Sergei Lavrov on Russia in International Politics
(Speech at the Military Academy of the General Staff, Moscow, March 23, 2017)
Comrade officers, colleagues, friends,
I am grateful for the invitation to speak at the Military Academy as part of the Army and Society series of lectures. The organisers are doing a great job supporting the tradition of unity of the people and the army, as it should be and has always been in the best years of Russia’s history. Today, we will focus on Russia’s role in international politics. This theme has always been of interest to our citizens, patriots, and all the more so to servicemen protecting our state.
How is the role of state determined in international politics?
Just like in other social disciplines, there are specific fundamental values and criteria in international relations for making judgments on that.
Geopolitical weight is among the most important ones. It is clear that a vast country like Russia, with its wealth of resources and unique geographical location spanning Europe and Asia, is unlikely to remain on the side, let alone be isolated from international processes, especially in the modern era when trade, economic, financial, information, cultural and human relations simply demand that our planet be united into one truly unified space.
I’m aware that some entertain the notion, which is eagerly picked up by Russophobes, that Russia’s vast geography took shape due to expansion resulting from an internal sense of insecurity. As if the Russians, who for several centuries expanded their territory, were trying to “push back” a potential aggressor. To this, I can say that the greatest misfortunes in the past centuries came to Russia almost always from the West, while Russia, according to Mikhail Lomonosov’s famous dictum, “expanded through Siberia,” bringing different peoples and lands in the East under its wing. Many centuries of experience of harmonious coexistence of different ethnicities and religions within one state now allow Russia to promote a dialogue and form partnerships between cultures, religions and civilisations, which is also what happens within the UN, the OSCE and other international and regional organisations.
Another hallmark associated with our vast Russian territory concerns respect for the state, which is the guarantor of the country’s unity and the security of its citizens. A strong state also underpins an independent foreign policy. In international relations, all of that is embodied in the notion of sovereignty. The sovereignty of states, their equality as the main subjects of international relations, was substantiated and approved within the Westphalian system that took shape in Europe in the 17th century.
Currently, these traditional notions are being questioned in a number of Western countries. They are trying to secure for themselves, for example, the ability to interfere in other people’s affairs under the pretext of non-compliance with all sorts of unilaterally engineered human rights concepts like the so-called “responsibility to protect.” We are against such a distorted interpretation of the most important universal international legal norms and principles. Healthy conservatism with regard to the inviolability of the stabilising foundations of international law unites Russia with most countries of the world.
Of course, it takes more than just the size of a country’s territory for it to be considered “big and strong” in today’s world. There is also the economy, culture, traditions, public ethics and, of course, the ability to ensure one’s own security and the security of the citizens under any circumstances. Recently, the term “soft power” has gained currency. However, this is power as well. In other words, the power factor in its broad sense is still important in international relations. Its role has even increased amid aggravated political, social, and economic contradictions and greater instability in the international political and economic system. We take full account of this fact in our foreign policy planning.
Thanks to its advanced nuclear deterrent capabilities, Russia plays an important stabilising role in global politics. At the same time, strategic stability for us is not confined to maintaining the nuclear balance between us and the United States. Given globalisation processes, the increasing mutual dependence of countries and the development of technologies, including military technology, we’re taking a broader view of this concept.
In politics, strategic stability is a state of international relations that ensures strict compliance with international law by all countries and their associations, respect for the legitimate interests of all countries and peoples and non-interference in their political affairs. In the military context, it means consistently bridging the gap between military capabilities, ensuring a high level of confidence, transparency and predictability and abstaining from steps which may be perceived as a threat to the national security of other countries, forcing them to resort to retaliatory measures. We stand for the strengthening of all aspects of strategic stability which is the foundation for a lasting peace and reliable, equal and indivisible security for all.
Recently, there has been a push towards forcing the nuclear states to abandon their nuclear arsenals and banning nuclear weapons altogether. It is crystal clear that this is premature. Let me remind you that it wasn’t for nothing that the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty wrote into it that the nuclear arsenals had to be fully scrapped but only in the context of general and complete disarmament.
