Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, January 23, 2019

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Tunisian Republic

On January 23-26, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will make a working visit to North Africa, including the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Tunisian Republic.

Meetings are planned with representatives of the top leadership of these states, as are talks with the respective foreign ministers. The agenda of the upcoming contacts includes discussion of bilateral relations and an exchange of views on current regional and international issues.

Algiers, Rabat and Tunis are pursuing an active foreign policy, making a significant contribution to multilateral efforts to respond to new challenges and threats, including global ones. Deepening coordination with them fully meets Russia’s interests.

We attach particular importance to the regular coordination of our approaches to addressing the existing challenges of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Sahara-Sahel zone.

At the same time, we are guided by Russia’s principled position that the peoples living in this region can and should determine their future independently, without any outside intervention, to attain domestic goals through a broad national dialogue. This fully applies to the earliest resolution of the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Mali, and the cessation of the violence and the suffering of the civilian populations in these countries.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Beibut Atamkulov’s visit to Russia

On January 28, Beibut Atamkulov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, will pay an official visit to Moscow for the first time in this capacity.

During Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Mr  Atamkulov the parties will exchange views on a wide range of current issues of Russian-Kazakhstani relations, integration projects of the two countries, cooperation in the CSTO, CIS, SCO, UN and OSCE. They will compare notes on regional and international agendas. Special attention will be paid to regional security issues.

During the visit, plans call for signing a 2019-2020 Action Plan for cooperation between the ministries of foreign affairs of the two states.

Foreign Minister of Sierra Leone Alie Kabba’s visit to Russia

On January 28-30, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Alie Kabba will be in Moscow on a working visit. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with him on January 29. The officials are expected to discuss ways to step up political, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation between Russia and Sierra Leone, with a focus on promoting business partnerships in geological exploration, the fishing industry and the fuel and energy complex.

The ministers will discuss in detail current issues on the global and regional agenda, such as the settlement of crises and peacekeeping in Africa. They are also expected to pay attention to combating international terrorism and extremism in the context of comprehensive efforts to neutralise these threats in Africa and the Middle East. The two ministers will discuss the prospects of reforming the UN Security Council in light of Sierra Leone’s chairmanship in the African Union Committee of Ten on the UN Security Council Reform.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim’s visit to Russia

On January 29-31, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Iraq Mohammed al-Hakim will be in Moscow on a working visit. This is his first trip to Moscow as the Iraqi foreign minister.

During the talks scheduled on January 30, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Hakim are expected to discuss current issues on the global and regional agenda with an emphasis on the situation around Syria and Iraq. They will focus on consolidating efforts to counter international terrorism and religious extremism.

The ministers will also discuss in detail practical tasks in the context of further developing bilateral relations, including the upcoming eighth meeting of the Intergovernmental Russian-Iraqi Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation co-chaired by Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim, to be held in Baghdad this spring.

We are pleased to note that the Russian-Iraqi political dialogue is regular and constructive, with a high degree of trust and close or shared approaches on key international and Middle East issues.

Update on Syria 

Developments in Idlib are a source of serious concern. The situation in the de-escalation zone in this area is rapidly deteriorating. In effect, militants from al-Nusra’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham have established complete control over the situation by ousting units of the moderate armed opposition. The number of ceasefire violations continues to grow. Over 1,000 cases have been recorded since the signing of the Russia-Turkey Memorandum of September 17, 2018. As a result, 65 people have been killed and over 200 wounded. Thirty ceasefire violations have been recorded in the past four days alone. The continued provocations by terrorists pose a threat to the civilians, Syrian army personnel and the Russian Khmeimim base.

I would like to say a few words about the intention of the US to withdraw its units from Syria. Despite the unequivocal statement by US President Donald Trump on this, no practical steps have been taken. Under the circumstances, the main goal is to prevent an aggravation of the situation and the escalation of tensions in the northeastern regions of Syria.

According to incoming reports, dozens of people including four Americans (among them a civilian employee of the Department of Defence and a member of a private military company) were killed in Manbidj on January 16 by a suicide bomber who detonated a self-made explosive device. Needless to say, this incident should be resolutely denounced.

