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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shares his stance on everything that has happened in the past year. He sat down with RIA Novosti to discuss the subjects of Russian-NATO relations, the Ukrainian crisis, the Arctic race, the ongoing conflict in Syria and the emergence of the eastern giant - China.

Russia is affected by Western sanctions imposed on Moscow, especially those imposed by Europe. Our partners in the European Union are affected by the countermeasures introduced by Moscow. How efficient is it for Russia to keep the countermeasures in place? Doesn't it seem like Moscow is trying to save face by putting the well-being of Russian citizens at risk?

Sergei Lavrov: Unfortunately, in our relations with the European Union we have reached the point when goodwill gestures are unable to produce the required result. It should be taken into account that the current situation has resulted from Brussels’ policy toward Ukraine, including its support for the coup carried out by ultranationalists in Kiev. This drove Ukraine to the brink of a breakup; it has been embroiled in a fratricidal war since then. Subsequently, the European Union tried to blame Russia for the tragedy in Ukraine. The EU has imposed unilateral sanctions on Moscow. This practice is illegal, condemned by the UN General Assembly and runs contrary to WTO standards. However, the logic of uncoiling the spiral of EU sanctions does not correspond to the development of the Ukrainian crisis.

We have repeatedly stressed that attempts to speak to Russia using the language of ultimatums is totally unacceptable and will yield no results. Our response to these measures was balanced and it took into account Russia’s rights and responsibilities under international treaties, including the WTO.

Russia introduced countermeasures only after Western countries had imposed sanctions on Russia’s major state banks, which are the primary moneylenders in industry and agriculture. By restricting the access of Russian financial institutions to European financial instruments, Brussels has de facto created more favorable conditions for European goods in our domestic market. Consequently, measures to limit food imports from European Union countries are not sanctions. It is our right to defend national economic interests and fight unfair competition. Russia’s actions are justified and legal.

Simultaneously, in the current situation Russia is becoming more determined to conserve resources, modernize industry and become more self-reliant in terms of agricultural products.

We are not going to discuss any criteria for lifting sanctions. Lifting sanctions is the responsibility of those who imposed them. Surely, if the European Union shows common sense, Russia will be ready for constructive dialogue on the issue.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed, even in cases when governments of some countries try to isolate Moscow, Russia will actively foster cooperation, strengthen business, humanitarian, scientific, educational and cultural ties.

The process of Euro-Asian integration has intensified during the course of the previous year. With the West imposing sanctions on Russia and Russia responding to them, the role of Euro-Asian integration and the Eurasian Economic Union grows bigger. According to the information you have, do Belarus and Kazakhstan comply with the obligation to block the import of sanctioned goods from Europe into Russia?

Sergei Lavrov: During the past couple of years, Eurasian economic integration has established itself in our life. The official launch of the Eurasian Economic Union is set for January 1, 2015. The Eurasian Economic Union is based on equality, economic interest and mutual respect. The Union maintains each members' sovereignty and identity, taking integration and cooperation to a new level. It is destined to play a significant role in improving the competitiveness of the national economies of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, as well as stabilizing the whole region.

Regarding the pressure from the West, my colleagues and I agree that these restrictive measures towards Russia are against international law and do not contribute to the improvement of the domestic crisis in Ukraine.

Considering that the Western economic sanctions were aimed at targeting Russia, our retaliatory measures were imposed on a unilateral basis on countries that sanctioned us. The rules and regulations of the Customs Union allow its members to impose trade regulations on third parties only if there has been economic pressure from that country towards any one member of the Customs Union. Despite that rule, the Customs Union at the moment is not considering imposing trade regulations to the West in response to Western sanctions on Russia. The possibility that this might happen in the future remains open, though.

Regarding Belarus and Kazakhstan and their compliance with the import ban of EU goods to Russia: In the conditions of a unified market it is quite difficult to rule out dishonest actions by western economic agents, who could profit by smuggling banned goods into Russia. In the meantime, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan assure us that they will prevent such actions. We have no reasons to doubt this. We are satisfied with their cooperation and are grateful for the provided assistance.

The growth of economic pressure on Russia and our retaliatory measures open new horizons for augmenting trade possibilities within the Customs Union. We are ready to help Kazakhstan and Belarus occupy niches in the Russian market that had become vacant as a result of the myopic Western policy. It's evident that Minsk and Astana will take advantage of the emerging possibilities.

Difficult relations with Western countries let many experts to talk about a certain turn in Russia's foreign policy and its foreign trade to the East. China is obviously a principal partner in this area. Is there no fear that dependence on China will become too strong and that Beijing could take advantage of this?

