Lavrov to visit NATO country for conference

FILE - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a joint press conference with Venezuela's Foreign Minister Yvan Gil Pinto in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 16, 2023. Lavrov says he plans to travel to NATO member North Macedonia later this week to attend a conference of a top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, a trip that would mark his first visit to a NATO country since Moscow sent troops to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)
FILE - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during a joint press conference with Venezuela's Foreign Minister Yvan Gil Pinto in Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 16, 2023. Lavrov says he plans to travel to NATO member North Macedonia later this week to attend a conference of a top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, a trip that would mark his first visit to a NATO country since Moscow sent troops to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)

MOSCOW -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that he plans to travel to North Macedonia later this week to attend a conference, a trip that would mark his first visit to a NATO member country since Moscow sent troops to Ukraine.

Russia is one of the 57 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, set up during the Cold War to help defuse East-West tensions. North Macedonia, which holds the group's rotating chairmanship, invited Lavrov to an OSCE foreign ministers' meeting that starts Thursday in Skopje, the capital of the small, landlocked Balkan country.

NATO members banned Russian flights after Moscow launched its military action in Ukraine in February 2022. To reach North Macedonia, Lavrov's plane would need to fly through the airspace of Bulgaria or Greece, which also belongs to the Western military alliance.

Speaking at a foreign policy conference in Moscow on Monday, Lavrov said Bulgaria apparently has given permission for an overflight.

"It appears that Bulgaria promised Macedonia to open its airspace," he said. "If it works, we will get there."

Lavrov said his office has received requests for bilateral meetings from several foreign ministers of other countries who plan to be in Skopje. "Of course, we will meet with everyone," he said.

His deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, told reporters that Lavrov was not going to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who also is expected to attend the OSCE foreign ministers' meeting.

Lavrov argued that the security situation in Europe is more dangerous now than at any time during the Cold War. In the past, he maintained, the Soviet Union, the U.S. and its NATO allies back then sought to "restrain their rivalry with political and diplomatic practices" and never "expressed such serious concerns about their future, their physical future."

"Now such fears are all too common," he added.

Lavrov further declared that Moscow is not thinking about rebuilding ties with Europe but how instead "we should safeguard ourselves in all key sectors of our economy, our life on the whole and our security."

The defiant stand appeared to reflect Moscow's hope that Western support for Ukraine could wane amid the forthcoming elections in the U.S. and Europe, the Israel-Hamas war and the state of the battlefield where a Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed to make any significant gains.

Lavrov charged that while some in the West may want to freeze the conflict to buy time for Ukraine to rearm itself, "we'll think over and weigh all those offers 10 times to see how they comply with our interests and how reliable those European counterparts are."

"They've undermined their reputation very, very badly," Lavrov said. "Maybe not completely yet."