At the same time it is obvious that US units and their allies from the so-called anti-ISIS coalition in Syria have failed to prevent the movement of terrorists, that were besieged in eastern Syria, to other parts of the country. We would like to note again that to effectively counter the Jihadists and stabilise the territory beyond the Euphrates River as a whole, this territory needs to be placed under the control of the legitimate authorities. This would help Syria and would also make it possible to alleviate the national security concerns of the neighbouring countries. In this context we support the development of dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds, which is designed to promote the consolidation of Syrian society and national reconciliation.

On the political track, we continue working with Iran and Turkey in coordination with Syrian parties and the UN to launch the Constitutional Committee in Geneva. On January 21, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received the UN Secretary-General’s new Envoy for Syria, Geir O. Pedersen, in Moscow. During the talks the participants reaffirmed their positive attitude towards the promotion of the UN-assisted political process that is being developed and led by the Syrians themselves. Mr Lavrov and Mr Pedersen confirmed their common support for the cooperation of the guarantors of the Astana format and the UN in the interests of a Syrian settlement. Mr Pedersen also had a separate conversation with Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu.

Syrian refugees continue returning to their permanent residences. About 110,000 people have returned to Syria since July 18, 2018. The Syrian authorities are taking the necessary measures to protect the rights of the returnees and ensure their security. Thus, under Bashar al-Assad’s executive order on amnesty of October 9, 2018, over 23,000 army deserters and draft evaders settled their status.

Update on the Russian Investigative Committee’s investigation into the criminal case regarding the unlawful arrest of Kirill Vyshinsky and obstruction of his professional activities

In the course of the Russian Investigative Committee’s ongoing investigation of the crimes committed by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies against journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, it was established that, in addition to the officers from the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine, Andrey Prosnyak, head of the Investigative Division of the Main Directorate of the Ukrainian Security Service, was also involved in these acts of wrongdoing. It is from him that Mr Vyshinsky received a notice of suspicion of unlawful actions which entail criminal liability for high treason.

In relation to this person, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case under Art. 144(2) and Art. 299(2) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation over obstruction of legitimate professional activities of a journalist and illegal criminal prosecution.

We are hereby once again drawing the attention of the international human rights community to the fact that a journalist repressed by the Kiev regime for performing his professional duties continues to be illegally held in a Ukrainian detention centre. We call on international journalist organisations to come up with a tougher response to official Kiev’s blatant reprisals against a media worker whom they find objectionable. We demand that the Ukrainian authorities immediately release Kirill Vyshinsky.

Reaction of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to a statement by the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine regarding the Law on Education

On December 6, 2018, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine rejected the amendments to Article 7 of the Law on Education which were introduced in order to bring its provisions in line with the recommendations of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (aka Venice Commission of the Council of Europe) of December 11, 2017. In particular, the issue is about the need to extend the transition period required to translate the education process into Ukrainian for ethnic minorities.

In an attempt to justify such actions of his henchmen, Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Andrey Paruby publicly claimed that such a policy was allegedly supported by the Venice Commission experts.

In this regard, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the Council of Europe Ivan Soltanovsky asked President of the Commission Gianni Buquicchio for official comments.

The response letter dated January 17 confirmed the relevance of numerous criticisms of the aforementioned Ukrainian law, which imply the need to amend Article 7. It was noted that the additional law passed by Kiev on receiving education in the official languages ​​of the European Union does not address the concern of the Venice Commission regarding the situation with other languages, primarily, Russian, which is widely spoken in that country.

It turns out that Chairman Paruby is trying to mislead everyone and thus undermine the authority of a respected body of the Council of Europe.

For its part, the Foreign Ministry, including with the assistance of the relevant bodies of the Council of Europe, will continue to push for proper observance by Ukraine of the language rights of all ethnic minorities in the spirit of the expert opinion provided by the Venice Commission with regard to Ukraine’s Law on Education and the relevant provisions of the Council of Europe’s 2018-2021 Action Plan for Ukraine. 

Church law adopted by Verkhovna Rada

On January 17, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine approved the draft law On Amendments to Certain Laws of Ukraine (on Subordination of Religious Organisations and the Procedure for Their State Registration as Legal Entities).

