN Security Council. Its central event was the ministerial meeting we held the day before yesterday to discuss counterterrorism cooperation between the UN and the CSTO, the SCO and the CIS.
We held one more ministerial event of the UN Security Council yesterday, where we discussed the strengthening of peace and security in Africa. We organised it together with three African members of the UN Security Council.
I believe that these two meetings were very fruitful. At the former talks we outlined additional opportunities that must be used to fight terrorism more effectively, by using the potential of regional organisations. The latter meeting has shown once again that African problems prevail on the agenda of the highest UN body, the Security Council. Our activities must be based on the “African solutions to African problems” principle, so that the Africans themselves use their experience and practices to address African problems and to help find compromises between the conflicting sides in any African country and any part of the African continent.
I believe that these discussions held within the framework of the High-Level Week of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, as well as the talks held during the side events, have confirmed that the humankind’s response to common threats can only be effective if undertaken with the central and coordinating role of the UN. Despite the organisation’s shortcomings, it is the most reliable mechanism we have created to this day. And I do not think we will create anything better in the near future.
Question: I have a question on Iran. How do you see the future of the JCPOA and US-Iranian relations based on the results of the current high level week of the General Assembly? In your remarks, you mentioned the Russian concept of collective security in the Persian Gulf – is it still on the table? Did you discuss it during your meetings at the UN?
Sergey Lavrov: This session of the General Assembly is not ground zero for the problems related to a collapse of the JCPOA. They started much earlier – a year and a half ago, when the United States unilaterally withdrew from this plan of action approved by the UN Security Council, thereby a part of international law, and said that they also forbid everybody to continue abiding by this plan and, in particular, trading with Iran, in which case sanctions will be introduced against them.
I believe these actions are destructive not only for the specific situation with the Iranian nuclear program, but also for the nuclear non-proliferation regime and, in general, for the developments in the region. Unfortunately, our American colleagues are viewing almost any aspect of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa through an anti-Iranian lens, as if deliberately trying to find as many reasons as possible to reinforce their unsubstantiated claims that Iran is the main source of evil in this region, and all the troubles come from Iran.
Our concept in this regard is to use the experience of other regions, in particular Europe, which had launched the process of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and ultimately came to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act and many important top-level declarations. I spoke about them today: this is the Charter for European Security and the Platform for Co-Operative Security in 1999. Those documents proclaimed the principles of dialogue, mutual consideration of each other’s interests, readiness to discuss mutual concerns, and most importantly, that no one should strengthen their security by infringing on the security of others.
This logic underlies our initiative – the Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Area. We had initially advanced it a very long time ago, when it was still possible to prevent the aggravation that we are now witnessing. Unfortunately, not all the Gulf countries agreed to be proactive at that time. They said the idea was not bad and agreed to consider it, but they had to wait until it ripens. Now, in my opinion, it is already overripe. The fact that more and more Gulf countries, including, naturally, Arab countries, are beginning to think how to de-escalate this situation now, proves that the ideas we are promoting are relevant in one form or another. They are very simple – to sit at the negotiating table, not use the media for accusing each other, but put all these concerns on the table and begin discussing them in a businesslike manner, without targeting specific audiences, and achieve the satisfaction of all participants in this process.
I hope that someday such a process will begin. We assumed that, in addition to the Gulf countries, the five permanent Security Council members, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the European Union should also take part in it, as the EU is also interested in this region. Subsequently, if such a process suddenly begins, these principles and approaches could be extended to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where the need for a reliable, inclusive security system is more acute than ever.
Question: Can you tell us about your meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Did you talk about strategic stability, and where do you stand now? The Secretary has written on Twitter that the United States and Russia “must find a constructive path forward.” Does he really mean this, or are these only simple words again?
