Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with Kommersant newspaper, published April 19, 2017
Question: Do you know when and where President of Russia Vladimir Putin will meet with US President Donald Trump?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have reaffirmed our readiness for such a meeting several times. We understand that contacts at the highest level are crucial for adjusting the agenda, areas of focus and the direction we are moving in.
We confirmed our willingness to organise such a meeting during our contacts with our American colleagues. Last week’s visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow has strengthened our belief that the new US administration is also willing to move towards this goal. However, for a meeting of our leaders to be successful, we need to prepare for it, which is what we are doing.
Question: When can it be held?
Sergey Ryabkov: The tenor of our relations with the United States is such that any premature announcements or any information planted ahead of time will play a negative role. So, I will end my answer by repeating that we are working towards this.
Question: Several weeks ago, presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said the meeting could be possibly held before the G20 summit, which is scheduled for July in Hamburg, Germany. Is this still possible, or is there too little time left to prepare for this meeting?
Sergey Ryabkov: Anything is possible. Overall, the issue concerns the coordination of our leaders’ schedules, as well as our expectations of such a meeting.
Question: What do you expect from it? Will it be just a chance to feel each other out, or do you expect practical agreements to be reached at it?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have formulated a series of priorities, which we believe should be discussed during preparations for this meeting. Our American colleagues also have practical and clear issues they plan to raise. We cannot say that our priorities coincide always or on all issues. However, this is normal, especially considering the low level of our relations with the new US team, the obstacles that have been deliberately erected by the previous US administration, and the efforts taken by certain forces to hinder the normalisation of Russian-US relations.
Question: Talking about priorities, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a news conference in Moscow that Russia has handed the US some cooperation proposals, including on cybersecurity. In what other areas did Moscow propose cooperation to Washington?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would probably be disloyal to my profession if right here and now I provided you detailed information about what was or was not done in this respect. I can only say that specific ideas and proposals can be presented in various forms. In particular, there is a non-paper format.
Question: This sounds paradoxical…
Sergey Ryabkov: This does not refer to tweets or emails. Such proposals are typically presented on paper. The non-paper format makes it possible to send a less official signal than, say, a message or a diplomatic note. It is rather an invitation to dialogue, to sharing comments. Overall, the status of this kind of document is lower than of any other written form.
Question: Why did Russia choose this format for making its proposals to the US?
Sergey Ryabkov: We don’t want to do anything that would inconvenience the other side. We understand that everything related to Russia or relations with Russia is, unfortunately, a source of controversy in the US today, especially in Washington, where the concentration of political thought, which is not always conducive to normalising bilateral ties, is the highest. Far from everything that comes from us is taken neutrally, in a business-like manner by the Americans. On the contrary, much of what we say, write or ask about becomes – to use a word that is common in the US today – toxic.
On the whole, however, I believe we have found a form in which we can get our ideas across to the US side. And we received some comments from it. Now our priorities have become clearer.
The information security issue that you’ve mentioned is multi-dimensional. It includes fighting cybercrime in the classical sense of the word (say, bank card scams) and encroachments on intellectual property. The Americans have brought in the issue of “political hacking.” It is not a taboo to us, either, even though it was “overheated” by the Obama team’s efforts. We are willing to discuss the entire range of these issues with the Americans. We proposed this dialogue to the previous administration but got no response. Now we have renewed this proposal and hope that the response will be more positive.
Question: Following Mr Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, the creation of a Russia-US working group to normalise relations was also announced (it has been dubbed the “impasse-busting group” in the media). Do I understand it right that you will head it on the Russian side? Who else will be there, and when will it start working?
Sergey Ryabkov: No decision has been made yet, including on the group’s composition, and it would be irresponsible of me to say that I could head this group on the Russian side.
There were various forms of dealing with controversial issues. Under George W. Bush, there were so-called check lists. The sides exchanged lists of issues that caused tension or irritation. And then those issues were addressed, with different degrees of success, in an effort to reduce the number of items on those lists.
Under Barack Obama, there was a bilateral presidential commission where issues were analysed and addressed by issue-specific groups. This work was coordinated at the level of Foreign Minister and Secretary of State. However, this format is history now.
Today it seems some compact mechanism will be put in place. Not a top-heavy structure with the participation of representatives of numerous agencies but a fairly flexible structure that will be able to change its configuration depending on specific issues. However, we have yet to reach the point of finalising this effort to announce officially who will be in charge of this mechanism on both sides – above all, because not all vacancies have been filled on the US side yet. This process is not going smoothly, but we take an understanding view of it. The most important thing is that as a result of the talks with the Secretary of State in Moscow, a firm decision was made to establish such a group. It is expected to work without excessive rhetoric or historical digressions (although it is impossible to do without that completely), and its participants are expected to focus on specific issues. I believe they will be making proposals for the leaders – ideas that would help clean up the “mudflow” that was generated under the previous US administration.
Question: Who proposed creating this group?