At first glance, the document is purely technical. However, if one reads the text carefully and professionally, it is not difficult to notice the political component in it. In fact, an additional legal instrument has been created to continue the pressure on the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which opens up broad opportunities for stripping the church of its property rights and transferring them to the newly created church structure under the auspices of the Constantinople Patriarchate. In particular, the provisions of the new law, which provide for the determination of the membership of a particular religious community to a particular church by a vote of its members, are primarily aimed at this. In addition, the procedure for re-registering statutory documents has changed. It will now be carried out not only by the Department of Religions and Nationalities of the Ministry of Culture, but also by the authorised departments of regional administrations without any reporting on their decisions. This is a novelty in the legal regulation of this sphere.

Thus, citing the new law, the authorities once again turned a blind eye to the fundamental constitutional principle of non-interference of the state in the affairs of the church and can easily resort to various kinds of administrative manipulations in order to push their policy to strengthen the positions of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine they established. Such actions are contrary to Ukrainian law, as well as the rights and interests of the majority of believers in the country, and grossly violate Ukraine’s international obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Ukrainian President Poroshenko, with a straight face, offers assurances that this law allegedly guarantees a “peaceful and voluntary transition” of church communities and parishes, and its adoption almost saved Ukraine from “bloody religious conflicts”. In reality, that is not the case at all. The Ukrainian authorities declared their intention to consider this draft law, and alarming signals about the violent seizure of UOC churches by nationalists with the participation of representatives of local administrations immediately began to emerge from different regions of the country. Every day such reports appear on news feeds. And we can guess how many cases remain uncovered by the media. At the same time, the authorities look on with indifference at priests being literally thrown out of churches and parishioners being forced to accept the newly created schismatic “church”. They are only interested in real estate, the UOC parishes. I understand that this is a paradox – the material aspect has become the most important thing. It seems to me that it is quite appropriate that people began to speak about this law as the legalisation of “church raiding”.

Decision by the Council of State of the Netherlands not to publicise official materials on the MH17 crash

A question was asked about Russia’s cooperation with Australia and the Netherlands, which, without waiting for the criminal investigation of the Joint Investigation Group (JIG) to come to an end, are trying to impose responsibility for the MH17 crash on Russia. To reiterate, the issue was about possible trilateral consultations between Russia, on the one hand, and Australia and the Netherlands, on the other hand, which we agreed to hold in the near future, with the understanding that they would focus on the entire range of issues related to the downing of the plane in Ukraine.

I want to stress once again that Russia then agreed to hold consultations with the Netherlands and Australia on this matter. This is a fundamentally important point.

As is known, representatives of these countries have repeatedly tried to groundlessly accuse Russia of refusing to cooperate, although, in reality, our country not only showed its willingness to interact with the Netherlands, Australia and the JIG, but also made a specific contribution to establishing the truth with regard to the tragedy that played out in the skies over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

I would like to draw your attention to a very detailed and thorough interview that Deputy Prosecutor General of Russia Nikolay Vinnichenko gave to RIA Novosti on Monday.

In his interview, he confirmed that Russia cooperated with the Netherlands through their respective prosecutor general’s offices, provided all available information, responded to all JIG requests and made a vast amount of crucial data available to international investigators. Notably, it includes information on Russian military equipment, which was declassified specifically for this purpose, as well as primary radar data and documents proving the Ukrainian origin of the missile that shot down flight MH17.

What is going on in the Netherlands at this point? While they demand that Russia provide answers to investigators’ questions, which appear to have been fully answered by Russia, the Dutch authorities flatly refuse to divulge their classified information that could be of use to investigators.

Litigation between the three Dutch editions and the government of the Netherlands has lasted since 2015. Journalists have gone to court as they tried to force their authorities to provide the public and the investigators with transcripts of the cabinet meetings on the crash of MH17, as well as meetings with experts who evaluated the work of the Dutch authorities in the days following the disaster.

