Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, April 17, 2020
- Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks to members of the Gorchakov Fund
- Assistance to bring Russian citizens home
- Russian school students in the United States
- CSTO member states' cooperation in preventing and battling COVID-19
- Russia's assistance to Belarus in fighting the novel coronavirus infection
- Russia's assistance to Uzbekistan in combating COVID-19
- US decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organisation
- US biological laboratories in third countries
- Liability for the distribution of deliberately misleading information about circumstances that pose a threat to the life and safety of citizens, including epidemics
- Publication by Council of Europe's Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists on 'notification of threat' by Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov towards Italian journalist Jacopo Iacoboni
- Interview by High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to German newspaper Die Zeit
- US Department of State's Executive Summary of Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report)
- US allegations on Russia using anti-satellite weapons
- Exchange of detainees between Kiev and Donbass
- Expected plans of the future Israeli coalition government to annex part of the River Jordan’s West Bank and the Jordan Valley
- US attempts to advance intra-Afghan dialogue
- Annual meeting of United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl via videoconference
- Update on Paul Whelan, accused of espionage
- Statement by the European External Action Service on the Yury Dmitriyev case
- European External Action Service’s comment in connection with the beginning of the spring conscription in Crimea and Sevastopol
- Detention of Borei Russian fishing trawler in the so-called fishery protection zone around Spitsbergen
- Opening of exhibition dedicated to 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and Guatemala
- Swedish Riksdag Centre Party deputies Kerstin Lundgren and Magnus Ek’s call to resume anti-Russia sanctions in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
- Continuing work on Nagorno-Karabakh settlement
- Russia and Azerbaijan’s cooperation in countering the coronavirus infection
- Forest fires near Chernobyl
- Proposal to write off debts of poor and developing countries in the context of the current international situation
- Middle East peace process
We continue to hold briefings remotely and answer the questions we receive. I would like to say that international relations and diplomacy are still affected by the pandemic; they have shifted to new means of communications. In this regard, we carry out most of our contacts by phone and videoconference. However, the work of the Foreign Ministry does not stop even for a second. I will elaborate on what we are focusing on today.
As I have already said, the Ministry is now carrying out most contacts by phone. The Foreign Ministry’s website publishes detailed press releases on them. We also communicate online. We will speak about this later.
On April 21, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will speak by videoconference at a roundtable meeting with members of the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund. The videoconference will be streamed on the Ministry’s website as well as on its social media accounts. It will be available to everyone.
The stream will begin at 11 am Moscow time. We will publish additional information. There will also be a broadcast in television quality.
I will start with a general question from the TV channel Current Time. “You often describe how the Foreign Ministry is helping Russians return home from abroad. On Thursday, we spoke with tourists in India, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Some of them cannot fly to Moscow, St Petersburg or other regions. All of them are in a similar situation. They bought return tickets for flights on foreign airlines which are ready to fulfil their commitments, but Russia has closed the skies for them. Why do these people have to spend their own money on tickets and how long will they have to wait for flights to their regions? And, for example, what are people from the Republic of Tyva supposed to do? Planes hardly fly there now.”
I will give a general answer to this question and touch upon specific aspects mentioned in it.
We continue to assist our citizens to return home and offer them field support. I would like to explain once again the common organisational algorithm of measures on helping Russian citizens return home, including the latest aspects of this issue. They have found themselves in a predicament because most foreign countries have introduced tough quarantines and other restrictions. This algorithm has been developed and approved by the Government of the Russian Federation with consideration for the sanitary and epidemiological situation taking shape in Moscow and the individual regions, and the existing opportunities for receiving arriving people, in particular, for putting them on quarantine or self-isolation.
As you know, there are individual flights to bring Russians to their homes from abroad. There are flights to Moscow, the Moscow Region, St Petersburg, Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Ufa, Kazan, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk and Khabarovsk. We are working on this and more cities will soon be added to the list. We would like to note the active role of the regions in cooperating with each other and the centre to help their residents return home. This is very important if we want to successfully cope with this mission. There are also examples of combined flights, for instance, Moscow-Moscow Region-St Petersburg. This has been a successful approach.
A flight from Goa is scheduled to return to Moscow tonight and we expect it to be full. Over 400 Russians will come home. Tomorrow, during the day, aircraft will fly our citizens from Bangkok to Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok.
Approximately an hour ago, it was announced that the evacuation flight from Kathmandu would make a stopover in the Myanmar city of Yangon to pick up our citizens there.
This effort is ongoing. It is very complicated, with many factors at play, including the interests of the citizens both abroad and inside the Russian Federation.
Regarding the passenger lists for evacuation flights, the Ministry of Communications finalises and submits them for approval to the Emergency Response Centre. Our ministries maintain close contact on this issue, especially given the experience of the Russian missions abroad, which are aware of the specifics on the ground, and know the returnees personally, including their circumstances. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin authorised Russian ambassadors to include so-called humanitarian cases on the evacuation lists when peoples’ lives and health are directly endangered.
Under the current conditions, the Russian Foreign Ministry operates 24 hours a day; all the ministry’s departments are involved in this.
As to the question about paying for return fares, the following rule is applicable now, and we have talked about this; the relevant decisions were posted on the websites of the Federal Air Transport Agency and Russian Ministry of Transport. Citizens with air tickets from domestic airlines, who did not initiate the procedure to return the tickets for reimbursement, are flown for free. The carriers settle the matter between themselves. Those who have no tickets or who booked them through foreign carriers, pay a single rate fare to Russia. This is also posted on the Federal Air Transport Agency and Russian Ministry of Transport websites.
