Briefing by Foreign Ministry Official Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, March 2, 2018

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s trip to Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia

From March 5 through 9, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will travel to a number of African countries on working visits: Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. Mr Lavrov is planning to meet with the top leadership of the afore-mentioned countries and hold full-format negotiations with his counterparts.

A wide range of important international and regional issues will be discussed, with special emphasis on forming a new international and regional agenda and building a new polycentric architecture of interstate relations, based on international law, including the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, while continuing to bolster the central role of the UN. There will be separate discussions on priority areas of bilateral and multilateral cooperation in combating international terrorism, transnational crime and drug trafficking. Among the focal points of the upcoming talks are ways to resolve conflicts on the African continent, the Middle East settlement process, the situation in Syria, the developments on the Korean Peninsula and the reform of the UN Security Council.

Mr Lavrov’s meetings and talks in African capitals will allow for more detailed analysis of the current state and future prospects of trade, economic, investment, scientific, technological and humanitarian ties. Another planned topic of discussion is joint efforts to make work on these tracks more effective, considering the existing experience of constructive partnership and the presence of important objects of bilateral cooperation in the afore-mentioned countries.          

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s talks with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi

On March 13, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia Retno Marsudi in Moscow.

The agenda of the upcoming talks comprises a wide range of bilateral cooperation issues, including ways to step up political dialogue and boost trade, economic and humanitarian ties, as well as a substantive discussion of international and regional problems. 

Sixth meeting of the Russia-Turkey Joint Strategic Planning Group

On March 14, the sixth meeting of the Russia-Turkey Joint Strategic Planning Group headed by Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov and Foreign Minister of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu will take place in Moscow.

Russia-Turkey political dialogue is characterised by dynamic contacts up to the highest levels. During the upcoming talks, the sides will compare positions on key issues on the bilateral agenda, analyse the implementation of the agreements reached between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and discuss the preparations for the regular meeting of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council chaired by the two heads of state.

The ministers will discuss the implementation of strategic bilateral energy projects (the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and the Turkish Stream gas project) as well as the possibilities for further promoting bilateral trade.

During discussions of current regional and international issues, attention will be focused on countering international terrorism, stabilising the situation in Syria and promoting the political settlement process in the context of the results of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi.

Voting abroad in the Russian presidential election

Acting within its authority, the Foreign Ministry is making preparations for holding the presidential election abroad. Ballots and other papers are being taken to our foreign missions. The formation of precinct election commissions (PEC) is almost complete. As of late February, they were headed by 32 ambassadors (including in the United States, New Zealand, Austria, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, to name a few) and 45 general consuls. Orders to form PECs continue to come in, so these numbers are not final.

The following has been done to reach as many foreign-based voters as possible. The total number of fully outfitted polling stations amounted to an unprecedented 393 as of the end of February. I would like to note that their number stood at 378 during the previous presidential election. The foreign ministry is expanding the geography of early and absentee polling stations. As compared with the last presidential election in 2012, where early and absentee voting was available in 166 cities of 62 countries, their number has increased to 356 in 90 countries now. This practice has never been used so extensively.

For the first time in the history of organising voting abroad, polling stations have been set up at popular tourist destinations, such as Goa (India), Phuket and Pattaya (Thailand), Sousse (Tunisia), and Hurghada (Egypt). We will take visiting polling stations to other holiday destinations, such as Bali (Indonesia), Sharm El Sheikh (Egypt), and Phu Quoc Island (Vietnam). Additional information will be provided.

Absentee voting stations have been set up at Bushehr (Iran), Ostrovets (Belarus), Guayaquil (Ecuador), Santa Cruz (Bolivia) and Vung Tau (Vietnam) at camps hosting our specialists working at major foreign industrial sites related to construction of nuclear power plants, oil production, and others. The production workers will have access to absentee voting stations in Angola, Algeria, Bangladesh, Venezuela, India, Iraq, China, Oman, Sudan and Turkey.

Since the authorities of Latvia and Estonia are against opening additional voting stations or organising absentee stations (the human rights watchdogs at the European Union and the OSCE would do well if they provide an assessment of such actions by these states), Russia decided to hold elections at the polling stations in these countries on March 17 and 18.

In these countries, as well as in the Federal Republic of Germany and a number of others, it is planned to organise free bus rides to voting stations from the cities with large numbers of Russian citizens. The corresponding information was posted on official websites of foreign missions of the Russian Federation.

On February 15, the Central Election Commission of Russia held the first cluster meetings with the heads of Russian foreign missions from the CIS countries, the Baltic states, Scandinavia and Israel. They had substantive discussions about preparations for the elections, and exchanged views on organisational, methodological and legal issues. CEC senior officials spoke highly of the work done by the Foreign Ministry and Russian foreign missions in this area. We will try to keep up the good work.

A similar meeting was held at the Russian Embassy in Berlin on February 27.

Online conferences will be held at the ministry to cover remote foreign missions. We have already held such a conference with the countries of Africa, to be followed by Asia and America. We know from experience that this form of work is effective. Our diplomats who are in charge of organising elections are satisfied and thankful for the ability to receive answers, even remotely, to specific questions about the election.

The official CEC website shows addresses and phone numbers of the polling stations of Russian foreign institutions in the corresponding section. This week, we have already verified these data, and will do so again. A list of polling stations will also be posted in the corresponding section of the official foreign ministry’s website.

Every time, I focus on this specifically. In addition to existing disinformation topics, we now have the election theme. I can see posts in social media and on popular bloggers' pages that it will be impossible to vote abroad, or, that in order to vote abroad, one will have to wait for months to obtain a permit or a registration, and so on. Things get mixed up. There are things such as consular registration, voting and preparations for it. All information about what needs to be done, if you happen to be abroad on the day of voting, has already been posted on the CEC official website. Please, use verified information. Do not fall for misinformation. We are asking the media to cover this topic as extensively as possible. Indeed, there is lots of misinformation out there, and it's about citizens who need to vote. To reiterate, everything has been done to make sure they can do so. As compared with previous electoral cycles, the Foreign Ministry has stepped up its work.

The situation in Syria

Over the last two weeks tensions have grown in and around Syria, as two factors came into conflict. One is largely associated with the efforts of Russia and its partners in the Astana format and the team of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. These are efforts to back the positive impulse that the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi provided to the political settlement process in this country and make sure that there is a real push for peace on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The other factor is associated with the terrorists’ frantic attempts to intervene. Regretfully, not only have some of our Western partners failed to denounce their activities but they even did what they could to cover up and justify them, jumping at the opportunity to seize the initiative from Russia and continue carrying out their self-serving geopolitical plans, which have nothing to do with the interests of the Syrian people. Syrians have different views of their country, its political system and its future. But what terrorists, militants and extremists are doing is definitely not in the interests of the Syrian people.      