The government of the Netherlands chose not to do this voluntarily. Last week, the Netherlands Council of State - the highest judicial body vested with the powers of the Constitutional court - put an end to this case by completely siding with the government. According to the Council of State’s decision, these materials can now not be disclosed at all. What about transparency? What about the transparency of the investigation into the Malaysian airliner crash? What about freedom of speech? What about the rights of the journalists and the media to obtain the data, materials and information regarding the tragedy, which brought together a number of countries? Aren’t we witnessing an attempt by the Dutch government to hide everything that does not support the official version of the MH17 crash?

Bizarre information on the Skripal case

Official government information on the Skripal case is subsiding. British officials are almost not commenting on it at all at this point. However, leaks are beginning to reappear.

The British media recently published reports that first aid was rendered to Sergey and Yulia Skripal by 16 year-old Abigail McCourt immediately after their poisoning in Salisbury on March 4, 2018. We have not yet seen an official confirmation or denial of this information. If it is authentic, we would like to give credit to the British school girl and her caring attitude to people, her willingness to help a fellow human being.

The case in Salisbury is becoming even more confusing. Why did the British authorities conceal such a substantive fact for almost a year, emphasising repeatedly the huge efforts of the British police on the incident and reporting almost by the minute on the movements and possible contacts of the Skripals on that fatal day. The British authorities repeatedly praised Salisbury’s citizens for their courage during Russia’s “sneaky attacks” on that city and Britain as a whole. We have read many official comments on the first aid given to the Skripals and how it was administered.

Based on the new information that has not been confirmed or denied by anyone, in what has already become a British tradition, Abigail is the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Alison McCourt, the Army’s most senior ranked nurse, who also happened to be at the accident scene. Indicatively, neither Abigail nor Alison were affected by the chemical used against the Skripals. I would like to remind you of how the British media described Police Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey who became a national hero and could have allegedly been poisoned after contacting the Skripals at the scene in Salisbury.

So, what does this mean? Bailey almost lost his life saving the Skripals, whereas the teenage girl did not complain of any symptoms at all. According to the media, she was the first to contact the Skripals when they first felt ill. We could endlessly analyse any new information, leaks or fraudulent stories in the British media. As we understood it, the people in Downing Street are excellent at what they do. However, in the end, the world wants to know the truth. Serious accusations were made, a lot was done to destroy the fabric of international law, and global changes took place, including those in the structure of international organisations that specialise on problems of chemical arms. Maybe we will learn the truth on who was the first to help the Skripals? What exactly happened in Salisbury and its suburbs on that day?         

London has already released so many statements on the Skripal case that it seems that not only Russia but also the Brits should demand that their government finally provides objective information. As we have repeatedly emphasised, Russian law enforcement bodies are willing to help the Brits with the investigation. I would like this information to be published by the British press because I’m often asked why Russia refuses to cooperate with London. Russia has not denied, even once, help to Britain on the Skripal case. On the contrary, there have been numerous proposals in this regard and not only oral proposals via diplomatic channels but also written offers that were officially sent to Britain.

It is important to know the reliable information about the general condition and location of the Skripals. I would like to recall once again that Russia is still waiting for the implementation of Britain’s international legal commitments on granting consular access to our citizens.

Questions multiply every day but they remain unanswered.

US anti-Russia activities in Norway

Our attention was drawn to reports in Norwegian online media to the effect that the company Mission Essential, registered in Ohio, which renders various services to the US military, intelligence organisations and the Department of State, as well as the governments of “friendly countries,” has announced a position for an expert and translator that speaks Russian and Norwegian “to support extremely covert operations” by the US military in Norway. The requirements for a job applicant are interesting: US citizenship, willingness to travel to “combat areas,” working seven days a week up to 12 hours a day, inconspicuous behaviour and knowledge of “the culture and customs of the country of stay.” In which country is this potential employee to use his talents? The contact is Arendal in the south of Norway with no definite address.

Unfortunately, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, without going into detail, reduced its comments to the usual themes on the US military’s regular exercises in Norway in keeping with its NATO agreements. Norwegian Minister of Defence Frank Bakke-Jensen is convinced, from facts known only to himself, that Norway’s US allies “respect Norway’s interests including Oslo’s policy towards Moscow in the fields of defence and security.”

