Briefing of the Foreign Ministry Spokesman
Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, December 21, 2017
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s upcoming meeting with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson
- The situation in Syria
- UN Security Council resolution renewing authorisation for humanitarian access to Syria
- Developments in Yemen
- Situation in the Middle East settlement process
- New US anti-Russia sanctions
- Washington’s accusations of Russia allegedly violating the INF Treaty
- US arms supplies to Ukraine
- Withdrawal of Russian officers from the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination of the ceasefire and stabilisation along the line of contact in Ukraine
- Developments in Honduras
- Results of Russian-French Cultural Tourism Year
- French authorities hamper Russian journalist’s work
- Western plans to tighten internet regulations
- Contract signed by Georgia with Swiss monitoring company SGS and its work in Georgia
- Excerpts from answers to questions:
- Russian-British relations
- Developments in Venezuela and Honduras
- Russian-British relations
- Russia’s possible role in settling the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad
- Investigation into the murder of Andrey Karlov
- The situation in Afghanistan
- Assessment of Turkey’s role in Syrian settlement
- Assessment of Russia-West relations
- EC sanctions against Poland
- Russian-Kuwaiti relations
- Russia’s reaction to the publication of the US National Security Strategy
- Defending the rights of the Orthodox Church
Today, on December 21, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu will meet with UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in Moscow. The officials, who maintain regular contact, will continue to discuss all aspects of the Syrian settlement process, including in the context of the results of the eighth round of the intra-Syrian consultations in Geneva, the eighth round of the international meeting on Syria in Astana, which began earlier today, and the preparations for the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura are also planning to give a joint news conference later today. After the talks, detailed information will be posted on the Foreign Ministry website.
On December 22, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who will be on a working visit in Russia.
The talks at the Foreign Ministry are expected to focus on the status of and prospects for relations between Russia and Great Britain with a view to finding ways to normalise them and step up bilateral cooperation. A discussion of current international and regional issues is planned.
There is also a planned news conference following the talks. Hopefully, the British party will not make changes to this agenda.
The successful operation to eliminate the military and political seat of international terrorism in Syria with the decisive role played by the Russian Aerospace Forces is coming to an end. The Syrian Army has managed to uphold Syria as a sovereign and independent state. The ISIS terrorist group has suffered a devastating defeat and ceased to exist as a military and political organisation on Syrian soil.
Pursuant to the order of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, President of Russia Vladimir Putin, efforts are ongoing to withdraw the Russian grouping of forces back to Russia, to their permanent stationing locations. A portion of service personnel will remain in Syria on full alert to help the Syrian military prevent dangerous incursions by the terrorist underground and not allow the remaining terrorists to move to neighbouring states and from there on to other regions and countries.
Although ISIS has been defeated, the security situation remains difficult. Syria is facing a serious threat of terrorist attacks, mortar fire and hostage taking. Recently, local security services prevented a major terrorist attack in Damascus, identifying and destroying a “jihad-mobile.” The son of a Syrian People’s Council deputy, a Mr Ramyah, was assassinated in Aleppo. The remnants of ISIS gangs taking shelter in the vast desert area straddling the Homs and Deir ez-Zor provinces, attacked Syrian Army checkpoints near the T-2 oil pumping station and al-Mueysiah [?]. On December 17, Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists attacked Army positions in northern Hama but were stopped by the Syrian military with support from the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Syrian government forces continue pushing out al-Nusra militants in southwestern Damascus. The military approached the strategic settlement of Magher al-Meir. Taking control of several high grounds made it possible to cut off jihadist supply and redeployment routes near the town of Beit-Jin.
Alongside its antiterrorism efforts, the Syrian leadership is working to foster local ceasefires, as well as the national peace process. A regular meeting between Syrian security forces and Jeirud city council members took place in eastern Qalamoun with mediation by the Russian military that addressed issues related to disarming local illegal armed bands, restoring the work of government agencies and evacuating “implacable” militants.
Needless to say, al-Nusra terrorists are impeding the effective operation of the Eastern Ghouta de-escalation zone. With Russian military’s assistance, the Syrian authorities managed to coordinate conditions for the withdrawal of 1,300 al-Nusra fighters and their family members from Damascus suburbs to Idlib, but the agreement fell through at the last moment over differences among al-Nusra members, some of whom rejected the “humiliating capitulation.”
Positive humanitarian trends are strengthening. More Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons are returning to their homes. The authorities are actively reconstructing the socioeconomic infrastructure damaged during the years of the conflict and creating conditions for peaceful life.
Unfortunately, not all parties are sincerely interested in resolving the Syrian crisis as soon as possible. We are seeing attempts to undo what has been achieved and derail the political process. Even though the opposition delegation in Geneva was reformatted Bashar Assad’s opponents have not recovered from their old “ailments.”
We regret that the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura did not deem it necessary to duly assess the clearly provocative statements by opposition members during the December rounds of intra-Syrian consultations, which they deliberately disrupted in a bid to impede progress toward peace, among other things, hindering the implementation of the initiative to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi.
