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5 April 201719:58

Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, April 5, 2017

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Table of contents

 

  1. Terrorist attack in St Petersburg on April 3
  2. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali
  3. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s participation in a meeting of heads of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s territorial bodies
  4. Developments in Syria
  5. UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria
  6. Developments in Mosul
  7. Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territories
  8. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh a year after armed clashes
  9. Kiev’s attempts to shift the blame for Donbass blockade on its foreign sponsors
  10. Protest rallies in Serbia
  11. Lithuanian intelligence agencies’ analysis of Russia
  12. The international conference, The Probability of Rapprochement in Russian-US relations and the Political and Geopolitical Consequences for Europe and the Arab World 
  13. Answers to media questions:
  14. Syria

  15. Russian-Montenegrin relations

  16. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Russia

  17. Photo of Russia Today’s Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan with Russian President Vladimir Putin

  18. Air strike in Khan-Sheikhun

  19. Venezuela

  20. Alexander Lapshin

  21. Ukraine

 

Terrorist attack in St Petersburg on April 3

 

The Foreign Ministry again expresses its deep condolences to the families of those killed in the April 3 terrorist attack in St Petersburg. We wish a speedy recovery to all those injured.

We are grateful to the leaders and citizens of foreign countries and the heads of international organisations who did not remain indifferent to our tragedy.

The barbarous and ugly crime in the St Petersburg metro has confirmed once again that terrorism is a deadly global threat and that it requires the utmost cohesion of the international community, immediate and, without a doubt, effective collective measures under the aegis of the UN, based on the existing foundational decisions on fighting terrorism that have come above all from the UN Security Council.

In fighting terrorism, there can be no room for so-called double standards or “hidden agendas”. It is wrong to divide terrorists into “bad” and “not so bad”. It is unacceptable to use terrorist and extremist groups for political or geopolitical purposes, for interfering in the internal affairs of other states or for destabilising “uncooperative” regimes. In the end this always leads to the escalation of the global problem of terrorism.

We are once again calling for action against terrorists in a united, powerful front and for support for the Russian initiatives on fighting terrorism at both the UN and other international organisations.

I would like to address in detail the reaction that we have received through different diplomatic channels, as well as from ordinary people. A response to our tragedy came from the US, China, EU countries, the UK, the brotherly peoples of the CIS, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, India, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Israel, where in the evening of April 3, the façade of the Tel Aviv mayor’s office building was lit up in the colours of the Russian flag as a sign of solidarity with Russia, among other countries. We are grateful for their expression of support to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini, European Council President Donald Tusk, PACE President Pedro Agramunt, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz and OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier, among many others. Thank you, thank all those who brought flowers and candles to Russian embassies throughout the world. We appreciate the unanimous condemnation of the terrorist attack by UN Security Council members.

I would like separately to thank everyone for the reaction that we have seen in Ukraine. The words of Ukrainian officials and citizens did not go unnoticed. We especially thank you for that.

Of course, the traditional nightmare could not be avoided, either. Some people in the media and social networks saw a “Russian political trail” in this inhuman act and did not refrain from outright mockery of what happened. Some mainstream media outlets, in particular, Politico and The New York Times, said the terrorist attack was “payback” for Russia’s foreign policy (while it is clear in the West that “terrorists attack freedom and democracy”). The Washington Post went even further in its evaluations. An article in this publication says that Russians should not expect the same level of empathy from the international community as it showed after the attack on Westminster Bridge in London, where four people were killed even though there were far more casualties in St Petersburg. It is simply disgusting to write such things. These media outlets can probably be expected to go even further and analyse not only the nationality of the people who were killed in terrorist attacks but also their ethnic backgrounds.

Even what I have just cited is over the top. You can’t go any further. The author of the article bluntly recognises the legitimacy of such “double standards”. He states without any qualms that, as a general rule, terrorist attacks in Europe and the US arouse far more sympathy than attacks in other countries, suggesting that few if anyone will change their avatars on social networks in solidarity with the victims of suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad. This terrible subject was taken up in another article in the same publication, alleging that fighting terrorism has become a priority for Russia and its leadership but for some reason Russians continue to get killed. They even cited some mind-boggling, incomprehensible statistics since 1970. This is a fact that you can check out.

As history shows us daily, nobody is insured against this disaster. We once again urge the international community and the media, considering their role in today’s world, to fight terrorism in all of its forms and manifestations, so as not to leave the organisers of such crimes against people any hope that they will get away with it or will be justified.

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali

 

On April 13, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali will pay an official visit to Russia at the invitation of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The foreign ministers will discuss the state and prospects of expanded bilateral relations and exchange opinions on current issues on the international and regional agendas, including the fight against terrorism.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The bilateral ties that have been developed over the past decades are marked by a high level of trust and hinge on the principles of equality, mutual respect and consideration for each other’s interests.

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s participation in a meeting of heads of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s territorial bodies

 

On April 13−14, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will attend a meeting of heads of the Foreign Ministry’s territorial bodies.

Foreign Ministry territorial bodies (missions) act as a link between the Ministry’s Central Administration and the executive agencies of the Russian regions. They play a substantial role in expanding the regions’ international and foreign economic ties in the context of implementing Russia’s consolidated foreign policy line in modern conditions.

Meeting participants will focus on the more efficient performance of the Foreign Ministry’s territorial offices. They will discuss efforts to assist the regional administrations’ foreign economic activities. The participants will also exchange opinions on important issues of the missions’ work. You will be briefed on the results of this event.

