Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova briefing, February 15 — Obama, U.S. use of depleted uranium in Syria, ‘Russian hackers’, Ukraine’s information campaign

From Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
February 15, 2017


The situation in Syria


The ceasefire regime in Syria introduced December 30, 2016, is being observed. Its zone continues to expand with units of the Southern Front armed opposition joining the ceasefire. The ceasefire is guaranteed by Russia, Turkey and Iran, with Jordan making a substantial contribution to it.

The fight continues against ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, terrorists. The Syrian Army and militia units, supported by the Russian Aerospace Forces, are methodically pushing terrorist elements out of the country. About 1,400 square kilometres of territory have been liberated since January 1, 2017. It became possible to force ISIS terrorists out of a fortified outpost in the village of Tadef near the city of al-Bab, to establish a bridgehead near the city and to gain control of the Raqqa−al-Bab motorway. Over 650 terrorists were eliminated in Tadef, and a route for supplying ISIS with reinforcements, equipment and financial assistance was cut off.

Government forces continue to advance on Palmyra. The Russian Defence Ministry has published drone footage showing the barbaric destruction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites by ISIS militants in this city. Unfortunately, it is already clear that little remains of these ancient architectural and cultural landmarks. The terrorists have razed the façade of an ancient Roman amphitheatre, as well as Tetrapylon columns, to the ground. They are also highly likely to blow up the remnants of the historical architectural complex and nearby residential areas. The jihadists have shelled the Homs refinery with mortars, and they also set fire to natural gas fields while retreating.

As you know, Astana will host the second international meeting on Syria over the next few days. The Russian delegation that has already arrived in the capital of Kazakhstan will hold working consultations today. We hope that the upcoming meeting in the capital of Kazakhstan will provide an additional boost to the inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue under UN auspices in Geneva. Hopefully, it will become possible to resume this dialogue on February 20.

Against this backdrop, we note the attempts to aggravate the intra-Syrian conflict still further and to exacerbate contradictions between the warring parties. This is the only way to interpret the media leaks by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Atlantic Council of the United States, via CNN, about the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces in Aleppo, mass executions at Sednaya military prison near Damascus, and the methodical destruction of Syrian socioeconomic infrastructure by the Russian Aerospace Forces. The evidence backing up these so-called “sensations” leaves a lot to be desired, but, as we can see, their authors don’t seem to care. Their purpose is to torpedo any chance for launching a political peace settlement that has appeared largely through Russian efforts and to thwart emerging prospects for broad, equitable and mutually respectful international cooperation in the interests of eradicating a terrorist hotbed in the Middle East and stabilising the region.


Media response to the United States using depleted uranium in Syria
Given how many sensationalistic stories are planted in the media, as I mentioned earlier, it’s fun to watch world media juggernauts and institutions dealing with freedom of speech get busy with creating websites to oppose the spread of “fake news,” which has become a widespread practice. On the one hand, they say it’s imperative to not just counter it, but to do all it takes to prevent the spread of “fake news,” while they themselves engage in spreading precisely such news.

Against the background of this data, the information provided by the United States Central Command, whose operational responsibility includes, primarily, the Middle East, to the effect that the US Air Force used munitions with depleted uranium in air strikes on ISIS positions in Syria, came as a shock to many who did not believe us when we said so. As you may be aware, such a statement was made by an official representative on Tuesday when he spoke about the US air operations with the use of toxic substances which cause cancer and birth defects.

As you may recall, Russia has stated this more than once. Back in October 2016, citing independent experts, we presented such information and called on the public to pay attention to it. At that time, our American partners denied all the accusations against them. A couple of months later, these accusations were not merely confirmed, but confirmed by the United States itself. The only difference is that we provided this information a few months ago, when the previous team led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was at the helm. Clearly, he was the one to give the go-ahead to using these weapons − any other scenario is unlikely, since such things must be approved at the highest level. I would like to say that the goal pursued by US officials was noble, that is to fight terrorists. But the point is that the traces of these weapons will remain in Syria forever. You can find out more about it if you read some professional literature. The number of missiles that were used is simply devastating. I would like to quote the same US official, who said that out of 1,790 missiles fired on November 16, 2016, 1,490 contained toxic materials, and 3,775 missiles of 4,530 fired on November 22, 2016 contained toxic materials. Thus, there were five rounds with depleted uranium for every conventional missile. Each operation involved four A-10 jet aircraft. You can look up these numbers.

I would like to remind you that earlier the United States, particularly the Pentagon, claimed that the United States has never used ammo with depleted uranium during the international anti-terrorist operation in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, in 2003, these munitions were used during the US invasion of Iraq. I reiterate, it is better to read up on this subject in specialised literature, make inquiries, perhaps, even with independent expert institutes, and ask the experts specialising in this area to provide their opinion. They will tell you what the use of weapons with depleted uranium is all about, and what its implications are for the lives and livelihoods of the local people.

