Interview: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Bolton’s visit to Moscow

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov/BBC

Question: Why did US National Security Adviser John Bolton come to Moscow?
Sergey Lavrov: To talk. There are many matters we need to discuss. We appreciate it that it is US National Security Adviser John Bolton who is especially proactive regarding ties with his colleagues in #Moscow.
Question: Is this a joke?
Sergey Lavrov: Not at all. Actually, we have meetings with Mr #Bolton more often than with our other colleagues. He was here in July, and now he is back again. In between, he met with Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai #Patrushev in Geneva. We believe that it is important when such a high-ranking official takes interest in the practical matters on our bilateral agenda.
Question: But it is surprising that only the US National Security Adviser meets with Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Defence Minister Sergey #Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergey #Lavrov and President Vladimir #Putin. Are there no other officials in the US administration? Can only Mr Bolton take the responsibility?
Sergey Lavrov: I do not know what is taking place there. This situation is probably indicative of something. Maybe they have divided the responsibilities or have decided that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will be responsible for North Korea, primarily the preparations for the next summit. Nobody else appears to be deeply involved with foreign policy. Defence Secretary James Mattis and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu met on the sidelines of the ASEAN events in Singapore, where they shook hands and expressed readiness to communicate. End of story.
Question: However, you had a meeting with US National Security Adviser John Bolton. You have known him well for quite a few years I think?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we first met in the late 1990s, when I was still working in Moscow before my appointment to New York. I was a director of the department of international organisations– they were called directorates back then, while Mr Bolton was responsible for matters related to the UN at the State Department. Later we met at the UN when I was Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN and he was an Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
Question: He delivered bad news in 2001 when he told us that the Americans were pulling out of the ABM Treaty.
Sergey Lavrov: This does not mean that the messenger is to blame. The decision was made by the US administration. In reply to our warning of the dangers of pulling out of the ABM Treaty, US President George W. Bush told President of Russia Vladimir Putin that this decision is not spearheaded against us and that they do not see us as a threat. They said that if we decided we should take any response measures as well, they would not consider them to be spearheaded against the United States either. This is how it all began.
During a meeting with the National Security Advisor to the US President, President Vladimir Putin said, when the discussion turned to arms control, that this fairly bad cycle started with the US leaving the ABM Treaty, which forced us to start manufacturing weapons to ensure parity and this precluded the deployment of the US global missile defence system to jeopardise our security and the very existence of our strategic nuclear deterrent forces. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty has not yet been officially announced, but the intention was expressed. We could see from the talks in Moscow, including during President Putin’s meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, that this decision has been made and will be formalised either very soon, or 30-45 days from now. Then, the six-month countdown will begin, which is stipulated by the INF Treaty, and after the six months following the official submission of the termination document, the treaty ceases to be valid for the initiating party and the other party. We discussed this openly and pragmatically, without emotions. Indeed, this is a negative development, and the President said as much several times yesterday in other speeches. At the news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the President said that it would be bad if the current sentiment in the US administration affects, first, withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and second, makes the parties to the START Treaty, which expires in 2021, wonder whether they should renew it or not.

Should this scenario materialise, there will be no legal framework for curbing an arms race.

When he talks about the arms race, President Putin always emphasises that we will be forced to respond to adverse changes in the strategic situation. However, we will never do so using the costly methods the Soviet Union did, which went to the extreme, severely undermining its economic and financial resources.
Question: You and John Bolton talked for 90 minutes. He has not brought you any olives. We have not received any olives from the olive branch the American eagle is holding.
Sergey Lavrov: Actually, we prefer gherkins to olives.
Question: I cannot imagine John Bolton bringing us any gherkins.What can be the subject of a 90-minute long conversation with a person who built his career on the assumption that nothing must be allowed to contain the military potential of the United States, and who has always been against all these treaties?
Sergey Lavrov: You should talk with anyone who holds his post, who is trusted by his superiors and who pursues their line. It is rumoured that John Bolton played a key role in convincing President Donald Trump to withdraw from this arms control treaty. I do not know about the inner workings in Washington. Still, I believe that Secretary of State Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mattis were involved in this discussion. This is obvious to me. It is a fact that the decision has been taken and is being implemented. I repeat that the situation was discussed in the Kremlin without any undue emotions; we did not talk about who had set the ball rolling. We are grownup people who know that our opinion concerning the situation differs from that of the Americans, who say that the main reason for their decision is our failure to comply with the INF Treaty.
Question: You have even supplied them with the technical specifications of the missile.
Sergey Lavrov: It has been said for years that a missile specified as the 9M729 has been tested for use at a range that is prohibited under the INF Treaty. They have been telling us about this for years. Initially, they did not even identify the class of the missile they were referring to, saying simply that we have allegedly tested it and that we must tell them why we did this and stop doing this. Since then, we kept asking for facts in all possible formats, including at the Special Verification Commission that was established to monitor the sides’ compliance with the treaty. If they are sure that we flight-tested a missile in violation of range specifications, this can only mean that their satellites have spotted the missile’s flight. We wanted to see the photographs to see what they meant. In this manner we fought for each little minor detail. First they gave the missile’s number. Then they said we held two tests, told us the days when these tests took place, and said that they had been launched from Kapustin Yar.
A week ago, barely a few days before the Americans announced their decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty they had sent us, through their embassy in Moscow, a long list of questions of concern to them.

