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Joint news conference with Federal Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz

February 28, 2018

Vladimir Putin and Sebastian Kurz gave a joint news conference following their talks.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Federal Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen,

Talks with the Federal Chancellor of Austria, Mr Sebastian Kurz, were constructive and fruitful. We exchanged opinions on the entire range of bilateral cooperation issues, as well as some topical matters on the international and regional agendas. We outlined our plans in politics, trade, the economy and humanitarian issues.

We acknowledged the fact that relations between Russia and Austria have historically been based on principles of equality and respect for one another’s interests, and are truly of a mutually beneficial nature.

Last year, trade between our countries increased by more than 40 percent. Russia’s investment in the Austrian economy is growing and has reached almost $23 billion while Austria’s investment in the Russian economy is approaching $5 billion.

The Intergovernmental Commission has been successful. This May, its co-chairs will meet on the sidelines of the next St Petersburg International Economic Forum. We expect that representatives of the Austrian business community will be involved in the forum programme as extensively as in previous years.

Austria is a major buyer of Russian natural gas and provides for its transit to other European countries. This June we are marking 50 years since the first delivery of gas from the Soviet Union to the Austrian market. Throughout the years, our country has made a significant contribution to the energy security of the entire European continent. The upcoming anniversary clearly illustrates Russia’s reputation as a reliable energy supplier. Let me note that our Austrian partners have become involved in some new large infrastructure and energy projects.

We discussed joint initiatives in transport and logistics infrastructure during the talks, primarily the railway from Košice to Vienna with wide gauge tracks compatible with the Russian standard. This project has been discussed for a while, but it now appears to be gradually moving forward.

The project received broad support at a recent international conference held in Vienna with the participation of leading European railway companies. Work is underway to draft a feasibility study and develop specific financing mechanisms. We believe that the Košice-Vienna section will in the long run make it possible to effectively link the European and Asian markets. For us, this is important, as it will promote Russia’s transit potential.

The development of interregional exchanges were discussed separately with Mr Chancellor. Over the past year, Austria has hosted presentations by Pskov, Tver and Yaroslavl regions and the Days of Moscow in Vienna. We signed documents on expanding cooperation between the governments of Krasnoyarsk Territory and the Federal Land of Carinthia, Karachay-Cherkessia and Tyrol, Chelyabinsk Region and Styria.

We noted active bilateral cooperation in the cultural sphere as well. Last year saw the successful Cross Year of Tourism. In January, a Cross Year of Music and Cultural Routes was launched. In 2019, we plan to hold the Year of Youth Exchange.

We supported the initiative to establish a Russian-Austrian Public Forum to expand contacts in civil society, science, education, and art. We took into account the positive experience of similar cooperation with Germany and the early phase of this kind of cooperation with France.

Of course, we touched on a number of important international and regional matters.

In the second half of the year, Austria will chair the Council of the European Union. In this regard, we talked about the prospects for Russia-EU relations, and the importance of maintaining full-fledged ties in politics and the economy.

We discussed the situation in Ukraine. When he was Foreign Minister of Austria, Mr Kurz paid much attention to the Ukraine conflict. In particular, he actively engaged in this issue during the Austrian chairmanship of the OSCE in 2017. In our common opinion, the Minsk agreements remain the only basis for resolving this crisis.

In the context of the state of affairs in the Middle East, primarily Syria, we stressed the primary importance of uniting the international community’s efforts in fighting terrorism based on the coordinating role of the UN and the standards of international law.

In closing, I would like to thank our Austrian partners, and personally Mr Chancellor, for these substantive and productive talks. I am confident that the results will contribute to the further deepening of mutually beneficial cooperation between our countries.

Thank you.

Federal Chancellor of the Republic of Austria Sebastian Kurz (retranslated): Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

I am sincerely grateful to you for these constructive talks and above all, I would like to thank you for the traditionally good bilateral relations between Austria and Russia. We have a long history and long-standing traditions of bilateral exchange between Austria and Russia, primarily a very powerful economic exchange between our countries.

