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Special Report: Russia’s Lavrov Loves to Blame the West; Why Estonia Wants a Special Court to Try Putin

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Sergey Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, leaves the UN Security Council meeting on Sept 20, 2023
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recited Kremlin propaganda talking points in his speech to the General Assembly, on Sept. 23, including blaming global crises on “the West.” Here, he leaves the Security Council, where he spoke at the summit on Ukraine, Sept. 20, 2023. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Russia Blames the West, an ‘Empire of Lies,’ for All Global Ills — 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov used his speech on Saturday, toward the end of the United Nations General Assembly’s annual debate, to recite many of the Kremlin’s favorite propaganda talking points. He blamed international problems on the “global West” and called for reforming the UN in favor of what Russia, its allies and many other countries say needs fairer representation.

“The collective West has a calling card, and it has long been to reject the principle of equality; their total inability to reach an agreement [is] being used to look down at the rest of the world,” Lavrov said early in his speech, quoting President Vladimir Putin’s labeling the West “an empire of lies.”

Throughout his speech, Lavrov criticized many aspects of the West’s conduct, which Russia considers an attempt to expand its influence and prevent the emergence of a “multipolar” world order at the expense of Russia and its allies — among them Syria, Belarus and North Korea. Lavrov spoke about the non-Western world aligning and achieving what Russia believes to be a “genuine democratization of global affairs” and “revival of the UN as a central coordinating body for global politics.”

While Lavrov did not directly mention Russia’s 19-month war in Ukraine, a key theme of this year’s UNGA, as it’s known, the subject came up regularly in speeches by world leaders all week, given that President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared physically to speak at UN headquarters, on Sept. 19 and 20, in the General Assembly and the Security Council, respectively. During Saturday morning’s speeches, before Lavrov took the Assembly rostrum, other foreign ministers referred to the war in their own remarks. Lavrov instead talked extensively about topics commonly associated with the Kremlin’s propaganda to justify the invasion.

(Lavrov also gave a press briefing after he spoke to the Assembly, rebutting, among other criticisms, that Russia is isolated in the global arena. He told reporters that “I don’t have a second to be bored here,” and according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Twitter account, Lavrov held a series of 12 short meetings each in an informal office near the Security Council with the foreign ministers from Hungary, Azerbaijan, Serbia, Burkina Faso, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Iran, among others.)

Among many claims in his Assembly speech, Lavrov revisited the false argument that the Western push to expand NATO’s borders violated previously agreed conditions and threatened Russia’s security. In reality, no such promises were made. This is an argument that Putin has raised repeatedly to justify the war in Ukraine, despite the contradictory statements he’s also made, saying that he never thought of Ukraine as a sovereign nation. In another commonly heard false claim, Lavrov accused the Ukrainian government of being Nazis and accused the West of protecting the spread of Nazi sentiments across the world.

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One of  12 “bilateral” meetings Lavrov held during the General Assembly session, his office tweeted, aiming to show that Russia is not alone at the UN. Here, Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov of Azerbaijan, across from Lavrov, with the Russian delegation in a Security Council office, Sept. 22, 2023. Russia said the meeting started with an apology by Bayramov for the “deaths of Russian peacekeepers.”

Like several other speakers on Sept. 23, Lavrov called for lifting Western sanctions imposed on Venezuela and Syria and noted the many other global issues that he perceived as the fault of “the West.”

He ended his remarks by expressing concerns about the status of the “world order,” suggesting that the only way to prevent “the final collapse of the mechanisms for international cooperation” is to have “a fair balance of interests of all member states, with the respect of the intergovernmental character, our organization,” referring to the UN. — ANASTASIIA CARRIER 

Margus Tsahkna, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia
In PassBlue’s interview with Margus Tsahkna, foreign affairs minister of Estonia, he said that efforts to create a special tribunal to prosecute top Russian leaders for the crime of aggression in Ukraine has hit a roadblock imposed by the G7 countries. Tsahkna, above, at Estonia’s mission to the UN, Sept. 23, 2023. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

‘Putin Gave the Order’: Estonia’s Commitment to the Prosecution of Top Russian Leaders — 

PassBlue sat down with Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Margus Tsahkna at his country’s UN mission in New York City on Sept. 22 as the General Assembly annual session was winding down. We discussed the war in Ukraine and his government’s major foreign policy priority: Creating a special tribunal to prosecute the top political and military tiers of Russia’s government, including President Vladimir Putin, for the crime of aggression in Ukraine.

