Excerpts from the Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

31 марта 2016 г.

Reaction to liberation of Palmyra

Now, a few words about what, indeed, surprised and baffled us all – the reaction to the liberation of Palmyra. Notably, the reaction across the globe was strange at a time when the issue concerned, in fact, a turning point in fighting ISIS in Syria. It was important from all perspectives, including the fact that it was a symbolic and the biggest victory in the past few years. The reaction of the international community to this victory was belated. One can’t help but get a feeling that the liberation of Palmyra caught everyone by surprise, and was totally unexpected. Perhaps, no one thought it could ever happen? Of course, this reaction seemed weird to us in some cases.
Speaking at a US State Department briefing, its Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner experienced considerable difficulties as he tried to answer reporters’ questions about Washington’s assessment of Palmyra having been retaken by the Syrian troops with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces. He talked at length about the beginning of the operation to liberate Palmyra almost being a violation of the cessation of hostilities. Then he said that “it’s not a great choice… you know… which is worse… DAESH or the regime...” The reasons for ISIS taking root in certain parts of Syria were accounted for by the Assad regime creating a colossal power vacuum. It was strange to hear all that in a situation where the Syrian army had the upper hand over the terrorist groups, not over the moderate opposition but namely the terrorists, and everyone recognises this.
There’s another angle to this as well. It’s not up to the Americans to talk about the power vacuum, which gave rise to terrorism. In that case, we should go back in time and start with Iraq. What was done in Iraq and later in Libya has created a power vacuum of such proportions, according to Mr Toner, that has stricken all the people in that region, as well as the Europeans, still reeling from the shock.
The United Kingdom offered a very unusual reaction. We witnessed an attempt to belittle the role of the anti-terrorism efforts of Damascus and Moscow, which supports the official Syrian army in its fight against terrorists. Failing to take note even of the statement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in which he welcomed the liberation of Palmyra, the Foreign Office spokesman limited his remarks to saying that even though the efforts against ISIS are welcome, the Assad regime bears the bulk of responsibility for the conflict. This begs the question: are you in favour of it or against it?
By the way, the British media was actively promoting the idea that the Russian airstrikes during the liberation of the city could have caused major damage to historic sites, and it’s a miracle that this didn’t happen. That is, there were no airstrikes whatsoever, but if there were, they could have caused damage. This is nothing short of innovative reporting reminiscent of an “information futures contract”.
At first, we couldn’t figure out why our Western colleagues react so weirdly and so late. We thought that this situation may have caught them by surprise, and they're bracing themselves for ways to deal with it. But then we realised that this is a deliberate policy. Of course, it culminated in the West’s decision to block the UNSC statement on Syrian Palmyra liberated from terrorists, as we mentioned yesterday. This, of course, is unprecedented. They do block things, no question about that, but blocking a greeting statement regarding liberation of the city from the terrorists is something unheard of.
This indicates that our Western partners are not interested in liberating Syria from the terrorists (well, they are interested, but in the context of their fleeting political interests), or in promoting the peace process without looking back at the overall political situation. It seems to me that they will be uncomfortable talking about the protection of cultural values and many other things now. What we see behind this is a geopolitical game of colossal proportions.
This surprised and disappointed us. This also goes to show that there’s an abyss separating purported goals and true intentions.

