Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, February 9, 2017

Tuesday, 14 February 2017 09:38

Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil’s working visit to Russia
Sergey Lavrov to meet with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff of the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to attend a meeting of G20 foreign ministers
Sergey Lavrov to attend the Munich Security Conference
Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov’s consultations with Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Umit Yardim
The situation in Ukraine
The situation in Syria
Attack on ICRC employees in Afghanistan
The UN report on the situation in Afghanistan
The situation in Kosovo
Hacking allegations against Russia
Answers to media questions:
Russian-Azerbaijani relations
Sergey Lavrov’s possible meetings on the sideslines of the Munich Security Conference
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s possible visit to Russia
NATO activities in the Black Sea region
Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom
New Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Russia
Developments in Ukraine
Developments in Yemen
Elections in Donbass
The possibility of Russian-US cooperation on Afghanistan
Russian-US relations
Russian-Azerbaijani relations
Developments in Ukraine
Updates on the kidnapped Russian sailors
Russian-Japanese relations
The European Court of Human Rights
The planned meeting in Astana
Developments in Syria
The arrest of an illegal North Korean migrant in St Petersburg
Claims of Russia’s alleged hacking

Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil’s working visit to Russia

 

On February 13-14, Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil will make a working visit to Russia. It is the first visit by Mongolia’s foreign minister since the new government was formed in the country following parliamentary elections in June 2016.

The heads of the two countries’ foreign policy agencies are due to hold talks. The officials plan to discuss the status of Russian-Mongolian relations and prospects for their further development in the context of the implementation of the Mid-Term Programme for Developing Strategic Partnership between Russia and Mongolia that was signed during Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Ulaanbaatar in April 2016.

They also plan to discuss current regional and global issues, as well as the key aspects of Russian-Mongolian cooperation in major multilateral formats.

Sergey Lavrov to meet with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff of the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy

On February 15, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold his traditional meeting at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy with academy undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, timed to coincide with Diplomat’s Day (February 10) and Academy Day (February 14).

Mr Lavrov will deliver a lecture on current issues of international affairs and take questions from the audience.

The event is open to media.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to attend a meeting of G20 foreign ministers

On February 16-17, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to attend a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bonn.

The meeting will take place as part of events under Germany’s presidency at the forum in 2017, the key one being the G20 summit scheduled for July 7-8 in Hamburg.

The Bonn discussion is expected to focus on issues of peace and security, including conflict prevention, the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, cooperation with Africa and other topical issues on the international agenda.

Russia shares the view of these global issues as priorities, supports the need to develop coordinated approaches to addressing the most important issues and the root causes of ongoing crises, as well as to seeking lasting solutions to political and economic problems. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the G20 is the most important tool outside the UN for harmonising the positions of leading countries that has a special constructive potential.

Sergey Lavrov to attend the Munich Security Conference

On February 17-19, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will participate in the next, 53rd edition of the Munich Security Conference.

The event will feature a substantive exchange of views on a broad range of topical issues on the global and European agenda. The central themes will include the future of European security, countering international terrorism, the conflict in Ukraine, the situation in Syria and the migration crisis in Europe.

A number of bilateral meetings are planned on the sidelines of the forum. The schedule is being coordinated. Next week we will duly inform you about it as soon as it is coordinated with Sergey Lavrov’s partners and colleagues.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov’s consultations with Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Umit Yardim

On February 14, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov is due to hold consultations with Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Umit Yardim.

The officials will address a wide range of current issues in Russian-Turkish relations, including those related to the preparation of the next meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council, headed by the two countries’ presidents.

The situation in Ukraine

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov focused attention on the situation in Ukraine, prospects for the peaceful settlement of the crisis and the implementation of the Minsk agreements in an interview with the TASS news agency on February 7. As such, I would like to refer you to Mr Lavrov’s answers that are posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website.

The situation in Syria

The cessation of hostilities in Syria introduced on December 30, 2016 with the assistance of Russia and Turkey is holding in northern and southern Syria. The Joint Operations Group (JOG) mechanism is gaining effectiveness. The Russian and Turkish military use it on daily basis to monitor reports about truce violations. To that end, a meeting of the representatives of Russia, Turkey, Iran, Jordan and the UN took place in Astana on February 6. Almost all areas controlled by ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), to which the ceasefire does not apply, have been identified, which was one of the main outcomes of this meeting. The partners received two draft documents prepared by the Russian side and to be discussed during future JOG meetings, namely, the Protocol to the Agreement on the mechanism for designating violations of the cessation of hostilities announced in Syria on December 30, 2016 and the procedure for imposing sanctions on violators, as well as the Regulation on a Reconciled Area (village).

