Inter-American problems and regional policy
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with Kommersant published on December 19, 2018
Question: More than two weeks have passed since US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented Russian with a 60-day ultimatum on the INF Treaty. Is Moscow ready to accept Washington’s terms and destroy or modify the violating item, specifically the 9M729 missile?
Sergey Ryabkov: I don’t want to talk about this and other steps by Washington in terms of an “ultimatum.” I believe there are still politicians in the US administration that realise that it is pointless and counterproductive to talk to Russia in the language of blackmail. I suggest we put aside the propaganda fuss with which the US covers up its actions on the INF Treaty and analyse the practical meaning.
In this context, Washington’s statement of December 4 that if Russia does not stop “violating” the Treaty, the US will suspend its commitment in 60 days, that is, after February 2, and will start the six month period until its withdrawal from it, has not introduced anything new into the existing situation either as regards international law or military political consequences.
Sergey Ryabkov: Let me explain. First of all, it is necessary to realise that there is nothing to suspend in the implementation of the INF Treaty since elimination and verification procedures were completed as far back as 2000. Basically, the Treaty can be only explicitly violated by the production and deployment of the prohibited missiles.
Washington claims that it is not planning to produce or deploy these missiles during the “suspension” period. However, they are being economical with the truth. First, although the Americans have not yet developed these advanced weapons, they are conducting research and development that is not directly banned by the Treaty in full.
Second, the elements of missile systems that are banned are already deployed in Europe and this deployment continues. Specifically, they are deploying multi-mission Mk-41 launchers on land as part of the Aegis Ashore system, which is capable of combat use of Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles.
So Washington is not marking time. Naturally, we will continue thoroughly monitoring and analysing the development of these programmes and consider them in our own defence planning in terms of our response, if necessary.
One more important point is that Russia is strictly abiding by the INF and is not guilty of any of the violations that are ascribed to it by the Americans. Hence, Washington’s legal pretext for “suspension” because of the alleged “material breach” of the Treaty by Russia is absolutely groundless.
Thus, Washington’s decision is legally null and the INF Treaty will continue being valid for all parties even after the 60 days period announced by the Americans.
Question: But if Russia does not abide by the US ultimatum, Washington will begin the withdrawal procedure in early February.
Sergey Ryabkov: Washington said in public as early as in October that it would withdraw from the Treaty. It was confirmed to us via bilateral channels at high political level that the said decision is final and is not “an invitation for dialogue”.
They did not make a big secret out of the fact that the problems between the US and Russia do not matter as much as the US desire to discard inconvenient contractual bans. They believe the INF Treaty substantially restricts US military potential as regards the countries with arsenals of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles that threaten American interests, in Washington’s opinion. China, Iran and the DPRK are directly mentioned in this context.
Question: In other words, you don’t think the US really expects Russia to comply with an ultimatum?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have to proceed from the premise that regardless of the opinion and actions of Russia, other parties to the Treaty and third countries, the US will purposefully move to denunciation of the INF Treaty. Washington’s plan to suspend the Treaty is no more than a political game with the public and key NATO allies who apparently persuaded the US to pause for two months. Obviously, the Americans will use this pause for military technical preparations and attempts to make at least part of the international community critical of Russia. I wish I were mistaken but the facts implacably point to this approach.
Question: Several days ago, Russian military leaders suggested holding consultations with the Pentagon. Have they received any reply?
Sergey Ryabkov: As far as I know, no reply has been received.
Question: And does Russia plan any other actions to prevent the Treaty from being discarded?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have introduced a draft resolution in support of the INF Treaty to the UN General Assembly. When it comes to a vote on this document, it would be interesting to see how countries that are active proponents of the current arms control system and those advocating rapid nuclear disarmament measures, including the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, would respond. I am talking about countries, parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Earlier, when the issue was discussed in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, many of these countries took advantage of the “explanation” that Russia had allegedly acted against the rules of procedure. But how could we adhere to specific deadlines at that time when Donald Trump’s statement and the explanation of these developments by his National Security Adviser John Bolton took place two days after the expiration of the formal deadline for submitting resolutions? Today, it would be interesting to see how everyone responds and to find out what the price would be for assurances that the above countries would advocate the inviolability of the arms control system. They should support our draft document, if this is really their position.
Question: Quoting its sources the other day, Nikkei reported that Russia had suggested that China join talks on the future of the INF Treaty. Is that so?
Sergey Ryabkov: I cannot confirm this report. We are very grateful to the Chinese for their consistent support of our line to maintain the INF Treaty, including at the UN and other international venues. And we are conducting a related dialogue with Beijing. Indeed, attempts were made many years ago to turn the INF Treaty into a multilateral, if not universal, document.
