As the standoff in the eastern Ukraine deteriorates into violence it’s up to world powers to step in and calm things down. Despite tough talk from Washington, the US, EU, Russia and Ukraine have managed to reach a framework to peace in Geneva. But will it be enough to avert a civil war? Sophie asks the Russian Foreign minister himself – Sergey Lavrov is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign minister, it’s great to have you on our show today.
Sergey Lavrov: Thank you for the invitation.
SS: So, just the other day Joe Biden on his visit to Kiev said that time is short for Russia to make progress on its commitments made in Geneva. What is expected of Russia?
SL: Well, it’s difficult to say because I discuss this almost daily with John Kerry. And frankly the American colleagues chose to put all the blame on Russia, including the origin of the conflict and including the steps which must be taken. They accuse us of having Russian troops, Russian agents in the east and South of Ukraine. They say that it is for the Russians only to give orders and the buildings illegally occupied would be liberated and that it is for the Russians to make sure that the East and South of Ukraine stops putting forward the demands for the federalization and the referendum and so on and so forth. This is absolute…you know…switching the goal post if you wish. In Geneva we all agreed that there must be reciprocal approach to any illegitimate action in Ukraine, be it in Kiev, be it in the West, be it in the East, be it in the South. And the people who started the process of illegitimate actions must step back first. It is absolutely abnormal due to any norms in a European city that Maidan is still occupied, that the buildings in Kiev are still occupied and in some other cities, that those who put on fire the buildings belonging to Communist party headquarters in Kiev, the buildings belonging to the Trade Union headquarters are not even under investigation. I don’t even want to mention the sniper cases because everyone forgot about those snipers. And we only hear that “Let’s concentrate on eliminating terrorist threats in the East and in the South”.
So in Geneva we all agreed that there must be end of any violence. Next morning or next afternoon Turchinov declared almost a state of emergency and ordered the army to shoot at the people if the people are engaged in peaceful protests. In Geneva we agreed that there must be total rejection of extremists and the Right Sector is still very active, and after Geneva the Right Sector staged provocations killing several people in the vicinity of Slavyansk during Easter Sunday. So nothing which was agreed in Geneva and which certainly is for the authorities in Kiev to start implementing was done by them. Yes, they introduced a draft law on amnesty. But our reading of this law indicates that this is not for political prisoners. Yes, they announced a pause in what they call “counter terrorist operation”. But now that Joe Biden visited Kiev this counter terrorist operation was declared in the active phase again. Well, it’s quite telling that they chose a moment of vice-president of the United States visit to announce the resumption of this operation because the launching of this operation happened immediately after the John Brennan’s visit to Kiev. So I don’t have any reasons not to believe that the Americans are running the show in a very close way.
SS: Well, you have hold on John Kerry to actually put pressure on the government in Kiev and on its behavior. But does it really mean that you can see America has decisive influence on the country?
SL: I think this is absolutely the case. Not on the country. On the regime which took power in Kiev. They have I think overwhelming influence. They act in much more open way without any scruples compared to the Europeans. Europeans try to be a bit more subtle. And the fact that…you know, there are so many reports about the role of the CIA in analyzing the situation and in being present in Ukraine, including the building of the Security Council of the Ukrainian State, occupyinga floor. Then there are numerous reports which were revived recently on what was the role of the American embassy during the events in Maidan - direct interaction and communication with the activists who were armed and who were planning the actions like storming the buildings and other illegal acts.
All this has not been denied in the way which would be persuasive. And, yes, when you get daily phone calls from John Kerry telling you: “You must, you must, you must” and when you understand how many thousand kilometers the United States is away from Ukraine and then you see how agitated they are about seeing their sponsored people not really delivering on the things which are obvious then you cannot avoid the impression that they are running the show very much.
SS: But what about Russia? Well, I know Russia has reiterated many times that it doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the government in Kiev, but nevertheless diplomatic meetings are held on high levels in Geneva, I remember in the Hague, the meeting of the Foreign Ministers as well, does Moscow have any leverage over Kiev?
SL: Not over Kiev. No, not at all.
SS: What about the Eastern Ukraine?
SL: In the East the people revolted after several months of total neglect of their interests. And when they saw what happened in Kiev through Maidan, through the Right Sector, other extremists, the sniper fire killing dozens of people, then immediately all those who were againstthe Yanukovich government were granted amnesty, which is not happening now to the people who just engage in political activities in the east and in the south. So, yes, we see what were the reasons for the revolt in the east and in the south. They just don’t want a repetition what happened in Kiev and what was attempted in Crimea, by the way, and these people, of course they want to be friendly with Russia, they have many Russian relatives, they listen very carefully to what Russia says. But these people are not puppets. We cannot just guarantee that they will be ready to take for granted whatever promises they hear from Kiev. They are fed up with words, they need real deeds. The regime must withdraw the order to use the army against the people, the regime must liberate political prisoners, they must start doing what they committed themselves to on 21st February signing the agreement, which said “surrender illegal arms”, they must start disarming the Right Sector and they must stop just saying “we will invite the regions to a constitutional reform process”.