Preserving and strengthening the cessation of hostilities has allowed the Syrians to focus on fighting terrorists. According to the Defence Ministry, in Eastern Qalamoun, Syrian government forces in conjunction with the opposition forces managed to thwart an attack by ISIS.

In northern Aleppo, the Syria armed forces liberated 35 towns from ISIS as part of the offensive in the direction of the town of Al-Bab and established fire control of the road that was used for moving supplies to the terrorists.

In the eastern province of Homs, the Syrian army continues its offensive. With the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian military entrenched themselves within operational proximity to Palmyra and took the commanding heights in the surrounding areas.

In Deir ez-Zor, the government forces successfully repelled the onslaught of ISIS and began a counter offensive. The Russian Aerospace Forces provide active support to them.

Humanitarian aid is being provided to the affected population in Syria. The Russian Reconciliation Centre has conducted 699 humanitarian actions providing the Syrians with 1,250 tonnes of food, medicines and other essentials. Nine humanitarian corridors for moving people opened in the area of Eastern Ghouta on February 3. Over the past few days, Russian aircraft delivered over 80 tonnes of UN-supplied food, using parachute platforms, in the area of Deir ez-Zor. On February 3, a humanitarian convoy of 31 vehicles operated by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was sent to the town of Tell Bisa, Homs province, controlled by the militants.

The ceasefire in Syria has helped reinvigorate the political settlement process in that country. We support the proposal by Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura to resume intra-Syrian talks in Geneva under the auspices of the UN on February 20. We hope that Russia’s regional and international partners will do their best to help the Syrian sides to get ready for that meeting.

Attack on ICRC employees in Afghanistan

An armed attack on employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross took place in northern Afghanistan on February 8. They were carrying humanitarian aid to the areas affected by recent snowfalls. Reportedly, six ICRC employees were killed and two taken hostage. There were no Russian citizens among them.

Such actions should be unconditionally condemned. Whoever was behind this crime must be held accountable under the harshest standards. We urge the government of Afghanistan and all Afghans who respect human values to take urgent measures to capture the criminals and ensure the security of ICRC employees across the country.

We express our deep condolences to families and friends of the victims.

The UN report on the situation in Afghanistan

We took note of the recent report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) that provides civilian casualty figures in that country in 2016. We note with deep regret that the number of Afghan civilians killed or injured as a result of hostilities or terrorist attacks has reached a record level, exceeding the 2015 figure by 3 per cent.

In all, UNAMA recorded 11,418 civilian casualties last year (3,498 deaths and 7,920 injured). The 24 per cent increase in child casualties is especially disturbing.

A new, unfortunately tragic illustration of the UNAMA report came in the form of the bombing outside the Afghan Supreme Court building in Kabul on February 7 that killed 21 and injured 40, most of them civilians, including women and children.

We are convinced that the only way out of this situation is the immediate cessation of the fratricidal war. We urge the warring sides in Afghanistan to take all necessary measures to launch a national reconciliation process as soon as possible.

The situation in Kosovo

The situation in the north of Serbia’s autonomous province of Kosovo, where on January 14, armed groups of Kosovo Albanian police, under a contrived pretext, moved into Serb-populated areas, remains tense. We note that the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, brokered by the European Union in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 64/298, is making very slow progress. There is a serious lack of trust both between the parties involved and in relation to the EU. Unfortunately, mistrust of Brussels is due to its passivity.

The rounds of dialogue that were held on January 24 and February 1 in Brussels in the presence of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini with the participation of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, as well as their Pristina interlocutors Hashim Thaçi and Isa Mustafa, ended with practically no results. They only helped ease the level of tension somewhat.

We would like to emphasise the constructive line taken by Belgrade, which showed restraint, did not give in to provocateurs and took important steps to eliminate existing disagreements.

We see the root cause of problems in the fact that the creation of the Community of Serb Municipalities of Kosovo has for four years now been subverted by Kosovars with the connivance of the EU. We urge the EU to redouble its efforts to get Pristina to honour its obligations, above all those related to the formation of the Community of Serb Municipalities, designed to ensure the collective efforts and interests of Kosovo Serbs and provide normal living conditions for them in the province.

