Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions during a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Moscow, February 20, 2018

Tuesday, 20 February 2018 09:28

Ladies and gentlemen,

My counterpart, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, and I have held substantive talks.

Our ties with Pakistan are constructive and mutually productive. This May will mark 70 years since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations.

We have developed an intensive political dialogue, including at the top level. We maintain partner-like cooperation at international organisations, above all, the UN and its specialised agencies.

Today, the Russian side reaffirmed its willingness to continue providing assistance to Pakistan in strengthening its counterterrorist activity, which meets the interests of the entire region. Last year, we transferred four Mi-35M combat-transport helicopters to our partners. I am sure they are needed for anti-terrorist operations as we heard today from our colleagues. We decided to continue holding the Druzhba (Friendship) joint tactical exercise to strengthen our interaction during counterterrorist operations in mountain terrain. We already have the experience of similar exercises in Karachayevo-Circassia last autumn.

We agreed to step up efforts to build up trade and economic cooperation. We emphasised the importance of intensive activity by the Russian-Pakistani Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation, the fifth meeting of which was held in Moscow last November and produced solid results. The implementation of these things is crucial in bringing our bilateral trade to a level that better suits our countries’ potentials.

A commission on military-technical cooperation is being set up in keeping with last year’s intergovernmental agreement in this area.

We discussed prospects for energy cooperation, which is one of our priorities. Our flagship project is the construction of the North-South gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore under an intergovernmental agreement signed in 2015. Other opportunities are also being considered, including Gazprom liquefied gas supplies to Pakistan and the construction of regional pipelines, among them the Iran-Pakistan-India subsea gas pipeline.

Additional opportunities opened up after Islamabad joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a full member. As you know, at the SCO summit in Astana last June, India and Pakistan were admitted to the organisation. We agreed to build up our cooperation within the SCO framework. As our colleagues reaffirmed today, Pakistan will continue integrating itself into the SCO’s practical activities and across its entire broad agenda, including the promotion of security in the region.

We welcome the fact that Pakistan joined the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS). Today, we explained in detail our initiative to create a universal response centre, based on RATS, to meet modern challenges and threats, including the fight against drug trafficking, which directly feeds terrorism.

Special attention was given to the situation in Afghanistan and around it. Both of us are concerned about the worsening security situation in the country, the growing terrorist activity, the narcotics threat that still looms large and the strengthening of ISIS’ position in the north and east of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we have to say that the military presence of the United States and NATO that has lasted for many years has failed to bring peace and stability to the Afghan people. Moreover, the Afghanistan strategy that was recently presented by the US administration focuses on the need to increase the use of force and military pressure on the armed opposition, although it is clear to Moscow and Islamabad, as I understand it, that this approach is leading to nowhere. We believe that the process of national reconciliation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan based on the leading role of the Afghan people and respect for the interests of the regional states has to be initiated as soon as possible.

We have similar or close position on Middle East affairs, in particular, Syria and other regional and international matters that are of interest to our countries. Earlier today, we discussed, in this context, the status of the Syria settlement process and the Syrian chemical case, on which some countries, unfortunately, try to speculate to achieve their dishonorable purposes. We discussed the worrying situation around the Palestinian-Israeli settlement process. Our common position is that this issue should be resolved on the basis of the UN Security Council resolution and the Arab Peace Initiative, which, incidentally, was supported by all members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.   

As I mentioned, we had very useful talks, which have reiterated our mutual commitment to expanding cooperation between Russia and Pakistan on our bilateral agenda and on regional and international matters.

Question: The current state of relations between Pakistan and Russia could be described as the spring of the relations.  How are the two countries cooperating in education?

Sergey Lavrov: We talked about this today. We have good traditions that span several decades. We are interested in the Pakistanis continuing to receiving education in our country, and the number of students [from this country] majoring in various subjects at our universities and higher educational institutions is increasing. Today, we conveyed this wish to our Pakistani colleagues. We drew their attention to the 90 government scholarships that were allocated for the current academic year. We will make every effort to try and increase this number. 