In political terms, the confrontation was triggered by the complicated humanitarian situation and the groundless accusations of using chemical weapons that continue to be made against Damascus.

This is an entirely artificial topic, since nobody has so far presented conclusive evidence that Damascus used chemical weapons. This can be seen, among other things, from recent statements by head of the US Department of Defence James Mattis, who publicly admitted that Washington had no evidence to prove this.     

All accusations made to this effect are based on falsified evidence from militants and certain “volunteers” from among the notorious White Helmets, who were many times caught distributing fake videos. The latest one that is being hyped now on the internet is a fake new “chemical attack by the regime” using chlorine in the village of Al Shifunia. At the same time, reports of the use of toxic agents by extremists are being ignored. For example, on February 15–17, two provocations involving the use of chlorine by militants against the government troops were recorded in the towns of Huvain and Sinjar in Idlib province.

Now let us move to the humanitarian aspect. In mid-February, after a long break, the joint humanitarian convoy organised by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross delivered food and medicine to the town of Nashabia in Eastern Ghouta. The necessary conditions were put in place thanks to the assistance of the Russian military who had secured a 72-hour moratorium on flights over this area. However, this did not stop the terrorists and illegal armed groups who interact with them in Ghouta from continuing to fire missiles at Damascus and shell the city and its environs. On February 24 and 25, over 70 mortar shells and missiles were fired at Damascus.

The shelling of the capital of Syria never stops, killing innocent people every day. According to the Damascus health department, 32 civilians were killed and over 200 wounded over the last few days.

On February 24, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2401 aimed at relieving the humanitarian situation in Syria, also through demanding an immediate end to the fighting, with the exception of military operations against terrorists, and the establishment of a humanitarian truce lasting at least 30 days; however, the militants only stepped up their attacks. The Russian and Syrian forces established a daily five-hour pause and created a corridor for the residents of Eastern Ghouta wishing to leave the area; the terrorists responded to it with fierce gunfire, hampering the safe movement of both people and humanitarian supplies.

These provocations by illegal armed units have made a large-scale ground-based counter-terrorist operation in Eastern Ghouta supported by the Syrian Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Force, necessary and inevitable. The villages of Hazrama, Salehiya and partially Nashabiya have been liberated. The strategic height of Tal Farzat has been taken. After severe battles with the terrorists, Syrian troops occupied the village of Hosh Al-Dawahra. Fierce fighting continues in the area of ​​ Utaya, to the southeast of Damascus. In Harasta, soldiers of the Syrian Army's 4th light armoured division won back several buildings in the Al-Ajami District. The militants there put up stubborn resistance. Reports say they are using US TOW missile weapon systems. The government forces’ offensive is unfolding, embracing Harasta from the north.

The situation in the Homs de-escalation zone remains generally calm. A few provocations by Jabhat al-Nusra and their allies were recorded in the north of the province of Hama.

Signs of life returning to normal have been noted in Deir-ez-Zor province, in the areas liberated from ISIS. In the first weeks of February, about 300 families returned to their homes in Abu Kamal. To facilitate this process, the authorities are building crossings over the Euphrates. The border crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border has begun to operate in regular mode. As Abu Kamal and Al Mayadin were cleared of mines, new ISIS arms caches were discovered, including Israeli weapons. On the opposite bank of the Euphrates, more than 10 people were hit by another indiscriminate air strike by the US-led coalition on a camp of IDPs.

We are closely following the developments in the Idlib de-escalation zone, where, according to reports, clashes have erupted between Syria's Liberation Front (SLF), the newly formed Syrian armed opposition association (Jabhat Tahrir Suriya) and al-Nusra (Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham). Al-Nusra troops are retreating, leaving one city after another.

We are still seriously concerned about the actions of the US-led coalition in Syria, in particular, the continued blockade of humanitarian access to the Rukban IDP camp, located in the so-called 55-kilometer ‘deconfliction’ zone, by our American partners. Such actions are in conflict with UNSC Resolution 2401. The US troops’ illegal presence in the area around Al-Tanf and the closure of the most important transport artery between Damascus and Baghdad constitutes a gross violation of Syria’s sovereignty.

As the extremists on the ground stepped up their efforts to break the truce, their foreign sponsors and biased media were stirring up hysteria over Damascus and Moscow’s alleged failure to implement Resolution 2401. I would like to say once again that Russia voted for the resolution and, hours after its adoption, began taking practical steps in coordination with Syria’s legitimate Government, to support the implementation of its main requirements exactly the way they are stipulated in the document. We will continue working toward this goal. However, we should not be expected to prevent the Syrian authorities from fighting terrorists, the very ones that have repeatedly bombarded the Russian diplomatic mission in Damascus, among other things. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov has stated this repeatedly, commenting on the adopted resolution; statements and comments of the Russian Foreign Ministry contained the same message.

Fake unsigned papers accusing Syria’s legitimate government, Russia and Iran of violating UN SC Resolutions 2254, 2268 and 2401 do little to fulfill Resolution 2401; it will be implemented through specific actions, which should result in a disengagement between those who are ready to support the ceasefire, and terrorists, with the subsequent elimination across Syria of terrorist organisations designated as such by the UN Security Council, and a political settlement process in that country based on Resolution 2254 and the decisions taken by the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi.

Humanitarian fallout from US-led coalition’s storming of Raqqa  

We are very concerned about the situation in the city of Raqqa, the centre of the Raqqa Province in the north of Syria. The population of the city stood at 300,000 before the start of the 2011 crisis. However, as ISIS militants captured Syrian territory to the east of the Euphrates, it grew to 800,000 people by 2014 due to internally displaced persons. Later all of these civilians, in fact, became a human shield for ISIS’ pseudo caliphate, which turned Raqqa into its capital.

In November 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are largely made up of Kurds, launched an operation to liberate Raqqa from terrorists. The operation was completed in October 2017. Throughout this period, the SDF was assisted by the air force and artillery of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition which blanketed the city with artillery and mortar shelling, and air bombs that sometimes included white phosphorus. For almost a year Raqqa’s districts and residents who were caught in a cauldron, were being methodically killed. The foreign advisors in charge of the operation would dismiss any mention of humanitarian corridors or humanitarian breaks, or of medical evacuation or humanitarian aid deliveries to the needy.

