Russia's Lavrov Accuses West of 'Genocide by Sanctions' Amid 'Worse' Relations Than Cold War

Russia's top diplomat has accused the West of attempting a "genocide by sanctions" against Russia at a time of tense relations comparable to the Cold War.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has served as Moscow's top diplomatic official for 13 years, blamed the lack of communication with the West for the downturn in relations, which he claims are "worse" than during the post-war standoff between east and west. Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow's policy has clashed increasingly with that of the United States and its European allies, backing separatists in Ukraine, sending forces to support a repressive regime in Syria and more recently facing allegations of hacking the United States election, as well as poisoning a former spy on British soil.

The U.S. and its allies have launched sanctions against the Russian government and Kremlin-friendly elite as punishment, tanking Russia's stock market and shrinking the ruble. Speaking to BBC programme Hardtalk, Lavrov blamed the West for aiming "to punish the entire Russian people." The Russian minister said that Western leaders who claim sanctions such as the recent blacklist of oligarchs behind the aluminium giant Rusal and Russia's top gold producer Polyus are aimed at the elite, rather than the Russian public, "are lying."

"Their desire, as I see it, is to make thousands and dozens and thousands and hundreds of thousands of Russians disturbed," Lavrov said in a video recording released by the ministry on Monday. Asked to compare the present with the Cold War, Lavrov blamed the West for ushering in an even more precarious state of relations.

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"During the Cold War there were channels of communication and there was no obsession with Russophobia, which looks like genocide by sanctions," Lavrov said, without explaining what he meant by the phrase. Ironically, the Kremlin's own response to previous sanctions—a trade embargo on Western foodtsuffs—has so far ranked among the most upsetting measures for the Russian public, increasing grocery store bills and reducing high quality choices for meat and dairy products.

The Russian minister reiterated that "very few" lines of communication remained with Western blocs such as the military alliance NATO and the European Union, and complained that, where channels remained open, the West mostly wanted to discuss only Ukraine or Syria. On both these issues, Moscow appears deadlocked with the West over fundamental disagreements about what is actually happening on the ground.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting with his Dutch counterpart in Moscow on April 13. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

The Kremlin has formally denied sending the masked, armed forces that announced and facilitated Crimea's quick vote to join Russia from Ukraine in 2014, despite it being implausible that the troops could have come from anywhere else. In subsequent statements, Russian officials have admitted some military involvement but continue to regard Crimea as rightfully Russian. Where Moscow continues to deny sending troops is the east of Ukraine—a stretch of land bordering only Russia, where Russian-speaking forces have managed to keep Ukraine's military at bay for around four years.

Meanwhile in Syria, the largest sticking point between Moscow and the West has been the presence of the country's President Bashar al-Assad. He faces serious accusations of ordering chemical attacks against his citizens over the last seven years of brutal fighting between numerous factions in Syria seeking to take control of the country. The most recent alleged chemical attack took place this month, though Russia has persistently denied its ally was responsible and Lavrov has himself claimed reports of the attack are part of a staged conspiracy.

Western governments have largely found the purported video of the attack's aftermath, pictures of canisters on the ground and intelligence about the Syrian military's movements as convincing evidence of Assad's responsibility.

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Lavrov said: "I cannot be impolite with the heads of other states, but you quoted the leaders of France and the U.K. and U.S. and, frankly speaking, all the evidence they quoted was based on media reports and social media," Lavrov said. He repeated his argument that the alleged attack near the Syrian town of Douma was not genuine.

Asked by the BBC about comments Lavrov made last week, boasting of "irrefutable proof" that showed the alleged attack was staged by aid workers, with foreign help, he refused to say what this proof was. Instead, Lavrov shifted to questioning the credibility of the aid workers known as the White Helmets who first reported the attack, and the circumstances of the investigation.