Briefing by Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department Artyom Kozhin, Moscow, July 20, 2017

Monday, 24 July 2017 11:24

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s working visit to the Republic of Indonesia
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s working visit to the Kingdom of Thailand
Developments in Syria
Political developments in Venezuela
Opening of the Kuchurgan Moldovan-Ukrainian checkpoint
Working group established by the Government of Belarus to regulate issues
with Russia of the mutual recognition of visas and others linked with the entry of foreign citizens
and stateless persons to the territory of the Union State established under the treaty of December 8, 1999
Arbitration ruling in the Arctic Sunrise lawsuit
Viktor Bout
Russian citizen Stanislav Lisov detained in Barcelona at the request of the United States
Russian citizens detained in Turkey
Attacks by Lithuanian internet users on the official accounts of the Russian Foreign Ministry
Answers to media questions:

Situation on the Korean Peninsula
Summit of Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents
Military exercises of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan and the United States in Tajikistan
Russian-US talks
More detailed visa forms for British citizens

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s working visit to the Republic of Indonesia

On August 8−9 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Jakarta for talks with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi. The officials will discuss a broad range of issues pertaining to the further development of bilateral political, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation, as well as international and regional matters.

The foreign ministers plan to sign a schedule for talks for 2017−2019 and Mr Lavrov is expected to attend the opening ceremony of the permanent mission of the Russian Federation at ASEAN and take part in a number of other events.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s working visit to the Kingdom of Thailand

On August 9−10 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will pay a working visit to Bangkok to conduct talks with his Thai counterpart Mr Don Pramudwinai and meet the kingdom’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. The officials will discuss in detail key issues of bilateral political, economic and humanitarian cooperation with emphasis on the implementation of the agreements reached in the past two years, and joint actions on international and regional matters.

Developments in Syria

We are following developments in Syria. Our experts, together with our partners, continue to coordinate issues related to bringing into operation the de-escalation zones in Syria. We assess the situation in these zones as stable. There have been isolated violations of the ceasefire regime. They are not systemic in nature and are on the decrease.

At the same time, however, military observers note growing tension between the terrorist groups Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the former Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham in the north of Idlib Province. On July 14, Jabhat al-Nusra accused Suquor al-Sham, which operates under the umbrella of Ahrar al-Sham, of the murder of two arms dealers close to Jabhat al-Nusra. In revenge, Ahrar al-Sham detained two Jabhat al-Nusra commanders. After this, the two groups, which had concluded a fragile truce, renewed fierce clashes. These terrorists accuse each other of deliberately provoking violence and preparing and carrying out combat operations against each other.

Meanwhile, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham reached an agreement with ISIS in Arsal, on Lebanese soil, to fight together against the Lebanese army and Hezbollah.

In the east of Homs Province, Syrian government forces fought back a large-scale counterattack launched by ISIS around the oil and gas fields of Kheyl and Arak, which were liberated last week. Simultaneously, government forces also advanced in the Syrian Desert region in the south of Raqqa Province and in the west of Deir ez-Zor Province.

At the same time, Jabhat al-Nusra attempted to break through government defences in the northwest of Aleppo. ISIS fighters attempted the same on the outskirts of ancient Palmyra. The government forces succeeded in stopping the jihadist advances.

Antiterrorist operations continue in the region around Damascus. Clashes are taking place around the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta and in the Damascus suburb of Jobar, from where terrorists have repeatedly shelled the Russian Embassy compound in Damascus.

The seventh round of intra-Syrian talks that took place on July 10-14 in Geneva under the aegis of the UN showed that there is real headway in the Syrian settlement process. During the talks between the Syrian parties, progress was made in two areas: discussing constitutional and legal issues, and consolidating opposition ranks. Some assessments suggest that the Riyadh, Cairo and Moscow groups of opposition have come substantially closer together in their positions and now hold a more realistic view of possible solutions to the Syrian crisis. We hope that the urgent need to normalise the situation and return peace to Syria will encourage the opposition forces to take a constructive and more responsible approach at the next round of talks with the Syrian government.

