Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following his talks with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinemeier, Moscow, March 23, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have just held talks with Germany’s Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is also OSCE Chairperson-in-Office this year. This is our sixth meeting in various formats this year, not to mention the many telephone conversations. We are always happy to welcome our German friends to Russia.
As we pointed out today, despite current challenges, Russia and Germany maintain an active dialogue and intensive interparliamentary, interdepartmental and interregional ties, as well as relations in research, education, culture and other humanitarian areas.
Today we attended the signing of an agreement of intent to implement a joint programme to assist young scientists between the Association of Leading Russian Universities and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). We consider this a very useful initiative targeted towards the future, and actively support it.
This programme is a logical component of the concept of a joint statement on the Russian-German cross-year of youth exchanges in 2016-2017, which we approved today. We have an agreement that Mr Steinmeier and I will jointly sponsor this event. The cross-year will launch in Moscow in early June and carry on the tradition of bilateral cross-events that were held in Russia and Germany in the past few years. For example, in 2015, we completed the cross-year of the Russian and German languages and literatures.
We welcome the resumption of the full operation of the Petersburg Dialogue Russian-German public forum, a vital venue for an informal exchange of opinions between Russian and German civil society representatives. The next forum will be held in St Petersburg in July 2016.
We have a positive view of our German colleagues’ willingness to re-launch the interdepartmental Joint High-Level Working Group on Strategic Economic and Financial Cooperation Issues. The group will meet in June 2016. I hope it will help reverse the decline in bilateral trade. The number of German companies in Russia decreased for the first time in years in 2015, from approximately 6,000 to 5,600. This is an unwelcome development, and we must do something to stop this. I am confident that the agreements we have reached today, including on resuming ties between the Russian and German bodies of authority, will help us achieve this goal.
We spoke at length about cooperation between Moscow and Berlin on different aspects of international politics. Armed conflicts, zones of instability, international terrorism, which hit Belgium yesterday, and other modern challenges and threats call for a joint response from the international community. Everyone understands this. In this context, Russian-German relations will remain a vital factor in European and global politics and influence solutions to many international issues.
We want to maintain close relations with Germany in light of its OSCE chairmanship in 2016, including with the aim to boost the settlement of issues pertaining to the creation of a truly common European architecture based on the old but as yet unrealised principle of equal and indivisible security.
We have given a positive assessment to the efforts of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to promote a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. We share the view that stabilisation in southeastern Ukraine can only be achieved through the unconditional and consistent implementation of the Minsk Package of Measures, a condition that the leaders of the Normandy format countries reaffirmed at their meeting in Paris on October 2, 2015.
We focused on the need to highlight a crucial element of the Minsk Agreements, namely the launch of a direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. This is vitally important, primarily for resolving political problems related to the special status of that region, amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution, local elections and a real amnesty. Today we expressed a shared intention to use all available opportunities to prevent ceasefire violations.
We also discussed the Syrian settlement, noting that the ceasefire is holding and is by and large a success. We exchanged opinions on preventing individual ceasefire violations. We also discussed ways to more effectively settle humanitarian problems, which have become less acute with the introduction of the ceasefire but nevertheless need our attention, so that the conflicting sides provide humanitarian access to areas under their control.
We also focused on the political process. We welcome the developments in Geneva. If I’m not wrong, Mr Steinmeier agrees on the importance of launching a truly inclusive Syrian dialogue between the delegations of the Syrian Government and the entire range of Syrian opposition forces, including the Kurds. The idea is to coordinate the foundations for the Syrian state in which all ethnic and religious groups will live together in peace and security, as it is stipulated in the decisions of the UN and its Security Council.
On the whole, we exchanged opinions on other matters of our interaction, certain aspects of international issues, in particular the situation concerning Libya and the efforts that are being made to help the Libyans restore their statehood and at the same time defend themselves against the terrorist threat that the country is also facing. We welcome the activity of UN Special Envoy for Libya Martin Kobler as a pointsman for the mobilisation of international efforts.
As our talks today showed, our relations with Germany remain a priority. We are important partners for each other in European and international affairs. Russia is committed to supporting this approach towards our relations on any issues.
Question (addressed to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier): You spoke about the Minsk agreements and the security situation. Do you act on the premise that there are Russian military servicemen, arms and ammunition in the conflict zone? Under the Minsk agreements, they will be withdrawn.
