Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, February 7, 2019

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s upcoming talks with Foreign Minister of Finland Timo Soini

On February 11-12, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini will visit Russia at Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s invitation. The ministers will hold talks in Moscow on February 12.

The ministers will have an open and engaged discussion of important issues of the bilateral and regional agenda as is customary for the meetings between Sergey Lavrov and Timo Soini. They will exchange views on international developments, including through the lens of current Finnish presidency in the Arctic Council and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, as well as Finland's upcoming EU presidency in the second half of this year.

The third Moscow intra-Palestinian meeting

On February 11-13, the third meeting of representatives of all major Palestinian political organisations will take place in Moscow on the platform of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The delegations will be provided with favourable environment so that they can directly, constructively and without external interference discuss all issues of interest and problems that stand in the way of restoring unity in the Palestinian ranks.

We believe this event is important and timely, especially given the recent aggravation of the disputes between the main Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas.

According to established practice, representatives of Palestinian parties and movements participating in the Moscow meeting will be received by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Having put forward a proposal for holding an inclusive intra-Palestinian meeting in Moscow, Russia was guided by its principled position on the Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which cannot be achieved without Palestinian national unity on the well-known political platform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations of the Kingdom of Lesotho Lesego Makgothi

On February 12-14, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations of the Kingdom of Lesotho Lesego Makgothi will visit Russia on a working visit, the first such visit in the entire history of bilateral relations.

Talks between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations of the Kingdom of Lesotho Lesego Makgothi are scheduled to be held in Sochi on February 13. It is planned to discuss prospects for cooperation between Moscow and Maseru, including joint development of Lesotho’s natural resources, introduction of advanced Russian technology in that country in various areas, and training Lesotho professionals in the universities of our country. There will also be an exchange of views on important issues of the global and regional agenda, including Russia's participation in international efforts to resolve conflicts and crises in Africa and to ensure sustainable socioeconomic development of the continent.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to participate in the Munich Security Conference

On February 15-16, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, as head of the Russian delegation, will take part in the 55th meeting of the Munich Security Conference.

According to the organisers, about 40 heads of state and government will get together in Munich this time.

The participants of plenary sessions, as well as numerous round tables convened on the sidelines of the forum, most of which will be attended by Russia’s representatives, will comprehensively review security issues in regions such as the Middle East, the Arctic, the Balkans and the Black Sea, as well as matters of energy and cyber security, disarmament and arms control, global trade, cooperation in healthcare and environment, and much more.

In his remarks, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plans to outline Russia's principled approaches to building cooperation within a wide region from Greater Europe to Greater Eurasia, as well as to ensuring international security and global stability.

The conference traditionally provides ample opportunities for organising informal political contacts on its sidelines. In particular, bilateral meetings between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a number of foreign representatives, including Foreign Minister of Germany Heiko Maas, as well as their joint participation in a working breakfast with business leaders of Russia and Germany, are being coordinated.

Syria update

Idlib Province remains the main hotbed of tensions and violence. The tune there is set by terrorist groups. Militants of Al-Nusra’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance have not discontinued their armed raids against the Syrian armed forces. For example, on the night of February 4-5, the terrorists conducted a number of offensive operations against government troops in the area of Aleppo. Radicals are also staging regular provocations in the north of Hama Province. So, there are no grounds to speak about the reduction of ceasefire violations by these criminal groups. During the past week alone, Russia recorded 35 similar cases. Indicatively, the extremists are not only shelling neighboring districts but are also planning full-scale offensive operations. According to incoming reports, in late January Al-Nusra urged its so-called allies operating in Idlib, notably, Hurras al-Deen and the Turkestan Islamic Party, to begin joint preparations for a potential start of a large-scale military operation.

Obviously, the ultimate goal of the terrorists is to establish control over the entire Idlib de-escalation zone. According to recent reports, they are planning to establish a joint operations headquarters with centralised command. Field commanders of all illegal armed units operating in the zone are supposed to join the headquarters.

Moreover, jihadists continue stockpiling toxic chemicals along the entire line of contact with the Syrian armed forces. We noted media reports that militants of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham recently delivered several tanks with chlorine from Jisr ash-Shugur to Khan Shaykhun in the south of Idlib Province.  It is reported that in transporting toxic chemicals the terrorists again relied on the help of the notorious White Helmets, whose activists kindly provided their ambulances this time. We would like to emphasise again that provocations involving chemical weapons are unacceptable. They are aimed at giving the green light to the enemies of Damascus from among Western countries to carry out yet another act of aggression against the legitimate Syrian authorities. We appeal to the patrons and sponsors of the White Helmets to give up such dangerous and destructive plans.

Considering the very complicated situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone, we hope that our Turkish partners will step up their efforts so as to eventually change the situation and fully implement their commitments under the Sochi agreements on Idlib of September 17, 2018, including the formation of a demilitarised zone.

Russia has continued its vigorous political and diplomatic efforts to launch a sustainable political settlement process. Our high-level representatives visited Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Iran as part of an interdepartmental delegation. During consultations they focused on the need to maintain the ceasefire, prepare for the work of the Constitutional Committee and provide humanitarian relief for Syrian civilians.

On February 14, Sochi will host the fourth regular summit in the Astana format. The Russian delegation will include Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. We do not rule out contacts between the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey on the sidelines of this event, during which they may discuss in more detail the full range of issues related to the Syrian settlement process as a follow-up to the agreements reached by the leaders of the Astana format countries.

As for Syrians returning to their places of permanent residence, their number is growing with every day. I would like to quote statistics again because figures graphically illustrate the positive dynamics. Over 125,000 people have returned home since July 2018. We are sure that this number will continue to increase because tentatively over 1,700,000 people expressed their desire to come home. We are going to continue taking coordinated measures with the Syrian authorities and other interested parties to provide aid for the returning Syrians.

Our stand on the dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus

Moscow has always considered and continues to consider Kurds as an integral part of the Syrian nation. Therefore, we firmly support the start of dialogue between the Kurds and the Syrian government in Damascus. We are confident that this process will serve the interests of ensuring the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria. We also see Washington’s declared intention to withdraw US troops from the country through this prism.

Once again, I would like to emphasise that Moscow believes that a long-term political settlement of the crisis in Syria requires consideration of the interests of all ethnic and religious groups of Syrian society, including the Kurds. We are confident that the Syrians themselves must find solution to all the challenges they face without pressure and outside interference. In this regard, we strongly reject any attempts to split Syrian society and the country on ethnic or religious grounds.

New revelations regarding the Netherlands’ support of Syrian terrorist groups

In September 2018, we already addressed the issue of the Dutch government rendering Syrian terrorist groups so-called non-lethal aid which appeared to have been used by the militants in purposes which were anything but peaceful.