Now, frequent parallels are being drawn to what was happening, for example, in Aleppo. I would like to remind you that, in particular, when the Syrian army with support from the Russian Aerospace Force was conducting an operation to clear the area of terrorists, the top priority was always to consider and find opportunities to save lives and ensure the security of the civilians. I would like to remind you how many times we spoke in this room about webcams at the Russian Defence Ministry’s official site that were streaming the situation around humanitarian corridors, about which operations were planned and conducted on delivering humanitarian cargo, rendering medical assistance to those who were leaving the area of the clearance operation.           

The fate of Raqqa’s civilian population was of no concern to the commanders of the operation or to the Western community either. All the known cases of the short ceasefires declared by SDF commanders were related to the periods when fully armed and the most combat-ready ISIS units were evacuated from Raqqa to be redeployed in Deir-ez-Zor and other fronts to fight government troops.

After many months of siege the city of Raqqa has been essentially wiped off the face of the earth. This is confirmed by drone footage that is freely available on the internet. Residences, schools, hospitals, bakeries have been turned to ruins. Water and sewage systems are totally destroyed. There is no electricity. According to eyewitnesses, some areas are shrouded in a stench from decomposing bodies lying under the debris. The Western world does not want to know anything about this. Western journalists do not want to write about it. The humanitarian organisations that were closely following the developments in Aleppo and are currently watching all the activities of the government forces, are reluctant to pay attention to the Raqqa situation.

Raqqa is loaded with deadly traps left behind by terrorists and with unexploded ordnances that were used by the coalition, both are stalking new victims. Meanwhile, some declarations by a number of Western countries about their intention to commit some funds on mine clearing in Raqqa still hang in the air.

It is hard to tell the destiny of several hundred thousand civilians who were in the city at the onset of the siege, how many of them are forced to languish in terrifying conditions. Raqqa is a ghost city today which, however, according to media reports, has some sort of local council. Meanwhile, it is unclear who it represents and what responsibilities it has. Will the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tell us something?

We don’t need to talk again about the need for the restoration of a legitimate administration in this province and in the city of Raqqa in particular. Not only does the US, which settled to the east of the Euphrates in violation of Syria’s sovereignty, not allow representatives of the Syrian military or civilian authorities’ access, but neither are international humanitarian organisations or the media allowed in.

Meanwhile, according to reports seeping through that information “iron curtain,” the people still living in Raqqa urgently need humanitarian aid. In this respect, the Russian Federation put forth an initiative to set up an international evaluation mission that could give an independent and impartial assessment of the current situation in the territories, which are de facto controlled by the US, to estimate the needs of the Syrians there and to work out plans for emergency responses under the current conditions.

We must direct the attention of the world community and primarily the anti-ISIS coalition member-states that, according to Provision 10 of unanimously adopted Resolution 2410, the UNSC directly calls on the parties to assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need on the entire territory of Syria, and to allow humanitarian agencies safe and unhindered access to all affected areas in Syria which includes Raqqa, something that is mentioned in the resolution twice, by the way.  

Meanwhile, instead of assisting in resolving the problem of this long-suffering Syrian city, the media, as if in response to the Russian initiative, airs declarations of a different sort of “responsible military” on “the lack of value in Russia’s parallel efforts” in a Syria settlement. I would like to respond to this kind of “analytics”: Russia has never had and does not have any “parallel” or “perpendicular” efforts. Our actions are aimed at the universal and scrupulous implementation of the provisions of the UNSC Resolutions 2254 and 2410, adopted unanimously. That said, Russia is consistently making a weighty contribution to this process unlike some of our partners who, according to our evaluations, continue efforts for the realisation of their own geopolitical schemes which have nothing to do with the interests of a long-term Syria settlement.

I would like to remind you that back then we were told so much about Aleppo, that everything was completely wrong there. According to the mayor of Aleppo, a man who in one way or another has shouldered the responsibility for this long-suffering city, there are 200,000 civilians living there. So stop lecturing us. I am perfectly aware that the numbers we present can get to you. But it is true.

Access to Russian citizens in the Iraqi penitentiary institutions and related issues

According to available information, today 22 Russian-speaking women and 49 children who are presumed to be citizens of the Russian Federation are held in a Baghdad prison together with women and children from other countries.

The women are on remand and are denied contacts with people outside, including foreign diplomats, until the end of investigation. Hence, the employees of the Russian Embassy in Bagdad have no access to these women.

Following the investigation, the Iraqi authorities are planning to hold trials of wives and widows of foreign ISIS terrorists. There may be Russian citizens among them. They will be charged with illegally residing in Iraq as well as involvement in terrorist activity and aiding and abetting them. If convicted, they could face the death penalty, life in prison or long prison terms. The Iraqi Anti-Terrorism Law is very strict and those involved in ISIS crimes in Iraq can hardly expect leniency.

The problem is aggravated by the difficulty of identifying these women and their children. Some deliberately destroyed their papers and refuse to reveal their nationality, while others have really lost their documents in the course of hostilities. As you know, it is even more difficult to determine little children’s nationality, because they do not speak any language yet.

Nevertheless, the Russian Embassy in Bagdad is progressively and rather actively working on establishing the identity of these people, how they landed up in Iraq and the reasons behind their arrest. Diplomatic notes requesting visits for consular officials of the Russian Embassy in accordance with international law have been sent to the corresponding Iraqi ministries and agencies. If the Russian citizenship of these women is confirmed, we are planning on providing local lawyers’ services to protect their rights and appeal in case of tough sentencing.

Soon, we are expecting movement in the Iraqi position on allowing our diplomats to visit the women who are presumed to be Russian citizens in Baghdad.

As for children, the Iraqi authorities have never opposed and do not oppose their return back to their home country, provided their documents are issued properly in Russia and delivered by the Russian Embassy in Bagdad to the local judicial authorities. As you know, we have enough expertise in this area. From Iraq and Syria, 24 women and 73 children have been returned to Russia since the summer of 2017.

I would like to repeat that the Foreign Ministry is constantly monitoring this issue, because we receive a large number of messages, letters and requests from families and from the Russian regions. We are constantly working on it. We disclose details when possible.

The situation in Yemen

As a result of yet another round of escalation in the fighting, the catastrophe in Yemen grows deeper. We are dealing with the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. This is not just our opinion. This is a quote backed by statistics presented by Ismail Ahmed, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Yemen (who has already resigned), during the UN Security Council briefing held on February 27. The same information and data were also presented and confirmed by John Ging, the UN Director for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. So, what are the numbers? A total of 22.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 8.5 million, most of which are children, of course, are food insecure. Over a million people suffer from cholera and diphtheria – in the 21st century! Two million Yemeni are internally displaced.

