“European security architecture falls hostage to imaginary missile threats”

Russia will continue to consistently oppose any dubious unilateral actions in the area of missile defense which may adversely affect international security, said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Andrey Nesterenko.

In his weekly media address, Nesterenko commented on the deployment of US missile shield elements in Romania, Russia-US relations, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Moscow, the situation in Niger and START treaty development, as well as other issues.

RT presents the full transcript of Andrey Nesterenko’s briefing, which took place on February 26, 2009.

Ukraine President’s inauguration

The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in Kyiv yesterday held the inauguration ceremony of the country’s new President, Viktor Yanukovych. Boris Gryzlov, Chairman of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly, and Sergey Naryshkin, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office, represented Russia at the ceremony.

I think you have been able to acquaint yourselves with their statements during the events in Kyiv on Russian-Ukrainian relations and their prospects, which were widely cited by a number of media. For my part, I can in addition quote the words of the head of the Russian foreign affairs ministry, Sergey Lavrov, from yesterday’s interview with the chiefs of news agencies Voice of Russia, Russia Today and RIA Novosti: “Despite the problems in our relationship, which are well known, we have every reason to move towards solving them based on mutual respect and a balance of interests of each other. And we sense that desire on the Ukrainian side under President Yanukovych as well.”

Visit to Moscow by Michel Sleiman, President of the Republic of Lebanon

President Michel Sleiman of the Republic of Lebanon paid an official visit to the Russian Federation on February 24-26, as part of which he had talks with President Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin. Sleiman also met with State Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov and called on Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Chairman of the Russian Council of Muftis, Ravil Gainutdin.

This was the first visit of a head of the Lebanese state to our country in the 65-year history of diplomatic relations. Both parties view it as an important and landmark event.

The Joint Statement adopted at the end of the summit, to develop further and strengthen the relationship of friendship and cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Lebanon, set out the main thrust areas and prospects for multi-faceted bilateral interaction.

Considerable attention was paid to reinvigorating trade and economic contacts and promoting investment projects. Agreement was reached to activate the mechanisms of the Intergovernmental Economic and Trade Cooperation Commission and the Russian-Lebanese Business Council for this purpose. The sides touched upon themes of project development in the humanitarian sphere, which has traditionally played an important role in the system of bilateral ties.

They also discussed the prospects for promoting military-technical cooperation between the two countries.

Issues of the regional and international agenda were substantively examined, particularly taking into account Lebanon's membership in the UN Security Council in 2010-2011. The central theme in this case was Middle East peace efforts toward achieving a just and comprehensive Middle East settlement which must include a full Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in June 1967, the establishment of an independent viable Palestinian state coexisting in peace and security with Israel and a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees in accordance with the resolutions of the Security Council and General Assembly of the United Nations.

The Russian side again expressed strong support for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Lebanon, and the efforts of the Lebanese leadership to ensure internal stability and national reconciliation and to strengthen public institutions of the country. It emphasized the inadmissibility of outside interference in Lebanese affairs.

The sides pointed out the need to implement all provisions of UN Security Council resolution 1701, including the preservation of tranquility on the Israeli-Lebanese border area and an end to violations of Lebanon’s airspace.

We are confident that the many-sided development of Russian-Lebanese relations, which received at the summit in Moscow a very strong impetus, works for stability in the Middle East.

Working visit to Kazakhstan by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov paid a working visit to the Republic of Kazakhstan from February 21-22.

In Astana, Lavrov was received by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and held extensive talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs Kanat Saudabayev.

During his talks with the Kazakh leaders, held in a traditionally friendly and trustful atmosphere, a substantive exchange of views took place on key issues in bilateral relations and on a wide spectrum of problems on the international agenda.

The sides discussed the state of and prospects for Russian-Kazakhstan cooperation in the political, economic and humanitarian fields in light of the latest agreements reached at the meetings between the presidents of the two countries.

Considerable attention was paid to practical steps to bolster cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan in economic and trade questions, in space, nuclear areas and in other fields. The importance was confirmed by increasing efforts to effectively implement the Joint Action Plan between Russia and Kazakhstan for 2009-2010.

In the context of the current Kazakh OSCE Chairmanship, agreement was reached on augmenting the interaction of the two countries in this Organization in dealing with pressing international and regional problems. The parties also stressed the need for even closer coordination of efforts in the integration entities operating in the CIS space: CSTO, EurAsEC and SCO. They paid special attention to practical issues relating to the creation of the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The ministers thoroughly discussed stability and security in Central Asia, cooperation in the CICA and in fighting the common threats and challenges, the situation in Afghanistan, Caspian-related themes and other issues.