Moscow is also disappointed with Mr Mistura’s remarks after the intra-Syrian contacts in Geneva, in particular his allegations that the Syrian government delegation had disrupted the intra-Syria discussion. In our opinion, this is an attempt to shift the responsibility to the side that was not to blame for scuttling this round.
At the same time, we reaffirm our willingness to work in close coordination with the special envoy and his team in Geneva, Astana and Sochi in the interest of fostering a political settlement in Syria based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
To reiterate, an in-depth exchange of views on all issues is expected today. The Russian side will share its results at a news conference.
On December 21-22, the eighth international meeting on Syria will take place in Astana. We have high hopes for it. Plans include considering and signing documents on mine clearance in Syria and freeing detainees and hostages. Special attention at the Astana meeting will be given to organising and holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that we regard as a forum designed to jumpstart the UN-brokered negotiating process in Geneva and help the Syrians reach reconciliation agreements without any preconditions in keeping with the provisions of UNSC Resolution 2254.
On December 19, the UN Security Council renewed the authorisation for cross-border and cross-conflict-line humanitarian access to Syria for a further 12 months, until January 2019. Russia, China and Bolivia abstained. Russia did this because the draft resolution did not fully take into account Russia’s proposals to increase the transparency of this regime and to consider ways to gradually lift this provision.
At this stage, we did not veto the renewal of humanitarian access, acting primarily in the interests of the Syrian people who need assistance, as well as taking into account the position of neighbouring states across which aid is delivered.
Russia will closely monitor humanitarian deliveries to Syria and aid distribution among the people within the framework of the renewed mandate. We expect the UN Secretary-General to review the situation within the approved timeframe with a view to curtailing the cross-border delivery system, which is unavoidable in the context of the resumption of Syrian Government control over the entire territory of the country. UN humanitarian agencies and their partners should start considering a transition to more traditional means of providing assistance in coordination with the Syrian authorities and in full compliance with the principles of providing emergency humanitarian assistance and respect for Syria’s sovereignty.
Military and political tensions persist in the Republic of Yemen. According to UN data for the period between December 6 and 16, 115 civilians have been killed and over 80 have been wounded in air strikes carried out by the Arab coalition in support of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi on targets in the Sana’a, Saada, Hodeida and Taez provinces, which are controlled by the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement. In reply, the Houthis fired one more ballistic missile towards Riyadh on December 19, promising to continue these attacks against Saudi Arabia. This can further escalate the conflict throughout the region.
Moscow is deeply concerned about the continued armed confrontation in Yemen. We have to point out that the use of military force is aggravating the suffering of Yemeni civilians, spreading hostilities to neighbouring countries and hindering the launch of substantive talks, which we see as the only reasonable strategy to overcome the differences between the conflicting parties. The sooner they realise this the better it will be for Yemen, Yemenis and the region as a whole.
Tensions persist in the Palestinian territory due to the continued street protests against the US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Developments in and around Gaza have reached a dangerous level. The number of casualties is growing every day.
In this situation, the UN Security Council voted on this issue. I am sure you know the voting results. We believe that, regrettably, this decision can only further aggravate the situation. In our opinion, the best solution to this extremely unfavourable situation in the Palestinian-Israeli track would be the resumption of a direct dialogue between the parties on a firm and lasting peace based on the well-known international decisions. At the same time, efforts must be taken to prevent the further escalation of the situation on the ground and actions that can harm innocent people and prevent the achievement of a lasting peace.
On December 19, the Foreign Ministry issued multi-format comments on US sanctions against Russian organisations in connection with unjustified accusations regarding Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty. And now, we have to talk about Washington’s new anti-Russia moves that are linked with the so-called Magnitsky Act. Under this act, they have been trying to present us with human-rights claims during the past five years.
Yesterday, the United States extended this act’s sanctions to cover several more Russian citizens, including Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Therefore 195 Russian citizens, as well as 402 Russian companies, are currently covered by various US-imposed restrictions.
Of course, all this already looks grotesque because this is not based on anything real. Unfortunately, we have to reaffirm our position that these moves will be followed by reciprocal measures. We have always acted this way. We have always noted that this is not our choice, while responding in this manner. We strive to cooperate with the United States in the long-term. We are ready for this, and we believe this is the right option.
We regret to note that some political and security groups in the United States still want to continue disrupting bilateral relations, to officially call Russia an adversary, to call it a threat in the US National Security Strategy and to continue their sanctions games. Indeed, all this looks ridiculous against the backdrop of common challenges and threats facing our two countries as well as the entire world.
In our opinion, it is high time that the groups lobbying for precisely these negative developments in bilateral relations realise that this is dangerous for international stability, and that this would benefit no one, including the people of the United States.
We are noting that the United States continues to elaborate on this matter. We are talking about permanent planting of false information in the media, comments and statements about Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty. At this stage, they have started accusing Russia that the range of the 9M729 cruise missile, now being adopted by it, does not meet the Treaty’s requirements. As usual, the United States does not provide any evidence because it appears that there is absolutely no such evidence.