Now I’ll explain the situation in plain language. US recruitment agencies are unceremoniously trying to recruit staff to carry out hostile moves against Russia from Norwegian territory. In this situation, official Oslo has been pushed into playing the role of an obedient subordinate whose task is to unconditionally approve all of its senior ally’s “creative plans.” We wonder if Norway really needs this.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s review of French laws on the fight against the manipulation of information  

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, has finally published a legal review of two French laws on the fight against the manipulation of information, to which we repeatedly attracted his attention since the French Parliament adopted these laws on November 20, 2018.

The laws have extended the authority of the French media regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), to suspend the operation of media outlets that allegedly distribute fake news for up to three months before elections. Internet platforms have been instructed to take measures to prevent the spread of disinformation online and to make annual reports on their performance to the CSA.

We have pointed out more than once that in light of continued discrimination against Russian media in France these laws can be interpreted as the French authorities’ attempt to provide legal grounds for cleansing the media environment of undesirable views under the pretext of fighting disinformation. All our questions, proposals and requests to see the news items that can be regarded as fake news or disinformation, in particular those provided by Russian media outlets, have been in vain. We have not received any information. It is also a fact that these laws have been criticised by some members of the French expert community, the media community and NGOs, in particular, Le Monde and Le Figaro newspapers.

The review of these French laws by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir has been limited to criticism of minor elements and the conclusion that these laws do not contradict the relevant international obligations of France and are designed exclusively to protect democratic institutions from fake news. Without interfering in the work or questioning the position of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, we would nevertheless like to share our views on this. 

The OSCE official’s approach to the new French laws and the time it took for him to formulate this approach (a legal review appeared only two months after the publication of the French laws, which took a long time to prepare and were widely advertised) stand in stark contrast to Mr Désir’s openly negative attitude to the Russian draft laws on liability for the publication of unreliable information and online insults of the state. Although the Russian  legal initiative is still in the stage of expert discussion, Mr Désir has not waited for the results but hastened to publicly express his concerns over the possible infringement on the freedom of online media and the encouragement of self-censorship in Russia. Why the double standards? Why did it take two months to provide a response to the French laws, which obviously stipulate all-round restrictions on the operations of the media? Moreover, the review classifies these laws as fully in keeping with international principles on freedom of expression. Why did the reaction to the relevant Russian laws appear immediately, barely an hour after the first news regarding them was published? Why didn’t they wait for the opinion of experts? All this is very strange. We believe that the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media must not be made an instrument of political games, pressure or political blackmail. We would like this institution to operate on the basis of common standards. In our opinion, objectivity must be the main goal for the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media as an individual with a broad authority.

We believe that the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media must operate objectively and without bias regardless of the national origin of media outlets.

British press insinuations about so-called Russian mercenaries’ involvement in suppressing protests in Sudan

Allegations to the effect that so-called Russian mercenaries were involved in suppressing protests in Sudan, which have been published by the British newspaper The Times and disseminated by other media, are yet another spectacular example of an irresponsible approach. Journalists at the said British outlet and the behind the scenes customers, who ordered this umpteenth political provocation, have released facts that are at variance with reality.

We are informed that some employees of Russian private security firms, who have no relation to the Russian government authorities, are indeed working in Sudan. But their functions are limited to personnel training in the interests of the Republic of Sudan’s security agencies.

I would like to say that we have noted an interesting trend: when the British media need something or are instructed to do so by their head offices, we are immediately asked to comment or get requests for an interview or just questions, to which we promptly respond. But why do the stories that are really of fundamental importance fail to reflect the Russian position? Why don’t they send us requests the day before or well in advance? I think this should not even cause questions, because there is a definite order for a certain story. I think that the readers would conceive a totally different attitude to these developments, if the story in question included quotes by Russian representatives that shed light on this subject.

The opening of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society’s office in Jordan

On January 18, the capital of Jordan, Amman, hosted the ceremonial opening of an office of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society (IOPS). The ceremony was attended by deputies of the local parliament, members of the public and representatives of the Jordan-Russia Friendship Society. Speaking at the event, IOPS Chair Sergey Stepashin, leaders of the Jordanian Orthodox community and local MPs focused on the history of Russia’s presence in the Middle East and its traditional support for local Christians.