When the Russian delegation participated in the work of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Conference of Disarmament in Geneva, one of the western journalists came up to me and asked me if we thought about children in Syria, because they were being killed. We had talked about this problem long before the West became aware of Syrian children at all, and before this humanitarian crisis started intensifying. I have a different question: does anyone in the West think about children in Yemen? Did anyone come up to anyone else, to some delegation, perhaps, to ask if they knew what was happening to children in Yemen? I will expand on children in other war zones later today. By the way, speaking of children in Syria – it is the Russian Federation who is taking these children in for treatment, providing humanitarian assistance to both children in Syria and children who come to our country. So yes, we do think about them. The most important thing is not even dealing with the aftermath. The most important thing is that we had spoken about this before all hell broke loose in certain Syrian regions, which I have already mentioned today.

According to the most conservative estimates, during the three years of the conflict in Yemen, over 9,200 people died, while over 50,000 people were injured. As a result of aerial bombardment, Yemen’s civil infrastructure keeps suffering tremendous losses. Schools, hospitals, transport facilities have been destroyed. The country is suffering from severe shortage of medicines, which is the reason why Yemeni people keep dying from diseases that can easily be treated today. A million and a half civil servants in both north and the south of the country have not been paid for over a year and a half.

The situation improved somewhat when Saudi Arabia lifted the blockade on Yemeni sea ports. Nevertheless, Sana’a airport remains closed to civil aviation, while the factions in the conflict keep obstructing humanitarian convoys.

We would like to also call attention to the fact that a number of delegations in the UN Security Council, which are showing excessive focus on Syria and allegedly are acting out of purely humanitarian motives (as they tell us), have been more restrained when it comes to the catastrophe in Yemen.

We strongly believe that there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict. We have to look for ways to launch the peace process without preconditions. We must bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Martin Griffiths, the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen, will be playing the key role in this process, and we wish him luck. We count on his ability to draw the necessary conclusions from the work done by his predecessor.

More outrages committed by radicals in Ukraine

We are concerned to see the further radicalisation of the situation in Ukraine. On February 17 and 18, nationalists, Russophobic zealots attacked the Russian Science and Culture Centre and the Rossotrudnichestvo office, as well as the offices of Russian banks in Kiev with the taciturn consent of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies. We will not focus on this since we already commented on it on February 19. We will note, however, that our appeals to the Ukrainian side to put an end to these outrages by radicals and create conditions for the safe functioning of Russian offices abroad have failed to elicit a proper reaction.

Hardly a week passed before our Consulate General was attacked in Odessa: on February 27, about three dozen nationalist activists threw smoke grenades on the grounds of the diplomatic mission and poured paint on the fence while shouting insults at the Russian Federation. About 50 Ukrainian law enforcement personnel stood watching. The increased number of assaults on Russian offices in Ukraine and the inaction of law enforcement testify to the fact that the assaults are instigated by the Ukrainian authorities who persistently follow the course of aggressive nationalism in a neo-Nazi manner.

In one of my interviews I mentioned US President George H.W. Bush’s speech in Kiev in 1991 who cautioned Ukraine’s people against nationalism. There is a passage in his speech which really shatters the imagination of the people who are closely dealing with Ukraine where he calls this nationalism ‘suicidal,’ as if he had foreseen that nationalism was not just a negative trait. Every country, all people have something to deal with, have manifestations of radicalism. But there are also peculiarities. In 1991 President George H.W. Bush said his country would not support ‘suicidal’ nationalism in the context of Ukraine proper and the people there.

It is not just Russian missions that are affected by the acts of radicals. In February, the Society of Hungarian Culture was attacked twice in the Trans-Carpathian region. There is no doubt that these incidents are a response to the hard and principled stance of Hungary’s leadership to defend the rights and interests of ethnic minorities in Ukraine. Official Kiev, rather than thoroughly investigate the mob attacks, immediately tried, in the best Russophobic traditions, to shift the blame to the Russian side and talked about some “Russian trail” in the case. The question then arises if it was Moscow that vandalized our own diplomatic missions.    

We call on international organisations to give an adequate assessment of the developments in Ukraine (before they start killing people), of this lawlessness, and demand that Kiev comply with universally recognized international standards to ensure the safe operation of foreign offices, and also to conduct investigations to find and punish those responsible for attacking foreign diplomatic missions.

Of course, we urge international organisations that focus on human rights issues to give their evaluations. Of course, there is little hope, because even now none of those who are dealing with and engaged in the settling of the Ukrainian internal conflict have given an evaluation of the so-called law On the Reintegration of  Donbass. Despite numerous requests, no assessment has been given so far.  

We would like to say that the Russian side completely fulfills its obligations on creating favourable conditions for foreign offices on its territory including Ukrainian offices. For example, Ukraine’s Cultural Centre on Arbat Street in Moscow conducts its activities without hindrance in accordance with the Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine of February 27, 1998, on the Establishment and Activities of Information and Culture Centres.

The Ukrainian side has lately been trying to stay in the limelight. Odd and occasionally plainly absurd statements by Ukrainian politicians, the adoption of discriminatory laws, regular excesses by radicals have become normal in the political life of Ukraine.

It seems things cannot go any further but there are no limits to perfection. Kiev has the impertinence to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and to command how they should arrange election processes. This refers to the diplomatic note of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry of February 21 regarding the presidential election in the Russian Federation on March 18, 2018. This note, which pretends to be a document, was nothing but bewildering. In particular, the Ukrainian side, in violation of commonly accepted standards and regulations, attempted to dictate election procedure rules in the Russian Federation and in the polling stations at the Russian Embassy in Kiev and the Russian Consulates General in Odessa, Lvov and Kharkov, which enjoy diplomatic immunity.

In this connection we would like to reiterate that the Russian Federation is a sovereign state which, according to the Constitution, independently determines the order of presidential elections on the territory of the country, including, naturally, the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol which became part of the Russian Federation through the realisation of the peoples’ right to self-determination enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter and international pacts on civil political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights. We will keep hammering home that the decision of the Crimean people is final and irreversible, the status of the Republic of Crimea as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation is encapsulated in the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

We expect that the Ukrainian side will comply with international and bilateral obligations including the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Consular Convention between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and that all necessary measures will be taken  to ensure the safety of Russian diplomatic missions in Ukraine, and also Russian citizens on the territory of Ukraine who will take part in the upcoming Russian presidential election.

The media situation in Ukraine

The story of the media in Ukraine has been taking one dramatic turn after another. Journalists are being prevented from doing their jobs, pressured, even subjected to physical violence. Law enforcement are not carrying out proper investigations into such incidents, including into murders of journalists, which is further evidence of the fact that this campaign of repression has been sanctioned by Kiev. 

