Updated 18 minutes ago
RUSSIA WRITTEN to Ireland demanding ‘frank clarification’ of its position on security arrangements in Europe.
The letter was written this week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to several of his European counterparts, including the Irishman Simon Coveney.
The letter refers to a 1999 Organization 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 of how our partners understand their obligation not to strengthen their own security at the expense of the security of other states,” the letter said.
The letter asks for a “prompt response” and “expects” each response to be given “by each of our states individually and not within a bloc”.
A spokesperson for the minister confirmed The newspaper that: “Minister Coveney received the letter on Monday and intends to respond to it in due course.”
News of the letter became public knowledge when Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yuri Filatov was speaking to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee.
Asked about the letter from 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 ensure your security without considering the security interests of your neighboring 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 impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the threat of an invasion was “a fantasy “.
“There are not even hypothetical political, economic, military or other reasons for such an invasion,” he said.
Filatov said there were stories about Russian troops “in every newspaper, every day” but that those troops were on Russian territory.
“NATO is brazen enough to tell us to move our armed forces away from the border into our own territory,” he told the committee.
Russian Ambassador Yuri Filatov.
Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen asked Filatov if he accepted that Ukraine was a sovereign nation free to make its own decision regarding its security.
Cowen used the Brexit simile and said the UK’s exit from the EU was “difficult to fathom” from an Irish perspective, but Ireland accepts the UK’s sovereign decision.
Sinn Féin’s John Brady TD said it was welcome that Russia had decided to move the planned maritime military exercises outside of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone, but he asked Filatov to accept that the exercises” could be considered provocative”.
The artillery drills were due to take place this week in international waters and have caused considerable upheaval 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 chose to ‘exploit our weakness’.
Fine Gael Senator Joe O’Reilly also welcomed Russia’s decision to move the drills, but sought more information on the new site for testing, noting that the new location was “located on cables submarine communications between the United States and Europe”.
In response, Filatov said that “everywhere you go across the Atlantic” you will come across transatlantic cables. He said suggestions that the cables were the reason for the exercises were fiction.
“I don’t water the theories, which are plentiful, that these exercises are somehow connected to this James Bond-esque story,” he said.
At a separate Oireachtas committee hearing today, Irish aviation officials said planned Russian drills off the Irish coast were ‘absolutely routine’.
The Oireachtas Transport Committee heard from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) today, after Russia agreed to move planned military exercises 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 the planned exercise will be moved and therefore the initial airspace restrictions have been lifted, we must remain mindful that the exercises may 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 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 it, I can understand how very concerned people would be.
“From our point of view, this is absolutely routine. There is nothing unusual about this. It did not generate any surprises or additional levels of alert within our organization. We simply applied the procedures that we have been applying for many years.
In a lengthy opening statement, Kearney told the committee he wanted to “emphasize that, while not commonplace, military exercises are held from time to time in international waters and airspace.
He said there were “internationally agreed procedures in place for the safe management of civil aircraft while such exercises are taking place”.
Russia followed the correct process to alert exercise officials, he said.
In his opening statement, he explained to politicians how such exercises are notified and how the IAA has operated amid recent controversy.
He said Russia notified British authorities of the drills on January 19.
The British authorities then contacted Ireland.
On January 27, British authorities issued a notice informing airlines that part of the airspace would be closed following the planned exercise.
“The practical result of these measures is that the area of airspace where the exercise was to take place was closed to civil aircraft for the required period between 3 and 8 February.
“To further protect civil aviation, we had also implemented additional buffers to expand the restricted area – beyond what had been notified by the Russian authorities – and increased the restricted altitude to unlimited, which means that no civilian aircraft could fly into or over the restricted area.
“We also extended the duration of the closures to ensure that all aircraft would have left the area well before the start of the naval exercise.”
Kearney said all measures have been put in place to “ensure the safe operation of civil aircraft”.
“Safety of operations in Irish air traffic control airspace would not have been affected as all civilian aircraft would be diverted from the affected area,” he said.
With the Russian exercise now moved elsewhere, planes were free to plan their flight in the area that was to be restricted, he added.
“In other words, they can now plan the most efficient transatlantic routing as usual,” he said.
“We think it’s closed”
Responding to questions from politicians, the officials said the UK, NATO and France had all carried out similar exercises in recent years.
IAA officials said NATO and France exercises took place in international airspace monitored by Ireland in 2021, while the UK held an exercise in 2017.
In total, officials said it was “four experiences” over the past five years in terms of military or naval training exercises impacting international airspace near Ireland.
Officials said they understood the Russian exercise would have involved artillery and missile fire.
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The IAA was told that the “peak of activity” for the Russian drills was to be 11,000 meters.
However, authorities have asked civilian flights to avoid an “unlimited” area of airspace.
They said some civilian planes can fly at 37,000 feet.
Military activity would therefore have occupied “a fairly small amount of airspace”, said Peter Kavanagh, the IAA’s general manager for en route and aeronautical information services.
Fianna Fail Senator Timmy Dooley acknowledged that the appearance before the committee had been “overtaken by events”.
He asked, “Has there been any diplomacy employed at the IAA, perhaps at board level, to talk to the Russian ambassador?”
Kavanagh said that wasn’t necessarily a role for the organization or the IAA board.
“This is standard international practice. I’m not sure that’s something the board can even get involved in,” he replied.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs was also criticized by some members of the committee.
Fianna Fáil’s Cathal Crowe said Simon Coveney “could and should have done a lot more” regarding military activity.
“I don’t think we should tip our caps all the time to big nations and be bullied into the schoolyard of geopolitics,” he said.
Kearney, responding to questions from Fine Gael TD committee chairman Kieran O’Donnell, said no further communication had been received from the Russian authorities.
He said he believed any future exercises would only involve the Navy.
“We think it’s closed,” he said.
– With reporting by Press Association