The topic was reopened in Netherlands as Dutch journalists came out with new revelations which indicate that at least five Islamic organisations registered in the Netherlands as NGOs, with the connivance of the Dutch government, rendered alleged “humanitarian aid” to Syrian groups which are listed nationally and internationally as terrorist organisations (including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham). These so-called “charity organisations” not only delivered “humanitarian cargoes” to Syria (apparently designed for military use) but also collected “donations for charitable needs”, meaning support for terrorists. As an evidence, the journalists showed footage from an Al-Nusra camp where one of the terrorists is seen giving an interview as he calls for the killing of Syrian army soldiers against the background of an ambulance with a Dutch license plate, which had been allegedly delivered by the Netherlands for a hospital in Aleppo.

The damning evidence collected by the journalists was submitted to the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service, and the Syria-related activity of the aforementioned five NGOs was suspended. However, none of them has been banned as of yet, and they all are set to resume their activity in Syria at the earliest possibility. Experienced lawyers came to their defence.

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, who was called to account by parliament deputies, had to explain again the Hague’s aid to Syrian terrorists. According to him, the aid was meant exclusively for “moderate” groups but it fell into the “wrong hands” “by mistake.” Meanwhile, uncomfortable questions remain unanswered, which could have revealed the unsavoury role of the Dutch authorities in supporting terrorists, by referring to the article in the country’s constitution which allows executive authorities not to disclose information about participation in armed conflicts if it runs contrary to national security interests.

The new evidence revealed by the journalists is further confirmation that the Netherlands renders aid to Syrian terrorist groups, albeit via national NGOs. Of particular importance is the response of the government officials who prefer to cite “mistakes” and hide behind some sort of confidentiality rather than conduct a proper investigation of the exposed facts and take effective steps to guarantee that it doesn't happen again.

Western powers' delay in resettling White Helmets activists from Jordan

We have to again address the situation around the activists of the pseudo humanitarian White Helmets organisation, who were urgently evacuated from Syria in the summer of 2018 and were temporarily settled in Jordan. The Jordanian authorities offered their land to those people exclusively out of humanitarian concerns. We all remember perfectly well how their Western patrons adamantly claimed that they would send them to European countries and Canada within several months. Meanwhile, around 40 such pseudo humanitarian workers including their family members still remain in Jordan which accepted over 420 White Helmets activists. It is interesting to note that Europeans are in no rush to deal with their resettlement from Jordan and are dragging it out any way they can. It looks more like passing the buck or trying to get some compensation for agreeing to accommodate them in the country. Why is this being done?

The answer is obvious, in our view. The West has quite justifiable concerns that these pseudo humanitarian workers present a potential terrorist threat and are unlikely to sever their former ties with terrorist organisations. There is irrefutable evidence that there are regular Al-Nusra militants among them in addition to terrorist accomplices. Numerous examples of that were given in an investigation by the Russian NGO Foundation for the Study of Democracy presented at the UN headquarters in New York on December 20, 2018.

We regret to state that some countries persist in attempting to keep afloat the White Helmets' activities in Syria. Quite recently (on February 4) the Qatar Fund for Development allocated $2 million for that purpose. And on the following day the media carried reports the White Helmets are planning yet another provocation against Syrian civilians involving the use of chemical weapons in the area of Khan-Shaykhun.

All this is, of course, a cause of grave concern with us.

Report released by the Foundation for the Study of Democracy “The White Helmets: Terrorists Accomplices and Sources of Misinformation”

This investigation was done to reveal the true nature of the White Helmets’ activities in Syria. Let me stress again that Russia has an official position on this, which is communicated via official channels, and then there is work by independent journalists, experts and public activists who are trying to dig up the truth and report the real facts about the White Helmets, their collaboration with terrorists, and the crimes they have committed.

Recently the Russian Foundation for the Study of Democracy completed the full text of the report "The White Helmets: Terrorists Accomplices and Sources of Misinformation.”

The results of the investigation were presented by the Foundation’s director Maxim Grigoryev at an event organised by Russia’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York in conjunction with Syrian representatives on December 20, 2018.

I would like to reiterate that it is neither a collection of hypotheses nor does it represent Russia’s official position. These are materials which the Foundation’s representatives managed to find and present to the public.  

The report is based on materials collected by the Foundation’s staff during their visit to Syria in October-November 2018. They include numerous interviews with formers White Helmets activists, former terrorists and eye-witnesses of the crimes committed by the White Helmets.

The evidence presented by the Foundation for the Study of Democracy testifies to this pseudo humanitarian organisation's solid ties to terrorist organisations, pillaging and marauding by members of the White Helmets, takeovers of schools, kindergartens and out-patient clinics terminating their activities, as well as fire stations, shops and private residences. There are confirmed cases of the White Helmets’ personal participation in fake chemical attacks, artillery and air strikes, killings of civilians, including children, for organ harvesting. The most horrendous details emerge of the crimes committed by the White Helmets. It appears to have been a side business for those affiliated with that organisation.

I would to like to emphasise that it is an organisation which is openly funded by a number of countries, in particular, as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN recently confessed, by the nation she represents.

The Russian Foreign Ministry is intent on using the evidence presented in the investigation. This report is far from being the final word in the investigation, but rather opens up a whole series of investigations and analyses of what the White Helmets really were and the result of their crimes. 

We can offer a copy of the report to those interested.

Let me reiterate that we are not saying the report is perfect. We stress that it does not represent the official position of the Russian Foreign Ministry but rather is the work of independent experts. 

Venezuela update

Developments in and around Venezuela remain extremely worrying. Washington continues to signal the possibility of overthrowing the legitimate government by force, including through direct military intervention. The White House has made this perfectly plain. It is worth recalling that statements of this kind made by US officials constitute an outright violation of Article 2 Par. 4 of the UN Charter, whereby all UN member countries shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force.

Against this backdrop, promises of amnesty to military personnel take on an increasingly provocative tone, since they are designed to sow discord in the army. The question is: amnesty for what? If people have not committed any offences, why would they need amnesty? But there is an answer to this seemingly absurd question: amnesty for breaking the military oath. Does this mean that they are making direct calls to break the oath promising that this crime will go unpunished? What a horrendous temptation. In legal terms, under the Criminal Code this constitutes incitement and complicity in committing a crime. However amnesty is only the beginning. Washington went as far as to directly threaten to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan military who remain true to the legitimate government. This is a new take on the carrot and stick concept: they highlight the possible punishment, while leaving open the possibility of a reward.

We took note of the proactive stance adopted by the Venezuelan opposition whose activists seek to create an illusion of a dual power and are deploying an alternative network of diplomatic agents, although it is not clear whom these people represent. It goes without saying that these actions are totally at odds with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. By the way, this is evidenced by inconsistencies in various countries regarding their status when obtaining “accreditation.”

The “angry young Europeans” once again excelled in their willingness to vilify Russia. Some Polish observers suggested that “Venezuela could become a place where Russia will use the so-called Syrian scenario, which includes plunging the country into chaos and complicating US foreign policy.” This is what historian and political researcher Jerzy Targalski said in an interview with Polskie Radio. It is quite possible that some day we will learn from reports that it was Russia that invented and carried out the Arab Spring, and that it was Russian know-how. Why not? Everything is heading in that direction. It has to be recalled who the true author is of the Syrian gamble, and what it cost the country and the region. It would be interesting to know whether the hotheads in Caracas are ready to follow in the footsteps of countries where the scenario developed by the US and the West was tried and tested. Every time it all started with calls for restoring democracy and ended with the need to find a way to upgrade statehood on a territory that could no longer be called a country anymore.