Main results of 31st UNHRC session

On March 24, the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council ended in Geneva.
After a month of intense work, over 40 resolutions were adopted and decisions made, a number of special procedures were established, 11 themed, including high-level discussions were held, and dialogues with special HRC mechanisms and the UN high commissioner for human rights took place.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took part in a high-level segment, his policy statement reflecting our human rights priorities.
The Russian-initiated high-level discussion dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the adoption of international covenants on human rights was a valuable contribution to the session’s work. The discussion reaffirmed Russia’s active role in promoting a constructive and unifying human rights project on the international arena, which was highly appraised by states, UN members and civil society.
During the session, the Russian delegation continued to uphold the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of states, the unacceptability of unilateral enforcement measures and commitment to the rule of law, and also advocated the invigoration of the fight against racism, neo-Nazism and ethnic and religious intolerance, protection of ethnic minorities, reducing statelessness and promoting human rights through sport and Olympic ideals.
The Russian draft resolution on the integrity of the judicial system was approved by consensus. It is aimed at ensuring everyone’s right to a fair and public trial by a competent, independent and impartial court, duly established on the basis of law. The resolution’s wording makes it possible to invigorate joint efforts to prevent illegitimate methods of inquiry and investigation and the use of “closed” detention facilities for keeping suspects in custody without a trial for unlimited periods – in other words, to exclude precedents such as the existence of the Guantanamo prison and secret CIA prisons.
Important amendments were incorporated into the council’s updated resolution on human rights and sport, which is traditionally co-sponsored by Russia. These include an emphasis on the independence of sport, as well as the impartial application of anti-corruption and anti-doping measures and preventing vandalism and violence at sport events.
The work on the resolution regarding the rights of the child made it possible to reflect the issue of traditional family values and formalise our approaches towards the legitimacy of restricting information than can affect a child’s psychological development.
The Russian delegation emphasised the unacceptability of double standards in addressing the human rights situation in Ukraine, stressing the need for a thorough investigation of gross violations and crimes on the part of Ukrainian security forces and decisively condemned Kiev’s inaction regarding the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Russian representatives also expressed concern over the human rights violations in a number of EU countries, the existence of mass statelessness in Latvia and Estonia, the continuing trends towards declining media pluralism and the unfolding campaign to suppress dissent in the Baltic countries, Ukraine and Turkey. They pointed to serious human rights problems in the United States, including torture, arbitrary executions and other issues.
The vote on the resolution concerning the situation in Syria showed that the awareness of positive trends in Syria is growing in the international community. The number of states that supported the resolution declined considerably.
On the whole, the session reaffirmed what is, unfortunately, the HRC’s overpoliticised character of work – something that Russia will continue to oppose in collaboration with its colleagues. Our prime objective is to free human rights issues of political influence.

Washington’s refusal to release US satellite photos to the father of a US MH17 victim

According to a recent media report, the US administration has turned down a request by US citizen Thomas Schansman, the father of Quinn Schansman, who died in the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash over Ukraine, to release US satellite photos that could shed light on the tragedy.
As far as we know, the US categorised this information as classified almost immediately after the tragedy, thereby making it known that it had no intention whatsoever to share it with anybody, including relatives of the victims. Moreover, the State Department head’s present reply creates an even stronger impression that Washington, while knowing who really is to blame for the Boeing crash, is intentionally hiding the truth in a bid to shield the real perpetrators from responsibility.
Unlike the US, Russia immediately submitted to the Dutch investigative commission all the radar data, including satellite photos for the day before the crash and images recorded on the day it happened. More than that, Russian experts were ready to join the technical investigation at any time. And you know what came out of it, though they were able to provide serious assistance in identifying possible causes of the tragedy, possessing as they do considerable experience in these matters and substantial technical capabilities for holding tests.
We would like to reiterate our call for a comprehensive, independent and thorough international investigation into this air accident. People guilty of perpetrating this crime should inevitably face punishment, as prescribed by UN Security Council Resolution 2166.

Excerpts from answers to media questions:

Question: The Russia-US talks in Moscow went on for eight hours. There is a feeling that much has not been said about their outcome. Could you share some more details on the agreements regarding Syria and Ukraine?

Maria Zakharova: I can’t agree with you, since the statements and comments following the talks held by US Secretary of State John Kerry in Russia were very detailed and elaborated on every issue raised during the talks.
Your question would be relevant only if every meeting or contact between Russia and the United State was expected to yield concrete breakthrough agreements. While critically important breakthroughs do come at a certain point in time, the created mechanisms also have to be fine-tuned every now and then. The recent talks in Moscow can be described as an effort to fine-tune the existing mechanisms with respect to Syria, among other things. There is the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), and Russia and the US are actively developing contacts as co-chairs of this Group in a bilateral format and along several tracks, including political, military and other dimensions. It is for discussions on these issues that Mr Kerry came to Moscow.
Of course, the Ukraine issue was also raised. We are aware of the fact that Washington has immense influence, to put it diplomatically and trying to show respect to Kiev (other terms could have been used to describe this relationship), over the situation in Ukraine. It was also important for us to convey the idea that the Kiev’s stalling in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, noted by many, could lead to dire consequences. We urged the US to use its influence to make sure that the authorities in Kiev are fully committed to implementing the Minsk Agreements.

