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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions during a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of Germany Heiko Maas, Moscow, January 18, 2019
19/01/2019

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

We held the first part of our very useful talks, which were constructive and comprehensive.

We stated that despite the differences on certain issues, our cooperation is making headway in many areas. We confirmed a mutual striving to consolidate it. It seemed to me that we share the opinion that given the difficult situation in Europe and the world as a whole, it is particularly important to maintain a close political dialogue between Russia and Germany.

Our assessment of the development of our trade and economic ties was positive. Despite the sanctions pressure that is being initiated by Washington, Germany continues to remain our important trade and economic partner. In January–October 2018, our trade grew 23.4 percent against the same period of 2017, and reached $49.8 billion. We appreciate that the German Government continues supporting the Nord Stream 2 project that it considers to be a commercial initiative aimed at persifying natural gas supply routes and eventually enhancing energy security in Europe.

We noted with satisfaction the implementation of a number of undertakings covered by the 2018-2020 Russia-Germany Year of Scientific and Education Partnerships, launched in December, which is aimed at promoting ties between universities and academic exchanges. We believe that such undertakings are very useful for building trust, preventing alienation between Russians and Germans and encouraging human contact.

While discussing key international issues we paid much attention to the situation taking shape after the US decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty.  Obviously, the abrogation of this treaty is fraught with the most negative consequences for global strategic stability. Following the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty threatens the entire system of arms control, including the treaty on the reduction of strategic offensive arms, prospects for further nuclear disarmament, and the stability of nuclear non-proliferation. Mr Maas and I discussed this in detail today. On behalf of Russia we confirmed that despite the failure of the consultations between the Russian and American experts in Geneva on January 15, because of the ultimatum-like position of the United States, we are still open to continuing a professional and specific conversation with facts in hand so as to try and save this vital treaty that largely ensures strategic stability. We certainly understand the concern of the Europeans over this situation because today’s politicians and diplomats still remember the crisis that unfolded in Europe following the deployment of US Pershings there in the last century.

We have discussed the situation in Ukraine, based on the understanding that the Minsk Agreements must be consistently implemented, but, unfortunately, so far there has been no progress on them, nor has there been progress on the implementation of the decisions made in the Normandy format, including the summits of the Normandy Four leaders in Paris in 2015 and in Berlin in 2016, where an agreement was reached on a number of steps in the security area and the political process. However, Ukraine’s position has prevented these steps from being taken. We assume that our European colleagues see the Ukrainian authorities’ crude violation of their international commitments – primarily, the commitment to ensure people’s rights and freedom to use their [native] language and educational and religious rights and freedoms – and the dangerous rise of nationalist and neo-Nazi sentiments in that country.  

We will speak more about Syria later. Some progress has been made in this area. I expect the agreements that were reached at the Russia-Germany-France-Turkey summit in Istanbul a couple of months ago, primarily, on the need to fast-track the operation of the Constitutional Committee, to be implemented as soon as possible. We told our colleagues that on Monday, Geir Pedersen will start his work as the new UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria. We are interested to hear how he plans to begin the work of this Constitutional Committee, especially after his recent two-day visit to Damascus where he met with Syrian leadership. 

In 2019-2020, Germany will be a UN Security Council member. We are ready to cooperate constructively with our German partners in this body. I believe Berlin’s participation in the UN Security Council’s activities will help boost the effectiveness of the actions that are required to implement this body’s decisions.

Question: How do you regard the fact that Ukraine is not planning to open polling stations on Russian territory? Nor does it plan to include Russian representatives in the OSCE observer mission to the presidential election in Ukraine. What are the prospects for the Normandy format?

