Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Svetlogorsk, August 15, 2018
- Kaliningrad’s international and interregional ties
- New high level working group on the Caspian Sea
- Flash mob #ReadAitmatov
- Syria update
- Media reports on UNHCR’s involvement in evacuating the White Helmets
- Progress of investigation into Russian journalists’ murder in Central African Republic
- Update on Maria Butina
- The case of Kirill Vyshinsky, Editor-in-Chief of RIA Novosti Ukraine
- The centenary of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic courier service
- Afghanistan update
- Territorial dispute over Western Sahara
- Investigation into Salisbury and Amesbury incidents
- Recent statement by US Ambassador to the United Kingdom Robert Wood Johnson
- The new US defence budget
- Resistance among some NATO members to increasing military budgets on US orders
- Russian-Greek relations
- Kiev intends to create its own Magnitsky List
- Discrimination against Russian-speaking population in Baltic countries
- Invite to Artek for young Thai football players rescued from flooded cave
- Answers to media questions:
- US statement on Open Skies
- Potential dangers of the US-Turkey trade war
- Potential effects of the trade war with Turkey on Russia
- UN position on the situation in Syria
- Soviet war monuments in Poland
I would like to begin today’s briefing by discussing the region’s international and interregional ties considering that we are working here today.
The Kaliningrad Region’s unique geographical location predetermines its active involvement in Russia's international relations with its European partners. The region is a leader among the Russian regions in terms of foreign contacts. Currently, interregional relations play a special role in establishing direct dialogue with the peoples of Europe and pursuing a policy of openness and neighbourliness. The region’s successful participation in the Russian-German cross-year of regional and municipal partnerships and an annual forum of partner regions held in the Kaliningrad Region are examples of such cooperation.
Four 2018 FIFA World Cup matches in Kaliningrad in June which were attended by over 100,000 foreign fans were key to boosting the region’s tourist appeal. Taking into account the success of the 2018 World Cup matches, other major international sporting events will be held in the region as well, the first of which will be the UEFA Nations League match between the national teams of Russia and Sweden on October 11.
The Kaliningrad Region’s participation in international programmes of cross-border Russia-EU cooperation (Russia-Poland 2014-2020 and Russia-Lithuania 2014-2020) is an important contribution to developing our interaction with the European Union.
Despite the anti-Russian sanctions, the Kaliningrad Region’s foreign trade grew in 2018, in particular with Poland and Lithuania. The law on the special economic zone in the Kaliningrad Region, which came into force on January 1, will help expand the region’s foreign economic relations. A special administrative district with a special tax regime will be created on Oktyabrsky Island in Kaliningrad in October 2019 and serve as a new tool for bringing in investors.
In recent years, much has been done to improve Russia’s regulatory and legal framework in an attempt to make it easier to do business and to provide state support for the investment development of the Kaliningrad Region, to address energy supply and environmental issues, Kaliningrad transit, to simplify visa procedures and to develop transport infrastructure. At the initiative of the Foreign Ministry, electronic visas, similar to the ones developed for the free port of Vladivostok, are being introduced for foreign citizens visiting the Kaliningrad Region. We will post detailed information about this on our website soon.
It is no accident that a town in the Kaliningrad Region which, as we all had the chance to see for ourselves, receives guests with an open heart, was chosen to host Baltic Artek. Thank you for your hospitality.
The Caspian Summit has just ended. The participants were efficient and achieved great results based on the efforts of the experts from each country in recent years. The Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea (Article 19) signed at the Fifth Caspian Summit in Aktau on August 12 of this year, provides for establishing a mechanism for five-sided high-level regular meetings under the aegis of the foreign ministers of the Caspian states with a view to ensuring the effective implementation of the convention and reviewing cooperation in the Caspian Sea.
There were questions about this instrument and the time frame of these meetings. The Summit’s communiqué contains instructions by the presidents to hold the first meeting at the deputy foreign minister level or full representatives of the Caspian states in accordance with the Convention no later than sixth months from the day of signing.
The foreign ministers of the Caspian Five decided to convene the high-level working group on Caspian Sea issues before the end of this year. The venue and date will be coordinated through diplomatic channels.
At the initiative of the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY), has been declared 2018 the Year of Russian-Speaking Writer Chinghiz Aitmatov in connection with his 90th birth anniversary.
Aitmatov’s writings have been translated into many languages – 126 in all. The creative work of this great writer is evidence that Soviet-Russian cultural heritage continues to bring the post-Soviet nations, and others, together, and helps in bringing up the younger generations in the spirit of intransient human values.
Aitmatov’s personality has a unifying symbolic significance for our ministry as well. The writer rose to prominence as a diplomat: in 1990 he was assigned to head the Soviet Embassy (since 1992 the Russian Embassy) in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and was the Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan in the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).
In tribute to the memory of this outstanding writer, we invite you to take part in the following flash mobs in 2018: #Reading Aitmatov in Russian and the multi-lingual project “ReadAitmatov.” Today they will be published on the Foreign Ministry’s official website and social media accounts, as well as the online resources of our embassies. I suggest reading excerpts from his works and posting them on social media with the above hash tags, given how much young people gravitate towards internet multimedia. This will become a very important and effective tool for drawing the attention of the younger generation to his writing.
I hope this initiative will prompt young people to turn to Aitmatov’s masterpieces for themselves not only in the post-Soviet space but also in the rest of the world. I am confident that anyone can find something relevant in it and can probably find answers to eternal questions that worry all of humanity regardless of age, nationality, religion or ethnic origin.