Hacking allegations against Russia

The trend of accusing Russia of hacking attacks, which was set by Washington and former President Obama’s team, has been picked up all over the world. It is very much alive and growing. Unfortunately, it has to be said that the information campaign directed against Russia continues to be fuelled in the Western media, with flash mobs and an increasing number of participants.

New blips on the radar screen include Norway, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Estonia. We don’t have that many hackers! I’d like to start with Norway. The country’s police security service, apparently succumbing to the influence of neighbouring Sweden, stated that Norwegian government agencies, including the Foreign Ministry, the Armed Forces, nuclear and radiation safety administrations, the Labour Party, a university and the police service itself came under cyberattack from so-called Kremlin hackers. And although it is noted that the investigation is ongoing, all prizes have already been awarded and guilt has been assigned without any evidence, without any facts. Everything is groundless and unverifiable, and therefore nothing has been officially recorded anywhere.

A similar situation has evolved in the Netherlands. Local experts say that this time Russian hackers targeted a building in the Binnenhof, a complex of governmental and parliamentary buildings, where the prime minister’s office is located (that’s how far they have reached). The Dutch public also continues to be agitated by former foreign minister and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who believes his country is “attractive to Russian hackers” on the assumption that parliamentary elections are due to take place there in March. You see, things have really coalesced: “Russian hackers” are a phenomenon that feeds on parliamentary and presidential elections and targets regions and countries where these elections are due to take place. According to Mr Scheffer’s logic, the involvement of “Russian hackers” in this process can be assessed based on the outcome of past elections. The hysteria that is fanned in the media is being actively joined by members of the country’s government who do not mince their words. Even though they have no proof, they publicly call Russia the “main source of cyber threats.”

This story has also made it to Canada. Considering that Russia, through its hackers, has allegedly interfered in the US presidential election, the Canadian leadership announced as a matter of urgency that it has developed special tactics to protect its electoral process against possible cyberattacks. US “retirees” are fuelling the flames. They are actively traveling to the country to prevent emergency situations allegedly threatening Canada, caused, among other things, by “Kremlin hackers.” Speaking in Canada, former US CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden declared “Russian hackers” to be the main threat to Canada. See how big this is? Asked how the source of a cyber threat could be identified in the 21st century, he said that the more totalitarian a country is, the more likely it is involved in state-sponsored hacking attacks. In that case Niccolò Machiavelli could be of use here. I believe we will find a couple of relevant passages there.

The latest variation on the mythical subject of Russian cyber threats came from British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon. Speaking at a Scottish university on the issue of Russian-UK relations, instead of giving serious consideration to ways of improving cooperation between our countries in countering real security threats, he chose to devote a substantial part of his speech to “Russian hackers,” groundlessly holding Russia responsible for cyberattacks carried out against government agencies in Bulgaria, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Montenegro. According to Mr Fallon, “Russia is clearly testing the West. It is undermining national security for many allies.” And this is from the defence minister of one of the world’s leading countries! The impression is – and it is quite a strong impression – that the mythical Russian threat worries him much more than, say, international terrorism does. This is understandable. International terrorism actually exists and it is up to each state whether to fight it, but in any case, they will be called to account. As for Russian, Kremlin hackers, this is a brilliant story because nobody knows where they are, who they are or from where their attacks are carried out, but everybody knows how to fight them and how much money is required for that.

Speaking at a Scottish university Mr Fallon said that cyberattacks are carried out from Russian soil by Russians against government agencies, including in Germany. At the same time as he made his remarks, Süddeutsche Zeitung published an article saying that German special services had investigated for almost a year the disinformation campaign against the country’s government allegedly run by the Russian authorities. It cites government sources as saying that no conclusive evidence of Russian interference was found. How come? This is what we’ve been reading and hearing from officials, people who only recently represented their governments, their states. As for the Süddeutsche Zeitung story, I would like to point out that our German colleagues took a year (citing government sources) to understand that there was no media or cyber interference. A question arises: Why, all of a sudden, despite the hysteria in many countries, was this kind of article published, citing German official representatives? Could it be because Berlin has begun to understand that exploiting the subject of “Russian hackers,” Russian media influence could simply undermine the legitimacy of their election results?

Paradoxically, there is conclusive evidence as to who in fact engages in hacking attacks and wire tapping. Regarding Germany, it is clear who monitored who. There is a desire to attribute everything to a state that is not involved in it in any way. The information campaign is plain to see.