The parties noted with satisfaction the steady and dynamic development of multifaceted Russian-Kazakhstan relations, built on a solid foundation of friendship, mutual respect, good neighborliness, alliance and strategic partnership.

Catherine Ashton’s visit to Moscow

A delegation of the European Union, led by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton, stayed in Moscow on February 24.

Let me recall that Ashton was elected to the post of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on 19 November 2009 and that on February 9, 2010 she was also approved as the First-Vice-President of the European Commission.

Catherine Ashton was received in the Kremlin by Dmitry Medvedev. The President of Russia congratulated her on her appointment to the new position and expressed hope for a productive dialogue on cooperation between Russia and the European Union.

During the conversation in the Kremlin, special attention was paid to the need to increase the practical benefits of the strategic partnership and to define breakthrough and priority themes which will determine our agenda. The talk was also about how to see that the first results of this work are achieved near the next Russia-EU summit, to be held in Rostov-on-Don, 31 May-1 June this year.

As key areas for cooperation with the EU the President singled out, above all, the Modernization Partnership. This concept had been discussed at the previous Russia-EU summit in Stockholm. Last autumn it was backed up, and now we have begun, with our EU partners, a practical conversation about filling this concept with specific content. The first outlines of our partnership have been identified. We want to prioritize concrete, practically important areas of cooperation that cover economic development, social services, education, science, technology, innovation, management, administration, and law enforcement.

On the same day, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with the head of the EU delegation. The parties discussed the range of Russia-EU relations, the course of preparing a new Russia-EU framework agreement, and steps to further strengthen cooperation in 2010. Attention was devoted to streamlining the formats of Russia-EU cooperation in the context of the entry into force of the Lisbon Reform Treaty of the EU.

During the Kremlin conversation with the President and the talks at the Foreign Ministry Mansion, both sides paid special attention to further liberalization of the visa regime. In this regard, good opportunities exist for additional steps to be taken under the already existing accords between Russia and the EU. The Russian side raised the question of the need to concretize the long-stated aim of moving towards a visa-free regime. We hope that the current consultations between Russian and EU experts on the substantive issues which in the EU’s view must be resolved in order to move to a visa-free regime and will soon be crowned with success so we will be able to talk about timing. Russia, as you know, is ready to shift to a reciprocal visa-free regime with the EU even tomorrow.

Also discussed were issues of interaction between Russia and the EU in international affairs, especially in crisis management. The sides have a positive experience of cooperation, particularly in regard to the peacekeeping operations past and current in Chad and the Central African Republic, and with respect to anti-piracy efforts.

The heads of the Russian and EU foreign affairs agencies examined European security issues in the light of the proposals of President Medvedev to craft a European Security Treaty.

They also had a thorough exchange of views on a number of topical aspects of international relations, including the Middle East settlement process, the situation in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, and conditions in parts of Eastern Europe and Transcaucasia.

Quartet Ministerial meeting in Moscow

As you know, Russia in late December of last year put forward the proposal to hold a Quartet Ministerial meeting in Moscow.

We proceeded on the assumption that at this difficult time for the Middle East, with the dangerous pause in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations dragging on for more than a year, it was important to prevent destabilization in the region and try to find a way to restore dialogue between the parties. At such a moment, concerted efforts of the international community were especially needed.

All Quartet members backed up our proposal. Vigorous efforts were made recently to coordinate the date for this event. As you know from the statement of the Minister, the exact date is now agreed – the 19th of March. I can say that the Quartet’s special representatives have already started working through all the issues so that the upcoming Moscow meeting becomes a contribution so necessary today to the restoration of the peace process in the region. In addition to daily communication by telephone, they are also to meet with several partners.

Russian-US relations

I received the following question. A year has passed since the Administration of Barack Obama declared a reset in the relations with Russia. How could you assess the current state of bilateral relations?

In this regard, I can say just this. Russia has consistently championed normal relations with the United States, based on the principles of consideration of mutual interests, observance of the obligations assumed, honesty and predictability. We never departed from this policy line and follow it also now during the work with the team of President Obama. The results of the past year of interaction with the new American administration are seen by us as positive and encouraging. We have made substantial progress in strengthening the trust and predictability in bilateral relations.

Constructive and productive is the Russian-American dialogue at the highest level. In the past year there were five meetings between the Presidents of Russia and the United States, including full-fledged talks in Moscow in July 2009 which resulted in a number of important bilateral documents, including the Joint Understanding on the further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms, and the joint statements on Afghanistan, on missile defense and on cooperation in the nuclear field.