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Developments in Syria

 

The situation in Syria is noted for attempts taken by the destructive forces that want to prevent a settlement in Syria, to derail recent positive initiatives. These actions are spearheaded primarily at violating the ceasefire and vital agreements on local ceasefires, as well as at delivering a blow to the Astana process and the intra-Syrian consultations that have resumed in Geneva.

On the practical level, these attempts are orchestrated by the terrorists who do not want peace to be restored in Syria. They want confusion to prevail in the country and to spread throughout the Middle East and beyond. It was Jabhat al-Nusra that organised large-scale raids near Damascus and in North Hama in late March, in which it involved other armed groups that are still considered to be moderate opposition.

It is not just the terrorists’ actions that are unsettling (what else can you expect from terrorists?) but the position of some of our international and regional partners. Instead of firmly condemning the terrorist movement, they are trying to whitewash al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups. They appear willing to support any justification and fake news planted by the adherents of terrorism in order to bring charges against the Syrian government without bothering to check the facts.

There have been many instances when Western politicians and media outlets have expressed solidarity with ISIS and al-Nusra. We cannot understand the reason for this sympathy and the surprising amount of trust London, Paris and Brussels feel for these thugs, criminals and media opportunists, who provide alleged evidence which the West uses to present its case. It appears that the West would support anyone who is willing to throw stones at the legitimate Syrian government and spread any rumour. In addition to moral support, we also see material backing that is motivating and stimulating these actions.

On April 4, Syrian Air Force planes taking part in the operation to clear up the consequences of the recent terrorist offensive in the Hama Province delivered airstrikes at the extremists’ positions on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun. They bombed the accumulation of military hardware and a munitions warehouse. The facility they bombed included shops where chemical munitions were produced.

The internet and politically influenced media have published reports alleging that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people. It is remarkable that initially they claimed that the chemical bombs were dropped from Russian aircraft. After that, they provided the number of casualties of the chemical attack and videos of dying and dead children, women and old people.

Responding to the media activity over the events at Khan Sheikhoun, the Russian Defence Ministry stated that the terrorists had previously used chemical bombs from that warehouse to bomb Aleppo and also delivered them to Iraq. Russian military experts reported the use of chemical weapons in Aleppo in the autumn of 2016. I want you to take note of these facts, because we not only reported the attacks but also placed them on record and forwarded the reports, together with soil samples, to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Regrettably, nothing has been done to investigate those attacks. Using exclusively fake news and fabricated reports planted in the media, the United States, France and Britain have planted – this is the right word for their action – yet another openly anti-Syrian draft resolution at the UN Security Council. This document will add fuel to the already complicated military-political situation in Syria and the rest of the region.

In addition, I would like to say that this action, this performance is clearly designed to stimulate political destabilisation in Syria. Apart from the military and political implications, this move is also designed, as we see it, to complicate and even stall the nascent intra-Syrian talks.

Russia will continue to work towards an early settlement of the serious military-political conflict in Syria. We urge all the parties concerned to assess the events objectively and in a responsible manner and not just talk but take action to promote political negotiations on a settlement in Syria and its liberation from the evil of terrorism.

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UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria

 

I would like to dwell separately on the issue I have mentioned and outline the Russian approaches to the UN Security Council’s draft resolution planted by the UK, France, and the United States.

Let me note that the text they have submitted is absolutely unacceptable. Its flaw (and the case in point is a fundamental flaw) is that it pre-empts the investigation results and hastily allocates blame, pointing a finger at Damascus. I will explain why we do not see any particular need for adopting a resolution at this stage.

The earlier decisions are quite sufficient for a thorough investigation into this incident. But if certain members of the UN Security Council regard a new resolution as desirable, necessary and timely, this resolution should look totally different. We have a concrete suggestion on this score.

It should have been pointed out in any event that the Security Council is deeply concerned about the news of numerous deaths caused by chemical poisoning at Khan Sheikhoun and that this dictates the need for a full-scale investigation to clarify what has happened in reality and who is to blame. Any use of chemical weapons by whatever party should have been denounced as well. It would be important to urge the OPCW Fact Finding Mission to fully investigate the reported incident on location under the mandatory condition that a list of the Mission’s personnel taking part in the investigation should be submitted to the UN Security Council. It should also be of a geographically balanced nature. What I mean is that representatives of Western countries must not dominate among the people who will be directly involved in clarifying these matters. For the Western nations, the fate of Syria has been reduced exclusively to the issue of regime change. [If they dominate the proceedings], there can be no full-scale, balanced and fitting investigation or analysis.

We have already witnessed examples of such work, when some or other structures tasked with finding out the truth were from the start pre-programmed for political bias. This case is different. It is vitally important to be absolutely impartial and enable oneself and this mechanism to avoid political bias. It would also be necessary to envisage a demand that the illegal armed groups, which control the area where the incident has occurred, should provide investigators with full and safe access to both the location in question and the information they need.

As you understand, the draft has failed to include the things I have just mentioned. It is being actively lobbied under canons and rules other than those accepted by the UN Security Council and with the only aim to put everyone in a situation where it would be either approved or vetoed bypassing any analysis or joint work. Joint work is aimed at achieving concrete results, which is the bedrock of UN Security Council activities.