Sergei Lavrov:  Our country is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy, as stated in the new edition of Concept of the Foreign Policy of Russian Federation, approved by the President in February 2013. We are ready to develop mutual and equal relations with all those who show an oncoming willingness to do that. Putin has repeatedly stated that interaction with the Asia-Pacific region is a strategic priority for us throughout the 21 century, and that Russia, as an Asia-Pacific power, will take full advantage of the enormous potential of the region's rapid development, including the development of the Far East and Eastern Siberia. Thus, we are interested to be actively involved in the integration processes of the region. At the same time, we would like to do this not as an alternative to relations with the EU, but simultaneously with their intensification.

Our relations with China are not of an opportunistic nature and are not directed against anyone. We are the two largest states, which historically live in close proximity. In October we marked the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. Russian-Chinese relations have since come a long way, steadily developing over the past twenty years. The most important milestones are normalization in the late eighties, the establishment of a strategic partnership and cooperation in the nineties, and the signing and successful implementation of the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation.

In the second decade of the 21st century, our relations have reached a new level — a comprehensive, equitable and trustful partnership and strategic interaction. This formula includes an intensive deepening of political contacts, practical cooperation and cooperation in the international arena. As the leaders of our countries have repeatedly pointed out, relations between Russia and China are currently the best in their entire history.

The reason for such successful development is rooted in the fact that it is based on the mutual consideration of interests, mutual respect, equality, and non-interference in internal affairs. These are — in every sense — mutually beneficial relations, in which there are no seniors and juniors, leaders and followers. The course of Russian-Chinese relations takes into account the core interests of the two nations and we have no plans to change it.

The highest level of confidence promotes further progress in all areas. In May this year, President Putin paid an official visit to the People's Republic of China. The negotiations were followed by the signing of the Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China on a new phase of our comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation. About fifty agreements were signed in the course of the meeting. Moreover, a solid package of documents was signed following a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on the eve of the APEC forum in November.

The "receptacle" of the outgoing year includes the final stage of an agreement for a 30-year annual supply of 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China through the eastern sector of the Russian-Chinese border and the signing of a framework agreement for the supply of an additional 30 billion cubic meters through the western sector. New horizons of energy dialogue are connected with prospects of liquid gas supplies from Russia to China. Chinese partners have become involved in a large-scale project "Yamal LNG"; they are members of the Vankor project. This is the result of years of hard work on both sides.

Obviously, if the relationship between other countries resembled the Russian-Chinese, it would only benefit international stability and security.

In future the Russian-Chinese relationship looks positive. We are sure that the multi-faceted bilateral cooperation will further deepen progressively, benefiting our peoples, regardless of any short-term fluctuations in the political sphere.

Following elections in Ukraine, you mentioned that you are determined to meet your Ukrainian counterpart. When will this meeting take place? Do you perceive the current Kiev authorities as a partner in negotiations, committed to solving the Ukrainian crisis?

Sergei Lavrov:  We are open to constructive dialogue. I have always tried to maintain working relations with Ukrainian counterparts. We discuss current issues, including implementation of agreements, reached during high level talks.

At the moment, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is our main partner in seeking a resolution to the conflict in the southeast of the country. Poroshenko’s peace plan and corresponding initiatives, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, have become the foundation of the Minsk agreements. Their implementation is key to solving the crisis. Poroshenko has repeatedly stated that armed hostilities in Donbas cannot break out again. Russia hopes that his words will be backed by real steps to ease tensions and establish lasting peace in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as launch an inclusive political dialogue in Ukraine.

The Contact Group on Ukraine, scheduled to meet in the coming days, will discuss a plan developed by military experts. It outlines specific steps to implement the Minsk agreements. Russia hopes the plan will be put into effect.

Russia believes that the new Ukrainian cabinet of ministers, formed after the snap parliamentary elections held on October 26, will also contribute to the process of tackling the crisis.

Russia will continue to assist Ukraine. Moscow has lately provided $32.5 – $33.5 billion to the country. Russia will continue to contribute to creating a favorable climate to tackle the major challenges Ukrainian people face.

Does Moscow support the territorial integrity of Ukraine? Armed conflict still endures in Eastern Ukraine and the humanitarian situation in the region is far from being stable. Under these conditions is there a possibility to officially recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’ independence? What will be the “Red Line”, after which the recognition of the two provinces is possible?