“We have aggression,” Tsahkna said. “It’s clear aggression. Putin gave the order. It’s documented. It’s there, so there is no question. We have to react.”

An international core group of states, organized by Ukraine, whose legal experts meet regularly to debate the final shape of a special tribunal, are now deadlocked over what the court will ultimately look like. Within the group, the G7 countries, led by the United States, Britain and France, have dug in their heels on what they call an internationalized/national tribunal rooted in Ukraine’s legal system, while smaller European nations supporting a tribunal — including Estonia, Liechtenstein and the other Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania — still advocate for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s vision of a court to be endorsed by the UN General Assembly. Given that the three Baltic countries are relatively small but well off and close physical neighbors of Russia, their sense of the need for accountability is palpable.

“The tribunal isn’t a legal question, it’s a political one and we have to face it,” Tsahkna said. The core group’s most recent meeting took place on Sept. 22 in The Hague.

The interview with Tsahkna has been edited for clarity. – DAWN CLANCY

PassBlue: The core group is meeting in The Hague discussing the tribunal as we speak. What’s the main sticking point?

Tsahkna: The main topic is the immunity for leadership. This is the hot potato. This is the question that we have to solve, and this is not a legal question. There is a legal way, [through] the United Nations [General] Assembly, to give the mandate to the secretary-general and form the international special tribunal.

[Clancy: Under basic international law, heads of state have immunity before other countries’ courts. However, that immunity dissolves before an international court. Therefore, with approval from the General Assembly, the tribunal could be designated as an international court, enabling it to prosecute not only Putin for the crime of aggression but also others, such as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov]

PassBlue: But when you raise the immunity issue, the United States, the G7, counter that with the possibility of Putin leaving office someday, he will lose that immunity. These parties want to focus on collecting evidence instead, so when Putin may no longer be president, the international community can bring him to justice. Hence, immunity problem solved.

Tsahkna: We must deal with the Russian aggression crimes, Russian genocide, Russian war crimes and Putin’s crimes as a leader. Wait until [he leaves office]? No. No. How can we explain it to the Ukrainians or wherever in the world that [Putin] has immunity? It’s political. So we have to deal with that. We have to explain, and with today’s communication, everybody can read the news globally. And I think that it was a big change in the Russian war against Ukraine, when the Bucha [massacre] information came out. I think Ukraine actually won the war at that moment.

PassBlue: What’s the holdup with creating the tribunal through the General Assembly?

Tsahkna: What’s the problem? That’s my question as well.

PassBlue: Regarding the war, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently announced that his country would no longer give weapons to Ukraine. Last week, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said, “We must prepare ourselves” for a long war in Ukraine. What’s shifting?

Tsahkna: Poland is really supportive of Ukraine and they will definitely continue. We have to understand as well that democracies are not meant to be at war. We have important elections coming. These are complicated issues and I’m not going to comment on [Poland’s] domestic policies.

PassBlue: Do you think Ukraine’s counteroffensive is working?

Tsahkna: Ukrainians are fighting back and they are moving forward. If anybody is critical from their warm, cozy sofa, they have to think that Ukrainians are breaking through minefields that are 30 to 40 kilometers deep and six mines per one square meter while under heavy fire. But the Ukrainians do it and they pay a really high price. They are successful, but it takes times, takes thousands of lives. What we can do is to give Ukraine what it is asking for in military ways, finance ways, politically and hope and perspective. They’re fighting the war for us. And we feel it because we know what it means to be occupied [Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991].

PassBlue: When do you think the war will end?

Tsahkna: I hope as quick as possible.

PassBlue: If Putin wins the war in Ukraine, do you think he’ll come for the Baltics next?

Tsahkna: Of course. Putin took Georgia in 2008, and it’s still occupied and nothing happened. And we said, next it will be Estonia or Ukraine; we are a member of NATO and the European Union, so it’s more complicated. But then Ukraine started. Putin will never be stopped if we don’t finish this. It will be repeated; only the cost will be much higher.

Gabriel Boric, President of Chile, greets Catherine Colonna, French Foreign Minister after signing the The High Seas Treaty at the UN on Sept 20, 2023
Gabriel Boric, president of Chile, greeting Catherine Colonna, French foreign minister, after he signed the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty, or BBNJ, which is meant to protect marine areas in the high seas. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Lavrov blaming the West for global ills?

Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

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Special Report: Russia’s Lavrov Loves to Blame the West; Why Estonia Wants a Special Court to Try Putin
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