The situation on the ground in Syria has been steadily improving, thanks in part to the successful actions of government forces in the south of the country where, with the strong support of Russian military intelligence, they destroyed the hotbeds of terrorism in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra. The operation to evacuate the “irreconcilables” and their families to the north of Syria has also been completed in Deraa. Last Sunday, the last group of 452 people was moved out.
The “mop-up” of the east of the province of Suwayd to take out the last of the ISIS fighters is nearing completion. Over the past two weeks, the Syrian forces successfully liberated about 2,000 square kilometers.
The return of refugees continues to gain momentum. Last Monday alone, 204 refugees returned from Lebanon (61 women, 104 children). As for internally displaced persons (IDPs), 316 Syrian citizens returned to their places of residence on the same day, including 189 in Homs, 85 in Eastern Ghouta, and 42 in Deir ez-Zor.
In 117 localities least affected by the hostilities, there are refugee reception and accommodation camps for more than 490,000 people. In addition, in 295 villages, intensive work is underway to create an infrastructure for accommodating almost 1 million refugees and IDPs.
Over the past 24 hours (August 14), 16 residential buildings were restored in Syria, 1 km of motor road was repaired, 1.5 km of power lines laid, and one water supply facility resumed operation. These are figures for only one day. They show the speed and scale at which Syria is reviving.
In the village of Hirdjilla in the suburbs of Damascus, more than 3.5 tonnes of food was distributed as part of humanitarian aid. In Aleppo, 1 tonne of bread was distributed in the Sheikh-Said district from the Kadyrov Foundation.
Russian military doctors provided medical care to six residents, including three children, in the village of Salhiyah of the Deir ez-Zor province, and to 54 patients, including 16 children, in Yalda, a suburb of Damascus.
The engineering units of the Syrian Armed Forces continued demining the area and facilities in the Homs province – two hectares of land and ten buildings were demined. They detected and destroyed 50 explosive items, including 21 improvised explosive devices.
The Foreign Ministry took note of media reports on the involvement of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in evacuating from Syria a large group of the infamous White Helmets, who under the pretence of working for a humanitarian organisation, actually served as a tool in the information and propaganda warfare waged by a number of countries in Syria, including by relying on illegal armed groups and would-be humanitarian organisations.
It is unfortunate that the UNHCR confirmed its involvement on its official website.
By doing so, the UN body supported the false narrative on these While Helmets promoted by the Western media and officials, misrepresenting them as genuine and fearless humanitarian workers.
But how come these fearless humanitarian workers need to be evacuated from Syria? Why can’t the White Helmets stay there as peace returns to cities and communities? How come the White Helmets are not there to distribute bread rations or to restore medical aid stations and civilian infrastructure? Have they thought about Syrian children who have to go to school, and what are civilians supposed to do? What happened to their commitment to the humanitarian cause? As a matter of fact, it never existed to begin with. All the White Helmets did was contribute to fake stories, in exchange for huge sums of money, on the alleged chemical weapons attacks, and helped spread this propaganda online. They alleged that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people. That is all there is to it. That is what all these would-be humanitarian efforts were all about.
Considering that the UNHCR is a high-profile and respected international institution, we would like to draw the attention of its representatives that they need to show a greater sense of responsibility in their actions and avoid steps that could not only hurt the reputation of this international organisation, but most importantly affect UN’s role in addressing major humanitarian tasks, including in Syria.
We would like to reiterate that the White Helmets are experts at provocation and disinformation who spread fake information under the guise of humanitarian work. In fact, they have colluded with the most dangerous terrorist groups with a mission to malign and undermine counter-terrorist efforts undertaken by the Syrian government with Russia’s assistance.
The White Helmets were behind a series of cynical fake stories that were concocted to prevent stabilisation in Syria and consequently making it impossible to address humanitarian needs, including assisting refugees.
Having the UNHCR provide any kind of assistance to the provocative undertakings of the White Helmets is a grave mistake, at best.
We call on the Office to act in strict compliance with its mandate, avoid any political bias and abide by the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, humaneness and impartiality in their work, as well as focus on maximising international efforts to facilitate the voluntary return of Syrian refugees, which is currently the main objective. It is interesting that international agencies and the international community are working on the evacuation of the White Helmets at a time when life is returning to normal in Syria. But when it comes to helping civilians and refugees who want to return to Syria, many are those who take a step back or say that it would be unsafe. What an interesting story. When civilians were in Syria and multiple regional and Western powers sponsored fighters, they were not in danger, but now having people voluntarily return to their homeland is viewed as being unsafe. This is absurd, but facts speak for themselves.
The Russian Foreign Ministry continues to monitor the investigation into the murder of Russian journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko in the Central African Republic on July 30. The Russian Investigative Committee’s plan to visit to the CAR to monitor the procedural actions taken by Central African law enforcement agencies has now moved to the practical stage.
There have been media reports, which I can confirm, of Russian journalists from various media arriving in the CAR. The Federal News Agency project has been launched there – on August 12, a group of correspondents arrived in the Central African Republic as part of this.