Sergey Lavrov: We regard it negatively. Behind the decision not to open polling stations in the Ukrainian diplomatic missions in Russia, we see the desire to artificially influence the election results in favour of the current authorities. Depriving millions of Ukrainians, who live and work in Russia, of their right to vote is a violation of all norms that apply, must apply, within the OSCE framework, including when holding free and democratic elections. The fact that Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Klimkin explained the decision not to open polling stations in Ukraine’s diplomatic missions in Russia by citing the lack of security conditions here does not stand up to criticism. We regularly host a great number of international events, including the FIFA World Cup that was attended by hundreds of thousands of foreigners, many Ukrainians among them. There was not a single case showing a lack of security conditions in any situations. None that I can recall. There were no complaints. It is a different matter when elections are held in Russia and we open polling stations in our diplomatic institutions, in our embassy in Kiev and our consulates general. On repeated occasions, tough guys from the Right Sector and other neo-Nazis literally surrounded our diplomatic missions on the day of the election, blocking the way for Russian citizens, who live in Ukraine and who want to vote. As such, our Ukrainian colleagues certainly should not be talking about voting security.

As for their refusal to include observers from Russia in the OSCE mission to monitor the voting process in Ukraine, here, in the first place, the OSCE, specifically its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) that coordinates the OSCE election activities, should speak up on the matter.

As regards the prospects for the Normandy format, we discussed this today. As you know, at two Normandy format summits, in October 2015 in Paris and in October 2016 in Berlin, the leaders adopted two concrete decisions. The first one has to do with security and necessitates the implementation of the agreement on the disengagement of forces and assets in three localities: Petrovskoye, Zolotoye and Stanitsa Luganskaya. So far, disengagement in Stanitsa Luganskaya has not even started. The Ukrainian side requires seven days of complete silence in order to do that. The OSCE has already registered 55 weeks during which the ceasefire was observed. But the Ukrainians ignore this and continue to refuse to confirm this agreement and begin disengagement. In the other two localities – Petrovskoye and Zolotoye – disengagement took place fairly quickly. But just a few months later, Ukrainian forces surreptitiously again took up positions in these so-called “grey zones”.

The second agreement that the Ukrainians have been sabotaging is the “Steinmeier formula”. The current President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier was Foreign Minister back then. This formula stipulates that the law on special status for Donbass should take effect on a temporary basis on the day of elections in Donbass and on a permanent basis – on the day when the OSCE releases its final report, provided it confirms the free and democratic character of the elections in Donbass.

Both matters were agreed upon by the Normandy format leaders literally with pencils in hand. Two and a half years have passed since the last summit in Berlin, but Kiev still does not want, either in the Normandy group, or at an expert or ministerial level, or in the Contact Group, to commit these two agreements to paper. I invited our German colleague to speak out together today on the necessity of implementing these two agreements on which there were no differences, but our German colleagues believe that it would be better to discuss this again in the Normandy format.

Our position is simple: if we again leave everything up to Ukraine – and the Ukrainians again resort to their destructive tactics in the event of a regular Normandy summit or contacts in some other format – we will not make any headway. The situation proves a very simple thing, something we have long been saying: the patrons of the Ukrainian regime must force it to fulfil the commitments this regime signs on to. Otherwise, meetings in the Normandy format will be a sheer waste of time.

Question (translated from German): How do you assess Germany’s mediation in the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis? What is your reaction to the German proposal concerning free passage through the Sea of Azov? Do you believe there can be a shift in the situation before the Ukrainian elections?

Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Heiko Maas): We believe that the term “mediation” is incorrect when we are talking about the Normandy format. There are the Minsk Agreements formulated by the leaders of the Normandy Four and adopted by the parties to the conflict: the Ukrainian authorities, Donetsk and Lugansk. The signatures under the Minsk Agreements attest to this.

A Declaration was adopted in support of the Minsk Agreements. There are some items there which have not yet been fulfilled. In particular, Germany and France had undertaken to provide mobile banking services in Donbass. They failed. The Ukrainian authorities flatly refuse to cooperate on the issue.

