In Digest, Russia

Introduction by New Cold editors, February 12, 2015

Yesterday, the ministers of foreign affairs of Greece and Russia, Nikos Kotzias and Sergei Lavrov, met in Moscow. Their talks were wide-ranging, covering the war in Ukraine, the sanctions against Russia by NATO and EU countries, and proposals for economic and political cooperation between the two countries. Enclosed are two items reporting on that meeting. One is the Reuters news report. The other is the text of the comments by Sergei Lavrov to media following the meeting.

Their meeting took place on the same day as talks over the war in Ukraine occurred in Minsk, Belarus. Those talks have produced another ceasefire agreement which, as in the previous one last September, provides for a ‘buffer zone’ between the Ukraine military and its extremist battalions, on the one hand, and the civilian populations in Donetsk and Luhansk republics they have been shelling and attacking, on the other. There is no agreement by Kyiv that it will recognize a right to political autonomy (ie decentralization of Ukraine’s highly centralized state) of the the regions in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere in the country that are demanding it or that it will withdraw from the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk that it occupies. And the Kyiv government does not control the extremist militia battalions that it has welcomed into its military fold. So the prospects for peace remain dim.

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Russia’s Lavrov praises Greece’s stance on sanctions

Reuters, Feb 11, 2015

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised Greece’s stance on sanctions on Wednesday, saying the country understood how counter-productive their use was in dealing with Russia.

Greece’s new left-wing government ruffled feathers in the European Union by taking a softer stance towards Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, but fell into line when it agreed to extending existing sanctions against Russia last month.

At a joint news conference with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, Lavrov said: “We appreciate the stance of the Greek government, which understands the complete counter-productivity of attempts to speak this language with Russia.”

Lavrov added that Moscow would consider a request for financial aid if one came from Athens. A Greek official said earlier that Russia had offered support.

The 28-member EU put off the implementation of another round of sanctions against Russia to give diplomacy a chance as the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are due to meet later on Wednesday to try broker a peace deal.

Kotzias said Athens had told other EU members that the bloc should not see its ties with Russia “through the prism of Ukraine” and should come out with a “positive agenda” instead.

Speaking via an official translator, Kotzias said Russia had a role to play in seeking a solution to the conflict in east Ukraine and expressed hope a significant deal would be reached at the summit in the Belarussian capital Minsk. (Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Foreign Minister of the Hellenic Republic Nikos Kotzias, Moscow, February 11, 2015

Published by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Ladies and gentlemen,

We had good talks that were held in a candid and substantive manner. We discussed issues on the bilateral agenda. The new Greek government has confirmed not only its willingness to maintain continuity in our relations, but also to speed them up. We are willing to do so as well.

We noted that the fundamental agreements that were reached during a recent telephone conversation between President Putin and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras open up new major areas of cooperation, primarily in trade and economy.

In view of the recent elections in Greece, we agreed to update the membership of the intergovernmental commission as soon as possible, to hold a meeting of its co-chairs and to start preparing plenary meetings shortly.

We have discussed bilateral cooperation in energy based on the Greek government’s interest in the gas pipeline going from Russia to Turkey and the Greek border. We believe that this project has sound prospects.

We focused on further deepening our cultural ties. In 2016, we will hold the Year of Greece in Russia and the Year of Russia in Greece, which will include numerous activities. We already have a bilateral mechanism in place that we use to prepare these important events, which, I’m confident, will once again underscore the centuries-old traditions of friendship and cooperation between our two nations and our spiritual closeness. In this regard, there will be another important anniversary in 2016 – 1,000 years of the Russian monks’ arrival on Mount Athos. Events to commemorate this date will be held as well.

Together with our Greek friends, we keep the sacred memory of the heroes and the victims of World War II. The commemorative events in Moscow on Victory Day have been traditionally attended by Greek leaders. We hope to see Prime Minister Tsipras in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9.

We discussed current global and regional problems. We talked about the situation in Ukraine, which, as both sides believe, cannot be resolved by military means. The path to peace goes through direct dialogue between the Kiev authorities and those who stand up for their land in southeastern Ukraine. We must ensure their rights, as well as the rights of all of the residents of Ukraine. Mr Kotzias mentioned the Greek minority residing primarily outside Mariupol. There are other minorities in Ukraine, such as Hungarians, Romanians, and Bulgarians. We believe that they all need to be confident that the current processes in Ukraine will result in a political settlement, which would take into account, among others, the interests of the Ukrainians who are ethnic Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Greeks and others. This can only be done as part of a comprehensive constitutional reform, which was long since agreed, but hasn’t been started so far.

We have discussed relations between Russia and the European Union. We appreciate Greece’s constructive policy regarding these processes, as it supports our strategic partnership without attempts at making it driven by politics or ideology or sacrificing it to geopolitical ambitions of the third countries.

We reiterated our focus on promoting the idea of creating a common economic and cultural space from the Atlantic to the Pacific based on equal and indivisible security in this region.

With regard to the Cyprus settlement, the Russian side reaffirmed its support for the efforts to implement the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the agreements previously reached by and between the Cypriot communities. They are the only ones who can make the final decision. All foreign players should help them negotiate based on consensus and mutual interests.

Just like Greece, Russia is worried about the future of the Christians residing in the Middle East and North Africa. We will step up the activities that will draw additional attention of the international community to their plight and stop the exodus of Christians from the countries where they have lived for thousands of years. We will take appropriate actions in the OSCE as well.