We received the list, at long last, in reply to our request that they tell us about their concerns and why they think we violated the Treaty.

We have forwarded the list to the Defence Ministry and other Russian agencies, which are to analyse the list and prepare an answer in response to the Americans’ concerns.
Question: It took them several years after your first request for such a list? Are they slow thinkers?
Sergey Lavrov: Maybe they fear that the provision of this information would compromise their sources. I am not involved with these matters professionally; I can only speculate. But it appears that several days after sending us a list of detailed questions to which we could respond in any way –

we have started preparing our answers, they announced that they are withdrawing from the treaty, list or no list. This does not facilitate a stable dialogue and predictability.

Question: Considering the Foreign Ministry’s fantastic openness and your readiness to answer any question, why wasn’t there any news conference this time? Journalists were not allowed to attend.
Sergey Lavrov: How do we always act in such situations? We suggest a traditional plan to our guests: first, we show them how the talks begin, followed by the talks themselves and afterwards a meeting for the press. John Bolton was the guest of Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and he spent an entire day with him. They, too, had no contacts with the press, except filming and photographing his arrival. Nevertheless, considering the tremendous interest of the Russian media, as regards Mr Bolton’s talks in Moscow, we suggested to him starting the dinner (the format of the meeting) in armchairs in our mansion’s hall, exchanging introductory remarks and probably responding to the remarks of correspondents, as is customary in the United States. They are invited before the talks, and they can shout something like: “Mr President, what do you think? …” This happens often.
Question: Yes, I remember, someone shouted something to you, and you cut her short.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t remember that. Yes, this probably happened during talks with Rex Tillerson.
Question: We have written down all the moves.
Sergey Lavrov: Maybe, you will remind me later on. This time, they asked us to avoid any verbal and visual contact, except filming how Mr Bolton enters our mansion; and this is exactly what we did. It took us 90 minutes because, apart from dinning, we, first of all, noted that it was necessary to promote the presidents’ agreements somehow. During his news conference on the results of the talks, Mr Bolton agreed to work on the matter of terrorism and to see what we can do to maintain cybersecurity; he also said it would be necessary to establish a business council. All these three aspects were coordinated in Hamburg 18 months ago, in July, on the sidelines of the G20 summit when presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump first met and had a lengthy conversation.
Unfortunately, we made no headway on terrorism, cybersecurity and the business council until the last few minutes when Mr Bolton confirmed that President Trump wanted to implement all this, and that we will work on this. We welcome this, but we want to prevent a situation like the one that shaped up after Hamburg and Helsinki when the Washington administration disavowed a principled agreement on a number of important matters (that is, not some specific agreement but merely an agreement to reactivate channels for examining various topics), although President Trump supported such approaches. We will see how everything works out this time.
Returning to the subject of strategic stability, participants at the Kremlin meeting also noted that Russia and the US had perceived dialogue on all its aspects to be very topical, as confirmed by Mr Bolton’s visit. As you can see, the ABM Treaty has been terminated, all our attempts to streamline some coherent dialogue with the United States and NATO, even though such a treaty is lacking, so far meet with no response, the INF Treaty will soon be terminated, and the future of the START 3 agreement remains unclear. In this connection, speaking to what extent deeds meet words or vice versa, I recall a proposal to resume the format of strategic dialogue at the level of deputy foreign ministers. I would like to point out that, in June, my deputy, Sergey Ryabkov, sent this proposal to new US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson. Since June, she has been unable to clarify specific dates for holding such consultations. I asked Mr Bolton to help answer this question more quickly. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also promised me to do this when we talked to each other in Helsinki, and later spoke by phone in August. I reminded him about this in September, at a meeting of foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Perhaps, Mr Pompeo’s hands are tied by other urgent affairs. Therefore I hope that Mr Bolton will send such a message, no matter what.
As I already said, we did not take any offence. To be honest, holding on to resentment hurts no one but you. President Vladimir Putin has said very clearly that we understand that this is their decision, and that we are unable to influence these decisions. We have voiced our arguments, and we hope that they kept our arguments in mind while making their decision.

