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29 August 201818:16

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, Moscow, August 29, 2018


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My colleague, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, and I held extensive, meaningful and constructive talks.

We agreed to build up our ties across all areas in accordance with the agreements reached by our leaders during the visit by King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Russia in October 2017.

We welcomed the steady growth of bilateral trade which doubled last year and was up over 70 percent in the first four months of 2018. Working groups are developing advanced projects in investment, industrial, agricultural and other areas within the Joint Russia-Saudi Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation which is functioning effectively and systematically.

A number of projects worth of almost $2 billion between the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia are already underway.

Our respective hydrocarbon companies are actively cooperating. Relations between Saudi Aramco, NOVATEK, Gazprom, Gazpromneft and Sibur have already been established, and prospective contacts with Rosneft are being explored.

We praised the close coordination of our countries and companies’ actions on the international oil and gas market, which is designed to ensure a balance between supply and demand and to maintain energy prices that are mutually acceptable for producers and consumers.

Our cultural ties continue to expand. The Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev performed in the Saudi city of Dhahran in June with great success. A Russian Culture Week will be held in Saudi Arabia in autumn, and we agreed to organise an exhibition of archival documents as part of it.

Once again, we thanked our Saudi friends for their continued assistance to pilgrims from Russia who recently made a hajj to the holy places of Islam in Mecca and Medina.

We exchanged views on key international issues, focusing on the Middle East and North Africa. We share the opinion that the continuing potential for conflict in this strategically important region has extremely adverse effects on global, as well as regional, security and stability.

Our countries are determined to uncompromisingly fight terrorism in all its forms and to focus on eradicating terrorist and extremist ideology. From this perspective, we reviewed the situation in various countries of the region currently in the grips of crises. First Syria, where it is necessary to fully and consistently implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254, while maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity. We exchanged views on the situation that is developing around the de-escalation zone in Idlib with the understanding of the need to distinguish between the armed opposition interested in becoming part of the political process and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists and the like. Russia and Saudi Arabia share approaches to forming the Constitutional Committee, the beginning of political talks between the government and the opposition with the participation of civil society as a whole. We are especially grateful to our Saudi friends for their role in uniting the Syrian opposition and ensuring the participation of the representatives of the “Moscow” and the “Cairo” groups.

We also informed our colleagues about the efforts currently being undertaken by Russia, who is in contact with the corresponding countries in the region, to provide proper conditions for returning refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes in Syria.

We urge the UN and its specialised agencies to play a more active role in creating a proper environment for the return of refugees and displaced persons, including the modernisation and restoration of the socioeconomic infrastructure.

Together with Saudi Arabia, we advocate an early settlement to the conflicts in Yemen and Libya through the mediation efforts by the UN special representatives in these countries.

We exchanged opinions on the situation surrounding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme. We are interested in resolving this situation politically and diplomatically, so that confidence-building measures are promoted in the Persian Gulf area in line with the initiative that Russia put forward a while ago in the form of a concept to ensure security in this region.

We reiterated that President Putin is keeping in mind the invitation by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to visit Saudi Arabia, which was extended during the King’s visit to Russia in October 2017. We agreed that the date and other details of this visit would be further coordinated through diplomatic channels.

I believe that today’s talks will contribute to the further expansion of multifaceted Russian-Saudi cooperation. I thank our Saudi friends for today’s team work.

Question: US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said that the State Department is actively working with Russia in order to prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s Idlib. At the same time, Damascus was accused of preparing a chemical attack. Russia claims the opposite, arguing that the terrorists were about to stage a provocation. Have the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US Department of State been in contact on this matter and how effective were these contacts?

Sergey Lavrov: Regarding the warnings coming from Western capitals, including Washington, London and Paris, that they allegedly know that the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic was preparing a chemical attack in Idlib and that should chemical weapons be used, they will conduct devastating strikes against the Syrian army, let me tell you that we have stated our position on this matter on numerous occasions. The Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, has often raised this issue during her regular briefings. Yesterday, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya presented Russia’s position at the UN Security Council, citing specific facts.

We have seen situations of this kind in the past. I am referring to what happened in 2016 in Khan Sheikhoun and in 2017 in Eastern Ghouta. Both incidents took place in April. Back then, the Syrian Government was also blamed for the attacks, but we know what these accusations are worth. For example, when in April 2016 we insisted that OPCW inspectors visit the incident site, our Western colleagues, and primarily the three countries that are threatening Damascus with new strikes, prevented inspectors from being dispatched to the site for collecting samples. It would be obvious to any intelligent person that this incident was a staged provocation. Perhaps our Western colleagues did not want this obvious fact to become even more glaring.

When another staged chemical incident occurred in Eastern Ghouta in April 2017, we were able to overcome the opposition of our Western colleagues and insisted that OPCW inspectors be sent to the site to collect samples. When the inspectors had only a few hours before reaching the site, the US, Great Britain and France launched missile strikes.

