Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at a joint news conference following talks with Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Angelino Alfano, Moscow, March 27, 2017
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are happy to welcome the delegation from the Italian Foreign Ministry led by Minister Angelino Alfano. It is his first visit to Moscow in his new capacity.
Today we have resumed a dialogue launched over a month ago, in February, on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial meeting in Bonn. Today we have confirmed our resolve to carry on positive traditions and have pointed out the pragmatic and constructive position of our Italian colleagues towards maintaining and building confidence in Europe. For our part, we are willing to carry on comprehensive cooperation in all areas, as we have proved today.
Today we discussed the schedule of upcoming political contacts at different levels and trade and economic cooperation. Unfortunately, our trade has plunged 60 per cent over the past three years. We hope that the revival of positive dynamics will be facilitated by the Russian-Italian Council for Economic, Industrial, Currency and Financial Cooperation. It is significant that a meeting is to be held today between Mr Alfano and Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, as the co-chairs of the Russian-Italian Council. We hope that they will analyse the implementation of the decisions reached at the council’s meeting in Rome in October 2016.
We have similar views on the role of energy in the consistent development of our relations. We exchanged opinions on the possible involvement of Italian companies in various gas pipeline projects, which aim to strengthen Europe’s energy security.
We share a positive view on relations between our parliaments. We are looking forward to the visit of Italian Senate Speaker Pietro Grasso. Preparations for the next regular meeting of the Grand Russian-Italian Inter-Parliamentary Commission are on the agenda.
We agree on the need to redouble efforts against the unprecedented growth of international terrorism. We have agreed to give priority attention to the Russian-Italian interagency working group on new challenges and threats, which held its first meeting last year.
We are both interested in strengthening our cultural cooperation and promoting contacts between our people, considering the numerous bilateral cultural projects scheduled for this year. For example, Days of Moscow will be held in several Italian cities this autumn.
We have also agreed to continue to support the Russian-Italian Civil Society Dialogue forum, which is an important mechanism for strengthening mutual understanding between our people.
We had an intense discussion of international issues, including the need to formulate a comprehensive answer to modern challenges and threats such as terrorism, illegal migration and drug trafficking, as well as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We also discussed our interaction at the UN Security Council, where Italy has taken a seat as a non-permanent member.
With regard to the Syrian settlement process, as you know, Russia and Italy are both members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). Moscow actively supported Rome joining this group. We hope to make use of the potential this group offers to support the positive steps that have followed the Astana platform’s establishment. We also hope to make use of the new round of intra-Syrian talks under UN aegis in Geneva. The main aim is to ensure full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which clearly defines the tasks of international support for efforts made by the Syrians themselves. These efforts should enable the Syrians themselves to decide their own country’s future, without formulas of any sort imposed from outside.
We positively assessed our Italian colleagues’ efforts to facilitate settlement in the internal crisis in Libya. We share the view that, as in Syria and elsewhere, the Libyans themselves should play the main role here. Russian representatives took part in all of the multilateral meetings on Libya, which took place under Italy’s aegis. We are ready to work in various formats, including through our bilateral channels.
We discussed the situation in Ukraine, of course. We agree on the need for full and unconditional implementation of the Minsk Package. We briefed our Italian partners in detail on the Russian Federation’s efforts over these years through the Normandy format and the Contact Group to ensure implementation of the agreements that Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk signed in February 2015.
We noted the recent serious escalation in the situation in southeastern Ukraine following Kiev’s decision to resort to force again in a bid to solve the Donbass problem. We drew attention to the unacceptable attempts to impose a total blockade in the hope that this will force the region to capitulate. But what is needed is to require Kiev to establish direct dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk, as they promised to do when they signed the Minsk Agreements.
Question: What can you tell us about the response coming from the EU and its people to what happened yesterday in Moscow, specifically, that demonstrators were detained, including under-age children?
Sergey Lavrov: I believe that every country has laws based, among other things, on universal criteria. In this particular case, we are talking about the criteria stipulated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly except when restrictions are necessary to protect national security or morals. These exceptions are set forth in this instrument without any ambiguity. Someone famously said even before the International Covenant was adopted that freedom is about following the law. What we are now discussing comes down to laws based on an international universal instrument that confers upon the state the right to enact restrictions regarding events, especially when there is reason to believe that they may result in public disorder.
As for the way people in the EU responded to what happened, to be honest, I have to admit that I heard only the response by officials in a number of European capitals and in Washington. When people respond differently to similar situations, one cannot help thinking about the infamous double standards. I do not remember anyone voicing misgivings, at least publicly, regarding the recent decisions in Germany, the Netherlands or Austria where rallies were prohibited by the authorities. No one had any misgivings about this or said anything. I think that the decisions taken by municipal authorities in a number of Russian cities on permit applications to hold rallies were within the limits of the authority conferred upon these bodies under the Russian Constitution and the law. Overall, I remember all too well how the police treated violators in a number of European capitals and in the US when they committed offences, including during marches or when demonstrators assembled in places or followed routes that were not coordinated with the authorities. Police used clubs, tear gas, and anything else. Russian journalists have witnessed this first-hand, as was the case with RT reporters last fall in the US, when they covered disorders at some demonstrations. I think these issues can be discussed, questions asked, and explanations provided, but in doing so we must be guided by single standards, including those provided in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Question: You mentioned that Libya is still a very important issue. Last year you said that Russia can hardly be expected to have the key to resolving all the issues in the Mediterranean. What has changed since that time?