According to an estimate by the Independent Union of Ukrainian Journalists, during the Euromaidan protests alone, or between November 2013 and February 2014, 271 attacks on journalists and media offices were recorded in Kiev. Nobody was held accountable. The coup was followed by systematic killings, beatings, arrests of Ukrainian and deportations of foreign journalists.  When we raise the issue of Russian facilities being attacked in Ukraine, what we tend to hear is that our relations with Ukraine are in such a state that this should be expected. Will the same argument be used to justify Ukraine’s attitude towards its own citizens and media? 

In fact, it has got to the point where Ukrainian journalists have to flee their country. What values guide the Ukrainian leadership to allow this?

No one appears to be investigating, as far as we know. Instead, Ukrainian human rights bodies serve a political agenda and directly put pressure on media undesirables. Let me give you one more example. On February 8, law enforcement agents stormed the office of the Vesti newspaper to conduct searches under what appears to be a made-up pretext of intervening in a property dispute. What really happened was that the publication was blocked from doing its job.

When lack of respect for the law is pervasive, journalists can hardly be expected to adequately perform their duties. Whenever we asked international bodies to take action against discrimination on the part of Ukrainian authorities that targeted Russian media, we were told to work it out with them on our own. You can see for yourself how that country deals with media. Russian media are not the only ones to suffer. A certain trend is now well-established.

We reiterate our call on the international community to resolutely state its position on this situation. We also call on European human rights organisations based in countries that were enthusiastic about the Euromaidan protests to give an unbiased assessment of the developments in Ukraine.

The situation in Moldova around the law on combating “foreign propaganda” 

We have repeatedly commented on the situation in Moldova around the discriminatory law on combating “foreign propaganda.” We have called on relevant international organisations and human rights organisations to come up with an objective expert assessment of the actions taken by the Moldovan authorities as regards their compliance with the fundamental principles and standards of international law. There has been no clear response so far. Or, to be more precise, there has been a response, but it does not match the scale.

It should not go unmentioned that the heads of the US and EU diplomatic missions in Moldova have spoken up on the matter, saying that this approach clashes with universal diplomatic norms. Regrettably, despite that, the pressure on the media continues to mount in Moldova. On February 26, following the public television in the Gagauz autonomy, TV-Gagauzi, Moldova’s Council for Television and Radio fined the RTR Moldova TV channel for retransmitting news broadcasts from Rossiya 1 TV network. If the channel refuses to change its feed, it will face more fines and possibly the revocation of its licence.

So, we are witnessing how a European country seeking to become a full member of the European Union is sliding towards totalitarian methods of control and putting direct pressure on uncooperative media that displease official Chisinau, up to banning their activity. We strongly protest these anti-democratic measures aimed at suppressing freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, all this is being passed off as the desire to follow the advanced experience of the EU. They claim that Moldovan legislation is being adapted to the European Convention on Trans-Frontier Television. Has the European Union ever heard of this?  

Controversy in statements by US officials on the development of Russian-American relations

We have noticed obvious controversy in the assessments of bilateral relations and, basically, of approaches to Russia and what is happening in it, which have been made by various US officials. Not long ago, there was an official statement on Russian-American ties. On February 28, US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said that she was not sure that the United States and Russia can make headway on the issue of improving relations. At the same time, the day before, on February 27, US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, addressing students in Kazan, said that he was optimistic about 2018 and that we could end it “on a higher note” than we began it. He believes that this year could be a better year for our relations, making it possible to address a number of problems. The ambassador noted that this should be done gradually without backsliding on developing business and investment ties and maintaining people-to people ties. A pretty nice dissonance indeed. All this is certainly alarming.

In all probability, the US has two versions of how bilateral relations are developing. One is intended for domestic consumers in the US and for an international response. For the American citizens, a number of representatives of the American political establishment shape the image of Russia as an awful country and constantly demonize our country. The same message is sent to journalists, who cover international relations inside the US.

The second version is meant for Russians. Perhaps, they want to show us that the US is doing everything to develop relations between the two countries, but that something or someone prevents it from doing it. I cited statements made by two officials several hours apart. From doubts about the possibility to make headway in improving relations to the prospect of bettering them this year. Impressive, isn’t it?

I am perfectly aware that sometimes it takes decades to wipe out some negative characteristics and trends in social development. The US needs more time to wipe out segregation in its society.

I would like to repeat that if the US State Department dares once again call our journalists attending a briefing “journalists from Russia” and stop talking to them for that reason, we will do what we have promised to. We will make special seats for so-called journalists from the US. This conduct is unacceptable. If just a few decades ago, people of a different skin colour were not let onto a bus, then one must wipe this out in oneself, rather than return to the perverse practice in the beginning of the 21st century, dividing journalists by their countries and nationalities. These are journalists, who do their job. Of course, they have their national identity, of course, they came from the Russian Federation, but you have no right to deny them access to information because of the country to which they belong. Let me repeat that if this happens again, we will arrange separate seats for journalists form the US. These will be special seats at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press centre and at press conferences so that your journalists can feel what it’s like.

I am very grateful to those American journalists, who defended the right of their Russian colleagues to have access to information and be treated equally.

Systematic interference by the United States in other countries’ elections

We are often asked what we mean when we talk about America’s systematic interference in other countries’ elections. We cite various examples but it would be best if you read a book by former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Not the latest one, titled What Happened, but the one that she wrote about her work as Secretary of State. Every page of that book describes several occasions when they interfered in internal affairs of various countries and trigger internal processes, what they did to support certain regimes they were interested in or, on the contrary, not interested in. All this is written in black and white and is not only publicly available but sold in shops.

Russia’s alleged plans to denounce the European Convention on Human Rights and terminate membership in the Council of Europe

Yesterday we received numerous requests from Russian and foreign correspondents to comment on the information that appeared in the media about the Russian authorities allegedly intending to denounce the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and, as a consequence, to withdraw Russia from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and terminate Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe.

To be honest, I can neither confirm nor deny this information. This being said, it is evident that Russia’s relations with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) are currently going through a crisis. We regularly express concern about the frustrating situation that currently exists in the PACE: Russia has not taken part in its sessions since the end of 2014, when the Russian delegation’s powers were limited.  Meanwhile, a wide range of major decisions falls within the competence of this body, including the election of judges for the ECHR and of key functionaries for the Council of Europe.

In this context, Russia’s inability to vote on such major issues, in our opinion, has a direct bearing on the legitimacy of decisions made about Russia by an organisation in forming which Russia’s will is not taken into consideration.