I would like to confirm that this time, the journalists going to the CAR are in touch with the Russian Embassy. We very much hope that all Russian journalists who intend to visit the CAR will let our diplomats know in advance and report upon arrival; it is also advisable to inform the Russian Foreign Ministry in advance. At a meeting with the Russian Embassy staff in Bangui, the journalists said they planned to cover the work of Russian advisors in the CAR, visit the training base in Berengo, and travel their deceased colleagues’ itinerary. Safety will be provided by Central African law enforcement agencies and the staff of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the CAR. The Russian diplomatic staff in Bangui will also provide them with any necessary assistance when they ask. We expect that the journalists will help shed more light on what happened to their colleagues and refute the many insinuations that appeared in the media and on the internet on this incident, as well as about the nature and purpose of the Russian presence in the CAR, which, hopefully, will stop the speculation on who killed the three members of the Russian film crew and how. From our point of view, this needs to be done in addition to the work of the law enforcement agencies in the CAR and the Russian Federation, which was started immediately. Only an official investigation jointly conducted by the Russian and the Central African sides can clarify the true picture of this crime.
We continue to closely follow the situation around Russian citizen Maria Butina who was arrested in the US on July 15 on preposterous charges of acting as an agent of a foreign power with all the ensuing consequences.
Russian diplomats in Washington managed to bring about an improvement in the conditions of her confinement. She was allowed to use the telephone and her food is better now. At the same time, in spite of our numerous requests, the rules remain onerous. As a result, Maria Butina’s health has deteriorated. It seems as if Washington is trying to force her to cooperate with the investigation by making her living conditions as difficult as possible.
We consider such actions of the US government to be unacceptable and demand that Maria Butina immediately be given full medical assistance and that her criminal prosecution, which is based on frivolous accusations, come to an end. Everything the US government has presented to the public, at least, does not hold water.
According to information received from the Russian Embassy in Ukraine, the Kherson Appeal Court has reduced Kirill Vyshinsky’s term of arrest to 8 September because the first-instance court exceeded the deadline for extending pre-trial custody, which is 60 days. At the same time, the court refused to release Kirill Vyshinsky on bail.
In spite of the fact that Russian consular officers are repeatedly refused permission to meet with the detainee on the grounds of Kirill Vyshinsky’s Ukrainian citizenship, the Russian Embassy in Ukraine and the Russian Consulate General in Odessa continue to closely monitor the situation and provide all possible assistance to Kirill Vyshinsky’s defence counsels.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic courier service is marking an anniversary on August 27. Exactly one hundred years ago “a diplomatic courier desk” was established at the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs of the RSFSR. It was charged with ensuring reliable and confidential communication with Russia’s missions abroad. We have not congratulated our colleagues yet; we are preparing for that.
Ahead of our common professional holiday I would like to say a few worlds about the service. A diplomatic courier is a position in the diplomatic service that requires huge responsibility for the safety of entrusted state secrets and has always involved considerable risk. The most indicative example of diplomatic courier heroism was that of Teodors Nete and Johannes Machmastal, Soviet diplomats who in February 1926 were delivering diplomatic mail from Moscow to Berlin via Riga. On February 5, the diplomatic couriers were assaulted on a train in order to take the mail. In the ensuing shootout Teodors Nete who fiercely resisted the bandits was killed. Johannes Machmastal continued to fight, and with three gunshot wounds, he delivered the diplomatic mail to Riga where he handed it over to the Soviet mission staff. Both men were awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Their names were given to streets, boats and airplanes. The Red Couriers film dedicated to this deed will be aired by Zvezda TV on Diplomatic Courier Day on August 27. Nete’s and Machmastal’s heroism in the first quarter of the 20th century is far from exceptional; it is common for the diplomatic courier service staff.
During the Great Patriotic War diplomatic couriers kept delivering diplomatic mail, crossing the frontlines a number of times on combat planes and on Soviet and allied military transport ships. After the war, diplomatic couriers carried diplomatic mail to countries embroiled in armed conflicts and political instability including Vietnam, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Lebanon and Syria. Diplomatic couriers who gave their lives for their country account for a third of the deceased Foreign Ministry staff listed on the memorial plaque in the lobby of the Foreign Ministry building on Smolenskaya Square.
Over the past one hundred years our diplomatic courier service has gone through a number of structural and functional changes, but it has never lost the high professionalism and reliability that were established a century ago. Despite the introduction of the radio, the internet and other scientific and technical advances, the diplomatic service has not lost its significance and remains one of the most reliable ways to forward service and working reports as well as documents. The successful operation of the service largely depends on personnel selection, the human factor. Diplomatic service staff have been awarded many state decorations, letters of acknowledgment and appreciation from the ministry. Some became ambassadors, consuls, heads of departments, and have worked in international organisations.
Since 2003, the diplomatic courier service has been run by the independent Department of Diplomatic Courier Communications. Thanks to its highly professional staff, this department provides reliable courier services not only to the Foreign Ministry of Russia but also other government agencies. Today, diplomatic mail is sent to over 120 foreign countries. The department is headed by a professional diplomat, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary Sergey Lukyanchuk.
I can tell you that in addition to the next briefing to be held in Moscow at 11 am on August 23, a themed photo documentary exhibit, 100 Years of Diplomatic Communication of the Russian Foreign Ministry, will be unveiled at the Foreign Ministry. We will arrange it so that accredited journalists will be able to cover it in detail, and shoot the exhibition prior to the briefing. We will arrange a small guided tour for them. You will see the diplomatic pouches and different artifacts, and learn how the work of a diplomatic courier is performed. So you are welcome; it will be interesting. We will certainly post all of this on our social network pages for those who cannot attend.
We are watching with alarm the situation in the province of Ghazni, where the Taliban has captured and has held a significant part of the city of Ghazni for several days. Hundreds of people have died on both sides including civilians, and a large part of the city has been destroyed. Although the Afghan authorities reported that the Taliban fighters had retreated from the city, they continue to hold the districts adjacent to Ghazni.