Question: A number of experts have been comparing the current stage in the Russian-US relations to the Cold War, while their opponents argue that the world has never seen a more stable system than the one that existed during the Cold War, unlike today. How would you describe the current relations between Russia and the US? Do they have conflicting interests in South Caucasus? How significant are the issues in this region for the international agenda?

Maria Zakharova: To answer your question on the overall state of the Russian-US relations, all I can do is repeat what we have been saying time and again: our relations are not at their best. This is a fact. We are not trying to embellish bilateral relations, or try to make it seem as if things are how they used to be. This is not the case. Things are different now. We are about to reconsider our modus operandi in a global and a system-wide effort, as I see it. However, restoring full-fledged relations in the interests of the two counties across the board, including economic, humanitarian, education and tourism, remains a priority for us, so that all social groups benefit from these relations.
It was not Russia’s choice to bring the bilateral relations to their current level. As we understand it, the current US leaders have made this their deliberate choice, which has nothing to do with what Americans think about Russia. Of course, we are dealing with a media campaign aimed at shaping public opinion. However, I believe that Americans feel the need for developing bilateral relations so that they benefit people instead of trying to find out who is stronger or better in getting things done. The people of the two countries should be central to any effort in this respect.
Let me reiterate that the US chose this current state of relations between our two countries. We cannot agree, and have repeatedly said so, that this all started with our differences regarding the Ukraine conflict. It all started before that. Here’s an important and serious argument to prove this point: the US President Barack Obama cancelled his visit to the Russian Federation long before the Ukraine crisis, when the Ukraine and Crimea issues were not even on the horizon. We believe that our current relations do not correspond to the interests of people in either of the two countries.
As for South Caucasus, what specifically do you mean by this question?

Question: Do the two countries’ interests clash in this region? How often do this region’s problems come up on the international agenda? I mean Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Maria Zakharova: As you know, and we have been talking about it on a regular basis, we are part of joint multilateral mechanisms, in particular, with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh. I can’t say we have identical or coinciding approaches to all issues. Still, we look for solutions through diplomacy, the whole point of which is to bring different positions closer. I could give a more clear-cut answer to your question if it were more clearly phrased. It is difficult to speak in broad terms here.

Question: Is the Russian Foreign Ministry following the election campaign in the United States? Could you comment on the rhetoric of the eccentric American billionaire Donald Trump, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has called an undisputed leader in the presidential race, and do you think he has a real chance of winning the presidency?

Maria Zakharova: As tradition has it, we don’t comment on presidential campaigns either in the United States or any other country because it is a domestic affair and the choice of the American people. We have noticed, however, that the policy on Russia features prominently in the current presidential campaign rhetoric.
We have repeatedly said at briefings that the United States and its spin doctors could do without us.
I would rather not comment on election slogans because they are all aimed at boosting one’s ratings and undermining the rivals. All these are campaign stories while we prefer to judge by actions. Who will occupy the White House next is a question for the American people.

Question: Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov’s interview with Interfax was published yesterday, which mentions a possibility of joint Russian-US steps to liberate Raqqa in Syria from ISIS. It says, in particular, that specific aspects of this cooperation, including with consideration for the withdrawal of a part of the Russian contingent, are being discussed between the Russian military and the Pentagon. A while later, Interfax published White House comments to the effect that the US is not planning any joint operations with Russia to free Raqqa from ISIS control. What interaction is there between Russia and the US?

Maria Zakharova: It would be great if our US friends and White House colleagues were as modest in assessing other aspects of cooperation with Russia.
We cooperate, interact and maintain contacts with our US colleagues, including in the military area, in the context of fighting terrorism, peacefully settling the conflict in Syria, and upholding the ceasefire in that country. This is an incontestable fact which no one has challenged. Specific details of this cooperation are not discussed publicly because these are sensitive issues related to security, operational planning and the undertakings themselves. I totally agree with my US colleagues that this is not intended for public discussion.