As to whether mediation is appropriate in the Ukrainian situation, the answer is yes. As I have said, we very much hope that the countries providing cover to the Ukrainian government will do more to influence the regime’s behavior, above all on what forms the core of the Minsk Agreements – direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. To this end the Contact Group was set up and, despite attempts to refer to it as tripartite, it is the only format in which the Ukrainian regime and the Donbass territories sit at the same table.  But in the Normandy format and in the Contact Group the representatives of the Ukrainian authorities flatly refuse to adopt documents that would put a legal seal on the disengagement of troops and assets as well as the Steinmeier formula. There is no need for mediators here, the Kiev authorities should simply be ordered to do what Ukrainian President Poroshenko had himself agreed to. So far, we do not see that our German and French friends are willing to do so. You may call it what you like – mediation or whatever – but this is a fact.

As regards the Kerch Strait, you have asked me for my reaction to the German proposals. I first saw these proposals during the negotiations, but since you are asking me about them you learnt about them before I did. That is interesting. But I’m not going into details. This is not my secret. This is a proposal we have just received from Germany and we must study it. All I can say is that more than a month ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow German specialists to come to the Kerch Strait area to see how the passage through this stretch of water takes place considering the need to comply with safety norms: there is the piloting service, etc. Vladimir Putin agreed at once. After a while Angela Merkel asked him to allow French specialists to accompany the German ones. He agreed to that as well. More than a month has passed, but we have yet to see any arrivals.

Today Heiko Maas handed me proposals which “package” this simple agenda as a kind of document to be agreed with Ukraine. We said upfront: if our colleagues are interested in what the Russian President promised the German Chancellor, this can be done at any time. If the intent is to cast it in the form of a political procedure in which Ukraine will make decisions, we risk ending up in a situation similar to that in which the Normandy format and the “Steinmeier formula” have found themselves.

I noted that Heiko Maas has said that there is free passage through the Kerch Strait today. Let me stress that this has always been the case. Ukrainian civilian, fishing and merchant ships have always passed through it unobstructed. In September of last year even Ukrainian naval ships passed through the strait. They did a fine job of it because they followed the rules of passage through this difficult stretch of water.

However, in November, instead of following the established procedure, which they had previously observed, the Ukrainian Navy staged a provocation, and it succeeded. We hope there will be no more provocations although there has been a lot of strident talk coming from Kiev to the effect that they would attempt to break through the Kerch Strait and NATO countries have been invited to take part in it. NATO is silent.

Obviously, all this is designed to stoke tensions and keep voters “engaged” ahead of the Presidential elections on March 31 this year.

I am sure that our colleagues in Germany, France and indeed in other European countries are well aware of what it is all about. But since they have long decided to support Ukraine across the board, there is nothing we can do about it. It remains to hope that in private European colleagues do tell the Ukrainian regime what it needs to do to comply with its obligations, be it under the Minsk Agreements or international conventions on human rights and the freedom of language, religious and ethnic minorities.

Question (addressed to Haike Maas): What do you think about the statements of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin to the effect that there will be no polling stations in Russia and that Ukraine objects to Russia’s participation in the OSCE observer mission?

Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Mr Maas): I can add that we received an invitation from the OSCE to send our observers to the mission that will monitor the elections. So we have the invitation.

Question (addressed to Sergey Lavrov): On January 21, the Council of the European Union will compile the first black list in line with the new policy of imposing sanctions on those that are suspected of being responsible for the production and use of chemical arms. According to media reports, the list will include four Russian citizens that are referred to as GRU officers, including those that are suspected of the attempt on the lives of Sergey and Yulia Skripal. How is the Foreign Ministry going to protect these Russian citizens? Will it demand that they be excluded from this list?

What do you think about the events in the north of Syria, specifically, those related to the explosion in Manbij that coincided in time with the US troop withdrawal and appeals to establish safe zones in the north of the country?

Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard about the meeting of the EU Council on Monday. But if the media know about it, apparently some announcement was made.

