Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Argumenty i Fakty newspaper, Moscow, August 12, 2020
Question: Mr Lavrov, what was the impact from the coronavirus pandemic on international politics?
Sergey Lavrov: It affected international politics and the socioeconomic environment in all their aspects without exception, freezing political contacts and interrupting established value and supply chains. COVID-19 plunged the global economy into a deep crisis, and the recovery will take a long time. Not only is the world living through a major economic downturn, but could also be on the verge of restructuring established economic links.
Question: There was a feeling in the air that many conflicts would subside, at least for the time the world faces this common scourge, but unfortunately, this did not happen. You have said recently that some countries, on the contrary, took advantage of this situation to settle scores with the “unwanted regimes”. How did it happen?
Sergey Lavrov: The pandemic levelled the playing field for all actors, showing yet again that in today’s interconnected world most threats transcend borders, making it impossible to wait out the whole thing without becoming involved. It seems that all these developments should compel the international community to set momentary differences aside, at least for some time, and combine efforts in order to come up with a common response to this new global challenge.
However, a positive breakthrough failed to materialise. International affairs are becoming increasingly prone to confrontation, with growing distrust among international actors. Instead of uniting our capabilities in the fight against the coronavirus, we are witnessing attempts to assign blame for the spread of the infection.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call for a ceasefire in hot zones did not stop the bloodshed. A number of countries want to benefit from the ongoing crisis and to satisfy their geopolitical and economic ambitions. They continue to rely on military power for settling regional conflicts. There has been no progress in overcoming the most urgent situations, for example in the Middle East. In some cases, this sets the stage for a further escalation.
The policy of “strangling” unwanted regimes with sanctions continues. In this context, the UN Secretary General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for suspending unilateral restrictions on medicines and medical equipment, and the related payment transfers, for the duration of the pandemic, but these calls were ignored. Those who have been posing for decades as human rights champions were the ones who turned a deaf ear to these calls.
Once again, we call for joining efforts in fighting this common scourge and using the corona crisis as an opportunity to launch wide-reaching international cooperation for addressing common challenges the humanity is facing.
Question: Many noticed another statement of yours. You said that international terrorists are looking for ways to use the coronavirus or similar strains for criminal ends. Could you share any details on this subject? Who is planning biological attacks, where and against whom?
Sergey Lavrov: First of all, I would like to point out that I was referring to widespread speculations on this subject rather than to an actual threat of terrorists using the virus. Still, in some regions of the world terrorists have been trying to take advantage of the pandemic and the accompanying challenges in order to expand their reach, spread panic and ideas of hate, as well as attract new recruits, primarily among those disgruntled with the way governments responded to the crisis.
The subject of biological terrorism is not new. It has been on the radar of international structures for many years, and in the current environment, considering how it changed the world, clearly adds fuel to these debates.
Let me add that we believe manipulating the subject of coronavirus or biological terrorism in the context of the pandemic or outside of it for the sake of momentary gains to be unacceptable. This includes provocative statements and destructive information campaigns designed to put other countries or international organisations under greater ideological or moral pressure. Preventing terrorists from getting their hands on dangerous chemical substances and biological agents, as well as technology for making chemical or biological weapons is an ever more pressing issue.
Question: What can be done to prevent this?
Sergey Lavrov: In March 2016, Russia proposed drafting an international convention on fighting chemical and biological terrorism at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. The purpose of this initiative is to fill the gaps in the existing international norms that stand in the way of a prompt and effective response to the new threat of WMD terrorism that is becoming a major system-wide challenge that transcends borders. Provisions on counter-terrorist action in the existing international instruments have limited reach, since focusing on specific objectives that are related to their core mission. Russia proposed adopting an international convention that would address a number of issues at the confluence of non-proliferation, disarmament and counter-terrorist activity. Importantly, it sets out norms for direct action by criminalising these reprehensible acts.
Let me emphasise that this convention does not restrict the rights of any of the states. Once adopted, it will help strengthen security for all states without exception at the national, regional and global levels. In addition, the idea of signing a convention on fighting chemical or biological terrorism could be an effective way for getting talks at the Conference on Disarmament out of their current impasse.
Question: Will the Nuclear Five summit be held? It was rumoured that the event would be timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Does this mean that the meeting might take place no later than October 24 (United Nations Day)?
Sergey Lavrov: The initiative to organise a meeting of the heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – was announced by President Vladimir Putin as he was addressing the Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism international forum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. The president stressed that the summit would play a special role in the context of a search for collective answers to modern challenges and would demonstrate loyalty to the spirit of alliance and ideals, which our ancestors fought for during World War II.
