Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov interviewed by Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn magazine
Armen Oganesyan, Editor in Chief of Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn magazine: Mr Rybkov, there seems to be no vacation season in international life despite the hot summer months. Although some analysts claim that Russia is isolated, the country seems to be involved in almost every major global political development. This even includes the US election campaign. Of course, I’m talking about the US President’s recent statement that the hacking of the Democratic Party’s server was probably organised by Russian secret services…
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes, the summer is hot, both literally and figuratively. We are in the thick of events, and I think that we’re also making waves.
An anti-Russian bipartisan consensus has formed in the United States. We are facing a situation where Russia is being deliberately demonised and accused of almost every mortal sin. US ruling circles and their grassroots supporters are suffering from a kind of anti-Russian complex. They see us as some all-powerful evil which shows they have a serious misperception of the world.
And now they are accusing us of meddling in US internal affairs. We have repeatedly stated, and we confirm once again that, regardless of who is elected the next President of the United States, we will respect the choice of the American people. Only spin doctors who see conspiracy theories everywhere could imagine that Russia is trying to push this election to any specific candidate by hacking into some servers. In reality, this is simply impossible.
I regret to say that this incident with the hacking of the Democratic Party and its National Committee servers, which was reported in May and later hushed up, has resurfaced during the recent Democratic National Convention. Understandably, inter-partisan squabbles have become aggravated in the United States. We might even see more vicious campaign smear tactics. This shows that the contenders don’t have enough detailed arguments. Unfortunately, we have to say that the incumbent US administration has become involved in some undignified ploys, and this doesn’t befit it.
Unfortunately, we have to deal with this reality. But we are responding calmly, we’ve reviewed this, the Russian Presidential Spokesman and the Foreign Minister have made statements, and I simply have nothing more to add on this.
Armen Oganesyan: Mr Ryabkov, the media has recently been quoting Donald Trump’s statements about the need to improve relations with Russia. Do you think these statements can be taken seriously?
Sergey Ryabkov: I don’t normally take words for granted, especially those uttered by American politicians and American diplomats regardless of their rank and authority. One should judge by actions.
We have read the Republican Party’s platform approved by the [Republican National] Convention; we follow Donald Trump’s statements, and have studied his speech at the Convention. The Republican Party’s platform he is using for his election campaign together with Michael Pence, his running mate, includes comments on Russia written in the worst traditions of the past few years. We are accused of being a destabilising force and described as an aggressive nation that is a challenge to the United States and so on. I don’t want to repeat the phraseology. So you understand that this is what the Republican Party platform says, and Mr Trump is the party’s candidate. So we have to look at the whole picture in all of its dimensions.
Of course, there were signals coming from him that allow us to expect changes. Whether these expectations are realistic depends exclusively on the Americans, not us, on the choice the voters make and on the policy the next president pursues. I must say, Trump’s ratings have dropped recently. But there is always an opportunity for a future president whatever party he/she represents – Democratic or Republican – to take a fresh look at the legacy of Barack Obama, which has been nothing but hard, difficult and problematic. Nothing prevents a candidate from reviewing the opportunities and trying to find a new starting point at least, not starting from scratch (we have no illusions about that). We in turn will be ready for a fresh start, and I say this with due responsibility.
They have a saying – it takes two to tango. One of the “two,” us, is already there. But our American partner should make a choice and at least decide whether he/she wants to dance at all.
Armen Oganesyan: How much freedom will Donald Trump have in making decisions on revising relations with Russia if he becomes president?
Sergey Ryabkov: The election campaign in the United States, like in any other country, has its own rules. Less than three months are left before the election, but a lot can change in this period. Election campaign rules can possibly provide for a certain refreshing adjustment of a candidate’s public image. So, the traditional accepted image of an “independent” candidate may be deliberately reshaped to add some mainstream qualities. Nobody in the US can be expected to win the election independent of prevailing and influential sentiment.