I think that this situation is obviously farfetched. There were only accusations, while independent inspectors were not allowed to conduct the necessary investigation. By the way, a French spokesperson solemnly declared back then that what was left of the unreported chemical stockpiles in Syria was completely destroyed in these April 2017 strikes. Now that the US is beginning to heighten tensions around Idlib and is once again threatening the Syrian Government with retaliation if it uses chemical weapons, we asked them where Syria could have obtained these chemical weapons after the US, France and Great Britain destroyed all of it last year. The US responded that this statement was made by France, while they did not say anything of the kind. I think that no further explanation is needed.

As for our contacts with the US on these matters, they do exist. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised this issue when he called me several days ago. John Bolton, the National Security Advisor to the US President, also raised this issue during his meeting with Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev in Geneva. Military-to-military channels are also used for discussing this and other matters. The outcome of all these talks is always the same: we provide more and more evidence showing that a provocation will be staged in order to accuse the Syrian Government of conducting a chemical attack, while our partners claim that this is not true without providing even a single fact to back their claims.

All in all, there is a feeling that this topic and the related threats against the Syrian Government are intended to prevent terrorists from being expelled from the Idlib de-escalation zone, and nothing else. It may be that this policy masks some goals the US has been pursuing for quite a while. It started back in the days of the Obama administration, when the US wanted to take the heat off Jabhat al-Nusra using every trick in their book, hoping to be able to use it in the fight against what they refer to as the “regime”.

This is not the first time the US sets the goal of replacing unwanted regimes above the common objective of eradicating terrorism and extremism. It happened under a number of administrations: in Iraq, Libya, and now in Syria. To be more precise, they “tried” to do it in Syria, but failed. We view these selfish, unilateral geopolitical games as counterproductive. Russia advocates collective solutions to all the problems this and other regions face. We are open to working with the US and other Western and regional countries on settling all existing problems, be it in Syria, Libya or Iraq, while also remaining mindful of the Palestinian issue, which has remained without a solution for decades. The US persists in avoiding any collective efforts to work on this issue, including within the quartet of international mediators. This is regrettable, and does nothing to move things forward.

Question: Can Russia be expected to intensify diplomatic contacts with Turkey before the start of a military operation in Idlib?

Sergey Lavrov: We are having very intense contacts with all participants in the process from among the Syrian sides and outside players. Of course, we are particularly active within the Astana format. Speaking specifically about the Idlib zone, we are objectively working there mostly with our Turkish colleagues along with the Government of Syria. Moscow and Ankara discussed this topic maybe on ten occasions or so during the last couple of months. A few days ago, as you may know, Moscow hosted Russian-Turkish talks between the respective foreign and defence ministers with the participation of representatives of secret services. For understandable reasons, the talks focused on Idlib, the terrorists’ last major base. The terrorist groups are trying to gamble on the de-escalation zone status, hold civilians hostage as living shields and bring to heel armed groups that are ready for talks with the Government. From every point of view, this abscess must be eliminated. There is a political understanding on this matter between Moscow and Ankara. The normal armed members of the opposition must be urgently separated from the Jabhat al-Nusra militants, while simultaneously preparing an operation against these terrorists and doing our best to minimise the risks for the civilian population. The Russian and Turkish military controlling the situation on the ground can explain how to translate this political agreement into the language of practical actions. Going back to the speculations on the chemical attacks that are allegedly being planned by the Syrian Government, I am quite hopeful that the Western colleagues, who are actively heating up this topic, will not connive at provocations and false flag attacks that are clearly being prepared, nor will obstruct an antiterrorist operation, in this de-escalation zone, against Jabhat al-Nusra, which both the UN and the US have defined as a terrorist organisation. My great hope is that our Western partners will live up to their commitment to fight terrorism.

Question: Given that the Ukrainian authorities intend to pull out of the Treaty of Friendship with Russia, how will this affect bilateral relations?

Ukraine has closed its CIS Office. Does its withdrawal from the Commonwealth mean that Ukraine is still involved in certain agreements within the CIS?

Sergey Lavrov: I would not like to comment on yet another instalment of Ukrainian intentions, because there are too many comments as it is. They intended to break off diplomatic relations, cut off transport links with the Russian Federation… Let us wait until something is done and one of their intentions materialises.

I think there will be even more publicly announced intentions as the Ukrainian elections scheduled for March 2019 draw closer.

As far as the CIS is concerned, this, as I understand, is already a fait accompli rather than an intention. The Ukrainian CIS Office is indeed closed. But in a larger scheme of things, Ukraine was never a full-fledged CIS member, because it had failed to join the CIS Charter.

As for the treaties and agreements, the CIS has international legal documents that do not require a state to be a full-fledged CIS member to participate. On these grounds, Georgia, for one, continues to be involved in a number of CIS treaties, although officially, in the legal sense, it has withdrawn from the Commonwealth. I can assure you that for all the Russophobic bluster of the current Ukrainian leadership, we certainly will not object, if common sense makes its way and the Ukrainian colleagues show an interest in maintaining cooperation with their CIS neighbours in some or other areas. 

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