I would like to mention a fact that was picked up by some Western media after our previous briefing. I am referring to the possible environmental consequences from US sanctions against state-owned PDVSA, the backbone of the Venezuelan economy. The Wall Street Journal reported that with oil exports declining storage facilities in the country are filling up, and tankers loaded with oil are staying put in the ports, which, according to oil union leader Luis Hernández, is an “absolute disaster.” With the sanctions in place, all that is left for the Venezuelan oil industry is to accumulate oil reserves. What will come out of this? Apart from environmental threats, this could lead to fuel shortages at the pumps, lack of fuel for delivering food and new problems for the economy, as well as everyday life of ordinary Venezuelans whom Washington cares so much about. Why impose sanctions that only make things worse?

Let me now turn to the question of international humanitarian aid that Caracas is under pressure to accept. This is as cynical as it can get: imposing sanctions that block the Venezuelan economy, on the one hand, while offering assistance, on the other hand.

According to media reports, Cúcuta, a city in a region neighbouring Venezuela, was recently visited by high-ranking US military officers, and a single command post of the so-called humanitarian operation is being deployed there. But if we call a spade a spade, this is a command post for a humanitarian intervention. Judging by the activity by the US military delegations that have literally flooded the region lately, they are working out the details of conducting a regime change by force in Venezuela, including the logistics support.

What about democracy? Who would believe this? Why do Western media fail to see the obvious? This is not a question of democracy. No one is trying to restore it. All they are trying to do is achieve a regime change in Venezuela. They are saying that life is bad for Venezuelans under this rule. If this is so, do not impose sanctions. Let this country live and prosper, and overcome the challenges it faces on its own without making them worse.

By the way, the Santo Domingo International Airport is located not far from this community but on the Venezuelan side of the border. It has one of the longest runways in the country that is 3,200 metres long, which means that any aircraft can land there.

Looking at all these facts inevitably leads to the conclusion that Washington decided to use force, and all the rest is mere camouflage. It seems that the hawks did not learn anything from the past. They are guided by their hunting instincts without thinking about their potential victims who unfortunately are fooled into believing the sweet talk and promises. Are countries that chose to play into Washington’s hand, including a number of Latin American countries, ready to assume responsibility for complicity in these undertakings? In any way, the fact that a hotbed of tension of this scale formed in the region will have unprecedented and disastrous consequences for its people.

That being said, there must be a chance for a positive resolution. An international conference on Venezuela opens today in Montevideo, bringing together Latin American and Caribbean countries, as well as EU representatives. This is by far not the first attempt to find a political solution in this country, and maybe not the last one. Mexico, Uruguay and CARICOM have presented their approaches. We view this as an important step toward opening up space for dialogue and enabling regional countries to play a more prominent role in resolving the problem. We hope that proactive engagement of high representatives from Latin America and the Caribbean, and their unbiased and constructive attitude will promote a balanced vision at the Montevideo conference enabling its participants to discuss important objectives that go beyond the positions of the European representatives at the meeting who declared in advance their support to one of the sides in the intra-Venezuelan political conflict.

We welcome all international efforts to promote a peaceful settlement in Venezuela based on the country’s constitution and laws. We remain committed to facilitating this process.

Assessing US-Taliban talks

In late January, Doha hosted a regular round of talks between US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives. As is claimed, its main result was a preliminary agreement on a US military pullout from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban’s guarantee that it would not allow international terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, to use Afghan territory against the US and its allies.

As we have stated earlier, Russia regards Washington’s intention to withdraw its military contingent from Afghanistan as a step in the right direction, one capable of precipitating the beginning of a peace process in that country. It was not accidental that in the wake of the said talks in the Qatari capital, members of the Afghan diaspora from Russia, the CIS, Europe and Asia, inspired by the prospect of peace talks, organised a Moscow meeting between leaders of Afghanistan’s leading political parties and the Taliban.

But the preliminary agreements that were reached in Doha are yet to be specified. It is still unclear whether the US will be satisfied with the Taliban’s promise to prevent international terrorists from using Afghan territory or it will put forward additional conditions; whether the US will agree to release Taliban members from prisons; whether the Taliban itself will agree to hold talks with the Kabul government at Washington’s insistence; and what number of its servicemen and military facilities the US would like to leave in Afghanistan following peace agreements with the Taliban. These are the key and most difficult matters that will have to be addressed to enable the US-Taliban dialogue to continue. Therefore, it would be premature to say that the final agreements and peace in Afghanistan are just round the corner. So far, we have received no answers to the key questions.

We are confident that genuine peace in Afghanistan can only be achieved based on a broad inter-Afghan consensus with support from leading outside players concerned with an Afghan settlement, primarily regional and neighbouring states.

Meeting of Afghanistan’s leading political forces under the aegis of the Afghan diasporas

On February  5 and 6, Moscow hosted a meeting of the leaders of Afghanistan’s foremost political parties and Taliban representatives, held under the aegis of the Afghan diasporas from Russia, the CIS, and a number of countries of Europe and Asia. The meeting participants discussed prospects for establishing a broad-based intra-Afghan platform to launch a peace process, including with an eye to developing modalities of a post-conflict system in Afghanistan.

The Moscow meeting has shown that, given Washington’s declared intention to withdraw many of its troops from Afghanistan, the Afghan public are preparing for a new stage in the life of their country, where Afghans themselves should play the key role in dealing with its problems. The discussions at the meeting confirmed that the respected Afghan politicians were prepared to take into account the interests of all ethnic and religious groups, without which it is hardly possible to establish real peace in Afghanistan.

Russia welcomes the results of this intra-Afghan dialogue, which was aimed at making the upcoming peace process in Afghanistan maximally inclusive and involving in it all social and political forces in the country, including the armed opposition. The event was a graphic embodiment of the principle of “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” conflict settlement dialogue, which was widely acclaimed by the world community.

We are confident that there is no alternative to this path of achieving genuine peace and turning Afghanistan into an independent, self-reliant and prosperous state, which will no longer be a source of terrorist threats.  

Provocative policy of Kosovo’s “Prime Minister”

The well-known ringleader of Kosovo Albanian militants Ramush Haradinaj, now serving as “Prime Minister” of Kosovo, continues his provocative policy aiming to undermine stability and security in the Balkan region. In November 2018, he ordered the introduction of 100-percent customs duties on goods from central Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. These duties made it much harder to deliver goods to Kosovo’s Serbs. This measure obviously shows the continuing policy of anti-Serb ethnic cleansing campaigns and driving the Serbian population out of Kosovo. In addition, Haradinaj said on February 6 that, from now on, he refuses to deal with the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which, as he claims, voices biased views regarding Kosovo.