The above-mentioned 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile meets the Treaty’s requirements completely. It was not developed and tested, so as to exceed the range banned by the Treaty. The missile is being deployed in strict conformity with Russia’s international obligations.
We are urging the United States to stop speculating on the matter of the so-called Russian “violations” and to become constructively involved in a dialogue to settle well-known Russian claims regarding the observance of the INF Treaty by the United States itself. I would also like to recall that this implies virtual efforts to upgrade intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles during the Pentagon’s use of target missiles in anti-missile tests and an attempt to leave strike drones outside the Treaty that defines them as ground-launched cruise missiles. The United States is also deploying Mk-41 multirole launchers, part of the Aegis Ashore systems, in Eastern Europe. These launchers can be equipped with strike missiles. Moreover, Washington has announced plans to launch a programme for developing missile systems that are banned by the INF Treaty. This is a direct way towards wrecking the Treaty.
While reaffirming our commitment to the Treaty, we are expecting the United States to revise its counter-productive line and to resume depoliticised and professional dialogue for resolving the accumulated problems.
We remain committed to our traditional position, and we are informing the United States, our partners as well as our colleagues about this position via various channels during talks.
Russia is extremely disappointed by the fact that US authorities licensed an unnamed independent arms manufacturer to supply Barret М107А1 large calibre sniper rifles to Ukraine. This is the first time Washington has officially announced the transfer of weapons to Ukraine, although only recently it became known that AirTronic USA has been supplying hand-held grenade launchers to Ukraine since April.
The fact that from a formal point of view arms supplies are carried out under business contracts without the involvement of official channels does not change anything. This is merely camouflage, and an attempt to distort reality. The green light to these deliveries came from officials in Washington, which means that the US assumes full responsibility for the consequences and for the lives of Ukrainians who may fall victim to US arms.
We know all too well what the Kiev authorities stand for. Today, not only us, but also the vast majority of experts understands this. By arming them the US is actually pushing them to resume large-scale bloodshed in Donbass, which is already on the brink due to constant shelling from the territories controlled by Kiev. In fact, Washington is becoming complicit in the killing of people who opposed the government coup by nationalists in Ukraine, and stood up for their right to speak their native language and preserve their values. I think that over time, history will straighten the record. I hope that this happens now, not in many years. This would prevent a large number of casualties.
As it has already been announced, on December 19, Russian officers representing the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation at the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination of the ceasefire and stabilisation along the line of contact in Ukraine left the Ukrainian territory. Russia was forced to recall its officers. The reasons for this decision were provided in all clarity and are well known. Let me remind you that the Russian officers were unable to work within the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination due to Kiev’s position, since Kiev still prefers for the Donbass issue to be settled by force instead of implementing the Minsk Agreements. In these conditions, it no longer made any sense for the Ukrainian authorities to maintain the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination, which, according to our international partners involved in the efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, has become one of the key mechanisms for promoting settlement in southeastern Ukraine.
In addition, Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko signed an executive order effective January 1, 2018 to step up controls on foreigners entering and exiting the country and their stay on its territory. Its provisions include obtaining excessive personal and biometrical data, including fingerprints, which contradicts Russian laws on the status of military personnel and is thus unacceptable for representatives of the Russian Defence Ministry.
Once again, Kiev tries to benefit from the withdrawal of Russian officers from the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination, distort the report to this effect and accuse Moscow of all possible sins, even though we promptly provided clear comments on this matter. There is no doubt as to why this is happening. The internal political situation in Ukraine calls for a constant flow of news stories accusing outside aggressors and justifying the authorities in their actions and everything that is taking place in Ukraine. It seems that they are doing just that.
Russia calls on Ukraine to focus on implementing its commitments under the Minsk Agreements in full, unconditionally and consistently, instead of trying to shift the blame for not doing so.
Russia hopes that its foreign partners, above all in the Normandy Format, as well as the US, will not stay on the sidelines and will be able to persuade the Kiev authorities to do so.
We have been following closely the evolution of the difficult domestic political situation in Honduras, which emerged after the country held a general election on November 26. According to the returns published by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Honduras the other day, the winner in the presidential race is the current incumbent, Jose Orlando Hernandez, who has a 1.53 per cent edge over his closest rival.
I would like to remind you that Honduras is the Russian Federation’s promising partner in Central America. Both countries are promoting a political dialogue and have introduced a visa-free travel arrangement for citizens. They have also signed an interstate Treaty on the Foundations of Relations. We attach much importance to cooperation with that country within the framework of Russia’s dialogue with the Central American Integration System (CAIS).
The 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly approves a resolution on combating the glorification of Nazism
On December 19, the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly adopted at its plenary meeting the Russian-sponsored resolution “Combatting glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fueling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related tolerance.” Somewhat earlier, its wording was approved by the Third Committee of the 72nd UN General Assembly.