Question: It was reported today that a Russian diplomat has met with Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was found guilty and is serving a prison term in the United States. We have learned that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs intends to work to secure Yaroshenko’s return to Russia. What can you say about the conjecture that Konstantin Yaroshenko, Viktor Bout and several other Russian citizens could be exchanged for Nadezhda Savchenko?

Maria Zakharova: As you said, a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry has met with Konstantin Yaroshenko and, according to this information, Russia will insist on his release. I’d like to say that this is our position of principle and that it has not changed. We are providing assistance to this Russian citizen. When I said that our stance has been consistent, I mentioned that we also provided a principled assessment of the US justice system in relation to this case. We believe that the law was violated in Yaroshenko’s case, and that US authorities, the judicial system and law-enforcement agencies have been acting inadmissibly with regard to Yaroshenko.
As for exchanging Nadezhda Savchenko for someone or someone for Nadezhda Savchenko, this is, unfortunately, part of a global information campaign that is not designed to help Russian citizens. None of the media employees who are planting these speculations care a jot about them. Moreover, they call the families of the Russian citizens who are in prison in the United States and play on their feelings. Where were they before? I don’t even want to call them journalists, because they don’t deserve this name. What they are doing is indecent. When Yaroshenko needed medical assistance, none of these so-called journalists phoned his family or offered their media outlet’s resources to his family so that they could insist on getting medical help to Yaroshenko, including by appealing to US authorities. But when information was planted about a possible exchange, they started playing on the feelings of Yaroshenko’s relatives, who have not seen him for a long time.
Regarding the possible exchange and the future of Nadezhda Savchenko, Russia has said more than once that the sentence must first come into force. Any other possible actions will be taken exclusively in accordance with the Russian legislation.
I am asking you not to play on the feelings of people, the relatives of Russian citizens who are in US prisons on false, real or any other charges. Please, show a humane attitude and respect for these people. If you didn’t care for Konstantin Yaroshenko before, don’t take any interest, including political interest, in his fate now based on unreliable information.
I’m happy that there are days when I can tell you about the release of our citizens from captivity, or that we were able to contact those who are still in captivity and find out about their health, etc. You know that this is a priority for us. In this context, I can only repeat that we don’t abandon our people. First, we regularly monitor their situation. And second, speculation must be distinguished from reliable information. When we have reliable information that we can share with you, we’ll do this. So please, don’t mix these issues and don’t chase any sensations.
The issue of Savchenko is very simple. The sentence has been passed and must come into force. Yet some people want to fuel interest in her case for several reasons. First, an information campaign has been launched that is also a major internal political factor in Ukraine. Some Ukrainian politicians believe that public attention to this campaign must not be allowed to slacken, and that more fuel must be regularly added to keep the flame burning. The second reason is Kiev’s failure to implement the Minsk Agreements. They need to explain this, but there is no explanation. This is a new act of political theatre. They need to explain why political theatre is more important in Ukraine than political reform and the life of the Ukrainian people. But they have no explanation, because they used all the available arguments before. Consequently, the current global information campaign has been launched to stop or prevent any possible questions. They plant information about alleged exchanges, etc. Information campaigns are launched to distract public attention and to provoke information turmoil. But the worst part is, unfortunately, that this campaign concerns people who have nothing to do with it and who are suffering because they haven’t seen their families for a long time. I wonder if those who are orchestrating this campaign are human.

Question: The ancient city of Palmyra was liberated to a great degree by the Russian Aerospace Forces; I would like to offer my congratulations. When NATO troops entered Iraq, the Alliance promised it would take part in rebuilding the country. Do you have any information about that?

Maria Zakharova: You should address your question to NATO. Mr Robert Pshel, a NATO spokesman, works in a Moscow office. He is a very active media person and you can ask him about NATO’s activity in Iraq. I can’t answer this question.
We do interact with Baghdad, and we have several joint projects. So, if you are interested in the Russian party’s efforts in developing cooperation with Iraq, I can give you concrete information.