Sergey Lavrov: The Interview

An “absolutely artificial hysterical situation was created” in U.S.-Russia relations—but not quite yet a Cold War.

Paul Saunders, associate publisher of the National Interest, interviewed Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, March 24, 2017, in Moscow. Their wide-ranging and blunt conversation, which lasted over an hour, covered topics from Ukraine and Syria to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the future of U.S.-Russia cooperation.

Question: I’d like to start by asking you about your forthcoming meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; we’ve read in the press that the two of you may be meeting soon.

Sergey Lavrov: So they say.

Question: Could you perhaps tell us about your expectations and goals in dealing with Secretary Tillerson?

Sergey Lavrov: Well, after the American election, soon after Election Day President Putin and President-elect Trump talked over the phone. It was a good but very general discussion touching upon the key issues in our relations, and of course the key international issues. And they agreed that they would continue being in touch, and after the inauguration they talked again, and they reconfirmed the need to look for ways which would be effective in handling international problems. And of course to see what could be done to bring the bilateral relations to normalcy. They also agreed that Mr. Rex Tillerson and I would look into the agenda in some more details, and would also discuss the preparation for the presidential meeting which should take place when both countries, both leaders feel comfortable.

And we met with Rex in mid-February in Bonn on the margins of the G-20 ministerial meeting, and covered quite a lot of the bilateral agenda. I briefed him about the relationship on bilateral issues with the Obama administration, the problems which accumulated during that period. We did not go into the substance of this, I just briefed him so that his team, which is still being assembled, could take a look at these issues and determine what kind of attitude they would have on them. And we discussed Syria, Iran, the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East in general, relations between Russia and the West. It was a very general, but rather substantive discussion, obviously it was the first contact and Mr. Rex Tillerson is just getting into the shoes of his new capacity. We discussed the possibility of personal meeting and have been continuing these discussions. As soon as we finalize them it will be announced.

But my feeling is that from the point of view of personal relationship, we feel quite comfortable. I feel quite comfortable, I believe Rex had the same feeling, and our assistants should work closer, but of course this could only be done when the team in the State Department is complete.

Question: Of course. If I could follow up on your answer there, you mentioned bringing normalcy to the U.S.-Russia relationship. What do you think “normal” is?

Sergey Lavrov: “Normal” is to treat your partners with respect, not to try to impose some of your ideas on others without taking into account their own views and their concerns, always to try to listen and to hear, and hopefully not to rely on a superiority complex, which was obviously the case with the Obama administration. They were obsessed with their exceptionality, with their leadership. Actually the founding fathers of the United States, they also spoke of their leadership, and they believed that the American nation was exceptional, but they wanted others just to take the American experience as an example and to follow suit. They never suggested that the United States should impose, including by force, its values on others.

And the Obama administration was clearly different. Actually, long before Ukraine, long before Crimea, in early December 2012, there was an OSCE ministerial meeting in Dublin. And Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and was the head of the delegation, we had a bilateral meeting with her, she was trying to persuade me on something which was a difficult issue on the agenda, but I recall this situation because in the margins of this ministerial meeting she attended a meeting in the University of Dublin, and she delivered a lecture in which she said something like: “We are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent the move to re-Sovietize the former Soviet space.” December 2012.

What kind of action she was considering as the move to re-Sovietize the space, I really couldn’t understand. Yes, there were discussions about Ukraine, about Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, forming the Customs Union, and if this was the reason, then of course it showed very obviously the real attitude of the Obama administration to what was going on in the former Soviet space and the area of the Commonwealth of Independent States, its obvious desire to take over this geopolitical space around Russia without even caring what Moscow might think.

This was the reason for the crisis in Ukraine, when the U.S. and European Union bluntly told the Ukrainians: either you are with us, or you are with Russia against us. And the very fragile Ukrainian state couldn’t sustain this kind of pressure, and what happened happened: the coup, and so on and so forth (if you want I can discuss this in some detail later). But my point is that they considered normal that the people in Obama’s team should call the shots anywhere, including around such a big country as the Russian Federation. And this is absolutely abnormal in my view.

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