Excerpts from the Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

August 31, 2017

On-the-spot reporting by a VGTRK crew headed by Yevgeny Poddubny on the US coalition’s actions in Syria

We paid attention to the on-the-spot reporting by VGTRK correspondents headed by Yevgeny Poddubny, who is now working in Syria. These reports aired on television today; they were broadcast by the Rossiya 24 channel, and were also posted on the internet.

Of course, these materials require a careful review by the relevant agencies, including international ones. According to the reports, the so-called US-led anti-terrorist coalition is not fighting terrorists in the south of Syria, but is actually pursuing its own goals. One of them is creating its zone of influence in this country, which is bled white by the war on terror. For this purpose, according to eyewitnesses, various methods are used, up to the direct transfer of foreign-made weapons to militants, which is what happened at the al-Tanf base in the south of the country.

I urge everyone once again to have a look at the series of investigative reporting by the VGTRK team. They include materials and information that were provided by eyewitnesses. These data are available to the public. Once again, we call upon the relevant international agencies to carefully verify these data and come up with appropriate assessments.

From answers to media questions:

Question: Recently, Richard Hoagland, former co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, outlined what he described as principles for a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. I am sure you know about them. How should Mr Hoagland’s statement be treated – as only the US opinion on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process or as the co-chairs’ consensus position? Can you also comment on the appointment of a new US co-chair?

Maria Zakharova: The statements that you’ve cited are nothing new. The Russian, US and French presidents have repeatedly referred to them in their joint statements on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process from 2009 through 2013. You can read them and find the relevant quotes.

As for the appointment of the new US co-chair, we welcome it. We act on the premise that in their new lineup the co-chairs will continue their efforts to facilitate a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We hope that the team spirit that has always been characteristic of the troika will be preserved.

Question: Tension in North Korea-US relations have greatly escalated since the missile launch on August 28. Is there a possibility that Russia will act as a mediator between North Korea and other countries concerned, and hold bilateral talks with North Korea or a similar event?

Maria Zakharova: As you know, we are in contact with the US, South Korea, North Korea, China and all those involved in the settlement process. We also maintain contacts on a bilateral basis. As for mediation, why not regard the Russian-Chinese initiative to bring the situation back on course peacefully and stop further escalation? The initiative is on the table. It is available, understandable and, in our view, absolutely viable.

As you know, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has had a series of meetings with his counterparts in Manila. Naturally, this topic was discussed via bilateral channels. It is important for all regional players. We reaffirmed the relevance of the Russian-Chinese initiative at the UN Security Council. We do so publicly. High-ranking Foreign Ministry representatives have talked about this. Our efforts along these lines can be described as proactive.

You’re absolutely right: What is going on in the region cannot but worry us. We talked about this today, as did Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya. Rhetoric coming from a number of capitals, as voiced by their official representatives and political circles, is cause for concern. All efforts should be aimed at resolving the situation by political and diplomatic means, not discussing the use of force, even in theory.

To reiterate, everything that is required for talks is on the table. Simply, political will is needed to act on these proposals.

Question: What would Russia’s response be if the US used military force against North Korea?

Maria Zakharova: The idea is not to allow this hypothetically, in theory or in practice.

Question: Can you comment on another aspect of the problem of the Korean Peninsula? As we know, Russia has strongly condemned North Korea’s recent missile launches but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed in a conversation with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Russia believes the further toughening of sanctions would be counterproductive and dangerous. Could you clarify Russia’s position, since it may appear contradictory?

Maria Zakharova: There are no contradictions here. A lot of sanctions have been imposed on North Korea. This set of instruments is working but unfortunately, it is not bringing the desired results because it is necessary not to tighten the sanctions screws (especially unilaterally, pursuing one’s own line on top of UN Security Council decisions) but to follow the clear-cut path of a political-diplomatic settlement. This involves not only a sanctions policy but also talks, meetings, dialogues and multilateral and bilateral formats that are the first steps down this path. The point is that it is practically impossible to get the situation off the ground with pressure from sanctions alone. We are seeing this in practice. This is precisely what Russia is saying. There are international sanctions pressure tools (when they are legitimised by the UN Security Council). We have fully subscribed to the decisions that we helped draft. We are committed to them. However, without a political-diplomatic path and negotiating process, this pressure will not bring the result that we are seeking and that we have subscribed to. That is the point. There is no double dealing or double standards here. Our position is that sanctions are a tool, an addition to the main line, which is a political-diplomatic solution.