Answers to media questions:

Question: Russian-Azerbaijani relations have been recently developing very actively. Overall, they can be described as positive. Can Alexander Lapshin’s extradition have a negative impact on them?

Maria Zakharova: We have said everything we can on this score. A comment on the ruling to extradite Alexander Lapshin was published on the ministry’s website yesterday. I believe that this and any other issue in bilateral relations between any countries should be addressed as part of our routine work. Some issues are more complicated than others. Of course, issues that concern Russian citizens are a priority for us. But, as I have said, we believe that these issues should be addressed in the regular course of work. As we said in the press release, we will continue taking all measures to defend the rights and legal interests of the Russian citizen.

Question: In January, Sergey Lavrov proposed at a meeting with Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Elmar Mammadyarov and Foreign Minister of Armenia Edward Nalbandian that a new round of bilateral talks and multilateral meetings with co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh be held on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The parties concerned have expressed readiness to hold such a meeting. In the meantime, tensions have grown in Nagorno-Karabakh in the past three days. Will Russia insist on holding this meeting? What can be discussed at it in this situation?

Maria Zakharova: We do not insist on any meetings or consultations. We propose holding them and coordinate it with the parties concerned. As I said at the beginning of the briefing, we are working on the schedule of Sergey Lavrov’s meetings in Bonn and Munich. Therefore, I will be able to inform you about it later, at the next briefing at the latest.

Today I can only tell you that we maintain contacts with the parties concerned. I will tell you where these meetings will be held later, as soon as we finally coordinate the issue.

I would like to address our foreign colleagues who have given the information to the media that these meetings will be held before we coordinated the issue with our partners. In accordance with diplomatic ethics and standards and common courtesy, the parties concerned coordinate the issue with each other before informing the media. In this particular case, our colleagues informed the media first, and then decided to talk to each other to arrange the meeting. I believe all of us would do well to let the sides agree to hold a meeting – any meeting – before announcing it as a decided matter. Once again, we will let you know about this next week, after the schedule of Sergey Lavrov’s meetings is approved.

Question: Do you expect Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to come to Moscow?

NATO has again become more active in the Black Sea region. Can you comment on this?

Maria Zakharova: I have no information about a visit by the Turkish Foreign Minister to Moscow. As far as I know, it is not on Sergey Lavrov’s schedule. We will tell you if and when we have any information about this. I have told you about the contacts we plan to have with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, including at the level of deputy foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey.

As for NATO activities, unfortunately, our colleagues prefer to deal with virtual and non-existent threats. When I said virtual, I was not referring to threats in the virtual space but threats that are disconnected from reality.

If our NATO colleagues believe that their main threat emanates from the Black Sea region, they are badly mistaken. Everyone knows where the most dramatic events are taking place, including in terms of the fight against terrorism, and there is no use inventing any non-existent threats. However, there is an explanation for the bloc’s activities: fighting a non-existent threat and reporting about this fight to the public and demanding more money for it is easier. It is another matter that when you – I mean our Western colleagues – do not fight the real threat, the results of your tilting at windmills are also virtual. You can see this on the example of the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. The Obama team has made numerous statements on fighting international terrorism, and then they abandoned this fight. They broke off abruptly, leaving behind them uncertainty and damaging the political process and the situation on the ground. This is what I wanted to say about the real threats and the fight against them.

Question: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom is coming up in Moscow. Which issues that have importance for Russia will be discussed at the meeting?

Maria Zakharova: I can confirm that the meeting has been scheduled, not for next week but shortly. The talks will be held in Moscow. We will officially inform you about the date a little later, and will publish all the materials related to the bilateral relations. I can confirm that preparations for the meeting are underway, but we will tell you about the issues to be discussed later, when, in accordance with diplomatic practice, we have agreed the agenda with our Swedish colleagues.

Question: Imangali Tasmagambetov has recently been appointed Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Russia. What are your expectations for him? What could you tell us about him? Are there any joint events in the works?

Maria Zakharova: I think it is Kazakhstan that should have expectations related to the new ambassador. We accept the ambassador sent to us by a friendly nation, welcome him and, of course, we will continue working with him on the basis laid down in the bilateral relations by our countries’ leaders.

Regarding specific scheduled events, we have joint events with Kazakhstan in political, humanitarian and economic areas. If the new ambassador wishes, we are always open and ready to hold joint events. You had better address the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Moscow with regard to concrete items on the schedule.

Question: What is Russia’s stance on the five-point plan proposed by the Donetsk People’s Republic to settle the situation in Donbass?