Indicatively, the European Union, mandated by the UN to mediate the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, cannot and does not want to do anything about this. No one in Kosovo heeds any statements from Brussels. Perhaps these statements are not as insistent as Brussels can be in certain other cases. In reality, nothing is being done, except statements, with Kosovo leaders ignoring the European Union’s position.

Against this backdrop, one should note the responsible and well-thought-out position of Belgrade, which underscores its readiness to resume dialogue when the so-called Prime Minister of Kosovo revokes his unacceptable decisions. Serbia has not taken any retaliatory measures so far.

One gets the impression that the sponsors of Kosovo’s independence and the “champions of democracy” in the Balkan region are no longer able to influence the situation in any way. At the same time, the situation in Kosovo continues to deteriorate, and inter-ethnic tensions are becoming more pronounced. This is a matter of statistics, rather than a political opinion.

We believe that the UN Security Council should systematically focus on the situation in Kosovo.

Protocol on admitting Skopje into NATO signed

On February 6, a protocol on admitting Skopje into NATO was signed in Brussels in the presence of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Macedonia Nikola Dimitrov.

The euphoria of our Western colleagues in this connection proves that, by promoting the Prespa Agreement, they were not guided by a wish to help resolve the neglected regional problem. They pursued an entirely different goal, that is, to incorporate another Balkan country into NATO as quickly as possible and at any price, including through blackmail and bribery.

Yesterday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO keeps one billion people secure. Whom do they want to seek the people of Macedonia secure from? The “Kosovo Army” being recruited from former Albanian militants is the only serious military force destabilising the region. We don’t see any other security threats. In this connection, we would like to ask: will NATO really fight those whom it had trained and armed once again? We have already seen similar developments in Middle East and North African countries. First, they armed local militants and terrorists, and then they fought them. First, they created favourable conditions for the appearance of terrorists in areas where there had never been any terrorists; then they spent billions and tried hard to prevent the terrorist threat from spreading in the region and all over the world. I am not even talking about refugees, migration and the changing global landscape.

It is hard to say what real benefits Skopje will obtain from joining NATO, but it will certainly have to pay for NATO’s patronage. We know the prices since they have been made public by Washington. Macedonia will have to pay by increasing its defence spending and by taking part in military preparations and operations that have nothing to do with the interests of the people of Macedonia; moreover, it will be unable to conduct a truly sovereign foreign policy.

Upcoming presidential election in Ukraine

We received a message before the briefing that Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed a bill that prohibits Russian observers from the election. This is yet another step on the way to Ukraine’s “true democracy,” we all understand it very well.

I would like to point out that there have been statements and calls on behalf of Brussels, even from Washington – US Special Representative Kurt Volker wrote that it would be fine if Russians took part in monitoring the election. However, the Verkhovna Rada decided otherwise.

Once again, this is a “triumph” of democracy, step by step.

Kiev’s continuing attempts to falsify history

Official Kiev continues its committed policy of falsifying chapters of the Great Patriotic War history.

It was reported the other day that the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance posted online a board game called “Ukrainian Insurgent Army: A Response of Unbroken People.” For independent players at home, there is a playing field and cards that depict ‘enemies’ of the Banderovites: Soviet soldiers, partisans and Nazi invaders.

The game is supplied with an e-book on the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army which contains, among other things, biographies of Yevhen Konovalets, Stepan Bandera and Andriy Melnyk. The book plays with the threadbare claim that the Banderovites allegedly fought for an independent Ukrainian state against both Soviet soldiers and German invaders who the authors basically equalise. The fact that the so-called Ukrainian liberating movement closely cooperated with the Nazis and was responsible for bloody crimes against civilians is, of course, omitted from the book.

Obviously, promoting such extremist games is nothing but another insult against not only Great Patriotic War veterans who saved Ukraine and Europe from the brown plague but also against the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainians who cherish the memory of their ancestors’ heroic deeds. Kiev officials’ ardent propaganda of clearly neo-Nazi initiatives is aimed at deliberately inciting inter-ethnic hatred, conniving the nationalist and chauvinistic ideology and many other extremist ideas.  

Once again, we would like to draw the attention of our Western partners (who, if truth be told, shape Kiev’s political agenda), the OSCE and relevant human rights bodies who must not ignore the multiplying facts of glorifying the Nazis’ henchmen and must duly respond to the dangerous cases of historical revisionism, xenophobia and nationalism that are surging through today’s Ukraine with direct approval of the Kiev regime.

Anti-Russian rhetoric during the election campaign in Moldova

The parliamentary election in Moldova is to take place on February 24, but the already started election campaign is noteworthy due to some Moldovan politicians’ frequent public attacks on Russia. Our country is being accused of interfering in the election process and attempting to influence the voting results. At the same time, the individuals voicing such insinuations, most of whom have been in power in Chisinau for the past several years, do not deign to give any proof and stick to the traditional scheme Washington and other Western countries use.

We categorically deny such speculations. Russia has never had any intention to influence the election processes in Moldova. We presume that the upcoming election must be held in strict accordance with the common standards of democratic elections, and will be transparent and fair.

Increase in NATO submarines’ port calls in Norway

As you know, Russian submarines traverse the waters of Northern Europe and can be seen here and there. As soon as any domestic problem needs to be solved, or somebody wants to stir the pot in Northern European affairs, they turn to the issue of Russian submarines. The Russian Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry comment on this news and try to prove that all of them are fake. After that refutations are published in small print.

 We noticed publications by the Norwegian media about a three-fold increase in allied nuclear submarine port calls in the Norwegian waters in the past ten years. In 2018 alone, NATO submarines passed through Norwegian waters 27 times.

In order to justify this, fake news about the alleged Russian threat is being spread, and as a result, the authorities are urged to take up arms and citizens are told to purchase iodine-containing medicines to protect themselves from nuclear radiation.

At the same time, we are witnessing an increased number of cases when Norway itself takes part in the implementation of NATO’s plans to boost its presence in the Arctic region. In 2019, they will include assistance in building infrastructure for submarine maintenance in the North Atlantic. In particular, a special port will be equipped to admit nuclear submarines near Tromso, Norway.

In spite of the historical traditions of neighbourly relations and cooperation in the Arctic region, Oslo continues to escalate tensions and increase the risks of military activity. Such activity will not go unnoticed and the Russian Federation will take all the necessary measures to ensure its security.

Russian-language education in Estonia

We are deeply concerned about the recent developments with Russian-language education in Estonia.

After a “successful” eradication of the Russian language in university education, the country has shown that it is ready to make a full transition to Estonian-language secondary education, which is disguised as the idea of an “integrated school” where Russian and Estonian students would study in the Estonian language together.

The media is conducting a campaign to persuade the public that the integrated system will be “useful, competitive and optimal.” Russian-language school principals are being manipulated, while disloyal ones are forced to quit their jobs, as it happened in a gymnasium in Kohtla-Jarve, which is mostly a Russian-speaking city.

What we find particularly offensive is the cynical statements by Estonian politicians that these changes are being made in the interests and even at the request of Russian-speaking students and their parents.

It is obvious, however, that such notorious plans disguised as good intentions have nothing in common with protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking community.