I would like to say that in recent years, the Russian side, the leaders of the Russian Federation and Foreign Ministry representatives at all levels have repeatedly identified and promoted this issue as one of the UN Security Council’s focal points. They emphasised the urgent imperative to hold an investigation into crimes involving the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the region as a whole. Each time we called on others to avoid politicisation so that we have clarity with regard to the motives, perpetrators and consequences of these crimes. 

At this point, the main task is to conduct an objective analysis of what happened. I would like to say that the falsified reports on this issue are sourced to the notorious White Helmets and the odious London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Neither can be trusted. These sources have seriously undermined their credibility by releasing staged videos and information that was subsequently refuted by all parties. Why then do the people who assume responsibility for adopting decisions that will be binding for all countries, such as UN Security Council resolutions, rely on information coming from untrustworthy agencies? These agencies have long discredited themselves. The information they provide must not be used to take far-reaching decisions that will be binding for all countries.

We have grown used to hearing unsubstantiated allegations against Damascus and its demonisation. These actions have only one goal in sight: to remove the legitimate Syrian government from power at any cost, and, failing that, to at least rally the political support and a propaganda campaign for the proposed decision that would ultimately force Russia to accept or veto it.

Here is an example from my personal experience. When I worked at Russia’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York, I communicated with our Western colleagues, including the press secretary and the representative of one of the topmost three Western missions. That was in 2005 and 2006, at the height of the Iraq war, when we had no proof that the reasons and pretexts for the invasion of Iraq as stated by the United States and its allies had been falsified. We took part in debates and went to the editorial boards of various newspapers and magazines, where the press secretaries of the five permanent UNSC members upheld the positions of their countries. Once I said that the US-led coalition was acting in Iraq illegally because it did not have a mandate or a UNSC resolution on an armed operation against Iraq. In reply, one of my colleagues urged me to count the number of UNSC resolutions and decisions denouncing Iraq and the number of proposals they had made for a collective decision to launch a military operation against Iraq. It came as a revelation to me that attempts also count, that they help create an information environment for justifying the subsequent use of armed force in the eyes of the public and the international community. It may be illegal from the legal viewpoint, but the atmosphere for such actions was created deliberately and consistently.

I see the same happening with regard to Syria. It is absolutely clear to everyone involved that illegal decisions based on falsified information will be not accepted. So why are they planting it at the last possible minute? Why is this information not discussed properly? Why has this obviously no-win proposal been made? All of this is being done to create the necessary information and propaganda environment. Nobody knew in the early 2000s that Colin Powell holding up a vial that allegedly contained anthrax was a huge fake. The world came to discover this much later. As I have said, the propaganda campaign included efforts to encourage the UNSC to adopt a resolution condemning Iraq and also a resolution approving the use of armed force against it. This is all I wanted to say to explain what is happening around Syria.

We would also like to draw your attention to the controversial nature of reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons. The White Helmets, which everyone is citing, keep changing their reports. First they say that the bombs were dropped from a helicopter and then change it to a fixed-wing plane. They cannot decide which chemical agent it was – chlorine gas or sarin, and are undecided about the number of casualties. The video and photo materials posted on the social media show that the White Helmets helping the victims are not using proper protective equipment and are otherwise acting unprofessionally. Also, their appearance is much too calm for such an emergency. Taken together, this means that these video materials have been staged.

We have no doubt of the incendiary purposes of this campaign. I would like to remind you once again that it was not a representative of a non-governmental organisation or movement that brought a vial with a white substance and put on a performance at the UN Security Council, but the US Secretary of State. It was much more powerful than the staged video of the White Helmets, because the vial was brought to the UNSC by a senior official of a global power. That performance created a pretext for intervening in Iraq. Later everyone, including Washington, admitted that it was a mistake, that there was no reliable proof, that the proof they had was falsified, and that some high-ranking US officials knew this but did not expose the falsification because it was not in their interests at the time.

Shall we allow something of the kind to be now perpetrated against another country? The contradictions I’ve mentioned have been reflected in the draft resolution. For example, it mentions, I quote, the “horrors” related to the incident, which is presented as an established fact. Simultaneously, the same draft insists on finding out whether or not this incident took place at all. See in what haste they were compiling the resolution? Its authors understood that it stood no chance of being approved, but they needed an effect, a concrete result, a bit of propaganda. In other words, the draft was being prepared with much haste and is remarkable for its sloppiness. We have no doubt as to the tasks its authors faced. It’s simply outrageous to suggest that the Security Council approve this text. The Western public opinion should know how diplomats representing their countries’ interests in the UN Security Council do their job. Will the Western public let them step on the same rake again and use a fake to promote serious international legal documents?

Let me say a few words about the putative incident that took place in that area which has been controlled by the terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra since 2014. From 11:30 to 12:30 am local time on April 4, the Syrian aviation attacked a major ammunition storage facility and a fleet of military equipment in the eastern suburb of Khan Sheikhoun. The facility included shops that manufactured land mines with chemical agents intended for use in Iraq, as well as in Aleppo. Their use in the same province was recorded by Russian military experts late last year, as I said. The signs of poisoning at Khan Sheikhoun in the video and the social media are exactly the same as in Aleppo last autumn. At that time, all the facts related to the use of chemical weapons, along with soil samples taken in that city, were put on record and submitted to the OPCW. The Organisation is still analysing them. 

