Sergey Lavrov did not mince his words. During a speech in Berlin’s renowned Adlon hotel on June 13, organized by the German Körber Foundation, the Russian foreign minister made it clear that Moscow is not at all ready to depart from its narrative of events, neither on Ukraine nor Syria. His message: You in the West insist on your version of the truth, we insist on our version.
It was a speech spiced by sarcasm and no little criticism of the West, packed in the elegant rhetoric of a long-time and seasoned top diplomat. The choice of language was a statement in itself. Lavrov, who has an excellent command of English, spoke in Russian, forcing most of the audience to listen through an interpreter.
As one of the participants later put it: Any unresolved conflict comes to the point where it is no longer important who is right but who will be the last one standing. The Russian positions themselves are all well-known. On Ukraine: The ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovich at the end of February 2014 was a coup d’état engineered by fascist-leaning extremists with factual support from the West. The Crimean referendum and the Crimean parliament’s decision to cede from Ukraine and join Russia were legitimate and valid democratic acts. Lavrov’s comment in Berlin, “In spring 2014 the Crimean parliament was the only democratic legislature in the whole of Ukraine.” And neither event constituted a breach of the 1990 Paris Charter or the 1994 Budapest Memorandum: both documents did not take into consideration a coup d’état in any of the countries concerned. However, Lavrov left it open as to whether the coup d’état in Kiev was justification for Russia to intervene or Crimea to cede. On Eastern Ukraine, Lavrov underlined the Russian commitment to the Minsk Agreements, stating that Kiev, not Moscow, was the obstructive party impeding further progress.
On Syria: Russia does not support the person of Bashar al-Assad, but the legitimate Syrian government and, first of all, the right of the Syrian people to decide their own fate without foreign interference.
Going back to the first ‘colour’ revolutions over a decade ago, Lavrov repeatedly stated his government’s strict opposition to meddling in other countries internal affairs and insisted on all peoples’ right to decide their own fate and future. At the same time, he stressed the willingness to re-improve East-West relations in Europe. Russians, according to Lavrov, were anything but unforgiving people. However, the minister left no doubt that, to bring about such a rapprochement, Russia would not compromise on the fundamental issues regarding Ukraine and the Near East.
In a peculiar way, not easily readable for a German audience, the Lavrov speech was not so much a repudiation of Western narratives but an invitation to engage in a dialogue based on the formula “agree to disagree”. While openly displaying to what extent the Russian narrative is unavailable for compromise (as is true, vice versa, for the West), Lavrov also held out an olive branch: In all others matters, let’s at least try to get along and make Europe a better place. Or at least a more prosperous one. Surely the representatives of German business were pleased with the message; trade volumes between the two countries are down by almost half, and the political standoff leaves more and more corporate bigshots deeply unsatisfied.