This year, the number of the document’s co-sponsors has reached 57 and it was supported by an impressive majority of states, 133, with only the US and Ukraine, like the case last year, voting against it and 49 countries, including EU members, abstaining from the vote.
The topicality of issues raised by the resolution continues to grow for a number of countries, where glorification is bestowed on the Nazi movement as well as former Waffen-SS legionnaires recognised as a criminal organisation by the Nuremberg Tribunal, and where Nazi collaborators are extolled as national heroes.
I would like to note once again that a detailed report was posted on the Foreign Ministry’s official website on December 20.
Polish insinuations as regards the “Smolensk” air crash
We must state with regret the Polish administration’s steady desire to impose [on the public] all sorts of conspiratorial versions of the April 10, 2010 air accident, which saw the Polish presidential plane crashing to the ground near Smolensk, killing President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, and the entire government delegation. This sad event, a consequence of a tragic combination of a number of factors, is groundlessly presented as resulting from well-nigh premeditated actions by the former Polish authorities that were allegedly in collusion with the Russian Federation.
We do not think it necessary to dwell upon this subject once again: all possible information has been immediately passed on to the Polish side and is available to journalists. We repeatedly discussed this theme. A great number of joint events were held, including news conferences, briefings, plus interviews, during which exhaustive answers were provided to all possible questions. Therefore, we don’t think it is necessary to come up with any detailed responses and repeat once again what was said each time a new bogus story is planted, including to react to allegations that Russia might be concealing important witnesses who could shed light on some supposedly unaccounted causes of the disaster. These accusations are clearly untenable. The only thing I would like to remind you about is that the Interstate Aviation Committee and an authorised Polish commission conducted separate investigations at that time. Their conclusions were generally identical and ruling out anyone’s criminal intent.
Both the Russian and Polish law enforcement agencies are continuing parallel investigative activities and exchanging relevant information under a mutual legal assistance arrangement. However, they have found nothing fundamentally new lately.
We proceed from the need to respect the memory of the dead and again call on the authorities in Warsaw to refrain from exploiting this tragedy for political purposes.
Between December 7-8, the Russian Spiritual and Cultural Orthodox Christian Centre in Paris hosted an official ceremony devoted to closing of the reciprocal Russian-French Cultural Tourism Year 2016-2017.
Many different kinds of events were organised, the most important of which included celebrations devoted to the 300th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and France, the international congress European Routes of Peter the Great dedicated to the life of the Russian Emperor and the forum Russian-French Cultural Routes. The overlapping Year strengthened bilateral ties between Russian and French cultural organisations, helped establish new tourist routes and destinations as well as boosted inter-regional cooperation.
The exhibition Tsar Peter the Great in France in 1717 became an important event whose opening on May 29 in Versailles was timed to coincide with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to France and his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The reciprocal Cultural Year showed that both the people of Russia and France remain sincerely interested in each other and display mutual respect and sympathy even during this difficult period for mutual relations, and that they aspire for consistent long-term development of mutual dialogue and cooperation.
On December 18, officials from French President Emmanuel Macron's office denied RIA Novosti correspondent Viktoria Ivanova, who has been duly accredited for working in the country, permission to attend a protocol event at Élysée Palace. The Russian journalist was deprived of an opportunity to fulfill her editorial office’s assignment and to prepare a report on the presentation of credentials by the newly-appointed Russian Ambassador to France Alexei Meshkov. In effect, this event was directly linked with the Russian Federation.
It should be noted that this is by no means the first instance of French authorities’ hampering professional activities of employees of Russian media outlets. Moreover, an openly hostile public atmosphere is being created around Russia’s media resources. Less than one day after RT television channel obtained a broadcasting license in France, a certain conglomerate of French public activists asked Olivier Schrameck, Head of the Superior Audiovisual Council (Conseil Supérieur de L'Audiovisuel), to revoke the license. This was preceded by the August 2017 demarche of the presidential party En Marche! (Forward!) that urged French media outlets to stop systematically spreading information being submitted by RT and Sputnik.
I would like to note two aspects. Obviously, the state in the person of French President Emmanuel Macron is sending a message. All explanations on this matter, including those via diplomatic channels, boil down to a quotation from his statement with regard to RT and Sputnik, as well as journalists working for this media concern. I would like to note once again that this implies the position of the head of France’s executive branch with regard to journalists working there on a legal basis. Doesn’t this amount to an example of the state’s flagrant interference in the work of media outlets?
Secondly, public representatives wrote a letter demanding that the media outlet be shut down and prevented from working. It appears that this letter was prepared on orders from above. On what is it based? The letter’s style and spirit is based on the very same quotation from the statement made by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Moreover, in its November 2 communique, the French mission to the OSCE stated openly that foreign journalists’ accreditation did not automatically allow them to attend official events, and that personal invitations were needed. This event involved the Russian Ambassador who arrived for the relevant official ceremony but was unable to share his assessments and comments with Russian media outlets. In turn, this so-called invitation should not necessarily be issued to representatives of Russian media outlets, primarily RT and Sputnik, because, to quote French President Emmanuel Macron, these media outlets are not such but amount to organisations of influence and foreign propaganda. Can they explain on what specific criteria these findings were based?