Maria Zakharova: I don’t have a comment on it at the moment. I will try to get an update. Let me reiterate that Mr Lavrov has shared with journalists our assessment of the situation in Donbass and our vision of how the process will unfold.

Question: The UN has urged to help 12 million starving Yemenis and to send $2 billion in aid. How would you assess the Islamic military coalition’s operation in the region? Which other steps taken by the international community could help amid this humanitarian disaster? In a recent interview, German Ambassador to Ukraine Ernst Reichel claimed elections in Donbass could take place regardless of Russia’s failure to comply with its obligations. How would you comment on that?

Maria Zakharova: As to Yemen, if I am not mistaken, I gave a detailed analysis regarding the humanitarian situation in that country at the briefing before two weeks ago. We call for and use all possible political tools at our disposal to prevent the situation from sliding into the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen or its further deterioration. You can refer to that comment, which was a very detailed one.

As to the UN institutions and mechanisms which are working in this direction, we do cooperate with them and render respective help through the UN. We certainly give a regular assessment of the actions of the respective forces engaged in combat activities in the territory. We say that the stated aims should be appropriate to the realities of the humanitarian disaster, since the number of the people affected is unprecedented. The humanitarian crisis which affects the civilians is indeed disastrous. We published specific numbers and facts a couple of weeks ago, and I ask you to look at them.

As for your second question on Donbass regarding the German Ambassador’s statement, we respect the opinion of our Normandy format colleagues but we have a clear understanding that the election processes in Ukraine, in Donbass, should proceed not in accordance with a wish of some co-sponsors and participants of the Normandy format. The process should be related to the Minsk Agreements and should be agreed upon within the Contact Group. This issue should be resolved by Donbass representatives with Kiev officials. And there are respective mechanisms for that.

Handing out advice should not be a substitute for the existing institutions and mechanisms for solving the issues, in particular the issues related to the elections. Nor should they in any way turn into some sort of commands, marching orders or instructions for the parties to follow. If there is an opportunity to have a positive impact on the position of a party that would lead to the effective fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements, to the end of bloodshed, this can only be welcomed. But this kind of a remote mentor-style involvement in the processes unfolding in Ukraine, to be honest, cannot be useful. There is a package of Minsk Agreements, and there are relevant institutions and formats to assist in its implementation. Instead of advice to Donbass on how it should or should not hold election, we would like to hear advice to Kiev on how it should restore relations with the people that Kiev views as their people, in the political, humanitarian, economic and other dimensions.

Such advice, in my view, would be truly effective, because, as you see, so far everything Kiev has been doing at the official, political and other levels, unfortunately, does not reunite the population and peoples but rather further separates them. The situation with coal (you may be aware of what is going on there) highlights it even more. For that reason, let me repeat, while I respect our colleagues’ opinion, since you have asked to give an assessment of that statement, I would say that advice should be constructive and non-contradictory to the agreements and mechanisms aimed at the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, and should urge, primarily Kiev, to interact with Donbass representatives rather than to refuse to communicate with representatives of those regions.

Question: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia was likely to cooperate with the new US administration on Afghanistan. Consultations on Afghanistan are scheduled for February in Moscow. Will the United States and the Western coalition take part in this?

Maria Zakharova: I would like to reiterate that the situation remains unchanged since my last briefing where similar questions were asked. To understand how to cooperate with our US colleagues, we have to wait for full diplomatic contact with them to come under way. To date, the Secretary of State has been appointed. The problem is that the “top managers” or the CEO’s, if we can use this term, to the Department of State, are still missing. They have yet to be appointed. Those who have, as I understand it, are just taking over.

The sticking point is that the new administration has not published its foreign policy concept. I do not know whether it has been formulated or not. There is nothing in the public space, nor have we received any details via diplomatic channels. I think this is what is holding back any developments. The new administration should begin by developing a global or, conversely, a regional doctrine, a foreign policy concept, a vision of its foreign policy – either regional or general – and then the first diplomatic contacts can begin and take place. Then we can start cooperating as is usual diplomatic practice. Thus far, no contacts of this kind have occurred.

The Russian Embassy in Washington is functioning, but it faces the same kind of problems, because the State Department team has not been completed. We are waiting for our US colleagues and will work with them.

As far as the attendance of US representatives is concerned, regardless of whether there is a State Department team or not, this question should be referred to the US, not us. Insofar as the event is sponsored by Russia, we will certainly inform you about it. I have mentioned the issues that are influencing bilateral dialogue.