Now, regarding the specific question about those who have tickets from foreign carriers but for whom, as the question states “Russia has closed the skies to these flights.” Once again, let me repeat that first, Russia did not close the skies, and second, an algorithm is being enforced on receiving and accommodating our citizens in the regions, “on the ground,” with consideration for the epidemiological situation.
As for financial assistance, at the moment, over 8,000 remittance orders have been executed. Around 28,000 applications are being reviewed. We receive a huge number of both individual and group requests regarding the status of their applications. Many people filled out the forms some time ago but still have not received reimbursements. This is the major issue. The reviewing process runs non-stop, almost 24 hours a day. Applicants are promptly informed of any denial following the review. If this did not happen and your application is still under review, I would like to point out that the reviewing procedure is often delayed because the forms were not properly filled out. The most common error: people are not accurate enough when giving the bank card payment details – they make mistakes in standard 16-figure number. When we contact such people and outline the problem, they admit that they indeed did not fill out the form correctly. What should be done under the circumstances? The Russian Foreign Ministry together with the Ministry of Communications is making every effort to ensure that everyone entitled to help and financial assistance gets it in full. Communications Ministry and Foreign Ministry specialists are dealing with this issue now. Once again, if the required information about the details of payment cards and passports is wrong, it makes money transfers impossible because the forms are being checked by several agencies and they must be verified. Let me reiterate: concerning those forms and applications that were not falsified, or were unintentionally submitted with the wrong data, when an error occurred during filling, we work with the Communications Ministry to make sure that these people have a chance to fill out the forms again. This will be announced later.
We continue seeking concrete information from the US authorities about the Russian school students who are in the United States under various educational programmes, which we have already mentioned. I want to underscore it again: we are talking about school-age children taken out of Russia without their parents or any agreement with our government authorities.
So far the results are lacking. The US Department of State is now trying to deny that it supervises the Secondary School Student Programme, even though its site has direct links to it and 10 days ago it asked our Embassy to repatriate the children to Russia because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Although the US State Department asked our embassy and sent a relevant document, it has not yet provided the lists of the children that we requested at once. So we do not have the children’s names or telephone numbers. Just this morning they gave us a list of US organisations that should take care of the children directly. The day before they said there are nine such organisations, but the list has only seven such names. There are no addresses, telephone numbers or even information about the states where they are located. Our embassy in Washington is now trying to establish contact with those organisations, at least using their email addresses, and find out information about these organisations and contact them somehow.
In addition, they told us that 74 Russian children have been staying in the United States under the said programme since autumn, but they told us this 10 days ago. To date, we know from the US side that there are 80 children, which is more than was believed before. They say that only 29 of them are currently staying in the United States and the rest have allegedly gone home. Officially, we know of only six children who returned to Russia.
We are unaware of where the others are, when and from where they departed, and most importantly, if they made it back to Russia. The State Department cannot give an answer. We are doing this job now.
Unfortunately, the complete inability of our US partners to provide precise information may be attributed to the fact that the State Department is working remotely, which cannot be ruled out, but, of course, we would like to see more effort and cooperativeness, given that we are talking about minors.
We are talking about just one programme, which we are unraveling and investigating, and the United States has set up very many of them. The main objective was to foster “American values” and popularise the “American life-style.” Next time, in the future, it would be a good idea to supplement these programmes with measures related to children’s safety and carefully work out a procedure in case of emergency.
It is desirable that our schools and, of course, parents who agree to send their children on such dubious tours would understand the possible risks. That this case would serve as the starting point in taking similar decisions. We proceed from the belief that any projects involving taking Russian minors abroad without proper coordination with the competent authorities are unacceptable. Indeed, we are talking about such important matters as children’s health and safety. Today’s situation has highlighted all these problems.
I want to stress again that Russian diplomats are doing everything possible to find the school students. However, we hold that it does not relieve those who took them there of the responsibility for returning our children from the United States. They should at least display full willingness to cooperate.
As part of the activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, its member states are seeking efficient mechanisms to overcome the emerging challenges amidst the current spread of the novel coronavirus infection.
At Russia's initiative, the heads of military medical services held extra consultations on preventing and tackling the coronavirus infection via video conference at the CSTO's Emergency Response Centre on April 16.
Military specialists in epidemiology, infectious diseases, anesthesiology and intensive care medicine took part in a substantial dialogue, with a presentation on existing developments by Russia's leading military medical institutions - the Kirov Military Medical Academy and the Burdenko Main Military Clinic Hospital, including the methods being used to treat patients in a critical condition.
During the consultations, the Russian specialists shared with their partners their experience when it comes to organising preventative measures in the armed forces, cooperation with civil healthcare institutions, and the concepts elaborated while providing assistance by Russian servicemen to Italy and Serbia.
Agreements were reached on further contacts in this format to analyse and to exchange information on the current situation as regards the spread of COVID-19 in CSTO countries.
CSTO member states confirmed their commitment to close cooperation and rendering mutual assistance to provide general security and support combat effectiveness of the CSTO collective forces.
Russia is providing substantial assistance to Belarus in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. We have already delivered several batches of free COVID-19 test kits as well as other things.
