Kiev has been conducting a special military operation in eastern Ukraine aimed at suppressing the region’s independence supporters since mid-April.
Over 2,000 people have been killed and more than 5,000 injured since the operation started, according to the UN reports. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shared his thoughts on the Ukrainian crisis in an interview.
Minister Lavrov, there has been repeated speculation, particularly in Western media, that Russian troops could be deployed in Ukraine and even that they have already crossed the border into Ukrainian territory. Is such an action possible in your view?
Sergei Lavrov: Unfortunately, mass media continue to spread rumours, distorted information and even outright lies. Recently there were claims by Ukraine that its artillery destroyed an armoured column that had allegedly crossed from Russia into Ukraine, and two British newspapers even said they witnessed the incursion. No evidence, however, was presented, and even the US State Department could not confirm the incident. We view all such stories as part of an information war.
But a real war is happening on the ground. What can Russia do to resolve this crisis?
Sergei Lavrov: Our stand is crystal clear – we want peace in Ukraine which can only be attained through broad national dialogue in which all regions and all political forces of the country must participate.
This is what Russia, the US, the EU and Ukraine have agreed upon in Geneva on 17 April. At a recent meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine in Berlin no one objected to confirming the Geneva Statement. The point is for Kiev to stop war games and to abandon the illusion that the deep crisis in Ukraine can be resolved by winning the war against your own people. It is deeply saddening that the US and the EU continue to blindly support anything Kiev does.
Let’s recall another document which Kiev and the West are trying to forget. On February 21 an agreement on settling the crisis was signed by Yanukovych, Yatsenyuk, Klichko and Tyagnibok and witnessed by Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland. They say now that the agreement “has been superseded by events” because Yanukovych left the country. But let me remind my colleagues that the 21 February agreement listed the commitment to form a government of national unity as number one priority. Does this goal depend on the personality of Yanukovych? Isn’t national unity a universal principle for any country which wants to stay in one piece? Instead of honoring this commitment the then opposition leaders staged an armed coup and publicly declared that they created a “government of the winners”. Unfortunately, the “winner takes it all” logic remains the thrust of Kiev’s actions resulting in thousands of victims among civilians, hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons, as well as almost totally destroyed social infrastructure in many cities and towns in Eastern Ukraine.
There has been much talk of a new Cold War in relations between the West and Russia, with the United States and the European Union having imposed economic sanctions. If they pursue a further hardening of sanctions, how can Russia respond?
Sergei Lavrov: Attempts to settle any crisis by unilateral sanctions outside the framework of the UN Security Council decisions threaten international peace and stability. Such attempts are counterproductive and contradict norms and principles of the international law.
It is absolutely unacceptable to talk to Russia – and to anyone, for that matter - in the language of ultimatums and coercive measures. Our response to unilateral steps by the United States, the EU and some other countries has been balanced and in line with the rights and obligations of Russia under international treaties, including WTO.
But sanctions continue to be threatened and implemented. Will Russia respond to new measures against it?
Sergei Lavrov: It is not at all our choice, but there should be no doubt that we will do whatever is necessary to protect our legitimate interests, including the interests of national security in all its dimensions. That was the basis of our decision to restrict import of agricultural and food products from several states which had adopted sectorial economic sanctions against Russia for the duration of one year.
But Russia does not want to proceed along the road of escalation. We hope that the US, the European Union and others heed to the voice of reason and put an end to these meaningless tit-for-tat vicious circle which they themselves started.
The crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 brought even more horror to the region. How does Russia view the investigation into what happened to the aircraft over eastern Ukraine?
Sergei Lavrov: The downing of the Malaysian plane is a shocking tragedy. Since it happened on 17 July we have been calling for an open and objective international investigation. It is impossible to explain why the Ukrainian authorities, who bear full responsibility for the safety of international flights over the territory of their country, had not closed the airspace over the area of combat.
The Resolution 2166 adopted by the UN Security Council on 21 July provides for a full, thorough and independent investigation into the incident in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines.
Unfortunately, from the very beginning we have been witnessing attempts to conceal evidence and to hinder the implementation of that resolution. The demand for a ceasefire in the area of the crash was ignored by the Ukrainian authorities for more than 10 days, and our proposal to call for full respect of Resolution 2166 was blocked in the Security Council by the US, UK and Lithuania. At the same time those very countries and some others started spreading unfounded accusations against Russia.