I would like to point out that all countries should decide for themselves on how to shape their education policy. However, there are also international obligations, in particular within the OSCE and the EU, which directly regulate the states’ obligations towards national minorities that use a language common for a given area.

We are so often reminded about these international obligations that we cannot forget about them.

We urge relevant international structures, including the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier to turn their attention to these discriminative plans and evaluate them accordingly.

Transfer of mobile express diagnostics microbiology lab to the Republic of Guinea

Very soon, the Federal Supervision Service for Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) plans to donate a microbiology lab based on a GAZ all-wheel-drive vehicle to Guinea. The lab can be used for autonomous laboratory tests of environmental samples and clinical material for speedy diagnostics in the conditions of epidemics, in remote and hard-to-access areas that are not covered by stationary lab networks, and in the areas of emergencies. The laboratory can be employed as a mobile station for sanitary and epidemiological control. It allows working with pathogenic biological agents of bacterial and viral nature while complying with all biological security requirements. The laboratory has the capacity to conduct 30 to 400 tests daily using various diagnostic methods.

Russia and Guinea have developed cooperation on preventing infectious diseases since 2014, when Russian experts assisted Guinea in eliminating the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In 2017, Rospotrebnadzor opened a Russian-Guinean research centre for epidemiology and infectious disease prevention in Kindia. Between 2014 and 2018, specialists from Rospotrebnadzor’s research organisations who worked on rotation in the Republic of Guinea collected over 12,000 samples of biological material, conducted over 120,000 clinical tests, including 50,000 field tests. They carry out expeditions to various prefectures of Guinea to study the epidemiology of infectious diseases.

We hope that this equipment will serve to improve Guinea’s healthcare system and will be another contribution by Russia in the struggle against dangerous infections in Guinea and all of West Africa, and an important step towards further expanding mutually beneficial Russia-Guinea links.

Update on the Russian media in Germany

During the previous briefing, we discussed at length the problem of Russian media in Germany and pointed to the signs of a large-scale campaign to discredit Russian-language media, including by the German press.

We provided specific examples of how Russian and Russian-language media are surrounded by the atmosphere of mistrust and hostility. We also provided references to statements by top managers of some major German media outlets and representatives of the media community. We provided direct quotes which do not require any political evaluation because they speak for themselves.

We saw a very strange reaction, including from the official Berlin. As we understand, our German colleagues rushed to create the appearance of our concerns being completely unjustified. Official spokesperson of Germany’s Federal Government Steffen Seibert said that those who make such dubious claims know little about Germany and the freedom of speech or want to knowingly make Germany look bad. I want to return this quote to the official spokesperson. In that case you should not be judging Russia because you are judging Russia based on what is published in the German press.

Cybersecurity

I would like to address the issue of cybersecurity once again. We have already pointed out that the Western media are exploiting their favourite topic of computer hacking, often accusing our country of cybercrimes.

In this regard, we would like to draw your attention to the materials prepared by the Russian National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents. Here is a ranking of countries that are sources of cyber threats for 2016-2017. As we can see, the main source of malicious activity, according to leading information security companies (such as Symantec (USA), McAfee (USA), NTT Security (Japan), Kaspersky Lab (Russia), etc.) is not Russia; it is the United States and a number of EU countries.

I remind you that, according to Article 273 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, writing malicious programmes qualifies as a crime. Unlike Russia, Western countries are in no hurry to ban the development of malware. In many countries, including the USA, UK and France, more than 40 large development firms are involved in this multi-billion dollar business. For example, the French company Vupen traded in vulnerabilities. Its clients included the US National Security Agency and other NATO countries’ intelligence services. After a series of scandals in 2015, Vupen was shut down.

As a rule, manufacturers of information and communication technologies try to bring new products and services to the market as quickly as possible, without wasting time on long and thorough product safety testing. Because of this, errors go unnoticed, and, without being corrected, turn into hidden vulnerabilities.

The number of vulnerabilities grows every year, giving hackers a nourishing environment, because vulnerabilities are an excellent basis for developing malware. We firmly believe that making malware should be considered a crime. A war should be waged against this evil common for all of us at the global level, primarily on the legal track.

To improve information security, Russian specialists have developed a state system for detecting, preventing and deterring cyberattacks on the information resources of the Russian Federation. In 2018, this system exposed more than 4 billion attacks on Russian information resources. We regularly inform you in detail about any illegal influence attempts or cyberattacks on the Russian Foreign Ministry resources.

We urge our Western colleagues who accuse Russia of hacker attacks with unfailing regularity and without proof to focus on ensuring their national cybersecurity and the need for a joint fight against cyber threats. We are ready for this.

Facebook and Twitter war against fake accounts

The US operators of the social networking service companies Facebook and Twitter have recently reported on their fight against fake accounts. Since the publication of its latest report in mid-January, Facebook has taken down 783 accounts linked to Iran that published items and links to current events, including developments in Yemen and Syria. Twitter reported that it has suspended 2,617 accounts linked to Iran, 418 accounts linked to Russia and 1,960 accounts linked to Venezuela.

We see that they are working. This is good, because many times we ourselves became a victim of fake news, “influence campaigns” and “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, as these companies describe any “suspicious” activities in the social networks against which they are fighting. This is something that really needs to be done, but these should be objective efforts that are not taken to suit the political preferences of any [political] interest groups.

I understand that a great number of fake accounts should be suspended in the context of developments linked to Iran, Venezuela and Russia, but you can see that this decision is supplemented with political reasoning. I would like to remind you that we spent months trying to convince the administration of social networking services, including the ones I have mentioned here, to take down the fake accounts of Russian state authorities. We have not succeeded. They have redirected us to Silicon Valley, which told us we should deal with the US Department of State, and we were ultimately sent back to the social networks. Nobody seems to be responsible. Send us a letter, they say. We do, and then they reply that we misdirected our letters. All this commotion concerns facts that do not need any additional proof. For example, the Russian Embassy in some country has an official website. If a fake website of this embassy appears online, who other than the Russian Foreign Ministry should know immediately that it is a fake and inform the social networks thereof? We do this promptly, adding that these fake websites post very dangerous fake news, which can be described as misinformation. But our complaints fall on deaf ears. It takes weeks and sometimes months to get any  results.

It is notable in this context that the fight against fake accounts in Venezuela (it is remarkable that these social networking companies have taken an interest in Venezuela at this particular moment) led to the suspension of some 2,000 local accounts that published information in support of the incumbent legitimate government. Have these companies taken similar action with regard to the accounts that support other political views? So far, we see that these companies’ activities are influenced by political preferences. Is the fight against “suspicious” accounts objective if some accounts are taken down while others continue to publish biased and politically motivated misinformation?