In particular, Russia's Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation has delivered aid to hospitals in the Astravyets District in Belarus' Grodno Region, where we are building a nuclear power station. The delivered equipment and items will also be used by medical staff involved in the measures to provide sanitary and epidemiological safety of the multi-ethnic personnel working at the station's construction site.
We are considering the delivery of other materials that the Belarusian side has requested with a note through diplomatic channels on April 1.
We are also providing assistance to Belarus through multilateral mechanisms. Under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Russia is redistributing funds from its payment for the project Assistance to Development of Belarus During its Accession to WTO. Due to these efforts, a certain amount of these funds will go to purchasing rapid test kits as well as other goods for Belarus.
Amidst the unfolding situation, Russia has sent free COVID-19 test kits, produced by the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR of the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor), to its Uzbek partners in order to provide assistance to Uzbekistan.
Representatives of the Agency for Sanitary-Epidemiological Welfare at the Uzbek Ministry of Health were invited to attend the meetings, held by the Council of Heads of Authorised Bodies in the Field of Sanitary and Epidemiological Welfare of the EAEU States’ Population, on the developments around the spread of COVID-19 via video conferences held on January 27, February 10, and March 2, 16 and 30.
We are cooperating not only with Belarus and Uzbekistan but with a number of other neighbouring states too. I will speak on this later today when I will be answering questions. We are providing assistance to Russian nationals abroad who need assistance with getting back home or locally where they are at the moment. In this regard, we are closely cooperating with embassies, foreign ministries, and public organisations. This job is being carried out very actively.
We consider Washington’s decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and attempts to shift the blame on the WHO for everything happening in the United States and hold it responsible during the growing pandemic to be counterproductive and irresponsible, to put it mildly.
The allegations of the WHO’s inaction, non-transparency and moreover of malicious intentions are absolutely groundless. We have already published the chronicles of WHO actions; the list of their decisions is available on the Ministry’s social networks, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke about them. You can see for yourself that after receiving the first information, the WHO began taking very active measures in the public space and reported on all steps it was taking.
At all stages of the pandemic, the WHO acted within its mandate, in strict compliance with the policies of its member states and guided by scientific data. But there is another important thing. Washington is distancing itself from the WHO, as if it were a non-governmental agency or a group of people acting of their own accord, rather than a community of countries.
Let us return to the facts. Two assistants to the director-general are American; the country is also widely represented in all departments of the WHO Secretariat, as well as expert committees including the IHR Emergency Committee created in accordance with the International Health Regulations. Moreover, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasised on April 14, the fact that the WHO has played and continues to play an important coordinating role in counteracting the pandemic is reflected in the relevant consensus resolution of the UN General Assembly and the final declaration of the G20 summit. In both cases, the United States actively supported the consensus. We assume that this is their official position.
Undoubtedly, it will be necessary to thoroughly investigate WHO actions in response to the virus outbreak and then make decisions regarding its financing. The experience that the entire world is having now is unprecedented in terms of its impact on our reality. There have been pandemics before, global ones with very difficult and sometimes catastrophic consequences for the humankind, but given the way people live today, their psychology, attitude to life and social and cultural environment, this is the first such epidemic.
Speaking of the US decision regarding the WHO, I would like to note that there was no reason why the US delegation as the member of the WHO Executive Committee could not initiate the adoption of a special resolution in February, aimed at strengthening the WHO potential so that it could more efficiently coordinate international healthcare efforts during emergencies. Therefore, it is simply inappropriate to distance themselves from the WHO, level accusations and forget about their own role in its activity.
We have noted the growing US biological presence abroad. We would like to see similar attention from Washington focused on its own responsibility in this area, including in the former Soviet republics, where it sets up dual-purpose biological laboratories under the pretext of fighting bioterrorism under the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme implemented by the US Department of Defence.
Specifically, the US-Georgian Richard Lugar Centre for Public Health Research in a Tbilisi suburb is operating in Georgia; we spoke about it on many occasions. That laboratory complex is officially part of the US military system of global control over the spread of infectious diseases on a par with similar facilities in a number of countries. Moreover, according to the available information, high-ranking Pentagon officials visited it recently and suggested that the Georgian authorities should expand the range of experiments there.
Meanwhile, it cannot be ruled out that the Americans use such reference laboratories in third countries to create and modify various dangerous pathogens, including for military purposes. Naturally, we cannot ignore the fact that such infrastructure with a dangerous biological potential is built by the Americans in direct proximity to Russian borders. We have raised this issue many times over the recent years. We have not yet heard any indignation from Washington regarding its own dangerous activities that may lead to unpredictable results. And it’s high time for this to happen.
We have noted a series of critical comments about Russia by representatives of international agencies engaged in media issues, including OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir. They concern the adoption of legislative amendments to establish liability for the distribution of deliberately misleading information about circumstances that pose a threat to the life and safety of citizens, including epidemics.
We would like to say right away that ‘deliberately misleading’ are the keywords. The amendments are related to cases where the person realises that the information is false but distributes it nevertheless as if it were factual. The criminal nature of such practices during a global pandemic is obvious because it may result in the most harmful consequences for people’s health and wellbeing. The key priority of the amendments is to prevent the spread of the disinformation virus and possible victims it may result in.
In this context, we completely agree with the position of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who has recently announced the launch of a UN special initiative as part of the fight against misinformation, which is “a poison that is putting even more lives at risk.” Guy Berger, Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, shares the same point of view.
