Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following a meeting with Foreign Minister of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Yekaterinburg, August 15, 2016

 15 August 201614:31

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following a meeting with Foreign Minister of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Yekaterinburg, August 15, 2016


Ladies and gentlemen,

We have just completed our joint programme in Yekaterinburg with the Foreign Minister of Germany and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

We discussed primarily international issues, giving special attention to the developments in Ukraine. It has to be said that these developments are a matter of grave concern. We discussed objectives aimed at promoting the settlement of this crisis by synchronising initiatives to implement the Minsk agreements in order to ensure regional security and advance the political process and reforms.

We have also looked at the prospects and possibilities for reviving dialogue in the Normandy format, which, as you know, could not have been unaffected by the recent incursion into Crimea of Ukrainian commandos, which cost the lives of Russian servicemen.

We discussed ways to end provocations in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine and facilitate a settlement by enhancing security and strengthening the OSCE mission’s monitoring of the safety zone and locations where heavy weapons are stored, as well as promote direct dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk in keeping with the Package of Measures as approved in Minsk in February 2015.

The second item that was high on our agenda was Syria. We still believe that we should prevent international terrorist groups from gaining the upper hand there and create conditions for genuine negotiations between all sides in Syria and under UN leadership, as required by the UN Security Council  resolution to this effect. Of course, all this requires strengthening the ceasefire regime. One of the most urgent goals is to resolve the humanitarian issues in many parts of Syria, including Aleppo.

We have informed our German friends of the steps Russia has been taking in its contacts with the US. As you know, Russia and the US are co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that also includes Germany. Russia strongly believes that one of the main objectives that has long been viewed as pressing, but has yet to be achieved, is separating moderate opposition forces from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter has recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which did nothing to change the nature of this group. We are also concerned about the fact that many moderate opposition activists are coordinating their actions with these terrorists with increased frequency.

As I already said, we discussed the situation in Aleppo. We hope that the joint efforts of Russia, the United States and other Western countries, other countries in the region and the UN will help us ease civilians’ plight and not allow the militants who are in control of part of the city and the region to dictate their terms.  

I would like to say that we appreciate the role of Germany’s OSCE chairmanship this year, including such aspects of it as the work of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. In general, we support the agenda put forward by Germany during its OSCE chairmanship as part of preparations for the next Foreign Ministers Council meeting that will take place in Germany in December this year. 

We brought up a number of issues which are on our bilateral agenda. We discussed the development of our relations in this, speaking honestly, complicated period in political, cultural, humanitarian, historical and memorial areas. It is important because we, our German colleagues and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pay great attention to resolving issues, particularly humanitarian ones, remaining from World War Two. We have a number of very useful joint projects, including the support of former concentration camp prisoners and work to find out what happened to [many] Russian and German prisoners of war and interned people. I would like to repeat that this is important for consolidating the public’s sentiments in both countries where, of course, people are in favour of historical reconciliation between our countries.   

We agreed to encourage contacts between the ministries and regions of the Russian Federation and the state of the Federal Republic of Germany. I believe that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s interest in the work in Russian regions should receive full support.    

Question: A week after the events in Crimea we still know very little about what happened except for the information from Russian intelligence, which is the only source. What information does the German Government have? What details can Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mention?

Sergey Lavrov: I understand everyone always wants to have more sources of information so as to compare the facts and make the picture more objective. I hope the German media are interested not only in Crimea but also other issues as regards Russia’s actions in different circumstances and its domestic situation. It is always good to have many sources of information.

Indeed, we are not concealing what we know. You said you don’t know anything except for what was provided by the Russian side. We presented the individuals who were detained, their testimonies, their depots in Crimea with arms, ammunition and other devices that are usually used by suicide bombers. All these facts were broadcast by our television, as I mentioned today to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. I am confident that German Ambassador to the Russian Federation Rüdiger von Fritsch-Seerhausen, who is present here, and his staff monitor these materials and probably consider them in their reports to the German Foreign Ministry.

Naturally, we cannot show everything but we can supplement what you see on television – irrefutable evidence that this was an act of subversion that the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate has long planned to destabilise Russian Crimea. We are ready to present other facts in addition to those that were made public to our Western partners who are seriously interested in preventing such incidents in the future. It is necessary to exert pressure on Kiev to this end. Ukraine has its Supreme Commander-in-Chief, who is in charge of the Defence Ministry and all of its departments. This is just stating the obvious. 

We appreciate Germany’s interest – confirmed today by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – in preventing such incidents in the future. However, regardless of how our Western partners will work with their friends in Kiev, we are doing all we can on instructions from President Vladimir Putin to nip such incursions into our territory in the bud.

Question: How likely is it that Russia and Ukraine will sever diplomatic relations?

Sergey Lavrov: I don’t think this is a situation where anyone is interested in breaking off diplomatic relations. That would be an extreme measure. I think the main goal now is to avoid succumbing to emotions or taking extreme courses of action but to work for stabilisation in a restrained and consistent manner. As I said, we will and are already doing this in Crimea regardless of what conclusions our Western partners and colleagues in Kiev will draw from the events of ten days ago.

I am in favour of focusing efforts on returning to the sequencing and the substance of the Minsk agreements in all aspects of the situation – security and political settlement. I am referring to Eastern Ukraine rather than Crimea. Germany and Foreign Minister Steinmeier personally have done very much for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Last year’s summit of the Normandy Four in Paris produced the “Steinmeier formula”. The German Foreign Minister suggested finding generally acceptable ways of essentially granting special status to Donbass – a task set by the Minsk agreements. We enthusiastically supported this idea. Regrettably, now the implementation of this formula is being impeded by the authorities in Kiev that are again trying to revise the Minsk agreements.