We recorded an escalation in tension in the northern provinces, also triggered by the recent Taliban attacks on the Afghan army base in Ghormach District, Faryab Province where at least 17 service personnel were killed and 20 injured last Sunday.
This is not the first time that major military operations have taken place simultaneously in several parts of the country since the beginning of the year, and the army and the police have difficulty controlling everything. The numerous foreign military contingents based in Afghanistan are failing to change the situation as well.
The ongoing instability in Afghanistan is aggravated by a depressed economic situation, as evidenced by the recent World Bank report, which shows a slowdown in economic growth, a low rate of job creation, and a sharp increase in the number of Afghans living below the poverty line, up to 55 percent. So far, there are no prospects for improvement.
We received a number of inquiries regarding the prospects for resolving the territorial dispute over Western Sahara. Indeed, the fate of this former Spanish colony has remained unresolved for over 40 years now. The efforts to develop an acceptable conflict resolution approach for the parties to the conflict – Morocco and the POLISARIO Front – undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations have been repeatedly disrupted for various reasons. Meanwhile, the fragile local status quo causes serious concern, because it is fraught with major challenges to regional security.
In this regard, we note with satisfaction that Horst Kohler, Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara and former President of Germany, is stepping up efforts to get the peace process going by resuming direct talks without preconditions between the two protagonists, including neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania as observers.
We support this approach and do not see any sensible alternative to searching for a compromise based on the well-known resolutions of the Security Council and the UN General Assembly within the framework of procedures consistent with the UN Charter’s principles and goals.
We operate on the premise that lasting peace in Western Sahara can be achieved exclusively by political means. While maintaining contacts with all interested parties, we will continue to help create positive dynamics in order to achieve a Western Sahara settlement.
We are concerned about the lack of information about Yulia Skripal and her father’s condition or whereabouts, and are stunned by the British authorities’ continued refusal to provide consular staff of the Russian embassy access to them. Britain continues to ignore requests for legal assistance sent by the General Prosecutor's Office of the Russian Federation to London regarding the criminal lawsuit opened by the Russian Investigative Committee on March 16 in connection with the attempted murder of Yulia Skripal in a manner that endangers the general public. This is the official wording.
Politicians in the United States immediately joined the provocation involving these Russian citizens in Salisbury. They came up with more anti-Russian sanctions, which they are now rationalising by citing Salisbury and Amesbury. We consider these decisions, made without any proof, to be biased and politically motivated. It is all reminiscent of the story dating back over a decade about the alleged presence of irrefutable data on chemical weapons in Iraq, when the United Kingdom and the United States made a decision (the US initiated that decision and Britain supported it), which was not backed by real facts. Later, as we found out, it was backed up by manipulated and fake data. It appears that London and Washington learnt nothing from the Iraqi lesson. However, this time, I can assure you, the reputational costs of such actions will be much greater.
The situation is further aggravated by the fact that the British law enforcement agencies conducting the investigation into the Salisbury and Amesbury incidents are under unrelenting political pressure from the British government. Here, we should talk about political pressure coming not only from the British authorities, but also the US authorities. Long before the completion of the investigation (we do not know whether it will be completed, or how it is being conducted, either), the British government has issued a guilty verdict. Following Washington's announcement of US sanctions, such pressure further increased.
In this regard, Russia continues to firmly insist on an independent, objective and transparent investigation into the above incidents. It is worth emphasising again that Russian citizens were affected in the Salisbury attack. We cannot stay on the sidelines, and we demand consular access to them.
To continue the previous subject, I would like to draw your attention to an article in The Telegraph. This article was written by US Ambassador to the United Kingdom Robert Wood Johnson. It urges London to follow Washington’s example and withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran's nuclear programme. These kinds of “policy statements” are required to show that it is ostensibly impossible to deal with this subject without the US Ambassador.
The article contains many interesting points. Johnson has accused the Iranian Government of sponsoring terrorism and launching cyberattacks against Western democracies. Needless to say, no evidence was provided, as usual. He also gave this appeal: “We are asking global Britain to use its considerable diplomatic power and influence and join us as we lead a concerted global effort towards a genuinely comprehensive agreement.” Johnson wants Britain to join the US policy against Iran’s nuclear deal. He was even more specific when he wrote that rupturing the agreement with Iran was the only sensible plan of action. He also said: “Together, we can help bring about the peace and prosperity in Iran that the whole world wants to see.”
This is beyond common sense. First, in the past two years it was the US that kept declaring at all levels that it was unacceptable to interfere in the domestic affairs of other states. This is its thesis, its concept that it is unacceptable to interfere in the elections, in the internal affairs of other states, that it is necessary to respect their sovereignty. Johnson writes that together, the US and the UK can “help bring peace and prosperity to Iran that the whole world wants to see.” Apparently, in his mind someone has charged Washington and London with a mission to care for Tehran’s prosperity. This is absurd.
Secondly, we have said more than once that we are concerned about Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, which is a very important element of the global regime for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and a reliable guarantee of security in the Middle East. These are not wild guesses but a conclusion based on analysis and supported by the international community in the mandatory UN Security Council resolution. We believe that everything the US Ambassador and many US politicians have said in this context is in error. We again emphasise that it is not Tehran that is destabilising the region. There are those who are free-and-easy with multilateral international agreements, especially agreements on nuclear security. The comments made by this American diplomat are absolutely out of place, considering that the US is actively trying to destabilise the situation inside Iran with its illegal economic sanctions, political pressure and influence from within.