Indeed, some time ago the EU announced that it is creating an entity to punish those involved in using toxic chemicals, chemical weapons. This decision rests on the UN General Assembly resolution adopted by voting – some independent mechanism of investigating the use of chemical weapons. We voted against it together with a big group of states because under the UN Charter the UN General Assembly is not authorised to investigate such cases, to say nothing of establishing guilt. The Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is not authorised to do this, either. It is called the Technical Secretariat. Therefore, when at the Conference of the State Parties our Western colleagues followed in the wake of the Anglo-Saxons and supported (with fewer than half of the votes of the CWC signatory states) the proposal to authorise the Technical Secretariat to establish guilt, they directly encroached on the prerogatives of the UN Security Council.  

Now such illegal actions that violate the Chemical Weapons Convention are legalised not through talks but through voting and imposing improper decisions. This applies to the EU decision to establish some rules that conflict with international law by resorting to confrontation in the UN and OPCW. Based on these rules they will receive information (that may be biased, incomplete or even classified), and on the basis of these secret decisions, secret information they will punish someone or other.

The same is happening with the Skripals. When the tragedy in Salisbury took place, the Brits compelled the majority of their then EU partners to join the decisions on expelling Russian diplomats. At that time I asked many of my European colleagues in private whether the Brits presented anything in addition to their public statement that it was “highly likely” that Russia was involved in this. Everyone said they did not but promised to produce something later. Nothing has been presented yet. No one knows the Skripals’ whereabouts. Dozens of our appeals for consular access remain unanswered or we receive a formal answer citing UK security interests.

This is not the first time. This is the English style. When Alexander Litvinenko died in 2006, the trial was also closed and all materials that intelligence services presented to the prosecution were not accessible even to the lawyers who wanted to read them.

Speaking about “highly likely,” we spent a lot of time discussing the INF today. Our colleagues say that it is important to operate based on the facts. We’ve been suggesting that the Americans do exactly this for many years now. For a while, they’ve been simply accusing us of violating the Treaty, without even explaining what the violation was about and what missile was in question. We had to pry out the name of the missile and immediately said that we have it, it was tested and asked them what was wrong with that missile. We were told that we tested it for a greater distance than allowed by the INF Treaty. We asked them to be a little more specific. For several years they did not give us any information and only in the autumn of 2018 they gave us two dates when, according to their assessments, the tests that violated the Treaty took place. We told them that the tests were held, indeed, told them the range (it was permitted under the INF), and asked for more specific evidence. If they are convinced that the range had been broken, they probably can show us some satellite imagery or something else. None of this has ever been provided to us.

We are in favour of full transparency in how Russia and the United States comply with the INF Treaty. This is what we wanted to talk about in Geneva on January 15. We were fairly rudely turned down and were given an ultimatum that only they themselves can decide on the fate of the Treaty, since all that is needed is simply to destroy all these missiles, their launchers and all associated equipment and ensure regular (once every three months) visits by US inspectors, so that they would tour the site and check on things that are of interest to them. It is clear that this was originally designed in order to simply create a pretext for their withdrawal from the Treaty. It’s no secret that when, back in October, President Trump announced that the US was leaving the INF Treaty, our American colleagues – during official contacts on various issues of disarmament and arms control – said that this decision was final and irrevocable. Declarations that the United States will withdraw from the INF Treaty are not “an invitation to dialogue.” This is a quote. So, see for yourself what motives the US was led by and what it really wanted.

As regards Syria, developments not only in the north, but in other parts of the country, including the terrorist attack in Manbij, dictate the need for a more active engagement of those who want to help eradicate the terrorist threat, and of course, the Syrian authorities themselves.

