30 November 2015
Moscow: 10:57
London: 07:57

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Ambassador A.Yakovenko: thinking on Syria

Over the past few months meeting British Government Ministers, politicians and people in academia and media I have been often asked questions on Russia’s position on the Syrian crisis and its conceptual reasoning. The Embassy has also been receiving letters from British citizens on those issues. I’d like to answer them, though Russia has always been clear on where we stand on Syria, including at the level of President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, as well as in the course of our diplomatic contacts with Foreign Office.

First of all, Russia’s position on settlement of the Syrian crisis is a position of principle. The principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of other states, enshrined in the UN Charter, have not been codified in international law just like that. They represent the wisdom, paid for dearly by the world over centuries of wars, including Wars of Religion and Revolutions in Europe.

Those principles represent awareness that outside interference into these processes, profoundly intimate for the nations concerned, can only distort and deligitimize the final outcome. The British saw it in their own history and take pride in having been able to draw a line under the experience of their Revolution and Civil War early enough, although it took almost 40 years to achieve that. This was, by the way, George Kennan’s recommendation to the West for the post-Soviet period in Russia.

Revolution releases elemental forces, and the way they play out is resolved by history alone. To think that an outsider knows better is utterly arrogant. Based on our own experience of Revolution and Civil War, we know that when every participant fights for his/her vision of his/her country, the logic of armed struggle inevitably brings the most ruthless on top for people, among other things, fight for their lives.

As to the unintended consequences of outside intervention, we know what happened in Afghanistan when the Soviet Union intervened there and the USA followed to support the other side. It was all done presumably for a good cause, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Then followed war in Iraq, intervention in Libya, which, for now, led to destabilization of another neighbouring country, as rightly noted recently Stephen Kinzer in The International Herald Tribune.

Revolutions are a serious business, they take generations to run their course. Transformations once started, follow their own unpredictable logic. And in an argument between a life that happens to be and a life that ought to be, it is usually the former that prevails. In Europe the Revolutions didn’t help to prevent the tragedy of the Great War and everything that followed. Is there a need to dig as far back in history as civil wars in Rome with their proscriptions. The same pattern repeats itself everywhere with violence begetting violence in a vicious circle and people always losers.

The only realistic thing to do for international community is encouraging the parties involved to display moderation and engage in an inclusive political dialogue. This has been a consistent policy of Russia on Syria, as President Vladimir Putin has stated on successive occasions. On 30 June 2012 the Action Group on Syria at its first meeting in Geneva agreed precisely this position. Unfortunately it has not been followed through by our partners, tempted by ambivalent ideas of a political transition imposed on the Syrians.

 If either of the parties to the conflict does not feel compelled to seek middle ground early on, then what incentives would they have to act in that fashion when winner gets all? The foundations for moderate politics and policies, required for national reconstruction and reconciliation, have got to be laid early. That is why things look more inspiring and sustainable in Tunisia and Egypt. This approach is plainly pragmatic. And if it doesn’t work in Syria, the reason is that the opposition has never been influenced in earnest in that way.

These views do not differ much from those expressed by Seumas Milne in The Guardian on 8 August 2012. The evidence in their support has been mounting on the ground over the past weeks and days. What else is required for our Western partners to reassess the situation and admit that their initial assumptions were wrong?

It seems that outside interventions reflect the political imperative to be seen doing something, though there is objectively nothing spectacular that could be really done. Or is it just to have one’s way?  Another factor is self-delusion that those things can be managed from outside and countries and entire regions ordered and re-ordered. We don’t share that view.

It is worth mentioning that in 2006 in American conservative think-tanks various plans were drawn of territorial restructuring of Iraq and neighbouring states. New “organic borders” were supposed to be established through “creative destruction” under the slogan of “New Middle East” (for example, see the June 2006 issue of The Armed Forces Journal). They provided for partitioning of Iraq, creation of “Free Kurdistan”, “Islamic Sacred State” etc. It was done to find ways to ensure regional stability after it had been destroyed by the war in Iraq. These ideas now seem becoming a reality with a prospect of a fragmented Syria. At that time, with no Arab spring on the horizon, the authors of this intellectual exercise didn’t mind the consequences of such a scenario, for example, for Turkey (The Financial Times was quite eloquent on that recently), as well as the states on the Arabian peninsula, which is the ultimate objective of Al-Qaida and its likes, who, sure, will take advantage of mutual destabilization of regional states if it comes to that. It was presumed that things like this were manageable and would provide “decent outcomes”, otherwise unachievable. Now comes the reality check, with the costs to be borne both by the nations of the region and the outside world. Do we really need to go that far and risk an explosion, the region has not seen since the end of the Ottoman empire a hundred years ago? 

This is not to say, that one can get away from history. Niall Ferguson’s and Jeremy Paxman’s Empires are primarily about the present state of the nation and the world, which would be impossible to understand otherwise. As wrote The Independent the other day, colonial history cannot be wished away in the Middle East and other regions. Why then shifting blame on to Russia?

