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Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Alamy Stock Photo
eastern tensions

Russia demands 'prompt reply' from Ireland on its position on European security pacts

The clarification is sought in a letter sent to a number of European foreign ministers.

LAST UPDATE | 2 Feb 2022

RUSSIA HAS WRITTEN to Ireland to demand a “frank clarification” of its position on security arrangements in Europe. 

The letter was written this week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to a number of his European counterparts, including Ireland’s Simon Coveney. 

The letter refers to a 1999 Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreement and asks whether Ireland and other countries have “reneged” on their obligations. 

“We want to receive a clear answer to the question how our partners understand their obligation not to strengthen their own security at the expense of the security of other States,” the letter states. 

The letter seeks a “prompt reply” and “expects” that each response is given “by each of our States individually and not within any bloc”. 

A spokesperson for the minister confirmed to The Journal that: “Minister Coveney received the letter on Monday and intends to reply to the letter in due course.” 

News of the letter became public as Russia’s Ambassador to Ireland Yuri Filatov was speaking before the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Asked about the letter by Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon, Filatov said “it is not an exclusive message to Ireland” and was sent to all foreign ministers of OSCE countries.

He said the letter is based on the “indivisibility of security” and the fact that one country’s security arrangements are affected by others. 

“You can’t live in a vacuum, you can’t provide for your security without any regard for the security interests of your adjoining states, that’s the whole heart of the matter,” he said.  

During the meeting, Filatov said there was a “daily drumbeat” in the west about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine but that the threat of an invasion was “a fantasy”. 

“There are no even hypothetically any political, economic, military or any other reasons for such an invasion,” he said. 

Filatov said there are stories about Russian troops “in every newspaper, every day” but that these troops are in Russian territory.

‘NATO is brazen enough to tell us to move our armed forces away from the border in our own territory,’ he told the committee. 

fil 2 Russian ambassador Yuri Filatov.

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen asked Filatov if he accepted that Ukraine was a sovereign nation that was free to make its own decision regarding its security.

Cowen used the comparison of Brexit and said that the UK leaving the EU was “hard to understand” from an Irish point of view but that Ireland accepts the UK’s sovereign decision.

Sinn Féin’s John Brady TD said it was welcome that Russia had decided to move planned marine military drills outside of Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone but he asked Filatov to agree that the drills “could be viewed as provocative”. 

The artillery drills were to take place this week in international waters and caused considerable upset and controversy in Ireland, sparking protests by Irish fishermen outside the Russian Embassy in Dublin.

On Saturday, Coveney confirmed that he had received assurances from his Russian counterpart that the drills would not take place in Ireland’s EEZ.

Brady today asked Filatov why the location was originally chosen and whether Russia was choosing to “exploit our weakness”. 

Fine Gael Senator Joe O’Reilly also welcomed Russia’s decision to move the drills but sought to get more information on the new site for the tests, noting reports that the new location was “situated over subsea communications cables between the US and Europe”. 

In response, Filatov said that “anywhere you go through the Atlantic” will cross transatlantic cables. He said that suggestions that the cables were the reason for the drills was fiction. 

“I don’t put any water into the theories, which are abundant, that these exercises are somehow linked to this James Bond-like story,” he said. 

Irish airspace

In a separate Oireachtas Committee hearing today, Irish aviation officials said that the planned Russian exercises off the Irish coast were “absolutely routine”.

The Oireachtas transport committee heard today from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), after Russia agreed to move planned military drills off the south-west coast of Ireland. 

Appearing before the committee, IAA chief executive Peter Kearney told politicians:

Although the Russian Federation has indicated that planned exercise would be moved and so the original airspace restrictions have been cancelled, we need to remain alert that the exercises could take place at a new location, outside of our area of responsibility but in an area that could impact our operation.

However, he also said that the planned Russian activity, although the first of its kind in living memory, was “routine”.

He said: “With what has been seen in Ukraine and Russia and the sensitivities around that, I can understand how people would be very concerned.

“From our point of view, this is absolutely routine. There’s nothing unusual at all about this. This didn’t generate any surprise or additional level of alertness within our organisation. We simply applied the procedures that we’ve operated for many years.”

In a lengthy opening statement, Kearney told the committee he wanted to “stress that, while not commonplace, military exercises do occur from time to time in international waters and airspace.

He said there were “agreed international procedures in place for the safe management of civilian aircraft while such exercises take place”.

Russia followed the correct process to alert officials to the exercise, he said.

In his opening statement, he talked politicians through how such exercises are notified and how the IAA operated amid the recent controversy.

He said Russia notified UK authorities regarding the drills on 19 January.

UK authorities then contacted Ireland.

On 27 January, British authorities published a notice to inform airlines that a portion of airspace would be closed as a result of the planned exercise.

“The practical outcome of these steps is that the area of airspace where the exercise was to take place had been closed to civil aircraft for the required period between 3 to 8 February.

“To further protect civil aviation, we had also put in additional buffers to widen the restricted area – beyond that which had been notified by the Russian authorities – and had increased the restricted altitude to unlimited, meaning no civilian aircraft could fly into or over the restricted area.

“We also widened the time of the closures to ensure that all aircraft would have exited the area well in advance of the naval exercise commencing.”

Kearney said that all of the steps were put in place to “ensure the safety of the operation of civilian aircraft”.

“The safety of operations within Irish air traffic control airspace would not have been impacted, as all civilian aircraft would be routed away from the relevant area,” he said.

With the Russian exercise now moved elsewhere, aircraft were are free to flight plan through the area that was to have been restricted, he added.

“In other words, they can now plan the most efficient transatlantic routing as normal,” he said.

‘We believe this is closed’

Taking questions from politicians, officials said the UK, Nato and France had all carried out similar exercises in recent years.

IAA officials said Nato and French exercises were held in the international airspace monitored by Ireland in 2021, while the UK held an exercise in 2017.

In total, officials said they were “four experiences” over the last five years in terms of military or naval training exercises impacting international airspace near Ireland.

The officials said they understood that the Russian exercise would have involved the firing of artillery and missiles.

The IAA was told that the “top of activity” for the Russian exercises was meant to be 11,000 metres.

However, authorities asked civilian flights to avoid an “unlimited” area of airspace.

They said that some civilian aircraft can fly at 37,000 ft.

The military activity would have therefore taken up “quite a small amount of airspace”, Peter Kavanagh, IAA general manager for en-route and aeronautical information services, said.

Fianna Fail Senator Timmy Dooley acknowledged that the committee appearance had been “overtaken by events”.

He asked: “Was there any diplomacy employed in the IAA, perhaps at board level, to talk to the Russian Ambassador?”

Kavanagh said that was not necessarily a role for the organisation or the IAA board.

“This is standard international practice. I’m not sure it is something the board can even get involved in,” he replied.

There was also criticism of the Foreign Affairs Minister by some committee members.

Fianna Fáil’s Cathal Crowe said Simon Coveney “could and should have done a lot more” regarding the military activity.

“I don’t think we should be tipping our cap all the time to larger nations and being bullied in the schoolyard of geopolitics,” he said.

Kearney, taking questions from committee chairman Fine Gael TD Kieran O’Donnell, said no further communication has been received from Russian authorities.

He said he believes any upcoming exercises will only involve the navy.

“We believe this is closed,” he said.

- With reporting by Press Association

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