We are prepared to discuss the possibility of further gradual reductions in nuclear capabilities but only if we take all the factors influencing strategic stability into account and not just the quantity of strategic offensive weapons. Another reason why we’re prepared to discuss this issue is the growing sense of urgency about making this process multilateral. The restrictions on nuclear capabilities which Russia and the United States have repeatedly accepted for many years have led them to a situation where, essentially, they cannot proceed doing this on the bilateral basis.
We take pride in the fact that there has been a qualitative change in the Russian Armed Forces’ capabilities in recent years. It’s particularly important to note that the position of Russia today is that force can only be used in strict compliance with international law and its own laws and commitments – not to conquer, and not to export political ideas as repeatedly happened in world history and in our past history, for that matter, but to defend our most vital interests, when all other means have been exhausted, or to help our allies and friends at their request, as is happening today in Syria at the invitation of the country’s legitimate government.
Regretfully, not all countries in the world are so scrupulous in providing legal grounds for the use of military force. We have noted cases of loose interpretations of the UN Charter and of removing any boundaries for designating something a threat to one’s own security.
The negative trend of using economic tools of coercion is accelerating in international relations. These are diverse kinds of unilateral sanctions and restrictions that clash with the UN Security Council’s positions and prerogatives. As we know, there are attempts to use these tools on Russia, on the assumption that we are especially sensitive to this kind of influence.
However, it is impossible, and will remain impossible to ignore the fact that Russia is among the largest and most stable economies in the world. It is hard to overestimate its role in some fields of the global economy, particularly in energy, including nuclear energy.
Whether some people like it or not, Russia remains the economic centre of gravity for the post-Soviet countries. This objective factor, not Moscow’s mythical urge to “revive the empire”, underlies the movement toward Eurasian integration. We and our partners in the Eurasian Economic Union are linked in today’s globalised world by centuries-long economic and cultural contacts and the intertwined destinies of our nations. We also advance the EAEU’s foreign contacts to implement President Vladimir Putin’s initiative to form a multilevel integration model in Eurasia. Interest in this initiative is growing steadily.
Historical traditions should also be mentioned among the factors that determine a nation’s role in world politics. “History is the memory of States,” said Henry Kissinger, the theoretician and practitioner of international relations. By the way, the United States, whose interests Mr Kissinger has always defended, did not aspire to be the centre of the liberal world order for a greater part of its own fairly short history, and did not see that role as its preeminent mission. Its Founding Fathers wanted its leadership and exceptional nature to derive from its own positive example. Ironically, the American elite, which emerged as freedom fighters and separatists anxious to cast off the yoke of the British crown, had transformed itself and its state by the 20th century into a power thirsting for global imperialist domination. The world is changing, however, and – who knows – America might yet purify itself and return to its own forgotten sources.
Russia has its own experience with messianic fervour. Its current foreign policy is pragmatic, not ideological. Our country has its traditions and wholesome values, and we do not try to impose them on anyone. We warn our partners at the same time that when they are in Rome they should do as the Romans do.
After many centuries of trials, our country made it to the forefront of international and European politics under Peter the Great – his name graces one of the academies whose students, as I understand it, are here today – and then fully participated in European affairs during the Vienna Congress of 1814-1815. At that time, with the direct participation of Alexander I, a system for a balance of power that existed for many years and mutual recognition of national interests, precluding domination of any one state, was created in Europe.
The ensuing developments show us the futility of any efforts to drive our country out of the European or international arena. Resolving any pressing international issues without Russia became impossible. We can also see the major damage caused by such efforts to all the participants in this process. The collapse of the Vienna system (during which events such as the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the unification and the rise of Germany, and the final collapse of monarchy in France took place) resulted in the bloodletting of World War I. After it ended, Soviet Russia was left outside of the Treaty of Versailles, which largely predetermined its brief existence. The distrust of Western democracies and the reluctance to interact with us on an equal footing doomed the attempts to create collective security in Europe in the 1930s, which resulted in the even greater destruction of World War II. Only after it was over were the foundations of the international order laid with our active participation, which remain relevant to this day.