I don’t know. But Russia was not a party to suppressing the first wave of political awakening in the Broader Middle East in early 1950-ies. We have never dominated this region. We have nothing to atone for. We have no vested interest in preserving the status quo. But history has a lot to do with the Arab Spring, the ways events have been unfolding over the past year and a half. The absolute minimum we owe to the peoples of the region and our international partners are honesty and openness. We’ll never engage in Great Games there or anywhere else.

We are willing to be part of a collective international effort on that basis, which includes a joint intelligent analysis and joint thinking the situation through. We started that in Geneva. We are not far apart in what we want for the region. But we differ on the methods to achieve that goal, and it is a case where method defines outcome, where style equals substance.


28.11.2015 - Bonds forged by the great game of football can help defeat terrorism (by Consul General Andrey Prisepov for Herald Scotland)

Two weeks ago, we all followed a rather special football game at Wembley: England playing France just days after the attacks in Paris. The innocent victims of these inhuman assaults were remembered with dignity and poignant tribute was paid by players and supporters. Thousands of people shared their passion for the great game and, equally, showed their compassion in a manifestation of unity and solidarity. Once again football embodied human spirit and an affirmation of life. History has numerous examples of what seems to be the inherent qualities of the game. Herald readers may have watched the 1980s film Escape to Victory starring Michael Caine. In the movie, allied prisoners of war play football against their Nazi guards, knowing they will be shot should they win.

26.11.2015 - Ambassador Yakovenko responds to Russian media question on Britain's renewed National Security Strategy

Question: The recent announcement by the British Government of the outcome of its 5-year Review of the National Security Strategy has attracted a lot of criticism. Russia features prominently in some key provisions of the document. What could you say on that? Answer: I'll start with Russia's place in it. Unfortunately, we witness what I would call inertia of the rhetoric, that is no longer reflective of the reality, which has been evolving fast. Still, it is now less categorical and diffuse, which may be a sign of changing attitude. Hope, it is going to be the case.

18.11.2015 - Syrian solution demands truly inclusive compromise (article by Ambassador Yakovenko for the Daily Telegraph supplement, 17 November 2015)

Upon Russia’s insistence, a truly inclusive multilateral process was launched in Vienna on Oct. 30 to help find a compromise solution to the Syrian crisis. Iran, a major player, took part for the first time, as well as China. All agreed to the U.S., Russia and the U.N. co-chairing the meeting. Heated exchanges took place on the issue of President Bashar al-Assad’s future. As was the case three years ago, this could derail the entire process. But ultimately it was agreed to disagree on that issue. Lack of agreement on this subject resulted in three more years of bloody impasse. We should know better than that this time. All the more so that those are the differences between the outside players. Why not leave it to the Syrians to decide?

17.11.2015 - Welcoming points at the Russian-British business forum, dedicated to the 95th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian Trade Mission in the UK (17 November, 9.00, Royal Garden Hotel)

Ladies and gentlemen! I am delighted to welcome you at the Russian-British Business Forum, dedicated to such a significant date – the 95th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian Trade Mission in the United Kingdom. It gives me special pleasure to congratulate our colleagues on this occasion, since this trade delegation established to promote trade links with the United Kingdom in 1920 and headed by People's Commissar of Foreign Trade Leonid Krasin became the first in history Soviet Russia's trade representation abroad. In fact, it set an example for a whole network of Russian trade missions abroad, which are still successfully operating. Ever since its establishment the Trade Mission has continued to work hard to promote business relations between Russia and Great Britain. It helps companies in both countries to find partners and enter each other’s markets.

29.10.2015 - Russian Embassy on the Times editorial

Your editorial, which accompanied Ambassador Yakovenko’s interview (26 October) is full of grossly misleading statements on Russia’s foreign policy. May I set the record straight before your readership?

23.10.2015 - Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Financial Times”

Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Financial Times”

21.10.2015 - Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Guardian”

Letter of Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy A.Kramarenko to the “Guardian”

19.10.2015 - Why Russia had to intervene in Syria (article by Ambassador Yakovenko published in The Independent)

Combating international terrorism has long been one of the top priorities of Russia's foreign policy. We have been consistently advocating genuinely global efforts in countering that evil. The fight against terrorism must be conducted on a universal legal basis, starting with the UN Charter. That is why Russia has been unable to join the US-led “global coalition” against Isis. The coalition was established in circumvention of the UN Security Council, and its operations in Syria violate the sovereignty of that country.

13.10.2015 - "Russian airstrikes won't solve the crisis" because they are Russian? (article by Andrey A. Pritsepov, Consul General of the Russian Federation in Edinburgh, published in "The Scotsman")

Having read your leader comments "Russian airstrikes won't solve crisis" from 30th September and "Effort needed to rein in lone wolf" from 2nd October I cannot help but notice that they represent a U-turn compared to your previous instalments (for instance, from 17th July "Conservatives made to look very bad again" and from 21st July "PM needs to do more to beat IS").

12.10.2015 - Letter to the Editor of The Sunday Times

On 11 October 2015 The Sunday Times published the article “RAF ready to shoot down Russian aircraft over Syria” which referred to “three senior Cabinet ministers and senior Defence sources”. Given clarifications from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, stating publicly that “reports about RAF rules of engagement in Iraq are inaccurate”, one may conclude that your newspaper was spreading rumours, which could have grave consequences for our bilateral relationship with Britain, and far beyond.

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