Exclusive: Russia's Sergey Lavrov Warns U.S. It Risks Becoming Combatant in Ukraine War

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Just as the war in Ukraine entered a new phase with the partial military mobilization of Russia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed the conflict with Newsweek, as well as the broader implications of his nation's relationship with the United States, China and other powers on the sidelines of one of the most explosive battles of this century. Newsweek

Hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ushered in a new phase to the ongoing war in Ukraine with a partial nationwide military mobilization, his longtime top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, spoke with Newsweek Senior Foreign Policy Writer Tom O'Connor about the state of the conflict and its implications for Moscow's relationships with the international community, including other leading powers the United States and China.

Lavrov's career in diplomacy extends back half a century through the heat of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin, who appointed him as foreign minister in 2004. Since then, Lavrov has served as the most senior representative of the Kremlin's foreign policy both in Moscow and in nearly every corner of the Earth to which he's traveled.

Now, he's in New York to attend the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, which is taking place at a particularly difficult time in the international order. Chief among the many key areas of global contention is the Ukraine conflict, which Lavrov has defended as a necessary endeavor to secure Russia's national security interests, even as Washington and its allies pour further support into Kyiv while attempting to isolate Moscow on the world stage.

Lavrov said Russia's approach would include supporting the recently announced referendums in contested parts of Ukraine, such as the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, which seek to join Russia as Crimea did in an internationally disputed referendum when unrest first erupted in 2014.

In order to counter Western pressure, Russia has fostered closer ties with other powers, especially China, nurturing a growing bilateral relationship Lavrov called a priority for Moscow, as both nations seek to promote a multilateral order in contrast to the "rules-led" system championed by the U.S. He warned that the growing distance between these two visions threatened global stability and even direct conflict among the world's most powerful nations.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Russia, Foreign, Minister, Sergey, Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has a half-century-long career in diplomacy, and has served as the Kremlin's most senior diplomat since 2004. E. Pesov/Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Newsweek: Russia's military operation in Ukraine continues, and many fear the conflict could go on indefinitely. Has Russia made progress toward its stated goals of "denazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine, and are the two sides anywhere closer toward a negotiated settlement than they were on February 24?

Lavrov: With its actions to nurture a Russophobic neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine, deploy military equipment and turn its territory into a springboard for containing Russia, the West left us no choice but to conduct a special military operation. Its goals are well-known: protection of the population of Donbass, elimination of threats to Russia's security, demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine. All of them remain relevant and will be achieved, no matter how long it would take.

To date, the entire LPR, a significant part of the DPR, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions have been liberated. Peaceful life is taking shape in these territories. Despite the shelling and sabotage, repair and restoration works are underway at civilian infrastructure facilities and in the residential sector. New houses, schools, hospitals, cultural institutions are being built.

I would like to emphasize that the collective West, led by the United States, is openly seeking to defeat Russia "on the battlefield." The United States and its allies are ready to sacrifice Ukraine for the sake of their geopolitical goals. To achieve them, they pump the country with weapons, and this leads to an escalated and prolonged conflict. It puts off the prospects of its settlement.

Washington is not interested in establishing peace and tranquility in Ukraine. That became clear already in March, when Moscow and Kiev came close to reaching mutual agreements. Such turn of events obviously frightened the Americans and the British, so they actually forbade Ukraine to conduct further dialogue with Russia. Since then, the Ukrainian authorities have been shying away from negotiation process.

Syria and North Korea have become the first countries other than Russia to recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics as independent states. Does Russia view these entities as nations with fixed borders, or would Russia support efforts to expand their sovereignty to include other territories in which Russian forces currently operate in Ukraine? Alternatively, would Russia support separate independence measures in these territories or even referendums to join the Russian Federation, as was the case for Crimea in 2014?

The first state to recognize the independence of the DPR and of the LPR was not Russia, but South Ossetia. And after Russia, Abkhazia, Syria and North Korea also did this.