Let me reiterate that Russia is fully committed to the international investigation in full compliance with Resolution 2166. We would like to see the International Civil Aviation Organisaton take a more active role in the matter, and we believe that the UN and ICAO should coordinate international efforts to ensure early and convincing results of the investigation. Russia is the only country which officially presented to the international community the data related to the incident as received through our space monitoring capacity. Others are still to provide the evidence they possess.
Do you think all of the evidence related to the crash will be made available so that investigators can establish exactly what happened?
Sergei Lavrov: We formally put forward a number of questions on our part that remain unanswered. For example, where are the transcripts of exchange between the pilots of MH17 and the Ukrainian air controllers and why were they not presented to the international community? Why did the controllers instruct the flight to enter the zone of war conflict? What was a Ukrainian Air Force plane doing in the vicinity of the Malaysian Boeing right before the incident? What is happening to the wreckage at the crash site and why has it not been thoroughly examined by the appropriate international investigating authorities? To what extent can an objective and independent investigation be assured without safe and unimpeded access of experts to the crash site, where Kiev continues its war activity in violation of the UNSC Resolution 2166? And where is the documented evidence of claims by the US officials regarding the causes of the downing of the aircraft?
We hope to get answers to these and other questions both from the states which took the leading role in the international investigation and from those who made unsubstantiated public statements. The truth must be revealed. That was our strong demand at the recent meeting of the UN Security Council while some member States showed little enthusiasm in pursuing the investigation in a transparent and accountable manner.
We must not allow the investigation of MH17 crash to be manipulated into oblivion like it already happened to investigations of many Ukrainian tragedies, including a sniper assault against civilians in Kiev in February, massacres in Odesa and Marioupol in May and others. We are determined to insist on bringing all those who bear responsibility for these crimes to justice.
The cost in human life of this conflict has already been high and tens of thousands of people have been displaced because of the fighting. How do you view the humanitarian situation in Ukraine?
Sergei Lavrov: The humanitarian situation in Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine is catastrophic and continues to deteriorate. And it is not only our view. This assessment is widely shared in the United Nations, including the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in the International Committee of the Red Cross and in the Council of Europe.
More than two thousand people have been killed and over five thousand wounded, many of them children. There is acute shortage of food and medicine and growing risk of outbreaks of infectious deceases. Over 200 thousand people in Luhansk are deprived of electricity, drinking water and means of communication.
A lot of people have fled the area of the conflict. Since 1 April nearly 775 thousand Ukrainian citizens entered the Russian territory, and 190 thousand Ukrainians applied for a refugee status in Russia. Temporary shelters have been put up in our country to accommodate tens of thousands of refugees.
Under these circumstances it is crucial to ensure immediate supply of humanitarian aid to the people of southeastern Ukraine. Humanitarian issues must bring together all people who act in good faith trying to alleviate the suffering of people in dire need – especially women, children and the elderly.
But Russia has been sending aid. What has happened with the humanitarian convoy?
Sergei Lavrov: Russia in cooperation with the ICRC sent a humanitarian convoy of around 300 trucks carrying 2000 tons of medical supplies, food, sleeping bags, power generators and other basic commodities. The convoy was ready to move as early as 17 August, but was delayed primarily due to procrastination tactics employed by Kiev authorities though they had recognized the cargo as humanitarian aid of the ICRC and sent Ukrainian border guards and customs officers to monitor all procedures at the Russian check point Donetsk.
We urge the Ukrainian government to deliver on its promises and to facilitate safe and unhindered passage of future humanitarian assistance. We also hope that our partners in the West and international organizations fully understand the magnitude of the disaster and contribute in practical terms to meeting the basic needs of the civilian population in southeastern Ukraine.
But the central task in the efforts to stop the suffering of civilians in Ukraine remains, of course, in reaching a ceasefire. People are dying, and civilian infrastructure is being destroyed every day. We firmly believe that ceasefire must be unconditional and open the way for serious political dialogue and constitutional reform process with the participation of all regions and all political constituencies of Ukraine, as agreed by the EU, Russia, Ukraine and the US in Geneva Statement of 17 April 2014.