Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, December 7, 2016
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s participation in the OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with participants of the Dialogue for the Future research and education programme and active members of the Gorchakov Fund Club of Friends
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with the heads of the Latin American and Caribbean diplomatic missions accredited in Russia
- Developments in Syria
- UN humanitarian aid to Syria
- Statements by US General John Nicholson
- The latest anti-Russian initiative of the US Congress
- The reaction of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media to the European Parliament’s resolution on combating anti-EU propaganda
Answers to media questions:
- Minsk Group meeting on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg
- Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with Azerbaijan’s foreign minister on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg
- Access to Russian Foreign Ministry information in the national languages of CIS countries
- Interference by third countries in the Syrian crisis
- New UNSC draft resolution on sanctions
- Barack Obama’s statement
- The Italian referendum
- Russian-Turkish mutual understanding on the Syrian issue
- Possible meeting of the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia with the OSCE Minsk Group foreign ministers
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will travel to Hamburg today to attend the OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting. He plans to hold many bilateral and multilateral meetings on the sidelines of this event. In particular, today he will meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In the next few days he will meet with the foreign ministers of the CSTO member states, as well as with colleagues from Austria, Kazakhstan, Spain, Armenia and several other countries, in addition to conducting active work at the OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting.
We will update you on all of these meetings.
On December 14, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold a regular meeting with participants of the Dialogue for the Future research and education programme. The project was launched in 2011 as a discussion platform for young people studying international relations.
This year, the event will be attended by active members of the Gorchakov Fund Club of Friends. The Club is an informal group of representatives of the Fund’s regional youth programmes.
We want to develop interaction between Eurasia’s young specialists in international relations, journalists and politicians. Regular meetings with Sergey Lavrov reaffirm the interest among young people in Russia and abroad in Russia’s foreign policy and the opportunity to contribute to the joint search for the best answers to current challenges and threats.
Sergey Lavrov will share his views on the international situation, speak about the priorities of Russian diplomacy and our approaches to key international issues, and answer questions.
On December 14, Sergey Lavrov will meet with the heads of diplomatic missions of Latin American and Caribbean countries accredited in Moscow.
He plans to provide a comprehensive review of Russia’s relations with these countries and perspectives on their further development in promising areas, including in light of his November 14 meeting with the expanded quartet of foreign ministers of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Sochi, following which the participants adopted a roadmap of practical interaction within the framework of the Permanent Mechanism for Political Dialogue and Cooperation between Russia and CELAC, which was established last year.
They will also discuss key issues on the current international agenda, including cooperation at the UN.
The format of direct dialogue between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and representatives of Latin American and Caribbean countries has become a good tradition. It helps maintain close ties with our LAC partners and exchange opinions on a broad range of issues.
We continue to anxiously follow the developments in Syria. A particularly complicated military and political situation is taking shape in the north, primarily in the Aleppo province. The Syrian army and people’s militias are exterminating the manpower of terrorist groups such as ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Jabhat al-Nusra) and similar organisations, and step by step, are clearing the territory of extremists and terrorists. The latter are resisting and trying to buy time with the help of sabotage and murder, the use of a human shield consisting of peaceful civilians, indiscriminate shelling and purposeful destruction of civilian infrastructure.
On December 5, nine mines fired by militants exploded in the territory of the Russian mobile military hospital in Aleppo. As a result of a direct hit on the admission unit, a female Russian medical officer died. Two medical workers were gravely wounded, with one of them, a woman, later passing away. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made relevant statements and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov provided detailed comments on the situation. At least three local residents died and more than 44 were wounded.
I would like to recall that Russian military medics were sent to Aleppo in late December 2016 to provide medical assistance to the conflict-affected local population. Syrian citizens had for a long time been denied access to high-quality medicine.
We resolutely condemn this act of aggression against the Russian hospital and its staff. We hope that both the perpetrators of this crime and its instigators will be severely punished. We are offering our condolences to the families of the dead and wounded.