Russia recognized the independence of the Donbass republics within the borders specified in their constitutions — in fact, that means the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of the former Ukrainian SSR.

As for other Ukrainian territories liberated from the yoke of the neo-Nazi Kiev regime you mentioned, we proceed from the premise that their inhabitants have the right to independently determine their own destiny. We see the desire of people to be together with Russia, and therefore we shall treat their choice with respect. The corresponding intentions have been voiced recently by the leaders of the DPR, LPR, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions. All of them are entitled to use the right to self-determination in accordance with the UN Charter.

President Joe Biden confirmed early-on in the conflict that there had been a "complete rupture" in U.S.-Russia relations. On what levels are the countries still communicating? Are conversations being conducted about nuclear arms verification, deconfliction in regions like the Black Sea and Syria, or the fates of U.S. citizens detained either in criminal court or the battlefield?

The Russian-American interstate dialogue has been practically frozen owing to the United States. It is objectively not possible to maintain normal communication with Washington declaring the strategic defeat of Russia as an objective.

It equally pertains to the consultations on strategic stability and arms control discontinued by the American side. Naturally, we note some sketchy signals from the U.S. administration, and personally Joe Biden, concerning the resumption of the START dialogue, but what is behind those signals remains to be seen.

The Americans are avoiding any substantive interaction on regional deconfliction.

As for the detained U.S. citizens, we have repeatedly warned that it is counterproductive to bring this issue before the public. It should be dealt with professionally by the competent agencies in the format to be agreed by Moscow and Washington.

As for the Americans imprisoned during combat operations, one should turn to the authorities in Kiev as well as senior officials of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics through official diplomatic channels.

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies on Russia have dealt a shock to the global economy, and one area of considerable blowback has been in the energy sector, where in the U.S. and a number of other countries, the price of gas and other goods has become a major source of concern. Is it Russia's hope that the domestic cost of these sanctions will soon outweigh their benefits and disrupt the coalition of countries waging economic war on Russia?

The West has been imposing unilateral restrictive measures under the guise of crippling Russia. However, they have failed to shatter the Russian economy. Moreover, the sanctions have appeared to be a two-edge weapon: increasing prices and decreasing incomes are seen in many European countries, as well as energy shortages and threats of social upheavals. The routine benefits of civilization become the privilege of the rich. This is the price that ordinary citizens pay for the anti-Russian policy of the ruling elites.

The whole sectors of European economies (including metallurgic and chemical) have been prospering for decades due to stable supplies of Russian inexpensive energy commodities. It allowed the EU countries to enter into successful competitions, including with American companies. It looks like this will not be the case anymore, and it has not been our choice.

If they want to act to the detriment of their own interests in the West, we cannot keep them from doing that.

The mutual distrust that has emerged since the conflict began has led many to consider that the previous level of economic integration between Russia and the West may not be achieved for some time, if ever, even if the conflict were to be resolved. Is Russia prepared for this scenario in the long term and if so, what does that mean for Russia's economic and geopolitical future? Might we see more investment in alternative frameworks such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

The frenzied response of the United States and its allies to Russia's special military operation has basically drawn the line under a whole era of interaction between our country and the West. Those whom we believed to be trustworthy economic partners have chosen illegitimate sanctions and a unilateral break-off of business ties.

Russia is not happy about it: what had been built by decades of hard work was destroyed virtually overnight. Well, we will draw our own conclusions from the behaviour of our Western colleagues — I do not think that in the foreseeable future they will be able to restore their credibility as business counterparts.

We will continue working with those partners who are ready for equal, mutually beneficial cooperation, who have not been affected by anti-Russian hysteria. And they constitute the vast majority of the international community. We see wide interest in the expanded cooperation with us from the countries of Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America, members and participants in the EEU, the CSTO, the CIS, the SCO, BRICS, and many other non-Western countries.

