Russian FM Lavrov UNGA News Conference: Persian Gulf, Syria, START Treaty, US Visa Refusal

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, following his Friday address to the ongoing UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, answered multiple questions from journalists regarding the latest developments on the international agenda.

One of the first questions was about the escalating political impeachment scandal in the United States, which erupted after a whistleblower claimed US President Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July phone call to look into a case that could potentially tarnish the political image of Democratic opponent Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.

Russia's Alleged 'Hand' in Trump-Zelensky Phone Scandal 'Clear Paranoia'

Earlier in the day, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi surprisingly claimed that the ongoing scandal related to the content of the Trump-Zelensky phone call, was a result of a Russian "hand".

The Russian minister dismissed these remarks as paranoid.

"Well, it's paranoia that, I think, is obvious to all", Lavrov stressed.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded earlier to the US official's claims.

"Considering the fact that Nancy Pelosi was the one to blow the scandal around the telephone conversation between the US and Ukrainian presidents, the house speaker's logic suggests that Russia rather 'has a hand in Pelosi' herself", the spokeswoman wrote in a Facebook post.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a press briefing on Tuesday that the Democrat-controlled House was moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry into Trump over allegations that he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate former US Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, in order to boost his own 2020 re-election bid. Consequently, Pelosi said she is directing the six congressional committees to proceed with their official impeachment inquiry into the matter.

Trump has acknowledged that he blocked nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine before he spoke to Zelensky, but denied that he pressured the Ukrainian president into investigating Biden.

The US president has dismissed the accusations of misconduct and impeachment proceedings as another instance of "witch-hunt garbage."

The White House on Wednesday released a transcript of the telephone conversation with Zelensky. The transcript showed that the US president did ask Zelenskyy to work with his personal lawyer and the US attorney general to "look into" the case of Joe Biden, who "went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution" into his son’s possible corruption in Ukraine.

The transcript did not, however, contain any signs that the US president overtly threatened to withhold any financial assistance to Ukraine if Zelensky did not do him this favor, but the Democrats still accuse him of using his post to dig dirt on his main potential competitor in the next presidential race.

Improper to Read Someone's Letters

Lavrov also noted it was improper to read someone else's letters, when asked about the possibility of making public transcripts of telephone conversations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart, Donald Trump.

"As for transcripts of phone calls. My mother told me when I grew up that it is improper to read somebody's letters. I am used to assuming that. Especially, when it comes to letters of people who have been publicly elected for leadership positions," Lavrov told a news conference.

Lavrov argued that there were traditions and norms, including diplomatic ones, which envisaged a certain level of confidentiality and coordination of such issues.

US Actions in the Gulf Region

The US actions toward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Gulf region as a whole are destructive, Lavrov stressed.

"The problems associated with the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action must be considered without reference to the current session of the General Assembly (UN). They started much earlier, a year and a half ago, when the United States unilaterally withdrew from this document, which is approved by the US Security Council and thereby a part of international law, and they said that they also forbid everyone else to do this. I believe that these are destructive actions not only for the specific situation with the Iranian nuclear program, but also for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and for the situation in the region in general," Lavrov said at a news conference following his participation in the UN General Assembly.

The increasing number of Gulf countries are thinking about de-escalating the situation in the region, and Moscow’s proposal to resolve the situation is more and more in demand, Lavrov said.

"The fact that more and more Gulf countries, including the Arab Gulf countries, are starting to think about how to de-escalate this situation now, speaks in favor of the idea that we are promoting, which in one form or another, will be in demand," he said.

Russia first came forward with the initiative a very long time ago, when it was still possible to prevent the aggravation that everyone is now witnessing, the minister said.

"Unfortunately, not all Gulf countries agreed to act in advance. They said that yes, the idea is not bad, it’s possible to study it, but let's wait, let it mature. Well, now, in my opinion, it’s already overmature," Lavrov said.

In addition to the Gulf countries, five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as the European Union and regional associations and organizations, should participate in the dialogue on de-escalation in the Persian Gulf, Lavrov stressed.

"We assumed that in addition to the Gulf countries themselves, the five permanent members of the Security Council, the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation should take part. Probably, the European Union, it also shows interest in this region," the minister said.

If the "process begins," the principles proposed by Russia could be extended to other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, he noted.

The Russian Foreign Ministry unveiled in late July, amid heightened US-Iran tensions, an updated version of an initiative called Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region, which proposed "renouncement of permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states" in the region.

The concept further promotes multilateralism as the core of the new security system in the region. Moscow has also suggested that a security organization be created to include Russia, the United States, China, India, the European Union, and other interested parties.