I would like to point out that Russia has never interfered and is not interfering in any foreign elections, including in the United States. And we will not do this in the future either. Meanwhile, social networks continue their attempts to accuse Russia of this. Twitter claims that the 418 accounts that appeared to originate in Russia posted approximately 929,000 Tweets that were related to the US midterm elections in November 2018. Out of these Tweets, only some 73,000 were directly related to the elections. They must have been extremely convincing to influence the voting, considering that some 99 million Tweets concerning the elections were posted in that period. How can one believe in the alleged Russia threat when even Facebook and Twitter cannot prove that these “suspicious” accounts originated in Russia? It is claimed that certain activities are associated with Russia, but no proof or facts proving this have been provided.

Overall, they have admitted that the overwhelming majority of Tweets that allegedly attempted to influence the elections originated in the United States. Regrettably, there is little information about this in the media, and the data provided by these social networking services have not been thoroughly analysed. It appears that any Western news agency that does not write about the alleged Russian threat or, worse still, casts doubt on its existence will be declared to be pro-Russia and accused of the illegal promotion of foreign views that can affect national security.

 

Answers to media questions

Question: There is information that the US intends to put the Venezuela issue to the vote at the UN Security Council. In this way, Washington is attempting to legitimise its likely invasion in that country. What do you think about this?

Maria Zakharova: Let us not engage in modelling Security Council activities. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia will know if there is any intention to hold a meeting or consultations. There is no need to comment on something that does not exist.

Question: I would like to draw your attention to an episode in Russian-Japanese relations that has a direct bearing on the topic of the Kurils. As you may know, tonnes of Russian gold were smuggled out of Russia during the Civil War. The White Movement leaders intended to use this gold to buy weapons in Japan. But it was lost irrevocably and Russia never got the arms. The Japanese directly seized part of the consignment and deposited it in Japanese banks. Putatively, the Central Bank of Japan has deposits of Russian gold worth an estimated $80 billion.

I would like to ask you the following. If Russia paid the Tsar’s debts to France, why can’t we raise the matter of the Japanese debt to Russia, which is topical to this day? Is the Foreign Ministry making attempts to find out whether Japanese banks have this gold and what the chances for handing it over to Russia are?

I would like to wish you all the best on the occasion of  Diplomats’ Day and present you with this gift which is a book dedicated to the theme of Russian gold abroad.

Maria Zakharova: Thank you. I will read this book with pleasure. To reply to your question, I will have to consult our experts and historians on this matter. I am not that savvy myself.

Question: Today Japanese and Russian media noticed that the statement adopted following the annual meeting in Tokyo in support of the return of the Kuril Islands did not refer to them as “illegally occupied.” If we compare it with last year’s statement, the passage saying that 72 years have passed since the occupation has been replaced with the phrase that a peace treaty between Russia and Japan has not been signed during the past 73 years. Has the Foreign Ministry noticed this change in the Japanese rhetoric? Would you please comment on this?

Maria Zakharova: We primarily analyse Japanese official statements and Tokyo’s steps in this regard. Of course, we note the atmosphere that is created or is accompanying these statements and the negotiating process. It is not necessary to comment on actions made by Japanese NGOs or, in this case, public organisations. The case in point is not an official position. As for the Russian position, you know it well. The ownership of the islands you mentioned is not discussed.

Question: You have mentioned Sergey Lavrov’s upcoming visit to the Munich Security Conference. It was officially announced that Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers would hold a meeting on its sidelines. As is only natural, they will discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh developments. Are there plans for the Russian Foreign Minister to meet with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts? If so, what format will be used for the meeting?

Maria Zakharova: As I already said earlier, we are not announcing the upcoming meetings because they are still at the planning stage. I would not like to make any comments on this. But I promise to come back to this topic soon.

Mr Lavrov has just completed his visit to Central Asian countries. We will be planning in detail his upcoming attendance at the Munich Conference. We will certainly share with you data on the minister’s working schedule on the sidelines of the event.       

Question: Next to Venezuela, there are countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, countries that suffer from crisis, drug crime and a lack of drinking water on a daily basis. The US, however, does not interfere in these countries’ affairs, because they have no oil.

Maria Zakharova: This is exactly what we are saying: the US has, in fact, no concern for the democratic values and the people of Venezuela; they just want to change the regime. Their objectives concern domestic and foreign policies, their scheme is simple, and their patterns remain the same.

This plan has already been implemented in many parts of the world and led to catastrophic consequences. Some countries, such as Syria, have cut short the attempt to implement this plan. But the scenario was similar, too. We still remember the old phrase concerning the idea of changing the regime, because “the Syrian people can no longer live under this leadership.” This is precisely what was said.

When the Russian side suggested giving the floor to the Syrian people for them to determine on their own whether they could live with that regime, government and leadership, we were told that they certainly could not, and therefore, the regime had to go as soon as possible. Now that most of Syria has been wiped clean of terrorists, it turns out that the Syrians are more than ready for peace and  living their lives peacefully as well as solving their domestic political issues without any external involvement. Why a number of countries fail to see the lessons taught by other states continues to be a big mystery. In many ways, you reiterated what I have already said today – the moves to directly interfere in that country’s internal affairs and change the regime are guided solely by geopolitical motives, not the concern for the people of Venezuela. 

Question: Is it true that Russia will not hold additional talks with the Kurds or invite them to the negotiating table during the upcoming Sochi summit?

Maria Zakharova: I have already formulated the Russian position very clearly. We proceed from the fact that the Kurdish people are an integral part of the people of Syria; we have been actively advocating the establishment of a dialogue between the country’s official authorities and this population group, which is part of their own people.

Question: We are used to the fact that ever since the 1990s, Russia has been paying a tribute of sorts to the West in terms of human resources – I am talking about young scientists that migrate to support the American, German, British and other economies after receiving education in Russia. In his recent remarks at the Russian-Tajik (Slavonic) University, Sergey Lavrov said that there was a tendency for young people, young scientists, to come back to Russia. It is a very positive, interesting fact. Could you explain in detail how the Foreign Ministry participates in this? Have you noticed this tendency?

Maria Zakharova: This tendency was mentioned by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whom you have just quoted. Speaking of the Foreign Ministry’s role in this, I believe that it is the Russian government that is playing the key role by creating the proper environment. The Foreign Ministry informs the global community, legalises documents and works with Russian compatriots by providing a whole range of consular services. Together with the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Cultural Cooperation, we are conducting a great deal of work.

Question: Britain’s The Telegraph has published a report on  a third person involved in the high-profile Skripal case, allegedly linked to the poisoning. Can you comment on this?

Maria Zakharova: We have seen this article. But we have heard no official statements; there is nothing but media leaks. Unfortunately, in this situation we still have to take into account even such stories.

The article indeed mentions an alleged third suspect in the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, and cites certain names. It is alleged that the person in question remained in the UK, under an assumed name. Once again we are witnessing the planting of unsupported information, with heaps of media-inspired anti-Russian conjectures cranked out.

Once again I would like to emphasise that, even after the recent high-profile publications, we have not seen or heard any official statements from the British side. As before, we received no substantial response this time around, nothing that would shed light on the events.

Therefore, there is nothing to comment on. Because, figuratively speaking, we have already seen a billion such references to unnamed sources with leaks and re-writings. Every time we asked the British side to provide facts, data, to share their thoughts on various aspects, but never got any response.