Whatever the finale of yet another chemical weapons saga, it is already clear that chemical terrorism is getting into high gear and that it should be resisted in the most resolute manner. Regrettably, all our attempts over the last three years to provoke a reaction from the Security Council to crimes perpetrated by terrorists, who increasingly often use chemical weapons, have met with no success because of the stance adopted by our Western partners. Characteristically, they were absolutely indifferent to ISIS using toxic agents in Mosul the other day. But now that they saw an opportunity to bring yet another charge against Damascus, the very same countries plunged into action with a kind of unreal deftness and in violation of all rules of decency and evading consultations within the UN Security Council rushed a vote on a resolution accusing the Syrian government.

Let me stress again that there were no consultations before this draft was planted in the UN Security Council. We believe that a full-scale and effective investigation should be held. It is certainly high time we put an end to remote investigative actions based on information derived from the internet or requested from neighbouring countries clearly biased against the legitimate Syrian authorities. To find out the truth, OPCW and Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) experts should, in keeping with their mandates, reach the location in question and use the entire spectrum of methods, including sampling, forensic tests and more. The importance of such a strictly scientific approach was stressed in JIM reports No. 4 and No. 5 (p. 49 and p. 11, respectively).

I understand that our information will not reach Western audiences, except the diplomats; it will be blocked. Your representatives are bringing a falsified document based entirely on fake news to the UN Security Council. It’s Colin Powell and his test tube all over again! Later you’ll feel ashamed for your authorities’ actions in the UN Security Council. I am addressing the Western audiences: Stop your representatives!  

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Developments in Mosul

 

The operation to liberate Mosul was launched more than five months ago, but its conclusion is nowhere in sight. The ISIS terrorists have mounted fierce resistance on the right bank in western Mosul, using civilians as live shields.

The Iraqi military, the militia coalition and Kurdish units are fighting gruelling battles at Matahin and Yarmouk. We welcome their efforts to liberate Iraq from ISIS. According to the militia coalition’s spokesman, Ahmed al-Asadi, the terrorists maintain control over 30 percent of the city. There are about 1,000 extremists on the right bank and up to 3,000 taking into account the units in the suburbs of Tal Afar and Mahlabiya.

We believe that international attention must be focused on the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Mosul. According to available data, there are some 400,000 people in Mosul who cannot leave the zone of hostilities. They are running out of food and medicines, and hunger and epidemics are a distinct possibility if the storming of Mosul takes much longer. Assistance must be also provided to the hundreds of thousands who have fled from the hostilities in Mosul and many more who are leaving the city.

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Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territories

 

On March 30, the Israeli government decided to build the first new Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank in two decades. The 2,000 units to be built there will house the Israelis who have been ordered out of their houses in the Amona outpost in the West Bank by decision of the Israeli Supreme Court. The Israeli authorities have confiscated a 90-hectare area for the new settlement and declared it state property.

We reaffirm the principled position of Russia and the international community on the illegality of Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. We believe that this new decision will have a negative impact on the efforts to create conditions for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, which should settle the issues of status and borders.

At the same time, we have taken note of reports about Israel’s willingness to curtail its settlement construction plans. We hope that the declaration of this intention will be followed by practical actions on the ground.

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The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh a year after armed clashes

 

A year ago today, an agreement was reached in Moscow to end large-scale hostilities along the contact line in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict area. This armed clash was the most serious violation of the 1994 ceasefire agreement.

The countries co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group and international organisations have been working energetically to stabilise the situation in the conflict area and create conditions for the peace process. These issues were on the agenda of the summits on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement held in Vienna and St Petersburg in 2016.

Efforts towards this end have been ongoing at all levels. We hope that the parties will resume their dialogue aimed at achieving a lasting settlement.

I would like you to know that a comprehensive article, which includes Russia’s position of principle on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, is available in the Russian-language transcript of the March 10 briefing published on the Foreign Ministry’s website. 

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Kiev’s attempts to shift the blame for Donbass blockade on its foreign sponsors

 

The Ukrainian media have circulated alleged approval statements from Ukraine’s foreign sponsors in response to the Donbass transport and trade blockade the Ukrainian leadership introduced in March. In their reports, the Ukrainian media quoted the Ukrainian president’s press service communique that followed his meeting with the G7 and EU ambassadors in Kiev and also his trip to Malta to attend the European People’s Party congress.

The reality, however, transpired to be different, as usual. This is yet another case of wishful thinking on the part of the authorities in Kiev. As far as we know, the blockade that Kiev introduced in violation of the Minsk agreements and thereby aggravated the local population’s predicament, received no support. Conversely, Kiev’s foreign partners clearly realise how detrimental it can be for the conflict settlement inside the country and for Ukraine itself. Ukraine failed to secure the support of the G7 nations not because they are siding with Russia, as Kiev claims, but because they believe this blockade will have a negative impact on Ukraine itself. It has nothing to do with Russia. Their position was formulated in the context of the internal Ukrainian processes.

The circulated communique is nothing but another propaganda fake. We believe it demonstrates Kiev’s aspiration to share the responsibility for the events in the country with their Western sponsors, make them de-facto accomplices in the course for a military solution to the Donbass problem. We do hope that the G7 and EU nations take a common sense approach to the situation in Ukraine. We know this from our conversations with these countries’ representatives who have been rather perplexed, to put it mildly, by the way Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s administration presented the information. We hope they will find a way to persuade the Ukrainian leadership to give up confrontation and get down to meeting their international commitments set out in the Minsk agreements on all counts and in the stipulated order.