For more than a century since its foundation in 1882 under the executive order of Emperor Alexander III, IOPS successfully maintains Russia’s spiritual ties with the Holy Land, preserves cultural and historical heritage, implements humanitarian and educational missions in the Middle East, and assists the Orthodox pilgrimage movement. The opening of the IOPS office in Amman is a clear sign of a high level of mutual understanding and trust existing between Russia and Jordan in the field of religious cooperation and spiritual ties. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one of the most popular destinations for Orthodox pilgrims from Russia, who cherish a dream to visit biblical sites. As is common knowledge, the Almshouse on the Site of the Baptism of the Lord compound was opened near the place of Christ’s Baptism on the Jordan River in 2012. The plot of land for the construction project was donated to Russia by the decision of King Abdullah II for gratuitous and perpetual use.

We hope that the opening of the IOPS office in Amman will also be of help in implementing joint humanitarian and educational projects between Russia and Jordan, such as the construction of a Russian-Jordanian school at Al Husun, which has been agreed in principle.  

Volgograd (former Stalingrad) and Coventry: 75 years since the first twin city agreement in history

On February 2, Volgograd will be the venue of festivities marking the 76th anniversary of defeating Nazi German forces in the Battle of Stalingrad, the greatest battle, which changed the pace of the Great Patriotic War and world history.

Head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) Eleonora Mitrofanova will pay a working visit to the city during the events. During her visit, there are plans to sign a cooperation agreement between Rossotrudnichestvo and the Government of the Volgograd Region, including as part of efforts to coordinate cooperation between twin cities. This year marks the 75th anniversary of signing the first ever twin city agreement between Stalingrad in the Soviet Union and Coventry in Great Britain. Remembering the joint struggle against Nazism is what continues to unite our peoples. After the Battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle in history, King George VI of England presented the city’s people with the ceremonial Sword of Stalingrad that bears the following inscription: “To the steel-hearted citizens of Stalingrad, the gift of King George VI, in token of the homage of the British people.”

The twin city agreement between Volgograd and Coventry narrates the history of friendship between two cities with a similar military destiny.

On September 16, 1942 when the defenders of Stalingrad were exerting superhuman efforts to stop the enemy advance, Lord Mayor of Coventry Alfred Robert Grindley sent a telegram to Stalingrad. (The original document is stored at the State Historical and Memorial Preserve The Battle of Stalingrad).

According to the document, Coventry, as the most war-torn British city, greets with the greatest admiration the defenders of Stalingrad whose example inspires every honest person to rise against the common enemy.

“The inhabitants of Coventry will never forget the sacrifices which were endured by Stalingrad. They express to you, the people of Stalingrad, their feelings of special sympathy and admiration for your great courage and iron determination to fight until victory.”

I would like to mention another important document sent by the workers from Coventry to Stalingrad in 1942.

The document’s authors realise that the Soviet people’s resistance to the Nazi beast and their innumerable casualties have saved them from the horrors that they had merely anticipated during raids on their city in November 1940. The workers write that they are sending their delegate to the British Parliament in order to demand that their country fulfils its obligations with regard to the USSR. Comparing Russia’s war efforts with those of Great Britain they point to the fact that they should make a greater contribution and act quickly and resolutely.

This document makes you want to cry. On the one hand, it is hard to read these words; on the other hand, this proves once again that it is now necessary to act resolutely in order to protect the history of World War II.

The initiative of UK citizens, inspired by the fortitude of Stalingrad, served as a prologue for establishing official friendly relations between Coventry and Stalingrad that were crowned by the signing of the first twin city agreement in 1944 whose 75th anniversary we are  marking this year.

It is to be hoped that the British press and public at large will also write something about this event, and that they will recall it.

I am confident that the current Western political trends dividing our peoples will eventually subside, but it is impossible to erase the historical legacy that brings us together. In any event, we will not allow this to happen.