Sergey Ryabkov: I cannot disclose the details of the talks. It would be more correct to say that both sides’, both ministers’ readiness to accept the idea show that it has been around for a while. It was not a case of somebody making a proposal and somebody taking a pause, giving it a thought and then making a decision. It was a direct, specific result of the very interested dialogue at a ministerial level.
Question: How would you personally start cleaning up the mudflows?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would start off – and if I am so directed this is what I will do – with humanitarian issues. This refers to problems that are like thorns in the tissue of our relations. In particular, the fate of pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko and the arbitrary detention of Russian citizens in third countries on US [arrest] warrants without proper notification of the Russian side.
There are a number of other serious problems, including those in need of comprehensive analysis and high-level political decisions. In particular, this refers to the restrictions encountered by Russian individuals and legal entities in conducting dollar [denominated] transactions. Simply because the US banking system is under the control of supervisory agencies that have to comply with the sanctions imposed under Barack Obama.
Question: Is easing or lifting the sanctions a precondition to normalising Russian-US relations?
Sergey Ryabkov: There is no question of any preconditions simply because at the end of the day the sanctions remain outside the context of any discussions conducted with the Trump administration.
Any new mechanism, any additional structure that will work to eliminate bilateral irritants will not include sanctions as an area of its responsibility. For a very simple reason: Issues related to the reunification of Crimea and Russia were resolved and closed long ago. There is simply no subject for discussion here. As for other sanctions, if the US suddenly shows interest in addressing this issue, naturally we will not be silent and will respond. However, until now this discussion has added up to statements that the sanctions will be eased if Russia fully implements the Minsk agreements. If we hear this again we will respond by saying what we think about it, who should be implementing the Minsk agreements and who is not doing so, and so on. I don’t think this discussion is productive. I’m referring to the Kiev authorities, of course. And then the sanctions were imposed by the Americans and it is up to them to lift them.
Question: Will Russia not even insist on lifting the most recent sanctions that Barack Obama imposed shortly before leaving the White House, when 35 Russian diplomats were expelled and the diplomatic missions in Washington and New York were denied access to their recreation facilities?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would describe that not as sanctions but rather as rudely banging the door shut by the outgoing administration in an attempt not simply to produce a deafening noise but see to it that the remains of our bilateral crockery crashed to the floor so that those who came later would be unable to assemble the broken pieces but throw out the trash. However, this should remain on the conscience of the former US administration. We are self-possessed, cool-headed people.
Although of course it must be said that impounding diplomatic property is a direct violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and encroachment on the principle of the inviolability of private property that the US is so concerned about.
Question: What’s stopping Donald Trump from reversing this seizure?
Sergey Ryabkov: I’m not in a position to say why this has not been done yet. I can only suggest that the US is focused on more important, bigger issues. However, of course this issue is important for us, not least as an indicator of the line that Washington intends to follow on the Russian track today.
Question: You mentioned Ukraine. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, speaking after the recent G7 meeting, said that Rex Tillerson had asked why US taxpayers should be interested in Ukraine. After the Moscow talks and in general, do you get the impression that Ukraine no longer interests the US?
Sergey Ryabkov: No, I do not. I get the impression that the topic of Ukraine is being worked up by our colleagues, as before, disregarding one obvious fact, namely that complaints and questions should be addressed not to us but, above all, to Kiev. This is sad. Yet, I believe that this will eventually be adjusted sooner or later. The more so that we lay down our arguments fully and clearly and explain why the situation does not at all look the way it seems to our G7 colleagues, especially some of them.
Let me note that we have never shied away from talk or discussion, including of a more profound and specialised nature, on all that has to do with the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the situation in southeast Ukraine in general, with US representatives.
Question: Despite the fact that the Normandy format does not include the US?
Sergey Ryabkov: The US was not included in the Normandy format and is still not included, but a dialogue was underway. However, today, the same as with the so-called “impasse-busting group,” using your term (by the way, I quite like it), we have no idea who on the American side will be in charge of this matter on a daily basis and at a responsible level. Appointments have not been made there as of yet, but I think that this issue, too, will clear up soon.
Question: The new US administration plans to increase the defence budget by over $50 billion, which is as much as Russia spends on its defence. Is this a matter of concern for you?
Sergey Ryabkov: The budget process in the United States is rather complicated and is not always predictable. It is influenced by diverse interests and actions that do not always pursue similar goals. Of course, the administration often has the decisive say. However, other groups can influence the process through members of Congress, and there are also business interests, the differing priorities of the armed services’ branches, and much more.
I wouldn’t cite any firm figures until the budget is approved, even though they have already been made public.
Of course, we can see that the new US administration has opted for strengthening the country’s military might and for projecting it across the world. As we know, Republican administrations usually do this. Actually, the new policy programmes announced in Washington do not differ much from what we saw in the past few years. Moreover, many Republican leaders in Congress openly say that their hero and touchstone is Ronald Reagan, who made the “peace through strength” philosophy the core of his foreign and military policies. In light of this, we are ready for this possibility politically and in practice.