Sergei Lavrov:  In his speech last week, Vladimir Putin stressed that every nation has the inalienable right to self-determination and the sovereign right to choose its own path of development, and Russia would always respect the choice. This fully applies to the Ukrainian nation.

It is obvious that without mutually acceptable arrangements to settle a domestic crisis within the country by the Ukrainians themselves, it will be impossible to reach any agreement. The need for an all-encompassing national dialogue, in which all regions and political factions could participate, was documented in an agreement from February 21, a declaration in Geneva made by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and European Union on April 17, as well as the Minsk Agreement of September 5. The internal Ukrainian dialogue should discuss issues of the national constitution, which would guarantee inclusion, safety and respect for human rights of all Ukrainian citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin, and make sure that radicalism and nationalism is stopped in its tracks.

In our opinion, the lack of a balanced constitutional system in Ukraine that takes into account the interests of various regions and all of the nation's ethnic and language groups had caused the political cataclysms that have been shaking the foundations of the Ukrainian state for many years.

We are convinced that the purpose and goal of a new draft law on amendments to the Ukrainian constitution should not be merely a cosmetic revision of the previous texts, but rather the emergence of a carefully revised and updated constitution, which would be perceived by the multiethnic Ukrainian society as a legitimate long-term document and the legal basis for the state governed by the rule of law that guarantees the equality of all regions and ethnic groups. We will try to ensure that this will be successfully performed.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics had their elections on November 2. As a result of the election, local administrative authorities were formed. According to public statements coming from the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Donbas republics are ready to collaborate with the government in Kiev to work on economic, social and political issues. In response, Kiev implemented a blockade of the eastern regions, cutting them off from the state’s financial system. Earlier, President Poroshenko proposed to revoke the Verkhovna Rada’s Law, which provides special rights to the local governments of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Such steps will only increase distrust between the two sides.

We would like to recall that during the Minsk talks, representatives from Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk agreed not only to the armistice, but also to implement so-called “postwar” development of the Donbas region. The Minsk Agreement confirmed the need for the adoption of a series of measures to improve the humanitarian situation in the Donbas region, the development of an economic plan and the recovery of socio-political sectors. Russia, as the co-facilitator of the Minsk Agreement, intends to take an active role in the implementation of these conditions.

How do you assess the work of the OSCE observer mission in the conflict zone in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions? How effective and impartial is it?

Sergei Lavrov: The role of OSCE in regulating the situation in Ukraine was discussed in detail during the meeting of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Basel on December 4-5.

Let me remind you that the decision to establish the special monitoring mission OSCE in Ukraine by the governmental participants in March was in light of the urgent requirement to de-escalate the increasing tension inside the country.

The observers were required to monitor the security situation and rapidly inform government participants in case of possible incidents of human rights violations, including the rights of minority nationals. Without a doubt, the fact that a significant number of international observers were present on Ukrainian soil, according to our estimates, played a stabilizing role. At the same time, frankly, we expected more. The result of their work and input in regulating the Ukrainian crisis directly depends on fairness and adequacy of their assessments of what is happening in Ukraine. It must be noted that in some situations the observers lack hardness and integrity.

The observers managed to not notice the widespread use of Ukrainian military heavy weapons and prohibited ammunition against civilians, and the targeted destruction of vital facilities in the cities of the southeast.

The information on the humanitarian situation in Donbas is heavily altered. The coverage of Odessa and Mariupol was given blurry coverage; it was almost neglected. The same went for airstrikes on Luhansk, the systematic destruction of Slavyansk, the facts of unjustified detentions, and the beatings and killings of Russian journalists. But the militia movements and their military equipment were given deliberate nonstop attention and excessive coverage.

All of us understand the situation in which the observers have to act. It is not just the immense political pressure from Kiev and its Western curators.

The lives of OSCE observers are under threat; their immunity, as it turned out, is only nominally guaranteed by Kiev. We are forced to once again remind the leadership of Ukraine of the commitments taken in regard to OSCE to ensure the safety of all employees of the monitoring mission.

A sharp decline in Russian-American relations has become one of the main results of the year. Some experts say that these relations are close to the Cold War level. How correct is this assessment, in your opinion? What is needed to improve them and is Russia ready to make the first move?

Sergei Lavrov: In the address to the Federal Assembly President Vladimir Putin underscored that policies of containment toward our country were not invented yesterday – every time someone thinks that Russia becomes too strong, independent, these instruments are quickly put into use.

