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Russia’s Had Enough: No More ‘Business as Usual’ With the United States

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave a remarkable press conference that was entirely ignored by western media: For Russia, there will be no more ‘business as usual’ with the European Union or the United States. A new stage of history is dawning which can develop only on the basis of equal rights and all other principles of international law.


On Tuesday, 26 January Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held his annual press conference before an audience of about 150 journalists, including the BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg and many other well-known representatives of mainstream Western media. The purpose of this traditional event is to review issues faced by his Ministry in the past year and to give his appraisal of results achieved.

The Minister’s opening remarks were concise, lasting perhaps 15 minutes, and the remaining two hours were turned over to the floor for questions. As the microphone was passed to journalists from many of the different countries represented in the room, the discussion covered a great variety of subjects. By way of example, I would name here the negotiations over re-convening the Syrian peace talks in Geneva, David Cameron’s comments on the findings of a UK public inquest into the Litvinenko murder, the possibilities for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Georgia, the likelihood of a new ‘re-set’ with the United States, and prospects for resolving conflicting claims over the Southern Kurile islands so as to conclude a peace treaty with Japan.

To the best of my knowledge, not a single report of the event has yet appeared on major online American, French, British, German newspaper portals or television channels. This was not for lack of substance or newsworthy sound bites, including the headline ‘no business as usual’ remark. As the sharp-tongued Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented not long ago with respect to a similar news blackout that followed another major Russian press briefing: what are all these accredited Western reporters doing in Moscow if nothing gets published abroad? Do they have some other occupation?

In keeping with custom, the Ministry posted the entire 3 hour video recording on Youtube. It also posted transcripts in Russian and English on the site. The Russian version takes up 26 tightly spaced printed pages. This is what I have used, since I prefer to go to the source and do my own translations when I have the option. The English version probably takes 40 pages, given the normal expansion from Russian to English in the translation process.

What I noted first in the television broadcast on Russia’s Pervy Kanal and then in the transcript was both how well prepared Lavrov was to deal with a plethora of issues and how he gave detailed answers that went on for many minutes without making reference to any notes. Secondly, it was obvious he spoke more “freely,” using fewer diplomatic euphemisms than I have ever seen before. I conclude that he was given a nod by his boss, Vladimir Putin, not to hold back, to speak with perfect clarity. Given his experience as one of the longest-serving foreign ministers among the major powers and his innate intellect, Lavrov delivered what sounds at times like dictation for essays in proper written Russian.

For these reasons, I have decided to divide my treatment of the press conference into two parts. One will be Lavrov in his own words. And the other will be my conclusions about the international environment in the coming year given Russia’s basic positions. I will direct particular attention to the possible lifting of sanctions on Russia by the US and EU and how the next US administration can best prepare for relations with Russia, assuming there is no dramatic change in the thinking of American elites about the country’s role in the world before then.

Part One:  Sergey Lavrov in his own words

For this first part, I have extracted several big chunks of text which characterize the overarching views on international relations of Lavrov and the Kremlin, applying their Realpolitik prism and focused primarily on US-Russian relations. This is essential if we are not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. In questions and answers dealing with all countries but one, we hear about separate issues in various locations around the world holding interest mainly for discrete national audiences with their private concerns. With respect to one country, the USA, Russia’s bilateral relations transcend the minister’s in-basket of contingencies. Indeed, the whole Russian foreign policy really is about relations with the USA. That is the logic for my choosing the first two of the three passages in quotation marks below. The third passage, on sanctions, would seem to be more about relations with the EU. I selected it because the issue of lifting sanctions will surely be a key foreign policy issue facing Russia in the first six months of this year, and behind it all looms the US position on the question. Where it was appropriate to summarize to avoid repetition of argumentation, I have done so with my own text in italics.