The UN is called on to play the central coordinating role in the international order. It has proved that there are no alternatives to it and that it enjoys unique international legitimacy despite all the shortcomings of this huge “organism” which unites almost 200 states. Russia supports ensuring the inviolability of the UN Charter’s key provisions, including those related to consolidating the outcomes of World War II. We support comprehensive efforts to expand the capacity of this international organisation to efficiently adapt to new international realities.
In modern Europe, the roots of many problems can be seen in the irrational and doomed desire to sideline Russia, the Eurasian power. NATO and EU expansion has reached the point where Ukraine and other CIS countries were all but presented a false choice: either you are with Russia, or with Europe. Such an ultimatum was beyond the capacity of yet inherently unstable Ukrainian statehood. As a result, a major crisis in the heart of Europe broke out directly on the borders of Russia and the West. Frankly, the prospects for its settlement and the implementation of the Minsk agreements have so far been bleak. First, this is due to the lack of political will and a realistic vision for the future of this country from the Ukrainian government, and due to its attempts to look for ways to resolve Ukrainian problems not on the basis of pragmatic interests in the name of national harmony and prosperity, but at the behest of external sponsors who have no regard for the aspirations of Russians, Ukrainians and Eastern Slavs, in general.
We do not see that our European partners are willing to work honestly in favour of creating a common security and cooperation space. A fair settlement of the Ukrainian crisis in line with the Minsk agreements, which we have consistently advocated, could become part of it. In general, the European Union has been tangibly “losing itself” recently. In fact, they are serving other people’s interests, failing to find their own unified voice in foreign affairs. We are patient people, and we will wait for our colleagues to realise that due to a number of reasons – including historical, geopolitical, economic, and cultural – we, Russia and Europe, need each other.
The historical, geopolitical, moral foundations that shape the foreign policy of Russia are solid and constant. They set the tone of our day-to-day diplomatic efforts which, in keeping with the Constitution, are guided directly by the President of the Russian Federation.
The world is really changing fast. Another “industrial revolution” is unfolding, and a new, more technologically advanced way of life is taking shape. Uneven development, a wider gap in the wealth of states and nations, and the battle for resources, access to markets, and control over transport arteries are exacerbating differences. Competition is acquiring civilisational dimensions and becoming a rivalry of values and development models.
In the region of the Middle East and North Africa, the situation has reached a point beyond which lies the annihilation of states and of the regional political map. This widespread chaos has been conducive to an unprecedented increase in the threat of terrorism embodied by the aggression of the so called Islamic State and other similar groups. Global terror is a challenge to international security, and it can only be addressed by establishing a joint international coalition, acting on a solid legal basis — as Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested in his speech at the 70th United Nations General Assembly.
The redistribution of the global balance of power continues. We are witnessing new centres of economic power and associated political influence come into being in the world. The Asia-Pacific Region has established itself as the driver of the world economy. Latin American and African nations, which have considerable human and resource potential, are taking a more active role. These developments bring into stark relief the cultural and civilisational diversity of the modern world. The need to democratise relations between states is becoming a more pressing issue.
The formation of a polycentric international order is an objective process. It is in our common interest to make it more stable and predictable. In these conditions, the role of diplomacy as a tool to coordinate balanced solutions in politics, economics, finance, the environment, and the innovation and technology sectors has increased significantly. Simultaneously, the role of the armed forces as the guarantor of peace has increased too.
It is clear that there simply isn’t any other way except painstaking daily work to achieve the compromises necessary to peacefully overcome the numerous problems in the world. History shows that betting on hegemony and one’s own exceptionalism leads to greater instability and chaos.
There is an objective, growing need for Russia-advanced approaches to key modern issues that are free of ideology and rooted in the principles of multilateralism and respect for international law. More and more countries are coming to share these approaches, which strengthens Russia’s authority and its role as a balancing factor in world politics.
We do not favour confrontation or isolationism. Guided by the Foreign Policy Concept approved by President Vladimir Putin, we will continue to advance a positive agenda in our relations with our partners and neighbours, including the United States and the European Union.
Under the current circumstances, there is no alternative to an independent, pragmatic and multi-vector foreign policy based on the consistent defence of national interests along with the simultaneous development of equal cooperation with all who are interested in reciprocating. All our actions are aimed at protecting our sovereignty and creating conditions for the peaceful and sustainable development of Russia and the Russians.
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