I mentioned this with regard to fake news and the role of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s team in resolving international conflicts. Incidentally, people live in Syria. The scary thing is that the focus was on isolated cases which were clearly propaganda shams where individual Syrian citizens, unfortunately, were propelled to the status of international stars, and the information campaign regarding these people was used as a front to cover up what was really happening in that country.

Information campaign to glorify the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Ukraine


On February 8, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory announced the launch of the information campaign, “The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists: A Response of the Unconquered People,” which aims to change the established historical assessments of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s activity in the minds of the Ukrainian people and the international community.

Such actions, ostensibly aimed at uniting the Ukrainian nation (such activities are always motivated by this), will only deepen social division. Such initiatives, supposedly proposed by civil society, take place against the background of what is happening in Donbass. The aim of this absolutely anti-Ukrainian campaign is obvious. As part of this Russophobia campaign, radical nationalists of all kinds try to do everything possible to destroy the common Russian-Ukrainian historical, cultural and civilisational space created over centuries. This is done in order to please all those who build their concepts of the primitive perception of Russia as an enemy of Ukraine.  This is a very simplistic concept, which is being embedded in the minds of Ukrainian citizens.

Moreover, Ukrainian fake historians try to convince everyone, perhaps including themselves, that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought both the Nazi invaders and “the Soviet occupation regime.” All this takes pace against the background the recently disclosed archival documents about their collaboration with the Nazis, which caused a shock. These documents tell about their collaboration with the Nazis and with US secret services after the war (by the way, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army is referred to as ‘a terrorist organisation’ in CIA documents). Not mentioning the fact that such glorification and praising of some ‘national forces of resistance to the communist regime’ is a manifestation of outright disrespect for the exploits of a great number of Ukrainians, who fought in the Red Army, the partisan movement and behind the lines against the German Nazis and their collaborators, including various nationalists, to liberate Europe from fascism. Such things override the dominant challenge faced by Ukraine – uniting the nation. This, if we are talking about Ukraine, requires the peaceful and equal coexistence of people of different nationalities and beliefs. Such things divide an already divided country.


Fake news about Russia


Today I’d like to focus on the subject roiling the western world – another interesting story about “Kremlin hackers.” We saw media reports on Russia allegedly hacking the Italian Foreign Ministry and other Italian institutions last year. At the Italian media’s request, we made a comment without delay. Today I’d like to focus on this subject again because we have carried out an analysis of the situation and checked the information. I can say that Russia has not received any formal address from the Italian administration with a request to clarify the situation. Apparently, the Italian authorities themselves got this information from the media. This information requires appropriate expert verification. As we understand, Italy intends to do this.

Naturally, we did not see anything fundamentally new in how this information was put out there. This is not the first time that such absolutely unjustified charges were made against Russia. It has become standard practice and is persistently being implanted in people’s minds. The strategy is clear and the ways to implement it are also evident. We regularly comment on this subject and we will continue doing so. We certainly understand that this subject is being artificially boosted by the media, so as to frighten ordinary people with the “threat” allegedly posed by Russia. The irony of it is that all the dishonest practices of many western colleagues become common knowledge either some time later when facts are confirmed (for example, using toxic weapons that are destructive to human health), or when independent investigative reports are published. The media do not consider these things to be a threat. It does not matter that an entire region, a large country is contaminated as a result of using cancer-causing weapons. This is not a threat to peace and security, this is normal. It does not matter that it has been proved that intelligence agencies of a whole range of countries engage in bugging and shadowing other countries’ officials. This does not count either. As for mythical hacker stories being made up all over the world, that’s what is of interest. This is what creates a threat to peace and security in Europe and the West as a whole.

