Sergey Lavrov, answering questions, blames Ukraine for provoking Russia over the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine
May 23, 2022
FM Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions as part of the "100 Questions for the Leader" project at the Yevgeny Primakov School
Moscow, May 23, 2022
Sergey #Lavrov: I am glad to see you. My visits here are not frequent, but they are regular. And each time, I feel energised. Tomorrow, the eleven-formers will have to choose their path in life. It will not be long before the rest of you (the eight- to ten-formers) will also find yourselves at the same threshold.
It is important to understand the substance of your life, the future substance of our society’s life within the framework of the professional trends that will be a factor in your employment and careers. In addition to my meetings with students at schools, I regularly meet with #MGIMO students. They keep those engaging in practical politics on their toes. Policy-making should be approached in such a way as to enable our successors to see prospects and understand that the course mapped by their predecessors meets their interests.
Question: As far as I know, you write poetry. What prompted you to start doing this?
Sergey Lavrov: I used to write poetry. Since taking the ministerial job, I limit myself to songs for friends’ birthdays, to ditties. Though occasionally, I dabble in full-length writing, too. I started writing verses, as poetry, when I was about 15. At school, some thoughts came to me… At the institute later, my fellow students and I joined the national movement of student construction brigades and each summer went to work somewhere in Russia. While out there, songs devoted to some or other part of our vast homeland were conceived in my mind.
Andrey Voznesensky said: “Verses are not written, they happen like feelings or a sunset. The soul is a blind accomplice. I didn’t write it – it just happened.”
Question: Your predecessor, Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire Alexander #Gorchakov, said that “Great Powers do not need recognition.” Is this saying relevant in our day and age?
Sergey Lavrov: I think it is. Human nature does not change despite the technological progress and novelties in the information and other spheres. Human beings always want to defend their interests. If they are strong, purpose-oriented, and stubborn to a degree, they will find it easier to achieve a status in which they will be accepted as such.
The same is with countries. But it is more conspicuous when a country is large and rich, and there is a nation which knows, loves and continues the history of its ancestors. Alexander Gorchakov must have had this in mind. The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is the largest nation in the world in terms of its territorial scope. It is a country that has traditions. They can hardly be encountered in other countries. I am referring to our multiethnic and multi-faith people. Unlike other empires, the Russian Empire did not bend other peoples to its aesthetic and moral requirements as it was spreading its influence. All of them preserved their language, faith, and traditions. Different parts of the Empire had a different status reflecting the specific features characteristic of this or that people which joined the common fold. The United States is different. There they have the “melting pot.” They melted everyone right away and all of them became Americans. As a friend of mine said, “We are all Americans with ‘human rights’ written across our forehead.” Our national composition palette is much richer. It is a national asset on a par with territory and natural resources.
As for the fate of Gorchakov’s prediction after the emergence of the USSR… The USSR was not recognised for a number of years, either. Later it was recognised. It was a reality, a created reality that would not disappear. Everyone came to realise this. The same is happening now when others are trying to force the Russian Federation to live according to the “rules,” rather than international law. The West has not pronounced this term for several years. They are calling on everyone to abide by the “rules-based order.” No one has seen these “rules” or participated in devising them. Our logical question as to why they are dissatisfied with the rules known as the UN Charter is not answered. But we know the answer. And this answer does not suit them because they turn all the rules inside out as they see fit at some or other moment. Wanting to destroy Yugoslavia, they upped and recognised Kosovo. According to them, this was peoples’ right to self-determination. Moreover, Kosovo did not hold any referendums. They even had the International Court of Justice pass a ruling to the effect that a territory does not necessarily need to have the consent of the central authorities to proclaim its independence.
The anti-constitutional coup in #Ukraine brought to power people who said that the status of the Russian language, which was codified in laws until 2014, had to be abolished and Russians “thrown out” from Crimea. In response, the residents of Crimea held an open and transparent referendum, and the overwhelming majority voted in favour of becoming independent of Ukraine and joining Russia. The West does not recognise this. The rule appears to be the same – self-determination of the people – but the West has adopted a different position this time.