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Protest rallies in Serbia

 

We have taken note of the protest rallies that have been held in some cities in Serbia attempting to cast doubt on the outcome of the April 2 presidential election. Meanwhile numerous observers, including international ones, as well as representatives of international organisations, have said that they reported no serious violations of the voting procedure. They say that the election was conducted in keeping with the accepted standards and its results provide an objective picture of the will of Serbian voters.

We believe that all necessary conditions are available in democratic and friendly Serbia for the implementation of civil rights, including freedom of expression and assembly. It is vital that all arising problems are settled exclusively within the framework of the law. We hope that all political forces in Serbia will act responsibly and prevent the destabilisation of their country.

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Lithuanian intelligence agencies’ analysis of Russia

 

A new, recently published “masterpiece” from Lithuanian intelligence services has come to our attention. Lithuanian intelligence services’ analysis reports always cause waves on the internet. This latest one is almost entirely devoted to Russia, which is presented as the main threat to Lithuania’s security. This is a highly biased line that rests on a collection of distorted facts and biased assessments. This report’s aim is clearly to present Russia as the enemy of the Lithuanian people. Russia has nothing better to do these days than sit here thinking about how best to make trouble for Lithuania. These insinuations fit in completely with the general context of Vilnius’ anti-Russian policies and hostile rhetoric, which have already become something of a national theme. The Russian Embassy in Lithuania is one of the main targets.  

We consider this report and its content provocative in nature, giving us every reason to conclude that Lithuania is steadily turning into a country set on making Russophobia its national theme.

We firmly condemn this practice of open pressure and blackmail by the Lithuanian intelligence services, which obstruct the normal work of Russia’s foreign missions in Lithuania, the main professional task of which, as you know, is to promote dialogue and business contacts in the country in which they work. 

I want to remind those who initiate such campaigns that no one has abolished the principle of reciprocity in relations between countries.              

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The international conference, The Probability of Rapprochement in Russian-US relations

and the Political and Geopolitical Consequences for Europe and the Arab World 

 

An international conference, The Probability of Rapprochement in Russian-US relations and the Political and Geopolitical Consequences for Europe and the Arab World, took place in Paris on March 25. The event was jointly organised by the French International Centre for Geopolitical and Analysis Forecasting and the European Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (EIDC).  

The speakers at the conference included Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the Federation Council commission on information policy and the media, Natalia Narochnitskaya, director of the EIDC (Russia), the founder of the Trump-France Committee, Chairman of the American-Russian Coalition to Support Trump R. Gavzhi; Republican Party candidate for Congress from Florida and founder of the group Americans Against Hate, Joe Kaufman (US); former Secretary General of the Elysee Palace Claude Gueant; prominent journalist and specialist on the Middle East R. Gerard (France); former Prime Minister of Algeria Sid Ahmed Ghozali; former foreign ministers of Egypt and Tunisia Mohamed Orabi and Kamel Morjane, and others.

The conference saw a candid and involved exchange of views, which included possible cooperation between Russia and the US on combating ISIS, and the prospects for Russian involvement in efforts to resolve the situation in Libya, a country that France did much to destroy during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency.

The discussion showed that the expert community is coming around to an understanding of the important and constructive role that Russia plays in Middle East affairs.

It is characteristic that despite the high level of the conference’s participants, the main French media outlets chose to ignore the event.

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Answers to media questions:

Question: Syrian Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad accused Turkey of supporting terrorists in taking Syrian territory in the north of the country. Turkey, for its part, following Britain, the US and France, accuses Syria of using chemical weapons. In this confrontational situation, how can Turkey remain a guarantor of the ceasefire?  

Maria Zakharova: We take the view that Turkey did not only state its support for the processes launched, but, in Astana, in particular, took on obligations. This is about more than words and more than political strategy. These are obligations that were formulated and cemented at the very highest level. We always said that, regrettably, we do have our differences with Turkey on the Syrian issue. We discuss them through our bilateral channels and share our concerns with our Turkish colleagues. 

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Question: How will Russia’s relations with Montenegro develop once it joins NATO? Does Russia have any possible levers of influence it can use on the current president, Filip Vujanovic, and the prime minister, Milo Dukanovic? How effectively are we using them in the current situation? Do we have a strategy in the Balkans

Maria Zakharova: Yes, we do have a strategy. It is not possible to have a foreign policy without a strategy. We have the Foreign Policy Concept, the main reference document that sets out the main lines for our work. There are other documents and situational analyses too, of course.   

Regarding the idea of putting pressure on anyone, whoever they may be, we have said many times before that Russia’s foreign policy is based above all on the main international legal rules and provisions. The UN Charter is our principle platform, and it expressly prohibits using any form of pressure to intervene and meddle in other countries’ domestic affairs.  

We have our vision of how we think it best to go about building our bilateral relations with other countries, and with Montenegro in particular. We have always taken the view that this change of status will, above all, harm the interests of Montenegro’s own people. We have always said this. We saw the pressure a number of NATO countries, its Western members, put on Montenegro’s authorities. We said each time that a country has the right to take the decisions it sees fit, but it would not be a bad thing to ask the people of Montenegro what they think about these fundamental issues. After all, these decisions have a huge impact on the future of Montenegro and regional stability. Probably we will be talking not about stability, but about instability. Montenegro’s government has presented new arguments each time about why a referendum is not needed, and accused Russia of all manner of evils. But, I say again, developed democracies hold plebiscites, conduct public opinion surveys, organize referendums on minor issues that do not affect a country or region’s future. However, Montenegro has not held any plebiscites or referendums with any kind of legal nature on this issue which is of such great importance for the country.  