We have repeatedly spoken with French representatives and asked them questions and raised this matter during our conversations with Harlem Désir representing the appropriate OSCE division responsible for freedom of speech. We asked him whether the OSCE had any mechanism in the European region that could provide competent expert findings as to whether any media was a media outlet or a propaganda resource, and in what proportion should this be taken into account. We were told that there simply were no mechanisms and criteria in this field. On what information does French President Emmanuel Macron base his findings then?
We perceive these moves as France’s obvious disregard for its obligations in the area of freedom of the media.
Regardless of whether this policy is Paris’ isolated decision or an element of implementing a common EU project to counter Russia in the media sphere, these actions will certainly meet with a Russian response.
I would like to ask one question to my French colleagues: How would Paris and the international community respond if French media outlets experienced the same attitude from Russian authorities? We are hoping very much to receive an answer to this question.
We believe that any politically motivated restrictions of media outlets’ work - and the French authorities' actions would be classified as such - deserve the attention of specialised international institutions. We are once again urging Harlem Désir, French citizen and the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, to publicly comment on these developments.
I hope very much that Mr Désir’s national affiliation will not hamper his efforts to exercise the functions of a representative of an international organisation dealing with freedom of the media.
We have taken note of the campaign that is currently gaining momentum in the Western informational space to step up control over social media. This push is backed by the financial elite, which own traditional media. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, an advisory body for the UK Prime Minister, has recently released a report expressing concern about the lack of progress Google, Facebook and Twitter are making in protecting users online.
The document calls for updating laws in the part concerning information and communications. To make the case for these changes, the report points to the fact that extremists, terrorists and other mentally unstable people actively use the internet to exert pernicious influence on internet users, including by spreading fake information.
It is true that the world is changing. Only recently, officials in the US, UK and other Western democracies praised the complete and total freedom of the internet, including the social media, their transparency and accessibility. Everything was fine with them. Moreover, as we have reported on a number of occasions, during talks we were presented with social media posts coming from extremists, terrorists and other mentally unstable people as proof of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine or humanitarian cleansing operations carried out by Russia in Syria. To our objections that these posts came from extremist websites, we were told that freedom and democracy are essential for social media.
We have not forgotten the number of fake news that circulated during the Winter Olympics in Sochi. We saw an endless stream of fabrications and false stories to prove Russia’s alleged intervention in Ukraine. When asked to provide evidence, members of US delegations, especially Victoria Nuland and John Kerry, argued that all the evidence could be found on social media. Take for example social media publications on Syria. Just take a look at the reports featuring the girl Bana or the boy Omran, whose photos were spread using social media, as we all know. Let me reiterate that this information was presented as official evidence.
Faced with this situation, our response was not to go after Facebook, Twitter or let alone Google, although we did have a lot of questions, primarily regarding Facebook. However, we have never called for restricting internet freedom. What we proposed was to work together with our Western partners in order to identify ways of securing this area and shielding internet users from terrorist influence. Back then, everyone laughed at us. But now it turns out that in Great Britain, for instance, all this has made its way into legislative proposals. Once again, we are not saying that there is no need to fight fake news or any content related to terrorists and extremists. However, this should be done to protect the freedom of speech and users’ rights. And, of course, it is also essential that we get rid of the infamous double standards. Let me repeat that what we see can be described as an information apocalypse. When we received delegations in Russia or met with others in foreign capitals, the same materials Great Britain wants to combat were presented to us as evidence without any facts. The proposals we made back then to develop approaches in order to shield users from information coming from extremists were not only refused, but led to accusations of censorship and oppression of the freedom of speech. Today, the exact opposite is true, with the only difference that the current developments should not be viewed as a sincere attempt to protect users from falling under the influence of extremists or terrorists, as we understand it, but to assume control over specific segments of the internet.
Russia has a positive view of this contract, the first instrument in a package of documents to be signed by Georgia, Russia and Switzerland in order to fully implement the November 9, 2011 agreement between the governments of Russia and Georgia on customs administration and monitoring of trade in goods. Russia is preparing its part of the documents in cooperation with our Swiss partners. This matter was on the agenda, among other things, of the December 19 bilateral contacts in Bern.
Russia supports the implementation of the 2011 Agreement strictly in keeping with its provisions. It is essential that this international instrument stipulates the procedures for moving goods across Georgia’s customs border. Under the contract that has been signed, SGS’ role will be to oversee compliance. We hope that this will lead to the opening of additional transit routes that the regional trade needs so badly.
Question: UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is arriving in Russia today. One can recall how he drew a comparison between Russia and Sparta recently or again brought up the theme of Russia’s alleged interference, including in Brexit. You already commented on that. Does the Russian Foreign Ministry treat such statements as rhetoric intended for domestic use, to which one can turn a blind eye? Or do you treat them as the UK’s official position that will determine the course of tomorrow’s talks?