Sergey Lavrov: We did discuss a wide range of issues, as we have already reported in a press release. We discussed all aspects of strategic stability, including the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, namely in Syria and Libya, as well as Afghanistan. We also talked about Northeast Asia in the context of the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, as well as about bilateral issues, in particular, following the talks held between our presidents, including during their latest meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit held in Osaka. They also had a telephone conversation in July. Proposals were advanced during these talks, first of all by the Russian side, regarding the creation of additional channels for interaction on business cooperation between our companies and also for discussing global challenges in a manner that would allow Russia and the United States to provide the best possible assistance to their settlement through the establishment of an expert council of prominent diplomats, politicians, retired military, as well as members of our intelligence and other security services. These proposals are on the table, just as our proposals, which I mentioned in my remarks today, regarding a joint moratorium on the deployment of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles following the regrettable demise of the INF Treaty, and making a statement to this effect, as well as starting talks on the prolongation of the New START treaty without delay.
Secretary Pompeo expressed readiness to discuss all these issues. However, he also confirmed the US position according to which it has become difficult for the US and Russia to do this alone, and that the framework of this job should be expanded. We would accept any format provided all the participants the United States would like to invite accept the invitation. Anyway, our position is that the New START treaty, which expires in February 2021, must be extended come what may. At least, we must do this so as to preserve at least one backbone instrument in the sphere of strategic stability. I hope that we will be able to continue talks on this matter with our American colleagues. This is what was said on the topic of strategic stability. I would like to note that the US reaction to this was not negative.
Of course, we also discussed bilateral issues. There are so many thorns between us that our deputies or the directors of the concerned ministry divisions meet several times a year to review these problems (we raise 90 percent of questions) but, unfortunately, have not found any solution to them so far. I certainly spoke about the outrageous incident with the US refusal to issue visas to a large number of Russian delegates – 13 persons in all. I repeated what I said on the day of my arrival, saying that I do not doubt that neither President Donald Trump, nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were in any way involved, and Mr Pompeo confirmed that this is indeed so. In this case, who takes the decisions that are directly concerned with Washington’s obligations to ensure the normal operations of the UN Headquarters? Another thought that comes to mind when such incidents take place is that those who take such decisions probably do so based on their own understanding of the general atmosphere in bilateral relations.
But this atmosphere is definitely being created by the US political class. New sanctions are adopted against Russia, which is demonised almost every day if not every hour. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said today regarding the scandal over the telephone conversation between US President Trump and President of Ukraine Zelensky that she thinks Russia “has a hand in this.” I believe this is paranoia, very obviously so. But when serious politicians and, subsequently, the media outlets who claim to be serious, spread such allegations around the world, the official who is responsible for issuing visas may think it would be better to play safe in this situation. In other words, problems should be analysed comprehensively and attempts should be made to normalise the overall atmosphere. This would help to restore Russian-US relations to a state everyone wants to see them in. Such expectations have been voiced by all our partners in both the emerging economies and Europe.
Question: Mr Minister, can I ask you about Syria, the formation of the new Constitutional Committee, your reaction to that, and given that this comes in the context of Resolution 2254 that calls for free and fair elections, do you now see the prospect of full democracy and free elections in Syria, something that has not happened since the Assad family took over 50 years ago?
Sergey Lavrov: I cannot tell you about my reaction to the formation of the Constitutional Committee because we were directly involved in this process, unlike some of the other participants who did their utmost to hinder it. If not for them, the committee would have been established in December of last year. We know who tried to block these efforts, but we did not take offence or dig in our heels on this. We simply continued to help the Syrian Government and the opposition to harmonise their approaches. And we have succeeded. I am grateful to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and his special envoy for Syria, Mr Geir Pedersen, for supporting this process delicately and diplomatically, helping Russia, Turkey and Iran as the guarantors of the Astana format to come to an agreement with the parties involves regarding the list of candidates and procedures acceptable to them. The UN Secretary-General has announced that they would like to convene the first session of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva within a month. We welcome this. What I want to say most of all is that I am glad that any resistance to this process has stopped, because that resistance was designed to prevent any Syrian settlement and to provoke confrontation, tension and scandals so as to be able to point the finger at you know who and to use this as a pretext for applying force. I am happy that reason has prevailed, including among our Western partners who are members of the so-called anti-terrorist coalition.