We would like to emphasise that the introduction of amendments is in line with global legal practice. When developing the amendments, Russian legislators analysed and took into account the experience of our foreign partners. Some countries, including those who are criticising us now, already have stern measures to regulate the information space aimed at counteracting fake malicious information. Thus, for instance, in France the distribution of such information is subject to a fine of up to 75,000 euros and a prison sentence. In 2018, to prevent misinformation, Italy created a special state online portal used by the local cyber security police to receive citizens’ complaints on ‘undesirable information.’ The European Commission and the British Parliament are also considering the introduction of additional regulation of online content in the fight against disinformation. In Malaysia, Thailand and, since recently, in Puerto Rico, the distribution of false news is punished by prison sentence. Kenya, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Taiwan impose large fines.
We want to emphasise that Russia’s amendments do not limit the work of the media or violate the freedom of speech. The legal innovations are aimed exclusively at counteracting disinformation that threatens people’s lives. It is not surprising that they received the approval and support of Russian civil society and the professional journalist community. In particular, the amendments were supported by the Civic Chamber and the Russian Union of Journalists, which noted that since the adoption of the amendments, the volume of fake news about COVID-19 has dropped significantly.
Publication by Council of Europe's Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists on 'notification of threat' by Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov towards Italian journalist Jacopo Iacoboni
On April 15, the Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, which operates under the Council of Europe, published on its internet account a statement saying that Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov had threatened Jacopo Iacoboni, a journalist with the Italian newspaper, La Stampa. For the authors of the said notification, British human rights organisation Article 19 and Belgium-based Association of European Journalists, the threat came not from news about Russian arms or military exercises, that Mr Konashenkov could have mentioned, but from the quoting of a Latin proverb, "Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam: he who digs a pit, will fall into it," which the Russian official mentioned on April 2 when commenting on a La Stampa article on Russian support to tackle the coronavirus in the Italian region of Lombardy.
We could make speculations here or hold linguistic debates on the meaning of this proverb in the modern world, which of course has nothing to do with threats. Yet, it seems that knowledge and education seem to make life more dangerous for some as they can learn a new thing or two without even knowing one word of the Latin language.
I would like to speak on the organisations that accused the Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson of 'aggressive rhetoric.' Since November 2014, the year the Platform was established, Russia has expressed serious concerns about this organisation's ability to make objective and unbiased statements. Just a reminder that this structure was formed by 14 western NGOs, which are often directly financed by governments of their respective countries. We always prefer to respond to our partners with facts. Here they are: more than half of the budget of Article 19, the British NGO that found Mr Konashenkov's statement threatening, comes from government authorities, including the British Foreign Office and the US Department of State. What's more, the Council of Europe's Secretariat never checks or edits this organisation's publications. This is why Russia did not allow the Platform's activities on its territory. Sadly, throughout the years, we have observed many such cases when the organisation published biased and unbalanced information. This new anti-Russian attack only proved that our refusal to cooperate with the Platform was justified.
It is regrettable that the structure's web page is located on the website of the Council of Europe and has the latter's logo. We hope this case of anti-Russian stance will prompt the Council's leadership to become aware that the Platform in its current form does not promote the Strasbourg-based organisation's main goal of strengthening its member states' unity and even discredits it.
As regards the contents of the politicised article by the aforementioned Italian journalist, enough has been said about it. A reminder that Russia is providing assistance to help tackle the coronavirus infection in Italy at the direct request of the Italian Prime Minister; this assistance is solely for a humanitarian cause and has been praised by Lombardy's authorities as well as its residents.
We have noted the interview by High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to the German newspaper Die Zeit, who stated that the European Union remembers its global responsibility amidst the efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, he mentioned that Brussels is considering reformatting the development policy, with the focus to be made on offering assistance to African countries to fight the infection and thus ensure security in Europe.
I am perfectly aware of the relevance of assistance by the EU, European organisations and Brussels to the African continent - yet it seems more reasonable to begin with Italy, which requested assistance but never received it in its darkest hour. This all pretty much speaks volumes as the EU is making such global statements while overlooking what should be of paramount importance to European institutions. I think that before taking the responsibility for the entire world and criticising the assistance Russia is providing to its long-time partners, Europe should help itself first.
On April 15, the US Department of State published the Executive Summary of the 2020 Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report).
In a manner typical of the Americans, this is yet another case of totally unfounded statements made against other countries, with the United States avoiding any mention of some of the most urgent and actual issues of arms control, including the US non-observance of its own obligations. No mention has been made of the US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as well as of the international community's repeated and resolute attempts to point out to US's blatant violations of its international obligations on JCPOA and Resolution 2231 through various platforms, including the UN Security Council. Such brazen disregard of international laws is a serious challenge to the entire global system based on the United Nations' central role and binding resolutions of its Security Council, which the US opposes.
The report also intentionally omits the US's actual refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test–Ban Treaty (CTBT) and efforts to put the Nevada Test Site on high alert for resuming full-scale nuclear tests. To distract the attention of the international community, the US has yet again made innuendos on Russia's alleged non-observance of its obligations in this field. We have repeatedly made detailed comments on this matter, including those made by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on April 15.
