Europeans Laugh as Lavrov Talks Ukraine
In the span of 45 minutes today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rewrote the history of the Cold War, accused the West of fomenting a coup in Ukraine and declared himself a champion of the United Nations Charter. The crowd here in Germany laughed at and then booed him, but he didn’t seem to care.
When Lavrov took the stage Saturday morning at the Munich Security Conference, he knew it was going to be a tough crowd. He was speaking just after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and ahead of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. For two days, almost all of the panelists at the conference had railed against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The debates were not over whether Russia was a bad actor spoiling international security, but rather how to deal with that consensus view.
He looked nervous, perhaps because Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov's superior, was sitting in the front row, staring at him as if to warn him not to mess up. But none of that kept him from turning in an audacious performance.
“In any situation, the United States is trying to blame Russia for everything," he said. "Russia will be committed to peace. We are against combat. We would like to see a withdrawal of heavy weapons.”
Lavrov then accused the U.S. of supporting military attacks against innocent Ukrainians. (He chose not to mention the Russian heavy weaponry in Eastern Ukraine or the hundreds of Russian military advisers on the ground.) Lavrov accused the Ukrainian military and government of being anti-Jewish and said that the Hungarian minority in Ukraine was being mistreated. He called out the U.S. for negotiating with the Afghan Taliban but -- in his view -- not supporting negotiations between the Ukraine government and the Eastern separatists.
Talking about the possibility of the U.S. giving lethal aid to the Ukrainian military, Lavrov leveled a thinly veiled threat that the Russians might invade Ukraine outright, as they did Georgia seven years ago after what they saw as provocation from President Mikheil Saakashvili.
“I don’t think our Ukrainian colleagues should hope the support they are receiving will solve their problems,” he said. “That support … is going to their heads in the way it did for Saakashvili in 2008, and we know how that ended.”
The crowd took that in stride, but then burst out laughing when Lavrov said that the annexation of Crimea, which was invaded by unmarked Russian troops, was an example of international legal norms working well.
“What happened in Crimea was the people invoking the right of self-determination.” he said. “You’ve got to read the UN Charter. Territorial integrity and sovereignty must be respected. “
As chuckles filled the ballroom of the elegant Hotel Bayerischer Hof, Lavrov shrugged it off: “You may find it funny. I also found many things you said funny.”
But the laughter turned to scorn when Lavrov made a muddled comparison of the Ukraine crisis with the division of Germany in the Cold War. “Germany got reunited without a referendum and we were an active supporter of that process after the Second World War," he said. "You will remember that it was the Soviet Union that was against splitting Germany."
He was trying to make the point that Russia supports popular votes to end internal wars -- such as the referendums in Crimea and the eastern Ukrainian area of Donetsk -- while the West does not.
But that was the moment at which any remaining respect for Lavrov among the largely German audience vanished. Apparently, they didn't remember the Soviet Union’s actions as particularly helpful in bringing about reunification. There was, for example, the Berlin Wall.
The booing of the crowd was amplified on Twitter by several participants, including former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt:
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, was moderating the question-and-answer session on stage with Lavrov. He tried to find common ground, saying, “The issues we are discussing here are no laughing matter from any side.”
Actually, it was funny, but not because the fate of Ukraine should be trivialized. The entire episode made it obvious that any notion that the West and Russia can have a discussion on Ukraine, based on a shared vision of reality, is absurd.
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