We have never made a secret of our view in this regard. We have used all arguments available to make our view public, and have discussed this during our bilateral contacts. We said that action of this sort, which is not based on broad consensus within the country, changes the political landscape and impacts on the region’s stability and not only cannot pass unnoticed but will not have any positive results. It will not bring new stability to what is already a very complicated situation in the region.    

Of course, this situation has not become complicated simply overnight. We are well aware of the Balkans’ fate and history. These countries have gone through so much, through bloodshed, redrawing of their borders, division of their peoples, and have had their destinies redrawn as if these people have absolutely no feelings. Decisions based on broad national consensus should serve as the foundation for a long-term solution.

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Question: Could you clarify the date and agenda of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit? Do the departments of both countries maintain any dialogue?

Maria Zakharova: The visit is on the agenda, and preparations are underway. In principle, our departments maintain multi-format dialogue. The Russian and US embassies are working in Washington DC and Moscow.  We maintain diplomatic contacts. We are preparing for the visit and coordinating the exact date and issues for discussion. I will certainly share the visit’s date and agenda with you as soon as possible. Both sides are coordinating this issue.

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Question: Several hours ago, you posted on Facebook, commenting on a photo that shows Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Russia Today television channel, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. How would you comment on this photo? What can you say about the US intelligence report in this connection?

Maria Zakharova: To my mind, this story is quite sensational.  US Senator Jeanne Shaheen has gained notoriety for her openly foolish escapades. I would like to tell US officials that the next time someone offers them any “classified” photos of Margarita Simonyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for handsome sums of money, they can get them absolutely free on the Russia Today website or from the Foreign Ministry. If you have any extra money, you would do better to donate it to a charity foundation.

This time, the US senator has submitted a “declassified” photo that has already gone viral and that shows Russian President Vladimir Putin and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan attending a project presentation. The senator has asked everyone to think about what they see in this photo and what some people have come to. I don’t quite understand what someone has come to. Is she referring to the President of Russia, the RT television channel or everything taken together?

As I see it, the photo clearly shows that our Russia Today television channel now ranks among the largest Russian and global TV channels. The photo shows that Russian leaders, including the President, federal government ministers, top regional leaders and local authorities, are open to media outlets, and that they regularly meet with journalists in various formats. These formats include news conferences involving hundreds of journalists, presentations of new studios, exhibitions organised by media outlets, as well as open and off-the-record meetings with various agencies, channels and foreign media outlets. The US senator does not understand this, but we have also borrowed from US experience in our work. We agree or disagree with them on some aspects, and we consider certain experience to be extremely important and useful. We were largely guided by US methods for dealing with the media in terms of openness, the availability of official information to media outlets. We did not invent anything new. All major countries operate foreign-language broadcasting networks. Moreover, these networks have taken on a global scale. But they can also operate on a regional scale. Last time, a representative of Bulgaria discussed the work of a Turkish-language television channel in his country.

What does this photo mean? To me, it is also evidence, and very important evidence, that women in my country are appointed to positions based on their talents, not because of nepotism or protectionism. There are no gender, age or nationality qualifications. The main criterion is professionalism and whether you satisfy the requirements of a given position. What Margarita Simonyan did when she was appointed editor-in-chief of the RT television network many years ago was a heroic feat that changed the mentality of many people in Russia. First, she created a high quality product from scratch. She did not inherit a product that had worked well before. She created this television network from scratch and made it a huge success. Her achievements have been noticed not just by the Russian authorities and the public. Wherever we go, for example to the Middle East, people express a positive attitude to the appearance of an alternative view on information in the media. People are tired of listening to the same old mantra from the mainstream media, which serve the interests of a certain group of countries. You can reject the views expressed by RT, but at least we have our own views. This is good, because it creates competition.

The second thing that is very important relative to Simonyan’s appointment is that young professionals see that their career depends on them and that the state is coming to trust young people.  It is extremely important when young people get this impetus in the most creative and important period of their lives. This young woman is a trailblazer of sorts, a mental trailblazer. It’s important. I know many women who see Simonyan as an example.

Regrettably, this is not what the honourable senator saw in this photo. She probably focused on the word “declassified.” The other details are available in my blog.

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Question: Russia claims that the bombing raid in Khan Sheikhoun took place between 11:30 am and 12:30 pm. But the doctors say that the attack started several hours earlier. How can you explain this contradiction?

Maria Zakharova: Why haven’t those who submitted their resolution to the UN Security Council asked themselves this question? You, a journalist, are speaking about conflicting data. Who should sort this out? I don’t think it should be permanent representatives at the UN Security Council. They are responsible for politics. It takes experts to provide a political assessment of an event. How can we establish when the strikes or blows were delivered and where? This is a task for experts. There is an agency within a larger organisation that is authorised to determine what happens on the ground. I wonder why the United States, Britain and France did not use this agency, which they created, to send experts to collect at least initial information on the ground. They have the experts and the agency for this. I am referring to the OPCW fact-finding mission in Syria. Why haven’t they used this agency? Why have they rushed to provide political assessments? Do you know how the UN operates? Before taking a political decision, the representatives of the bodies responsible for a given field compile reports for the UN Security Council and hold briefings. There were none in this case, and nobody has requested them. Nobody at the UN has requested factual data or value judgments. They have simply planted their draft resolution at the UN Security Council and are waiting for a political performance.