Problems in our relations with the US had started to accrue before the Ukrainian crisis, what is more – not through our fault. We can recall, for example, the notorious Magnitsky Act passed in 2012. But what has been going on since the beginning of this year is even more dispiriting. The White House has set a course for confrontation, blaming Russia for all sins in connection with the Ukrainian crisis that they had provoked to a significant extent.

On a practical level, Washington wound down the bilateral dialogue concerning the majority of issues back in Spring, including freezing the activity of the crated in 2009 Presidential Commission whose task groups dealt with, above all else, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking. Simultaneously sanctions contradicting international law and WTO regulations were imposed; they have already hit 50 Russian nationals, 47 companies and banks. All this is accompanied with Washington’s aggressive utterances including leveling Russia, along with ISIL and Ebola virus, as a primary global threat.

Such rhetoric can indeed cause certain associations. But the times when international relations were defined by one or several superpowers have passed. In the modern world, where several independent centers of power operate, attempts to isolate some of the leaders or impose one’s own unilateral recipes from a position of “exceptionalism”, which the US has taken, is futile.

Yet despite all disagreements on Ukraine, Americans inform us about their willingness to cooperate in resolving pressing global problems, generally work on a “positive agenda” in the relations. Truth be told, these right words and appeals exist in parallel reality with the practical deeds of Washington that have unfriendly character. This is partially connected with wavering internal political conjuncture in the US, including the current tasks of election campaigns.

As president Putin noted, talking with Russia from a position of strength is useless. We remember that the current decline in relations between our countries is not the first one. Time after time violent eruptions of rusophobic emotions in Washington were later changed by the sobering understanding that cooperation is much better. Especially considering a possible result of discord between nuclear superpowers on global security and strategic stability.

For our part, we are always open to a constructive and fair political dialogue with the USA in both international affairs and on the global stage where our countries bear a special responsibility for global security and stability. The question is when will Washington be ready to cooperate on principles of true equality and take Russian interests into account, which we will never abandon under any circumstances.

As for the highest level contacts, they have not been stopped. President Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have met three times met this year, including at the recent summits of APEC in Beijing and G20 in Brisbane. Besides, they talked ten times on the phone, and these conversations were quite long and were mainly initiated by the White House. Moreover, there has been no lack of conversation between US State Secretary John Kerry and myself – we have had 16 comprehensive meetings, including one on December 4 on the sidelines of the OECD Ministerial Council meeting in Basel, not to mention dozens of phone conversations.

Russia and the US are the initiators and leaders of the global process of disarmament, in particular nuclear. The two countries have a range of important agreements in the field – the INF and START treaties. Does the dramatic cooling in relations pose a threat to the implementation of the agreements?

Sergei Lavrov: It has to be clear that there is no direct connection between the cooling of Russian-US relations and the implementation of arms control agreements.

The START treaty is, of course, useful because it matches our interests and contributes to the enhancement of strategic stability, in whole. There are no special difficulties with its implementation, and technical issues are solved by a special bilateral commission.

At the same time, we remind and will continue to remind our American colleagues about the wording in the preamble to the treaty, which states a relatively inextricable connection between offensive and defensive arms. In his address to the Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that the ongoing persevering efforts to create a global US missile defense system pose threats not only to Russia’s security, but also to the entire world, because of a possible imbalance in strategic forces. We warn that we will have to take adequate measures at a certain stage of the creation of the US missile defense system. Russia has no intention to drift into a costly arms race; however, we will surely maintain the defense capacity of our country.

As for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in July, the US started to accuse Russia of its breach without any reason. But the US has provided no evidence so far. What is more, the US does not clearly answer our questions on its commitment to the spirit and letter of the document. For example, contrary to the agreement, the US plans to start deploying missile defense launchers in Romania and Poland next year, which can be used for launching offensive middle-range cruise missiles, such as Tomahawks. Unfortunately, Washington pretends not to see Russia’s concerns.

We believe that the issue over the agreement should be solved through diplomatic channels, as opposed to through "megaphone diplomacy."

Russian-NATO relations have suffered considerably over the past year, rolling back practically to zero, if not worse. Is Russia’s ceremonial presence in NATO (permanent mission) and NATO’s presence in Russia (information center) worthwhile in these conditions?

Sergei Lavrov: The alliance continues its course toward containing Russia; steps are being taken to strengthen military potential with the consequent boosting of the bloc’s military capacity at Russia’s borders. A decision has been made to suspend practical cooperation with our country along military and civilian lines. Such actions, undoubtedly, contribute to the growing tensions and undermine stability in the Euro-Atlantic region.