The idea that the UK and the US can ensure “peace and prosperity” in the Middle East is mind numbing. Where and when in the past few decades have the US and the UK ensured what Johnson called “peace and prosperity” in the Middle East? Where in the Middle East and North Africa is this “island of stability”? Where has the project of this tandem been carried out and produced relevant results? In Libya or Syria, in Yemen? The region has barely survived the horrible consequences of the Arab Spring that was sponsored politically and otherwise by these countries. Recent history in the region and the activities of the US and the UK demonstrate the opposite. I don’t think we can take seriously the phrase about what “the whole world wants to see.” Nobody has delegated any right to anyone as regards Iran, and least of all to Washington and London.
There have been masses of requests to comment on the new US defence budget. Some preliminary estimates were already offered and today I would like to dwell on this matter in more detail.
Signed by the US president on August 13, the Fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act has, in effect, consolidated Washington’s policy to build up its international dominance by force. The unprecedented $716 billion defence check, a record of sorts covering the last 15 years, will have a destructive impact on the existing international security system.
Characteristically, the document allocates funding for specific anti-Russia and anti-China projects mentioned in the US national security strategy and the US national defence strategy, as well as in the Nuclear Posture Review.
These actions are driving Russian-US relations even deeper into an impasse and making problematic the very chance of their retaking a constructive path. In the practical sense, this Act (named after a rabid Russophobe, Sen. John McCaine) extends a ban on military cooperation with Russia amid a serious surge of threats and challenges. The document approves $6.3 billion ($1.7 billion more than last year) in allocations for the European Reassurance Initiative to build up US military presence in Europe as well as to counteract the so-called “Russian aggression.”
The Act has other anti-Russian provisions, too, specifically a likely suspension of the US compliance with the INF Treaty under the pretext of its “violation” by Russia. The US is going to “retaliate” by continuing R&D on a ground-based missile banned under the INF Treaty and strengthening the European segment of the US global antimissile system, this in order to defend itself from Russian missiles that allegedly are at odds with the INF Treaty’s constraints. Thereby they finally dispel all doubts as to the real target of the US antimissile defence.
Referring to Russia’s “violation” of the Treaty on Open Skies, the Act introduces restrictions on cooperation under this document. The budget bans allocations for modernising the long obsolescent fleet of aircraft performing flights under this Treaty, something that endangers security of both the US crews and Russian representatives on board.
The Act confirms the course for unilateral and unrestricted development of the US global antimissile system. Among other things, funds have been allocated for the creation of its space segment, which is actually yet another step towards deploying weapons in outer space.
Some other measures of counteraction to Russia and other “aggressors” are plans to produce “low-yield” nuclear warheads, something that leads to the lowering of the nuclear threshold and to greater risks of a nuclear war being unleashed, and hypersonic weapons to suit the “prompt strike” concept.
There is a separate entry on lethal weapons deliveries to the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine, a country that is actually in a state of civil war. This is certain to please those Ukrainian politicians who are not interested in an early settlement of the conflict in Donbass.
For its part, Russia is taking and will continue to take the necessary measures for reliable protection of its own security by all means available – political, diplomatic and military.
We also received questions concerning NATO member states’ response to increasing their military budgets on US orders. The declaration of NATO’s July summit confirms the goal of raising the member states’ military spending to 2 percent of their GDP. And this when their combined military spending makes up over half of world total and far exceeds Russian spending: combined they spend 14 times more than us.
We understand there were even appeals to increase this figure to 4 percent. It is clear that now, amid growing trade and economic competition and “trade wars”, that not everyone welcomes the prospect or necessity of additional spending. For some countries the required increase of defence spending even exceeds planned GDP growth, which will result is a shift toward spending on weapons at the expense of the needs of peaceful civilian life. The more so that Russia is not a threat to NATO member states and there are no dangers in Europe that lend themselves to a military solution. We all live in peaceful times.
At the same time, we should note that there are countries trying, at least in words, to defend their real national interests. However, there are countries that, like characters from world fiction, romanticise the outdated practices of previous periods and tilt at the windmills of non-existent dangers. This is what they feel, which they take for reality. We do not know their genuine aims, be it attracting attention, reaping political dividends or just making money. But all this certainly does not promote security in Europe – just the opposite, it creates additional risks.
The attention of the Russian and Greek media, experts, analysts and the public is currently focused on relations between our two countries. Numerous articles by political analysts are being published. Unfortunately, some fake news are being circulated and causing quite a stir. We regularly comment on this, but I would like to touch upon this issue once more today.
We have read the August 10, 2018 comment on the website of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which evaluates the current stage of bilateral relations.
Our partners have demoted bilateral cooperation and relations, which have always been perceived as special and traditionally friendly by Russia, to the level of routine “coexistence”. This decision hardly meets the demands, expectations and wishes of the two nations or the nature of interstate cooperation, as highlighted by an unprecedented degree of top-level and high-level political dialogue and ambitious projects that have been implemented over the past few years. We have always cited the friendly, open and practical nature of Russian-Greek relations as an example for our European partners. The degradation of our cooperation at a time when we celebrate the 190th anniversary of establishing bilateral relations is deplorable, all the more so as Russia played a substantial role in reinstating the independence and state sovereignty of Greece. For their part, scholars from Byzantium and Greece played a major role in asserting the Russian identity. Russia has never meddled in the Greek domestic affairs or its foreign policy. Yet this is how the situation is being portrayed by those who cannot be described as true friends of Greece.