The same situation can be seen in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The Democratic Party’s platform is full of ideas that originated with Bernard Sanders. This is the stage of absorbing what should be an appealing feature for those who do not find the main candidate attractive and who prefer his rival who projects “a more independent image” during the primaries.
The candidate who wins the election might be able to overcome the inertia of the American government apparatus. It has happened before in different periods of US history. Will it happen in this case in Russian-American relations? To be honest, I wouldn’t venture an affirmative answer because Russian-American relations are unlikely to be a priority for the next US president. It will take some time before Washington starts working seriously on its policy on Russia. Secondly, the next US president, regardless of party, will most likely carefully and frequently consult his/her staff about relations with Russia. The next president’s staff will be strictly controlled by the establishment who believe that “you should never concede to the Russians” and that Russia has recently done a lot of things detrimental to US interests. I have to say this over and over again – we should not harbour any illusions or unjustified hopes.
This is a reality that cannot be stopped or changed. The United States’ political inertia will continue even though the US president has the authority to override it. As history shows, the algorithm of our relations will change again at some point and be more positive. The barometer will definitely go up again. But it is entirely up to the Americans as to when this will happen.
Armen Oganesyan: Mr Ryabkov, can we take Trump’s statements as an indication that the American audience has become tired of anti-Russian rhetoric and a hardline approach towards Russia, and that Trump is attempting in this way to win over more voters?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would not overestimate the importance of statements made at various points in the election campaign by the candidates and their campaign spokespeople. This is not because they do not reflect particular moods. After all, US sociology practice and public opinion measuring tools are advanced enough to identify the slightest changes in the way the wind is blowing, but I wouldn’t exaggerate the weight of statements made during election campaigns because there is a huge distance between the words and the actual acts. Of course, it is good to see that some in the US show a desire to inject new life into the forgotten issue of building constructive relations with Russia. We do not neglect this issue and on the contrary repeat tirelessly that this is our goal and that ultimately it is up to our partners in Washington to decide what they want. But the idea that saying they need to make friends with Russia could play a positive role in the election is debatable.
As for the extent to which US voters really are tired of anti-Russian rhetoric, there is probably some demand for a more positive alternative to the current anti-Russian overdrive, but US voter weariness has more to do with the growing problems in their own country. The politicians currently in office, the Washington establishment, the senators and congressmen, these bonzes sitting up on the Capitol and lobbying the transnational corporations’ interests, and their suite that lunch at Washington’s countless restaurants and decide things over a glass of still water, all of these decision-makers, spin doctors, newspaper hacks, they create a whole camarilla, a superstructure that formulates America’s domestic and foreign policy but does not provide answers to the growing number of questions concerning above all the current difficult state and development outlook of American society itself. This is what’s at the root of voter discontent in the US. Russia is more of a sideline issue, but let’s wait and see how things shape up.
Armen Oganesyan: Some say that we should not expect any significant developments in Russian-American relations until the US presidential election is over. But the Secretary of State John Kerry suddenly came to Moscow and spent hours in talks first with President Vladimir Putin and then with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This suggests that the Americans need something right now.
Sergey Ryabkov: The Secretary of State spoke publicly about this, and I will not presume to interpret the US Administration’s intentions or objectives, but I remind you that before his July visit to Moscow, and during the joint news conference with Mr Lavrov on July 16, he said that it is crucial for Washington to make progress on the Syrian issue. The July talks were so long – 14 hours – because they were very complicated as we and the US have differing visions of what needs to be done to create the right conditions for stabilising the situation in Syria.
We take the view that must finally ensure not just declarative but real distance between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which are banned in Russia, and the so-called moderate opposition and give the coalition headed by the US, Russia, and Syrian government forces the chance to concentrate on fighting terrorists and thus put in place the additional conditions needed for the moderate opposition to be able to enter real and direct talks and continue participating in the process coordinated by Staffan de Mistura.