Political developments in Venezuela

The political face-off in Venezuela escalated after the opposition conducted a so-called national referendum on July 16 focusing on the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, the support by the armed forces of the decisions taken by the parliament, which is in the opposition to the government, and holding elections to the supreme bodies of power.

According to its organisers, about one-third of registered voters took part in the voting. Almost all of them supported the demands of the opposition. However, these data are largely unverifiable: the international community has to trust (or not) the word of the initiators of the process (which, of course, “coincided” with their pre-announced preferences). There are photos distributed in electronic media showing that the final protocols were simply burned before the final results were announced by the counting commission of the “referendum”. How are the confirmed cases of repeat voting by the same persons at different polling stations supposed to be handled? Or the absence of truly independent observers, except for a number of former presidents of Latin American countries who are known for their criticism of the Bolivarian government?

Clearly, the “referendum”, which was conducted outside the framework of current law and is therefore legally void, has split Venezuelan society even deeper. Even stranger are the statements made by the leaders and foreign ministries of a number of countries, including US President Donald Trump, who spoke of the vote as an expression of the will of the entire Venezuelan people, and urged the government, in the form of an ultimatum and threat of sanctions, to cancel the elections to the Constituent Assembly scheduled for July 30, which incidentally are conducted in accordance with the country's Constitution by duly authorised electoral bodies.

Without a doubt, there are many people in Venezuela who see the future of the country differently than the opposition. It is unacceptable to deny them the right to speak. As far as we understand, they are going to do so during the elections to the Constituent Assembly on July 30.

We maintain a dialogue with various political and public figures in and outside Venezuela, including about the causes of the current difficulties. The people of Venezuela want a better life for themselves, which they deserve. However, Venezuelan society is uncertain about how to achieve this. All constructive opinions must be heard.

However, this is impossible to do amid the clamour of street demonstrations, armed provocations and pogroms that cost lives. Wreaking havoc just to please radicals and extremists will take the country nowhere.

We believe that the steps taken by the opposition to force the creation of parallel authorities, in particular, introducing a procedure whereby the parliament will appoint new Supreme Court judges, are extremely dangerous.

It is impossible to reach accord when there is destructive outside interference, pressure, and threat of sanctions. Responsible members of the international community should help, rather than provoke, and unite rather than divide. We remain convinced that there can be no winner in a head-on clash between two major social groups. The entire country stands to lose in this scenario.

Venezuela and its politicians need the wisdom of statesmen and the ability to remain above personal ambitions. They cannot succumb to the desire to overthrow their opponents at any cost without thinking about tomorrow, as this will lead to the brutal self-destruction of the state.

So, we are in favour of resuming intra-Venezuelan dialogue, serious and responsible talks aimed at achieving a compromise, ensuring peace and calm in the country. We are also in favour of settling the internal conflict by political means, within the legal framework, and without outside interference.

Opening of the Kuchurgan Moldovan-Ukrainian checkpoint

The official opening of the Kuchurgan Moldovan-Ukrainian border and customs checkpoint, located in Ukraine, on July 17 evokes regret. It shows that by taking this step without consultations with Tiraspol, Chisinau and Kiev ignored Transnistria’s obvious concerns over it.

Transnistria justifiably notes that this action (13 such checkpoints are expected to be opened in the region) contradicts the agreements reached as part of the Trasnistrian settlement to the effect that all disputable issues should be settled exclusively at the negotiating table and actions of one side should not inflict damage on the interests of the other side. Tiraspol believes that creating a belt of joint Moldovan-Ukrainian checkpoints is aimed at total monitoring of exports and imports from the left bank of the Dniester and carries the potential to escalate into the resumption of full blockade of the region. In the estimate of the Transnistrian side, direct economic damage to the left bank of the Dniester may run into tens of millions of dollars a year.

The “added value” of the new checkpoint established on the funds of the EU (six million euros) is a source of major questions, considering the operation of the EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) for many years. And this is happening to the accompaniment of the EU’s statements to the effect that joining the Moldova-EU Association Agreement is the only option for Transnistria. Isn’t this an element of external pressure?