Question: The new US administration is sending some extremely diverse signals. Are there any specific steps that you expect from them? Are there any points that will prompt you, as you watch the administration’s moves, that they are really in mood for a constructive cooperation with Russia?

Maria Zakharova: To have cooperation, you need someone to promote it “from the other end.” Let me reiterate that we are expecting a State Department team to be formed. The administration of the US President needs to formulate its approaches to the main issues in international relations. That done, diplomatic contacts should be held, after which we will be ready for full cooperation with our US colleagues on issues of mutual interest.

Question: Yesterday, Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia Polad Bulbuloglu underlined that relations between the two countries had reached the peak of development. The two countries are united by goodwill, and Azerbaijan values its relations with Russia. How does Russia see its current relations with Azerbaijan?

Maria Zakharova: Regarding the Azerbaijani Ambassador’s statement – and in my view, Polad Bulbuloglu is not only the Ambassador but a man we all love, as we have always thought and still think of him as a national music star – it is difficult for me to say whether this is the peak or we still have higher levels to reach.

I would agree with his positive assessment of the development of bilateral relations, but there is no limit to perfection.

Question: What do you think is the best gift for a diplomatic employee?

Maria Zakharova: If you fantasise about this, the best gift for Russian diplomats would be at least one day of peace in the whole world. That would be just a wonderful gift, because this is what we are all working for. If it was possible to make a wish, this is what I would have asked for; if I had the chance to make a wish for indefinite time, I would ask for peace forever.

In recent years, we have seen the international community almost on the verge of or slide into open military conflicts. We can see how easily they begin (today, wars start, aggression begins without even bothering to invent pretexts), and how many sacrifices, difficulties and obstacles we all have to go through to at least return to the starting point, let alone to achieve something better than that. Therefore, we need peace, the longer, the better. We are all accustomed to taking the state of peace for granted, as a reality that simply has to be because someone owes it to us. In fact, we all need to understand that peace should be protected. Efforts should be directed at maintaining peace. It is important to realise that no one gives us anything without a reason. We have to take care of it and do everything we can to save peace, not assume it is a natural state of affairs. Peace is a man-made state, something that depends on politicians, heads of states, the people themselves, and the media.

Gaining an awareness that peace is man-made is a very important process. So, if anything, I would like to wish all diplomatic employees peace.

Question: According to some media reports, Kiev is deploying more weapons in southeastern Ukraine. How will this affect the upcoming multilateral talks?

Maria Zakharova: Regarding the situation in southern Ukraine, you pointed to the deployment of weapons by Kiev. The issue concerns not only the Ukrainian Armed Forces but also the so-called volunteer battalions and other units. This will affect not so much international talks as relations between Donbass and Kiev. International efforts are focused above all on attaining the main goal, which is dialogue between Donbass and Kiev. The international community can do much and take various measures. But the point at issue is to convince Kiev and Donbass to start talking with each other, to act jointly in order to launch a peaceful political process. Therefore, such actions by the Kiev-controlled forces will prevent the achievement of the above goal.

Unfortunately, the media, political analysts, journalists and officials, both in Russia and other countries, are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the current provocation was staged by Kiev for a number of reasons. This is an opportunity to make a statement for the new US administration and to attract European attention so the issue of Ukraine does not leave the front pages. This is an unhealthy tactic if this is really Kiev’s goal. Enough time has passed to see that this is a dead-end tactic. New approaches should be found, and they can be based on the Minsk Agreements. Now they [Kiev] need new reasons for not implementing these agreements.

Our Ukrainian partners have given many reasons, at the Normandy format foreign ministers’ meetings, for not implementing the Minsk Agreements. They have worked very hard to provide various explanations and reasons, even if they are completely unrealistic, for their lack of action. Kiev representatives also like to provide their own interpretations of the Minsk Agreements, claiming that the real meaning is different from what was put on paper in Minsk. They like to say that they had to sign the Minsk Agreements because there was no other solution at the time, and that they are not responsible for implementing the agreements, because the international community forced the Ukrainian president to sign them by putting Kiev in a difficult position. This is more than just a poor explanation. It is completely evil to take such actions in order to attract attention and justify inaction. We have always said that if Kiev views the residents of Donbass as Ukrainian citizens they should treat them as such. Trying to find justification for the failure or unwillingness to implement the Minsk Agreements and apply Ukrainian laws to Donbass residents will only further aggravate the conflict.

