September 28, 2018 10:17 pm

At U.N., Russia says meddling accusations are ‘baseless’, U.S. relations at ‘all-time low’

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addresses the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 28 September 2018.

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Russia’s foreign minister trashed accusations of Russian meddling abroad as “baseless” and used the podium at the U.N.’s biggest event to tear into U.S. policies in Iran, Syria and Venezuela. He later declared that U.S.-Russian relations “are bad and probably at their all-time low.”

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In a rapid-fire, unforgiving speech Friday, Sergey Lavrov pounded away at “self-serving” unilateral moves by U.S. President Donald Trump and assailed crippling Western sanctions against Russia as “political blackmail.”

Lavrov deflected accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a nerve agent attack in Britain and other meddling abroad – despite mounting evidence of a broad, co-ordinated influence campaign.

He criticized “baseless accusations of interference in the internal affairs of certain countries” and turned it around against the West, accusing unnamed forces of “overt endeavours to undermine democratically elected governments,” in an apparent reference to U.S. and EU support for Russia’s neighbours and the Syrian opposition.

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He expanded on that at a news conference later, giving examples of U.S. interference that included the U.S. envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volcker, promoting efforts to replace the 2015 agreement reached by leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to end the violence in eastern Ukraine.

He also cited the case of Maria Butina, who has pleaded not guilty to U.S. charges that she tried to infiltrate U.S. political organizations as a covert Russian agent. Russia has called her jailing “preposterous.”

In his U.N. address, Lavrov was particularly angry over U.S. and EU sanctions over Russia’s actions abroad, saying, “We see the desire of several Western nations to preserve their self-proclaimed status as world leaders … and do not hesitate to use any methods including political blackmail, economic pressure and brute force.”

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He defended the 2015 deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program and said “we will do everything possible” to preserve it. Lavrov called Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal part of a dangerous trend of unilateral measures that risk damaging the post-World War II world order.

Later, at the press conference, he welcomed Monday’s agreement by the five powers still supporting the nuclear agreement – Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – to establish a financing facility in the European Union to facilitate doing business with Iran, a key part of the deal which is threatened by U.S. sanctions.

“All avenues, all ways are being discussed for Iran to receive what was promised by the Security Council,” he said, including a barter system for oil.

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Lavrov defended the United Nations – where Russia holds veto power on the Security Council – as the only legitimate place to resolve international issues and disputes.

Russia is framing itself as a counterweight to U.S. power around the world, and Lavrov has been manoeuvring in talks at the U.N. this week to shape the future of Syria, influence nonproliferation negotiations with North Korea and bolster Venezuela’s embattled president.

Lavrov met Friday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem at the U.N. Russia is rebuilding trade and military ties with Syria as it looks to a postwar future.

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While tensions linger over the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, Russia is determined to keep Syria solidly anchored in its sphere of influence over the long term, as a foothold in the Middle East and as a warning to the U.S. and its allies against future interference.

Also at the news conference:

– Lavrov said talks have begun between U.S. national security adviser John Bolton and his Russian counterpart who are planning their third meeting since June. He said this was at least an effort to maintain relations and “to roll back and lower” tensions.

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– He appeared to accuse unnamed Trump officials of purposely getting in the way of improved U.S.-Russia relations, claiming that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held “quite constructive” meetings in Germany and Finland, but those responsible for implementing the agreements that were reached “are in no hurry to do that.” He cited the absence of any U.S.-Russia talks on important issues including counter-terrorism, cyber-security, strategic stability and major arms control agreements. He said meetings of foreign affairs and defence officials, intelligence and security agencies are also on hold.

“The time for the negotiations is ripe, or I would say overripe,” he said. “The dialogue right now is in limbo.”

– Lavrov rejected the idea of sidelining Iran as a regional player in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. “I don’t think that you can lock it in a cage within its borders.”

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He noted that rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar also have legitimate interests and are pursuing them beyond their borders. “So hoping that you can lock Iranians within their own borders, … I don’t think that’s realistic,” he said. The answer, he said, is for all players in the region to sit down and negotiate.

– Lavrov said Russia has started delivering sophisticated S-300 air defence systems to Syria following the Sept. 17 downing of a Russian military reconnaissance aircraft by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli air strike that killed all 15 people on board. The friendly fire incident sparked tensions in the region.

He also sharply criticized seven countries – the U.S., Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – for pressuring Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria, to convene a committee to start drafting a new constitution for the country when there is still no agreement on the 50 civil society members who will serve on that committee. “That would be a grave mistake,” he said, stressing Moscow’s opposition to “artificial timelines.”

© 2018 The Canadian Press

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