Sergey Lavrov (adds after the German Minister): I’d like to add that Russia has signed the Minsk agreements together with Germany, France and Ukraine and continues to work towards their implementation through a direct dialogue with Kiev, on the one hand, and Donetsk and Lugansk, on the other hand. This is the main, pivotal provision of the Minsk agreements.
Regarding Russian arms and service personnel, I can say this. I understand well and we see that the Ukrainian side would like to justify its inability to honour the obligations it has assumed by citing the difficult security situation and mythical presence of up to 40,000 Russian service personnel. No one has confirmed or proved this but, as we can see today, this disinformation is floating around in the media space. The Minsk agreements say nothing about Russian troops in Ukraine or that they will be withdrawn from there. The agreements say that there must be no foreign troops in Ukraine in any capacity. To reiterate, we have not seen a single fact confirming the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. As for the presence of foreign military officers from NATO countries, no one is making a secret of this. Several hundred instructors from the United States, Canada and other countries are helping train the Ukrainian army.
By the way, units that have received such additional training in western Ukraine with the participation of NATO instructors are being redeployed to the line of contact in Donbass. In the past few days, over 200 heavy weapon systems have been moved closer to this line. Reports by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine on the ceasefire and heavy weapons withdrawal violations cite violations on both sides. However, regarding the amount of heavy equipment missing from army depots, Ukraine is way ahead of the militias. One recent report for the past week states that the local defence forces had less than 10 units of equipment missing while the Ukrainian army had over 300. This is some difference.
All of this worries us, as information about preparations for major provocations is coming from various sources. This is not just information but facts on the ground. A couple of weeks ago, the Ukrainian army occupied part of the town of Shirokino, which, in accordance with all the agreements, will be demilitarised. In recent weeks, there was an attempt to cut off a road between Donetsk and Lugansk by provoking hostilities and shelling this road near the town of Yasinovataya. There are many other facts showing that some people are eager to escalate the security situation to justify their own inaction with regard to political reform that Mr Steinmeier has just mentioned.
When we met recently in Paris in the Normandy Four format at the foreign ministers level, France and Germany proposed setting a tentative date for holding local elections in Donbass, which many regard as a key element in the implementation of the Minsk-2 agreements. We were willing to support this proposal. Germany proposed June or July as a timeframe for these elections. It was not supported by the Ukrainian side. Just recently, I read a statement by the Ukrainian Central Electoral Commission leadership, saying that such elections cannot be considered until two years later. This is an interesting signal.
It was even more interesting to read what Ukrainian representatives in the Contact Group’s political subgroup, Roman Bessmertny and Vladimir Gorbulin, have to say. They state in no uncertain terms that there will be no special status for Donbass and that Donbass should have the same status as all other parts of Ukraine, when (I should note, if) the decentralisation idea is put into practice. Mr Gorbulin wrote a programmatic article stating that Minsk-2 is “last year’s snow” and now it is essential to achieve Kiev’s main goal under the agreements, specifically, to gain time, build up forces and use the army to “resolve the Donbass problems”. This is a direct call by Ukraine’s official representative in the political subgroup, who is also an advisor to President Pyotr Poroshenko – not on his staff but from my perspective, this makes him no less influential.
I completely agree that the Minsk-2 agreements cannot be reviewed and cannot be allowed to be scuttled. We actively support the German and French efforts to preserve the Normandy format and we believe in it. The Normandy format should play the role as defined in the declaration of the Normandy Four leaders of February 12, 2015, stating that the Normandy format ensures monitoring the implementation of the Minsk agreements that were signed by the Ukrainian side and Donbass representatives. We should do our best to strengthen this monitoring role and ensure conditions for the Contact Group to work in harmony with all of its subgroups. The Contact Group is a place for the direct dialogue between Kiev and Donbass, which is key to the resolution of all problems and the implementation of all obligations undertaken by all parties, including Ukrainian President Poroshenko.
Question (addressed to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier): After numerous local reports about crimes against peaceful civilians, our channel recently visited Turkey’s Kurd-populated southeastern areas. Our cameraman filmed horrific footage showing destroyed residential areas and local residents’ testimonies about numerous killings. No human rights organisation except for Amnesty International has yet presented a detailed response or commentary. We have petitioned the UN for an investigation into what is likely to be military crimes. Do you think a thorough investigation will be required into the situation in southeastern Turkey?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Frank-Walter Steinmeier): I can only agree with what has been said. We have repeatedly noted and heard that being concerned with a human rights situation is not interference in a country’s internal affairs and that each country should ensure elementary standards in this sphere. With regard to the episode mentioned by the Russia Today reporter, we have expressed strong concern over RT-presented facts. Along with appealing to human rights NGOs, we urged the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to take notice of your report. Regrettably, there is no reaction from this important international institution. Hopefully this is not a sign of bias or falsely understood political correctness. We also hope that in all other cases the extremists’ open atrocities and inhuman actions will be investigated through and through and the international community’s focus on these acts will not be diffused.