I talked about this with Mike Pompeo today. I believe that we are gradually developing an understanding on how to help the Syrians come to an agreement on their country’s future, provided that all external players without exception respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Regarding UNSC Resolution 2254, it is much more embracing and includes more provisions than only free elections. It does call for free elections, under the auspices of and with assistance from the UN, in which all Syrians will be able to participate. But that resolution calls for much more than that, including a constitutional reform, which must precede the elections. We know about certain plans to demand that elections be held during the formation of the constitution and regardless of the outcome of this process. This would be yet another provocation. I assure you that such ideas can only cut short the progress we have achieved up to now, as well as hinder any intra-Syrian agreements. The process must proceed gradually, step by step. When some people say that everything must be done at once or else they would start bombing raids, I hope that this is not in the interests of any regional country, including Syria’s neighbours. Remember that Resolution 2254 clearly set the goal of an uncompromising fight against terrorism. We must not forget about this or stop fighting, regardless of any debates on the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254.
Question: It is rumoured that you often smoked in the UN building during your mission in New York and that you were fined for this. Do you still smoke? If so, have you been fined this time?
Sergey Lavrov: I have never been fined. This is not true, something of a myth. We strictly comply with all the decisions taken by the UN General Assembly regarding the rules of conduct in various parts of the UN Headquarters.
Question: Earlier on this week you spoke out in favour of resuming flights between Georgia and Russia. When can we expect practical action, and in what form could this be? Can we expect in this connection that flights to Ukraine will be resumed soon as well?
Sergey Lavrov: The decision to suspend flights to Georgia was taken in response to the outrageous actions of the opposition, which disrupted a meeting of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO). It was an orchestrated provocation. Violence was used against our deputies. When we took that decision, it was announced that it was a temporary solution and that we would revert it when the situation settles and when the Georgian authorities become aware of the need to cut short such actions.
On September 26, I had a meeting with Foreign Minister of Georgia David Zalkaliani at his request. I later read his lengthy comments, which probably took him longer to write than our meeting took us. One of the questions he asked concerned the resumption of flights. I told him that we never looked for a pretext to pick a quarrel with Georgia. Personally, I would only resume flights when the Georgian authorities start to act responsibly to normalise relations with Russia and stop paying any attention to the Russophobes who, I believe, the former president is trying to set against the Tbilisi government. The Georgian comments about that meeting make me smile and wonder.
Question: Several days before your trip to New York, the US administration allowed Viktor Bout’s wife and daughter to enter the United States. Did you manage to discuss the plight of certain Russian citizens (including Marsha Lazareva arrested in Kuwait) during your meetings with your American and Kuwaiti colleagues on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly?
Sergey Lavrov: We raise the problem of Viktor Bout every time we can during our contacts with the American side. I have mentioned the long list of thorns and problems in our relations, which we regularly forward to our American colleagues. One of our priorities are the fate of Viktor Bout, as well as Konstantin Yaroshenko, Maria Butina and the other Russian citizens who have been abducted by deceit or in gross violation of the national laws of the countries where they were arrested.
Today I reminded Secretary Pompeo about our concerns that should be given attention. It is good that Bout’s wife and daughter have been allowed to enter the country. This is humane. But it is not gratifying that this has happened for the first time in years and that he [Bout] is doing time on trumped-up charges based on trumped-up evidence. We will continue working so that justice prevails.
I recently dealt with the case of Marsha Lazareva while on a trip to Kuwait, including at my meetings with the Emir, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. We are told that they are working closely on this matter. They cite procedural problems. The problem looks clear to us, and it must be settled without delay just as our Kuwaiti friends have promised to do. You probably know that our British and American colleagues are helping us in this case. I hope that this powerful collective signal will have the desired effect.
To be continued...