I believe we had a very useful meeting and secured uninterrupted cooperation between the foreign ministries of Russia and Greece.

Question: Europe is becoming gradually disgruntled with the sanctions against Russia. This has already become a trend that is supported by Greece as well. It seems that the sanctions may be revised or mitigated as advocated by a group of countries. The Russian Foreign Ministry posted on its website a statement on providing economic aid to Greece. Can you tie in these two issues?

Sergey Lavrov: You should address the question regarding sanctions not to me, but to those who imposed them. I can only say that we appreciate the position of the Greek government, which understands that it is absolutely counterproductive to try to use similar language when talking to Russia.

Not just Russia, but any other country should be treated with respect. Mutually acceptable approaches must be sought instead of resenting us for the coup d’etat in Ukraine, which residents of the southeast of that country did not accept, and then Kiev authorities attacked this region for its disobedience (the southeast of Ukraine did not attack Kiev). Our Western partners forgot that they signed the agreement of February 21, 2014 and said that the situation had changed, and supported the coup. However, after Kiev’s attacks on southern and eastern Ukraine had failed and the self-defence forces got stronger and stood up for their land, probably, in retaliation against Russia, sanctions were imposed. This is on the conscience of those who imposed them. The current Greek government was not among them.

As for other issues in our interaction, we discussed the economic situation in Greece today. Russia is also in a tough financial situation caused by a unilateral illegitimate policy of our Western colleagues. However, if the government of Greece ever comes up with any requests then, as Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said, they will, of course, be considered.

Question: It has just been announced that President Vladimir Putin will attend the Minsk summit today. What is your assessment of the chances for success of the upcoming negotiations? What issues today are the most contentious? Your French counterpart said that today these include control of the Ukrainian-Russian border and the status of the unrecognised republics.

Sergey Lavrov: President Putin will take part in today’s meeting in Minsk, the so-called Normandy format summit. Ever since this idea came up we have been saying that we want to go ahead with this summit on the understanding that it is well-prepared for, and experts coordinate all necessary matters. Needless to say, the leaders will have the final say.

Experts are working and there is visible progress. I would not like to go into the details of this negotiation process; I do not believe that this is appropriate with regard to the summit participants and those who are preparing it.

However, since you have mentioned the border issue and the status of Donbass, I will say this. No doubt, if today, with fighting going on, there is a wish to give priority to the restoration of the Ukrainian government’s control over the entire border between Ukraine and Russia, then on sections controlled by the self-defence forces, it is necessary to negotiate with the DPR and the LPR. I believe this is obvious. They are constructively interacting with the OSCE special monitoring mission, the participants of which, under an agreement with the DPR and LPR authorities, have repeatedly visited some checkpoints on the Ukrainian side of the border that are currently controlled by the self-defence forces.

To reiterate, this should be a matter of negotiations with Lugansk and Donetsk representatives. I strongly doubt that at the height of the fighting (when the Ukrainian authorities are making attempts to improve their military situation “on the ground,” presumably expecting to use that at the Minsk meeting) LPR and DPR representatives will agree for the border control issue to be put at the top of the agenda and as a precondition for everything else. Unfortunately, we are observing this attempt on the part of the Ukrainian leadership, namely, to predicate everything on the restoration of border control. While the fighting continues and many other issues are unresolved, this is simply unrealistic.

We believe that the most important thing is to honour the Minsk agreements, which highlight the need to ensure a special status for these Donbass territories on the legislative level, provide security guarantees to the bodies of power that will be elected there and end the persecution of all participants in the events in southeastern Ukraine. They also mention the need to restore economic ties between Donbass and the rest of Ukraine.

Instead, we are now seeing an economic blockade, Donbass’ exclusion from the hryvnia zone and the establishment of control over roads leading from Donbass to other Ukrainian territories. To put it bluntly, this is an attempt to stifle these territories economically and socially, combined with their military suppression. Under these conditions, ceding the section of the border with Russia means cutting themselves off even from humanitarian aid and allowing themselves to be encircled. Priorities must be set right. First, it is necessary to stop fighting, withdraw heavy weapons, start a political process, including coordination with Kiev on the issue of municipal elections in each town in the southeast, as well as the political process in a broader sense, as was pledged in the Geneva Statement of April 17, 2014 and the Minsk agreements. Furthermore, there is an urgent need to restore economic ties with these territories on both sides of the line of contact, including the resumption of payments, the restoration of banking services, the return to the hryvnia zone, and so on. When all of this is done, then it will be much easier to resolve border control issues, because all people in Donbass will know that they are provided with socio-economic services, are safe and have guarantees allowing them to live without having to worry every day about their lives and the lives of their families and relatives.

Question: Can Russia and Greece boost military and military-technical cooperation?

Sergey Lavrov: They can. We have long-standing ties in all areas, including the military-technical area. We proceed based on the assumption that these ties are being preserved. We are preparing additional agreements to bolster the legal framework in this sphere. We also have mutual friendly military contacts.

So far I have not heard anything from Greece’s new authorities to the effect that this experience will be reviewed or that this line of cooperation will be terminated. We are interested in this interaction, which helps us cooperate on a number of very important issues requiring the participation of armed forces, namely, piracy at sea, emergency situations, and a lot of others.



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