Now the West is raging as Russia defends its absolutely legitimate and fundamental interests. Russia made it clear that its security interests were being affected each time when, contrary to its promises, #NATO expanded eastward on five occasions, coming closer to our borders. We also made clear that making Ukraine or other former Soviet republics part of the alliance was a red line for us. We said we knew what the United States and other NATO countries were doing when they deployed weapons in Ukraine, flooded it with modern weapons and created military and naval bases in Ukraine. Following the coup, the new Kiev authorities attempted to suppress by force the will of the people of #Donbass, who refused to accept the outcomes of the coup, and they were declared terrorists. In fact, what they did was they didn’t accept the coup and asked to leave them be and let them figure things out themselves. They did not attack anyone. They were attacked instead.
It took the new Kiev regime a year to realise that the massacre was senseless. The Minsk agreements were signed, which spelled things out in a straightforward manner: the territories that are not controlled by Kiev should be granted special status, have the right to use their native (Russian) language, have their own law enforcement bodies and special economic relations with neighbouring Russian regions. For eight long years, in addition to cautioning our NATO colleagues against moving eastward and trying to swallow Ukraine by incorporating it, we tried to get them to send a strong message to Kiev about the need to comply with the Minsk agreements. To no avail. You might as well be talking to a brick wall, as the saying goes. The West was just nodding and pretending it was trying to help achieve the settlement. In fact, it was encouraging the arrogant position of the Kiev regime, which publicly stated through the president and his ministers that they would not comply with the Minsk agreements.
NATO was expanding, Kiev was refusing to comply with the Minsk agreements, and, on top of that, year after year, Ukrainian lawmakers were outlawing the Russian language in education and media. The television channels (Russian and Ukrainian ones in Russian alike) were being shut down as well. The most recent revision of yet another law made it illegal to use the Russian language in everyday life. If you use Russian, not the state language of Ukrainian, when you talk to a store attendant, you could face administrative liability.
Another bloc of legislation encouraged neo-Nazi theory and practice, including the glorification of those who collaborated with Hitler and were recognised as criminals during the Nuremberg Trials, the encouragement of torchlight processions, the use of Nazi symbols (swastika, insignia of the Waffen SS Death’s Head battalions, regiments and divisions, etc.), and the creation of national battalions which hired Western instructors to train and cultivate their fighters in the spirit of neo-Nazi ideology. We saw the entire set of threats created on our borders. For many years, we have been trying to make our Western partners realise this. They didn't care a thing about it.
Since 2009, we have repeatedly proposed concluding a special treaty that would guarantee the security of all countries, including Ukraine, without the expansion of NATO or other military-political alliances. In 2009, they rejected it. In 2021, President Vladimir Putin once again put forward this initiative, and we sent draft treaties to the United States and NATO members. Again, they refused to guarantee security beyond NATO expansion. For us, it was unacceptable. They knew it all too well.
One can list a number of physical and cultural threats to the security of the Russian Federation. Ukrainian legislation forbids a huge share of the country’s population from using their native language and bringing up their children with Russian cultural practices and the Russian language, and so on. Consequently, after warning Ukraine for many years, we moved to defend the security interests of the Russian population in Donbass. We can see how our Western colleagues are responding. They admit that they are unable to live in accordance with the provisions of the UN Charter stating expressly that the Organisation hinges on the sovereign equality of states. For them, this means their own sovereignty alone.
I have described how long we tried to reach out to our Western colleagues, considering the threats they created for Russia. For example, the United States suddenly perceived a threat in Yugoslavia that was located 10,000 kilometres across the ocean, rather than on its own borders. The United States bombed the country, created Kosovo and imposed its perception on this part of Europe. The United States later saw a similar threat in Iraq and said the country possessed weapons of mass destruction. It bombed Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. The United States and the United Kingdom spearheaded the 2003 campaign. Several years later, it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Tony Blair, the then UK Prime Minister, called this a mistake and added that mistakes happen from time to time. They destroyed a country which is still unable to restore its statehood. Later, the United States that is located on the other side of the world got the impression that the human rights situation in Libya was not very good. They bombed an affluent country that had no poor people and a thriving economy. Yes, an authoritarian regime ruled Libya. In an effort to overthrow it, the United States killed hundreds of thousands more people than those affected by that authoritarian regime. Today, Libya is no longer a state but a territory where several political and military forces are located. It’s everyone for themselves.
When they get the impression that someone is threatening them, they do not explain anything to anyone; nor do they ask anyone to take action. They simply make a decision, deploy troops and level cities, just like they did in Iraq and Syria. Such are their “rules.”
