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Russia's Lavrov Met With Hoots, Indignation At Testy Munich Talk

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses the 51st Munich Security Conference in Munich on February 7.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses the 51st Munich Security Conference in Munich on February 7.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sparked derisive laughter and indignation among the audience at a security conference in Munich by defending Moscow's actions in the Ukraine conflict and accusing the West of fomenting unrest in the crisis.

In a testy question-and-answer session following his February 7 speech at the conference, Lavrov elicited scattered howls from an audience that included Western officials by claiming that Ukraine's Crimea territory willingly joined Russia in line with the United Nations Charter.

"I guess it's funny. I also found many things [said here] funny as well, but I controlled myself," Lavrov, who spoke in Russian throughout, said in response to the laughter.

The United States and the European Union (EU) accuse Russia of illegally annexing Crimea in March following a self-styled "referendum" held on the peninsula after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, fled the country amid antigovernment protests.

Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in March, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to "affirm its commitment" to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, calling the vote held in Crimea "invalid."

Western governments and Kyiv also accuse the Kremlin of backing pro-Russian separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 5,350 people since April.

Canada's delegation to NATO wrote on its Twitter feed that Lavrov's comments were a "sad attempt to dress up Russia's grab of Crimea with UN language."

Lavrov was also subjected to scorn after expressing support for the principles of territorial integrity and nonintervention spelled out in the Helsinki Final Act, a treaty signed in 1975 by 35 states, including the Soviet Union.

The Helsinki principles "were long ago torn up by the actions of the United States and its allies in Yugoslavia, which they bombed, in Iraq, in Libya, and by expanding NATO eastward and creating new dividing lines," Lavrov said.

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who was in the audience, accused the Russian foreign minister of hypocrisy.

"Russia violates all Helsinki principles, yet FM Lavrov calls for reaffirming them. Interesting logic," Vershbow tweeted.

In another February 7 tweet, Vershbow said Lavrov was engaging in "blame shifting" and perpetuating "mostly fabrications and half-truths."

Marketing 'Rubbish'

Lavrov also accused the United States and the EU of escalating the crisis in Ukraine "at every step" after street protests erupted in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities following Yanukovych's sudden decision in November 2013 to reject a trade and political deal with the EU.

"After that, there was direct support for a coup," Lavrov said, repeating Moscow's long-stated view of the events.

Western officials repeatedly note that Yanukovych fled Kyiv after signing an EU-brokered deal with then-Ukrainian opposition leaders that called for a unity government and early presidential election.

Ukrainian lawmakers then voted to remove Yanukovych, who later fled to Russia, from office on the grounds that he was unable to fulfill his duties as president. This cleared the way for a pro-Western government to assume power in Kyiv.

Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, criticized Lavrov's portrayal of the circumstances surrounding the transition of power in Ukraine as disingenuous.

"Lavrov accuses EU of 'supporting [a] coup d'etat' in [Kyiv]. I hope he feels somewhat ashamed of having to market such rubbish," Bildt wrote on Twitter.

'No Laughing Matter'

Arguably the most tense exchange during Lavrov's appearance was prompted by a question from Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament, who told the Russian minister that his "description of the situation in Ukraine is not correct."

"It was not a coup," said Brok, who received applause from the audience.

Lavrov replied that the German official's question will "make for good television" and accused Brok of double standards.

"It's one thing if you want to give angry speeches that will bolster your position in politics and the European Parliament," Lavrov said. "If you want to talk, then let's sit down and reaffirm all of the Helsinki principles and see why you think they were violated in some cases and not in others."

It was in response to Brok that Lavrov sparked hoots of derision for his defense of Russia's annexation of Crimea as in accordance with the UN Charter.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's website published a transcript later on February 7 that excluded Lavrov's immediate response to the laughter in the auditorium but included his reference to the commotion in his concluding comments.

"We can discuss all of this if you truly want to know our position and our motivations," Lavrov said. "[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin has said this repeatedly. You can laugh at it, of course. But then someone just gets some satisfaction from this. They say laughter prolongs life."

The moderator, Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States and the chairman of the Munich conference, wrapped up the discussion by saying: "The issues we are discussing here, I think, are no laughing matter from any side."

-- Carl Schreck

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