Sergey Lavrov: I think that all external parties understood that they can no longer bank on a single force within Libya and should support an intra-Libyan inclusive dialogue that includes all the influential leaders in the country. It is with satisfaction that we take note of this development, since from the very beginning of the Libya crisis we wanted the Libyans to decide their own future. For that, we need to stop emboldening Tripoli, pitching it against Tobruk and vice-versa.
We welcomed the consistent efforts by a number of regional countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt who wanted to bring to the negotiating table representatives of the Government of National Accord, Presidential Council in Tripoli, Parliament working in Tobruk and supported by Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army. We now see that all the key partners in the region, as well as in Europe and the US, are increasingly receptive to this inclusive, unbiased approach. Russia hopes that this will yield results.
Question: Is it true that Russia and Egypt have signed an agreement to build a base on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast?
Sergey Lavrov: The Defence Ministry has commented on this issue. Let me direct you to them.
Question: Earlier, a number of countries, including the United States, declared that Russia was supporting one of the sides in the Libyan conflict, namely General Khalifa Haftar. Do you agree with this point of view? How profound are the differences over the Libyan peace settlement between Italy and the EU, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other?
Sergey Lavrov: I feel somewhat embarrassed to repeat what I have said. I’ll try to give you a brief summary. There were certain differences between outside players over who to support in Libya. Russia has never felt uneasy on this score. We have always favoured inducing the Libyans themselves and all those who had at least some influence on the situation to sit down at one negotiating table. We are pleased that there is a growing understanding of this fact.
Question: US commandos and Kurdish forces are involved in an operation to seize important dams and an electric power station on the Euphrates River in Syria’s Raqqa Province. They sustained losses and failed to capture the biggest dam on the Euphrates, but they managed to seize a less important dam at Tabqa. What is Moscow’s attitude to this joint Kurdish-US operation in northern Syria? How does this operation tally with the aims set in Geneva?
Sergey Lavrov: Everything that helps to enhance the efficiency of the fight against terrorists, primarily ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups recognised as such by the UN Security Council, is in full conformity with the UN Security Council resolutions. This meets our common interests, which consist in eradicating the terrorist threat in Syria and Iraq, in the whole of that region, and all over the world.
Numerous participants in combat operations are present on the ground in Syria and in the air over Syria, including Syrians themselves – the army of the Syrian Arab Republic, the opposition, the Syrian militia army cooperating with the Government army, the Kurdish militia that wants to defend its rights in Kurdish-populated areas – Russia’s Aerospace Forces, Russian military police, and Russian experts invited by the Syrian Government to help them to fight terrorism. There are also Syria-invited Iranian forces, Hezbollah, as well as numerous uninvited players: the US-led air force coalition, Turkish servicemen, and commandos from the United States and a number of European countries. All of this creates a rather motley picture, but we are confident (and have advocated this for a long time) that the main criterion should be our common concern in the fight against terrorism.
Addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2015, President Vladimir Putin suggested forming a united universal international antiterrorist front. Today this principle is as relevant as never before in Syria. To reiterate: We want both those invited by the legitimate Syrian Government and those who are in Syria without its invitation but have declared that their aim is fighting terrorism to start coordinating their actions. This includes coordination with the Syrian Government.
We tried to develop this approach during the Obama administration, with Secretary of State John Kerry; we invited military experts and reconnaissance experts. We came to terms on how to separate in practice the patriotic armed opposition from terrorist forces. Regrettably, the United States was unable to implement the agreement reached with the consent of President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama. And now we have what we have.
Again we have to go back to this principle. We are trying to help to establish this cooperation in Astana; jointly with our Turkish and Iranian partners we are helping to develop practical approaches to separating the normal opposition from terrorists and bandits. We see through this prism the developments involving the Kurdish forces and the American commandos as well as the developments related to the liberation of approaches to the terrorist capital of Syria, Raqqa. So far, coordination leaves much to be desired. We have reason to believe that our partners, including the Americans, are beginning to realise the need for remedying this situation. Let us hope that all of us will be driven by the well-understood priority to fight terror rather than gain geopolitical advantages in Syria.
Question: It has been reported that several hundred civilians have allegedly been killed by coalition airstrikes in a Mosul district. The United States has acknowledged that it delivered airstrikes at this district and promised to investigate the reported death of civilians. Do you think this investigation will be enough or that an independent investigation should be launched? What would the Foreign Ministry do if this investigation is deemed necessary?
Sergey Lavrov: We have been monitoring the operation to liberate Mosul since its inception, because we remembered how some of our Western colleagues criticised us during the operation in Eastern Aleppo. Mosul is a much larger metropolis than eastern Aleppo. When our worst fears came true and the number of civilian casualties started growing in Mosul, we drew the UN Security Council’s attention to this, several times over the past month, in fact.
The latest tragedy was reported on March 17, and it was not the last one because several other tragic incidents in which civilians died have happened since. But the tragedy of March 17 stands apart because the bombing raids lasted several hours and claimed over 200 civilian lives. I am surprised that it took US military personnel, who have sophisticated equipment, so many hours to see that the strikes were hitting the wrong targets.
Of course, we want Mosul to be liberated from the terrorists, but we also want the coalition to conduct its airstrike campaign carefully. We proposed a plan in eastern Aleppo that helped save very many lives. We organised a corridor so that the militants, including those from terrorist groups, could leave the city. Many of them used this opportunity, which allowed us to reduce the scale of armed force used to liberate eastern Aleppo. The only purpose of that action was to save lives. We hope that the coalition will take a similarly correct, careful and responsible approach to its operations in Mosul.
Today we have requested that a special briefing be held at the UN Security Council. I don’t think that council members will speak unanimously on the tragedy. But we will be able to ask questions and make our appeals. In general, we will continue to closely monitor the situation.