The issue of hacking attacks involves not only Italian agencies but France as well. As you know, the campaign headquarters of the French movement En Marche that has nominated presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has reported cyber-attacks on the campaign headquarters website and its database from servers in Russia. One gets the impression that Mr Macron is trying to one-up Hillary Clinton. This is a dubious path. Moreover, the movement’s leader Richard Ferrand has not missed a chance to accuse the Russian media of publishing daily “fake news” about their candidate Mr Macron. We have checked the news quoted by Mr Ferrand. It has nothing to do with the media outlets mentioned by him. In effect, Mr Ferrand himself has spread “fake news.” It may be paradoxical, but it’s a fact. According to Mr Ferrand, Mr Macron is being targeted because he advocates a strong Europe that would show its might, including with regard to Russia, while other candidates are voicing much friendlier positions towards Russia. Why do a strong Europe and a friendly position towards Russia seem mutually exclusive? When did Russia perceive a strong Europe as an enemy? Please read statements by Russian leaders over the past three years – a period marked by an obvious crisis in relations with Europe. In all his interviews here in Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discusses what we want, which is a strong and powerful Europe, and we want to cooperate with Europe as a strong partner. Are there any opposing opinions expressed in any speeches or interviews? You will not find them. Europe is our historical, geographic and natural partner. Instead of merely showing our respect for Europe, we have always voiced our desire to cooperate and work with it. We have seen how Europe’s attitude towards Russia has changed. I would like to stress that, quite possibly, Mr Ferrand does not know that it is Europe, rather than Russia, that has changed its attitude under US pressure. This is a proven fact. American representatives have openly said that it is only under US pressure that Europe had imposed sanctions against Russia. Our European colleagues have also openly told us so, and they continue to say this. Today, this is no talk but a virtual groan because incoming statistics convince those involved in foreign policy and international relations, and not just them, who the real victim of the policy of sanctions is. Of course, Europe, ordinary Europeans, farmers and representatives of small and medium-sized businesses are the main victims of the sanctions war. Please take a look at the statistics before drawing such conclusions.

I would like to once again note the paradox of people talking about the threat of spreading “fake news” when they don’t understand what they are talking about. They use wrong the names, confuse names and media outlets. This means that, to be honest, they are not the ones behind this, and that this process is being orchestrated by certain people behind the scenes. I cannot rule out this idealised approach, but when this approach is being implemented independently, information is being studied to some extent, and preparations are being made. It appears that certain instructions are being sent to various countries to use this methodology in a certain context. We see the same mistakes repeated. They not only repeat allegations of hackers and “fake news,” but copy the exact mistakes in different countries. One gets the impression that these instructions originated in the same place, and that they are being distributed all over. We have seen such approaches involving the distribution of materials in European countries at the height of the sanction wars when materials were distributed among representatives of major companies and businesses. Indeed, those materials were prepared in the same ideological centre. Quite possibly, history is now being repeated, and this process involves certain Russian hackers. I repeat, there are no data, no facts and no specific information. This entire propaganda campaign is absolutely groundless.

The US media reported the other day, while quoting their own sources, that Russian secret services or the Russian side have allegedly decided to extradite former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden to the United States as a gift for US President Donald Trump. This is not the first time that US media outlets quoted anonymous sources, and we have already commented on these issues. First, no one has asked the Russian side to confirm or deny this information prior to publication. Second, the Russian side has already commented on the absolute absurdity of these statements at various levels. How do you fight “fake news” when you are doing everything to create it?

Here is another paradoxical example of the alleged fight against “fake news” that directly concerns our Ministry. This involves ideas about the division of Macedonia which are being ascribed to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. As you know, we have published a denial and commented on this issue. Why am I mentioning all this as deliberately created and concocted “fake news,” rather than mistakes? You see, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to whom these absurd ideas are being ascribed, openly and publicly discussed the Balkan situation in his speech before members of the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly. For example, he noted that certain political circles are discussing greater “federalisation” of Macedonia and the creation of a “flexible federation”, and maybe even a “confederation.” The Minister also noted that he had heard that ideas about dismembering the country, which is allegedly an artificial state, are being voiced.  The media obviously has access to the original Russian position on this issue. But, instead of seeking comment, they completely ignore the clear position that has already been set forth with respect to the news they concocted themselves.

To conclude this section, I would like to say that we will continue to comment on such cases individually and systematicallу. Quite soon, we will launch our own project on the official Foreign Ministry website where we will collect “fake news” from leading foreign media outlets and the statements of official representatives of various countries. We will expose them, publish original sources and data, and we will prove that the Russian side has already responded to the specific issues in question.  We will work on this.

Question: What is your response to the latest statement of the White House that Donald Trump’s Administration expects Russia to return Crimea?

Maria Zakharova: We do not return our territories. Crimea is Russian territory.

Question: Over the weekend, several British media outlets ran stories accusing the Sputnik news agency of spreading fake news stories. What is the Foreign Ministry’s position on the issue?

Maria Zakharova: This is what we have been talking about, and it’s a trend. Unfortunately, in recent years, the world media have been working in a style that used to be known as mainstream but today it is simply about running information campaigns, following set trends. “Russian hackers” are a trend and now “fake news” is a trend. Today we looked at several examples, one of them being the use of toxic agents by the US military against Syria. This information was reported, among others, by the Russian media, and it was also dismissed as fake and misleading.