We are pleased to say that after several difficult years our economic relations are again making steady headway. The number of Russian tourists in Austria has grown by 25 percent. Our economic relations, our trade has increased by about 15 percent.

We also talked about relations between Russia and the European Union. We are playing an active role in this respect. In the beginning of July, Austria takes over the Presidency of the Council for half a year. We are trying to facilitate the consolidation of the EU while adhering to the European position.

We also talked about opportunities for easing tensions between Russia and the EU. I took the opportunity to formulate our expectations as regards both the rule of law and international law.

In discussing bilateral relations at the Russia-EU level, we spoke about hotbeds of crises including those in Eastern Ukraine and Syria. Naturally, Russia’s influence there is great and therefore it bears much responsibility.

As for Syria, we believe that we should do everything we can to stop this unbearable situation. The suffering of the people is simply incredible. I am glad there was an opportunity to adopt a UN Security Council resolution to contribute to alleviating their suffering. This region needs peace and of course a better life in this country.

We also discussed Ukraine. As Mr President said, last year I had the honour of chairing the OSCE and visited eastern Ukraine. Our goal is to ensure a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. We are happy that the Special Monitoring Mission is carrying out very important work along the contact line. Of course, this is still a long way from a political settlement. We expect the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Before they are carried out, it is necessary to take positive steps to de-escalate tensions in the region. If participation by UN peacemakers is required, Austria is certainly ready to contribute to lasting peace in eastern Ukraine.

Thank you for this pleasant day in Moscow, the agreeable conversation with the economic and energy ministers. I also had an opportunity to meet the head of the EU delegation and representatives of civil society. So I thank you for this positive conversation and hope we will continue it soon.

Thank you very much.

Question: We were just talking about Ukraine, and Austria really supports the UN mission, the peacekeepers, and also wants to help with this. Why has Russia still not consented to peacekeepers working on the border with Russia as well? This is Kiev’s proposal.

Vladimir Putin: You know that we essentially initiated the organisation of the UN mission in the southeast of Ukraine. This is an idea that was first proposed by Mr Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine. All I had to do was to publicly support it and submit a resolution. But when we did this, it turned out that this was not enough.

As you know, and as you have just said, it is proposed to extend this mission to the entire territory, although initially it was about ensuring the safety of OSCE observers on the line of contact. We proceed from what is sufficient for the UN mission to fulfill this role.

Initially, in general, Ukraine raised the issue of arming the OSCE staff with the goal of ensuring security. We agreed. The OSCE refused, arguing that they had neither the experience, nor the people who could do it. And, thirdly, there is the fear that as soon as OSCE personnel take up arms, they will become targets for both sides in the conflict.

Therefore, another idea was put forward to ensure their safety – to set up a UN mission next to them. We agreed. After that, the Chancellor of Germany posed the following question in a telephone conversation, “After all, OSCE staff is sometimes on the border between Russia and Ukraine, in this section.” I said, “Yes.” She said, “But why shouldn’t they be on the border with Russia and Ukraine?” I replied, “Yes, you are probably right, let them go there, too, when they accompany the OSCE to provide security.” We also agreed to that. But this was not enough. Now they are saying, “No, they need to be everywhere.” In fact, it is about putting all this territory under international control. Is Russia for or against? We are not opposed, that much I can say, but it is necessary to negotiate with the unrecognised republics. Go and reach an agreement with them. No, no one wants to.

Tell me, please, is there a single example in international practice of this kind of conflict being settled without the involvement of one of the parties to the conflict? Nothing of the sort has ever happened in practice. But, unfortunately, no one wants direct dialogue; the Kiev authorities do not want direct dialogue, as envisaged in the Minsk agreements, with representatives of these unrecognised territories. They must first take political steps toward a settlement, start implementing the Minsk agreements, and then think about further steps.

Today, it is necessary to ensure the security of the OSCE staff. We agree with this. Let us take at least this step. But for some reason they do not want to do this either, they refuse to do this. It is strange. But we will work on this together with all the interested parties.