We don’t want to see the appearance of more crises in the world and the United States using its impressive military might without due regard for the situation in different parts of the world and in violation of international law. This is why we were alarmed by the US air strike on the Shayrat Airbase in Syria. It was an act of open aggression against a sovereign state. We wouldn’t like to see Washington use this strike as an example of how one should act. We believe that this is exactly how one must not act.
There is room for discussing the problem at all levels, from expert and military to the top political level. We will continue to do this. In principle, the Russian and American militaries should build up their dialogue, but this possibility is hindered also by a binding restriction on our military cooperation, which was approved by the previous US administration. We hope this restriction will be lifted eventually.
Question: According to the American media, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought a three-step plan for a Syrian settlement to Russia. What can you say about this plan?
Sergey Ryabkov: The US proposals on Syria are largely similar to the previous US policy. There are some new elements, but none of these can be described as innovative or strikingly different from what our American colleagues said on this issue before.
For our part, we have been working consistently to promote a political solution to the Syrian problem, in a broad sense. The mechanisms for this are in place – the Astana process and the Geneva platform. A political track is the only possible option for dealing with the problem that has been created by the Khan Sheikhoun attack.
An international mission of experts should be sent to Khan Sheikhoun and the Shayrat Airbase. This is the only alternative, if we don’t want our belief in the effectiveness of the OPCW to be buried by the lack of political coordination.
A dangerous play with double standards is underway in the West. We say that a mission must be dispatched to both sites and that this mission must be geographically balanced, because trust between Russia and at least some Western countries has plummeted to zero. In response, we are told that Russia is deliberately undermining trust in the OPCW and its Fact-Finding Mission. We are not against the FFM continuing its work in Syria. But we want it to work properly, instead of tending to the political and geopolitical interests of a small group of countries. Its work must be focused on finding facts, as it proceeds from its name. Regrettably, the latest meeting of the OPCW Executive Council has confirmed our fears that many parties reject this simple truth.
Question: Will the United States bomb North Korea?
Sergey Ryabkov: I hope not. Regrettably, we must admit that the risk of a serious confrontation has increased dramatically in that region. I would like to point out an element of our vision of this problem, that no steps should be taken that could be exploited by the confronting sides as a pretext for escalating tensions. This spiral of escalation, and this vicious circle of the mutual build-up of pressure in response to pressure is a direct path to serious complications and, hypothetically, even an open conflict.
This can be avoided if the parties act responsibly. There are scenarios for translating this logic into practical actions; we are discussing them with our American colleagues. We know that our Chinese friends are also discussing them. The US Vice-President is touring the Asia Pacific region, and we hope that based on the results of his tour Washington will come to see that there is no alternative to a political settlement and de-escalation.
Question: In November 2016, the INF Treaty Special Verification Commission met for the first time in many years. What were the outcomes of this meeting, and how is this issue discussed with the new administration?
Sergey Ryabkov: We believe that this meeting failed to produce any substantial results, since it essentially consisted of the sides exchanging the same arguments that they already knew all too well. We were unable to move beyond stating our differences.
Russia still firmly believes that by deploying MK41 land-based launchers as part of Aegis Ashore system to Romania and similar sea-based launching systems, the US violates the INF Treaty. By the way, these launching systems were used to fire Tomahawk missiles against the Shayrat Airbase, and the same launchers can be reset, if I may put it this way, to fire interceptor missiles. This means that these canisters can be used both ashore and offshore to fire attack missiles, which is forbidden under the INF Treaty.
We also have concerns regarding target missiles used by the US in its tests of missile defence systems. Special ballistic missiles were designed to this effect, and they also violate the Treaty in terms of their range capability. We are not talking about dummy-missiles here, since guidance systems and other elements of these missiles are tested during launches, alongside trajectory measurements. This technology can be used to create ground-launched medium-range missiles, which violates the Treaty.
Russia has also raised concerns regarding the US drones.
Question: At the same time, the US blames Russia for testing a new type of land-based cruise missiles. In their public statements the US officials have not designated any exact model, while the media pointed to 9М729 missiles.
Sergey Ryabkov: I have seen only the SSC-8 index under the US classification leaked in Michael Gordon’s article for The New York Times. However, the points of reference that were transferred to us were not enough to keep the conversation going. So far, we have been receiving fragmented signals from the US without any evidence. However, we are ready to continue dialogue on the INF Treaty. We are not avoiding it. All this could continue if Washington demonstrates the political will to move forward.
Question: Donald Trump has called the New START a unilateral treaty, and promised to push for its renegotiation. Is Russia ready?
Sergey Ryabkov: By February 5, 2018 the parties must meet the Treaty’s limits on means of delivery and warheads. I am confident that Russia will meet the target levels and will abide by them. We expect the US to do the same. This was the message we conveyed to the other side at the recent regular session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission under the New START Treaty in Geneva.
I would not like to speculate about where the dialogue on the future of this document will take us. Once again, I have to say for the third time that we have to wait until the key positions in the US administration are filled. In addition, the review of the US nuclear strategy ordered by Trump will also take some time. As soon as these two processes are completed, we will be able to better understand where the administration stands on this issue.