Question: Two days ago, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov had a meeting with US Ambassador to Moscow John Tefft devoted to the new US strategy in Afghanistan. In this context, what is your view of the prospects for international cooperation in bringing about peace in Afghanistan?

Maria Zakharova: We addressed the new US strategy on Afghanistan in detail at our previous briefing. This assessment is available on the Foreign Ministry’s website. As for international cooperation, it has a variety of forms, including the UN role. Many have already forgotten that the UN Security Council has mandated US presence in Afghanistan, which involves giving an account to Security Council members and the international community on the work done and the steps planned. This should also involve bringing on board regional players and organisations, for example, the SCO with its anti-terrorist structures. They should be engaged in the settlement process – fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. These are just a few examples of how international cooperation in this area can and should proceed.

Unfortunately, we are seeing Washington’s unilateral policy in this sphere. The US has long been playing the leading role here. The results are plain to see. They are not encouraging and not inspiring. Now a new strategy has been made public. We observe a kind of seesaw in the way Washington formulates its Afghanistan strategy. It is constantly changing. Unfortunately, these changes are not backed up by positive results on the ground. If you are interested, I can prepare a more detailed analysis on this topic next time.

Question: In an interview with the Dozhd television channel, you said that Russia did not make the decision to reduce the US diplomatic corps but only suggested that the US consider doing so. Would it be correct to say that in the language of diplomacy, this “suggestion” is a polite form of demand?

Maria Zakharova: Diplomacy is all about finding various options for addressing problems. For more than half a year, we have proposed various solutions to the US on ways of dealing with the situation that has evolved. You remember very well how the events developed and you know about the amount of sanctions-related pressure and the decision to impose sanctions against Russia that the US made. We remember the last “gesture of ill will” on the part of the Barack Obama administration that declared [a number of] Russian diplomats personae non grata and expelled them. Nevertheless, as you remember, no tit-for-tat measures were taken. For half a year, there was no silent waiting for an opportunity to come up, but attempts were constantly made to invite the US to open dialogue and there were several rounds of expert-level talks on ways of overcoming the situation. It was stated during those talks, among other things, that unless the situation was resolved, unfortunately, response measures would have to be taken. And this is exactly what happened. Therefore, the US side received the suggestion that it received. The statement was made public both in Russian as well as in English and I don’t think there were any problems when it came to the translation of it. It was a suggestion. As you understand, Russia slammed the door but did not put a padlock on it. The padlock was put on by the US.

Question: If the US had rejected the suggestion, what would have been the next steps?

Maria Zakharova: Why don’t you put this question to the US? Or have you already done so?

Question: We wrote to the US Embassy.

Maria Zakharova: What did they say?

Question: So far nothing.

Maria Zakharova: This is exactly the answer to your question. We also asked what we should do but received no response for months.

We did not decide for the US what to do with its employees. That was done by the US by declaring Russian diplomats personae non grata. What’s more, as you know, unfortunately, declaring someone persona non grata is routine diplomatic practice. Much of what happens in the outside world does not become known in the public domain, is done behind closed doors. Something leaks into the media. When diplomats are expelled, new ones arrive, since the host country had specific complaints about the work of particular officers. Do you know that the US did not issue visas to the Russian diplomats who were to replace the 35 officers declared personae non grata? Visa applications were submitted so that those officers could work, replacing those who were expelled but the US did not grant them visas.