But if they are deciding to scrap all international documents in the field of arms control in such a way, they should say what they are planning to do in this sphere.

It would be pointless to act in an uncontrolled and non-transparent manner when one party would once again be unaware of the other party’s actions. Mr Bolton has said “No,” and that they realise the need for transparency here, as well as a certain degree of trust and predictability. As for the INF Treaty, they are asking why it is impossible to involve China, India, Pakistan and Iran in this process.
Question: And didn’t they want to ask China, India, Pakistan and Iran about this?
Sergey Lavrov: This is what we told them. Eight, nine or, maybe, even ten years ago, between 2007and 2008, together with the United States we submitted a proposal to the UN. We suggested that all countries in possession of shorter-range and medium-range missiles join the INF Treaty and make it universal. We received a negative response. Frankly speaking, we expected nothing else, but we wanted to take advantage of all the opportunities for universalising the Treaty. Today, we told Mr Bolton that, in any event, it is necessary to discuss control in the area of strategic and non-strategic arms of any country with the relevant state.
Question: Actually, John Bolton said he had only brought the arrows, not any olives. President Putin says the Americans keep pressuring us while we do not respond in any manner, and that time is needed to calm down and come to one’s senses. US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker has said that Russia will see additional sanctions come into play every month or two months. There are lingering problems with our consulates and embassy offices in the United States. They have not returned our property to us, and the situation is unclear. What do we expect them to do? They are pulling out of all the agreements. They do not even like the mail. What can this mean, actually? Are we just watching, wondering what else they will do?
Sergey Lavrov: No, we are not forcing friendship on them. We know that they are the largest power on the planet. We would like to have normal businesslike relations based on mutual respect with all countries, including the United States. We have sent ideas on developing mutual relations to the United States more than once. This was done at the level of the President, the Secretary of State and the Security Council Secretary. They know that we are willing. We are willing to discuss any issues in our bilateral relations, as well as serious international matters, and that we are willing to do this based on equality and mutual respect. If there is any area where the Americans are willing to talk with us equally and respectfully, we are ready for this. We have asked them to outline issues of interest to them. They have indicated an interest in strategic stability in this situation. They do not want us to have distorted expectations of their practical actions. Vladimir Putin asked John Bolton directly what they planned to do, because we remember what took place in Europe in the 1980s and the outcome of those actions, with Pershing and Pioneer missiles. That class of missiles was later destroyed, but this reduced Europe to a nervous wreck.
Question: They are nervous again this time.
Sergey Lavrov:

The Europeans are getting nervous. We can see their reaction [to the news]. My German colleagues, Heiko Maas, phoned me yesterday to express their concerns.