Afghanistan update

Question: A week ago, Afghan official sources (the Ministry of Defence of Afghanistan, as well as a member of the Badghis Provincial Council) reported on the liberation of several dozen ISIS prisoners from the Taliban prison by the Afghan army and foreign forces. The prisoners were handed over to law enforcement. What was the point of freeing ISIS militants who were in prison, even in a Taliban prison?

Answer: Indeed, the goal of the joint operation conducted in January to seize the Taliban prison in the Badghis Province and remove the ISIS militants from it raises questions. Why did the Afghan security officials and the United States need the captive fighters when hundreds more are free and active?

The Russian Foreign Ministry has already commented on this issue, so I can only add that these circumstances once again suggest that some countries’ special services are trying to adapt the activities of terrorists in Afghanistan to meet their own selfish interests.

Question: How do you assess the results of the shuttle diplomacy by Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the US Department of State Zalmay Khalilzad?

Answer: We welcome the US resolve to launch a peace process in Afghanistan, but so far Zalmay Khalilzad’s attempts to convince the Taliban to sit down at the negotiating table with the official delegation from Kabul have failed despite the strong pressure exerted on the Taliban Movement by the Americans, several Gulf States and Pakistan. In December in Abu Dhabi, the armed opposition refused to even let the Afghan Government delegation into the meeting room. And the regular round of consultations between the US special envoy and the Taliban emissaries, reportedly just underway, was nearly disrupted by the parties’ disagreements over the agenda.

Therefore, it is clearly premature to talk about the results of the US unilateral effort to launch the peace process in Afghanistan, which reaffirms the need to find a collective solution that would take into account the interests of all the neighbouring countries and main partners of Afghanistan.

We remain confident that the Moscow format is optimal for consultations on Afghanistan. During the most recent meeting the participants achieved greater success than the United States alone.

We also intend to continue holding Moscow meetings together with our partners and look forward to the United States actively joining them as a full participant, to facilitate the early start of a peaceful dialogue between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban Movement.

 

Answers to media questions:

Question: It transpired several hours before this briefing that the United States wants to pull out of the INF Treaty. Can you comment on this? Can such actions help strengthen global peace?

Maria Zakharova: We held a large-scale briefing on the entire range of issues related to the subject you have mentioned. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who is responsible for this area, has outlined Russia’s position in detail, comprehensively and professionally, as well as the current state of affairs and the results of the long-term and lengthy consultations and contacts we have had with American colleagues in various formats. Sergey Ryabkov has said everything there is to say on the subject of the INF Treaty during his briefing. What you have said could relate to the reaction of the US side to that briefing held in Kubinka.

Not only experts but almost everyone knows about Russia’s stand on the INF Treaty. We have used all the available platforms, starting with the UN General Assembly, and all manner of talks held by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and our experts. We worked specifically with the diplomatic corps in Moscow and held meetings with our American colleagues on neutral venues. Russia has used all the available opportunities to preserve this vital element of international stability and security.

There is nothing more to say. I can only add that comprehensive reference material on this subject is available on the Foreign Ministry’s website. I would like to say once again that Sergey Ryabkov’s briefing today was really all-embracing.

Question: CNN reported yesterday that special counsel Robert Mueller had launched a probe into the Trump campaign’s relationship with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its ties to Russian citizens. We know that Maria Butina is a member of the NRA. Might new charges be brought against her in this connection?

Are you investigating Butina’s operations? She took part in the Bolotnaya Square protest rallies and worked at the Right to Bear Arms public group used for pro-gun lobbying in Russia, which could be interpreted as an attempt to create a market for US gun producers or even as preparation for an armed coup in Russia.

Butina is a complex person. She could have been recruited. We want this matter clarified. At the least, she should not be presented as a hero.

Maria Zakharova: That is an interesting line of thinking. In other words, you think that she was not working for Russia in the United States but rather someone working for the United States in Russia?

I believe that there are two aspects that must be kept separate: the legal side of the matter and Maria’s personality. I believe that assessing personalities is not our concern. Why should official agencies and media consider people from the viewpoint of their complexity or simplicity?

As for Maria Butina’s arrest in the United States, we can say that she was placed under direct pressure. The reasons for her arrest and the fact that she was held in conditions that are only reserved for hardened criminals prompt the conclusion that she is a political prisoner.