As a guarantor and mediator of the Transnistrian settlement, Russia is against the emergence of new irritants in relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol. We are convinced that open and involved discussion of the economic component of the Kuchurgan issue in the 5+2 format could reduce the urgency of the problem. We stand for convening an official meeting in this format as soon as possible.

Working group established by the Government of Belarus to regulate issues with Russia of the mutual recognition of visas and others linked with the entry of foreign citizens and stateless persons to the territory of the Union State established under the treaty of December 8, 1999

We have read information about the establishment by the Government of Belarus of a working group to regulate issues of the mutual recognition of visas and other issues linked with the entry of foreign citizens and stateless persons to the territory of the Union State established under the treaty of December 8, 1999.

Russia is also actively working in the interdepartmental format on the draft Russian-Belarusian intergovernmental agreement on the mutual recognition of visas and other issues linked with the entry of foreign citizens and stateless persons to the territory of Russia and Belarus. The elaboration of the draft agreement is part of the 2017-2020 action plan to form a common migration space on the territory of the Union State member-states, which was endorsed by the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State on June 16 of this year.

We reaffirm our readiness to continue constructive cooperation with Belarus on resolving the said issues.

Arbitration ruling in the Arctic Sunrise lawsuit

On July 18, the Permanent Court of Arbitration released its ruling on compensation to the plaintiff in the Arctic Sunrise lawsuit, which was brought by the Kingdom of the Netherlands against the Russian Federation in 2013.

The Russian Federation did not participate in the arbitration hearings as it continues to maintain that the arbitration court has no jurisdiction in this case.

The tribunal’s latest ruling imparts a financial dimension to an earlier decision, issued two years ago, on August 14, 2015, which says that by curbing Greenpeace actions with respect to the Prirazlomnaya oil rig, Russia violated its obligations under the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. The ruling ignores the fact that the actions by the Greenpeace activists posed a direct threat to the safety of the oil platform and its staff and were provocative, thereby forcing competent Russian bodies to take legal steps to curb that dangerous behaviour.

We pointed out that the aforementioned ruling is not comprehensive and ignores the widespread international practice of countering irresponsible actions at sea, including with regard to potentially dangerous and sophisticated technological facilities (this practice and Russia’s position are spelled out in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official statement released on August 5, 2015). It is hard to add anything to this assessment with respect to the latest ruling on damages.

Regrettably, by its rulings, the Court of Arbitration actually encourages purposeful illegal actions in exclusive economic areas of countries and on their continental shelf, justifying them as so-called “peaceful protest.”

Viktor Bout

We are verifying the news recently reported by the media that Russian citizen Viktor Bout convicted in the United States had his sentence extended by several weeks for violating prison rules. We have already filed a request with the US officials to provide clarifications.

We are closely following the fate of our compatriot given the gross arbitrariness which has characterised, from day one when he was secretly arrested in Bangkok in 2008, the actions of the US special services, and the investigative and judicial bodies against him. They handed down a tough and unfair sentence of 25 years in prison, turned down all the appeals, kept him in solitary confinement for many years, and used other cruelties with regard to Mr Bout in order to exert psychological pressure on him and to break his spirit. As we can see, such attempts continue unabated.

In our contacts with Washington, we repeatedly stressed that it is unacceptable to abduct Russian citizens in third countries, Viktor Bout being a case in point. However, the Americans still refuse to release our abducted fellow citizens, and turned this practice into another tool to exert pressure on Russia. Similarly, the US authorities are taking it out on Konstantin Yaroshenko for his refusal to falsely admit guilt.

Despite the biased attitude towards Russia, which has long been typical of many in the United States, and has now become a genuine Russophobic hysteria, we continue to seek the release of all our citizens convicted there on fabricated and politicised charges.

Russian citizen Stanislav Lisov detained in Barcelona at the request of the United States

Russian citizen Stanislav Lisov, detained in Barcelona on January 13 at the request of the United States in connection with the alleged use of malware to break into a US banking institution, remains in custody in a penitentiary institution in Spain. The Russian Embassy in Madrid is in contact with the detainee and his lawyer. Our diplomats are taking all necessary steps to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the Russian citizen. In particular, the necessary consular assistance is being provided.