The allegations being voiced by Athens still amount to mere assertions, and they have failed to present us with any evidence whatsoever. Local media outlets launched an unprecedented campaign to discredit our bilateral cultural and humanitarian ties. These indisputably positive contacts that were perceived as nothing but exemplary turned into elements of hybrid war overnight. Various longtime pillars of Russian-Greek relations, including our common religious and historical heritage, mutual sympathy between our nations and the contribution of ethnic diasporas to both countries’ well-being began to be portrayed as suspicious and ill-intentioned. Russia was unjustifiably reproached for infringing upon Greece’s interests in the Balkan region and for undermining the Prespa agreement on the official name of Macedonia. Someone clearly ordered media publications alleging that that Moscow financed large-scale protests in the run-up to the September 2018 Thessaloniki International Fair. The preposterous nature of these publications is obvious, but the scale of the ongoing media campaign is truly staggering.
We have repeatedly stated at all levels that Russia does not side with one party against another. For example Russia’s cooperation with Turkey is not directed against third countries. I am mentioning this as an example because the media has also actively exploited this allegation.
By way of example, it is unacceptable to distort history and to interpret the goals of establishing the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society international public organisation and its activities. Like many other nongovernmental organisations, it implements solely cultural and educational projects and only if our foreign partners are interested in them. Yet this organisation is also being lambasted today.
I would like to note once again that Russia did not initiate the steps that have led to the degradation of Russian-Greek relations. On the contrary, we remain committed to expanding all-round cooperation with Greece. We consider the current situation to be abnormal and temporary, and we hope that it will be resolved soon. We are ready to be patient and act responsibly in the interests of resuming full-fledged cooperation for the benefit of both nations.
We also received questions about Kiev’s intentions to create its own Magnitsky List. The package of measures announced by Kiev is actually similar to the Magnitsky List in that it constitutes yet another attempt to impose unilateral coercive measures that are at odds with the international law and cannot be viewed as a civilised way for countries to communicate among them. By seeking to accuse foreign nationals of wrongdoing that have never been proven, the Ukrainian authorities seem to be taking their cues from overseas in violation of the presumption of innocence.
We believe that the Ukrainian version of the Magnitsky List represents an inquisition-style approach to the administration of justice, since it introduces collective punishment for nonexistent crimes. For us, the fact that political figures may be designated on this list is a blatant violation of international norms regarding the immunity of senior government official representing sovereign states.
We strongly believe that the true cause behind this initiative is that Kiev wants to have more options for perpetuating its policy of impunity and covering up the crimes committed by neo-Nazis and extremists, who have on their hands the blood of people who perished during Maidan, in Odessa’s Trade Union House and in southeastern Ukraine.
Discrimination against the Russian-speaking population in Baltic countries is another recurrent topic for our briefings. We have to talk about it again and again, since the Russian leadership and the Foreign Ministry monitor developments in this sphere on an ongoing basis and attach great importance to them. Today, the Russian language is being squeezed out from all areas of public life, which is probably the most urgent problem. This has to do primarily with Latvia where an initiative is underway to switch the curriculum in schools attended by ethnic minorities to the Latvian language only, despite mass protests by Russian speakers. Decisions banning education in the Russian language in private Latvian universities and colleges have been taken. Russia strongly condemns these discriminatory measures, as we have said on multiple occasions. I have already mentioned what people living in this country think about it and what was their response.
Unfortunately, Latvia’s example was contagious, since Lithuanian authorities have tried to go down a similar path. For example, in the country’s parliament, a group of conservative MPs has recently proposed amendments whereby 60 percent of the school curriculum for ethnic minorities is to be offered in the Lithuanian language by 2023. Those behind this proposal do not hide that their initiative is designed to “neutralise Russia’s influence” on the local Russian and Polish population. While pretending to guarantee equal job opportunities for all school graduates in Lithuania, this draft law is hypocritical, to say the least. As a matter of fact, what we see is outright discrimination and an attempt to assimilate the Russian-speaking population.
The proposal made by Lithuanian conservative MPs led to a predictable backlash from Polish and Russian minorities, who had every reason to refer to this initiative as “a setback in state policy” toward this group of citizens, as well as compromising for ethnic minorities in terms of their education and violating their rights. We hope that the Lithuanian MPs will refrain from taking an unpopular decision of this kind.
We have also learned about the increasing number of so-called “preventative conversations” held by officials from Lithuania’s Education Ministry with high school students from Russian-language schools in Vilnius as well as other cities. During these meetings, officials seek to understand to what extent school students are “loyal” to the Lithuanian state, its foreign policy, etc. They also inquire about the availability of textbooks printed in Russia and other “banned” books. Conversations of this kind were also reported in areas of Latvia and Estonia with a high density of Russian-speaking young people.
Moreover, the Estonian parliament is reviewing a draft law whereby companies whose workers do not speak the Estonian language well enough would be subject to a EUR 6,400 fine, up from EUR 600, which makes it a ten-fold increase. I have a question in this respect: When the Estonian authorities review all these initiatives and submit them to parliament, can they imagine something similar happening in other parts of the world, for example with people who speak the Estonian language but are not very proficient in the national language of the country they live in? Would this be normal?
Once again, we call on the relevant international bodies, including the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union, to finally send a clear message so that everyone hears it, and share their view of the ongoing violation of linguistic and educational rights of ethnic minorities in the Baltic states.
