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October 16, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8972

Questioned By Skeptical Interviewers, Russian FM Lavrov Struggles To Defend Russia's Current Policy Towards Turkey

October 16, 2020
Russia, Turkey | Special Dispatch No. 8972

On October 14, 2020, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave an interview to three pro-Kremlin radio stations: Sputnik, Komsomolskaya Pravda and Govorit Moskva (Radio Moscow). The interview started with Moscow's efforts to obtain a ceasefire in Nagorno Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the questions quickly turned to Russia's relations with Turkey. Recently, a rare consensus has emerged between Putin's critics and supporters that Russia has been too deferential to Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan, and he must be put in his place.[1] Lavrov was hard pressed by the normally deferential interviewers to defend the current policy in light of Turkey's recent actions, and sought to distinguish between Turkey's legitimate pursuit of its national interests and competition for influence in the Islamic world, and the illegitimate pursuit of American interests in Syria and elsewhere (including America's brokerage of the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, bypassing the Palestinians). However, even he acknowledged the build-up of anti-Turkish sentiment and witnessing a tee shirt with the caption "if they don't listen to Lavrov, they will listen to [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu" and interjecting the comment "naturally, there could be situations when there is aggression against you, and you must strike back".

The lengthy section from Lavrov's interview on Russia's relations with Turkey follows below[2]:


Lavrov being interviewed (Source: Kp.ru)

Question: Mr. Lavrov, the current war in Nagorno-Karabakh, if we call a spade the spade, has been inspired by Turkey. In general, we regularly “run into” Turkey, in Libya, as well as in Syria, where Ankara is emerging as a military opponent to us rather than an ally. At the same time, we regularly declare that it is our strategic ally. How will all of this work today in the light of the current developments? Where do we, and Turkey, stand? What are we in relation to each other?

Sergey Lavrov: Turkey has never qualified as our strategic ally. It is a partner, a very close partner. In many sectors, this partnership is of a strategic nature.

In fact, we are working in Syria, and we are trying to help settle the Libyan crisis. Turkey is also seeking to promote its interests in this region. The main thing is that this is absolutely legitimate, if interests are legitimate, be it Turkey, Iran, UAE, or Qatar. Many countries in this region have interests of their own, which are projected outside of their state borders.

In what Syria is concerned, I think that these transparency and legitimacy have been ensured, despite the fact that the Turkish military are present on Syrian territory without an invitation from the legitimate authorities. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his government have accepted and supported the establishment of the Astana format. They are cooperating in the implementation of all those initiatives that have been advanced by the threesome of the Astana guarantors. In this sense, the Russia-Turkey-Iran partnership plays a very important role. It is this actual partnership that has made it possible to cut down the terrorist-ruled territories, in fact, as far as the Idlib de-escalation zone.

The eastern bank of the Euphrates is a topic apart. Regrettably, the Americans are promoting separatist ideas in those territories, where they are running the show, and these activities are non-transparent and absolutely unlawful. They are encouraging the Kurds to establish residence and functioning rules other than those approved by the central government.

In Libya, we are also collaborating with Turkey. Diplomats, the military, and secret service officers have met on numerous occasions to use the capabilities of each of the sides. We are in contact with everyone. I am referring to both eastern Libya, where the parliament has its seat, and western Libya, where the Government of National Accord (GNA) is based. The Turks, as you may know, are supporting the GNA, but they are well aware that it is necessary to look for compromises between the approaches of all regions and all Libyan political forces. For now, the political processes are rather chaotic, but they are developing and starting to align. This concerns the Berlin Conference on Libya and the initiatives proposed by Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt as neighboring countries. This is absolutely understandable and we support it. What is important now is to channel all this into a single pattern under the aegis of the UN, a pattern that will be based on all Libyan sides being encouraged to sit down and negotiate, rather than put forward ultimatums to one another, as we have seen lately between Tobruk and Tripoli.

Currently, our UN colleagues are trying to reduce all these efforts to a common denominator. We are helping this proactively. I hear that Turkey is also interested in these processes gaining strength. In any case, diplomacy is about taking into account the positions of all sides to a conflict in this or that crisis-hit country. But it also has regard for the interests of regional states, which interests are legitimate and accepted by the sides to the conflict themselves.

Question: You mentioned the consideration of interests of all players. Do we regard Turkey’s interest in Nagorno-Karabakh as legitimate? Are we going to take it into account?

Sergey Lavrov: Now let me go over to Nagorno-Karabakh. We do not agree with the position that has been voiced by Turkey and enunciated on several occasions by President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. It is no secret. We cannot share statements to the effect that there is a military solution to the conflict and that it is acceptable. Regrettably, Turkey has been able to do this, confirming that it will support any actions undertaken by Azerbaijan to solve this conflict, including military ones.

We are in contact with our Turkish colleagues. I had several conversations with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoglu during the period of crisis. We are upholding our point of view to the effect that a peaceful settlement is not only possible but is also the only method to ensure a durable solution to this problem, because all other things will only preserve the conflict in a subdued state. If a long-term political accord is lacking, the military solutions will one day prove untenable and hostilities will be there anyway.

Question: The deferred war effect?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, like the Palestinian problem.