Maria Zakharova: I think that it is up to London to explain whether Boris Johnson’s statements reflect the official stance of the UK. We view them as Boris Johnson’s own statements. One need not take offence at them.
Question: Do you think that there is much difference between how the UN reacts to what is happening in Venezuela and in Honduras, where protests continue?
Maria Zakharova: I am only responsible for the statements and comments made by the Russian Foreign Ministry. We state our position on the events in both Venezuela and Honduras promptly and clearly.
We proceed from the assumption that in their assessments of the situation in this or that part of the world, our colleagues and partners from various countries and regions and, naturally, UN representatives will not resort to double standards, but will judge it objectively. Objectivity is an important criterion when it comes to judging the internal political situation in various countries.
Question: Let us go back to Boris Johnson. Given his numerous anti-Russian statements, is there any point whatsoever in engaging in dialogue with him?
Maria Zakharova: Why do you consider his statements anti-Russian? In particular, the one about Sparta and Athens. In my opinion, they are not so much directed against Russia as against the British education system. It is absolutely clear to me that this was a blow to its image. Russia was in no way harmed. We just laughed, that is all.
Question: On the eve of Boris Johnson’s upcoming visit, besides his own statement, there was the one made by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who said that Russia has turned into a hostile state, that it is engaged in subversive activities…
Maria Zakharova: We already commented on that.
Question: The UK articulated its position clearly. What is the position of Moscow and the Russian Foreign Ministry? What practical results does Russia expect from this visit? What does it count on?
Maria Zakharova: First, we already commented on this statement by Theresa May. You can take a look at it on our ministry’s website. Second, we never made a secret of our position. It is consistent and I again articulated it today, as I did during my last briefing. The essence is to search for ways to normalise bilateral relations and step up bilateral cooperation. In doing so, we are prepared to discuss the international and regional agenda, all matters of mutual concern on an equal basis, and cooperate in various spheres.
We repeatedly said in our comments on statements and when answering questions, that, unfortunately, the suspension of bilateral dialogue with Russia was London’s choice, which, in our opinion, was unjustified and badly timed. No one profits from fully suspended cooperation, for example, on combating terrorism, at a time when terrorist acts extend to almost the entire globe. Who, if not the UN Security Council permanent member states, should engage in a frank, trust-based and mutually beneficial discussion on this topic? The benefit is very simple: the prevention of terrorist attacks. But even in this field, cooperation was brought to a halt on the UK’s initiative, let alone contacts at other levels. Our position is clear and consistent, we did not conceal it.
Question: After the independence referendum in [Iraq’s] Kurdistan there were armed clashes between Erbil and Baghdad. What role is Russia playing in resolving this conflict? Is Russia ready to help Erbil and Baghdad seek a peaceful solution to this conflict?
Maria Zakharova: We regularly answer similar questions and comment on this matter. We believe that these problematic matters, which, unfortunately, sometimes lead to open conflicts, should be resolved peacefully by establishing an internal dialogue in Iraq, something that we urged, in particular, Baghdad to do.
Question: Several days ago we marked a sad event – the anniversary of the death of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov. The investigation has shown that the assassination was committed by the "Fethullah Terrorist Organisation" which is referred to as FETO in Turkey. Russian delegations that have recently visited Ankara also pointed to this fact. At the same time, thus far, the adherents of this organisation feel safe and comfortable in Russia. Will measures be taken against them?
Maria Zakharova: Only competent bodies investigating the accident can comment on the course of the investigation which is being conducted. Regretfully, we cannot be too open on this matter for understandable reasons.
I would like to bring your attention to the material published precisely in connection with this tragic date – I read it the other day on a news website. What struck me was that they wrote that immediately after the assassination of the ambassador, Russia referred to the accident as a terrorist act, thereby unobtrusively offering information to cast some sort of doubt that this was a terrorist act and stressing that this was only Russia’s opinion.
Let me say it again that at рresent we cannot go into details of the investigation because this may prove harmful to it, however, we still definitely qualify it as a terrorist act. I will try, if possible, to provide you with more details if the specialists involved in the investigation supply us with relevant information.
Question: Some time ago Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that international cooperation in the 6+1 format to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan might be resumed. Did Washington react to this proposal?
Maria Zakharova: I will clarify. Right now I do not have such information in my possession. I will see if there is any after the briefing later today. I reaffirm once again our commitment to cooperating with our American colleagues on this matter.
It seems to me that it would be logical to put this question to the American party, perhaps, the US Embassy or the State Department. We would be delighted to hear their public reaction. As you know, we take advantage of every opportunity to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in international formats as well as through bilateral channels.
As to the Americans’ stance, you would be better off asking them. I will see if there is any information on the latest developments.
Question: Russia has crushed the terrorist organisations in Syria. How do you assess Turkey’s role in this process? Are there any plans to take joint steps with Turkey to restore peace in the region? New Year and your birthday are coming soon. Which event impressed you the most this year?