Question: Are you talking about Moscow’s 2007-2008 initiative?
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes, we also conducted this dialogue with our Chinese colleagues at that time. Today, we have not forwarded any proposals to Beijing, nor have we suggested that it join talks that simply don’t exist. I think that some kind of confusion has occurred or someone is just trying to create a sensation out of nothing.
Question: The other day the US Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats released the most detailed US description of the specific nature of Russia’s alleged violations of the INF Treaty. He said that Russia initially flight tested the 9M729, a ground based missile, to distances well over 500 kilometres from a fixed launcher, which is only allowed by the Treaty for air and sea launched missiles. Russia then allegedly tested the same missile at ranges below 500 km from a mobile launcher. The sequence of these tests as described by the United States amounts to a violation. What can you say to this?
Sergey Ryabkov: As I said, we firmly reject all the US allegations of our violation of the INF Treaty. These accusations remain completely unfounded. In the five years of our discussing this problem with the United States, they have not provided a single concrete piece of evidence of our guilt.
I want to make it perfectly clear that Russia has not produced or tested missiles that are covered by the INF Treaty and have a prohibited flight range. This fully applies to the 9М729, the designation of which the United States only provided after several years of our attempts to drag it out from them.
I would like to point out that this situation has been shamelessly turned inside out in the information provided on the State Department’s website. It claims, in part, that Russia changed its story several times. But to change a story, one has to be formulated to begin with. Over the past few years, we have been pressing the United States for its version of events. As soon as we learned which missile they were referring to, we supplied complete information on what we did or didn’t do in this sphere.
Washington took time answering our repeated requests for those flight tests which provoked the US Side’s concern. We kept asking them for five years but received information about the dates of the flight tests only five days before the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, when the decision was most likely already made. In this way, the Americans demonstrated a complete lack of interest in clarifying the matter. They were marking time for five years, doing their best to drive the situation into a dead-end.
Question: Have the Americans provided the data on the basis of which they have made their conclusions about the “violating missile”?
Sergey Ryabkov: No, the United States has not provided any data on the basis of which they determined the missile’s range and concluded that we flight tested the 9М729 in those cases. These data are crucial for holding practical military and technical discussions.
During experts meetings, we tried to explain why the Americans’ estimates of the duration and nature of the 9М729 tests were wrong. We told them about the real timeframe of the tests. We also pointed out Washington’s mistaken views on the type of launchers used for this missile’s flight tests. In addition, we told them that many flight tests of various types and classes of missiles using different launchers were held in the area of the Kapustin Yar range the coordinates of which the Americans provided. We pointed out that all these tests were held in full compliance with the requirements of the INF Treaty.
Question: Western media reports indicate that the United States has some intelligence data on the Russian missile.
Sergey Ryabkov: Specialists understand that serious and complex arms control issues are not resolved on the basis of vague intelligence information. Especially since we know the value of US references to this kind of intelligence. We’ve seen this before. So, it is hard to figure out whether this mysterious intelligence, which the US is also spreading among the NATO countries, as we understand it, is fabricated or erroneous. The fact is, however, that the United States categorically rejects the possibility of a joint analysis of these data with our military experts.
Question: Allow me to ask again, for clarity: does this mean Russia has not tested the 9M729 missile from a ground-based launcher, and exceeded the range threshold of the INF Treaty?
Sergey Ryabkov: We provided the Americans with information and arguments that show that the 9M729 missile, which seems to concern them, was not tested at such a range.
Question: Why can’t the Russian authorities hold a demonstration of the 9M729 missile for the American side? Perhaps this would remove some of their concerns. Can the inspection format previously used under the INF Treaty be used for this?
Sergey Ryabkov: The inspection format for the INF Treaty was aimed at destroying specific weapons possessed by the parties at that time. As I said, the elimination and verification procedures for these systems ended many years ago, and the Treaty has been fulfilled in this respect.
As for a demonstration of the missile, there are several implications. The INF does not require us to do this. There are no other obligations that could apply in this case. Therefore, on our part, a demonstration would be a manifestation of increased transparency beyond the framework of the Treaty. At this point, we do not feel that such a step is justified from either the political or technical perspective.
Question: Why? What’s the problem?