They must sit down with them and instead of going abroad - you know, I heard that Yatsenyuk is going to the Vatican, I think the better place to go for him would be south. When he went there a week ago he only met with the people whom he himself appointed, he never got to the people who were protesting . And that’s where the current authorities in Kiev need to be now, If they really pretend to represent the entire country.
SS: But here’s the thing – people in the West, and I’m not even talking about the American political establishment, just people who watch TV – for them what’s going on in the south and in the east of the country right now, is very similar to what was going on in Maidan, because they see self-defense forces, like they were seeing the Right Sector in Maidan, chaos, people occupying government buildings, not willing to put down arms…now, they are saying that these people are pro-Russian, so why Russia is not so outraged of what’s going on there, I mean the chaos, like in Maidan, why doesn’t their influence calm them down?
SL: I don’t think we can say that we are negligent of their problems, we are in solidarity with them, we insist politically that their interests must be taken into account. That’s why we went to Geneva, that’s why we negotiated the paper which demands an equal treatment of whoever is engaged in illegal activities on the understanding that the government, the interim government whatever they call themselves, must set the example and they must stop the illegal things which continue to happen in Kiev and in other parts of the country, not other than east and south. And yes, in the east and the south, the leaders, elected by the people said that they would be ready to surrender arms, to vacate the buildings, provided the government stops illegal orders to use the army and does what it is committed itself to do with the Right Sector, other extremists and with the buildings which have been taken over and still are occupied in Kiev. You know what, the Americans said, Victoria Nuland, I think, when we insisted on the Geneva agreement to be implemented in full, beginning with the liberation of the buildings in Kiev - she said those building were occupied legally because the Kiev authorities issued a license to the people who occupied the buildings and they now are legal owners or legally present in these buildings. It is absolutely unbelievable that they can seriously put forward such arguments.
SS: So, you’re saying the agreement that was reached on the 21st February by the Western powers was kind of ignored by those who signed it. Now you’re saying that Geneva agreement is also being ignored…
SS: So what’s the point of all these agreement if you can’t come to a practical solution to this problem?
SL: The point of the February 21st agreement was to have Yanokovich sign up to commit himself not to use the police – which he did; to commit himself not to declare a state of emergency – which he did and that was basically an act of capitulation. Everything he committed himself to do – has been done. People say that he did not sign the law, bringing back the previous constitution, but this law was promulgated anyway, so what ever was needed by the opposition was done. Whatever the opposition committed itself to do – they never did. And the Geneva agreement, the Geneva meeting was actually designed to try and bring the process back on track, including the need to start the constitutional process, with full involvement of all regions. Yes the deal has been struck, but it is not being honored by those who have to make the first step.
SS: So they have to make the first step?
SS: Russia cannot pressure these self-defense forces to put down arms unless…
SL: Yes, and we do not have any moral authority to pressure the East or the South to do something unilaterally in front of the army, being ordered to go against them, in front of the Right Sector who should have been, must have been disarmed long ago and in the face of the political prisoners who continue to be taken.
SS: You’ve also said many times that Russia has no intention of moving its troops inside Ukraine, and just recently, Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s press-secretary confirmed that there is a military contingent that is reinforced on the Russian-Ukrainian border; There must be a worst-case scenario in which this contingent will be used?
SL: If we are attacked, we would certainly respond. If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law. Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation. The only thing I would like to highlight at this stage is that the Russian troops are on the Russian territory. The request for inspections under the so called Vienna Document of 2011 and under the treaty of the Open Sky, they have all been granted. The inspectors visited the areas of deployment of the troops who are participating in training exercises. Planes flew over the areas where the exercises and no one who participated in the inspections, including the Americans, Ukrainians and Europeans ever brought up any fact that would indicate that Russia was engaged in some dangerous military activity. So we are on our territory and we are doing nothing which is prohibited by any obligation of us. The Ukrainian troops are also on their territory, but the difference is the fact that they have the order from Turchinov to use weapons against civilians and this is a criminal order.
SS: You’ve mentioned John Kerry many times during this interview, and it does seem like the two of you, regardless of diplomatic differences, communicate and see each other more than you see your families. Do you feel like on a personal level this is someone that you can come to an agreement with?
