Foreign Minister Lavrov discusses current issues in foreign affairs

Russian Foreign Minister: “Washington is infiltrating the former Soviet Union more and more actively – with Ukraine and Georgia being the most vivid examples. If Ukraine and Georgia are dragged into NATO, this would cause a substantial negative geopolitical shift.”

An interview with Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Affairs Minister of the Russian Federation.

Question: Russia and the USA are having some serious differences over American plans to deploy missile defense elements in Eastern Europe. Is there any possibility of this decision being changed once a new administration moves into the White House?

Sergei Lavrov: I wouldn’t want to comment in any way on the election campaign in the United States – but I am paying close attention to what the candidates are saying. They don’t have any significant disagreements on this point. I think John McCain would maintain the current policy course. I’m not sure what the Democrats would do.

However, the Democrats might take a slightly different stance on strategic offensive weapons. At present, the Americans are refusing to work toward an effective strategic offensive arms limitation agreement to replace START I, which will expire in December 2009. They say that it was the Cold War era back then, and this treaty took 12 years to prepare, and what we need now is a “21st Century treaty.” They are only offering to extend the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), signed in Moscow, supplementing it with transparency measures and making it legally binding.

But SORT only restricts operationally deployed nuclear warheads – that is, warheads in combat position on missiles. It doesn’t cover mothballed warheads, or any delivery vehicles at all.

And when they say “but you agreed to sign SORT,” we reply that this step was taken with START I in effect, restricting delivery vehicles and total warhead numbers. Under those circumstances, restricting operationally deployed warheads as well counted as a step forward. But when the logic of SORT is applied to periods when there won’t be any restrictions on everything else, reducing the whole business to deployed warheads only would be an enormous backward step.

Moreover, a new issue has arisen since START I was signed: non-nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. It’s a situation in which only a few minutes would be available for decision-making. They tell us that we can exchange telemetry data – but this can’t be taken seriously, because if a tracking system identifies this as a nuclear strike, dozens of missiles would be launched in response, automatically. They reply: do you really think we would launch an attack on you? And how are we meant to take that question seriously? After all, we’re not talking about intentions here – we’re talking about arsenals that are really being created. So these negotiations will continue. We expect that it will be possible to maintain the START regimen of real reductions after all.

Question: The impression is that our American partners are putting pressure on us in many areas: missile defense, Kosovo, our direct interests in the CIS and relations with our nearest neighbors. How long shall we continue retreating?

Sergei Lavrov: We are trying to deideologize our actions. Let me remind you of the principles approved by President Vladimir Putin in his first year as president, when the Foreign Policy Concept was adopted: pragmatism, an emphasis on national interests, defending national interests firmly but without confrontation, and being open to cooperation with everyone who is prepared to do so on an equal basis. The United States is a power with truly global interests. It is seeking ways to ensure maximally reliable energy supplies for the US economy, and they want to have access to any location in the world in order to neutralize terrorists who might be planning action against the USA. And they need partners, of course, whom they can always influence to mobilize the resources of those partners to serve US foreign policy goals: such as supporting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We realize that this state of affairs is a reality which we have to take into account. Yes, Washington is infiltrating the former Soviet Union more and more actively – with Ukraine and Georgia being the most vivid examples. If Ukraine and Georgia are dragged into NATO, this would cause a substantial negative geopolitical shift. We see how work is being done on the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan for the purpose of bypassing Russia in exporting their energy resources – along routes controlled by regimes closely linked to the United States. What should we do? Should we exert retaliatory pressure on former Soviet republics? That would be disrespectful. After all, they are sovereign states with the right to choose their own foreign policy and trade partners.

I think we should respond by being attractive, in every sense: economically, politically, culturally. That’s what we are doing within the framework of the CIS Collective Security Treaty and the Euro-Asian Economic Community, especially in the context of establishing a customs union.

Look, they want to build the Nabucco pipeline – obviously an artificially-invented project. The same applies to Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, which will take a very long time to pay for itself, requiring long-term investments.

We have solutions that are more effective economically, and we shall implement them. The Blue Stream pipeline is operating already. The Caspian Coast Pipeline, an extension of the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline, and Burgas-Alexandroupolis, and North Stream, and South Stream – all these projects have a rational economic foundation. Most likely, flexibility and a far-sighted approach to price formation for Central Asian gas are also significant. I think these are good examples of how we should act.

Question: There’s the impression of continual attempts to create artificial tension around Russia.

Sergei Lavrov: The most acute problems are Georgia and Ukraine, of course. They are being dragged into NATO, quite blatantly – although everyone knows that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens are against it, while Abkhazia and South Ossetia don’t even want to hear of it.

We are saying honestly that this is bound to have some consequences: primarily at the geopolitical level, but also at the economic level – since there are close contacts between hundreds of defense industry enterprises in Ukraine and Russia, and these would be revised if Ukraine joins NATO and has to switch to NATO standards. And on the Russian side, there would be questions about the reliability of all these partnerships in terms of our security.

Under the circumstances, a natural question arises: why create such tension at all?

Perhaps we shouldn’t seek a specifically anti-Russian component here. Perhaps what will prevail is the determination to achieve some sort of foreign policy successes in the lead-up to NATO’s Bucharest summit, where some new members must be admitted, and the doors must be opened for Georgia and Ukraine, one way or another. The NATO summit will coincide with a conference on Afghanistan, where some sort of new approaches are planned: we are being asked to sign a military transit agreement not only with France and Germany, with whom we have existing agreements, but also with NATO as a whole – and to provide military transport aircraft.

We are open to cooperation, but we shall speak out firmly against any creeping advances that are detrimental to our interests.

And we have to defend our interests primarily by building up our own positions.

We should invest more in CIS countries, and accept return investment. We should get actively involved in key issues like developing water and energy resources in Central Asia. We should do more in the field of cultural cooperation.

Question: Despite the most intensive dialogue, Russian diplomacy doesn’t always succeed in finding a common language with official Kiev. Why not?

Sergei Lavrov: With regard to Ukraine, we sincerely wish to cooperate most actively. And you’re absolutely right: we have intensive political dialogue and economic cooperation. Thousands of Russian and Ukrainian enterprises are cooperating with each other, in industries including high technology and aerospace. This still needs to be supplemented by individual, cultural, and historical contacts. The national mindsets are similar in many respects – with some details being different, of course. We also have our differences, such as the gas dispute – but if we look at it objectively, this is mostly caused by Ukraine’s domestic differences. This time round, I think that even Europe understands what is really going on. So the time seems ripe to implement the Energy Security Declaration adopted at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

Question: When will Russian-British relations get back to normal?

Sergei Lavrov: It all depends on the British government now. That’s where a number of groundless anti-Russian decisions have been made: they expelled our diplomats, they suspended work on a number of agreements – including an agreement on easing visa requirements, and they broke off contacts with the Federal Security Service (FSB), which automatically meant stopping anti-terrorism cooperation. And then the British Council situation was pasted onto this, even though it’s an old and entirely separate issue: only legal questions, plus tax evasion. We’re hearing signals from London: let’s turn over a new leaf and normalize relations. We have long been prepared to do so, but our relations have been tested. All they need to do is remove the artificial problems that haven’t been created by us.