Regrettably, the list of Washington's actions to disrupt the basis of international arms and nonproliferation control still goes on. Examples are evident, and they have been plentiful lately. Those include the break-up of agreements on anti-ballistic missiles and shorter- and intermediate-range missiles, inappropriate actions as regards obligations under Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and dragging out its extension, carrying on the 'joint nuclear missions' with non-nuclear NATO states in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, specific steps to boost the development of space-based strike systems, refusal to strengthen the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, with US military biological labs extensively deployed overseas, unwillingness to promptly observe the obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and eliminate US chemical weapons arsenals, attempts to make the OPCW a mechanism to exert pressure on sovereign governments unfavourable to the US, and refusal to ratify the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and thus breaking up the system of control over conventional weapons in Europe.
We will post a more detailed analysis of the US Department of State's report later.
We noted a statement by US Space Force Chief of Space Operations John Raymond on alleged testing of a Russian anti-satellite missile capable of destroying satellites in low Earth orbit on April 15.
In all probability, we are witnessing a targeted campaign launched by Washington to discredit Russian space activities and our peaceful initiatives to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Previously such allegations were also voiced by the US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford. All such anti-Russia attacks are nothing but a US attempt to distract the international community from real threats in outer space, to justify their steps on deploying weapons in outer space and to get additional funding to that effect.
It is obvious that grave concerns, if they do arise, cannot be solved through allegations of this kind, such plants and leaks. They require the involvement of the existing channels of expert and political dialogue. They don’t have to be set up, they exist, they just need to be used. Unwillingness to do this rather testifies to the insufficiently grounded position of US colleagues.
There are international legal platforms where such sensitive issues could be raised since they must be discussed by experts. In particular, our US colleagues should address the provisions of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
Reciprocal concerns could be relieved by arranging a full-fledged substantive Russia-US dialogue on a wide range of issues regarding the security of space activities. Deputy heads of our diplomatic services agreed on this as far back as January 16 this year. We reaffirm our readiness to discuss the entire range of problems regarding space activities with representatives of the interested agencies and organisations of both countries.
We are set to lay a special focus on the question of non-discriminatory use and research of outer space for peaceful purposes. In this connection, the initiatives proposed by Russia on the prevention of weapons deployment in outer space play a crucial role. I am referring to the drafting of a multilateral legally binding agreement on PAROS on the basis of the Russian-Chinese draft treaty on the prevention of weapons deployment in space, the use of force or the threat of force against space objects as well as the globalisation of the political commitment to not being the first to deploy weapons in outer space.
We expect the US to display a professional and responsible approach towards enhancing international security and strategic stability.
On April 16, Kiev and Donbass exchanged detainees once again pursuant to their agreements reached at the Contact Group. The event was preceded by difficult preparations due partly to the coronavirus pandemic.
Initially, it was planned to carry out the exchange on the “20 for 18” basis, however eventually Donetsk and Lugansk transferred 20 people to Kiev and the Ukrainian side transferred 14 people to Donbass because of last-minute changes.
This is already the second exchange since the Normandy summit was held in Paris. The previous such event took place on December 29, 2019. Then, 124 people returned to Donbass and 76 to Kiev.
Moscow welcomes this move with the release of detainees by the parties to the conflict. Unfortunately, the rest of the Paris decisions have yet to be fulfilled. We expect Kiev to display political will in carrying out all the agreements, primarily in the political field. We are sure that the solution to the most vital issue, that of granting a special status to Donbass on a permanent, constitutional basis, will result in favourable changes at all the tracks of settling the internal Ukrainian conflict.
We have noted the reports that appeared in some media on the expected plans of the future Israeli coalition government to annex part of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, within the coming months.
Such intentions are naturally causing some concern and non-acceptance on the part of the Palestinian side. Russia, like representatives of other countries favouring the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict shares the apprehensions that the implementation of the aforementioned plans may undermine the prospects of establishing an independent, viable and territorially continuous Palestinian state.
Regarding this matter we proceed from the need for a consistent adherence to the universally recognised basis of international law for the Middle East settlement, including the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council and General Assembly. We are calling on the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume as soon as possible direct talks aimed at mutually acceptable agreements on all the disputable issues.
We note the US attempts to prevent the disruption of the direct intra-Afghan dialogue, which amount to more frequent contacts of late with the leaders of key Afghan public and political associations, leaders of the Taliban’s political office in Doha and Pakistani military-political authorities. Washington’s objective is clear enough: to start intra-Afghan negotiations as quickly as possible, which will enable them to begin efforts to end the Afghan military campaign, which has long become tiresome both for the United States and its allies.
However, this objective seems hardly achievable without a solution to the power crisis in Kabul that resulted from the outright failure of last year’s presidential elections in Afghanistan. In addition, the incumbent Afghan leadership is overtly hindering the fulfillment of the key condition for the beginning of intra-Afghan dialogue – prisoner exchange with the Taliban.
We cannot but note in this respect that the Americans themselves played a part in the current aggravation of the political standoff in Kabul by de facto recognising one of the presidential election candidates as the winner. It runs counter to the existing understandings in the international format “three plus” on Afghanistan, involving Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan, intended to help create a broad inclusive foundation for a new Afghan government.
Russia urges key international players to take coordinated efforts to help resolve the deadlock and find political solutions in the interests of all Afghan people, true peace in Afghanistan and stability in the region.
On April 24, 2020, an annual meeting of the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl will be held in New York via videoconference. The event will be devoted to the latest anniversary of the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The relevance of this work has been confirmed yet again by a fire in the exclusion zone.