We are now experiencing a similar period in our history once again. They say that Russia must be defeated, that they must defeat Russia and see to it that Russia loses on the battlefield. I am confident that you know history better than Western politicians who are reciting these “incantations.” They were probably underachievers in their school years. They are drawing incorrect conclusions from their understanding of the past and Russia’s essence.
I am confident that all this will end. The West will recognise reality that is being created on the ground once again, and it will be forced to admit that it is impossible to constantly trample upon vital Russian interests and those of Russian diasporas, no matter where they live, and get away with it. They are now talking a lot about Ireland because a party wishing to reunite with the rest of the Irish island has won the election in Northern Ireland, part of the UK. What would happen if they suddenly ban English there? The Ukrainians banned the Russian language, and what if they ban English in Northern Ireland? What if Belgium bans the French language, and what if Finland bans the Swedish language? It is impossible to imagine. But the West “swallowed” all this, as if it’s just the way things are.
We knocked on the doors of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They “expressed deep regret,” but were unable to stamp their feet and demand that the ultranationalists who came to power as a result of a coup and just went too far stop violating the rights of the Russian-speaking ethnic minority (although the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens speak Russian), as required by the Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
These are the Western rules where even thinking about infringing on a European language is unthinkable. Now, since the Ukrainians have “sworn an oath” of allegiance to the West and unquestioningly do what they are told, they can do anything.
They accept reality. There is no way around it. We will push for protecting the rights of Russians (wherever they may live), the Russian-speaking population in accordance with conventions signed by all Western states. We will insist that Russia's security interests are not ignored as was the case for many years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. They lied to our faces that NATO would not move an inch.
Question: The French politician Charles de Gaulle said that a person can have friends, but a politician cannot. What do you think about this?
Sergey Lavrov: I'm almost sure that when the great Frenchman Charles de Gaulle said this, he had the same person in mind.
Anyone, no matter their profession or what they do in life, must have friends. Not having friends is unnatural. When a politician gets together with his friends, he stops being a politician. For them, he is a friend and a classmate. At least, that’s who I am when I see the guys with whom I went to school, joined student construction teams, or rafted down Siberian rivers. I'm not a minister with them. They wouldn’t understand if I tried to pose as a minister. We are friends and that's all there is to it.
Question: Do you have a dream? If not, did you used to have any? Did it come true for you?
Sergey Lavrov: To that, I can either give you a short answer or talk endlessly. At each stage of their development, people want to achieve something. It's good to finish school, go to college, and get an interesting job. You can call it dreams. Or, we can operate on the premise that it is normal for a person to set goals and strive to achieve them.
Speaking of romantic dreams, people can have pipe dreams. As folk wisdom says, dreaming won’t hurt you. You just need to know your interests, who you want to become and then move towards that goal. The Primakov Gymnasium graduates have many more opportunities than graduates of other educational institutions. I don't want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but your school is a great institution.
Question: Is there a question that you have never been asked, but would like to give an answer to?
Sergey Lavrov: There are no such questions. But that doesn't mean you haven't hit the mark. When I want to give an answer to any particular question, I make it so that I get asked that question. Believe me, it's not difficult. All you need to do is be friends with journalists.
Question: They’ve been talking about limiting Russia's veto power in the UN Security Council since March or April. We have been expelled from the UN Human Rights Council. Will the international relations system change any time soon? Or will it remain unchanged given the ongoing events? Should it be reformed?
Sergey Lavrov: We left the Human Rights Council of our own accord. They were going to expel us from there or to suspend our membership. We decided to do so ourselves. The Council discredited itself long before the current developments in Ukraine began.
As you may be aware, there used to be a UN Commission on Human Rights under the UN Economic and Social Council. The Americans never stopped criticising it since they thought it was not aggressive enough with regard to the “offenders.” To a large extent (if not decisively) the creation of the current Human Rights Council, which is the Organisation’s highest representative body and is elected by the UN General Assembly, was their idea.
This Council’s revised statutes are based on the principle of sovereign equality of states, whereby each country is subject to a regular review of its human rights practices. A commission is created, questions are asked, and the country provides answers. Everyone must regularly report to the others on an equal basis. It appeared to resolve the problem of fair consideration of a particular country’s track record.