Just as you say you asked the US Embassy but got no response, likewise, we have been living more or less the same way for the past several months now. We often get no coherent explanation of what is going on or what the overall strategy could be. So Russia made the decision that was made public in the form of a suggestion. This statement was posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website. The US reaction was what it was.

To reiterate, we did all we could not to lock the door – it was Washington that turned the key in the lock.

Question: I just want an honest answer to a simple question. Will something differ when Mr Antonov assumes his office in the United States?

Maria Zakharova: Differ from what? It’s good that you have asked a clear question. Can you formulate it more clearly, though? You have asked if something will differ when Mr Antonov assumes office. Differ from what?

Question: He was criticised. Do you hope for improvement or for change?

Maria Zakharova: I want to give an absolutely clear answer to your very simple question. You said that something happened to Ambassador Kislyak. I asked what happened to him. You replied that he was criticised. My question is who criticised him?

Question: You know the answer.

Maria Zakharova: Of course I do. He was criticised by the American media and by representatives of the Democratic Party (if you can call this criticism) who lost the presidential election.

These Democrats and the American media are still there, in Washington. Now, a new Russian ambassador comes to the United States, and I have a question for you: Do you intend to objectively report what he says and does, or will you carry on the same old policy towards Russia?

Question: Does this mean that you think the media are much more powerful than the US administration?

Maria Zakharova: This is a good question. Which is more powerful, the US administration or the media? I will have to think about the answer to that.

Question: The United States and Russia must work together.

Maria Zakharova: I don’t believe I’m hearing this from CNN! Our efforts were not in vain then. It is said on August 31, during a briefing by the official spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, that Russia and the United States must work together. Yes, they must, and who’s preventing this? Who has curtailed the work of the Bilateral Presidential Commission? Was it Russia? Who has suspended all forms of interaction between our special services and militaries? Was it Russia? No, it was the United States who did this.

It might be unwilling to work together with us in these very complicated areas. But there is also the grave issue of terrorism, which needs our cooperation. Is the United States promoting dialogue on this matter? No, it is setting up blocks instead; it has blocked every possible venue. If you understand that we need to lift these blocks, then we realised this a long time ago and we have been speaking about this. Can you cite any statements in support of this approach, which the American public approved through the media? Regrettably, I believe that CNN did the most to show that cooperation with Russia is impossible and that it must not develop.

I remember the interview Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave to your commentator. It was before the presidential election, when Russia was presented as a monster whose aircraft killed an innocent Syrian boy. Your political commentator showed a picture of that boy to Sergey Lavrov, alleging that Russia was responsible and asking the Minister what he would say to this. Russian warplanes are bombing civilians in Syria, she alleged. A CNN commentator said this. Several months later it transpired that the boy was alive, that he was not killed in a Russian air raid, and that Russian aircraft were not to blame after all. The boy’s father later made a statement to accuse those who had raised the ballyhoo over his child of bias. He also said that he did not approve of what the opposition was doing and that he could even be a supporter of Bashar al-Assad.

Do you know how many letters we wrote to CNN to request that it publish a refutation? All in vain. If you think that we should work together, we are all for it. But let’s see some practical action first.

Question: So, there is no hope for an improvement in US-Russian relations?

Maria Zakharova: Quite to the contrary. We pin great hopes on this. The interview given by Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov provides our understanding of how this work should develop. In this in-depth interview, he was not theoretising or offering political analysis. Instead, he provided factual data and examples of how we can develop fruitful, normal and mutually beneficial relations. We are all for it. There is hope and desire on our part. It depends on the US side, because, regrettably, everything we are doing is reciprocated with an aggressive and militant rhetoric, the extension of sanctions, strange media reports, and this never-ending story about the alleged Russian interference in US elections. Where is the evidence? Nobody has any evidence. On the contrary, there is understanding that something happened at the US election without any practical or hypothetical Russian interference. However, an opposition view is still being promoted [in the United States] every single day.

Yes, there is hope, as the newly-appointed Russian Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov said in his interview with Kommersant. I think he will be happy to talk about this with the US media as soon as he assumes office.

to be continued...