The extradition hearing will take place on July 20.

The embassy employees are closely cooperating with the Spanish authorities.

Russian citizens detained in Turkey

Shortly after relatives contacted the Russian Embassy in Turkey on July 5, the embassy started working on resolving the situation surrounding Russian citizens Evgeny Kochaary and Svetlana Ukhanova, and their minor children Liza Ukhanova and Amina Kochaary, who were detained in Turkey and currently remain at the deportation centre in the province of Hatay.

We sent three letters to Turkish Foreign Ministry with a request to provide information and official papers regarding identification and detention of these individuals in Turkey, and, if the corresponding decision is made, to ensure their deportation to Russia.

The issue of deporting this family to Russia has been repeatedly discussed in the contacts between our diplomats and the competent Turkish authorities at various levels.

At the same time, the Russian Embassy is working on the option of having the Turkish authorities release minor Liza Ukhanova to her father Sergey Ukhanov, who is currently in Turkey. All the requisite documents have been presented by the embassy to the Turkish authorities.

We are in contact with the corresponding Russian organisations, as well as relatives of the detainees, including the sister of Evgeny Kochaary, who also plans to come to Turkey in order to take minor Amina Kochaary back to Russia.

The Foreign Ministry continues to monitor the situation.

Attacks by Lithuanian internet users on the official accounts of the Russian Foreign Ministry

Perhaps you noticed spam messages recently on the Foreign Ministry’s official Facebook account. In this regard, I would like to emphasise that, given the continuing activity of Lithuanian internet users, where they keep leaving the same negative comments on the official pages in the social media of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russian Embassy in Lithuania, and other Russian foreign-based institutions, we will continue to defend historical truth and objectively discuss our common history.

We consider the attempts to thwart our explanatory work in social media or to obstruct the ministry’s work through telephone harassment (on July 19, a number of Foreign Ministry units received phone calls from Lithuania asking the ministry to remove materials about the atrocities of the Forest Brothers in Soviet Lithuania) as a manifestation of a bruised national ego.

Answers to media questions:

Question: Could you please comment on the situation on the Korean Peninsula? Literally a couple of days ago, South Korea offered to hold military talks with North Korea and resume Red Cross dialogue. This is taking place against the backdrop of the UN Security Council hearings on additional sanctions, but South Korea is making a friendly gesture and offering to start the process of peaceful settlement. What is Russia’s attitude to this step?

Artyom Kozhin: We support any peace initiatives that are based on international law.

I’d like to recall some nuances of our position on this issue. We are closely following the developments on the Korean Peninsula and around it. We are opposed to Pyongyang’s nuclear-missile ambitions and consider absolutely unacceptable the threats of nuclear strikes on other countries, especially preventive ones. We are also opposed to the actions of other countries that are escalating the military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. We believe the settlement of its problems should be part of a general military-political détente in the region. Relying on the nuclear-missile “stick” as well as a bloc approach alone are increasingly driving the crisis situation into a deadlock.

Question: In connection with the recent serious aggravation of tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group (OSCE MG) announced their intention to organise a regular summit of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. The meetings of the ministers of the sides with the participation of the OSCE MG co-chairs and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are being held for this purpose. French Ambassador in Baku Aurelia Bouchez said the other day that if the presidents agree in principle to meet, Paris will be ready to organise their meeting and will work toward this. At the same time, quoting a diplomatic source, the newspaper Izvestia wrote that Moscow will organise their meeting. Could you explain if there is some disagreement between the mediators?

Artyom Kozhin: We have noted the July 17 Izvestia article under the title “Moscow to organize meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders” that is devoted to the settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh.

We would like to note some factual inaccuracies in this article. Quoting sources in the Russian Foreign Ministry, the article states that a proposal to organise the said meeting in Russia was made at Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, which supposedly took place on the sidelines of the informal OSCE foreign ministers’ meeting in Mauerbach, Austria. This is not true to facts, all the more so since not all of these ministers were in Austria at that time.