We highly appreciate the activity of this entity. The task force was established by UN General Assembly Resolution 45/190 in 1990 to improve the interaction between UN agencies in minimising and overcoming the consequences of the Chernobyl accident.
Since 2004, the UNDP administrator has acted as the coordinator of the task force. More than 12 international organisations are taking part in the activities of the task force and making a significant contribution to minimising the impact of the disaster and to the rehabilitation of the affected area and people.
The UNDP is realising projects in the development of sustainable energy, business support and protecting the interests of the most vulnerable groups of people. The IAEA is assisting with the disposal of nuclear waste. UNICEF monitors the physical and mental health of children and young people, develops health and safety education programmes and monitors the situation regarding a healthy and balanced diet. The WHO is responsible for providing medical assistance to former Chernobyl residents and the disaster relief workers.
According to the UN, thanks to the efforts coordinated by the task force, some 4,000 technical assistance projects, involving 7 million people, have been realised and some $18 billion of investment has been sent to the affected regions.
Among those attending the meeting will be representatives of the most affected countries – Belarus, Russia and Ukraine – and the main donors of the task force. The parties will assess the progress made during 2019-2020 and outline further steps.
Russia’s priorities in international cooperation on Chernobyl include the improvement of the nuclear safety of the population, the development of sustainable agriculture in the conditions of radioactive pollution, and enabling the polluted areas to return to normal life.
The countries of the ‘Chernobyl Three’ are the coordinators of interaction between the countries affected by the Chernobyl accident on the UN platform and play a key role in outlining the further activity of the task force.
We are ready to preserve the trilateral format of interaction (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) on the Chernobyl agenda and are open to contacts with Kiev. However, this will only be possible if interaction is non-politicised and aimed at finding practical solutions to the real problems of the people affected by the nuclear accident.
We noted the statement of US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan, who on April 13 spoke critically about the trial of Paul Whelan, a citizen of four Western countries. He entered Russia with a US passport and a tourist visa, and on December 29, 2018, was apprehended in Moscow while conducting espionage activities.
The case is now being tried by the Moscow City Court. Unfortunately, the defendant dragged his feet on reviewing the indictment papers for six months. He was in no hurry to read them; it took him from last September to this March. Now the coronavirus epidemic is affecting his trial, which began on March 30. As we know, it has spread all over the world. The court sessions have to be postponed due to the quarantine restrictions in place in Moscow. Nevertheless, legal proceedings are carried out in strict compliance with the Russian law and in compliance with all the required procedural rules.
At the same time, as we have already said, Paul Whelan is receiving all the necessary high-quality medical aid both from the doctors at the pretrial detention facility where he is being held and experts from other Moscow medical institutions. I would like to remind you that an examination was arranged at a city hospital at the defendant’s request and medication was prescribed for his illness.
He was offered the opportunity to have a minor operation, which the doctors believed would be helpful, but he refused.
I would like to remind you that we will provide the facts for all the US statements. The more statements there will be on Paul Whelan, the more facts we will provide. At the same time, we will see that every statement of the US Embassy in Moscow and the State Department, including on Paul Whelan and other similar topics, is accompanied by our reminder of the truly inhuman detainment conditions of Russians held at US prisons. They receive nothing at all. Let alone medical operations, treatment or checkups at local rather than prison hospitals. They cannot get an appointment with a doctor for months, even if they have a fever and their serious diseases get worse.
The European External Action Service made another statement on April 9. It urges the Russian authorities to release Yury Dmitriyev and amnesty other prisoners due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I will leave behind the fact that the EU party has once again grossly interfered with the competence of Russian courts. I will also not dwell on the fact that they forgot to mention the accusations: sexual assault against a minor. The selectiveness of our partners to certain issues is well known.
We are shocked by something else. During the global epidemiological crisis, when the need for international solidarity and abandoning politicised approaches is obvious, European officials consider it acceptable to emphasise and politicise this issue.
Such moral teachings towards Russia regarding how it should organise the penitentiary system during the pandemic are especially inappropriate against the backdrop of the situation in Europe itself. Many EU countries are facing the problem of prison overcrowding, while only a few try to solve it using amnesty. We assume that each state should solve this problem by themselves. If they need help, they can ask for it. But in any case, we consider it rude to give unasked for advice to other countries while trying themselves to cope with their own difficult situation. None of the EU countries use amnesty or other alleviations to free people accused of felonies, including those Yury Dmitriyev is accused of.
If our partners are seriously concerned by prison conditions in other countries, we suggest they use their energy to do something more constructive. In particular, they could take care of Russian citizens who were extradited from the EU to the US, often for contrived reasons. Actually, you are responsible for them. It was you who turned them over to the United States. So find out how they are treated there. And if you don’t have any information, we can provide it to you.
I reiterate, they are kept in American prisons in horrible conditions. Many of them have many-year serious diseases and need medical assistance that is never provided to them. We are constantly urging the US authorities to take this problem seriously, but also believe that additional appeals by the EU could also be quite useful.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) was marked by another critical commentary on Russia. This time, they chose the beginning of the spring conscription in Crimea and Sevastopol as the occasion.
It is difficult to say why this topic attracted the attention of the EEAS. Perhaps, our European colleagues, who remained on duty in the relevant units of the EU diplomatic service during this difficult period, simply have nothing more to do. It is very strange that they drew attention to this issue this year.
Let me point out that the legal basis of military duty and military service in our country is the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Of course, it is excusable for our partners not to be aware of the specifics. The European Union, as you well know, has not yet adopted a constitution – its draft was rejected by voters in the referenda in the Netherlands and France in 2005.