We also regularly inform our partners in the Council of Europe about our concern over the ECHR’s imaginative and sometimes offensive interpretations of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights that run counter to the norms of common international law and the principle of the ECHR’s subsidiary, or accessory role. Several politically charged statements against Russia are a clear evidence of the Court’s double standards, on which Russian representatives report at special meetings of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Therefore, we hope that our joint efforts to overcome the existing difficulties in relations between Russia and the Council of Europe will soon result in restoring comprehensive cooperation in the spirit of the organisation’s goals set out in its Charter.

 

Answers to media questions:

Question: What is your view on the US State Department approving deliveries of Javelin missiles to Ukraine? Can the Normandy Four negotiations resume after these developments?

Maria Zakharova: We have openly, publicly asked our US and European colleagues, and representatives of those discussing the situation in Ukraine with Russia, if they have analysed and calculated what this move will lead to, and what they aim to achieve. Is it peaceful settlement? We have the Minks Agreements for this. Everything is there. By the way, there is no mention in that document of arms deliveries being conducive to the peaceful settlement. In fact, the agreements contain the opposite — a step-by-step plan to achieve peace that needs to be implemented in stages. In order to ensure its implementation, other countries should provide every assistance and exert all influence that they have on the parties in conflict. This is the end of it. The agreement makes no mention of arms deliveries whatsoever.

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Question: Yesterday reports, including a release on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry, mentioned a meeting between the foreign ministers of the Caspian Five. Have the specifics of the discussion been made public? Later, Sergey Lavrov spoke over the phone with the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Iran. Was it in connection with the preparations for the upcoming summit?

Maria Zakharova: I’ve taken your question down for clarification and, if possible, I will get back to you soon with more information. I can say that Russia has regular discussions with Azerbaijan and Iran on the Caspian region as this issue is of interest to our nations.

Question: Armenia has elected a new president, who will be sworn in on April 9. How is Russia planning to build relations with him?

Maria Zakharova: I think that, without doubt, it lies exclusively within the ambit of the President of Russia to make relevant statements. Our relations with Armenia are rooted in history, and their trajectory is enshrined in bilateral agreements, so we are working on the assumption that the future of our relations will be what has been stipulated in bilateral treaties or agreed at numerous summits, meetings, negotiations, based, first and foremost, on the well-being and interests of our two nations.

Question: Do you believe it would serve a purpose to include once again the issue of Stepanakert in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations?

Maria Zakharova: Our stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement is well known. It is set out in the relevant reference materials on the Foreign Ministry’s website, and has not changed. In case of new developments or adjustment to our position, we will be sure to inform you.

Question: In his Address to the Federal Assembly yesterday, President Vladimir Putin said that the new missiles were no bluff. He appeared to refer to the fact that some people might think so given it’s 17 days until the presidential elections.

Maria Zakharova: I think a lot of people would want it to be just a bluff.

Question: Do you think the international community can ascertain the existence of these missiles?

Maria Zakharova: I would like to point out once again that any comment, let alone an official comment, on the Presidential Address, falls strictly within the ambit of the relevant bodies, as does the execution of Presidential instructions, which, as you are well aware, is stipulated in the relevant laws and the Constitution.

As to whether it is possible to see if the missiles are real, I would like to ask you a non-rhetorical question: has Russia ever declined military cooperation or refused to share military information? You should look at the number of diplomacy-oriented events that Russia’s Ministry of Defence has been holding. There is a special centre in Moscow that was built for this purpose. It hosts foreign delegations, military attaches and media events. I think the openness and readiness to cooperate that the Russian Ministry of Defence has shown is without precedent globally and, for our country, historically. Let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s not as if our country was very open throughout the 20th century. But times change, and openness and cooperation, especially in such areas as defence, the military-industrial complex, and so on, have become our trademark qualities. If interest is evident, and there are questions, Russia is always ready to answer them. I repeat that you can go to the Ministry of Defence website and see how many events that involve foreign experts and observers the Ministry holds.

Let me touch on another topic, although it’s not directly related to your very narrow question. I would like to point out what has been repeated numerous times. Russia has always proposed that we should resolve jointly all the issues that our country thought would arise to threaten international stability and security. Take the example of the anti-missile defence. A big news conference was held a few years ago in the vicinity of the Russian Foreign Ministry. It wasn’t just held at Russia’s initiative – it was organised by our country. Maybe some of you even covered it. I think our long-serving correspondents from Latin America will recall that conference. It was a large-scale event, and it was Russia that invited our western partners – the US, and other countries – to have an in-depth, serious discussion. Short videos, infographics and calculations were presented to show our vision of global security that wouldn’t have the world divided into safe and unsafe areas and security privatised by individual capitals and regions. After all the statements and concept documents, it was a real invitation to do concrete work.

Russia received no response that would translate into real steps. What we saw was a military build-up close to our borders, stepped up aggressive rhetoric, and new more horrifying armament concepts that aimed to contain a certain aggressor (which in recent years was meant to be solely Russia). There used to be an effort to be more hush-hush about the identity of that aggressor. In recent year, however, it has been stated publicly.

We’ve never closed the door to cooperation in any area. We sent out invitations and tried to make the first step. You will recall the Russian President’s Munich speech. There was a lot in that speech that showed that Russia had foreseen what the international community should have considered. What is worth remembering, too, is the Russian President’s speech at the 2015 UNGA. Was it not an invitation to start a dialogue on a concrete subject that would require collective action? Even if some people thought that anti-missile defence is not an issue where cooperation with Russia would be beneficial, pragmatic and serve a political purpose, no one can really say that cooperation on counter-terrorism is pointless. It benefits all from politicians to the ordinary people. That speech is worth remembering.

So I want to say once again that we have always been and will always be open to cooperation in various areas, and this principle underpins modern Russia.

Question: Russia and the Hungarian Government promised that the construction of a nuclear power plant in Hungary will be launched in January or February. There was unofficial information that President of Russia Vladimir Putin will visit Hungary in this context. Is there any information about this or possible delays in construction?

Maria Zakharova: We will ask our experts to look into this information and will reply to you today.

Question: President of Ukraine Petr Poroshenko spoke about Russia’s debt in connection with gas. What is this debt all about?

Maria Zakharova:  You should ask the Ukrainian authorities. Regrettably, we have experience in cooperating with Ukraine on the gas issues. This is always complicated and not due to any fault of Russia. You know the story and you should ask Kiev what happened this time.

Question: The Americans instantly reacted to President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly yesterday by accusing Russia of violating international norms of using strategic weapons. 

Maria Zakharova: The instantaneous comment of the US Department of State was followed by an immediate comment by Russian Ambassador in the United States, Anatoly Antonov, which has been published on our website. Pay close attention to it. This is a specific, expertly addressed and dispassionate comment.

