Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov's interview with the newspaper Izvestia, published on July 3, 2017
Question: In Russia many hoped that under Donald Trump Moscow and Washington will manage to come to terms. However, it seems that the crisis in relations is only getting worse. How do you explain this?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would not say that relations are in an even worse crisis than they were during the departure of the Barack Obama administration. But, indeed, it takes a lot of effort to improve them. By and large we haven’t achieved the required dynamics of improvement. This is a consequence of a combination of factors. The main one is the extremely heated confrontation of various political factions in the United States. There are very serious and influential circles that are still unable to accept Mr Trump’s election victory and are using relations with Moscow in their internal political struggle. They are trying to limit the new administration's ability maneuver in relations with Russia and to create obstacles to its attempts at home to promote its agenda that differs in many respects from the ideas of Mr Trump’s opponents in terms of where America should go and how. There are also very serious, fundamental disagreements in approaches to a number of international issues. We see what was and is happening in Syria. We have reached a point where we have different views on what a legitimate government is and how to the fight against terrorism should proceed. There are differences on the issues of strategic stability and so on.
Question: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have agreed to establish a Russian-US working group. You met with US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon but another face-to-face conversation was cancelled. What conditions are required for these contacts to be resumed? What conclusions did you derive from your meeting with Mr Shannon?
Sergey Ryabkov: Mr Shannon and I had one face-to-face conversation as part of fulfilling instructions of our leaders. It took place in New York on May 8. After this we talked over the phone but the meeting scheduled for June 23 in St Petersburg did not take place. We haven’t cancelled it for good. We suspended it. And it wasn’t even because of US strikes on Syria, although the April attack on the Shayrat air base was a blow to the foundation of our relations with the United States. There are also other circumstances. First, on June 20 the US administration substantially expanded the lists of Russian citizens and companies that are under US sanctions. There were no grounds for this whatsoever. We are not at all convinced by the explanations that the administration regularly reviews its sanctions policy. We do not care what reviews they conduct.
Expanding the sanctions lists was a blow and we were bound to react to it. The second reason that prompted us to make this difficult decision is that, contrary to the signals we heard from Washington for several weeks, representatives of the US administration did not give us specific proposals on what to do with the expropriation of diplomatic property that took place under the outgoing Obama administration. We were promised that some ideas on this score would be presented to us a long time ago but nothing happened. Consultations simply became pointless against such a political background and in the absence of specific proposals. But let me repeat that we have merely suspended consultations and, I am sure, will resume our dialogue in due time.
Question: You mentioned property. Russia did not respond to the actions of the Americans in late 2016. Has any progress been made in resolving this issue?
Sergey Ryabkov: No progress at all. Our continuous appeals to Washington demanding the return of our property without any terms or delay are ignored, even though it is protected by diplomatic immunity. In legal terms, the United States is flagrantly violating the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It is acting at variance even with its own laws, which exclude such encroachments on private property. This property was acquired by the Soviet Union and then reregistered in Russia’s name. There can be no other interpretation. This is a blatant violation of legal norms.
Question: If the Americans continue delaying their response, can we reply in kind?
Sergey Ryabkov: We are appealing to common sense and hope the US side will comprehend the clear-cut rules of conduct in international affairs. So far it has not had an effect. The Americans are stubbornly defending their position, compelling us to think about reciprocal measures. Reciprocity is a fundamental principle of interstate relations when damage is done to the interests of one side. Therefore, I do not rule out reciprocal measures at all. Moreover, we have warned the US side more than once that further delay of a positive resolution will lead to reciprocal steps, including identical measures.
Question: Many American political scientists say that the DPRK is one of those issues that could help Russia and the United States to start building their relations anew. What do you think about this view?
Sergey Ryabkov: We are very concerned over the lack of a political and diplomatic solution to this issue, which has been the case for a long time. We are next-door neighbours and this is one of the main factors of Russia’s attention to this issue. Given US political will, we can achieve much together. We have certain ideas that are formulated in a specific plan that we shared with other participants in this process. We propose that the United States renounce the vicious logic of escalation, when a step by one side is followed by a counter step of the other side, which is supposed to bring more pressure on the opposite side. As a result, tensions are spiralling and it is very hard to stop this process. Therefore, it is necessary primarily to freeze the status quo at some point and then reduce tensions step by step and intensify the search for political solutions. Diplomats, including our American colleagues, know this method very well. We are urging them to join these efforts, although we understand that considering the campaign to demonise the DPRK, which has been going on for many years, the Americans will find it difficult to give up this logic of pressure. But there is no alternative to this method. The pressure may eventually burst and cause a clash. This would be a disaster for this region, which is so significant for us all.
Question: The Americans have increased their support for Syrian Kurds, who have announced the creation of a federal system in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Does Russia view this as a threat to Syria’s integrity?
Sergey Ryabkov: We stand for the preservation of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This integral part of our policy will not change. We believe that the Astana process, which has helped dramatically reduce the level of violence in Syria and in which the United States can take part, is a vital element and possibly the key condition for transitioning to a calmer and more peaceful forward movement. The Astana process is an organic addition to the Geneva talks. Russia is actively involved in both. We believe that our proposals on developing the constitutional process and direct dialogue on a wide range of issues between the legitimate government and the opposition, from counterterrorism to humanitarian issues, are the path we should follow.
