- Steve Rosenberg
- BBC Russia editor from Moscow
Thousands of civilians have been killed, entire towns reduced to rubble and millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russian troops attacked Ukraine nearly four months ago. But on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov looked me in the eyes and told me things were not what they seemed.
“We did not invade Ukraine,” he claimed.
“We announced a special military operation because we had absolutely no other way to make the West understand that dragging Ukraine into NATO was a crime.”
Lavrov has given only a few interviews to Western media since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
He repeated the Kremlin’s official statement that there were Nazis in Ukraine. Russian officials often claim that their military is assisting in the “denazification” of Ukraine. Lavrov’s remarks not long ago also caused an uproar. In the face of the Ukrainian president’s Jewish identity, he even said that Hitler had “Jewish blood” absurd remarks.
I also quoted before him an official UN report on the village of Yahidne in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region, which stated that “360 inhabitants, including 74 children and 5 disabled persons, were armed by Russia Forced to stay in the basement of a school for 28 days … no toilet facilities or water … 10 elderly people died.”
“Is this fighting the Nazis?” I asked.
Lavrov told me: “It’s a pity, but diplomats from various countries, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Secretary-General and other UN representatives, are being pressured by the West. And many times, they are being used to amplify the falsehoods spread by the West. news.”
“Russia is not without problems, but Russia is Russia, and we are not ashamed to show who we are,” he said.
Lavrov, 72, has represented Russia on the international stage for the past 18 years, but now the West has sanctioned both him and his daughter.
The United States accused him of lying about Ukraine as an aggressor and accused Russia, as a Security Council member, of direct responsibility for Ukraine’s aggression.
I went on to talk about Russia’s relationship with the UK. The UK is on Russia’s official list of unfriendly countries, and I think it’s an understatement to say relations are “poor”.
Lavrov added: “I think there is no room for good offices now. Because (British Prime Minister) Johnson and (British foreign secretary) Truss have said publicly that we should defeat Russia, we should force Russia to submit. Act.” It was last month that the British foreign secretary said Putin was humiliating himself on the international stage: “We have to make sure he faces defeat in Ukraine”.
But when I pointed out that, in the eyes of the West, it was Russia itself that was responsible for their fate, he replied. “I’m not interested in what the West thinks, I’m only interested in international law. Under international law, mercenaries are not recognized as combatants.”
I replied that these men had served in the Ukrainian armed forces and were not mercenaries, which Lavrov said should be decided by the courts.
He then criticized the BBC for not revealing the truth about what happened to civilians in separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine “when they were bombed by the Kyiv army for eight years”.
I stress that over the past six years, the BBC has contacted the leadership of the separatist-held areas several times, asking for permission to see what’s going on. We were denied entry every time.
Russia accuses Ukraine of genocide there. However, eight civilians were killed in rebel-held areas in Ukraine in 2021, up from seven the year before, according to self-proclaimed pro-Russian “officials” in Eastern Ukrainian. I say that while every death is a tragedy, it does not constitute genocide.
I asked him if there was a real genocide in the region, then the Luhansk and Donetsk separatists would be interested in us going there. I asked again, why was the BBC not allowed to interview there?
“I don’t know,” Lavrov said.