Question: What do you think about the US refusal to take part in Russian-American expert consultations on international information security?

Maria Zakharova: To put it diplomatically, this is a strange situation for sure. But in reality this is beyond the bounds of propriety.  An agreement on consultations was reached, dates and parametres were fixed and consultations were due to take place. Apart from everything else, we regularly hear from US politicians (senators, congressmen and experts) about new information that has surfaced about Russia’s cyber interference, influence and so on. It would have been best to discuss this in the proper format. Russia was not only ready for these consultations, but also did everything possible to make them  productive.

Despite the fact that an agreement had been reached and confirmations about American participation received, the Americans were ordered not to take part. This was a big surprise, particularly to them. This is how the matter stands at the moment. To be honest, I was not going to comment on this at this point but since you asked I am telling you how things really stand. This is food for thought about reality, notably about groundless accusations of cyber threats emanating from Russia.

We even suggested that we discuss everything that causes the Americans concern at an expert level because experts can always communicate. However, some political signal compelled the experts to forego these planned and confirmed consultations. The agenda, the format, time and place and even specific details were all confirmed but, and let me repeat, the political signal did its job. As to who sent it, why and what it was about, well, it is better to ask the American side about this.

Question: The newspaper Kommersant wrote that a former Embassy employee, Ali Abyanov, said that the channel had worked since 2012 through Andrey Kovalchuk, who was detained in Germany. How could you comment on this?

Maria Zakharova: I will offer a piece of sensational information, one that unfortunately has not reached all media outlets. An investigation is still ongoing, experts have been working hard for the last 18 months together with their Argentinian colleagues. They have taken certain steps and made some arrests. The investigation continues. Let me remind you that it was the Russian authorities who recommended to their Argentinian colleagues that cooperation in this matter be initiated and the Russians who were first and foremost interested in the efficient running of this operation, which, in the end, turned out to be a success. Both sides have stated this because everything was discovered on the grounds of the Russian Embassy. I repeat, this investigation is still ongoing.

Sadly, a lot of false information will be made public. Now a new wave of denials is coming. Today, for example, The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper published a refutation of yesterday’s publication that the suspect, a certain Mr Kovalchuk, who was sought by Interpol, was an employee of the Russian Embassy. People have read millions of versions identifying him as a diplomat, a Security Department employee, a Foreign Ministry employee, a technical expert at the Russian Embassy and even a technical expert at several Russian embassies. All these suppositions are total lies. Refutations are already starting to be published. When I answered this question on the air today, I showed proof that even Russian state media are guilty. We will take pains to refute all information that is not true and we will make the relevant postings on the Foreign Ministry’s web site. All technical specifications, questions about the defendants and arrested persons – all this is part of the ongoing investigation. 

Question: The Argentinian customs office (they even published a photograph in Twitter) claims that the plane was Russian and part of the Rossiya Special Flight Detachment. The Presidential Executive Office claims that the photograph is a fake. Does the Russian Foreign Ministry intend to show a real plane?

Ms Zakharova: I repeat that these issues are all under the competence of the investigators. You should ask them about such technical aspects. We published official comments of the Presidential Executive Office but, unfortunately, not all of them were quoted. I believe that everyone should rely upon the information being provided by those government agencies where such information exists. Comments by the Foreign Ministry and the Public Relations Centre of the Federal Security Service state that the investigation is ongoing. We have provided all the necessary details for the investigation team. The Russian Ambassador gave seven or eight interviews in which he promptly commented on the situation, to the extent he could, given his capacity, so what else can we talk about now? Our big request is that you draw your information from the Ambassador’s interview, the Foreign Ministry’s comments and from announcements made by the Public Relations Centre of the Federal Security Service. For our foreign and domestic colleagues alike, we publish everything on our informational resources, web sites and social networks.

Question: Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Vladimir Dorokhin left his post on November 27, 2017 and it remains vacant to this day. Has any decision regarding candidates for the post of Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan been taken yet?

Maria Zakharova: Decisions regarding the appointment of Russian ambassadors are made by the President of Russia. Executive orders to this effect are posted on the Presidential website. This is the prerogative of the President. As for me, I can tell you that we are working to promote our relations with Azerbaijan. Our embassy is working in Baku, and we maintain contacts with our Azerbaijani colleagues in Moscow. The rotation of ambassadors is a natural process. It can take different forms. As I have said, this does affect our ties and contacts with our Azerbaijani colleagues.

Question: Unlike the US media, which wrote about Putin’s “super weapons” yesterday, the German media wrote about the hacking attacks at its federal ministries, including the Foreign Ministry. They are accusing a Russian hacking group of perpetrating these attacks. We have seen this before, when such hacking attacks were blamed for the Democrats’ defeat in the US and the results of the independence referendum in Spain.

Maria Zakharova: Do you know that Madrid changed its official position after some Spanish officials had accused Russia? They said that we again misunderstood them, that this is not what they meant. What can I say to this? They said what they meant. They needed an argument for domestic use, and they invented it. And then they decided to back-pedal. Sorry for using this term. This shows the value of such statements and responsibility for making them. They provided this hackneyed explanation when they needed to react to the domestic situation but had no political resources for doing this properly. After they lost face doing this, they took back their words and said that we misunderstood them.

Question: The US used [the alleged Russian hacking attacks] to explain Donald Trump’s victory and Spain blamed them for the separatist movement in Catalonia. Why is Germany accusing Russia?

Maria Zakharova: Frankly speaking, I don’t know. I think we should ask political analysts and experts in Germany. Overall, the political situation is developing very actively in Germany. This could be the explanation. There are very many comments on the political situation. I suggest that you read them to see what is going on there. Anyway, it is difficult to pinpoint the reason. What I said is one of the possible explanations.

Question: The main part of your briefing concerned Russia’s initiative for humanitarian corridors in Syria. Heather Nauert, the spokesperson of the US State Department, yesterday criticised this initiative and described it as “ironic.” She said that innocent civilians in Eastern Ghouta are not using those corridors, and that the situation is not dissimilar to what happened in Aleppo. 

Maria Zakharova: How does she know?

Question: According to information available to her, civilians are not using them because they fear persecution by the Syrian government. What can you say to this?

Maria Zakharova: Before saying anything, one should at least research the situation. I have provided a concrete example today. I told about the efficiency of the humanitarian corridors organised by Russia that, considering the complicated situation there, are working impeccably. They are used to deliver humanitarian aid and medicines, provide psychological assistance and ensure people’s safety. The webcams at the Russian Defence Ministry’s official site were streaming this. This is the experience of the Russian party. Can you describe the corridors as ineffective in this situation?