1 Question: Is a ‘re-set’ possible in this final year of Barack Obama’s administration?

“The question should not be addressed to us. Our inter-state ties sank very low despite the excellent personal relations between former US President George Bush and Russian President Putin. When US President Barack Obama came to the White House and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a “re-set,” this reflected the fact that Americans themselves finally saw the abnormality of the situation wherein Russia and the USA were not cooperating to solve those problems which could not be decided without them…

“We gave a rather constructive response to the ‘re-set.’ We said that we appreciate the decision of the new Administration to correct the errors of its predecessors. We achieved quite a lot: the New START Treaty, the entry of Russia into the WTO, an array of new agreements on various conflict situations. But somehow this quickly began to drop back to zero. Now everyone, including our American colleagues is telling us: ‘Just fulfill the Minsk accords on Ukraine and immediately everything will return to normal. We will immediately cancel the sanctions and tempting prospects of cooperation will open up between Russia and the United States over much more pleasant issues, not just in the management of crises; right away a constructive partnership program will take shape.

“We are open for cooperation with everyone on an equal, mutually advantageous basis. We of course do not want anyone to build their policy based on the assumption that Russia and not Ukraine must fulfill the Minsk accords. It is written there who must fulfill them. I hope that this is well known to the USA. At least, my latest contacts with US Secretary of State John Kerry, the contacts of Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland with Assistant to the Russian President Surkov indicate that the USA can sort out the essence of the Minsk accords. Grosso modo, everyone understands everything…

“I have just mentioned that people have begun to promise a new ‘re-set.’ If we fulfill the Minsk accords, then immediately everything will become fine, with splendid and tempting prospects.

“But the cooling off of relations with the Administration of US President Barack Obama and the end of the period associated with ‘re-set’ began long before the Ukraine. Let’s remember how this occurred. First, when we finally got the consent of our Western partners to terms of our joining the WTO which were acceptable to Russia, the Americans understood that it was not in their interests to keep the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Otherwise they would be deprived of those privileges and advantages which are linked to our participation in the WTO. They began to prepare for the removal of this amendment. But Americans would not be Americans if they simply abolished it and said ‘Enough, let’s now cooperate normally.’ They dreamed up the ‘Magnitsky Act,’ although I am certain that what happened to Magnitsky was not set up. I very much hope that the truth will become known to everyone.

“It is disgusting how a provocation and speculation were built up around the death of a man. Nonetheless, this was done and you know who lobbied for this ‘Magnitsky Act,’ which immediately replaced the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

“This all began when there was still no Ukraine, although they now try to lay the blame on violations of OSCE principles. Everything that is going on between the West and Russia is explained by the fact that Russia did not fulfill its obligations , did not respect the world order which was put together in Europe after the Helsinki Act, etc. These are all attempts to justify and find an excuse for continuing the policy of containment. But this policy never ended.

“After the “Magnitsky Act” there was the completely inappropriate, overblown reaction to what happened to Edward Snowden, who found himself in Russia against our wishes. We did not know about this. He did not have a passport – his document was cancelled while he was in flight. He could not go anywhere from Russia because of decisions taken in Washington. We could not help but give him the possibility to remain in Russia so as to stay safe, knowing which articles of the law they were threatening him with. The Americans made no secret about this. This was done simply as an elementary protection of a person’s right to life.

“US President Barack Obama then cancelled his visit to Russia. They made a huge scandal. Dozens of telephone calls came in from the FBI, from the CIA, the State Department. There were direct contacts with the President. They told us that if we do not give up Snowden, then relations will be broken off. The USA cancelled the visit. It did not take place but US President Obama came for the G-20 Summit in St Petersburg, where we, by the way, did something useful – we reached agreement on the principles of the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.

“Ukraine was just a pretext. The Ukrainian crisis is linked not so much with justified concern over an alleged violation by Russia of the Helsinki principles (although everything began with Kosovo, with the bombing of Yugoslavia, etc). This was an expression of irritation that the coup d’etat did not lead to the results that were expected by those who supported it.

“I will tell you honestly that we don’t hold a grudge. We have no such traditions in relations between states. We understand that life is tougher than any ideal, romantic scheme like ‘re-set’ or similar. We also understand that this is a world in which there are harsh clashes of interests that come down to us from the age of the West’s total domination and it is in the midst of a long transition period to a more durable system in which there will not be one or even two dominant poles – there will be several. The transition period is long and painful. Old habits die slowly. We all understand this.

“We understand that the USA is interested in having fewer competitors even with regards to those comparable to it in size, influence, military power, economy. We see this in the relations between the USA and China, in how the USA works with the European Union, trying to create a ring around it via the Transatlantic Partnership, and to the east of Russia, to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership which will not include Russia and China. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about this in detail when he analyzed the processes at work in the world economy and politics. We understand all of this.