The Presidential Commission for the development of cooperation was created, which has set up more than 15 working groups on various areas, thereby combining many and ramified contacts between our countries into a single, coherent mechanism. The Commission is working on the basis of the Presidential Action Plan, which sets out the challenges and outlines the guidelines for the future. By the end of last year the stage of forming the Commission and determining the general framework of its work was completed, and the parties proceeded to a full-scale deployment of its activities through specialized teams to achieve specific mutually beneficial results.

Significant efforts are directed at concluding a new Russian-US agreement on strategic arms. Despite the shortness of time and a large number of military-technical problems, we have been able to significantly move forward within the negotiation process and to prepare a voluminous package of documents that can form the basis for the further development of relations between Russia and the US in the strategic realm. We hope that we manage to reach mutually acceptable solutions on outstanding issues in line with the national interests of both countries and to conclude the treaty soon.

Regarding interaction on the international scene, a vigorous bilateral dialogue is in progress on counter-terrorism, Middle East settlement, Iran's nuclear program and a variety of other topics. On many of these themes over the past year we have managed to reach a higher level of mutual understanding with the American partners.

Targeted efforts continue to expand economic and trade cooperation. Even in a year of crisis, against the background of reduced bilateral trade and investment flows, we proceeded with implementing a whole array of new and very promising joint projects. For example, the launch of the VSMPO-Avisma/Boeing venture for the machining of titanium forgings, the construction in Russia of additional Alcoa and PepsiCo production facilities, and the active work in the Russian market of the agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere.

Cultural and humanitarian cooperation is being developed. Performances of many Russian creative groups have become an integral part of the largest theater stages of America. Exhibitions from collections of Russian museums cause rave reviews among American art lovers. All this is a real contribution to enhancing mutual understanding between our peoples and societies, and that is the ultimate goal of the dialogue that takes place at the level of political leadership of both states.

So, in our opinion, the past year has shown that Russian-US cooperation has good prospects. Russia and the United States ought to seize the opportunities not only to correct, or, as our US colleagues put it, reset bilateral relations, but also to create a more favorable climate in the world which could help the search for answers to the dangerous threats and challenges of today and the promotion of stability and sustainable development at global and regional levels.

At the same time, looking at the future of Russian-American relations, we, of course, remain realistic and judge things in a purely pragmatic way. Much will depend on how strictly the principles of mutual respect and equality are observed in practice and how consistent the line on developing a constructive and mutually beneficial partnership is. For our part, we are ready for that and expect the same from our US colleagues too.

Deployment of US missile shield elements in Romania

We have noted the statements of official Bucharest on the “deliberateness” of its decision to host elements of a US global missile defense system on Romanian soil and the “transparency” purportedly shown by Americans in advancing these plans. Romanian presidential adviser Iulian Fota, for example, made exactly this point in a recent media interview. These statements are not quite correct.

Of course, we are concerned that of the critical decisions being made on a US antimissile presence in Europe we do not learn from our official partners in Washington or Bucharest, but from the media. Such practice is out of line with our idea of equal partnership in the field of missile defense, but the problem lies elsewhere.

What’s at issue is that we are again becoming witnesses to a hasty antimissile arrangement for Europe when the fragile architecture of European security actually falls hostage to imaginary missile threats that are defined unilaterally. It should be noted that in accordance with the Russian-American presidential statement on missile defense of July 6, 2009, we have only just begun a joint assessment of missile challenges. Similar work, as you know, is being conducted within NATO.

In general, serious questions remain in our minds about the true purpose of the US missile defense system. Therefore, we will continue to consistently oppose any dubious unilateral actions in the area of missile defense which may adversely affect international security.

Darfur agreement

I was asked the following question: “How can you comment on reports about the agreement reached in the capital of Qatar between the government of Sudan and the Darfur rebel movement?”

As far as is known from reports that came in, a framework agreement on cessation of hostilities between the Sudanese government and one of the major opposition politico-military groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, was signed in Doha the other day. Although the agreement reached through active mediation is interim and partial, it is seen as a substantial step forward in unblocking the political process.

Evidence for such importance was the attendance of the Emir of Qatar and the Presidents of Sudan, Chad and Eritrea at the signing ceremony.

Under this document both parties agreed firstly on an immediate ceasefire and secondly on the continuation of talks on the basis of the concerted principles for settlement with the aim of finishing them by mid-March. This meets the task set by official Khartoum of achieving peace and security in Darfur before a general election in Sudan in April this year.

It should be noted that simultaneously with this event in Doha came the announcement of a fusion of ten Darfur groups into a joint “negotiation team,” which of course makes it easier to forge dialogue. But four groups represented in the Qatar capital remain outside this bloc, let alone the fact that such a large Darfur faction as the Sudan Liberation Movement of el-Nur is still boycotting the Doha talks.