I would also like to remind you again that London continues to refuse to cooperate with the Russian authorities in investigating this case. I emphasise that Russia is as determined as before to establish the truth about what happened, and will continue to demand that the British authorities present comprehensive official information and fulfil their international legal obligations to provide consular access to our fellow citizens. We need to and have the right to make sure they are not being threatened, that their rights are not violated and their freedom is not restricted. The most important thing for us is to clarify what actually happened, considering the gravity of the charges brought by the British Government.

Question: Two weeks ago, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said during an interview with CNN in response to a leading question that he would not use the word “ally” to describe Russia’s relations with Iran, and that one of Russia’s priorities was to protect the security of Israel. Can you clarify this matter and redress this situation?

Maria Zakharova: This is not exactly what Sergey Ryabkov said in his interview, and there is nothing to redress. We have very good relations with Iran, and Tehran knows this very well. I have a recommendation to make in this connection. Unfortunately, we often have to deal with inaccurate wording and translations, when media outlets highlight incorrect quotes and quoting out of context, whereas comprehensive material on bilateral relations is not given any attention.

There is a great amount of material on Russian-Iranian relations on the Foreign Ministry’s website. This comprehensive material explains our position on economic ties, which continue to grow despite the Washington and Brussels sanctions, our political cooperation, a Syrian settlement, and Russia’s consistent position on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. I would like to ask, in particular, you, why this material, which is available in English and other languages, has not been made public in Iran. How can quoting out of context and incorrect quotes change the mentality of people who have known for decades that Russia is a partner who is firmly committed to its obligations and does not change its strategic decisions? How can quoting out of context make people doubt this?

We have received related requests from the Iranian media, and I have provided a comment to reaffirm what does not need reaffirming, namely, the inviolability of Russia’s position on cooperation with Iran in all spheres. If necessary, I can repeat this once again. I will be delighted to provide detailed answers to all your questions and to the concerns you have mentioned.

I would also like to note that the subject of the status of bilateral relations, including partner or allied ones, not only has to do with the sides’ emotional attitude to each other, but is also based on international and interstate agreements on alliance or strategic partnership. This is probably the essence of the matter. These relations have been sealed in the relevant agreements, which remain inviolable.

In this particular case, I would like to caution you against fantasising or looking for contradictions. I would suggest that you read the agreements to learn about the status of our bilateral agreements and our countries’ attitude to each other.

As for leading questions, there is nothing unusual about them. Regrettably, we are living in a certain paradigm and a specific information environment where leading questions have become a norm. I believe this is something to be remembered not only by those who make statements but also by the media which report them. They should check everything and look at the quotes in the context of the entire interview, rather than focus on separate paragraphs.

I would like to share some good news in this connection. We have reached an agreement with Iran to hold consultations on the media in the near future. I believe we will be able to discuss this matter as well. I cannot tell you about the time or place of these consultations because we are still coordinating them, but we did reach an agreement.

Question: If Russia’s priority is the security of Israel in the region, while Israel’s goal is to force Iran out of Syria, does this mean that Russia will try to convince Iran to pull out of Syria? Can you comment on this possibility?

Maria Zakharova: Russian officials have commented on this more than once. The presence of foreign troops in Syria is being addressed by the Syrian government. Other countries may have widely different views and opinions on this matter. It can be discussed in multilateral, bilateral or many other formats. But the Syrian government alone is authorised to decide whose troops can or cannot be deployed in the sovereign territory of Syria, and in which capacity. This is the fundamental premise. This is exactly how we acted [in Syria], and we have explained our position to the general public more than once.

Question: Has France answered whether President Emmanuel Macron’s quote about Russia's interference in France’s internal affairs in the Le Point weekly is a fake? Did they confirm this quote? The article says Macron allegedly mentioned “Nazi,” “leftists” and “Russians” as destabilising factors in France. Could you comment on this?

Maria Zakharova: So far, the Russian Foreign Ministry has had no response from the French side to the note we sent. I would like to believe that our partners will soon provide comprehensive information on our concern. We hope that this will put an end to the spreading of baseless accusations against Russia and the Russian media of interfering in that country’s internal affairs and supporting internal political processes.

We very much hope that once the truth is established, Paris will abandon its discriminatory approach to Russia Today and Sputnik working in France, enabling them to fulfil their journalistic job and professional duties in accordance with the principles of freedom of speech and expression shared by Paris and enshrined in a large number of international obligations that France has assumed.

As for the quote attributed to Emmanuel Macron, I would like to note that, to rule out any speculation on this matter, a note was immediately sent to the French side asking for clarifications. We are waiting for them.

I would also like to explain that the memory of the Great Patriotic War and the millions of our ancestors, who gave their lives on the battlefields, worked for the victory at the home front and, ultimately, freed the world from the “brown plague,” is sacred for all citizens of Russia. Those who attend our briefings certainly know that we consider this topic a priority, including on the international arena. Therefore, any hints, even indirect ones – no matter who they may come from – to any analogies or parallels between the actions of our country, Soviet soldiers and civilians who fought at the battle front and at the home front, and the inhuman crimes of the Nazis are very sensitive and painful, and spark deep indignation as well as outrage among the Russian people.

We remember well how during the difficult years of the war, French soldiers and officers fought in the ranks of the Red Army. They lived and died side by side with our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. This joint fight for freedom and independence, sealed by blood and brotherhood in arms, laid the groundwork for the development of special, Soviet-French and later Russian-French ties in the post-war decades, as well as for the joint efforts of Moscow and Paris to preserve peace and security in Europe. It is with this historical baggage and time-tested values ​​that Russia continues to build the good-neighbourly partnership and friendly relations with France today.

I would like to say once again that we are guided by the universally recognised norms of behaviour, which are also propagated in Paris. As soon as the publication you mentioned appeared, we immediately sent a request to the French side and are waiting for a response.

Question: A commercial shown on BBC by the Invest Japan agency features the four disputed Kuril Islands as being Japanese property. Is this an honest mistake or a provocation?

Maria Zakharova: I have seen these reports but did not scrutinise the details. I believe it would be senseless and useless to wonder if this is a provocation, an honest mistake or political impudence. I would like to point out that Russia’s position on this matter has been put forth many times by the national leaders and the representatives of official agencies who are authorised to make statements of Russia’s sovereignty over these territories on behalf of the state. We will certainly pay attention to such actions and make our reaction known to the media and any other agencies that publish such data. On the other hand, we would not recommend paying attention to television reports or fake news items (it must be said that a great deal of fake news has been recently posted on this matter, and you know our reaction to this), but rather look up Moscow’s official position on this subject.

Question: Will you comment on the statement issued by the US ambassadors to Germany, Denmark and the EU, urging the European countries to revise the Third Energy Package’s Gas Directive so that the union’s gas pipeline regulations also apply to other countries’ projects, such as Nord Stream 2?

Maria ZakharovaWe have taken note today of a great deal of unofficial reports referring to certain statements and decisions.