The Syrian army continues its successful offensive in eastern Aleppo. More than half of this part of the city has been liberated from terrorists. The militants have been driven out of a number of neighbourhoods, including Kataradji, Meisar, Marja, Karm, Al-Jazmati, Tariq al-Bab, Sheikh Lutfi and Shaar, part of Halvany, and the area abutting the international airport in Neirab.
The Syrian Government continues to make consistent efforts, in cooperation with various political forces, to achieve national reconciliation. In particular, it managed to reach a settlement in Al-Tall by creating a mixed council involving former members of illegal armed groups, who had agreed to lay down arms. The Government is working to achieve local pacifications in other areas. Seven hundred former members of various illegal armed groups from the towns of Al-Taiba, Al-Kiswah, and Al-Meklaibia in Western Ghouta have been granted amnesty.
In the course of one day, nearly 3,000 militants surrendered their arms and joined the ceasefire in Syria. Note that the agreement with the militants has been reached following very complicated talks. Militants, together with their families, left Khan ash Shaykh in the suburb of Damascus for the Idlib province.
The developments around east Aleppo are rapidly escalating. A considerable part of the city’s afore-mentioned districts have been freed from the militants that operated there. The civilians that were kept hostage and used as human shields by terrorists for four years badly need humanitarian aid. The Russian Federation has already taken meaningful measures to this end.
Active involvement of UN agencies in these efforts is very much in demand. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura spoke about the importance of sending a humanitarian mission to Aleppo. A targeted humanitarian team acting under the auspices of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Geneva also spoke about this at its recent meeting.
We are satisfied that some steps have already been made. The UN assessment mission has already been sent to some districts of east Aleppo, with the consent of the Syrian authorities, to specify the requirements for aid. At the same time, according to available information, Damascus has approved the UN-drafted plan for rendering humanitarian aid to Syria, including east Aleppo, in December.
We hope the UN will be able to avoid any hitches in its important role of providing humanitarian aid to the needy residents of Aleppo, a role that was entrusted to it by the entire world community.
We paid attention to the statements by the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, at his recent briefing in the Pentagon. He said “Russia has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban.” In his words, Moscow allegedly supports the Taliban, thereby undermining US, NATO and Kabul’s efforts to fight terrorism. We have heard many statements of our colleagues from Washington but this one is really obtuse.
We have reaffirmed many times that Russia does not conduct any behind-the-scene talks with the Taliban, nor supports it in any way. That said we believe there is no military solution to the internal Afghan conflict. Peace can only be achieved through negotiations that are impossible without contacts with the Taliban, which is one of the participants of the political process in Afghanistan, just in case Gen. Nicholson is unaware of this.
This is not the only quote by Gen. Nicholson that I would like to mention. He also mentioned Moscow’s alleged reluctance to help Kabul maintain Russian helicopters that are past their lifespan, as if Afghanistan asked Russia for help but it was not provided.
This statement is simply not serious. Just two weeks ago Moscow and Kabul reached an agreement on Russian military-technical assistance to Afghanistan, which covers the maintenance and repairs of Russian or Soviet military hardware.
Incidentally, Gen. Nicholson admitted that US sanctions for Crimea and Ukraine are an obstacle to Russia providing military-technical assistance to Afghanistan but for some reason he did not mention that Washington banned Kabul from using foreign donor aid that it receives to develop its national armed forces for the purchase of Russian aircraft, their repairs and maintenance in Russia. As a result, US advisers are chaotically trying to find other opportunities for technical support of Russian- or Soviet-made helicopters in Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that quality maintenance and repairs of this sophisticated hardware can only be done by its producer, Russia, which is still ready to cooperate both with Kabul and Washington on this issue.
The commander of the foreign troop contingent in Afghanistan is bound to know this by virtue of his position. So we can make another conclusion – this is deliberate distortion of facts to mislead the Afghan, US and world public.
I would also like to comment on his assumption that Moscow is undermining the counterterrorism effort of the US, NATO and Afghan Government. Gen. Nicholson, are you completely divorced from reality like many of your colleagues? Dialogue on Afghanistan, in part in the Russia-NATO Council, was also blocked by the United States, in case you do not know this. We can see that you do not.