More specifically, we mean attempts to drag out the investigation of the February 2014 murders on the Maidan in Kiev and other tragedies, primarily the tragedy that happened in Odessa, Ukraine, on May 2, 2014, when dozens of people were burnt alive. We know that the Council of Europe is seeking to help the investigation that the Ukrainian authorities have formally announced. But we are confident that the OSCE mission in Ukraine will not stand back from these atrocious crimes. The mission’s mandate is not restricted to Donbass and implies that it can work in central and western Ukraine as well. It also implies and directly urges a focus on human rights problems.
Question: The Syrian government has stated that the two-way traffic involving terrorists and weapons across the Turkish-Syrian border remains active. In connection with the recent tragic events in Europe, is it possible to put more pressure on Ankara to have the border closed in accordance with the UN resolution? Will such a move help stabilise the situation in Europe?
Sergey Lavrov: We are witnessing ongoing two-way traffic across the Turkish-Syrian border, even though it has markedly declined after the Russian Aerospace Forces initiated airstrikes to combat illegal trafficking, in particular, in petrol and petroproducts, from ISIS-controlled Syrian territories to Turkey. After Russia’s Aerospace Forces focused on this issue, it came to the attention of the US-led coalition. Therefore, this flow didn’t dry up completely, but became much weaker. Nevertheless, it is still there. A section of the border between two Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria is actively used for these purposes. That is why, when the Kurds try to take these territories back from ISIS, the Turkish side starts shelling Kurdish positions, thereby hampering their ability to fight this terrorist organisation.
We point to these facts and insist on the need to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions on stopping all trade in oil or artefacts with ISIS and other terrorist groups. The UNSC resolution demanding to stop the transport of foreign terrorists and militants, including through the Turkish territory, to Syria, must also be complied with. These resolutions are binding and include regular reporting by the UN Secretary-General. The first such report on compliance with the demands was submitted to the UN Security Council several weeks ago. We pointed out that it lacks details and even fails to mention the numerous facts that make it to the media and other sources, which confirm continued support provided to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other related terrorist organisations through Turkish territory. I hope that it’s just a technical oversight, not an attempt to be politically correct with regard to a country which, in fact, objectively refuses to fight terrorism and, in addition, uses the “fighting terrorism” catchphrase to crack down on the Kurdish organisations in Syria and Turkey. We will continue to insist that these resolutions are followed religiously. I’m confident that there may be no excuses on this account.
Question (to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier): How effective can your services as a middleman be with regard to Nadezhda Savchenko?
Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Steinmeier): I would like to add that we are indeed based on Russian legislation. All those who sincerely wanted to obtain information about this case, received it. As was already mentioned by Russian officials, today we issued an additional memo on this subject and made it available to our German colleagues. Of course, we are aware of the exchange proposals. These issues will be dealt with in full accordance with Russian law. There are proper procedures on this account. The decision will be taken by the President.
Question (to both ministers): After the recent events involving the underage Russian girl named Lisa, we have heard claims from Berlin with regard to the Russian-speaking community in Germany. There were different views, including conspiracy theories. Was this issue discussed today?
Sergey Lavrov: This issue received fairly extensive coverage. We wanted to obtain comprehensive information about a Russian citizen and what happened to her. We maintain contacts with Germany’s law enforcement agencies. It is absolutely natural to want to find out whether everything is all right with someone who is a Russian citizen. Regardless of any aspects of this situation, we wouldn’t want this event to be used to aggravate the situation surrounding the Russian diaspora in Germany. Any attempts to portray our diaspora as plotting something against the German state only because the people were concerned about what happened to the girl, or any other situation in the country of their residence, are unacceptable. We hope that German media will not overdramatise the story and the German government will not allow indiscriminate (unfounded) suspicions with regard to a sizable group of its citizens, who reside in Germany and are part of German society.
Sergey Lavrov (speaks after German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier): I can reassure our journalists. We have received confirmation that not a single Russian media outlet will be closed in Germany. Please don’t worry.