If you as a journalist have found any relevant material or received it from your sources, it could be used in an investigation by the law enforcement agencies. But we are concerned with the facts of Butina’s arrest in the United States, the measures applied against her, her detention conditions and the moral and psychological pressure she has been subjected to. I believe this has nothing to do with the complexity of her personality.

One more thing: over the past years we have seen the United States, or at least a number of US government agencies, exceed the legal framework with regard to Russian citizens. I am referring to the high profile cases of [Viktor] Bout and [Konstantin] Yaroshenko. Have you ever wondered about the complexity or simplicity of their personalities?

We have been working to protect the interests of the Russian citizens who were treated arbitrarily, including in the high profile cases where Russian citizens around the world were captured at the request of the US. The matter of personality is of secondary importance in such cases. These are Russian citizens whose rights must be protected. There are also less conspicuous cases on which we are consulting our American colleagues. Some cases gain broad publicity and others don’t.

Regrettably, the operations of a number of US government agencies demonstrate that there are no legal grounds in many such cases. This is not because a number of US law enforcement agencies suddenly felt a dislike for Russian citizens (although such cases have occurred in the past), but that the overall sentiment is anti-Russia. Russian citizens, no matter how hard their plight is for their families and for us, are seen only as high profile objects of political bias by a large segment of the US political establishment.

Today I mentioned the case of Kirill Vyshinsky. Must we or can we speak about his personality? Or is this a case of unprecedented infringement of civil and media rights and freedoms? Where do his personality, the style of his articles and his talent come into it? The journalist was arrested and is being detained illegally for his professional activities, while the state that has arrested him keeps declaring its commitment to the legal norms it has violated in this particular case.

Question: There are an increasing number of reports on the Israeli army’s strikes on Syria. Thus, some damage was done to the international airport in Damascus. What are Moscow’s comments on this?

Maria Zakharova: We do not change our position in this regard. It is based on the principles of international law. The practice of dealing arbitrary strikes on the territory of a sovereign state (Syria in this case) must be ruled out. In our estimations, the escalation of hostilities in the region does not meet long-term national interests of any state in the Middle East, including, of course, Israel. It is necessary to prevent Syria, that has been through so much hardship in the long years of the armed conflict, from turning into an arena of settling geopolitical scores. We urge everyone to ponder over the potential consequences of provoking a new round of chaos in the Middle East.

Question:  Andrea Thompson from the US Department of State said that she may meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in the next couple of weeks but not to discuss the INF Treaty. What is it about? Can you confirm the information about the forthcoming meeting and what issues will be discussed?

Maria Zakharova: As soon as next week, January 30-31, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson you’ve just mentioned, who led the interdepartmental delegations at the consultations on the INF Treaty in Geneva on January 15, plan to be in Beijing to take part in a meeting of the so-called Nuclear Five. The agenda of this scheduled event is much broader than INF issues. The participants will discuss a whole variety of issues with a focus on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

However, considering the topicality of the situation surrounding the INF Treaty, Russia is ready to continue a separate conversation with the Americans on this topic. Moreover, in Geneva, Russian diplomats suggested to Ms Thompson, on two occasions, that a separate bilateral meeting be held on the INF Treaty in Beijing, but did not receive a clear answer.

It is regrettable that the United States is dodging a dialogue on the INF Treaty. This attitude makes it clear that the Americans do not see any need for additional discussions because they are determined to wreck the treaty.

Let me repeat the Russian position. Bent on uncontrolled arms buildup, Washington is actually destroying one of the key supports of the current regime of global stability, which is fraught with the most adverse consequences for international security.

Our American partners still have the time for shaping their responsible position. Considering a highly unstable approach of the US to its foreign policy course, which is obvious in many fields, our recommendation is not so much to change its mind (let it “change its mind” on other matters) as to shape a responsible approach to the INF issues. The US could recall the responsibility that leading nuclear powers bear for the preservation of peace. We are aware of such responsibility and are ready for dialogue with the US on the entire range of issues relating to strategic stability, including its vital element – the INF Treaty.