Since there are gaps in this case, I recall that Article 59 of the Basic Law of our country states: “Defence of the Fatherland is a duty and obligation of citizens of the Russian Federation.” Residents of Crimea and Sevastopol, the vast majority of whom voluntarily acquired Russian citizenship back in 2014, perform military service along with representatives of other regions of our country.
On April 2, the Norwegian Coast Guard detained the Russian fishing trawler Borei in the so-called fishery protection zone around Spitsbergen. The Russian Foreign Ministry sent a note to the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow. It states that Russia is very concerned due to such actions by the Norwegian authorities.
Our position on the non-recognition of the so-called fishery protection zone around Spitsbergen was repeatedly brought to the attention of the Norwegian side. We spoke about this publicly. We believe that the practice of detentions by the Norwegian Coast Guard of foreign ships in the so-called fishery protection zone is in line with Norway’s policy of illegally expanding its rights in the archipelago area contrary to the provisions of the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920. In the year of the 100th anniversary of this document, we urge Oslo to strictly follow the spirit and letter of the treaty, which is based on the idea of international cooperation and mutual respect for the rights and legitimate interests of the states parties to the Treaty.
The Norwegian side is well aware of our readiness to apply national authority in relation to Russian fishing vessels in the event of information from the Norwegian competent authorities about violations committed.
We expect from Oslo a constructive approach as well as close cooperation in order to resolve such incidents, including within the Joint Russian-Norwegian Fisheries Commission.
April 19 marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Guatemala. The history of bilateral cooperation has many bright pages and is imbued with a spirit of mutual respect and friendship.
Usually, in connection with such significant dates, the Ministry implements a number of major exhibition events. However, taking into account the current situation with the pandemic, this time a thematic exposition, which includes fundamental documents and rare historical photos, will be created in electronic form and posted on the official website of the Russian Foreign Ministry and other resources, in particular, on the Ministry’s official accounts on social networks.
We invite everyone to enjoy the exhibition. We will announce it additionally.
Question: Can you comment on the appeal of Centre Party deputies Kerstin Lundgren and Magnus Ek, in the Swedish Riksdag, to extend the anti-Russia sanctions in the Council of the Europe Parliamentary Assembly?
Maria Zakharova: This is perplexing and regretful, to use diplomatic language.
Russia’s Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe, Ivan Soltanovsky, gave a precise diagnosis to this phenomenon, in part, in his interview with RIA Novosti on April 10 of this year (https://ria.ru/20200410/1569847266.html).
The desire of some politicians to maintain a confrontational agenda in Strasbourg is unacceptable and actually, stupid, especially now that all European states must unite to overcome these pandemic-related challenges.
We would also like to note that these deputies are not even members of the Swedish delegation to PACE. Kerstin Lundgren lost her mandate in early 2019 while Magnus Ek never had one. Moreover, the Swedish Centre Party, which received less than 9 percent of the vote in the Riksdag, does not have any representatives in the assembly. On the contrary, in June 2019, all members of the Swedish delegation from the ruling Social Democratic Party voted to restore the authority of the Russian MPs. These facts suggest that the said politicians are using the Russia theme for domestic political considerations, to attract media attention. They have received their “moment of glory,” but this is really a “moment of anti-glory.”
As for extending anti-Russia sanctions in PACE, I would like to recall that according to its Charter, only the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CE) has the right to limit the representation of its member countries. This is why we are categorically against attempts to dispute the rights of the national delegations in PACE for political reasons and we consider this unlawful. It is common knowledge that the assembly’s misguided decisions regarding the Russian delegation in 2014-2015 led to a crisis in the Council of Europe and created a threat to its pan-European nature. After the creation of the trilateral procedure (the Committee of Ministers – Parliament – Secretary General) for responding to crude violations of charter infringement we expect PACE to permanently renounce the misappropriated powers to limit the rights of the delegations. Only in this way is it possible to bring PACE regulations in full conformity with the CE Charter and the letter and spirit of the agreements of the Helsinki Session of the Committee of Ministers at the ministerial level in May 2019.
We have emphasised more than once that Russia is only prepared to work in PACE if it is on an equitable basis. Any attempt to discriminate against Russia for political reasons runs the risk of a new crisis in the Council of Europe with hard-to-predict consequences. It was difficult for everyone to overcome the previous crisis. This took several years and lots of work. Plunging the organisation into a new crisis is impossible to understand.
Indicatively, in January 2020 just as in June 2019, the assembly reaffirmed the authority of the Russian MPs at full scale with a more than two-fold majority vote. Most of the amendments suggested by the Russophobes that wanted to blame Russia for its alleged failure to abide by its CE commitments were rejected. Moreover, Deputy Speaker of the Russian Duma Pyotr Tolstoy was elected PACE Vice-President. All this convincingly shows that a sensible majority prevails in the assembly. These people are aware of the need to maintain a dialogue with Moscow. They do not want a repetition of the systemic crisis of the past few years and do not want to follow in the wake of the Russophobic minority.
One cannot help but agree with CE Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric who said, at the Coronavirus Laws online forum at the St Petersburg International Legal Forum on April 10, that solidarity between EU members is essential during the pandemic. She said the main lesson of the Great Victory over Nazism – she paid much attention to this – was that the European countries achieved better understanding and stronger unity in Europe through cooperation and mutual assistance in resolving common problems. Responsible representatives of the CE member countries must not forget that this is exactly the goal of their organisation. This is legally fixed in Article 1 of its Charter.