Since we are meeting today at the Baltic Artek venue, here is some news from the actual Crimean Artek. A little over a month ago, on July 10, Thailand successfully completed a unique operation to rescue young football players trapped for more than two weeks in a flooded cave. The whole world, and certainly the Russian people, felt sincere empathy with what had happened. We offered assistance. Russian-made helicopters were used in the rescue operations. And I don’t have to tell you how many people expressed support and sympathy.
We were all filled with awe at the dedication of the rescuers, and even more struck by the courage and steadfastness of the children. They showed real courage and dignity all the way through the hard trials that were not a game but real life. One can only guess what they had to face.
To help in their rehabilitation, and also as a reward for their strong will, steadfastness, and struggle for life in a horrific situation, Artek Director Alexey Kasprzhak invited the children to the camp – a place where children from different countries live (this is not a slip of the tongue – not exist, not stay, but live), where they have real adventures during their stay, where they get acquainted with each other and combine study and life experience with relaxation, friendship and companionship.
I want to quote Mr Kasprzhak, who said that Artek appreciated the children's real heroic deed, commensurable with adult heroism. The children are expected there. We are confident that the atmosphere of Artek and the cordiality of its population will help them forget what they have endured − not to forget the experience itself, but forget the horrors they had to fight. Back in Artek, there is the best football team on the peninsula, the leader of the Crimean championship, so they will not have to abandon playing football while they are there, which, as we remember, is especially important for the children.
All the children I mentioned will be given free Artek vouchers within the international quota. Our Embassy in Thailand will be in touch with the local side in the next few days to convey this invitation and discuss the specifics and the trip in more detail.
Question: What is your view of the US grievances about the ban on their flights under the Open Skies Treaty over the entire territory of the Kaliningrad Region, the Chechen Republic and other border regions of the Russian Federation?
Maria Zakharova: Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented extensively on the statements made by the United States regarding the Open Skies. Even if there are complaints – and the complaints made by our US counterparts are groundless – even if any party such as Washington believes its rights are being violated and the treaty is not being duly fulfilled, there are modern international institutions for resolving issues on a bilateral basis, through diplomatic channels, between respective agencies and at the expert level. There used to be entire commissions on culture, arms, the media and other areas that were engaged in dialogue. The Americans have shut that down. However, there are other institutions to deal with these issues. Obviously, what we see here is other objectives, issues and goals on the agenda, which is to aggravate problems instead of working to resolve them and to exploit the completely contrived problems (if the problems were real, we would have seen facts) for more sanctions, pressure on the Russian Federation or for information campaigns against our countries. This is exactly what we think about it.
There is an opportunity for dialogue and for handling problems in a constructive and practical manner. For example, the meeting between the two presidents demonstrated to the entire world that Russia and the United States can sit down at a negotiations table. In fact, this has never been a matter of doubt. So much time has been spent, including by heads of the two countries’ foreign policy agencies, on developing an action plan on Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria, Ukraine and other matters. We were engaged in dialogue and we can conduct it during the most complicated times. The problem is that none of this is being employed. When issues arise, instead of referring to normal, well-established and operating channels, everybody takes over microphones and starts telling wild tales.
Question: Can you comment on the fact that, while the majority of military cooperation programmes are being wrapped up, the Open Skies will still remain in the US defence budget?
Maria Zakharova: I have already outlined our position on the Open Skies and the arms budget in general terms. It is our military experts who should give a more detailed comment.
Question: What are the possible risks of a US-Turkish trade war?
Maria Zakharova: The absolute paradox and main contradiction of US policies is that for several years they told us that all the measures with regard to Russia, including the pressure of sanctions, black lists, restrictions, etc., amounted to punishment and a certain response from the United States that has independently assumed the role of an international arbiter, and that can punish and isolate Russia for its allegedly “incorrect” behaviour. We have said that this is not true because all this, including the decision to put off President Barack Obama’s visit and compilation of the “Magnitsky list,” began long before the dramatic developments in Ukraine, referred to by the United States. Today, no one doubts that, even if Russia is at the top of various restrictive lists, it is not the only such country. It is Washington that has launched trade wars with China. Add to this the financial and economic pressure on Turkey and efforts to ratchet up sanctions against Iran that are bolstered by financial and economic actions and tremendous political pressure.
It may be a paradox, but if the United States earlier used the term “axis of evil” with regard to some countries and regions that simply could not be regarded by it as “good” due to their history, culture and political system, it now turns out that, in Washington’s opinion, a country does not even have to belong to a certain “axis of evil” in order to be pressured by the United States in its own interests. The European Union is a case in point: don’t actions against European companies amount to trade war? This is already a matter of one’s taste and subtle nuances on the part of experts, be it trade wars, pressure or the policy of sanctions. Even the closest partners of the United States, including Canada, which has always followed in the wake of US policies, are targeted by the United States on the basis of its own interests.
The point is whether it is possible to talk about US national interests when implementing this policy. In my opinion, it would be more appropriate to talk about the interests of a specific political group that assumes power. There is clear proof of this in the fact that, every four to eight years, Washington’s interests, being passed for national interests, become diametrically opposite. Two, three and four years ago, it was advantageous to suggest any action plan for Iran and to simultaneously expand, resume or reboot financial and economic cooperation. But everything is completely topsy-turvy now: Iran has been branded as an aggressor, etc. It is very important to understand these mechanisms in order to make any assessment.
Question: How could a trade war with Turkey affect Russia? It probably will have some effect on Russia, won’t it?
