Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and responses to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Austrian Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs Karin Kneissl, Moscow, April 20, 2018

Friday, 20 April 2018 06:14

Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to note that it was very pleasant to welcome my Austrian colleague, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Austria Karin Kneissl, who is visiting Russia in this capacity for the first time.

Our detailed talks encompassed a wide range of issues, primarily on the bilateral agenda.

We discussed the status of and prospects for bilateral ties, with due consideration for the results of the February 28 meeting between President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and Federal Chancellor of the Republic of Austria Sebastian Kurz in Moscow. We noted that, despite the uneasy situation in Europe, sustained dialogue between our states continues to develop constructively.

We praised the current level of cooperation between our various national ministries, agencies and parliaments, as well as between Russian and Austrian regions. We praised stronger ties between civil societies. Russia and Austria advocate expanded cooperation relying on various mechanisms that have won a reputation for themselves, including the Mixed Intergovernmental Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, as well as the Russian-Austrian Business Council. We hope that these entities will meet in May and June.

We discussed the upcoming 50th anniversary of initial gas supplies from the Soviet Union to Austria and expressed satisfaction with the current level of energy cooperation, primarily under the joint projects of Gazprom and Austria’s oil and gas concern OMV.

We reviewed the implementation of the Declaration on Partnership for Modernisation that was signed in 2011. In this context we expressed our mutual interest in advancing large-scale infrastructure projects, including the construction of the wide-gauge Kosice-Vienna railway.

We are traditionally interested in expanding cultural and humanitarian exchanges. We praised the successful overlapping Year of Tourism in 2017. We are confident that the Year of Music and Cultural Routes, being held in 2018, will contribute to mutual understanding and contacts between people.

We also discussed relations between Russia and the European Union in connection with Austria’s upcoming presidency of the EU from July 1 and until the end of 2018.

We spoke in detail about various conflicts, primarily those in the Middle East, above all Syria, the status of the Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement and the situation in other conflict zones, including Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

We also discussed the Ukrainian issue. We believe there is no alternative to following through on the Minsk Package of Measures. We reviewed the OSCE’s role in implementing the Minsk Agreements and the possibility of bolstering this role by approving a UN Security Council resolution on protecting the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. As you know, the Russian Federation submitted the relevant draft resolution to the UN Security Council in September 2017.

We also informed our Austrian colleagues in great detail about our assessments of the difficulties still hampering the fulfilment of the Minsk Agreements.

Russia and Austria are both interested in stepping up joint efforts in the area of counter-terrorism operations and illegal immigration. We hope that this dialogue will continue via bilateral channels and as part of Russia-UN relations.

Question: I am sure you will say that the issues of Syria and Ukraine are not connected but the EU sanctions against Russia are a huge load and they do great damage to the Russian economy. Are you willing to make some concessions if these sanctions are lifted?

Sergey Lavrov: Everything is connected in this world. When there is a striving to engage in geopolitical engineering, whether in Ukraine or Syria, we keep an eye on these attempts.  And when we see that this engineering is aimed at deterring Russia in Europe or the Middle East, and calling into doubt our right to have and uphold our lawful interests in neighbouring regions, we are dealing with an integral, coordinated line that is often called a policy of solidarity. I spoke with Ms Minister about this “solidarity” as well.

I recently read a report about the interview given by Special Representative of the US State Department for Ukraine Kurt Volker to the newspaper La Stampa during his visit to Italy. When asked about his attitude towards the post-election discussion in the Italian Parliament about the prospects for anti-Russia sanctions, he said that if Italy starts decreasing these sanctions, it will have problems in the European Union (EU). The American representative made this statement on the territory of an EU country without being in the least embarrassed about talking on behalf of the EU. This is indicative. This is what is called “solidarity.”

You mentioned that the sanctions are damaging the Russian economy. Sanctions are always a double-edged sword. I will not mention the name of the respected institute in Vienna, but it recently published statistics on the damage sustained by Austria and the EU in general. It’s over tens of millions of dollars. Probably, this should be taken into account as well.