Some US actions show that Washington still wants to pander to one of the conflicting parties, including militarily. We have said more than once that this approach is unacceptable. You cannot divide the terrorists into bad and moderately bad in a bid to achieve one’s own geopolitical goals. Regrettably, this knot of contradictions includes so many interests and factors that there is no simple solution to this problem, although the Americans refuse to accept it. Only a comprehensive approach involving all parties to the conflict can produce a result. We have been working consistently towards this for many years. It is likewise obvious to us that no agreements are possible with the terrorists. The liquidation of the terrorist nest in Syria has been and remains our key task. Had the United States accepted constructively the idea of a broad counterterrorist front, which President Vladimir Putin advanced, many misunderstandings and misrepresentations could have been avoided. We urge our American partners to take this into account when formulating their policy.
Question: Moscow has announced that augmenting the Normandy format by involving the Americans is unacceptable. What US initiatives on Ukraine does Russia expect to hear at the bilateral level?
Sergey Ryabkov: Paradoxically, the core of the US and other Western countries’ policy towards Russia is the demand for the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. We again have to say to our colleagues in Washington and the EU countries that this demand is misdirected. Moscow is not a party to the Minsk Agreements but one of their guarantors. If you read these agreements carefully, you will see that they stipulate the sequence of steps to be taken by the parties. Simply speaking, the first priority is the provision of a special status to Donbass, after which Kiev will be able to resume control over the border between its southeastern regions and Russia. They accuse us of violating the Minsk Agreements and demand that the sequence be changed. In other words, Russia must ensure, in some mystical way, the resumption of Kiev’s control over that territory in order to create conditions for the lifting of the anti-Russia sanctions. This is more than simply putting the cart before the horse; these are illogical demands that contradict the very same Minsk Agreements. Therefore, Washington and Europe conclude that the sanctions against Russia will stay. It is a very comfortable position, when you do not need to deal with the problem but can keep and even broaden the sanctions.
Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. The United States will have to get down to business and start working with Kiev in earnest, instead of pandering to its revenge-seeking aspirations and speculating on the possible delivery of lethal weapons to it, or else the situation will not change. We are open to dialogue, and we are willing to explain this position and listen to alternative views. The United States has not yet appointed a high representative for the dialogue that was waged between Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov and US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland. It has been hinted that someone will be appointed to this post soon. We will resume dialogue as soon as this happens. We are ready to explain patiently that our American colleagues should abandon their views on the situation and accept reality.
Question: Reading the US media one has the impression that ordinary Americans have never been as highly interested in foreign policy as now. How can you explain this?
Sergey Ryabkov: I don’t think the US citizens are so much engrossed in foreign policy stories, specifically those on relations with Russia, as it appears if you follow mainstream media publications in the US. I think this Russia complex is characteristic of the US elites plunged in political squabbles from morning till night and seeking to complicate life for the US administration. Sad though it is, it’s a reality we must reckon with. Relations with Russia are used by a number of leading US media, political science centres, influential Democrats and certain prominent Republicans as a weapon in internal political struggle. For some people, it is just a tool to address their own agendas. Others think that the damage being inflicted on relations with Russia is just collateral and can be tolerated, because what they see as more important internal issues are at stake.
Question: How do we separate fake news from true news in the stream of Russia news published by the US media?
Sergey Ryabkov: It is very simple to tell fake news from true news. There is almost no more truth left in certain US media. What they deal in is either half-truth, or distortion, or customisation, or quasi-analysis based on such insignificant events that no one would have noticed them were it not for a plethora of false interpretations. It’s a tempest in a teapot. I am confident that the search for a “Russian connection” would never produce results because there is no such connection. But it is sad that many people in the United States have to live with a range of negative conclusions and assumptions about Russia in their consciousness, which have nothing to do with reality. We can resist this with a consistent course, openness, clear statements, confidence in what we are doing, unacceptability of time-serving vacillations, and readiness to come to agreement with the United States on the basis of reciprocal respect for each other’s interests.
Question: Are there any shifts in the case of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko imprisoned in the United States?
Sergey Ryabkov: We would like to convey our profound condolences to Konstantin on the recent passing of his mother. We are in contact with his family and wife. Regrettably, the US administration does not see human tragedies and fates behind this case. Their approach is bureaucratic and hands-off to the extreme, a political legacy of the former administration. Washington systematically disregards our arguments and responds with pseudo-legal subterfuges. We have received a new refusal to our request to send Konstantin to Russia under the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. We deeply regret this. Washington should be under no illusion that Konstantin’s case will be put on the back burner. This is a key issue on our list of unresolved problems in relations, as is the entire range of issues related to illegal actions by the US law enforcers that encroach on the rights of our citizens in circumvention of the existing agreements and go so far as to abduct them under far-fetched pretexts. I am again calling publicly on all citizens of Russia to thoroughly analyse, before they go abroad, whether or not the Americans may have any grievances against them under this or that pretext. Unfortunately, no one can be guaranteed against the US law enforcers’ high-handedness. Read the warning for Russian citizens travelling abroad posted on the Foreign Ministry website.