Maria Zakharova: This is the correct way to frame the question, since the concept of globalisation was not invented by Russia. After all, it was a Western product. Everyone believed in it and started making their contributions, in one way or another, to the financial and economic globalisation. In the process, the world was regarded as presenting some kind of a whole, in which everyone can make its own contribution and operate independently and as an equal in economic and financial terms. Today, we can see that this is not the way things are.
As for Russia, we will act depending on the specific outcomes of these economic wars. We have made our choice after the sanctions were announced. We decided to benefit from this opportunity, although we were not the ones who initiated it and did not expect this to happen. However, considering the situation back then, we opted for a path that enabled us to move forward on our own and build up our domestic resources. Accordingly, depending on how the events play out, we will seek to mitigate losses without rejoicing at the fact that they have now reached Turkey. This would not be the right attitude, since globalisation has gone so far that you never know what sanctions against which country could have negative implications, and how it would happen. We definitely oppose initiatives of this kind. All we can do is take note and respond to developments as they happen. I do hope that this wave calms down, but the latest events prove otherwise.
Question: Some in the UN opposed the return of refugees back to Syria. Why is the UN refusing to accept normalisation in Syria?
Maria Zakharova: I cannot agree with you when you claim that the UN has a negative attitude regarding the return of Syrian refugees. I have already mentioned this today. The approach adopted by the UN is that conditions have yet to be created to enable refugees to voluntarily and sustainably return back to Syria in safety and dignity. The lingering obstacles pinpointed by the UN are the continuation of hostilities, devastation, a general lack of security, poor social infrastructure, contamination with unexploded ordnances, etc. The question is who can be tasked with improving social infrastructure, if not the Syrians themselves? Who should do it? Who should be in charge of mine clearance? It’s clear that for the time being Russia is doing all this, but Syrians must be the ones to improve their own territory. This is what our question boils down to once statements of this kind are made.
The position of UN leadership is of course influenced by major member countries who are the main donors of international humanitarian programmes. Unfortunately, the US and other Western countries have been pursuing a regime change in Syria for quite some time. They condition the provision of recovery relief on what they call a political transition, which means the ousting of Bashar al-Assad. The unilateral sanctions these countries imposed on Syria show this all too well. In fact, this is a paradox. The country that has already been torn apart is being bombarded with more challenges such as the unilateral sanctions. This is an obstacle as far as reconstruction is concerned.
Considering the tough stance adopted by the main donors, the UN is unfortunately unable to contribute to addressing Syria’s immediate needs, including facilitating the return of refugees. The leadership of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees strongly believes that a number of political conditions have to be met in order to enable large numbers of Syrians to return back to their homes. We believe this position to be questionable. So far it is too early to discuss UNHCR’s active involvement in enabling Syrian refugees to return back to their homes. This does not mean that the UN is against normalisation in Syria. We know this from our contacts with the UN, and the talks that we are holding. We remain in touch at all times. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently had a conversation with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. There are projects to resettle Syrian refugees from neighbouring countries and a number of other humanitarian initiatives that are implemented with the help of UNHCR as well as other UN agencies.
Question: What could be done about the state vandalism in Poland regarding monuments to Soviet soldiers? What do you think of an idea of making, with government support, a detailed digital map showing all the monuments in Poland, including those that have been demolished and forgotten, marked on it with multimedia descriptions that can be downloaded to devices? How effective could it be to counter the Polish authorities’ attempts to erase our common memory?
Maria Zakharova: I'm not sure about downloading to devices, nor that it could change the local authorities’ approach. I fully support your idea. I even think it is already being discussed; at least we are working on it. Firstly, it is about building a database, a virtual map of monuments located in Europe (maybe even wider), where fierce battles were fought for the liberation of countries and peoples. Secondly, we spoke about this today with the BaltArtek participants, similar ideas were expressed by young people.
I think that we must do this, absolutely; moreover, not only at the state level, but also in cooperation with civil society. It should not be something imposed from the top, a requirement, but rather done as joint work. We are ready to render all necessary assistance for this.
I would like to say that the Foreign Ministry’s Information and Press Department initiated the signing of a special agreement between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian Military Historical Society. We are doing a lot to prevent vandalism and the rewriting of history, and to support all sober-minded people that advocate the preservation of monuments. Now we have an agreement with the Russian Military Historical Society, which deals with this matter.
We take a lot of practical steps. Almost every week we make statements that are an extension of the work of the embassies in contact with the host country. We issue notes of protest (indeed, an effective thing), and hold talks on the preservation of monuments and war memorials and prevention of vandalism.
We hope that certain governments will finally heed our repeated reminders that we issue as answers to their question, how can we prevent vandalism? At least, there is a trend. With modern technology, it is possible to install web cameras, as is done at other facilities, which will record any violations, so that the incidents could be investigated. People who have such aggressive ideas in their heads will think twice whether they do it or not. If they get captured on camera, the police will know immediately. Since all cities are already equipped with cameras, it will be easier to track these people.
We insist on opening relevant criminal cases, damages claims if it is about vandalism and we certainly work with civil society locally. In particular, the Pole Jerzy Tyc is already renowned for his detailed work to restore monuments, and fundraising activity. We support him morally when he requests help, and cooperate with him – but not to influence the situation, as we are often accused of – to ensure that the monuments to Soviet soldiers, who were not involved in any politics and simply gave their lives so that others could live, remain intact in Poland. Moreover, we see a sincere desire to do this, and we see the people who are willing to help him, who are his assistants and comrades in this project.
Another important part is publishing materials and maintaining relevant pages on websites on this topic. We are also involved in these activities.