Question: My question is addressed to both leaders and it concerns trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Austria. How do you see the prospects for cooperation given, shall we say, the complexities in relations between Brussels and Moscow; what prospects do you see for projects like Nord Stream 2 and the wide gauge railway from Košice to Vienna. Thank you.

Sebastian Kurz. Thank you very much for your question.

First, I would like to emphasise that I have a positive view of our economic relations over the past few years; they have been progressing in the right direction. I am confident that both nations have further potential here; we talked about this over lunch.

And indeed, these are two items that we spoke about today, that are of long-term strategic interest not only for Russia but also for European nations like Austria. First, the extension of the of the wide gauge railway to Austria. Last week both countries’ transport ministers met, and we generally favour this project. It will actually require tremendous investment but it is strategically correct, it makes sense. We said today that we need to develop this project further.

The second project that concerns not only Austria but also Germany and other countries is Nord Stream 2. The Austrian Federal Government also supports this. However, there are a great number of technical challenges to be worked out. And it is necessary to sort out a number of issues and the impact of this project on other countries. Austria is very positive about the project. And it is positive not only for us but also for Germany and many other states.

Vladimir Putin: Regarding the project Mr Chancellor concluded with, Nord Stream 2, you are aware of our position. We advocate the implementation of the project, which, undoubtedly, is absolutely depoliticised. It is an entirely economic, and moreover, a purely commercial project because the participants can calculate their revenue, their economic gain, from building this, and they arrive at the conclusion that the project is feasible.

By the way, this is not an alternative to the Ukraine route. If Ukraine presents economically justified parameters for using its gas pipeline system, we have nothing against continued cooperation with Ukraine. But in any case, projects like Nord Stream, Nord Stream 2, and Turkish Stream will only diversify the distribution alternatives, which means they improve the quality of deliveries and increase stability.

We know that gas extraction in Europe is in decline. Liquefied natural gas is not competitive in the European market, at any rate, this is obvious today, and it will remain so for the coming decade. So if our partners support this project, let me repeat, we will also move forward.

Concerning other areas (that Mr Chancellor mentioned and that I talked about, including railway cooperation, trade, industrial cooperation, and we just reviewed that recently Austrian investors had built several plants in Russia, our investment in the Austrian economy of $23 billion also says a lot, they are real investments), we will develop all these areas of cooperation including the implementation of Austria’s proposals on the Public Dialogue Forum. I think this is a good idea. It will build up a favourable foundation for developing Russian-Austrian relations.

Question (retranslated): East and West – both sides would be happy to have no more sanctions and counter-sanctions. Yet currently the situation is blocked, it is at an impasse. But there is the notion of a policy of small steps, and the goodwill that can guide those steps in countering the sanctions. What do you think of such of ideas and do you think Austria can contribute to this?

Vladimir Putin: It is common knowledge that we did not impose the sanctions. It was not we who imposed the sanctions. Sanctions were imposed on us. In my view, this causes clear damage to the interests of EU countries, and it also hurts Russia. It is not ultimately clear who is suffering more but the damage is evident for all. Most importantly, the goals set by the authors of this kind of policy are not attained. In general, this is in effect a senseless and damaging activity.

But we have what we have, and it cannot be changed. Of course, we need to try to remove the causes that underlie the current situation; we need to try to resolve the crises that lead to the situation, both the Ukrainian crisis and other crises, but Ukraine first, of course. How quickly this can be done is the question, I mean the degradation of the socioeconomic and political situation in Ukraine today. This does not help in resolving the crisis; on the contrary, it aggravates it and does not allow the current leaders to actively implement the Minsk agreements. This is the problem. And how long will it last?

You can blame Russia as much as you like and look to define our guilt in any way you like, but it is clear to an unbiased observer that we do not carry the burden of implementing the Minsk agreements. We authored those agreements, and we are happy to abide by them. What if the other party does not want to do this? The question is in those small steps. It should probably be done wherever possible, but it should be done by both parties.