Efficiency is what we should speak about in the US zone of responsibility. Today I cited the example of Raqqa. We would like to hear the US assessment of the efficiency of its operation there. Is everything normal there? Are things getting better there? As I said, 200,000 people have returned to Aleppo. These are not empty words or propaganda. You can see the footage.

By the way, your channel has access to this footage. We know this because foreign delegations tell us that they watch RT reports and can compare them to Western reports, which say nothing about normalisation in those parts of Syria where the Syrian Government waged counterterrorism operations with support from Russia’s Aerospace Forces and were conditions are being created to encourage people to return there. In fact, this was our goal from the very start. But you don’t provide this information. It is possible that the US State Department’s spokesperson does not know that people are returning to the liberated cities and resuming their lives there? Is it possible that she does not know about these positive examples? If she doesn’t know this, it is because she only watches CNN or Fox News. On the other hand, it’s unlikely she watches CNN.

Question: You said that during Minister Lavrov’s upcoming visit to a number of African countries he plans to discuss a reform of the UN Security Council with his counterparts. Does it mean that the UN Security Council reform is becoming more real or that Russia has changed its position regarding the matter?

Maria Zakharova: No, the position remains the same. The UN Security Council reform is a major point of discussion during talks with most of our foreign partners, even more so because it is not every year that the Minister visits African countries.  It is a region that the Minister visits regularly but not as frequently as, for example, Europe. This is exactly why the plan is to discuss the entire range of issues, particularly, the issue that by all means concerns African countries, and the UN Security Council reform is a matter to be highlighted. Once again, the UN Security Council reform is discussed with the overwhelming majority of countries during talks between foreign affairs agencies. As concerns the conceptual approach, I cannot say that recently the work in the headquarters has been particularly intensive. Still, it does not appear that the reform is getting insufficient attention. The work is indeed ongoing, from bilateral and multilateral discussions to research and practice events at the United Nations itself. Minister Lavrov often pays particular attention to this matter, as he knows the organisation’s work from the inside after serving as Russia’s permanent representative to the UN for quite a long time. We will by all means provide you with a package of documents on Russia’s approach to the matter.

Question: My question concerns the resumed economic war with Belarus, specifically, with respect to the deliveries of milk and dairy products from Belarus that the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare postponed until March 6.

Maria Zakharova: I have not heard about any “wars” with Belarus in any area. I will clarify with experts what this is all about but I am certain it cannot be called a “war.” If problems arise, we solve them. By the way, today we met the new Minister-Cousellor of the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow Natalya Kislekova, who will work and represent Belarus in Russia. We did not discuss anything like this with her and I have not heard any such words from her. I will find out what this is about. If there are any problems we always resolve them with our Belarusian counterparts in a constructive manner.

Question: Yesterday President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko gave a very harsh response to this type of measures.

Maria Zakharova: I will find out.

Question: You have said that those claiming that cocaine was to be shipped by diplomatic pouch had no idea of how diplomatic shipments work. How are diplomatic shipments prepared and who decides on what is in them? For example, can a diplomat or maintenance staff send their personal belongings this way?

Maria Zakharova: What I can say to respond to your questions is that it is hardly sensational. It was clearly stated in the comment released by the Foreign Ministry immediately after the Argentinian media reported on the affair that in foreign missions diplomatic pouches are prepared by their senior officials. There is no way it can be done without any oversight by senior diplomats. This is what the Foreign Ministry said in its written comment.

Question: But what can be inside the pouches? Can the embassy employees or maintenance staff send their personal items? Otherwise it is not clear why 12 suitcases were left in the school building, if there was no way they could be sent as diplomatic pouches, while they would have been subject to mandatory inspection if sent by regular post?

Maria Zakharova: This is the case in point. When reports about the diplomatic mail emerged, we said that this was untrue and either a misrepresentation or an intentional lie. Perhaps, I cannot rule out the possibility that there was a plan to make it look like diplomatic pouches. Today, in my interview with Sergey Dorenko, I gave a very simple example. If you go to a store selling brand name goods, and you ask for a bag with a brand logo, but then place in this bag a product that was bought on the street, and try to make it look like something that had come from the store, it does not change the fact that the product you bought on the street did not come from the store. We may have a similar situation in the case with the diplomatic shipment. It may be that there was an attempt to make it look like a diplomatic cargo shipment, but this is something the investigation will have to determine. I cannot confirm this, since it is up to the investigators, and the investigation is still underway. Was this a diplomatic shipment? Let me tell you once again that it was not. This is what the Foreign Ministry said right away in its written comment. By the way, I think that we also released an article on diplomatic couriers and on how diplomatic cargo shipments work. I think that this text should be updated and posted on the Ministry’s resources.

Let me reiterate that we are not trying to avoid answering your questions. As long as the investigation is underway, we are bound in our actions. This is what I wanted to tell you, and I hope that you understand what I mean. I am not hiding that I was unaware of this operation. I learned about it from my colleagues and the information we have is limited by those in charge of the investigation.

***

I wanted to end today’s briefing on a very unusual and somewhat gloomy note.

On February 22 an incident took place on the set of Mesto Vstrechi television show on NTV. You probably know what I am talking about. The participants were discussing the developments in Ukraine, including in Donbass. Responding to a political observer from Germany, who said that the Ukrainian military is shelling civilians in southeastern Ukraine, a Ukrainian expert became indignant and started asking for evidence. The conversation turned to children. Several times the Ukrainian expert requested evidence of children suffering. He said that this was not the case and that there were no materials to prove allegations of this kind. Let me say that the show ended the way it ended. I strongly believe that journalists, experts and political observers can and should defend their points of views in an intellectual debate instead of using force (this is another matter, but I could not fail to mention it).

We felt that it was out duty to respond, since we received a huge number of letters and calls from people in Donbass who were appalled by the fact that nobody seemed to know about the tragedy they were living in and the suffering of children among other civilians. For the Ukrainian expert who took part in the show and was not aware of the consequences of the shelling against civilians in Donbass, we prepared photographs of children who were killed or wounded by the Ukrainian armed forces. We received these images directly, not through any intermediaries. We did not look them up online and made sure that these are not fake images. We talk to people from Donbass directly. Even seasoned members of the Department of Information and Press staff said that this was too much for them. We will not show you everything, since these are horrible photographs. It is our duty however to know, to remember and make sure that those who are not aware or have forgotten also remember. Today, we will show you several images and will also create a special section within our social media accounts where these images will be available to those who do not know or fail to remember what is happening to children in Donbass.

I am sorry for ending this briefing in this unusual manner, but we had to do this.