Regrettably, at the initiative of the outgoing Obama administration, which recently scared Americans with Russian hackers, Washington continues its anti-Russian hysteria, which has been going on for a few years now, and which is becoming increasingly reminiscent of something that seems straight out of an already forgotten age, the witch hunts.
The current US Congress, which, as you may be aware, is also on its way out, is pushing ahead with a bill to form a special interdepartmental commission to develop a strategy to counter "covert Russian influence". The lower house has already voted for it. As follows from the text of the draft law, they accuse us not only of financing lobby groups, media manipulation and fomenting, but even contract killings and terrorist acts.
Clearly, we are dealing with yet another case of clinical Russophobia, which originated in and was subsequently cultivated by the White House. This is not something new. It seems like something from a forgotten age. However, it turns out that Washington hasn’t forgotten. I would like to remind you that during the Cold War, in 1981, they created a similar interdepartmental working group for active measures against the Soviet Union. They haven’t come up with anything new this time. There wasn’t even an attempt to introduce innovations into these processes. All they do is copy the Cold War. The group, which was created in 1981, focused on ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union. Its work culminated in publishing a brochure on Soviet military power, which addressed a wide global audience. Now, the same is being done in modern circumstances.
This is not all there is to it. Our colleagues plan to go even further. In addition to anti-Russian propaganda, the draft provides for measures aimed at thwarting the activities of Russian diplomats in the United States. As you may be aware, most of them are not allowed to go beyond 40 km from their respective diplomatic missions. In order to leave the designated area, they are asked to notify the State Department first. I just wanted to clarify this, as I was in the same situation. Given a very busy work schedule (as you are aware, international developments in recent years have made the work Russian diplomats an almost round-the-clock activity), it is very difficult to make even medium-term travel plans. Therefore, the inability to travel beyond 40 km without notice, which requires a certain amount of time to file, as it should be filed several days before the planned trip, significantly complicates their work. Now, they plan to deprive Russian diplomats of even that possibility.
If the current US authorities are likewise willing to restrict the movement of their own representatives in Russia, they should keep in mind that everything is based on the principle of reciprocity in diplomacy. Simply put, US diplomats in Russia will be treated similarly. Once again, we are forced to respond. But each and every time we point out that it is not our choice. We stand for cooperation on bilateral issues and international affairs. Why Washington is doing this is anyone's guess.
We received a response by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic to a letter sent by the Russian Foreign Ministry asking to provide an assessment of the European Parliament’s resolution on combating anti-EU propaganda. The resolution equated the Russian media and the information activities in this country to terrorist efforts by ISIS and contained a number of provisions that go beyond any professional ethics or understanding of what is happening not only in our country, but also the world.
In her reply to our letter of November 25, Ms Mijatovic noted the apparent political nature of this document. This is a statement of fact. There may be no other opinion.
In accordance with the mandate of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Ms Mijatovic promised to respond immediately to serious cases of non-compliance by member states with their respective obligations. The letter also stresses that the document does not provide any legally binding measures or restrictions with regard to Russia’s media resources.
I would like to reiterate that we will be on the lookout for any infringement of the rights of Russian media, in particular, in the EU, especially with reference to this document. We will not only respond accordingly, but also take retaliatory measures.
Answers to questions:
Question: As you know, France has proposed a meeting between the foreign ministers of the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group and the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg. Will the meeting take place? What is the Foreign Ministry’s position on the issue?
Maria Zakharova: The possibility of this kind of meeting has been discussed. If an agreement is reached and the meeting takes place we will inform you. To reiterate, as of right now the possibility of holding this meeting is under consideration.
Question: Is Minister Lavrov planning a meeting with the Azerbaijani foreign minister on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Hamburg?
Maria Zakharova: I have no information about an established timeframe for such a meeting. As you know, there are a large number of contacts at such a large forum. If there is time and a need, this kind of contact cannot be ruled out.