Russia, assisting international mediation in Darfur, proceeds from the assumption that there is no alternative to advancing the resumed negotiation process, commends the positive shifts, and hopes for its early finalization in the shape of a realizable all-embracing peace agreement. We will actively support efforts being made toward this end.

Situation in Niger

A military group carried out a coup d'etat in Niger on February 18, arresting President Mamadou Tandja and government members. The coup leaders, the Superior Council for the Restoration of Democracy (SCRD), have suspended the Constitution and halted the work of all state institutions in the country. Its chairman, Salou Djibo, was declared the head of state and the head of government. Instead of the dissolved Supreme Court, a State Court has been appointed and the Constitutional Court has been replaced with a Constitutional Committee. On February 23 by his decree, Djibo appointed Mahamadou Danda the prime minister of the country.

The SCRD has assumed the functions of the legislative and executive branches, pledged to preserve national unity and equality before the law for all, and declared that it guarantees observance of personal rights and freedoms and restoration of the “democratic process” in the country. It has also announced that Niger remains committed to the previously signed and ratified treaties and international agreements.

The military coup has caused a negative reaction in the international community. Niger is suspended from all activities of the African Union. As to our position, Russia believes that a change of power in any country must take place through constitutional means.

In the course of the events in Niger, none of our compatriots were hurt. The Russian embassy in Mali, representing the interests of Russia in Niger, maintains telephone contact with the Honorary Consul of the Russian Federation in that country, A. Iro.

The Russian Foreign Ministry continues to closely monitor the situation in the Republic of Niger and advises against travel to that country.

About the “Bout case”

We still have no official information about the essence of the new charges brought by the American side the other day against Russian citizen Viktor Bout, arrested in Bangkok in March 2008, whose case after a Thai criminal court on August 11, 2009 ruled against extraditing our compatriot to the US is currently before the appellate court. According to reports, a new request for the Russian’s extradition over the new charges so far has not been transmitted to the Thai authorities.

No matter how the situation may evolve around Viktor Bout, we intend to continue to take the necessary steps to defend his lawful rights and interests. We hope that the Appeal Court of Thailand will take a decision that will allow the Russian citizen to return home soon.

The case of Russian citizen Rima Salonen

In late March-early April this year, the Tampere court of second instance is to examine the appeal of Rima Salonen against the verdict of guilty rendered in her case at the end of last year (remember she was handed a suspended jail sentence of 18 months). At the same time the court of Kokemaki is to hold a hearing on the application of Rima Salonen for restoration of her right to the custody of her underage son, Anton. Rima Salonen is provided with the aid of a lawyer who is highly qualified and has extensive experience in representing the interests of Russians in the Finnish courts.

About the Russian citizens injured in a road accident in India

In relation to the road accident in northern India in which six Russian citizens were injured, the consular department of the Embassy of Russia in India routinely informed us about the following.

The accident occurred on the morning of February 23 this year. Six residents of Yekaterinburg and the Sverdlovsk Region (three men and three women) were heading to the city of Rishikesh. They fell behind the main group of 20 tourists, and to catch up with them, hired a taxi van. According to the tourists, the Indian driver lost control. The taxi van jumped into the oncoming lane, collided with a truck and overturned.

As a result of the collision the Russians received injuries of varying severity and were taken to a hospital in Hardwar.

On the evening of February 24 four tourists in satisfactory condition checked out of the hospital. Another victim was discharged on February 25.

One Russian woman remains in the hospital. She was operated on for a brain hemorrhage and will continue treatment there for 5-6 days.

From responses to media questions:

Question: How is the formation of the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia going? Is Ukraine’s accession to the Customs Union possible?

Answer: It can be noted that elements of the Customs Union at the initial stage after its launch on January 1, 2010 are generally functioning successfully.

Some problems of a “transition period” have come out. They are associated with the use of the Single List of Goods that are subject to prohibitions and restrictions on import or export by member states in trade with third countries (Single List hereafter). These problems are due to the inclusion in the Single List of goods in respect of which permits had not been previously required. They are currently being solved by the parties.

Regarding the possible accession of Ukraine, I can say the following. Russia does not see legal obstacles to the possibility of Ukraine’s accession to the Customs Union launched on January 1, .2009. There is a rule on the entry, as a first step of a new member state into EurAsEC and, as a second step, its accession to the juridical base of the Customs Union. Of course, for the solution of this question a consensus of the EurAsEC member states is required at stage one, and of the Customs Union member states at stage two.