In particular, Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung reported this morning that France might stand up and “abandon Germany” when it comes to Nord Stream 2. Before this briefing began, it was reported that the US ambassadors to Germany, Denmark and the EU urged their European partners in Germany to adopt amendments to the Gas Directive so that the EU’s key gas regulations apply also to non-EU countries. The ambassadors’ statement was posted by Deutsche Welle the other day.

Efforts are being taken to create a specific information environment regarding energy cooperation in Europe. This is being done rather crudely, with pressure being mounted by media outlets in the form of stories, letters and leaks. Regrettably, I believe that we will see more of such attempts made by some countries to cut short the growing energy cooperation.

As for our position, I will focus on the essence of the matter, that is, I will repeat our position on Nord Stream 2. It is well known, but I think there is no harm in restating it, in light of today’s German media publications. Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project aimed at diversifying Russian gas delivery routes to Europe. In this context, its successful implementation will strengthen the EU’s energy security, not weaken it as its opponents claim.

The EU plans to discuss amendments to the so-called Gas Directive of its Third Energy Package (TEP). These amendments provide for applying TEP regulations, that is, EU laws, on trunk offshore gas pipelines “from third countries.” In our opinion, the adoption of these amendments will seriously complicate the implementation and future operation of Nord Stream 2. The European Commission’s Legal Service said that applying EU rules to offshore pipelines may breach the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In this connection, we express hope that when taking a decision the EU member-states will be guided by their national interests and the interests of their businesses and European consumers, rather than by Washington’s anti-Russia instructions.

I fear, though, that this is not the last information campaign over this subject.

Question: Can you comment on US President Donald Trump’s statement that 100 percent of Syrian territory has been liberated from ISIS? Does Russia also believe that Syria is now 100 percent free? How would you respond to Mr Trump’s words that the United States has defeated ISIS?

Maria Zakharova: We have already commented on this. These statements cannot be interpreted out of context, because in this case they can only be qualified as populism. I suggest considering them in a comprehensive manner as part of US strategy in Syria. And that raises a lot of questions. I suggest, although many would love to interpret each new tweet in its own way, trying anyway to form a general understanding of the US strategic approach to Syria, to the resolution of the crisis there and to what is happening in the region.

We have heard statements on the US pullout from Syria. Then more statements, but of a different nature – they decided to stay, partially pullout, or partially stay, and so on. It is important to know the final decision, at least for the short term. As we understand it, there is no single concept in the US. Representatives of various social and political groups have different ideas and views on the strategy in Syria, and there are differences even among government agencies and executive authorities.

I hope we will soon hear and see a comprehensive US strategy, which can somehow be announced and presented to the international community, to explain their moves in this respect.

The main argument on which US criticism of Russia was built was Russia’s unpredictability. However, I could not find anywhere in which particular matters Russia showed unpredictability, which, according to Washington, appeared so dangerous for the European continent, the peoples of Europe and the future of the world in general. Russia has not shown any unpredictability on the most complex issues, whether it’s Syria, Ukraine or other hotspots. On the contrary, we behaved extremely predictably. All our postulates are listed in the Foreign Policy Concept and the concepts of other strategic areas of our domestic and foreign policy.

At the same time, the United States demonstrates absolute unpredictability and inconsistency in addressing key issues of its domestic agenda as well as global challenges, from the environment to geopolitics, from international humanitarian ties to energy security. Suffice it to mention a reversal of that country’s general course every four or eight years as US leadership changes; moreover, in recent years we have witnessed skipping from side to side even within the existing executive authority had certain plans and a programme when it came to power.

Question: Can we say that following the US’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty there is a danger that the United States will continue to break and violate other treaties? Are we at a reboot phase in international relations?

Maria Zakharova: This is not a question. This is a statement of fact. This trend did not start with the US’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty. We have followed it for a few years. This is not about the current administration. It all began long ago. The United States has unilaterally withdrawn from a number of agreements and commitments. I have mentioned this indirectly, but I can speak more specifically.

For example, the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM). There was not even a hint that Russia had somehow violated it. Simply, it became disadvantageous for the US in terms of the development of its military capability, its vision of geo-strategy and geopolitics in the world.

After that, this trend, like a snowball, became overgrown with new precedents – the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, UNESCO, the INF Treaty and the de facto parting from all norms of international relations, in particular international trade relations after years of praising the system and teaching everyone else to follow it. The United States is intensively promoting the concept of protectionism – a phenomenon that cuts off any further talk of free trade. Flourishing protectionism today shuts the door on everything the US had been leading not only Russia, but all other countries to – like following WTO rules, observing the rules of the free market on the world stage and using accepted rules for trading. This trend is not just an outline, but is unfolding in full measure. This policy has been going on for quite some time.

Question: Unfortunately, shelling in Donbass continues every day. In late January teams from the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office to the Trilateral Contact Group, Martin Sajdik, and Special Representative of the Department of State for Ukraine Kurt Volker began raising issues that indicate a potential “soft” discrediting of the Minsk Agreements. Are we talking about an information campaign designed to replace the Minsk agreements, which are very important for settling the conflict in Donbass?

Maria Zakharova: The answer to this is obvious as well. I think the latest foreign policy events in Ukraine bear this out. A new round of witch hunts has begun. Now devoted pro-Ukrainian politicians are falling under the millstone of Ukrainian democracy. They cannot be blamed of bias, or of loving or working for anybody but their own people. In part, they are charged with attempts to carry out the Minsk agreements. The latest statements made in this respect are simply beyond the legal system. The implementation of the Minsk agreements is in crisis due to the position of the Kiev regime.

Question: What do you think of the statement by the Swedish National Defence Research Institute on Russia’s “muscle building? They are referring, in part, to the military exercises: East, West and Caucasus.

Maria Zakharova: When somebody engages in muscle building, he may just want to be fit and improve his health. Judging by the growing trends in fitness in the world, a fitness devotee will not necessarily threaten anyone.

Question: Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said he would do anything to prevent the deployment of US missiles in the Baltic in connection with the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. What practical measures can be adopted in this respect?

Maria Zakharova: It would be better to address this question to our military experts. Russia will also take political steps – hold talks, present our point of view, and anything else that needs to be done.

Question: The first working group meeting on implementing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea is scheduled for this month in Baku. Who will represent Russia at this meeting and what results can Moscow expect?

Mari Zakharova: The results should be the practical implementation of the agreements reached. As for who will represent Russia, I will check on this.

One more point. In late January we noted an article by a Ukrainian journalist who said he was starving for good food, for instance, good cheese in Russia because it was, allegedly, impossible to find any.

Our domestic cheesemakers were infuriated by this. They flooded the Foreign Ministry with letters of rebuttal.

Since the statement was made by a foreign journalist, our cheesemakers asked us to let them use our venue for a tasting session with their products.

We are inviting all of you to this cheese tasting session. We offer products from domestic cheesemakers. You can try them yourself and give your opinion. I see here journalists from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. These products are broadly represented in their countries. I suggest we hold a cheese tasting session and you can tell us whether our cheeses deserve praise or still need improving. I would be very interested in hearing your opinion.