Unfortunately, the US has a somewhat different approach and priorities. Washington considers it important that we and Damascus do nothing that in their view will reinforce the current legitimate government in Syria, including as regards the combat with the opposition. The Americans insist on a one-sided and unbalanced ceasefire. The ‘hawks’ in Washington want to see the Syrian government forces tied down to a great extent by Russian-US agreements. This is something we cannot accept.
We still have differences too concerning Bashar Assad’s future role. This is why, to be frank, we all performed such a lengthy and protracted balancing act while John Kerry was in Moscow. But we did reach some agreements and there is slow progress. Mr Lavrov’s meeting with Mr Kerry in Vientiane on the sidelines of the ASEAN event was a new step towards stabilising the situation in Syria. Our militaries continue to work closely together and have direct contact with each other.
What we see is that the US Administration wants to make progress on Syria, Ukraine and several other issues, regardless of how long they have left in power. In Washington they think this will become part of Barack Obama’s positive legacy, and the Secretary of State is working hard on this. We continue to advance our priorities and defend our interests.
Question: The West sticks to its uncompromising stance on Bashar al-Assad’s fate. Western politicians are pressing Russia to stop supporting him. By the way, I have heard some European journalists say that the West’s position lacks consistency: Bashar al-Assad was proclaimed a dictator, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now seeking to revive the death penalty, will not be, to all appearances. Can a solution to the Syrian problem with Bashar al-Assad staying in the political field be found?
Sergey Ryabkov: Unfortunately, I have to state that claims that there is no future for Syria with Bashar al-Assad have not disappeared. They keep telling us over and over that not only Syria’s future with Bashar al-Assad is problematic, but so too is his part in the issue of a “transitional phase”. But that’s where we disagree with the Americans both conceptually and even terminologically. We are speaking of a political process because the term “transitional period” is ambiguous and adds uncertainty instead of promoting the things we have been calling for, namely the search for solutions in line with decisions reached voluntarily between the key forces in modern Syria.
They are telling us: “The longer the conflict drags out, the fewer the chances that the Syrians will be able to work it out among themselves.” We are saying: “OK, and what have you done to bring this conflict to a speedy end?” For example, as far back as February we were promised that real steps would be taken in order to understand where there are terrorists from the two afore-mentioned structures and where there are groups who are ready to join the ceasefire and participate in advancing the political process, i.e. negotiate.
We do not possess information about Bashar al-Assad’s enemies to the extent that the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition do, Turkey as well. So give us this information, who you contact and work with, and we will cooperate with you more closely and even coordinate our actions, and then you, our American colleagues, will have fewer reasons to blame us for doing something the wrong way. But no, there is no such thing. No sharing of information. What does that mean? Only that there are certain internal restrictions in Washington ‒ that’s how I interpret it ‒ restrictions based on a belief that the Syrian opposition must not be paraded, that it must be a force capable of dealing a new blow to the government in Damascus. In other words, all that talk by the Americans that “we fully support the political process”, which they often repeat, makes me very doubtful. In practice, it’s just the other way around.
Question: Mr Ryabkov, so many dramatic events are happening around that one cannot help feeling that the majority of modern crises, if not all, have some deep common roots. Do you agree that globalisation has made the world closely interlinked, a sort of “butterfly effect”?
Sergey Ryabkov: The world is indeed closely interlinked. It would be a pity if the world turned monochrome with TV channels all carrying the same video footage, even if commented on differently by CNN, Al Jazeera, Russia Today or China’s CCTV. It would be a pity if people, well, say, from Spitsbergen to Punta Arenas in the southernmost part of Chile, watched the same films and caught the same Pokemon. Meanwhile, it seems as if the emanation of ideas, some vague images circulating on social networks, some splashes of fashion float around, spreading instantly across the globe like a pandemic, like the “Spanish influenza”. Unfortunately, humanity does not have the antidotes, or antibiotics, or even simple respirators, with which to protect and distance itself from the dubious trends as long as it still has the power of reason. If it were just a matter of covering one’s whole body with tattoos or wearing exclusively white-sole shoes but no socks, it wouldn’t be worth talking about. But we see that violence is coming into fashion.