Our trade with Europe has been cut almost in half. What does ‘trade with Europe cut in half mean? It means European goods have not been delivered to our market, it means jobs in Europe are suffering. It has specific socioeconomic consequences. But let me reiterate, we are ready for that, we are not going to blame anyone for anything. What we need is a two-way street so that our interests are taken into account, while we are ready to take into consideration our European partners’ interests.

You see, we do have good long-standing relations with the European countries, and Austria is an example. They are deep in nature, and they date back centuries. And of course, it is a mistake to make centuries-long relations contingent on the current political situation, and this creates bad prospects. We, for our part, are ready to do everything dependent on us to rectify the situation.

Question: Syria has been mentioned, and so I have a question for both leaders. What is your assessment of the situation in Eastern Ghouta after the UN Security Council Resolution was adopted?

And a question for the Russian President. Mr President, what is your attitude to the criticism of Moscow coming from the capitals of many countries? And in general, what are the prospects for a Syrian settlement, considering the latest aggravation?

Vladimir Putin: As for prospects for a settlement, Mr Chancellor and I discussed this. We talked about this in private, in a narrow circle, and in a wide circle. This took over an hour and we could have spent much more time discussing it. So I cannot quite give you a comprehensive answer in this respect.

The situation is difficult and settlement prospects depend on the opposing parties, on their internal willingness to achieve a settlement and preserve the territorial integrity of their country. Everything depends on this.

Certainly, the influence of the countries in the region and the leading global players is very important. There are many component interests here. We will definitely work to establish a political dialogue and launch a constitutional process to prepare a new fundamental law for the country and, on this basis, achieve full normalisation. We will work to turn the de-escalation zones into zones of cooperation between Damascus and the opposing forces deployed there.

As for Eastern Ghouta, unfortunately, there are still many extremist forces there, representatives of a wide range of terrorist organisations on the respective UN list. I will not mention them now. As you know, the latest UN Security Council Resolution states that the fight against these organisations will never stop.

What does this mean for us? Continued shelling, on some days up to 50–80 missile and mortar strikes. As is known, at least we are well aware of it in Russia, bombs even hit the grounds of the Russian Embassy and trade mission. Do you think we will put up with this forever? Certainly not.

As a result of my latest telephone conversation with the German Chancellor and the President of France, you know that I issued orders to the Defence Ministry, and we made arrangements with our Syrian partners, and we proposed organising humanitarian routes to evacuate children and wounded people from the hotspots. In the past, we have done this on request of the President of Turkey, Mr Erdogan and by agreement with him. We managed to evacuate a large group of those who wanted to leave the area, but another group that was prepared could not leave because the terrorists did not allow it.

If we all together make efforts to normalise the situation both in the whole country and in Eastern Ghouta, we will have success. If we try to pull all this down for the sake of some immediate tactical and political advantages, nothing good will come of it. But I hope for cooperation and for the resolution of this situation, including in Eastern Ghouta.

Sebastian Kurz: We are enduring not only a conflict and a civil war in Syria, but also a war in which super powers are represented and in which regions have major influence. At the same time, the civilian population has been living in an intolerable situation for several years.

I am glad – I already said this earlier, but wanted to emphasise this again – that there is a resolution of the UN Security Council, and we want to make it more influential. It is good that we have it, and it would be good to translate it into action. We are talking about a goal that, perhaps, is not yet in our grasp, but there are intermediate steps that need to be taken. And we need to find the right time, to create these corridors to at least somehow reduce the suffering of the people in this acute situation.

Therefore, we hope that the negotiations will resume; negotiations were held in Austria and Switzerland. And here, I am appealing to Russia, because it has influence and responsibility here. Russia is a superpower, and it can affect the regime and the situation in Syria. Therefore, our great hope is that everyone will return to the negotiating table and stop the war in Syria as soon as possible.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you.

February 28, 2018