Sergey Ryabkov: A missile demonstration would seem an undesirable precedent amid the US’s extremely intrusive attempts to “scan” Russian advances in missile technology and development. For example, during the expert consultations, we were asked to inform Washington not only about the dates and areas of all the tests of the 9M729 missile; they also wanted to know what missile systems had been tested at a specified test site over a period of several years that the American side pointed out. Such requests go far beyond the scope of our INF obligations, although we have already shown additional transparency in the dialogue with the Americans over and above the requirements of the INF.
If you follow this logic, give them an inch and they'll take a mile: the United States will continue to demand that we show almost any military equipment they do not like. This would lead to a disclosure of sensitive information to a country that has Russia on top of its external threat list at the doctrinal level.
In addition, transparency cannot be a one-way street. The Americans, however, approach it very selectively, even in cases when it directly arises from existing agreements. So, for example, the New START Treaty provides for some verification procedures for SLBM launchers, which, naturally, are located inside of submarines. These provisions are agreed upon and ratified by the United States. However, practical implementation is often blocked by the Americans’ refusal to allow our representatives inside their submarines, citing the intrusive nature of such a procedure.
Therefore, it is extremely difficult to argue under these circumstances about unilateral measures of transparency and enhancing confidence on our part.
Question: Did the US even ask you to show them the missile?
Sergey Ryabkov: No, they did not. Instead, they categorically proposed, in fact demanded, that it be destroyed in a “verifiable way.” They did not start this multi-move game to look at our missile. We assume they have already decided everything for themselves.
Question: According to Daniel Coats, Russia no longer wants to be bound by the INF Treaty’s limitations and wants to be able to strike European NATO member countries. What do you say about that?
Sergey Ryabkov: As a diplomat, by definition, I tend to discuss ways to strengthen international security and resolve existing problems by political and diplomatic means. I prefer not to focus excessively on analysing who can strike whom with what kind of weapons. This matter is better left to military professionals to discuss.
I can only reiterate what we have repeatedly said at different levels: Russia is not threatening anyone, but has all the necessary forces and means to beat back any aggressor. Of course, this means that to respond to potential attacks under various scenarios, we need comprehensive defence planning and appropriate military and technical support.
In recent years, in order to maintain the strategic and regional balance and taking into account current military dangers and threats, Russia has undertaken efforts to improve and expand its defence capabilities in the most advanced, including high-precision, weapons. Within the limits of reasonable transparency, we are informing the public and other countries about this. This leads us to believe that rationally minded military experts are fully cognizant of the fact that in the absence of a fundamental change in the security situation - both in Europe and across the world - Russia has all it needs to fully ensure its security interests without going beyond our obligations under existing international agreements.
Question: What if the INF Treaty is longer there?
Sergey Ryabkov: The United States and European countries should be aware that Russia cannot and will not ignore the possible deployment of US intermediate- and short-range missiles threatening us and our allies when Washington eventually has such missiles. We will have to take effective compensatory measures. I would like to warn against pushing the situation toward new “missile crises,” which, I am convinced, no sensible country wants.
Question: The US government says it has no plans to deploy medium- and short-range missiles in Europe. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg also says that such weapons will not be deployed there. Do you believe them?
Sergey Ryabkov: Against the background of an enormous lack of trust in our current relations with the United States and NATO, it is hardly possible to talk about taking anyone at their word in military and political matters directly related to core national security interests. Even if we assume that Washington and its allies have no such plans today, we cannot rule out such ideas and plans coming up tomorrow, especially if we take into account profound worsening of the security situation in the Euro-Atlantic area, the unwavering anti-Russian stance of the US Congress and the prevailing Russophobic sentiment in NATO.
Clearly, political deals and even legally binding agreements cannot provide full and indefinite guarantees either, as we can see from Washington upending the INF Treaty. However, in the case of achieving at least a framework understanding with regard to sensitive aspects of security with their subsequent codification, there is a possibility to expect to see, in the foreseeable future, some stabilising predictability and mutual restraint.
However, achieving any such hypothetical agreements is possible only on the basis of systematic and equal dialogue. At the moment we, unfortunately, do not see Washington or its allies being willing to interact with us on the basis of equality or to take Russia’s legitimate interests into account. Moreover, our US colleagues are clearly not in a hurry to restore the format of full-fledged dialogue between our respective militaries, which is crucial for overcoming challenges in this area.
Question: Speaking about hypothetical arrangements, are you referring to some joint statement or agreement on non-deployment of medium- and short-range missiles, if the sides acquire them, in Europe and the European part of Russia?
Sergey Ryabkov: I’m saying that we consider extremely illusory even a hypothetical prospect of reaching some agreement on the INF Treaty but we are not shutting the door to dialogue on it. We have repeatedly confirmed this to the US, including in our recent statements. We are ready to search for a solution to issues but we are not going to confess to something we didn’t do.