Question: You often say that at the current historical stage, a fierce information war is ongoing between countries, including against CIS countries, against Russia. The sides are using all tools to distribute the information that is necessary to them. For example, the United States disseminates information in more than 100 languages around the clock, and China, in over 60 languages. Over the past two decades, the share of Russia and [other] CIS countries in this information field has been not more than five or seven languages. As a result, a certain public opinion has been shaped in CIS and SCO countries for a quarter of a century now. I have been raising the issue for a long time but for some reason there has been no response from CSTO representatives. In my view, words are stronger than steel. As French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte used to say, “Three newspapers are more to be feared than a hundred bayonets” [actual quote: "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets"]. Look how many friends you have here! Is it not the time to start translating information from the Foreign Ministry, the CIS Secretariat and CSTO Headquarters into other languages, at least for the citizens of CIS and CSTO member countries? So far information is only available in Russian. We are doing almost nothing. I am willing to organise quality literary translation into oriental languages: Farsi, Dari and my native language, Tajik. Unfortunately, knowledge of Russian in the aforementioned countries is catastrophically declining, as you are aware. We receive distorted information from abroad. What do you think about this?
Maria Zakharova: You are absolutely right to raise this question. If we want to be heard we need to provide an information product that is best prepared for a target audience. Because your question concerns the CIS space I would like to point out that bringing Russia’s position home to a broad audience in the CIS countries is the responsibility of Russian embassies. Translations are done somewhere. Their scope may not be sufficient. I have heard your criticism. We will work on it. Thank you for your offer. I would be glad to discuss this issue with you in detail.
Question: I would like to add my sympathy and solidarity in connection with the death of Russian medical workers.
Following the recent resolution of the European Parliament, which is aimed against the Russian media, the Al Mayadeen TV Channel launched a wide-ranging programme of solidarity with the Russian media, giving wide coverage to the issue.
According to unconfirmed reports, at dawn, the Israeli Air Force delivered an airstrike on a military base near Damascus. Every success achieved in fighting terrorism on Syrian soil is accompanied by incidents related to outside interference in the conflict.
Would it be right to assume that the successes, in particular in Aleppo, are related to the fact that Moscow and Ankara have reached an agreement, normalised the situation and started fighting terrorists through joint efforts?
Maria Zakharova: I am not in a position to comment on concrete missile attacks. This is the purview of military experts and specialists.
The entire international community should act together – not simply by coming to terms or receiving a sense of some kind of impulses from each other, but based on the solid foundation of agreements that have already been reached and that have been approved in the course of long and difficult discussions. I am referring to ISSG documents, UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral, in particular, Russian-US documents. The entire documentary basis is in place. It simply needs being put into practice.
While not commenting on this particular case (I have no information about it and this is not my purview), I would like to say this. We see that a number of countries are not fulfilling the agreements that were reached, and are supporting actions that are going in the opposite direction from the course that was outlined and adopted under the documents previously signed. This arouses misunderstanding, incomprehension and concern, to put it mildly. But in reality this simply harms the common cause that we all seem to have subscribed to. We understand why this happens. There are different interests and certain political and geostrategic plans that are too gross to be made public, since they are clearly at odds with international obligations.
Regarding the shifts in Aleppo and whether they are a result of agreements with Turkey, I will not talk about concrete agreements. I will say that counterterrorist activities are being conducted in all areas, which is the domain of the Aerospace Forces and the Defence Ministry. Political efforts are underway, in particular, to maintain contact with the Syrian opposition, which has come as a kind of revelation to a number of Western journalists, who suddenly discovered that kind of contact on Turkish territory. This is very strange, because far from hiding them, on the contrary, we have always called for them and have said that Russia is open to cooperation and that its efforts can be used as a model to emulate. The third factor in the progress toward the settlement of the situation, in particular in Aleppo, is our contact both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. Due to the specifics of this subject I will not go into detail.
Question: What steps is Russia taking in order to implement the new sanctions resolution adopted by the UN Security Council last week?
Maria Zakharova: In accordance with the Russian legislation, this resolution will be prepared for implementation in our country. This is not the first sanctions resolution, including in this area. We have a way of implementing such international instruments which does not contradict Russia’s legislation.