As for concessions, I would like to understand what concessions you have in mind. In general, normal people carry out agreements when they make them. Regarding Ukraine, we have the Minsk Agreements signed by the presidents of France, Ukraine, Russia and the German Chancellor and unanimously approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council. We showed Ms Minister in detail and with specific examples what obstacles we see in the way of this process.

Regarding Syria, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 says that Syria should be united and indivisible, and that it is necessary to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any political process should allow the Syrians to decide their future and the destiny of their country themselves, without any outside interference. All our activities are aimed at reaching this goal. We will not tolerate attempts at geopolitical engineering that are aimed at ruining Syria and creating a permanent presence of extra-regional forces there. All this contradicts the agreements we have been talking about. We shouldn’t depart from the principles approved by the UN Security Council. Concessions do not seem appropriate in this context.

In general, we have said more than once that the sanctions imposed on Russia unilaterally were illegal and damage all parties involved. But when we are asked to make some gesture or move so that our well-wishers in the EU can start a process to gradually weaken these sanctions we reply that we did not introduce them and do not see any reason to justify them. The main wave of sanctions were imposed when our European partners failed to abide by their promise and protect their guarantee under the agreement reached between the legitimate president of Ukraine and the opposition in February 2014.

When the coup took place on the following day, and the first act of the perpetrators was to adopt a law on discrimination against the Russian language, and when Ukraine’s eastern regions and Crimea refused to support the illegal leaders that came to power through absolutely illegal means, all of our Western colleagues came to terms with it and started supporting the rebels.

We were not listened to because of revenge against us for supporting the lawful rights of Ukraine’s Russian language speakers and demanding that these rights be respected in line with the high criteria of universal human rights conventions, including the European Convention on Human Rights. Regrettably, our Western colleagues unanimously sided with the illegal Ukrainian leadership created after the coup. Sanctions were imposed on us for our support of those who were turned into second-rate citizens.

We are not going to discuss any criteria for the lifting of sanctions. We do not intend to make any concessions in re-writing the Minsk Agreements. US representative Kurt Volker, whom I mentioned, suggests ideas that include cancelling the Minsk Agreements. He says that the Russian initiative on the protection of the OSCE mission by the UN does not meet the requirements for a settlement. It is necessary to introduce a couple of dozen armed soldiers, including those armed with heavy weapons, under the UN flag and establish a UN administration there. Relying on 20,000 bayonets this administration will draft a law on the election and conduct it, etc. Anyone who is even remotely interested in the issue will understand that these proposals have nothing to do with the Minsk Agreements. If this is an appeal to Russia to make a concession, it will not work, all the more so since any ideas regarding the Minsk Agreements should be settled directly between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. This is what these agreements envisage.

I am sure that the period we are now going thorough is not considered positive either by the EU or Russia. I do not think that there are some far-sighted and sensible politicians that consider it useful for our countries. I am convinced that common sense will eventually prevail. Relations between the EU and Russia, between the members of the EU and Russia should be built taking into consideration the national priorities of each partner rather than the interests of geopolitical games so often played by influential outsiders.

Question: Austria wants to be a mediator between Russia and the West in the Syrian and other issues. Has Russia accepted this proposal? If so, with whom would it like to conduct talks?

Sergey Lavrov: I have not heard Austria’s proposal to be a mediator between Russia and the West on the Syrian issue. Syria needs only one thing – mediation between all Syrian sides in order to bring them to the negotiating table based on the agreed-upon principles and help to start a direct dialogue, as is envisaged by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This resolution says that the negotiating process should be inclusive, that the delegations of the Syrian Government and opposition groups from across the spectrum should take part in it, and that the Syrian parties should resolve the issues of a political settlement based on a consensus. I don’t see room for mediation between Russia and the West. That said, we highly value Austria’s efforts to create the appropriate atmosphere for implementing UN Security Council resolutions.