I do not favour steps that will generate a lot of media attention but will hardly facilitate the implementation of the tasks that we all have agreed upon and that we all want to see translated into reality.

Question: Recently, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier suggested that an air corridor be established to provide aid to people in Aleppo, saying that it would be better to create a land corridor. But if it’s impossible to create a land corridor, is an air corridor a realistic alternative and will Russia support and take part in this project?

Sergey Lavrov:  Russia was the first country not just to come up with this initiative but to start dropping supplies from the air. The first to receive air drop relief was Deir ez-Zor, a city besieged by militants, where the humanitarian situation remains difficult. We continue air drops of humanitarian aid to the area. When we started doing this, we called on the UN to support us. Initially, the UN had serious doubts that this was possible. I’m very pleased that finally the UN agreed to use the same channels for delivering humanitarian aid to areas where the situation requires the immediate provision of this aid and allows the UN to deliver it. The important thing is how to air drop supplies in practice. Thanks to the configuration of fighting forces in Deir ez-Zor, [pilots] can drop humanitarian aid directly to those who it is intended for, that is, to civilians who need these supplies. The situation in Aleppo is changing all the time. We, at least, see great risks, as we fear that weather conditions, say the wind, and the constantly changing configuration on the ground will make it impossible to deliver humanitarian supplies to the people they are intended for and they will fall into the hands of terrorists, strengthening their position and allowing them to resist those who oppose them for a longer time. 

Today, we discussed the situation in Aleppo at length. We have a roughly similar understanding of the seriousness of the situation. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke about the corridors. As you know, jointly with Syrian government forces, we suggested creating six corridors – and we did create them and made an announcement to this effect – to allow civilians to leave the area if they want to. One corridor is open for militants ready to leave the area unharmed under the Syrian Government and Russia’s guarantee.

Regretfully, militants and terrorists’ leaders who “rule the roost” in the eastern part of Aleppo are preventing their fellow fighters and civilians from leaving the city. To intimidate people, they carry out public executions of those seeking to flee the area that is far from safe. Nonetheless, humanitarian supplies are delivered there by land with great difficulty. True, this is not sufficient. How realistic is dropping supplies from the air? I already said what we think about this. Our other partners may have a different opinion. Anyway, those who want to be engaged in this operation must coordinate their actions with the parties who are present in this area, first of all, with the Syrian Government. We’ll continue coordinating other efforts, along with work on the corridors – which, as I already said, are open – with our partners in the International Syria Support Group, primarily the United States as its co-chair. We’ll continue coordinating our actions with the UN.  

Allow me to remind you that the main problem is not that anyone does not want to help alleviate the humanitarian situation: rather, the main problem is – and this is of vital importance – to prevent the humanitarian channels from being used, while also addressing humanitarian issues, to send more militants to the area and replenish militants’ supplies of arms and ammunition under the cover of humanitarian aid.

On our initiative, the UN Security Council has approved Resolution 2165, which underscores the need to establish control over humanitarian supplies, in particular, over those that are delivered from Turkey by Castello Road, as it is known. The Turkish Government agreed that two checkpoints in Turkey where the UN will be monitoring the situation are indicated in the resolution. The UN monitoring mission is present at one of these checkpoints while the other checkpoint hasn’t opened yet. We brought up this issue when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on August 9 this year. We’ve reached an understanding with our Turkish colleagues that they will consider issues related to the implementation of this resolution, that is, establishing international control at two checkpoints. I believe that these issues can be resolved. Next, we’ll have to monitor the situation on Castello Road, establishing control over supplies going to Aleppo.

The main problem has been known since the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) started working and our US partners admitted this in public. US Secretary of State John Kerry said last January at the ISSG meeting that the US is committed to the idea of removing the moderate opposition that works with Washington and Europe from those territories that are occupied by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. This was in January and now we are in August. Nothing has been done and the so-called “moderate” opposition is uniting with al-Nusra to counter government troops. We adopted resolutions in the UN Security Council that proclaim a very simple thing: those who side with terrorists are terrorists. As for the constant complaints that these or other territories cannot be bombed because there are other groups there in addition to al-Nusra suggest a very simple conclusion – this is an attempt to take the heat off of terrorists.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier mentioned pauses that are now announced for three hours per day and that this is not enough. Of course, this is not enough but to prolong these pauses it is necessary to resolve the issues I told you about. In the past we made agreements with the Americans and announced ceasefires for 48 and 72 hours. This measure brought some minor relief to the humanitarian situation but its main result was an increase of terrorist ranks by 7,000 people, not to mention a huge flow of ammunition and arms. So, it is wrong to say “let’s forget about terrorism and let’s merely drop humanitarian aid regardless of who it reaches, even if it reaches terrorists, because the priority is not to create an extra problem for civilians.” This is a very important point, a key priority. No less important is preventing anyone from giving direct or indirect support to terrorists groups.

Question: The issue of closing the border with Syria was recently discussed with Turkey. To what extent is Turkey ready to take part in this?

Sergey Lavrov: I have just answered in detail a practically identical question on the already adopted resolution (2165) of the UN Security Council, which provides for international monitoring on two major checkpoints. Naturally, they are not the only points for crossing the Syrian-Turkish border but nonetheless they are the two checkpoints where the UN Security Council decided to place UN observers. One of these checkpoints is open and the other is still closed.

As I said, President of Russia Vladimir Putin spoke about this issue during the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to St Petersburg on August 9 and both sides agree that it is necessary to take additional measures for the full and efficient implementation of this resolution. This concerns the opening of the second checkpoint and the intensive nature of international monitoring at each of them. I think this would be really helpful. It is impossible to check 100 percent of cargoes but we are now considering with our colleagues from the UN, US and Europe recommendations of experts on random checks that would provide maximum guarantees for adherence to the exclusively civilian nature of this route.
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