Question: Today, President Obama said that extremism does not represent a threat for the United States. However, earlier, the United States mentioned that terrorism is threat number one for it. What is behind such a change of heart?
Maria Zakharova: The last thing I want to do now is discuss the motivation of what President Obama has to say. There are more interesting and more important things to do.
Question: You were in Italy recently as part of the delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Unfortunately, soon after the visit a referendum was held on the constitutional reform. The Italian government will work only until the end of this year, and will then, perhaps, step down. Could you comment on the outcome of the referendum in diplomatic terms? What meetings were held during this visit? What are our prospects for cooperation with Italy in this difficult period?
Maria Zakharova: We have taken the outcome of the referendum under advisement. According to official data, 59.1 percent voted against a large-scale constitutional reform, and 40.9 percent voted in favour of it.
As is known, head of the Italian government Matteo Renzi has resigned. President Sergio Mattarella suggested that he continue to function as the Prime Minister until the adoption of the state budget.
We believe (and mentioned it earlier, in particular, when we took your questions) that a referendum is an exclusively internal affair of a country. Of course, Italy is no exception. Therefore, we respect the choice of the Italian people. We highly value the contribution by Mr Renzi to strengthening Russia-Italy cooperation. He distinguished himself as a proponent of an active and constructive dialogue between Russia and Italy.
No matter how the political situation in Italy turns out, Russia will keep its commitment to maintaining and promoting mutually beneficial relations between our countries across all areas.
I believe it is also worth noting that Mr Renzi has kept his word. I think this is an important characteristic of him as a politician.
With regard to our visit to Italy, we had a busy schedule. In fact, there were two visits by Minister Lavrov: one to Italy and one to the Vatican. He also participated in an international conference on Mediterranean issues. With the exception of the negotiation process, all the functions were open to the media. He spoke at the conference before the public. The results of the talks were summarised by Sergey Lavrov during a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart.
We believe that the visits and the participation of the Russian delegation in all the functions were very productive, constructive and effective. It is very important for us to maintain relations despite the international situation and the fact that Italy joined the anti-Russian sanctions, even if it is also affected by them and the countermeasures. It is important to keep up the dialogue, because the world tends to go through different phases. The peoples of our two countries were friends and will remain friend. We have always felt a particularly friendly and warm atmosphere whenever we met with the Italians. Therefore, the visit has left us only with positive emotions. We have achieved constructive results as well. I believe my answer was more lyrical than diplomatic. The weather was good, although we were told that it was very cold and the temperature dropped to 14 degrees Celsius, but we liked it.
Question: Prime Minister of Turkey Benali Yildirim said that Russia and Turkey understand each other better on the Syrian issue now than ever before. What aspects of the Syria settlement do Russia and Turkey share close positions on?
Maria Zakharova: First and most importantly, a dialogue is now underway. Among other things, the absence of it has set the prospects for a settlement in Syria back and certainly slowed progress. This is the first thing that should be mentioned. Second, speaking about the position of Russia or Turkey and analysing particular statements by the politicians and public figures, we must not forget one important thing, namely, that Russia and Turkey have signed and adopted joint documents as their plan of action, which, having passed the UN Security Council, have become binding not only for our two countries or a certain group of countries, but the entire world given the status of the Security Council resolutions. This is precisely the common platform on which we act together with Turkey. Speaking of our shared or close positions, the ISSG documents and, of course, the UN Security Council resolutions, say it all. They are implemented, in particular, through our dialogue on these issues with Turkey.
Question: What does the Russian Foreign Ministry think about a possible meeting of the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia with the OSCE Minsk Group foreign ministers? Is Russia supportive of it? Does it consider it necessary?
Maria Zakharova: We have never shunned such meetings. The issue is about making proper arrangements. If it’s properly coordinated, we will certainly take part in it and do our best to make it constructive and effective. Everyone has their own schedules and agendas. If this meeting does take place, we need to fill it with substantive discussions. Our experts are working on it. This is not about what we think about such meetings, but their actual content, and fitting them into the schedules of all the participants.