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Question: Do you think that footage from the incident site is fake?

Maria Zakharova: If we are going to speculate on this, then we’ll end up in a situation where “we think this way, you think that way, so let's see who thinks better.” We do not need to make guesses. We have an expert group that should be working on the site. Why is it not working there? Here’s an example from everyday life. Every time something happens, such as a traffic accident or a robbery, the surveillance cameras footage is taken and witness accounts are used. In the case of a traffic accident, the vehicle trajectories are examined and it becomes clear what led to the collision. All of that is done by specialists. Here, we are dealing with a complicated issue of a chemical attack, as our Western colleagues are saying. Is it really up to the diplomats at the UN Security Council to determine what kind of chemical weapon was used there, how the attack was carried out, when it happened, and what witness accounts are available? Who should be doing that? One could assume that an appropriate mechanism to address these issues is not available, but it is. Why isn’t anyone using it? I'll tell you why. Because then these people will bring objective data to the UN Security Council. Today, there’s no need for them. What we need today is a political show in order to once again demonstrate to the world the unity of the West with regard to the Bashar al-Assad regime and continue to lobby their policy. There’s no alternative to it. We can see this time and again. Of course, the desire to introduce, again, a document that can be vetoed, and thus to draw the attention of the international community to the fact that Russia is acting in an unconstructive manner is an important part of what is happening now. When we talk about sending experts there, nobody hears us. How can this be?

With regard to the White Helmets, we strongly believe that some of the materials that they are distributing were absolutely fabricated. These materials need to be analysed by experts, because we doubt their authenticity. We have no doubt that this is part of the propaganda campaign, and that this organisation is used as an element of a propaganda campaign. Oscar, the Nobel Prize – we’ve been there, saw it coming, and talked about it.

There are experts and they should do their jobs. If everything is reduced to politically biased decision-making, then this is exactly what we are now observing and will observe in the future.

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Question: The experts are unable to get there.

Maria Zakharova: Why are they unable to get there? Does Damascus prevent them from doing so? No. There’s a threat coming from the militants.

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Question: The situation in Idlib is totally different.

Maria Zakharova: Where’s the logic behind that? If it’s not safe there, then you can take binding decisions that are not based on anything? It's a crazy thing to do.

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Question: Getting there is a problem, and it’s extremely dangerous.

Maria Zakharova: Then we should go ahead with Plan B – “Colin Powell and his vial.” Is my understanding correct that if it’s dangerous to go there, then it’s okay to take absolutely falsified decisions? In our opinion, there is no basis for taking an objective decision.

One other thing. You are saying that it's dangerous out there. Who exactly is in Idlib and does not allow experts to come there? Moderate oppositionists? They are “moderate” – that’s how you refer to them. Making a deal with “moderates” shouldn’t be a problem. I haven’t heard anyone from the Syrian government say that they would not let experts come there. The Syrian government keeps talking about the need for thorough international investigation in accordance with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, existing OPCW procedures, etc. As for the “moderates”, you know who stands behind them. Go ahead and make a deal with them.

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Question: You commented on the situation in Venezuela. What do you think about the external pressure on the Venezuelan government and the violations within the CELAC?

Maria Zakharova: As you rightly noted, we already commented on this. I would like to remind you that our commentary was published on the Foreign Ministry website. We repeatedly said that it is unacceptable to seek to influence domestic affairs in Venezuela. Not only with regard to the situation in question but also with regard to others, I suggest you think about the topic which I would not call our official response but something that deserves a global analysis. It is the issue of democracy and a democratic system. Democracy has existed since ancient times and throughout centuries. It has become the most reasonable system for the public to determine its own fate. Democratic institutions, the general principles that the democratic system and democracy promoted were considered by many as the best in the absence of another, a more optimal way for people to influence and govern the processes in their country. The 20th century introduced us to the phenomenon of globalisation. This is cause for wide-ranging reflection on what democracy is now and who has more opportunities to influence events within a country. Is it the people of said country or more powerful states that can use democratic institutions in the country to promote their own interests? I think it is a topic for a major serious discussion.

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Question: Is the Foreign Ministry following the situation with blogger Alexander Lapshin who has Russian citizenship in addition to Israeli? He is currently detained at a Baku detention centre for his statements and actions in support of Nagorno-Karabakh. Is Russia maintaining contacts with Azerbaijan on his extradition to Russia?

Maria Zakharova: Of course, we are following the situation. As you know, it is not only the Russian embassy that is involved but also, considering that Lapshin has citizenship of other countries, we are staying in touch with the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan. The embassy is working on this issue as one within its competence. The work continues.

At the next briefing, I will definitely provide more details – not only on Lapshin but on other cases as well, specifically, regarding Russian nationals on which we receive a large number of questions from the media and their families.

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Question: I would like to express my condolences on behalf of Media Most Bulgaria and Bul press, News Front Bulgaria, the Revival party. We have received 2,500 messages of condolence. Schoolchildren also send their sympathy in the wake of the terrorist attack in St Petersburg.

Maria Zakharova: Thank you very much.

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Question: At the last briefing, you said that the draft law in the Verkhovna Rada would be genocide for the Russian-speaking population. Do you not think this could be a defensive reaction on the part of the Ukrainian population to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements that Russia was forced to defend the Russian-speaking population in Crimea and Donbass? Where is the Russian Foreign Ministry now with clarifying how to define the Ukrainian people?