Maria Zakharova: As for the aspects of different countries’ involvement in defeating the terrorists, we had better put this question to our military experts. Concerning the role Turkey plays in the political process, as you know, we have been actively cooperating with our Turkish colleagues in this field in different formats, including on the Astana platform. So we have been working in this area. We don’t have identical views on all the issues and there are still discrepancies, but we have been addressing them and they get resolved. We proceed from the premise that the general role of Turkey in facilitating political settlement in Syria and in the region is quite significant.
As for your second question, I’d like to take some time to consider the answer.
Question: As it often happens, the bulk of this briefing concerned relations between Russia and the West and some bilateral relations. You have mentioned the United States, Ukraine, Poland and France. I have a more general question. How would you describe the Russia-West confrontation? Who is to blame for this? Is the West always to blame, or can Russia say self-critically that the other parties are not always to blame for all of the current problems?
Maria Zakharova: First of all, the greater part of our meeting today was devoted to Syria, the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, we spoke about these issues most of the time. Let’s be honest with each other, at least on this issue.
Second, you have chosen a strange form for your question, asking if we reject everything the West says regarding Russia or if we can be self-critical. Why this question? What do self-criticism and Western criticism of Russia have to do with our relations? Why should we view the situation from this angle? And then, when have we not been self-critical? I believe that we are more self-critical than any other nation. It seems that we are ready to criticise our activities endlessly. Many foreign journalists, mostly – you won’t believe this – from Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East ask me why we permit others to criticise us so sharply and why we criticise ourselves more sharply than anyone else. Look at our programmes, talk shows and statements. We never stop ruminating, analysing our history and our present and looking at what we do very critically. I don’t know any other country that would keep criticising itself and doing this more often and more thoroughly than others do.
As for our replies to criticisms by our Western colleagues, the point at issue is not that we do not admit to problems but that we keep saying that we want to deal with our problems ourselves. Thank you for pointing them out to us, but, first, you have your own problems that remain unattended because of your excessive attention to our problems. And second, we can figure them out on our own. Many problems can be settled much better without our foreign colleagues than with their interference in our internal affairs.
As for the global confrontation, as you put it, I believe that it is not the confrontation but the efforts to stand up against a huge information campaign and forced isolation and deterrence, which the other side is not even trying to keep secret. On the other hand, we have been trying equally vigorously to urge our colleagues to resume interaction and cooperation. Frankly, it is not easy to reply to persistent attempts to force Russia into isolation while keeping our hand extended in friendship and cooperation. Do you know any other state that would keep calling for interaction and cooperation and pointing out numerous problems that can only be settled together while pretending not to notice, or trying to avoid, attempts to bite our hand or even do something worse?
As for the main issue discussed at this briefing – Syria, which is logical, it is a good example of how we stood up, or tried to stand up against our Western colleagues’ attempts to destabilise the situation in the region. I am referring to the delivery of weapons to the militants and the provision of financial, moral and information support to them. At the same time, they continued to invite us to dialogue and joint actions. Here is a concrete example. You may remember that we were seriously criticised for launching the operations of our Aerospace Forces. But when did we do this? We did this after President Vladimir Putin proposed at the UN General Assembly that a united front be created to fight terrorists in Syria and throughout the region. We reinforced that proposal with a pledge to take practical steps on the ground and by developing the relevant legal framework. Our proposal remained unanswered. The Aerospace Forces operations were only launched after all the formalities had been observed and Russia had formulated and put forth numerous proposals, both publicly and behind closed doors, without receiving any positive reply to them. The situation brooked no delay; we needed to restore order [in Syria] so as to prevent the terrorist rule from proliferating any more, from spreading beyond the region and possibly reaching Russia. It is one of the many examples.
Browse through the documents of the Munich Security Conference and you will see who was nurturing confrontation. It was done before, during and after 2014. And all the time Russia called for joint action. And it has always been like this.
Maria Zakharova: This question concerns the motives of our Western partners. They sometimes did not try to hide them. For example, the United States for years flaunted its “innovative” approach to international relations based on American exceptionalism. It is the motive of one political group. There were likely other motives as well, such as a desire to contain Russia, which was provoked by the speed of our development. Nobody probably expected us to develop so far; this did not fit in with their plans.
This question deserves a long and serious discussion. And it should not be directed at us. It was not our actions that provoked questions. Speaking about self-criticism again, read our newspapers, watch our television, talk with our political analysts – and you will see a thick layer of regular or even permanent self-criticism on many issues of domestic and foreign policy.
Question: Yesterday the European Commission started applying Article 7 in relation to Poland, which implies a number of sanctions. What do you think about this? Could it also affect Russian-Polish relations?
Maria Zakharova: These are relations between Brussels and Warsaw. This is a family matter. We do not interfere in family affairs.
Question: I know that this does not concern Russia directly but there are some facts. Can you comment on this?
