Mogherini, Lavrov agree to disagree on EU-Russia issues

Sergei Lavrov and Federica Mogherini. Brussels, 11 July. [@eu_eeas/Twitter]

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday (11 July) said both sides could cooperate on key international issues but traded barbs over Syria at the same time.

Mogherini, hosting Lavrov in Brussels after visiting Moscow in April, said they regularly discussed global problems affecting their interests.

Lavrov is in Brussels at the invitation of the Belgian government.

Ties between Moscow and Brussels have been strained since Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“It is clear we do not share the same positions on everything but… it is essential from our perspective to engage, cooperate wherever possible and today we identified ground for cooperation,” she told reporters.

Mogherini cited in particular Syria and the ceasefire in the southwest of the country announced after the G20 meeting between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin last week.

“We see this as a first step to a broader nationwide ceasefire,” she said.

At the same time, she recalled how the EU has provided almost €10 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrians who wanted a “normal life.”

“We are not military player in Syria… and we are proud of not being one,” Mogherini added.

Russia, in stark contrast, has intervened on the side of long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad, helping him regain much of the ground lost to rebel forces backed by the west.

Lavrov said bluntly: “We all know the contribution the EU is making… but it is high time to consider the humanitarian impact of EU and US sanctions (against) Damascus.”

He stated that the sanctions had destroyed Syria’s pharmaceutical industry, to which Mogherini insisted that the measures targeted only Syrian individuals.

Mogherini said the meeting, which lasted a couple of hours, covered the Libyan crisis, Gulf tensions, the stalled Middle East peace process along with the situation in North Korea and Ukraine.

She gave no specific details.

Earlier Tuesday, EU member states formally approved a landmark cooperation accord with Ukraine ahead of a high-profile summit in Kyiv.

“This is the final step of the ratification process through which the EU and Ukraine commit to a close, long-term relationship in all main policy areas,” a statement said.

Mogherini noted that the EU was still seeking full implementation of the Minsk ceasefire accords, agreed to by Russia as part of efforts to end fighting between government forces and Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

EU disagrees with US on Iran

Mogherini explained that the EU respected the United States’ review of the 2015 deal with Iran but will make clear to Washington that it was an international accord endorsed by the United Nations.

“The nuclear deal doesn’t belong to one country, it belongs to the international community,” she said, speaking alongside Lavrov. “We have the responsibility to make sure that this continues to be implemented.”

The historic deal between Iran and six major powers restricts Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of oil and financial sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

The Trump Administration said in April it was launching an inter-agency review of whether the lifting of sanctions against Iran was in the United States’ national security interests.

Lavrov lashes at US

Before arriving in Brussels Lavrov called “outrageous” the seizure of some of the Russian diplomatic premises in the United States and expulsions of diplomats, and hinted at a possible retaliation.

“The situation is outrageous,” the Russian minister told Russian media during a visit to Austria on Tuesday.

“I believe that for such a great country like the United States of America, this advocate of international law, it’s just shameful to leave the situation in mid-air,” he said in comments posted on his ministry’s website.

“We are now thinking of specific steps.”

At the news conference with Mogherini later in Brussels Lavrov spoke of “retaliatory measures” but declined to answer when asked if that meant that Russia would expel US diplomats or seize diplomatic property.

He called on Washington to heed Moscow’s demands for a return of diplomatic assets.

“If this does not happen, if we see that this step is not seen as essential in Washington, then of course we will take retaliatory measures.

“This is the law of diplomacy, the law of international affairs, that reciprocity is the basis of all relations.”

Citing a Russian diplomatic source, the Izvestia daily said Russia was considering expelling around 30 US diplomats and taking over two US diplomatic compounds in Moscow and St Petersburg.

In December, the US seized two Russian diplomatic compounds and then-President Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russians over what he said was their involvement in hacking to interfere in the US presidential election campaign.

Moscow denied the allegations and said then it would wait to see if relations improved under incoming President Donald Trump.

It’s Obama’s fault

Izvestia said on Tuesday that the Russian government was frustrated that President Vladimir Putin’s first meeting with Trump in Hamburg last week had failed to resolve the diplomatic row.

Their discussions far exceeded the original time limit, ranging from cyber security to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Trump described the talks soon afterwards as “very, very good”.

Lavrov said on Tuesday Russia well understood the impact of the continued “anti-Russian bias of the US Congress” now that the Trump administration had long been in place.

“We realise that the decision to expel our diplomats, to impound our diplomatic property was adopted by the administration of former US President Obama,” he said.

The outgoing administration had aimed “to poison to a maximum US-Russian ties” and create a “trap” for Trump, he added.

Trump and his aides have been dogged by allegations of collusion with Russian interference in last year’s US election.