Regarding the situation that you mentioned, we took note of the latest attack against the Russian media in the UK. Unfortunately, that country is ceasing to be media friendly, and this is plain to see. It is more and more difficult for media outlets from different countries to work in the UK. This is a fact. It is also obvious that official agencies and those who are supposed to represent civil society in the UK take a politicised approach to media, journalists and correspondents. That is also hard to deny. It would be hard not to notice such a coordinated salvo of propaganda clichés against the Sputnik agency from a number of leading British media outlets. It seems that they do not even quite understand how obvious it is. People who are involved in information technology and information in general see all this. They keep an eye on it and note how an information campaign is launched. This time it was joined by the BBC, The Independent, The Times and The Sunday Times, which, by citing officials who are biased against Russia, such as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu and other veterans of the propaganda war against Russia, conferred all sorts of epithets on Sputnik. For example, the “Kremlin’s Soviet-style disinformation machine.” They cited NATO experts who have counted a whole 124 “post-truth” stories reported by Sputnik on its newswire and blogs.

With regard to fake news, I’d like to give you a simple example. Why is it necessary to fight us all the time? There is a website, Buzzfeed, which has published a story alleging that there is some compromising material against US President Trump. That story cited Russian representatives, in particular Foreign Ministry officials, who at that time or until recently worked in the Russian Embassy in Washington. We published a denial. Do you think Buzzfeed noted it and apologised or ran a follow-up story? No! This is regarding Sputnik’s 124 fake news stories. For all my respect for these instances and the agency in general, the information damage that Buzzfeed has caused, in particular, to concrete people, who had no idea about such allegations made against them, is enormous. This report has made the rounds of the world and it was published by a media outlet, or at least this is what Buzzfeed calls itself. To reiterate, even though we directly addressed it, no retractions or additional materials were published. Is this normal? Who is fighting whom? What fake news? You fabricate it yourselves and then make up some nonsense about the Russian media.

The situation was further dramatised by a comment made by UK National Cyber Security Centre chief Ciaran Martin, who said that there had been a “step change” in Russia’s online aggression against the West as well as more attacks on “soft targets” such as local councils and charities. The feeling is that they will spook the public to such an extent that people will be afraid of turning on the lights at home because electrical wires can also carry a threat from Russian hackers.

What is the point of scaring people, telling them about some demonic force that Russian reporters and hackers are a part of? This is creating a kind of conglomerate, an infernal machine that combines propaganda and attempts to undermine information security. Why does London need all this now? There is an obvious answer to this question. The fact is the aforementioned Cyber Security Centre opened recently, and taxpayers, possibly the next victims, who have to pay for the creation of the new service, should understand where their money goes. I can’t rule out that in this case it is just a matter of justifying spending on a new bureaucratic agency.

I’d also like to note that we welcome and work with the British media in Russia and we do not divide reporters into good and bad. Our approach is devoid of ideology. I urge them to put themselves in their Russian colleagues’ shoes, those who work in the UK, and think what their reaction would be if Moscow took a similar approach toward the British press.

Question: Can you comment on the death of Kim Jong-nam, the stepbrother of the DPRK’s Kim Jong-un?

Maria Zakharova: What is the source of your information? We have just been talking about fake news. Do you have confirmation?

Question: This is a Malaysian police report.

Maria Zakharova: Do you have North Korean confirmation?

Question: I don’t know.

Maria Zakharova: Is there confirmation in Tokyo?

Question: No idea.

Maria Zakharova: I think it’s worthwhile to know the North Korean position first. As a Japanese media representative you should also inquire about the Japanese position and then possibly inquire with us.

Question: Many European politicians and experts believe that the world has become less safe after Donald Trump assumed office. What is Russia’s position?

Maria Zakharova: Do you think that the use of weapons with low-enriched uranium has made the world more stable and secure? The Obama administration was in power in the United States for eight years. Has the world moved closer to stability and security during that period? Has the number of international crises decreased? I think their number has increased, and the crises themselves have become deeper and more dramatic. Paradoxically, the United States, which unleashed many of them, abandoned them halfway.

The then US President Barack Obama said at the UN General Assembly three years ago the same you have said now, that the world has become safer and more stable. You remember what happened after that – a wave of terrorist attacks in Europe. Have these attacks not affected Germany? Is Germany not trying to solve migration, which has become the main security and stability problem for it? Isn’t this a destabilising factor for your country? But the “global leader”, as Obama described himself, told us that the world has become safer.

Let us look at the situation realistically out of the framework of mainstream concepts. We know that political fighting is underway in Washington. But the affairs of Washington are Washington’s affair, while Germany should deal with its own affairs. We need to take a realistic view on internal developments in Germany. You can look at the issue of stability and security in your country and decide if the situation has improved in the past few years.

Question: US politician John McCain has said that according to his information Russia has deployed nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missiles in violation of the INF treaty. Has Russia really violated international law?

Maria Zakharova: We will publish a large comment by our experts on this issue soon. At this point, I can only say that Mr McCain really exists. We are preparing other information related to this issue.


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