We recalled today how in better times Russia and the United States conducted negotiations. At their initiative the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) was established. It was co-chaired by John Kerry and myself, as well as Staffan de Mistura. Important and useful documents were drafted, which later formed the foundation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The ISSG met in both Vienna and Geneva. The Russian Federation favoured meeting in the Austrian capital that simultaneously remains one of the UN capitals in Europe. Vienna still offers these opportunities. As we emphasised today, this is not only owing to the geographical location that is acceptable to everyone but the political context, considering that Vienna is home to a number of major UN agencies. This is also an atmosphere that is largely being created by the traditions of neutrality that the Republic of Austria is promoting and that have earned it a very high reputation. Austria is always seen as an honest broker. I am sure that now that there is a shortage of honest brokers in the Syrian settlement, Austria could well facilitate the efforts that we are all making under UN aegis and with the participation of Staffan de Mistura whom we will meet later today.

Question: The United States said yesterday that it plans to simplify the rules for arms exports to reduce the dependence of its partners on Russia and China in this area. Earlier this week, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell warned Ankara that it may fall under US sanctions if it implements the S-400 deal with Russia. What can you tell us about Washington’s statements? Is this an attempt to push Russia out of all markets? How will Russia respond?

What do you think about yesterday’s statement by the US Department of State that it has evidence of Russia and Syria’s attempt to prevent OPCW inspectors from entering the Syrian city of Douma?

Sergey Lavrov: As for arms exports, there has always been and always will be competition. It is important to observe certain principles in arms trade, primarily, renunciation of destabilising weapons supplies and sales to non-state actors. Competition must be honest and fair rather than based on the illegal advantages obtained by unlawful means, such as unilateral sanctions and the like.

As for Mitchell’s warning to Ankara that it may fall under sanctions if it buys S-400 systems from Russia, this is an example of blackmail to ensure unfair competition for US companies.

If I am correct, Mitchell made a direct threat. I just mentioned how one more US representative – Kurt Volker – threatened the Italians in Italy. Mitchell threatened Turkey from Washington. Both cases are linked to relations with the Russian Federation.

Replying to a similar question, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the decision to buy S-400s is the national decision of the Republic of Turkey. As a NATO member, the United States should also listen to the collective opinion that is expressed by the NATO Secretary-General.

As for yesterday’s statement on US evidence of Russian and Syrian attempts to prevent OPCW inspectors from entering Douma, let’s see it. We have presented evidence many times on the basis of fact, accompanied by pictures and interviews with specific people. As for our partners, we only hear from them that they have evidence, evidence in the incident that supposedly took place in Douma or the Salisbury case, to name two.

When chemical weapons were used in Khan Shaykhun a year ago we asked how the samples that ended up in labs in London and Paris were collected. We were told that this was classified. So, put the facts on the table and we will be able to talk clearly as professionals. If all this is groundless, these assertions will eventually be included in the book called “highly likely” and that will be it.

In the context of this statement I would like to recall that we addressed The Hague with a demand to send OPCW inspectors to Douma as soon as there appeared reports of the alleged use of chemical arms in April of this year. Our OPCW colleagues did not assemble a team immediately. They had to be pushed to do this. By April 13 the team arrived in Lebanon and was supposed to move to the border with the Syrian Arab Republic within hours, where Syrian officials were to issue Syrian visas to its members on the spot. At the same time, the Americans asked us to help their experts get into Douma and we agreed. Speaking to our French colleagues, we invited them to send their representatives as well. They also said this was a good idea but neither Washington nor Paris did anything about it. Strikes were carried out instead of trying to accompany the OPCW mission and find out first-hand whether anything had taken place or not. Therefore, it is clear who is preventing OPCW inspectors from entering Douma. Reality should not be distorted.

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