We can join the appeal made by the Security Council Chairman of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, at the above online forum. He urged the international community to fully realise its responsibility for the world situation, pool efforts, put aside current political differences, and suspend sanctions and other discriminatory practices in international relations.
Question: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken with his counterpart from Azerbaijan by telephone twice during the past few days. They discussed the potential next steps in a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement with consideration for the proposals made by representatives from Russia, the US and France as co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Is work on this issue continuing despite the coronavirus? What steps have been suggested in this area and how soon might they take affect?
Maria Zakharova: Indeed, the work on a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement continues despite the coronavirus. You mentioned Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s telephone conversation with his counterpart from Azerbaijan Elmar Mammadyarov. Earlier, on April 8, he also talked with his Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. The issues of a settlement were discussed, among other things.
The co-chairs of the Minsk Group (Russia, France and the US) and Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office on the Conflict Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk maintain regular contact with the sides. The coronavirus issue and its impact on the negotiating process and some settlement problems are in the focus of the continued series of consultations. The situation on the border and the contact line is also being discussed.
You will find more information on the mediation of the co-chairs from their joint March 19 statement on the OSCE website.
Question: Mr Lavrov’s telephone conversations with his Azerbaijani counterpart focused on countering the coronavirus infection. How would you assess the efficiency of cooperation in this area? What measures are being taken? What issues must be resolved as soon as possible?
Maria Zakharova: Indeed, coordination of efforts by our two countries in countering the coronavirus infection and its socioeconomic consequences are an important item on the bilateral agenda. Russia and Azerbaijan closely cooperate on this. This issue was discussed several times by prime ministers Mikhail Mishustin and Ali Asadov, as well as foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Elmar Mammadyarov. The relevant departments in Russia and Azerbaijan are in touch on this issue.
Since the beginning of March, Russia has given Azerbaijan 120 diagnostic test kits (enough for 12,000 tests) for laboratory diagnostics of the virus. We are prepared to continue providing aid to our partners.
Moscow and Baku are working closely to bring the citizens of their countries home. We are grateful to Azerbaijan in this respect.
Question: A complicated situation developed this week due to the forest fires in the Chernobyl area in Ukraine. The fire approached the structure confining the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. According to some sources, trees and wood continue smoldering at this point. Are we in touch with Kiev on this issue?
Maria Zakharova: We are monitoring the situation of the forest fires. I have already talked about this issue. The fires are burning near Chernobyl. As of now, we have not received any requests for assistance from Ukraine. If our Ukrainian colleagues send a request, we will review it in line with traditional diplomatic practice.
Question: The UN Secretary-General supported the initiative of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on writing off the debts of poor and developing nations amid the difficult international situation due to the coronavirus pandemic. What does Russia think about this humanitarian proposal?
Maria Zakharova: The problem of easing the debt burden during the coronavirus pandemic and the general global economic downturn is certainly in the focus of the leading international associations and financial organisations. Therefore, Russia is also monitoring the situation as their full-fledged participant.
On October 15, the G20 and the Paris Club approved the initiative on the temporary suspension of debt service payments to all official bilateral creditors as a measure to support low-income countries. The poorest countries that requested this benefit are supposed to use the money thus saved on the social sphere and healthcare.
Being a member of the International Monetary Fund, we also welcome its approval of immediate debt relief for 25 countries. It made a statement saying that this “provides grants to our poorest and most vulnerable members to cover their IMF debt obligations for an initial phase over the next six months.” The funds will come from donor resources.
In addition, a session of the IMF and World Bank-IMF Development Committee will take place today. It will be attended by a Russian representative, among others. The participants are expected to discuss an appeal to the World Bank Group to consider the suspension of debt payments for the poorest countries.
We believe in this context that the implementation of Imran Khan’s initiative would have a positive impact on the socioeconomic situation in the developing countries where the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus infection is aggravating their traditional economic problems that are primarily linked with the huge debt load on their national economies.
Question: The question about Russia’s assessments of the nomination of new Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa al-Kazimi starts with a statement that Tehran welcomed this event. Some conservative Iranian circles that have a number of apprehensions are also mentioned. The statement mentions a whole lot of things. The question is formulated as follows:
Will the Americans begin under the new Prime Minister of Iraq their announced special operation against Shiite pro-Iranian forces in Iraq to minimise Iranian influence in that country and at the same time stop the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, safeguard their presence in Syria and have an opportunity to influence the situation in Afghanistan?
Maria Zakharova: We express hope for the domestic political situation in Iraq to stabilise, facilitated by the earliest possible formation of the new national government. We believe Mustafa al-Kazimi, who was nominated for the post of Iraqi Prime Minister, will successfully cope with this task. According to the available information, the majority of the parliamentary parties of the Iraqi Parliament – the Council of Representatives – are ready to support him.
We are convinced that the sides will make a decision on the further stay of foreign troops, including the US contingent, through dialogue based on unconditional respect for Iraq’s territorial integrity.
We consider unacceptable any attempts to use Iraqi territory as a score-settling arena. We believe such attempts contradict international law, violate Iraq’s sovereignty and do damage to its national interests.
I am saying goodbye to you till next time. I think now we must now certainly add the words: “I wish you good health” as well.