SL: We came to an agreement on Syria, we came to an agreement on Iran, we came to an agreement on Ukraine in Geneva on the 17th April; personally we have very good chemistry but we also understand there are superiors and advisors which sometimes does not help. But, I told Kerry several times that we do not believe it is a real partnership - if they speak about a partnership – when in fact whatever issue we discuss, they try to put the onus on us completely. And by the way, had it not been Ukraine, then it would have been something else, like it was Iran, originally, when the Americans were saying “you must.. you must.. you must…’ If only the Russians tells the Iranian’s, if only Russia doesn’t sell weapons to the Iranians – they would cry ‘uncle’ and everything would be fine, this nuclear issue would be resolved.”Then Syria happened and they were telling us – they still do – “if only Russia tells Assad to go then everything would fall into place, democracy would prevail and so on and so forth.” So the Iranian issue depends on Russia alone, Syria depends on Russia alone – they also say Russia and Iran. Now Ukraine depends entirely on Russia. I would say, it is an absolute ‘egoistic’ and ‘unrealistic’ approach and an attempt to hide your own responsibility.
By the way, speaking about Syria, they said recently and unfortunately the United Nations spokesman picked up the tune, the Americans said recently that the elections which have been announced for the 3rd June by President Assad, would be illegitimate, because first there must be a transitional governing organ on the basis of a new constitution and so on and so forth. Ok, the Geneva communiqué on Syria did say there must be a transitional governing organ, which would develop constitutional reform and on the basis of this reform there would be general elections. Fine, but the same sequence was mentioned on the Ukrainian crisis, signed on the 21st February. First the government of consent, then the constitutional reform and only after the new constitution is promulgated – elections.The people who staged the coup and toppled the legitimate president, and took power, declared themselves a government, they didn’t speak originally about constitutional reform at all. They said there would be presidential elections on May 25 and the constitutional reform - when we reminded them that this was the obligation and unless they do this the east and the south would not recognize the legitimacy of what is going on - they recalled this obligation but said “this would be done later”. And the West believes that this is entirely legitimate. The same people who say the Syrian presidential elections without constitutional reform would be illegitimate are accepting even today the legitimacy of the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine without any constitutional reform.
SS: So, you meet a lot of American politicians, besides John Kerry, and the rhetoric from their side is pretty harsh. Do you feel the Americans are ready for a real confrontation with Russia over Ukraine?
SL: Well, I already said that it is not about Ukraine. Ukraine is just one manifestation of the American unwillingness to yield in the geopolitical fight. Americans are not ready to admit that they cannot run the show in each and every part of the globe from Washington alone. They cannot impose ready-made solutions on everyone and they cannot understand, I mean they begin to understand I think, but they still have the instincts that they shouldn’t really take on board what others believe should be done. They are moving, slowly, that’s why we managed to make some compromises on Syrian chemical weapon, on the Iranian nuclear program, the compromise on Ukraine in Geneva, but after a deal they tried to pocket whatever they got and they try not to deliver what they promised to do. Maybe this is a natural manifestation of those who want to get the result that would be in their interests but on Iranian nuclear issue, for example, the deal was very blunt but as the deal started to be implemented, the Americans began to load it with new demands. The missile program of Iranians was never part of the discussions, never. And it was not part of the deal signed in Geneva last November. But as the deal of November started to be implemented, the Americans threw in the missile proliferation problem which could have derailed the process.
On Syria, we signed the deal of chemical disarmament of Syria and the process has been going and still goes very well, there’s a satisfactory assessment by UN personnel participating in the process by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Americans almost from the first very day started to ring alarm bell, saying that the government is dragging on this, it’s not delivering on its commitments and they were fully ignoring the facts which were the need for the government to get more armed vehicles, which we and the Chinese were helping them with, the need for the people who influenced the armed extremists and jihadists to absolutely control them and not to allow them to stage provocations as the chemical weapons are being moved from storages to the port, and so on and so forth. So every time we sign a deal the Americans start to put the blame for any delay on others or, even worse, they start to throw in new demands which absolutely contradict the reached consensus. So that is what they are doing now on the Geneva agreement on Ukraine, but I do hope very much that they act responsibly and they do not think of their geopolitical initiatives, geopolitical interests, unilateral interests, but they would think about the future of Ukraine which is our biggest neighbor, closest neighbor and the people of which are brothers and sisters to the Russian Federation population. So if we all think about Ukraine and not about who takes it, but about how the Ukrainians themselves want to live, then it shouldn’t be very difficult to help the Ukrainians find the national compromise and national reconciliation.
SS: Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, thank you very much for this interview.
SL: Thank you.