Sometimes, it seems to me that the numerous madmen or half-madmen, who, blinded by super ideas, put on shaheed belts and get behind the wheel in order to plough down tourists on an embankment, or run around with machetes in unexpected places, be it a home for the disabled in Japan or a train in Bavaria, and so on and so forth, that those people contract the virus from each other somehow. And they all, consciously or unconsciously, stick to the credo formulated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky for his character Rodion Raskolnikov in the novel Crime and Punishment: “Whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right?” The right to what? To the fact that if I am carrying the “virtual banner” of one of the world’s religions, then it must be asserted everywhere, including at the cost of other people’s lives? Or is it the right to cleanse one’s own nation of those who do not fit into some rules, which got stuck, I am sure, in Breivik’s mind and brought him to a prison where he is serving his sentence?
I am not insisting that the answer to this question must necessarily be identical to the one given by Dostoyevsky himself, namely that if there is no God in one’s soul, then “everything is permitted”, and that Rodion is bound to murder the old woman-moneylender with an axe.
I am not sure that those things are interrelated, but I admire how brilliantly the main idea is presented in the novel. Evidently, to many people Kant’s categorical imperative doesn’t look so categorical, while most of those on Facebook and WhatsApp for 24 hours a day haven’t heard anything at all about him. The moral norms, the ethical restrictions have been ripped off to such an extent, important seals have been unsealed and the brakes fail so quickly that one feels really alarmed sometimes. I think that this is one of the negative consequences of globalisation.
Irrespective of the cultural environment, whether it is a multicultural society, which is being proclaimed as a goal and imposed more and more on the population by politicians in the West, or whether it is a monocultural, more traditional or even archaic society, it is suffering deformities, despite the fact that religions for centuries have prompted people with a responsible code of conduct and humanistic ideas, it seems, have penetrated the pores of civilisation. Nevertheless, we are witnessing a recurring string of tragic and alarming events. This is more than a reason for discussions. This is a powerful reminder, like the ringing of a bell, that it is time to eventually unite political efforts and resources, the intellectual, material, defence and law enforcement efforts, to suppress pandemic outbreaks of hatred and violence.
Armen Oganesyan: The cooling in relations between the United States and Turkey has recently presented itself in various forms and aspects. Hence the question: Is it possible that some external forces might have been involved in or stood behind the Turkish coup attempt?
Sergey Ryabkov: It is hard to say, and I would not like to engage in unsubstantiated speculations. I think the internal factors in this case are the most important. We can also see the serious issues emerging even after the coup attempt failed.
Russia, as you know, has been consistently supporting the legitimate authorities in this country from the very beginning. We have repeatedly said this on the record. To forestall any ironic comments, I must say that this is not a short-lived position – Russia is at the forefront of international efforts to outlaw anti-constitutional coup attempts. We have been putting forward concrete proposals in the UN on this score. We have been working thoroughly on the concept of rejecting coups as a way of changing power both politically and legally. It is a complicated issue, which involves heated international debates. But we continue to stick to this line because we can see how widespread the dangerous instability has become in the modern world. This is the approach we used when shaping our position on Turkey at that difficult moment.
Armen Oganesyan: If Mr Erdogan had not apologised for the shot down Russian plane, would we still be supporting the official Turkish authorities?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would say yes. We welcome the efforts President Erdogan and the Turkish authorities have made to normalise our bilateral relations. We have been working to revive our relations without wasting any time as it was. Neighbouring countries like Russia and Turkey that have a say in many processes cannot afford to miss their chance of building positive relations. After last year’s tragedy, Ankara has made certain conclusions. We are very pleased about it and expect our relations to continue their consistent development in the future.
Armen Oganesyan: NATO’s Anaconda exercises showed the organisation’s ability to concentrate large forces on Russia’s borders. NATO cites the threat to Europe from Russia as justification for its actions. We see NATO forces coming ever closer to Russia’s borders, especially in the Baltic states. We are coming under pressure in the Black Sea too. Do you think this is just a show of force, or is there a risk of war, and not just a ‘cold’ war?
