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Lavrov Says U.S. Out To Torpedo 'Strategic Stability,' Maintains Hard Line In Kuriles Dispute

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on January 16.

MOSCOW -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the United States of seeking to dismantle the system of weapons pacts and said that Moscow is willing to continue trying to preserve the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Holding his annual press conference on January 16, Lavrov lashed out repeatedly at the United States amid severely strained relations between Moscow and Washington.

"Unilateral actions by Washington that are aimed at the demolition of very important international legal instruments that provide for strategic stability have not added to optimism," Lavrov said.

He claimed that this aim was "confirmed very clearly" at talks in Geneva a day earlier on the INF treaty, asserting that the United States ignored Russian explanations of a missile that Washington says violates the bilateral 1987 pact.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would withdraw from the treaty limiting medium-range missiles if Russia did not dismantle the weapon that Washington says violates it.

A senior U.S. official said after the talks in Geneva that Russia "continues to be in material breach" of the treaty and "must destroy its noncompliant missile system."

Lavrov repeated Russia's claim that the 9M729 missile does not violate the pact and said, "We are still ready to work to save the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty."

He urged European nations to help influence Washington, saying that they have a serious stake in the issue.

The INF bans ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Nearly 2,700 missiles were eliminated by the Soviet Union and the United States -- most of the latter in Europe -- under the treaty.

Russia has warned that if the United States abandons the pact and deploys such missiles in Europe, Moscow will respond in kind.

Lavrov also repeated suggestions that Moscow would like to preserve the 2010 New START treaty governing U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear arms, which is set to expire in 2021 but can be extended for five years by mutual agreement.

On another issue in sharp focus lately, Lavrov repeated that Japan must recognize "the results" of World War II if it wants progress toward a peace treaty and a possible deal that would cede two of four disputed Pacific islands to Tokyo.

He claimed that Moscow has issued no ultimatum, but the position amounts to a demand that Tokyo accept Russian sovereignty over the islands, which Russia calls the Southern Kuriles and Japan calls the Northern Territories.

"These are not preconditions. It's just an effort to understand why Japan is the only country in the world which cannot say: 'I accept the results of World War II in their entirety'," Lavrov said at the press conference, which came ahead of talks between Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Moscow on January 22.

Speaking to journalists later in the day, Kremlin foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov said the Putin-Abe talks are expected to be difficult. He repeated the demand that Japan recognize the results of World War II and added that the disputed islands "are our land and nobody intends to give this land away to anyone."

No New Policy Statements

Lavrov, who has been foreign minister since Putin was elected to a second term in March 2004, holds an annual press conference in January to discuss the previous year's events and set out positions on prominent global, regional, and bilateral issues. But, as in the past, he covered existing ground and made no major new policy statements.

The potential for conflict around the world increased in 2018 "primarily due to the stubborn refusal by some countries of the West -- spearheaded by the United States -- to accept the realities of the multipolar world...and due to their ambitions to continue to impose their will," Lavrov asserted, repeating an allegation Putin and others have made in the past. U.S. officials, meanwhile, have accused Russia of conducting "malign activities" around the globe.

This year's press conference came amid persistent tension with the West over a welter of matters ranging from Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 to the arrest of Paul Whelan -- a citizen of the United States, Britain, Canada, and Ireland -- on suspicion of espionage in late December.

Lavrov repeated Russian assertions that Whelan was caught "red-handed" and was not arrested in order to be used in a potential swap for any Russians held in the West, such as Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent of the Russian government and has agreed to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors.

Taking aim at the policies, positions, or alleged actions by the United States and other Western countries on several other issues, Lavrov questioned the legitimacy of the process of changing Macedonia's name to the Republic of North Macedonia, a shift that could end a longstanding dispute with Greece and enable the former Yugoslav republic to join NATO and the European Union -- steps Moscow opposes.

Lavrov asserted that there is a "mania" in the West "to push all Balkan states into NATO as quickly as possible" and voiced opposition to the prospect of Bosnia-Herzegovina -- which includes the heavily Serb-populated entity, Republika Srpska -- joining the Western military alliance.

He said that Russia is alarmed by what he called talk of a U.S. "military option" for Venezuela, saying that the U.S. approach to the South American country with close Russia ties shows that the United States is seeking to undermine governments around the world that it does not like. The United States, for its part, says that it is Russia that has been meddling in the elections and other internal affairs of countries worldwide.

Parts of Syria that are "currently under U.S. control" must come under the control of President Bashar al-Assad's government "after the withdrawal of U.S. troops," Lavrov said, indicating Moscow opposes U.S. calls for the establishment of a Turkish-controlled "security zone."

"We are convinced that the best and only solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian government, and of Syrian security forces and administrative structures," Lavrov, whose country has given Assad crucial military and diplomatic support throughout the nearly eight-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

'Lowering Of Journalistic Standards'

Lavrov also criticized the suggestion that U.S. President Donald Trump could have worked for Moscow's interests rather than the interests of the United States, saying that "accusations that President Trump is a Russian agent" reflected "a lowering of journalistic standards" in the U.S. media.

After The New York Times revealed that the FBI opened a counterintelligence probe in 2017 into whether Trump was working for Russian interests following his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, Trump said on January 14 that he has "never worked for Russia" and called any such suggestions a "big fat hoax."

Asked whether Russia would consider releasing the minutes of Trump's one-on-one negotiations with Putin, Lavrov dismissed the idea, saying that it would be undiplomatic and that such requests amount to illegitimate meddling in the U.S. president's constitutional right to conduct foreign policy.

Amid uncertainty over Britain's planned exit from the European Union after British Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for Brexit was defeated in Parliament a day earlier, Lavrov said that Russia is not "gloating" or "rubbing its hands" with glee over the issue -- apparently seeking to deny accusations that Russia is happy when there is chaos or disunity in the West. He said that Russia wants the EU to be strong and united.

Following three rounds of talks between Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in December, Lavrov also said suspicions that Moscow is seeking to gain control over Belarus by increasing economic pressure on its smaller neighbor and advocating closer integration under the aegis of a "union state" linking the two countries are misguided.

"We are not creating anything," Lavrov said. "We have offered our Belarusian colleagues our pragmatic proposals...and nobody should look for some political or geopolitical plot in that," he said.

The increased Russian pressure on Belarus has led to speculation that Putin is considering talking a leading role in a more tightly integrated "union state" as a means of maintaining power after 2024, when he is constitutionally barred from seeking a new term as Russian president.

In an unusual development, broadcasts of the nearly 2 1/2-hour press conference -- in the past shown live in full on state TV stations -- were interrupted twice for commercials, in one case cutting Lavrov off midsentence. There are no such breaks in broadcasts of Putin's annual press conference, including the three-hour, 44-minute marathon he held in December.

With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan, Reuters, AP, AFP, TASS, and Interfax
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