The West didn’t think it was enough. Each time, in violation of the equal process, they would come up with a resolution that flat-out condemned a particular country at a UN Council on Human Rights session. This serves nothing from the point of view of achieving results. The language of these resolutions was rude and insulting. If you want people to heed your advice, you need to use a different tone when talking to them. These are the manners adopted by the modern West. They are what they are and can’t be changed.
We have quit the Council of Europe of our own accord. From an organisation concerned with unity of the European legal space, the CE has degenerated into a tool of US interests (even though the United States is just an observer and not a member of the Council of Europe). For five years, the Americans have shown a tendency to privatise the secretariats of international organisations. They place their people in leading positions. To our great regret, they have influence over countries voting on personnel decisions. Americans are rushing around the world. What sovereign equality of states? Russia said why it was doing what it was doing. The Americans and the West expressed their attitude. Why not allow others to determine their position on their own? And they did so. Practically no one has joined the sanctions except the West. But they are rushing around the world – both the Americans, and the EU members, and the British, who are the friskiest lot – and urging countries to join the anti-Russia sanctions. What equality and respect can you expect here? None!
The Council of Europe has taken the same path. It has destroyed the consensus culture that was always at the core of this European organisation’s work. It always made it possible to find mutually acceptable solutions that balanced the interests of all those involved. Issues of interest to the West have long been put to the vote. They pushed overwhelming majorities through the Council of Europe. The EU’s behaviour in the Council of Europe is also interesting. When a human rights problem emerged in a EU country, Brussels admitted its existence but said that there was no need for worry because the EU had a procedure of its own, one unrelated to the Council of Europe, to oversee how EU member countries lived up to their human rights commitments. They have fenced themselves off from the Council of Europe, declaring that they will manage their internal matters on their own but where the former Soviet republics, now independent states and CE members, are concerned, they will follow their behaviour closely. Here is haughtiness and a sense of superiority for you. To my mind, they are destroying the Council of Europe, like many other organisations, where they are trying to operate on the basis of diktat, ultimatums and direct blackmail rather than equality. When they have to obtain a certain voting result at the UN, for example… my colleagues told me what methods they use to make them vote the way the West needs. They would hint to a specific person (a country’s UN ambassador) that they will vote in such and such manner at tomorrow’s voting and call on others to do the same, reminding them that they have an account at a US bank or that their children are enrolled in a [US] college or university. I am not exaggerating. I know many people who told me this. I believe them.
As for the UN Security Council, no one can change anything unless a decision is adopted that must be ratified by all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the Russian Federation. In other words, it is impossible to change the status of any of the five permanent members.
UN Security Council reform is being discussed at present. There are several options, the main one concerning its numerical composition. Negotiations at the General Assembly have been in progress for twenty years, if not longer. Originally, a resolution was passed, which proclaimed the need to expand the number of UN Security Council members. According to the document, the reform should be based on common consent, not consensus. A one-hundred-percent consensus is hardly possible in things of this kind. There will always be one or two states that will distance themselves from consensus. This is why the resolution, which has launched the process of reform, says “on the basis of common consent.”
Today, there are two groups of countries. One group is following the Four (India, Brazil, Japan and Germany), which have staked their claim to permanent membership on the UN Security Council and rallied together to this end. On the same basis, they are working on countries in other regions in a bid to gain their support. Their firm belief is that there should be new seats of permanent members. The second group of countries, on the contrary, hold (to quote our Mexican friends) that permanent membership is an “injustice placed in the foundation of the United Nations.” The foundation cannot be changed, but this injustice should not be multiplied. Let us, they say, add a certain number of non-permanent members without creating permanent seats. These are two incompatible approaches. At a certain stage, people have become aware that it is impossible to “marry” two diametrically opposite points of view and suggested looking for a compromise that will consist in that we will create new “semi-permanent” seats instead of additional permanent seats. Today, a country elected to a non-permanent seat holds it for two years and cannot be reelected again immediately after the expiry of its term of office. It has been suggested to create a third category, semi-permanent members (in addition to the existing permanent and non-permanent members), which will be elected from a limited number of countries (30 of these have been identified) for 10 years with the right of immediate reelection. This failed to gain traction. I am illustrating how completely incompatible these points of view are that this is the compromise idea that resulted.
So far, the process is developing. The Four want to put this issue to a vote and decide it by two-thirds. In fact, the UN Charter says that two-thirds of the vote on important matters is OK. But a resolution to launch this process requires common consent rather than two-thirds, which is more than the two-thirds. So, the talks are in progress.