Dominic McGrath and Cate McCurry, PA
Plans by Russia to hold navy military exercises off the coast of Ireland are a “non-story”, the Russian ambassador has said.
At a press conference in the Russian Embassy on Monday, Yury Filatov downplayed the significance of the navy exercises after concerns were raised by the Government.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had earlier said the plans were “not welcome”.
The artillery drills at the start of February will take place in international waters but within Irish-controlled airspace and the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
At the press conference, Mr Filatov said: “It has been hugely overblown. These exercises are part of the yearly plan of naval activity for 2022.”
He said the exercises were not a threat to Ireland or anyone else.
“No harm is intended and no problem is expected. All that has been communicated to our colleagues at the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland,” he said.
Mr Filatov said the real story “lies elsewhere”.
He added: “It looks like the topic of exercises fits in the ongoing propaganda campaign waged by the US and its Nato allies to create an illusion of a Russian threat to Ukraine.
“I think we all witness a daily drumbeat emanating primarily from Washington and London, other Nato capitals, about imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
“I will say once again, it is a fake.”
Mr Coveney, who is expected to brief the Cabinet on Tuesday, said the exercises are to take place 240km off the coast of Cork.
Speaking to reporters on Monday evening, the ambassador said the objections raised by Mr Coveney had been relayed to the Russian government.
However, he played down Irish concerns and suggested it is unlikely the exercises will be called off.
He said: “Why would we do so?
“I don’t see any reason for changing that because there are no problems actually.”
Mr Filatov described talks with Mr Coveney over the issue as “open” and “productive”.
Calling it a “small exercise” involving three-to-four ships, he warned against “apocalyptic overtones”.
He said: “I think we could expect that our Irish and other European colleagues would seriously look into the ways in which the European Union could help this dialogue between Russia US and Nato on this issue, rather than whipping up tensions in the region with the irresponsible and alarmist rhetoric.”
Mr Filatov said “Ireland is not a choice for the exercises”, which he said will be held in a “region of north-eastern Atlantic that has been usually the area for military training” for “many navies of the world, Russian included”.
He said: “So there is no Irish connection here whatsoever.”
In compliance with legal requirements, Russia informed Ireland’s aviation authorities of the planned activities in advance.
The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said there would be no impact to the safety of civil aircraft operations.
Mr Coveney said Ireland does not have the power to prevent the exercises.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers, Mr Coveney said: “I have made it clear to the Russian Ambassador in Ireland (Mr Filatov) that it’s not welcome.
“This is not a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what is happening with and in Ukraine at the moment.
“It’s important that I brief my colleagues on those intentions.
“Russia, under international law, can take military exercises in international waters, but the fact they are choosing to do it on the west borders of the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that is in our view not welcome and not wanted right now, particularly in the coming weeks.”
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar later echoed Mr Coveney’s comments that the Russian exercises are “not welcome”, and said Cabinet would discuss the issue on Tuesday.
“In relation to the situation with regard to Russia, I’ve been briefed on that by Minister Coveney. I expect he will brief Cabinet on it tomorrow as well,” he said.
“While the Russian military can, within the law, carry out these exercises off our waters and in our economic zone, they’re certainly unwelcome.
“That has been communicated to the authorities.”
Mr Coveney was in Brussels on Monday for a scheduled meeting with other EU foreign ministers at which the ongoing tensions on the Russia/Ukraine border are being discussed.
“This is an important day today for EU foreign ministers to reinforce a message of unity from the European Union in relation to Russian/Ukraine tension,” Mr Coveney added.
“There are two very clear messages that EU foreign ministers will want to get across today.
“First of all, a clear message and ask of Russia to defuse tension in the context of their activities on the borders of Ukraine and give reassurance to the rest of the world in terms of their intentions.
“Secondly, a strong message of unity from the EU that should Russia decide to invade Ukraine militarily, that there would be very severe consequences of that action from an EU perspective in terms of sanction and restrictions that would follow very quickly, that I think would be the most comprehensive that the EU has put together in many decades."