The initiative was supported by all the Security Council partners. Currently work is in progress on aspects of the upcoming event. No specific date has been set. The 75th anniversary of the United Nations is certainly an important landmark for us, especially as its establishment became possible as a result of the Great Victory, whose anniversary we are celebrating this year as well.
I must stress in this context that we are focused in particular on obtaining a concrete result rather than seeking to hold the meeting as soon as possible. After all, the summit will make it possible, based on the solid ground of the UN Charter, to launch a serious and direct conversation between leaders on principles of international collaboration and ways of addressing the gravest problems of humanity. Hopefully, it will also enable us to coordinate common “rules of conduct,” including with an eye to preserving global peace and preventing a large-scale military conflict. I am confident that mapping out a path towards the normalisation of international relations and setting a good example of collective leadership is of particular importance against the background of the dislocations developing in the global system, dislocations fraught with the most unpredictable consequences.
Question: At the summit, Russia is planning to promote the idea that a nuclear war is inadmissible and impossible to win. Why do these seemingly obvious things have to be driven home to anyone, all over again?
Sergey Lavrov: As it turns out, these things are not obvious to everyone. In fact, the importance of reaffirming the principle you have mentioned in relations between the nuclear powers and in general in international relations has been dictated by objective reasons.
The global security and strategic stability situation has been deteriorating. The time-tested strategic arms control mechanisms are being pulled down. The military doctrines that have been approved by some states once more entertain the idea of limited nuclear employment.
These unhealthy trends have been primarily dictated by the wish to consolidate the US global domination over others at any cost and are creating a dangerous illusion that the US will be able to win a nuclear war. Russia for its part is seeking to explain what this behaviour is fraught with.
We are in close contact with other nuclear states and are working to reaffirm this fundamental principle. It is important to keep the world public focused on this topic so that the reality of a nuclear threat is not lost on them.
Question: Now that we have mentioned the UN, experts have been talking about a crisis of the institution of international organisations for a long time. Instead of coordinating the efforts of countries in combating the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organisation had to fend off US accusations that it was working for China. The UN itself came under criticism for its inability to resolve regional crises. How justified is this criticism?
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, we have been hearing frequent critical remarks with regard to the UN lately. The UN is being accused of being unable to quickly respond to emerging challenges and to facilitate a resolution of international crises. Under this pretext, some Western countries are trying to impose alternative decision-making mechanisms on the international community and promote the concept of the so-called rules-based world order.
I completely disagree with this criticism. Despite all difficulties, the UN remains the cornerstone of the postwar world order and a platform that has no alternative, where all countries without exception can discuss and address topical international matters on an equal basis. Moreover, its importance and popularity undoubtedly increase at a time when countries are becoming more interdependent and when the number of trans-border threats continues to increase.
At the same time, the entire international community, namely, UN member countries and members of the UN Family, as well as senior officials of international organisations, are constantly working to adjust them and boost their efficiency. In fact, this process never stops. Today, for example, a large-scale UN development system reform is underway, which is called on to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The WHO has been implementing an administrative reform for many years. It goes without saying that the coronavirus crisis has also brought a number of drawbacks into focus, not so much in the work of the WHO Secretariat but in cooperation between WHO member states and their fulfilment of WHO recommendations.
As we can see, different national healthcare systems coped differently with the coronavirus pandemic under one and the same set of WHO recommendations and agreed-upon international medical and sanitary regulations.
Today, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has launched an independent assessment under a decision by the organisation’s governing body, the World Health Assembly. During this process, specialists will analyse cooperation between member countries in the fight against the pandemic, with the WHO’s coordinating role. Naturally, based on the results of this assessment, they will have to decide how to make international cooperation in global healthcare more effective, including in preventing medical emergencies and responding to them.
The UN Security Council plays a vitally important role in resolving crises. Naturally, its members are having trouble reaching consensus on a number of matters. The main reason for this, as we see it, is the reluctance of some states to renounce the zero-sum game logic in favour of common global interests. However, Security Council members manage to achieve mutually acceptable solutions on an overwhelming majority of matters.
Certainly, the UN is not ideal, but it is the best achievement of the past 75 years in the interests of strengthening international security. Consequently, its critics should channel their energy into a more constructive direction. For example, they should chart ways of further boosting the prestige of the UN and its efficiency.
Question: What UN reform options is Moscow prepared to discuss?