Question: What is happening with our compatriots who have been kidnapped by Somali pirates? Do you know anything about their situation?

Maria Zakharova: Regarding our sailors, we published a press release about their capture on the ministry’s website yesterday. I can tell you that our diplomats are maintaining contacts with Nigerian officials. I have no other information at this time, but we will update you as soon as we have additional information. You know that issues that concern Russian nationals are a priority for us.

Question: The Russian ambassador to Japan said today that Russian-Japanese consultations on joint economic activities in the disputed territories were scheduled for March. Can you tell us more about these consultations? What do you expect to achieve?

Maria Zakharova: I need to inquire about this before updating you on this issue.

Question: The Japanese media are discussing the possibility that Russia could turn over the disputed territories, including the South Kuril Islands, to Japan on a temporary basis. Can you comment on this?

Maria Zakharova: I would like to say that experts in our countries are working on the peace treaty and all other related issues. I do not believe that this issue, considering its sensitive nature, in particular for Japan, should be discussed in the media even hypothetically. There are experts in both countries who are working on this issue on instructions from our countries’ leaders. We have a highly positive view on this work. We believe it is very good and timely that it has resumed. There was a long pause through no fault of ours. We view the resumption of this work as a constructive achievement and hope that it will bring good results. I will update you on these consultations after I make the necessary inquiries.

Question: The European Court of Human Rights has been recently dishing out rulings against official Russian organisations and agencies. Can you comment on this?

Maria Zakharova: We are sorry to see political bias in the work of this agency. This politicised approach is highly regrettable.

Question: When will the Astana meeting on Syria begin, at what level, and what do you expect it to achieve ahead of the Geneva talks?

Maria Zakharova: Our plans are based on the assumption – there are grounds to think so – that the ongoing preparations will result in a meeting in Astana on February 15-16. This is all I can tell you now.

We do not regard the Astana process outside the context of the political settlement process in Syria. It is part of the common efforts towards settling crises by political methods. Of course, the connection between the Astana and Geneva processes is very important.

Question: Amnesty International has reported that thousands of people have been executed at a prison near Damascus. Will Russia try to influence the Syrian authorities to investigate these cases of extrajudicial torture and execution?

Maria Zakharova: We have seen this report and related material. It is regrettable that Amnesty International has chosen this sensitive period in the settlement process in Syria to publish a report on the alleged mass executions of Bashar al-Assad’s opponents at Saydnaya Military Prison. In fact, this is yet another deliberate provocation aimed at adding fuel into the waning intra-Syrian conflict and rekindling passions and hatred in Syria. Those who planted this information, this fake that is absolutely untrue and cannot be even described as a document, say openly that their estimates about the astronomical number of victims were based on calculations derived from the testimony of unidentified individuals. We believe that the leadership of this respected human rights organisation can and should take a more demanding and responsible attitude to these dangerous fantasies of its Lebanese branch.

Question: An illegal immigrant from North Korea was arrested in St Petersburg in January. A Russian court has approved a deportation request for this individual. Human rights advocates have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights because this man faces execution in his home country. The court has ruled that the man may not be deported until further review. Will Russia comply with the court’s decision, or will this man be deported?

Maria Zakharova: I will be able to update you after I receive additional information on this.

Question: Hackers and cyberattacks were one of the most impressive themes that you covered in your extensive briefing. The whole thing is taking on really large proportions. Despite the fact that the US presidential campaign is over, and things are supposed to slow down, we are seeing the opposite. If you look at Canada, Norway or other countries, you get the impression that the problem is taking on the dimension of an epidemic. In this regard, I wonder if Moscow can come up with a proposal for our foreign partners to discuss this subject, laying their cards on the table? Why not have a conference or a meeting on some level to discuss the issue? After all, they are the ones who created it.

Maria Zakharova: I can tell, you are a rare guest here. I've been saying this all year now, how we ask the diplomatic and special services to provide us with information. We propose discussing this issue at an international forum if, for some reason, they are reluctant to talk to us one on one. Do you think anybody provided us with anything?

Are you aware of the number of times Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked his colleague, US Secretary of State John Kerry, to clarify what exactly they mean when they talk about Russian hackers? It defies imagination. However, crunching the numbers is a cinch.