We will continue to adapt to new foreign trade and financial realities, intensify import phase-out. Together with our friends, we will decrease the share of the U.S. dollar in mutual trade and use national currencies in mutual settlements. We intend to make use of all available opportunities and instruments to protect our interests. I have no doubts that Russia will withstand any sanctions pressure.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his nation's relationship with China was an "absolute priority" and that, as a result of U.S.-led sanctions, he did not believe most Western nations would "be able to restore their credibility as business counterparts" for "the foreseeable future." Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Russia and China have strengthened their comprehensive strategic partnership for years and both sides say they will continue to do so even amid the conflict in Ukraine, during which some major Chinese companies and institutions have been cautious not to trigger U.S. sanctions by dealing with Russian markets. What do the events since February 24 mean for the relationship between Moscow and Beijing and the multipolar international order both governments have sought to promote?

Strategic partnership with China remains an absolute foreign policy priority for Russia. It is sustainable, long-term, and does not depend on the volatility of the international environment. The relationship between Russia and China is characterized by deep mutual trust, mutual support in the protection of each other's fundamental national interests, and willingness to expand mutually beneficial ties.

Intensive and trust-based dialogue between the leaders – President Putin and President Xi – plays a key role. This February, the Russian leader visited Beijing, and on 15 September top-level negotiations were held in Samarkand on the margins of the Meeting of the Council of Heads of State of the SCO.

In the context of heightened international tensions, the responsible approach adopted by Russia and China – permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – towards pressing issues is becoming increasingly relevant. Together with our Chinese friends, we will keep working on improving the world situation, facilitate the creation of a just multi-polar system based on the UN Charter, and, first of all, on the fundamental principle of the sovereign equality of states.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of your graduation from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and you've been involved in your country's diplomacy ever since. Looking back at a half a century of experience, how would you evaluate the risk of confrontation between major powers today? Are the peoples of the world, including us as Americans and Russians, living through a particularly dangerous time?

Unfortunately, the global situation continues to degrade. The main cause, and I have had to speak about it repeatedly, is the persistent desire of the West led by the United States to ensure its global dominance, though it is impossible for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, Washington and its satellites do everything to slow down the process of democratization of international relations. They want to replace the UN-centered architecture formed in the wake of World War II and international law with some "rules-based order." Acting in the worst colonial traditions, they divide the world into "democracies" and "authoritarian regimes." They try to "press on" those who do not agree with this course, who pursue an independent policy and are guided by national interests, using unilateral sanctions, blackmail and blatant power play.

Today, Western states funnel weapons and military hardware into the neo-Nazi regime in Kiev, and train Ukraine's armed forces. NATO and U.S. arms are used to fire at the Russian territory bordering Ukraine, killing civilians there. The Pentagon does not hide the fact of passing on to Kiev intelligence and target designations for strikes. We record the presence of American mercenaries and advisers "in the battlefield." The United States, in fact, is teetering on the brink of turning into a party to conflict. This is to your question about the risk of a direct collision between nuclear powers.

Unfortunately, Washington seems to be still living in the day before yesterday, thinking in terms of unipolarity. They cannot accept the fact that the modern world is no longer West-centered. And it will never be again. Today, strong, independent players from developing countries have emerged, and they are increasingly visible. These states and their integration associations do not want to participate in the anti-Russian "crusade" instigated from Washington.

While we know that Russian officials have stated that they do not play sides in domestic U.S. politics, it is true that domestic politics have an influence on foreign policy. Is Russia tracking how the upcoming midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election may affect U.S. policy toward Russia and other foreign policy issues that affect Russia's interests?

Once again, I would like to reaffirm our principled position of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign states. The United States is no exception. We are not interfering, but of course we are closely monitoring the preparations for the November midterm elections to Congress. This is not a whim, but a duty of diplomats, journalists, and scholars.

However, I can say straight away that we do not exaggerate the importance of the results of these elections in the context of improving Russian-American relations, given the persistent rejection at the Capitol of the very idea of equal dialogue with Moscow. It is still too early to say anything about the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign since it has not really begun yet.