Sergey Ryabkov: We were concerned by the decisions taken to deploy an increased rotating military presence and by what amounts to permanently stationed NATO forces right close to our borders in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. Let me note that this does not stop at just four multinational battalions. The plan is to ensure stocks of equipment for several mechanised US ground forces brigades in Europe over the coming years. They are also establishing headquarters and bolstering air force groups with planes that will patrol the airspace, including in the Baltic states. From our observations, the NATO countries’ naval forces are carrying out training and combat patrol operations in waters that are much closer to Russia’s borders than was previously the case. The frequency of NATO military exercises has increased and their scale is very significant.
They take great pains – adding all sorts of menacing passages to the NATO Warsaw summit’s final communique – to persuade everyone that all of this is in response to Russia’s “aggressive behaviour”, in particular its “support for separatists” in southeast Ukraine and so on. To be honest, this NATO ‘through the looking glass’ leaves us quite stupefied. The militia operations in Donbass (let the NATO countries continue chewing away on their own term of ‘separatists’) are taking place in a region where Russians and Russian-speaking people have lived for centuries. This is happening at the heart of Eurasia, where families have become so interwoven over centuries that it is impossible to see now who came from where, considers where home, married whom and so on.
When we see an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, equipped with missile defence systems, cruise missiles and intermediate-range Tomahawk attack missiles, 30 nautical miles from Kaliningrad, or, like during the recent Sea Breeze exercises, when we saw a whole line-up of NATO vessels led by large US naval ships in the port of Odessa, when we see that NATO is deploying its newest fighter planes only 7-10 minutes’ flight time from St Petersburg, we have to ask the question, was it ‘aggressive Russia’ that invited them so close? Have we done anything similar 30 miles of the Norfolk naval base in the USA or stationed planes at five minutes’ flight time from Long Island, New York?
This is not even a case of double standards. Rather, there is no eradicating from the consciousness of those ‘on the other side’ a NATO-centric and American-centric view. When you realise that they have this inborn sense of representing Western civilisation, which, as they see it, is the centre of the world, you start to understand how it comes to be that they have reached the point of asserting that Russia has encroached on NATO’s borders rather than the other way round.
But I would ask the smug NATO strategists, if a NATO-centric attitude is allowed to exist, why do you deny our right to a Russia-centric view? It is like projections on the globe. Depending on the angle taken, different regions and territories can be placed at the centre. It is a clear and indisputable fact for us that others’ military capability is coming closer to our borders and that others are encircling us with bases and developing missile defence systems. It is valid to view the issue from this angle too, and indeed, this is the only real angle we can take when faced with the task of taking effective care of our own security. This is the angle we look from and you cannot change it.
Armen Oganesyan: I recall the Russia-NATO Founding Act, signed back in May 1997, which laid the foundation for mutual relations, cooperation and security between Russia and NATO. This document’s tone was entirely focused on a close partnership. Can we say that NATO has abandoned the provisions of this Founding Act?
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes, and what’s more, some of our neighbours even called on NATO to officially abandon the Founding Act in the run-up to the Warsaw summit and during the event. In other words, they were asking for NATO to unilaterally declare that this document is no longer in force. It makes me want to thank them for their honesty at least. We didn’t doubt that these countries’ governments consciously pursued the goal of dismantling the West’s and NATO’s relations with Russia.
Back when eastern and central European countries were going through the preparatory stages of the NATO accession process, we were told that what would happen was that they would become members and then everything would settle down and their attitude towards Russia would become one of calm and normal relations. But we see the opposite happening. We see an increase in tension, rejection of not only Russian policy, but of Russia simply as a neighbour, let alone as a partner. This is coming through particularly clearly in these countries’ policy on hard security issues and military security. This is sad to see.