The United States and Turkey have long been discussing joint patrolling of the territories traditionally not inhabited by the Kurds to prevent them from being settled by Kurds. Turkey, as you know, was very worried that the security of its borders might be at risk.  So today there are signs of positive trends in the region, partly because the Syrian army has moved up there with the support of the Russian military police. There are signs of certain agreements between the US and Turkey. Next week we will be discussing these buffer zones in detail with our Turkish colleagues. However, we are concerned that in Idlib, contrary to agreements on the creation of the demilitarized zone there, Jabhat al-Nusra, having changed its colours to Hayat Tahrir al Sham, is holding sway and is violating the DMZ’s regime. The terrorists are already occupying 70 percent of that zone. From there they try to shell Syrian army positions, communities and even threaten our Khmeimim air base. This is an urgent problem because it is not possible to allow this last major hotbed of terrorist activity on Syrian territory.

The Americans have announced that they are withdrawing from Syria. But you know how they make these announcements: first the deadline is two months from now, then six months, and then until a final victory, even though victory already seems to have been announced. So it remains to be seen what it will really come to. We have no doubt that the only reliable way of preventing a resurgence of terrorism in Syria is to put these territories under the control of the Syrian government and the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic.

The same holds for the south of Syria, the al-Tanf area, where the Americans have unilaterally and illegally created an area with a radius of 55 km around the al-Rukban refugee camp, which is in an appalling condition. It is impossible to deliver humanitarian relief there because bandits have the run of this enclave. They simply take the humanitarian aid and say they will distribute it themselves. Nobody knows how they distribute it. One convoy got through with the support of the Syrian government. We are again being urged to make up a second convoy together with Damascus. But there can be no agreement until guarantees are offered that these humanitarian goods will reach those for whom they are intended, the refugees. In any case, the Americans are bringing supplies to their military in the enclave where criminals are hiding via Iraq and probably via Jordan. So a delivery route exists; let’s use it for the refugees and not just for American special forces officers.

We are interested in moving forward so that our common positions, as approved at the UN Security Council, on the need to preserve and ensure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic are implemented on the ground, in all the areas I mentioned and on the country’s territory as a whole.

Question (translated from German): The INF Treaty will probably become history soon. To what extent does Russia plan to build up its armaments in order to respond to US plans to build up its armaments? Or has this already begun?

Sergey Lavrov: In my opening remarks, I also expressed concern about the future of the agreements in the sphere of arms control and disarmament, which for decades have been the basis for maintaining global strategic stability. The Americans are now taking another unilateral step as they are about to destroy the INF Treaty following the ABM Treaty.

Let me remind you of what I said when answering the previous question: during the official talks last October, they told us that President Trump’s announcement that the United States would leave the INF Treaty is final and irrevocable and should not be construed as an invitation for dialogue. We have always strived to maintain this treaty. Through all the years that the Americans put forward abstract claims against us, we have been proposing a dialogue with them. January 15 in Geneva was the only time such a meeting effectively took place. I have already explained how the US representatives behaved there.

We realise that Europe is concerned, too. Two years from now, the START Treaty will expire. The NPT Review Conference will be held next year, which provides fertile ground for major growing dissatisfaction with the inability of the West, first of all, to accomplish what was already agreed upon in the 1990s, namely, to begin talks on creating an area free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Now, along with the Arab countries, first and foremost Egypt, we are trying to remedy the situation and prevent the failure of such talks to be used again by those who want to destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

There are lots of questions. Today, we talked about the fact that we support the position of Germany, which says that it is necessary to collectively think about how to further ensure at least some standards of behaviour in the sphere of nuclear weapons in the first place and strategic stability in general. We are ready to take up this work.

As for our practical activities after the eventual “demise” of the INF Treaty, Vladimir Putin, commenting on the situation with these missiles, said when accusing Russia of violating the treaty, they are not taking into account Russia’s stocks of sea-based and air-launched missiles which are not banned under the INF.

We didn’t have them at the time the treaty was signed, but now we have created medium- and short-range air- and sea-based missiles, which are absolutely legal. We do not need to secretly create any land-based missiles. This would be irrational.

We are ready for a dialogue on concrete issues. If this document falls apart, our practical actions will depend on the other countries already possessing such weapons and the United States, which has already begun, in fact, to work on creating medium- and short-range missiles.

 

 

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