Sergey Lavrov: Russia supports any reasonable initiatives to enhance the UN’s work, provided that they do not violate the “division of labour” between the UN’s main bodies. Notably, we do not deny the need to overhaul the UN Security Council, and we are actively involved in the talks on this matter. At the same time, we are convinced that an expanded UN Security Council should comprise more developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America that implement an independent foreign policy and can therefore make a truly valuable contribution to the UN Security Council’s work and to make it more pluralistic and democratic.
As a UN founding state and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia, together with the countries that share its vision, will continue to contribute to boosting the UN’s efficiency and to strengthening its central coordinating role in world politics. These efforts are acquiring special importance in the context of the UN’s 75th anniversary, being marked this year.
Question: Immediately after the onset of this pandemic, the Foreign Ministry began evacuating Russian citizens from various countries. Where did you encounter the greatest difficulties, how many Russians did you manage to bring home and how many remain?
Sergey Lavrov: Our efforts to bring home those Russians who found themselves stranded and in a predicament abroad due to the coronavirus were often complicated by the strict protective measures adopted by the host countries. Nevertheless, we have worked out a correct and successful algorithm to coordinate the process between Russian agencies and organisations and provide assistance to our fellow citizens. The total number of people evacuated since mid-March is more than 275,000; since the beginning of April, the number has exceeded 67,000. We had difficulties with arranging flights from a number of destinations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where they faced logistical problems associated with planning evacuation routes, sometimes from several capital cities; with obtaining overflight permits and arranging the ground handling of aircraft in a number of states; and with delivering the people to the airports of departure, sometimes from remote islands and regions.
The evacuation flights continue, given that, according to our data, 23,000 of our compatriots still remain abroad.
Question: Has our country provided any material support to those people, so that they can survive for a while away from their homeland?
Sergey Lavrov: The Russian Government adopted Resolution No. 433 on April 3, 2020, to provide Russian citizens stranded abroad, who were entitled upon meeting certain criteria, with state social support (assistance) in the amount of 2,400 roubles per adult and 1,600 roubles per child for every day they had to stay abroad. In a number of exceptional cases, the assistance mechanism was activated in accordance with the Russian Government Resolution No. 370 of May 31, 2010.
Question: How has the pandemic affected the effectiveness of diplomacy? For you personally, have the remote contacts been able to compensate for the lack of conventional meetings with colleagues from other countries? Or can nothing ever replace a live encounter?
Sergey Lavrov: Undoubtedly, the pandemic has dealt a blow to foreign policy affairs, obstructing normal diplomatic activity. But thanks to modern technologies, we have still been able to maintain a good level of political contacts, hold online talks and videoconferences. Still, there is no way these options can replace traditional diplomatic work, where personal contact is very important.
Question: How seriously does the Foreign Ministry take the measures used to prevent coronavirus such as wearing face masks and social distancing?
Sergey Lavrov: We are certainly making every effort to protect the ministry's employees. We strictly adhere to the necessary precautions. About half of the staff are still working remotely.
Question: You travelled to Serbia and Belarus in June, the first countries you actually visited since the beginning of the pandemic – what was the reason for this choice?
Sergey Lavrov: Russian-Serbian relations are of intrinsic value and they are friendly; this friendship has been sealed by a centuries-old chronicle shared by two truly fraternal peoples united by common civilisational and cultural roots, the Orthodox faith, and brotherhood in arms. Russia and Serbia are facing many joint tasks that we are addressing and will be addressing together. Therefore, at the height of the pandemic, Russia offered Serbia the most vigorous assistance in the fight against the spread of infection. It is also quite natural that after Belgrade, I went to Minsk, paying a visit originally planned for May, where an agreement was signed on the mutual recognition of visas within the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Question: After the presidential elections in Belarus, protesters clashed with law enforcement in Minsk and other cities, and Russian journalists were among those detained and injured there. How do you assess this situation, and what is the Foreign Ministry doing to resolve it?
Sergey Lavrov: We have seen how law enforcement agencies, including special forces, act in various countries during social unrest (remember, for example, the yellow vests’ rallies in France, or the anti-globalisation protests in Germany). As for the situation with Russian citizens, we are addressing this matter. This topic has been raised by the Russian ambassador, by our Information and Press Department, and I also mentioned this during a conversation with Minister Makey (head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry) and insisted that our journalists be released as soon as possible. We understand that many of those who were detained did not have accreditation, but at the same time, we also know that they had actually applied for media accreditation in a timely manner and in compliance with the applicable rules and procedures. This situation must be resolved on the basis of humane considerations. And we will make efforts for an early settlement in contact with our Belarusian colleagues.