Question: How is the situation evolving in the case of Russian citizen Inga Rantala?

Answer: Russian overseas agencies in Finland are providing Russian citizens Inga and Robert Rantala with the necessary consular assistance to protect their interests. This work should be built on a legal plane.

The Consulate General of Russia in Turku maintains contact with both Inga Rantala and the Finnish local authorities, including social care bodies.

On February 23 our Consul General in Turku visited the orphanage in Turku where he met with Robert Rantala. The boy has normal upkeep.

We are currently awaiting a response from Finnish authorities to our request to clarify all the circumstances of Robert’s removal from the family.

Question: There has been information about the upcoming visit to Russia of DPRK Deputy Foreign Minister Kun Sun Un. How could you comment on it? With whom are his talks planned in Moscow?

Answer: I can confirm that in early March DPRK Deputy Foreign Minister Kun Sun Un is arriving in Moscow for routine consultations, under the Plan of Inter-MFA Consultations agreed upon by Russia and the DPRK for the current year. His Russian partner in the talks will be Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin.

Question : Netanyahu’s recently announced decision to include the Cave of the Patriarchs (Abraham's Tomb) in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem in Israel’s list of national heritage sites has led to increased tension in the West Bank, especially at the environs of and in Hebron itself. There were even clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. Have you comments?

Answer: Let me say briefly. We have repeatedly said that we are in principle opposed to any steps or actions that prejudge the outcome of negotiations on a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and cannot fail to complicate the efforts to promote resumption of dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. The statement referred to can well be attributed to such actions. Moreover, we’re talking about very sensitive issues that have deep religious roots.

Question: Russia has repeatedly stated that it would like to see in the new START treaty a linkage between offensive arms and missile defense. What problems are there in this regard?

Answer: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has recently given quite a lot of explanations on this score at press conferences and in interviews. I would also like to draw your attention to the extensive interview of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov to Interfax news agency on February 19 in this connection.

So there’s nothing I can add to those statements.

Question: How could you comment on the statement by Clinton regarding NATO and its relations with Russia?

Answer: There is a lot of discussion on this subject at present, both within NATO and in the United States. Thus, on February 22-23 Washington hosted the fourth and final seminar in the framework of the Wise Men Group headed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the draft of NATO’s renewed Strategic Concept, which is expected to be approved at the next summit of the alliance (Lisbon, November this year).

Russia is not a member of NATO, but we cannot help but wonder in what direction the transformation of the alliance will go, to which the future Strategic Concept inter alia will obviously provide a vector. NATO is a weighty factor in the landscape of Euro-Atlantic security and stability, including at our borders. So what kind of alliance it is going to be will directly affect the security interests of Russia, and largely impact the architecture of European security. Therefore, we carefully study the reports of the discussions on the renewed Strategic Concept of the alliance, including at the seminar in Washington.

As noted in the previous briefing at the Ministry on February 19, Russia's approaches on problematic issues and prospects of Russia-NATO relations were set out to NATO’s “wise men” during their visit to Moscow on February 9-11.

We would like to reiterate that we are seriously worried by attempts to give the alliance global functions, by the desire for further expansion of NATO, by its military infrastructure being moved up to Russian borders, and by the increase in the number of possible scenarios for the use of its military capabilities in circumvention of international law, including in such “non-core” spheres as energy security, cyber defense, and climate change, and in the Arctic.

We hope that the thoughts and concerns expressed by Russia will be taken into account in the wise men’s recommendations and in the future NATO Strategic Concept proper.

Question: Russia is changing its co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. Instead of Yuri Merzlyakov, Igor Popov has been appointed. What is the further fate of Mr. Merzlyakov? And what can you say about the mission of Mr. Popov and Russia's role in the Minsk Group in connection with these changes?

Answer: Yuri Merzlyakov has got a new diplomatic assignment, which is quite natural for a Foreign Ministry staff member. Do not rush things. I think that after Yuri Merzlyakov steps down as Ambassador at Large and Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, we will be able to speak about appointing a new representative. I am confident that his work will be full-scale and no less vigorous than his predecessor’s.

I would like to add that Russia's position in the Minsk Group is not determined by representatives. It is determined by the President of the Russian Federation and implemented by the foreign affairs agency. So let's wait for the change of our representatives. And I repeat once again that for its part Russia is doing everything necessary to retain an active role in the Minsk Group.

Question: On February 26 the Azerbaijani nation commemorates the Day of Khojaly Genocide. In this regard, Azerbaijan has scheduled a series of activities. What is the attitude of the Russian Foreign Ministry to this date?

Answer: Not ready to give you a comment. I will take this question to elaborate later.