Maria Zakharova: I think it concerns relations between Warsaw and Brussels. There is nothing to comment on. The problem should be settled within the EU family itself. We hope the EU will resolve all of its problems. The main point is that there should be no double standards. This is our favourite position.
Question: Do you think that Poland may follow the same road as Hungary?
Maria Zakharova: And what road have the Hungarians followed? Let us know.
Question: They have better relations with Russia than Poland.
Maria Zakharova: Do you think that turbulence in the relations between Brussels and Warsaw may prompt some rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow? No, we do not play such games. Let me repeat that family relations should be settled within the EU.
As for Russia’s relations with Hungary, we do not build them on contradictions between different sides. We are developing relations with Poland and other European countries, while aware that they are an organic part of the EU. But we also have bilateral relations with them. We see that sanctions against Russia and the US-led attempts of many EU countries to drive our country into isolation are not accepted by other EU countries. Such examples are not rare. A number of countries consider this policy strange and flawed. They believe it clearly does not benefit the EU and its members in any way. This is obvious. European politicians, those who are in power or are members of the political establishment, admit this. Figures, economic growth rates and other domestic indicators show that sanctions have not benefited the EU. This policy is harming relations between EU countries rather than EU-Russian ties.
I do not think that we should seek advantages for Moscow in some temporary or long-term differences between EU countries and Brussels. I am certain that nobody is going to get involved in this. Without trying to benefit from any disagreements, Russia is openly offering cooperation with both the EU as a whole and individual EU countries. We are talking about the opportunities we have and those we had until the introduction of these sanctions and the losses that both the EU and Russia had to sustain because of them.
We reached a very high level of economic and political cooperation with Brussels as a whole and with individual EU countries in particular. We had enormous opportunities to build on these achievements. Regrettably, having yielded to pressure from Washington, the EU dealt a blow to itself and sustained huge losses. We are frank and honest in this respect and are openly talking about our readiness to cooperate. Why should we wait until our relations deteriorate or issues emerge? We have been telling our Polish colleagues and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini for several years now that it is necessary to cooperate in many areas. There is no sense whatsoever in waiting for problems to emerge in one country or another. On the contrary, by interacting with many Western states, notwithstanding the sanctions, we are showing that despite our differing views and a number of problems, we can still derive mutual benefit from our cooperation.
We are not sitting and waiting for someone to develop problems with a view to rubbing our hands together with glee. Nobody needs this. We are openly and clearly talking about our interests and inviting our partners to cooperate.
Question: Kuwait will join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member in 2018. Do Russia and Kuwait have any joint projects for the Middle East and Africa scheduled for that year?
Maria Zakharova: The Russian delegation maintains a dialogue on all matters that are on the UN agenda with countries elected to the UN Security Council as non-permanent members. This is a normal and natural process.
As for the Russia-Kuwait dialogue, I will be ready to provide additional detailed information on this score for you at a later time.
Question: In 2018, we will celebrate the 140th anniversary of Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule. Has Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received an invitation to take part in these celebrations from his Bulgarian counterpart?
Maria Zakharova: I will clarify the answer to this question.
Question: Please pay attention to the Memorial Chapel to the Heroes of Plevna. It needs a facelift, and Interfax journalists said as much.
Maria Zakharova: I’ll look into what we can do.
Question: The US has recently published its new National Security Strategy, which names Russia and China as the main threats. It seems to me Russia has responded too mildly. What is the reason?
Maria Zakharova: Our reaction was quite straightforward. Look at the comment by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov that was posted on the website and circulated via other channels. I covered this theme earlier today.
I can agree with you in that to a certain extent we tire of the same old grotesque steps we see Washington take, steps that are clearly being lobbied by certain forces there.
I think our statements display some weariness from the monotypic approach of those who think that destroying bilateral relations will benefit someone. But I cannot call our reaction mild. We automatically start commenting on those hackneyed claims to the effect that Russia is an enemy, that it interferes in elections, that Russian hackers have hacked this or that, that the “hand of the Kremlin is everywhere,” and the like. These are manufactured in bulk and arranged in lines separated by commas. No one feels surprised or takes this seriously. People understand that this is just a set of messages that can be shuffled and reshuffled. There is neither sense nor practical impact in this.
If earlier their aim was to frighten, they are now aware that they are failing to succeed, that people on the US sanction lists are not grieving, to put it mildly, and that their entire policy of pressure is producing just fatigue and no benefits. We constantly offer interaction and cooperation, but at the same time our position remains quite clear and straightforward.
Apart from everything else, this concept should be studied and analysed. I think we will present a more detailed commentary later. This is a bulky document with numerous sections and our experts are working on it. We will share additional and more profound assessments in due course.
Question: The Orthodox Church had over 100 Orthodox schools and other property in Jerusalem before 1914. Will Russia defend the rights of the Orthodox Church?
Maria Zakharova: Russia has been doing this regularly. If you want to clarify the status of properties and facilities owned by the Russian Orthodox Church, I am ready to do that. This is a very interesting subject. I will make a point of presenting detailed information on this at the next briefing.