“Surely every age brings with it new tendencies, frames of mind in one or another of the elites, especially in major countries which see in their own fashion the ways to fight for their interests. It would be very bad and ruinous for all of us if these processes moved outside the framework of generally accepted norms of international law. Then, simply put, everything would be topsy-turvy, and we would be drawn into a world of anarchy and chaos – something like what is going on in the Near East, perhaps without bloodshed. Each would act as he reckons necessary and nothing good would come out of this. It is very important to observe some kind of general rules of play.

“To answer your question, I would like for the USA to have a ‘re-set’ with the whole world, so that the ‘re-set’ was general, so that we could gather together and reconfirm our commitment to the UN Charter, to the principles embodied in it, including non-interference in internal affairs, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of peoples to self-determination, the right of peoples to choose their own future without interference from outside.”

2. Question: At the Munich Security Conference in 2007 President Putin said to the West “you need us more than we need you.” Is that still Russia’s position?

“Ideally we both need one another to face the challenges and threats. But, the reality is different. The West comes to us much more often for help than we come to the West.”

As a response to Western sanctions, we are striving now to be self-sufficient and promoting import substitution. We are not trying to cut ourselves off from the world. We are ready for cooperation so long as it based on equality.

“We must do everything to ensure we do not depend on the whim of one or another group of countries, above all from our Western partners (as happened when they took offense at us because we supported Russians in Ukraine who did not recognize the coup d’etat). I have cited Dmitry Yarosh [leader of the radical nationalists, the Right Sector] that they wanted to destroy Russian speakers in Ukraine or deprive them of their rights. We want to insure ourselves against such situations.

“….I note that it’s not we who are running to our European colleagues and saying ‘Let’s do something to remove the sanctions.’ Not at all. We are focused on not depending on such zigzags in Western policy, not depending on Europe’s saluting the USA.’ But in our bilateral contacts our European colleagues, when they come to us or meet us in international forums, say: ‘Let’s think of something. Help us carry out the Minsk accords, otherwise these sanctions will do a lot of damage. We want to turn the page.’ It turns out that in this situation we are needed more by them than they are needed by us. Including for fulfillment of the Minsk accords….Yes, we have influence in Donbass and we support them. Surely, without our help and humanitarian deliveries Donbass would be in a pitiful state. But one also has to exert influence in Kiev. We need the West to influence the Kiev authorities, but so far this is not happening.

“Or look at the question of the Iranian nuclear program. At the decisive stages of these negotiations we were literally bombarded with requests when it was necessary to solve the questions of exporting enriched uranium in exchange for natural uranium, which was the key condition for achieving agreements; when it was necessary to resolve the question about who will convert the enrichment sites at Fordu into research for production of medical isotopes, etc. They came with requests to us, requests which carry a significant financial burden, or at least which do not bring any material benefit. But we fulfilled our part of the work. Now everyone is calling us and our Chinese colleagues about the North Korean problem: ‘help us do something to make North Korea observe its obligations.’

“Or take the case of Syria….

“I can’t think of any requests we made to our Western colleagues recently. We don’t believe it is proper to make requests. After you sign agreements following negotiations, you now have to execute obligations, not to make requests for favors.”

3. Question on whether sanctions will end early

“…I’d say that among a large number of our partners there is the awareness that they cannot go on this way any longer, that this is harmful to them. Our justification for speaking about some possible positive changes comes down to the following: our Western partners more and more often begin to understand that they have fallen into a trap created by themselves when they said that they will lift the sanctions after Russia fulfills the Minsk accords. They have now understood that, very likely, this was a ‘slip of the tongue.’ But in Kiev this was heard very often and was interpreted as an indulgence allowing them not to carry out the Minsk accords. Their nonfulfillment not only means that Kiev does not have to undertake any actions and fulfill its obligations. It also means that the West will have to keep the sanctions in place against Russia. It was necessary to prove all of this to some gentlemen who are in Kiev fanning radical attitudes.”

Lavrov says he spoke with the Russian representative to the latest session of the Contact Group and heard about this attitude from


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