Question: The US announced that Russia has equipped several divisions with new missiles. Is this true?
Sergey Ryabkov: While I, of course, deal with arms control, I wouldd like to remind you that I represent the Foreign Ministry rather than the Defence Ministry. So this question is somewhat misdirected.
The only thing that I can confirm is that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are equipped with these missiles. It is no secret. Our military colleagues explained to the Americans that this amounts to the upgrading of Russia’s cruise missile that is part of the Iskander-M system. The main goal was to make its warhead more effective. This led to some other changes but the missile range did not exceed the INF-imposed limits.
We also reported about a combat training launch of the missile during the Zapad-2017 exercises. It was launched to its maximum range and flew for about 480 kilometres, which is fully in line with the Treaty’s restrictions.
Question: Many experts say that given the political will it may be possible to find a technical method of settling the claims of Russia and the US against each other under the INF Treaty. What is your opinion about this?
Sergey Ryabkov: Speaking hypothetically, given the political will it is possible to venture even most ambitious tasks. However, there is one detail – such will must be clearly expressed by both sides. Our American colleagues have not yet expressed it. I’d like to emphasise once again that the US decision to withdraw from the Treaty was described to us as irreversible.
Nevertheless, we leave the door open to practical and constructive dialogue on ways of preserving the Treaty, which would be aimed at achieving mutually acceptable results. In such a case Russia’s concerns must be considered by all means. Let me recall that for many years we have witnessed Washington's complete reluctance to remedy its violations of the Treaty, including the land deployment of Mk-41 launchers that I have already mentioned, and other well-known complaints.
We are ready to discuss a broader agenda – a whole package of issues of strategic stability and arms control. At the July 16 Russia-US summit in Helsinki we submitted to the Americans our specific proposals on stepping up such dialogue and its potential formats.
Question: Has the US replied to them?
Sergey Ryabkov: No, we haven’t yet received any reply, which led us to the conclusion that today the US is not willing to come to terms with us on an equitable basis. This is unfortunate.
Question: You have repeatedly said that breaking the INF Treaty can have an extremely negative impact on the future of the New START Treaty. Why? Will Russia continue to propose extending the New START Treaty to the US if it withdraws from the INF?
Sergey Ryabkov: Obviously, in the event that the INF Treaty is scrapped, a new reality will emerge, fraught with further degradation of the international security situation. It would strip the nuclear missile control architecture of one of its load-bearing pillars, which helped develop and conclude the New START Treaty back then.
We are certainly heeding the signals coming from the American side. Washington’s attitude to the New START Treaty is ambiguous, to put it mildly. Very different points of view are being voiced there. In particular, in the US Congress, regular attempts are being made to link the future of these two treaties, with the alleged Russian violations of the INF brought to the forefront. At the same time, US lawmakers seem to deliberately overlook the problems with US observance of both agreements.
In fact, at this stage, the Americans are systematically creating uncertainty around the prospects for extending the New START Treaty. Perhaps it is their way of trying to put additional pressure on us to achieve concessions.
Be that as it may, we keep our proposal to begin a serious discussion of aspects of the possible extension of the New START Treaty open. The Americans know about it. In the future, we will evaluate the feasibility of such a step, comprehensively examining the general political situation and the state of affairs in the strategic sphere. And, naturally, to extend the Treaty, we will have to first resolve the abnormal situation related to the US withdrawal from accounting for a significant part of its strategic weapons.
Question: I conclude from talking to you that, from Moscow’s perspective, the blame for the INF Treaty’s collapse lies with Washington. But, if the US representatives are telling the truth, the situation is exactly the opposite. The Department of State recently said the Americans had raised the question of the future of this agreement some 30 times in one way or another, during talks with their Russian colleagues. Now, according to the United States, the ball is in Russia’s court.
Sergey Ryabkov: The Americans are able to describe black as white and white as black. Sometimes they stigmatise our position as disinformation, without even having studied it. Now, they say they raised the question of the INF Treaty more than 30 times with us, but this is not even propaganda – it is like trying to sell air. If I now list all the cases where we urged the Americans to avoid megaphone diplomacy, but to really discuss the problems, if I tell you about the documents we gave them and what proposals we made, then I assure you that the statistics will not be in favour of the US. Our figures will be much more impressive. But this “look who’s talking” exchange is beneath serious people. When the Americans are short of substantive arguments, they begin juggling facts, which gives their position some external credibility, although it is completely empty. We see no willingness on the part of the United States to truly address the issue.