Reply: Is it normal that the Russian language and the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine did not have full rights before 2014, like many other peoples in European countries and OSCE member countries, which, under the laws and human rights provisions, should ensure these rights? The Russian language and its status have been an issue in Ukraine for the last decades now. The Russian-speaking population ended up completely unprotected overnight right from the moment Ukraine gained its independence. You know better than I, since you lived there, how many people fought for their rights and for how long. They gained rights, lost them again. I think we could speak about a defensive reaction to Russia’s actions, as you say, if the Russian-speaking population had not fought through lawful means for its rights before 2014.

Ukraine chose the road of European integration more than 10 years ago. We all knew this and we accepted the choice as Ukraine’s right as a sovereign state and worked with our Ukrainian colleagues in various international forums, keeping this choice in mind. But what is hard to understand is why Ukraine followed European values and norms in some issues, but in one basic area did not wish to do this. Do people who want to speak their native language have fewer rights than other minorities?   

Let me explain the situation for those who are not so familiar with it. We are not talking here of some theoretical desire to speak the language of one’s ancestors, of people who lived all their lives speaking Ukrainian, using it in their studies and daily lives, and then as adults suddenly feel the presence of this or that blood in their veins, feel the call of their ancestors, and want to fight for their right to study this or that language and for the conditions for being able to use it. What we are talking about is the huge number of people (you can find the figures without my help) who, as adults, as elderly people, overnight found themselves deprived of the right to use the language they had used all their lives, not through conscious desire, but through birth, history, speaking this language, using it to fill out forms and carry out all transactions. How can such a situation be possible?  

We have long since been observing the emergence of this kind of ethnicity-based approach and division of the population (including by ethnic and linguistic identity) in Ukraine. I think, and you can give evidence too, that representatives of the Russian-speaking communities and diasporas also raised this issue. Though I cannot call them like that, after all, these people always considered themselves Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine. They were not ‘agents of Moscow’, and never represented another country’s interests, but were citizens of a sovereign state, Ukraine, only they happened to be Russian-speakers. Many countries live with this kind of situation, and rather than tugging the blanket their way, give their citizens the opportunity to speak their native languages. If people had not travelled this long road first, we could perhaps speak of an element of revenge, a counter reaction, but people had fought for this right for more than 20 years.

There is another moment, too. Rewind a few years and look at what Russia’s representatives were saying. They said that the policy the political establishment was following at the West’s behest would “tear Ukraine apart”. You can find this expression used repeatedly in Russian representatives’ remarks. This was not gloating over impending disaster, but was simply stating a fact that we know. We know Ukraine’s very complicated history of development as a state, and the division into ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’. Many are not aware of all this. This forced Ukrainisation and forced revoking of Russian-speakers’ rights has led to what we said would happen back then. This was simply not the right road to take. 

I think it is too late now to talk about what should have been done, but I think nothing should have been invented. There are two basic things here. First are the legal agreements that Ukraine has signed, out of solidarity with the EU position, or as a member of the OSCE or other organisations, including human rights organisations. They should have taken all the documents that regulate complicated cases such as Ukraine’s and different groups’ linguistic identity and implemented their provisions, looking at the experience of Western Europe and Scandinavia. They could have looked at how things work in Canada, too, a country with which Ukraine has very close ties. I can share some of my personal experience. Many people do not know that Russian is a working non-official language of the state of New York. You might not believe me, but when you go to buy a ticket in the New York City metro, the ticket machine gives you the option of carrying out the operation in Russian. No one thinks this an act of nationalism, vandalism, historical nihilism or whatever. This is normal and is done simply because a large number of people who speak Russian live there.  

Second, you should have looked at the experience of countries with a similar history of establishing their statehood and sovereignty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Look at how other countries have settled the Russian language issue. You have a representative of Tajikistan sitting beside you. He can tell you later about how Tajikistan has settled this matter. Forgive me, but the difference between Russian and Tajik is far greater than that between Ukrainian and Russian.

(Remark by Tajikistani journalist): It is a state language in Tajikistan.

Maria Zakharova: Look at how the situation developed in Kazakhstan and Belarus. Each country, out of respect for the people who are part of its culture, economy and industry, including the defence industry, and speak Russian, gave them the right to use this language and found suitable solutions. In some cases it is a state language, in some cases an official language, but in general, everyone has treated this matter with respect.

What happened in Ukraine, to be honest, does not fit into any logic. I think this was a mistaken policy that has resulted in the consequences we see.

Now, you are again becoming hostage to this strange model.

As for Eurovision, what I can say is this. You passed a law on a compulsory share of Ukrainian language on the airwaves. This share was not to be below a set level. Ukraine will host the Eurovision Song Contest. Most of the competitors will sing in English, of course. The funniest thing is that when your representatives go to sing there, they also do not sing in Ukrainian, but this does not rouse any negative reaction. That is my reply to your question, without any excursions through history.

You are busy demolishing Lenin statues now. We have many complaints about Lenin, too. We have various political parties and movements, but people continue giving their assessment of those years. The most ironic thing though is that it was Lenin who supported raising the status of the Ukrainian language. Read his articles and pamphlets on raising the Ukrainian language’s status. He was the founding figure of this idea. Will you leave at least one monument to him, the founder of Ukrainisation?

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