We asked our US colleagues what they mean when they say this every time they met in person and had talks. After all, the issue is not only about leaks to the media. There were official statements by the US administration as well. In addition, we asked them to provide us with data from any source. We also suggested that the United States and Russia begin to cooperate in any format. Their answer invariably was that they are unaware of it, will find out more about the subject, and return to the issue later. That’s all there is to it. That is why we say that the issue is not about the specifics, not about the willingness to ensure their cyber security or to protect themselves from potential threats. All of that is irrelevant. In fact, they are not interested in facts, data or numbers. They are interested in one thing only, which is to have a news opportunity to clarify each time what is going on in their country.

Unfortunately, a number of countries in northern Europe have for many decades been using the excuse that Russian submarines are allegedly surfacing in the middle of their respective capitals on an almost monthly basis. I cited this example even during the briefings. Going through the briefing archives of 20 to 30 years ago, we found that the topic of Russian submarines surfacing all but in the bathrooms in some northern European capitals has been used for a long time. This is a fairly simple trick. It goes like this: a source in a particular department (usually related to national security) tells a particular newspaper that, once again, a Russian submarine surfaced someplace in their country. You can imagine this news item tearing apart the information space like a torpedo, like a Loch Ness monster story. They use photos, pictures or cartoons – anything goes as long as it whips up the theme. A couple of months later, the newspaper that published the information first, will publish, somewhere in the back of the last page, literally one line saying that the investigators found that it was not a Soviet/Russian submarine, but the remains of an old ship or some other wreckage. But no one is interested in it anymore, and the story stops right there. This takes place two, three, four or five times a year.

Hackers are part of the same strategy. This narrative is even more convenient, because you don’t even have to show pictures, whereas in the case of the submarines you need to come up with at least something. With the hackers, you can get away with not presenting any proof. All you need to do is take a picture of a computer, take a screenshot from The Matrix, throw in a computer mouse to spruce things up and use this “evidence” to propagate just about anything. Importantly, there will be a picture of the Kremlin in the background. The story is now ready for publishing. That’s all there is to it.

We return to these topics precisely because there’s no real story behind them. We could have made sense of their line of thinking, if, say, they took offence at us, “isolated” us and didn’t want to talk to us. If that was the case, if only for domestic consumption, they would publish data, do research, and come to some conclusion. Instead, every six to 12 months, we see these instances of stovepiping.

Recently, the German press wrote that an audit revealed that there were no attacks whatsoever, or, even if there were, they cannot be traced back to their point of origin, etc. Most importantly, whenever they need to stir up public opinion and redirect it in a particular direction, they resort to this absolutely far-fetched subject.

Russia and the United States formed a Bilateral Presidential Commission at one point, which operated through a variety of subgroups, whose experts engaged, among other things, in cybersecurity issues. We are willing to cooperate. Just the other day, a US State Department representative made waves when he said that they are willing to discuss cooperation and interaction in cybersecurity with Russia. This was taken as something out of the ordinary. We have experts and an ambassador-at-large, who is also a Special Presidential Representative for International Cooperation in Information Security. He clarifies Russia’s approaches, advances proposals at the relevant forums of international organisations and takes part in developing corresponding international instruments on international information security. Everyone knows him, he knows everyone. However, none of our Western colleagues seems to be interested in taking advantage of this opportunity.

The problem is not only that the information environment never ends to undermine the image of Russia and to portray it as an aggressive state, but there are other things as well. Indeed, there is a threat from an internet community that upholds, in particular, the interests of terrorist organisations. Everyone is aware of it. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and other organisations recruiting new supporters through the internet, conducting terrorist attacks, and motivating people to commit acts of terror is a universally recognised fact. This is a huge problem. In fact, no one is paying due attention to it. However, everyone tends to zero in on a story related to the Russian or the Kremlin hackers. The dangerous part is that they prefer to ignore the real threat in the cyber environment, although it is there and it is enormous. The subject of suicides promoted through social media is part of terrorist organisations’ activity designed to push individuals to commit suicides or acts of terror in the name of some lofty ideal. These trends are very dangerous. On top of everything else, the attractively wrapped ideas of terrorism are being propagated. Today’s evil (and international terrorism is evil) is very attractively wrapped. It goes almost hand in hand with the latest technology and online capabilities. A person does not realise that he or she has already grabbed the bait thrown to them by terrorist organisations. Only later it becomes clear that the websites that this person visited, the subscriptions that he or she used tend to form a corresponding ideology. We are aware of it and talk at length about the modern terrorist organisations being a world apart from what they used to be 20 to 30 years ago. The new terrorism has different dimensions. Some of them are wrapped in a really attractive package.

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