Russian-Georgian relations

Lavrov argued that Russia has never looked for a quarrel with Georgia, and if Tbilisi takes a more constructive stance towards Moscow, the air travel may be resumed.

"When we made this decision [on halting flights between Russia and Georgia], we announced that this was a temporary measure, and we will cancel this measure when the situation normalizes and when the Georgian leadership realizes the need to stop provocative actions," Lavrov at a news briefing following his address to the UN General Assembly in New York.

He stressed that Russia never looked for artificial reasons to start a quarrel with Georgia.

Violent protests erupted in Tbilisi on June 20 after a Russian lawmaker took the speaker’s seat to address an international parliamentary forum on Orthodoxy in Georgia's legislature.

The unrest subsequently grew into an opposition rally, with activists demanding that the Russian delegation leave the parliament and calling for the resignation of several Georgian officials. The clashes left 240 people injured and over 300 more detained.

The Kremlin has condemned the events in Tbilisi as "nothing more than a Russophobic provocation", voicing extreme concern over "aggressive manifestations against Russian citizens".

Moscow decided to suspend direct flights to and from Georgia indefinitely starting 8 July over security concerns after the eruption of anti-Russian protests in Tbilisi.

Russia's Proposals on START Extension Talks With US Remain on Table

All Russia's proposals to create additional communication channels with the United States, including on the extension of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), remain on the table, Lavrov said during the news conference.

"During talks between our presidents, the Russian side offered to move towards creating additional channels of communication. These proposals are on the table, as well as our proposals that I mentioned today in my speech on a mutual moratorium on the deployment of [intermediate-range] missiles after the collapse of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] INF Treaty and on preparations for the extension of the New START treaty", the minister said at a news conference following his participation in the UN General Assembly.

Russia does not mind inviting other countries to discuss strategic stability issues with the United States, Lavrov said.

"[US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo expressed his readiness to discuss these topics but reiterated the well-known US position that... we need to expand the scope. We will not mind any formats, if the participants that the United States would like to invite respond to this invitation", Lavrov said.

He noted that Russia believes that the New START treaty, which expires in February 2020, must be extended to maintain at least some kind of a mechanism in the field of strategic stability.

"And I hope that we will continue talking with our US colleagues on this issue", the minister added.

The meeting between Lavrov and Pompeo took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, it lasted a little less than an hour.

Earlier in the month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said that it was necessary to act now to extend the New START treaty because it will be too late to do anything after the 2020 US presidential election.

The New START is the last remaining arms control treaty in force between the world's two largest nuclear-armed powers. It stipulates the reduction of the number of strategic nuclear missiles launchers by half and limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550. The agreement is set to expire in February 2021, and so far the US administration has not announced plans to extend it.

US President Donald Trump has been vocal about his desire to work out a new tripartite nuclear agreement between Russia, China and the United States. Beijing has, however, rejected this idea.

Claims of Meeting With Venezuela Opposition Envoy 'Pure Lies'

"As for the meeting with a certain gentleman whom Mr. [Juan] Guaido appointed as some kind of envoy - I think they said he claimed somewhere that he met with me, and we talked. It’s pure lies", Lavrov said, answering a journalist’s question at a news conference.

According to Lavrov, when such "fake news are disseminated all over the world, starting with the United States, first of all, in order to justify later own political actions, it’s infectious".

The political crisis in Venezuela erupted in January when opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president and attempted to dispute the re-election of President Nicolas Maduro following months of protests. Maduro has managed to retain power despite Guaido being supported by the United States and its allies.

Maduro has called Guaido a US puppet and accused the United States of trying to orchestrate a coup to force a change of government in Venezuela and claim the country’s resources.

Russia, China and numerous other countries have said they recognize constitutionally-elected Maduro as Venezuela’s only legitimate president.

Russia Aware of Provocative Demands for Syrian Elections

Moscow is well aware of provocative demands for Syrian elections in parallel with the development of the country's constitution by the freshly-formed Syrian Constitutional Committee, Lavrov stressed.

"We know about some of the plans to start demanding elections in parallel with the work on the constitution regardless of when it will end. This will be another provocation. I assure you that such ideas will only block the progress that has just been achieved and hinder further agreements between the Syrians. Everything needs to be done gradually, step by step", Lavrov said.

The conflict in Syria between President Bashar Assad's government and various opposition groups and terrorist organizations has been ongoing since 2011. In May 2017, the warring parties held talks in the Kazakh capital under the mediation of Russia, Iran and Turkey, and managed to conclude a ceasefire agreement.

The initial agreement to form a constitutional committee was reached during the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in January 2018 in Sochi. The 150-member panel, which equally represents the government, opposition and civil society, will be tasked with rewriting Syria's constitution.

On Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that the committee had finally been formed and said that the body would convene in the coming weeks.

Syria's Territorial Integrity Will Be Main Criterion for US, Turkey's Actions

The preservation of Syria's territorial integrity will be the main criterion for the actions of the United States and Turkey east of the Euphrates River, Lavrov said.

"We will not just keep in mind the confirmation of [Syria's] territorial integrity by the Americans and the Turks, but we will use it as a criterion for evaluating all the actions taking place east of the Euphrates", Lavrov said.

The Kurdish issue in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, Lavrov stressed.

"The Kurdish issue must be resolved within the framework of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria. We believe that this should be negotiated, but again with the participation of the Syrian leadership", he said.

He noted that governing bodies were being actively created with the participation of the United States east of the Euphrates, including to the detriment of Arab tribes.

The idea of establishing a buffer safe zone as a solution to tensions between Turkey and the US-allied the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia was proposed by US President Donald Trump in January.

Shortly before that, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Ankara was ready to launch an offensive against the YPG in then Kurdish-controlled Syrian city of Manbij. However, following a phone conversation with Trump, he announced postponing the operation. Trump, in turn, announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria after that call.

Negotiations on the safe zone continue as Washington and Ankara have yet to reach a final agreement on the perimeter and governance of the safe zone. Ankara has insisted on it to go as deep as 30-40 kilometers (19-25 miles) east of the Euphrates River along its border with Syria, be controlled jointly by Turkey and the United States, and be completely cleared of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)/YPG.

Moscow Won't Leave US Visa Refusal for Russian UNGA Delegation Without Response

The United States has not issued visas for several members of the Russian delegation citing some technical difficulties, while the Russian Foreign Ministry called these arguments vicious.

“Of course, we cannot leave this without response. And we will certainly take this situation into consideration the next time when international events are held in New York or elsewhere on the US territory. We will check and recheck 10 times if officials who issue visas have received any instructions from their leadership, particularly the State Department”, Lavrov told a press conference on the results of his participation in the 74th UNGA session on Friday.

The top diplomat continued by saying he did not want to mention additional measures on the part of Russia in response to the US refusal to issue visas for the Russian Foreign Ministry delegation.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot of problems with the United States. We never want to act [on the basis of] ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ [principle] but we could not leave without response the actions of the administration of [ex-US President Barack] Obama when it captured our diplomatic properties on the US territory like some criminals or raiders. So we acted the same way toward a part of US properties”, Lavrov continued.

Referring to the actions of the US authorities, the foreign minister explained that it was “disgraceful” to act like that in a country when the sanctity of private property was stipulated in many laws and the constitution.

“We would like to return to normal relations, at least with regard to the areas that concern the conditions of our diplomats’ work in the United States and US diplomats’ work in Russia. Not everything depends on us but we will look for stimulating measures”, Lavrov pointed out.

On Thursday, Lavrov said that Russia might resort to advocating for the relocation of the headquarters amid the United States' refusal to grant visas to 10 members of the Russian delegation for the UN General Assembly’s high-level week.

Oleg Morozov, a member of the Russian upper house's foreign affairs committee, proposed on Wednesday to sanction US politicians and diplomats in retaliation.

Earlier, Alexei Chepa, the deputy chairman of the lower house's foreign affairs committee, promised to discuss with the Russian Foreign Ministry the idea of banning the US green card lottery in Russia.

Damascus Not Stacking on Military Victory for Syrian Crisis Settlement

The Syrian government does not stake on a military victory to achieve the settlement of a conflict in the country, Lavrov said.

"If Mr. [US Envoy for Syria, James] Jeffrey believes that the Syrian government stakes on the military victory, I am not aware of that. The Syrian government scrupulously affirms all its commitments, including during the UN Security Council sessions on the Syrian matter," Lavrov told a news conference.

If staking on the military victory meant destroying remnants of terrorist groups by the Syrian military supported by Russia, it is a manipulation of facts, Lavrov argued.

"The Syrian government has been accused of unwillingness to adopt the [UNSC] Resolution 2254. Then, it was accused of refusing to endorse the results of the Syrian national dialogue congress ... All this was not true. Damascus has supported both the Resolution 2254 and the declaration of the Sochi congress of the national dialogue, as well as all other actions in line with the agenda set by three Astana process countries", Lavrov pointed out.

UN Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015, calls on all parties to the conflict in Syria to immediately cease attacks against civilians, implement a ceasefire and engage in political negotiations.

The Syrian government has regained control over most of the country's territories previously occupied by the opposing forces, it has focused on creating favorable conditions for repatriating refugees.

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