In reality, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Brussels on that day. The consultations were organised by the three co-chairs of the OSCE MG – Russia, France and the United States. The participants discussed issues related to promoting a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh and the mediation of the three co-chairs, including a proposal to hold a bilateral summit before the end of this year. The place of the meeting was not discussed in practical terms. The OSCE published the relevant information on its website on July 12.

Considering the sensitive character of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, we would expect the respected newspaper to publish verified information and cite official materials rather than an anonymous high-ranking Foreign Ministry source.

Question: The armed forces of four regional countries – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Pakistan – are taking part in US command-post manoeuvres in Tajikistan named Regional Cooperation 2017. The US Ambassador in Dushanbe has said that these exercises are focusing on border security and regional stability. Will you comment on this? Can the exercises help stop the movement of terrorists and extremists from Afghanistan into Central Asia? Can they really be effective?

Artyom Kozhin: We know that the United States regularly holds various kinds of joint events in Tajikistan, including exercises and drills aimed at training security forces in combatting terrorism and illegal drug trafficking.

We believe that stronger regional security and stability, primarily in the vulnerable area of the Afghan-Tajik border, meet the international requirements in the fight against terrorism as well as narcotics.

Question: Russian-US talks at foreign ministry-level ended just the other day. Can you tell us about their main results? Will Russia get its diplomatic property back? What decision has been taken concerning this subject?

Artyom Kozhin: As I see it, you are referring to the talks between Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon. First of all, numerous comments have already been made on this matter, including by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Sergey Ryabkov took part in a television show only yesterday, where he covered this particular issue in great detail.

I also suggest that you read one of the comments that has been posted on the Foreign Ministry website. Overall, the key conclusion is that although there is not much to be proud about right now, we will continue working on this. We will also continue negotiating. I would like to stress that we have requested the unconditional return of our property in the United States. We have said this more than once, and I would like to use this occasion to say this once again.

Question: Have any conditions been made to Russia for the return of this property?

Artyom Kozhin: Once again, please, read the comment on the Foreign Ministry website.

Question: Unlike the comments made by our American colleagues, the official Foreign Ministry comment on the talks between Mr Ryabkov and Mr Shannon does not mention the topic of strategic arms reduction talks. What plans do Russia and the United States have on this matter?

Artyom Kozhin: Sergey Ryabkov and Thomas Shannon discussed some current strategic stability issues. As for the rest, please read the Foreign Ministry’s comment.

Question: But the comment made does not mention this, which is why we are asking you for this particular information.

Artyom Kozhin: If you read the comment carefully, you will really see that they did discuss a number of current issues related to strategic stability.

Question: Have you anything to say about the extension of the visa application form for UK citizens?

Artyom Kozhin: A comparison of the UK visa application form, including for Russian citizens, and the Russian visa application form for UK citizens has revealed a major disparity in the number and nature of questions to the disfavour of Russian citizens. In light of this, and based on the principle of reciprocity, we have prepared an extended variant of the Russian visa application form for UK citizens. It became obligatory as of July 17.

Question: What does Moscow think about the decision made by the Trump administration to end the programme to provide arms to the Syrian opposition? Can you describe this as a positive result of the recent Putin-Trump meeting in Hamburg? Has it brought any major results on the subject of the Syrian crisis?

Artyom Kozhin: We will provide our reaction to this a little bit later. Today I can say that we welcome any steps that are aimed at easing the tension and strengthening security in the Middle East.

Question: Donetsk has declared the establishment of a new country – Malorossiya. Will you comment on this decision? Does it contradict the provisions of the Minsk Agreements? Can this decision become a subject of realpolitik?

Artyom Kozhin: We have already commented on this matter. In particular, you can read a comment made by Deputy Chief of the Presidential Executive Office and Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov.

Question: Are you considering expelling 35 US diplomats as a response measure to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States? What is the probability of this?

Artyom Kozhin: Many comments have been made on this issue. We retain the right for reciprocal action. We are monitoring this issue.

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