NEW DELHI: Sergei Lavrov may have thought he had a reputation as an abrasive person to protect. Or perhaps he was just irritated at having been booed by some of the delegates at the G-20 foreign minister’s meeting the night before over Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Or he was just hungover.
But whatever it was, the Russian foreign minister’s less that diplomatic remarks at the Raisina Dialogue on March 3, where he had a one-on-one public chat with Sunjoy Joshi, the chairman of the Observer Research Foundation—which co-hosts the annual flagship event along with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs—undermined his otherwise valiant and powerful attempt to defend his country’s decision to send troops into Ukraine in February last year.
While some of his arguments did draw applause from the crowd thronging the Durbar Hall of Delhi’s Taj Palace hotel, which traditionally hosts the Dialogue, there were times when the audience was laughing at, not with him. And when asked about India and China, his remark that “…we are interested in these two great nations to be friends and we’re trying to be helpful,” raised several eyebrows.
Asked to elaborate on Russia’s endgame in Ukraine, Lavrov began by noting that at the G-20, “the French ambassador to Israel, who had personally participated in the discussions between the Western leaders and (Mikhail) Gorbachev, he confirmed that there was a commitment not to expand NATO… and then he (the French diplomat) added: ‘But this does not mean that Russia is right in what it is doing in Ukraine.’”
However, “between the lie about not expanding NATO and the events which started one year ago, there were so many developments which you cannot overlook,” said Lavrov, who went on cite agreements signed by member states of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which include 57 States from Europe, Central Asia and North America. According to him, these agreements said that “each country is free to choose alliances, but in doing so no country can strive to strengthen its security at the expense of the security of others.” Another agreement stated “no country and no organization in the OSCE region can pretend to dominate militarily,” he said, and “If you read it again, it’s clear that NATO violated all these commitments.”
The OSCE was also a signatory to the Minsk Protocol, signed on 5 September 2014 by representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group and then leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), breakaway Russian majority regions in Eastern Ukraine, where a large contingent of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit, was also active. When this failed to bring peace, Minsk II, which among other things called for some autonomy to certain areas of Donbas, was signed on 12 February 2015. But this too failed to stem the fighting, and these provisions were never fully implemented.
Fighting gradually intensified again, and in February 2022, Russia officially recognised the DPR and LPR, and after accusing Ukraine of genocide, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to ensure “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
“It was very, very astonishing that all those who signed the Minsk agreements, except Putin, publicly admitted that they never intended to implement this particular Security Council resolution. So no delivery on the oral commitments. No delivery on written commitments, on legally binding commitments,” said Lavrov in New Delhi.
All this “was accompanied by NATO instructors beefing up the Ukrainian Army, Ukraine getting more and more weapons. And (Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Oleksandrovych) Zelensky, he said ‘we needed the Minsk agreements to buy some time to get more and more weapons to Ukraine,’” he said.
“So we defended our security. We defended the Russian people who had been denied the right to use the Russian language in education, in media, in culture, in everything. If you check the Ukrainian legislation passed after the coup Zelensky brought to power, his neo-Nazi regime legally cancelled everything that has to do with the Russian language. And when the people who did not accept the coup in the east of Ukraine, and Crimea, said, ‘guys, leave us alone. We’re not going through with your policies,’ they were declared terrorists. It is the (Zelensky) regime that started the war.”
Arguing the Minsk agreement was “about the special status for a small part of the east of Ukraine, much smaller than the territory which is now controlled by the Russian army,” Lavrov said: “They didn’t want to do this because the special status was to be given to this to this small region included the right to use the Russian language, and this in itself was considered a taboo by those who took power in Ukraine through a coup.” He then went on to accuse the U.S. of bullying smaller nations to support the sanctions against Russia. And if they dared ask what was in it for them, “the answer from the Americans is you would not be punished! When they persuaded people to vote in the general assembly against Russia, the arguments are very straight. Don’t forget that you have a bank account at such and such (American) bank, and don’t forget that your kids go to Stanford.”
Quizzed why Russia was refusing to stop fighting and give peace a chance Lavrov asked why no one asked the same question to the U.S. or NATO “when Serbia was bombed? When Joe Biden, a senator at that time, boasted that ‘I promoted this approach and I believe that we have to bomb them out into peace’? When Iraq was ruined after Colin Powell showed a vial with some powder? And later Tony Blair said, yes, it was a mistake, what to do? No.”
“You believe that the United States has the right to attack anything that it believes is a threat to its national interest, any place on Earth, like they did in Yugoslavia, in Iraq, in Libya in Syria, 10,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, and you don’t ask them any questions.” But when Russia, “not overnight, like they did in Iraq and elsewhere, but warning them for more than 10 years, that guys, you are doing something which is going to be very bad, does this… not across the ocean, but just on our borders on the territories where Russians lived for centuries, (and you ask us why?) If it is not a double standard, then I’m not a minister,” fumed Lavrov.
Asked what made Russia believe it could succeed, when even the mighty U.S. could not succeed in Afghanistan, Lavrov’s caustic response was: “Well, you being the head of such distinguished audience, I fail to understand why you don’t understand,” before adding: “It is, we saw at the end, a war against everything Russian in Ukraine. Can you imagine that in Ireland, they cancel the English language, or in Belgium they cancel French or in Switzerland they cancel German or in Finland, they cancel Swedish? Can you even imagine?”
Insisting that the political and economic fallout of the Ukraine crisis was “not due to what we are doing in Ukraine, but by the reaction of the West to what we are doing in Ukraine, after we had warned them first for decades, that they should stop this expansion of NATO and pushing arms to Ukraine to prepare them for the war against us.”
“If you are really interested in politics and in the root causes of this particular situation, then you would know that (US secretary of state) Blinken, (NATO Secretary General Jen) Stoltenberg have repeatedly stated that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield. That Russia must suffer strategically.”
“Everybody is asking when Russia is ready to negotiate, yet the West is continuously saying that it is not time to negotiate yet because Ukraine must win on the battlefield. Nobody calls on Zelensky asking when he is going to negotiate,” said Lavrov. “Did you know that at a meeting in September last year, Zelensky signed a decree making it a criminal offence to negotiate with Russia as long as Putin is President. So can you address this issue? Can you invite him and ask him what he’s doing?” Lavrov asked.
As the session ended, a senior official remarked that while Lavrov “actually had a good case, where was the need to be so offensive with the host which had offered him such a huge platform? It not only undermines the whole thing, it also makes it difficult for us to defend him.”