When we worked on the INF Treaty and the Pershing missiles were removed [from Europe], the negotiations involved all NATO countries. Many NATO members say now that the future of the INF Treaty should be discussed with them as well. I do not know what they will do about this at NATO, but John Bolton, for one, has said openly that the United States is primarily focused on Asia where it would like to compensate for the ‘unfair’ lack of intermediate- and shorter-range weapons there.
As you know, Washington mentioned China when it made public its intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty back before Bolton’s visit.
Question: Yes, it did, but there are some questions left, especially for the Americans who change their position all too frequently.
Sergey Lavrov: I agree.
Question: Well, I understand this. Is John Bolton going to do anything to return our US diplomatic property to us? To make sanctions at least a bit sensible, to have some logic? Is he going to drop his questions on “Russia’s interference” in the election and speak about their interference in our election? Or is it more like he comes, doesn’t listen to anyone, states his position, smiles beneath his grey moustache and leaves?
Sergey Lavrov: Reddish, I would say (laughs). I believe they understand that this situation is not normal. We have said this many times to Michael Pompeo, and I repeated to John Bolton that we should take elementary steps (forget sanctions for now, it is a different topic, and in any case we will find ways to minimise their damage and end our dependence on what we are blackmailed with), we have to make it comfortable for diplomats to work again: to stop sending both countries’ diplomats away, issue diplomatic visas in time instead of postponing this for months as is happening now at the initiative of our US colleagues (we are responding reciprocally, of course) and look at the property situation. We should at least begin by allowing Russian diplomats in the US and US diplomats in Russia to visit the seized or expropriated facilities, whatever they call them. They will think about it. We have made a proposal and now it is for them to decide.
Of course, we have spoken about visas for citizens who are not diplomats; for those who want to visit the US and Russia as tourists, scientists, athletes, as part of exchanges and so on. Now Russian citizens have to wait up to 300 days for an interview in Moscow and Yekaterinburg and 50 days in Vladivostok, which is way too long. Our US colleagues say that they had to send all consular employees away. We did not demand that and asked them whether this means that only those trying to interfere in our domestic affairs are left? Because we have seen US diplomats at the opposition’s public events many times, including the informal opposition with its calls for regime change and so on.
Our US colleagues continue to try to brush it all off as a joke, and say that relations will normalise and “everything will be alright” but nothing in response to clear examples of interference. We respond that we don’t just have suspicions about them, but also about their Ukraine Support Act passed in 2015. According to it, the US Department of State is ordered, not advised, to spend $20 million per year to promote democracy in Russia, including by financing Russian nongovernmental organisations that speak in favour of “democratising” all spheres of life. This law exists. Although the Americans acknowledge it, they try not to interfere. All the organisations that receive funding under this law are being checked right now. Of course, if these grants are used for what is envisaged by the law, that is “promoting democracy” in Russia, it means changing Russia’s domestic policy.
Question: Not because we are not democratic. We are democratic, just not in the US way.
Sergey Lavrov: Exactly. There was a funny moment when John Bolton mentioned the interference during his dinner with me. I told him that Russia was not only accused of interference in the US, Spain (Catalonia) and Brexit, but also of everything that is happening in the Western Balkans: we “tried to stage a coup” in Montenegro. It is funny that we were bluntly criticised for our “attempts” to do the same in Macedonia and prevent that country from voting to join NATO and the EU based on twisted wording of the referendum’s question that goes against Macedonian laws.
We found examples that we remained silent on while the Macedonian referendum was being prepared, and that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and representatives of the European Commission visited Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, at the time to publicly and bluntly demand that Macedonian voters choose their future, say “yes” in the referendum to join NATO and the European Union by “only” changing their country’s name. This sly phrase violates many things; moreover, according to Macedonian law, only one question may be put to a referendum, when there were three.
Later, after this referendum fell short of the required turnout and failed, several days ago the Macedonian parliament voted to initiate the procedure to change the constitution, nine votes were lacking (because the opposing party voted against it), and it was publicly acknowledged in Macedonia that they were obtained partly by blackmail and partly by promises not to investigate. And three deputies were even released from arrest. They only needed several more votes, and, according to them, there were some mischievous deputies who were stirring the pot. They were locked in their offices, and their mobiles were taken away. The US ambassador was in the parliament building all the time, and he was not simply present there. I told John Bolton all this, and he chuckled and said that “it is a very difficult country.”
Question: Good answer. I see. And a very short question in closing. You have been engaging with the US political elite for many years. Now we are in a very difficult period and many things depend on personal contacts and the quality of the Western elite. What are they like compared with their predecessors?
Sergey Lavrov: Different. There is a rule that my own observations support: of course, they are motivated to promote the party line, including literally the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, and the party line if they work for the Administration.
There are people who will publicly follow the party line even if it has an anti-Russian angle, but then in private conversations try to come to an agreement on how to resolve crises in some areas. There also are others who speak harshly both in public and during direct contacts. However, in many cases, I would even say that in most cases, when they retire and begin their academic careers, they change and use their experience of interacting with us, if nothing else, to analyse the situation and in their work at think tanks; they become more objective and motivated to seek out agreement between such countries as Russia and the US.

Better late than never. Still I believe that US society is not interested in Russophobia. It is being aggressively foisted on them through fabrication, false accusations and fake news about Russia; but the society is beginning to realise that this is all artificial pressure and that it would be better to have simple, honest negotiations with Russia on equal terms. We don’t have to claim to be friends.

If John Bolton’s visit and talks with President Vladimir Putin result in an understanding that we must get back on the same page on the dialogue on strategic stability and look for some new vehicle for agreement on the current situation as part of this dialogue, it would be really positive.

Credits: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the Minister and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.

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