Question: The issue of ISIS terrorists’ presence in Afghanistan was raised today, as well as the fact that they are able to penetrate Central Asian states or Russia because of the lack of border control coordination with the United States. What can be done to prevent this? Is it enough to coordinate the matter within the SCO, or are Russia and Pakistan taking practical measures to stop the terrorists?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, today we discussed Afghanistan and the roots ISIS is taking there. We are seriously concerned. Likewise, we are worried that the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan fail to mention this danger, deny facts and even claim that they are not true. According to the data available to us and our Pakistani colleagues, these facts are true. ISIS has established a considerable presence in northern and eastern Afghanistan – approximately a thousand terrorists – and continues to increase it. As for the dangers you mentioned regarding the border with our Central Asian neighbours, it is true that there is an increased risk of terrorists entering Central Asia, which is an easy route into Russia and other countries. We believe that efforts must be redoubled to preclude these developments.

Pakistan and India have recently become full members of the SCO, which now has all the key neighbours of Afghanistan among its members. Afghanistan has observer status in the SCO. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, which resumed operation last autumn at Russia’s initiative, will focus on these issues. The group has held its first meeting in Moscow and is preparing for the second meeting, which our Chinese colleagues will host.

I would like to mention the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, which we discussed today as well. We can use it to develop practical measures to curtail ISIS influence in Afghanistan and prevent it from spreading to Central Asia. As I have said, we will promote a reform of this anti-terrorist structure so that it will not only deal with counterterrorism but will also be used to fight the drug  trafficking.

Regrettably, the years-long presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan has not reduced the terrorist threat, while the drug threat has grown manifold. This data has been provided by the UN and cannot be disregarded. We are still waiting for our US colleagues to answer the questions we have asked them many times regarding the public statements made by some regional Afghan leaders about unidentified helicopters making flights to the Afghan regions where terrorists have their bases. Nobody can explain the reason for these flights. These legitimate questions are being avoided.

We are seriously concerned about the growing ISIS influence in Afghanistan. We are also worried about the attitude of the US-led NATO coalition to this threat and the measures it is taking against it. This is happening in the background of statements and the new Afghanistan strategy that is focused on the use of military force. It is unclear against whom military force will be used.

Sergey Lavrov (speaking after Khawaja Muhammad Asif):  I would like to say that, in addition to SCO structures and Russia’s bilateral agreements with its Central Asian neighbours that border Afghanistan, there are also major CSTO programmes regarding this. The CSTO regularly holds operations against terrorism, illegal migration and drug trafficking, operations Channel, Illegal and Proxy. A major deterrence factor, these operations are held to receive prompt information about the militants’ plans and to take preventive measures to stop the militants from crossing the border to Central Asia. But the most important thing is fighting these militants inside Afghanistan, which must be the priority for the Afghan security forces, as well as the United States and NATO, which maintain a military presence there.

Question: Today President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan disclosed the essence of the meeting he had yesterday with President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani. He said that they discussed an agreement to prevent the Syrian army from deploying in Afrin. Is this so?

Sergey Lavrov: It is our firm position that any problems, be it in Syria or anywhere else, are settled with due respect for the territorial integrity of the state concerned, in this case, the Syrian Arab Republic.

We recognise Turkey’s concerns about the developments in Syria and along its perimeter, as we have agreed in Astana, including at the level of the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Of course, we also recognise the Kurds’ aspirations. What we do not recognise and reject is the external forces’ attempts to take advantage of these aspirations so as to promote a Syrian and regional agenda that has nothing in common with the legitimate interests of the Kurdish people but is designed to attain these external forces’ self-serving geopolitical goals. I am referring, in particular, to the game which the United States has been playing for many months in Syria east of the Euphrates. This game engendered many questions and warnings, but it gradually looked more and more like a deliberate provocation that has ultimately triggered the current events. I am convinced that Turkey’s legitimate security interests can be realised and protected through a direct dialogue with the Syrian government. I strongly hope that all of us will act resolutely against any further attempts to hype up the Kurdish problem so as to keep up or even deepen the regional chaos and to split the regional countries.

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