Despite this, we consider it necessary to keep channels for political dialog open. The actions of Russia’s permanent representative in NATO are aimed to achieve this task.

As for NATO’s information center in Moscow, it performs its activities in accordance with provisions of the Fundamental Russia-NATO Pact, which our country strictly complies with. At this time we see no reasons to review our position on this.

Washington’s aggressive rhetoric in regard to Tehran is gradually moderating; the Times have recently reported of alleged ‘clandestine negotiations’ around the possible opening of a US representational office in Iran. How would you evaluate the prospects of the US-Iran dialogue; will they reflect on  Tehran-Moscow relations and how will they contribute to the Iranian nuclear talks?

Sergei Lavrov: Regarding the possible opening of a US representation office in Iran you’d better ask the Americans and, of course, the Iranians. On our part, we have always spoken in support of normalization in American-Iranian relations, as the prolonged crisis in their mutual relations does not benefit the interest of both nations.

In our view, a full-scale political dialogue between Tehran and Washington, including on matters of regional security, is long overdue. We believe that better relations between these two nations would contribute to stability in and outside the Middle East, spur a solution to the issues regarding Iran's nuclear program, and boost the efficiency of efforts directed against international terrorism and drug-related threats.

Within the ongoing talks around the Iranian nuclear program, negotiators from both Washington and Tehran are sustaining active talks, providing rapprochements on a wide variety of issues on their way toward a final resolution. On our part, we support any measure that brings us closer to the comprehensive agreement.

In a recent interview to American media Russia’s PM Dmitry Medvedev spoke of evidence that suggested the US no longer intends to oust the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but is instead trying to find opportunities for separate negotiations with Damascus, including the fight against Islamic State (IS) terrorists. Is Russia able to contribute to such contacts and has Moscow been addressed by the Americans with a corresponding request? Is Moscow ready to consider the UNSC resolution on countering IS in case such document is brought into discussion? Under which circumstances will Russia support it?

Sergei Lavrov: First of all, I would like to say that Washington has never seen us as a direct member of the anti-IS coalition, which it created in accordance with its own rules and parameters, without a backward glance at international law. Moreover, President Obama has repeatedly put Russia on the list of global threats in line with IS and Ebola virus. Against such a background, the timely pleads of other US representatives to 'unite efforts' against IS terrorists carry little conviction.

The US did not address us with a plea to provide a contact with Damascus. Quite the opposite, it is our constant calling on them to not neglect the Syrian authorities that is countering IS. However, Washington stubbornly insists that the US ‘cannot in principle’ recognize the ‘legitimacy’ of the Bashar Assad regime, even indirectly. They continue demonizing Assad while retaining their right to apply force anywhere, anytime, on a unilateral basis. This is why the Obama administration did not apply to the UNSC when forming the anti-IS coalition.

I don’t think there is a need for our mediation in contacts between Damascus and the Americans. During the period of sharp escalation in Syria in August 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry phoned the Syrian FM Walid Moallem. There are also other opportunities for direct contacts.

Russia is known as actively proposing the consolidation of international efforts in countering terrorism and extremism, including in the Middle East. This is evidenced, among others, by our role in adopting UNSC Resolutions 2170 and 2178. We also insist that such efforts should be universalist and complex in nature, based on international law and legitimate mechanisms.

It is impossible to lead a war on terrorism within the territory of a foreign nation without checking with its legitimate authorities.

Otherwise this may trigger an adverse effect, the consequences of which will be reflected on Middle-Eastern nations. We have seen this in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya.

According to experts, international tension resulted in the stirring up of the “Arctic Race”. Here, Russia is one of the recognized leaders. On what stage is the UN’s consideration of Russia’s claim to expand the borders of Russia’s continental shelf? When could a decision be made, and what are, in your opinion the chances of success?

Sergei Lavrov: The “Arctic Race” cannot exist in principle. International law on Arctic waters clearly determines the rights of both coastal arctic and other states. This includes access to developing extraction of mineral resources, oil and gas deposits, as well as managing marine biological stocks. International law also regulates the ability of countries to expand the external border of their continental shelf. Today’s complicated international situation does not create any significant changes to the established order.

Remember, Russia, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, submitted a request regarding the continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for the first time back in 2001. At this time there is a great array of additional scientific data to substantiate Russia’s claim, the filing process of which is being concluded. The request will be made in the next several months. It can sometimes take as long as five years for the Commission to study a request and prepare a recommendation. Considering the high quality of evidence that supports Russia’s request, we have all reasons to believe that it has a high chance of success.

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