Question: There is no escaping the fact, and it is obvious to everyone, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more active. He is playing his own game in the Middle East, namely in Libya and Syria. It is obvious that he considers this region the area of his interests and he talks about it openly.

He also plays his game in Cyprus and has again aggravated the situation in this region. They were one step away from war with Athens. Plus, his words that Jerusalem is also an Ottoman city. At the moment, they are doing the same in the South Caucasus. In his inauguration speech, he called Turkey an Ottoman land. In Turkey itself, they call him a “new sultan.” He openly states that he wants to recreate the Ottoman empire and hence has begun working in all these directions. Let alone his decision on Hagia Sophia, which openly contradicts Ataturk’s wishes.

Regarding this activity of the Turkish leader and the entire Republic of Turkey, are we going to adjust our policy in this area in any way?

Sergey Lavrov: Of course, some adjustments can be kept in mind, but our policy in the Turkish or any other direction should be based on reality and avoid the “war is an extension of policy” principle. This is what I firmly believe. Naturally, there could be situations when there is aggression against you, and you must strike back.

Question: As we say, if you don't listen to Lavrov, you will listen to Shoigu.

Sergey Lavrov: But first, I would like to outline the general situation – who is trying to advance their interests, where and how. In any place you say Turkey is active, it appears that countries located 10,000 miles away from that region are also active, sometimes even more active than Ankara. There are states that are closer, but the United States plays a very active role in each of these places.

In Syria, the Americans are strongly undermining the very idea of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which reaffirmed Syria’s territorial integrity and required others to respect it. They create quasi-state authorities on its territory without a second thought. First, they announced a ban on the purchase of Syrian oil by all countries, and then allowed their company to mine oil there and used the proceeds to strengthen Kurdish units that are not controlled by Damascus. By the way, Turkey is also active on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, trying, as it believes, to suppress Kurdish terrorism. Ankara's concerns about the security of its border with Syria on the east bank of the Euphrates and in the Idlib region are, at the very least, far more legitimate than what Washington is trying to do by fueling separatist tendencies in Syria.

The US is very active in Libya. Again, they are trying to “resolve” the conflict in that country to suit their own interests, such as to weaken Turkey and, as it happens, also the Russian Federation. They are saying so openly. There, too, oil plays an important role, because putting Libyan oil on the world markets again and lifting the moratorium announced by Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar are issues of great political and practical importance, directly affecting energy prices.

As regards the Palestinian problem, Jerusalem, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the creation of a Palestinian state – the United States has pushed almost everyone else aside, claiming they will sort this out themselves. There was the Arab Peace Initiative that envisaged first creating a Palestinian state, followed by the normalization of Israel’s relations with all Arab states. But the US turned it upside down. They want to begin with promoting the establishment of Israel’s relations with all its Arab neighbors, and then see what they can do about the Palestinian problem, or maybe it won’t need to be resolved at all.

We support an improvement in Israel’s relations with its neighbors as well as with all other countries in the region. What we are opposed to is this being done at the expense of the Palestinian people’s interests enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which proclaimed the creation of a Jewish state. That state is alive and kicking, is our close friend and partner. But there is still no such thing as a Palestinian state. Of course, promises, promises (he who expects from a promise a lot must wait for three years or maybe not). But it has been a little more than three years.

These kind of statements from Islamic world leaders such as President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan should obviously be expected in a situation where the UN Security Council’s decision that Jerusalem’s future and status as the capital of three monotheistic religions should be determined with due respect for the interests of all the concerned parties is scrapped and written off, and where access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque – a matter to be decided as part of the final status agreement in the context the creation of a Palestinian state – is revised and cancelled again.

An even broader context to consider: there is an obvious fight for leadership going on in the Islamic world. There are several power centers. There is Turkey, and there is Saudi Arabia as the leader and home of two of the greatest Islamic shrines. Let us not forget that, besides the Turks and Arabs, there are also Pakistanis and Indonesians. Indonesia is the largest Islamic state in the world. We have ties with the League of Arab States, and with the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), and with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which unites all the Islamic states of Asia and Africa without exception regardless of geographical location. Unfortunately, this confrontation within Islam, the competition for leadership, has been increasingly taking on rather fierce forms recently. In contacts with our colleagues from the OIC, we strongly urge them to develop common approaches, find consensus-based positions, and strive for harmony between all branches of Islam. In 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan held a summit of all Muslims, which led to the adoption of the Amman Declaration that confirmed the unity of all Muslims and a commitment to promote it in various practical situations. This is not working even now.

Regarding the Hagia Sophia, we recognize the right of Turkey and the Istanbul authorities to determine the specific parameters of its use, while of course taking into account its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The discussion within this organization is still going on. Our Turkish colleagues have given us assurances that all things related to Orthodox culture will remain open for access by visitors, tourists, and pilgrims. Let's see how this works in practice, since the appropriate measures have not yet been technically implemented.

As for the South Caucasus – again, look who is trying to be active there. Americans are no less active there now.

Question: The Americans say openly that their zone of interests is the entire world. The have positioned themselves as an empire. The Turks have never said so, but they have entered this path as well.

Sergey Lavrov: What is permitted to Jove is not permitted to an ox?

Question: We need to understand what they have in mind.

Sergey Lavrov: Maybe all of us should be like the oxen? Otherwise, all of us should be like Jove?

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