As for the obligations enshrined in the Founding Act that NATO would not station substantial combat forces on a permanent basis on new members’ territories, I remind you that we repeatedly proposed sitting down with NATO to reach an understanding on what constitutes ‘substantial combat forces.’ We said back then that something on the brigade level would probably fit this definition. NATO did not support our proposals. Now we see the scale of the preparations taking place. They have been clothed in clever wording. They tell us, in particular, that these are not permanently stationed forces. As we see it, though, rotation is even worse than a permanent presence because rotation makes it possible for a much higher number of service personnel and contingents from the different countries to get to know these regions, get a feel for them in operations terms, learn how best to work there. Ultimately, NATO is directly and unambiguously violating the obligations in the Founding Act, even if it is trying to assert the opposite.
Armen Oganesyan: What is Russia’s response?
Sergey Ryabkov: Russia’s response is calm and business-like. We are not overdramatising the general political situation. It would have been hard to expect anything different from current NATO officials. But we do take the developments into account in our military planning. Unfortunately, after a long period of relative calm and absence of cause for concern, the situation in the Western strategic vector has started changing for the worse. We draw our conclusions from this situation. As President Vladimir Putin said at a recent meeting of Russian Federation ambassadors and permanent envoys, we will not allow ourselves to be drawn into a new confrontation or arms race.
Armen Oganesyan: But these NATO actions, are they preparations for war, or is this an attempt to intimidate Russia and force it into foreign policy and perhaps even domestic policy concessions?
Sergey Ryabkov: I am sure there will be no war. These developments are the West’s usual game of flexing its muscles and just another attempt to “put Russia in its place.” This is simply an attempt to capitalise on the current difficult period in Russia’s relations with the West and play up issues on NATO’s eastern and northeastern flanks, putting them to use for opportunistic motives and obtaining in this way some bonus in the form a beefed-up physical foreign military presence, construction of particular facilities and so on. The politicians in these countries seize on these developments to tie themselves and their voters more tightly to Western roots and the root of the Western community.
There are no grounds for a large-scale conflict, but I cannot deny that there is greater risk of unforeseen incidents. It was not by chance that we gave a positive response to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s initiative, and President Vladimir Putin expressed his support for this proposal when he met with his Finnish counterpart. We do need to look at what we can do to ensure safe military flights in the Baltic region. We passed our ideas on to the NATO countries. This issue was discussed too at the Russia-NATO Council’s meeting in July. We are waiting for a response, but we certainly have an interest in reducing the possibility of unforeseen events.
Armen Oganesyan: As deputy minister responsible for Latin America and the BRICS, what are the next steps we can expect to develop the BRICS group?
Sergey Ryabkov: This work must take the form of specific and practical action. Our flagship project, the BRICS New Development Bank, recently approved a project for developing small-scale hydroelectricity production in Karelia. This is an important decision that illustrates the kind of action that will strengthen and develop the BRICS group.
Expanding the range of areas in which we work is on the political agenda. We are working in close contact on this with the Indian presidency. I think that the BRICS group will continue to grow and progress at the summit in Goa in October.
Armen Oganesyan: How do you see the future of Russian-Cuban cooperation?
Sergey Ryabkov: Fidel Castro’s upcoming 90th birthday reminds us of the glorious road our countries have travelled since the revolution in Cuba. We have plans for big projects in the metals and energy sectors, and we have strong and productive political ties. Cuba’s government, headed by Raul and Fidel Castro, is following a wise policy in which Russia plays an exceptional and very special part. We are grateful to them for this and try to be just as constructive in return.
Armen Oganesyan: What can we do to see that our trade and economic relations with Latin America don’t deteriorate, as is the case today, but grow?
Sergey Ryabkov: We need to remove trade barriers, and not just tariff barriers. We need to diversify our exports and imports, despite the exchange rate fluctuations. Direct contact between businesspeople can achieve a lot. We are working now on a series of new ideas, including cooperation in high-tech areas such as pharmaceuticals and biotech. These projects will be launched by the end of the year. You’ll see that we are giving our relations with Latin America not just a fresh coat of paint, but a deeper high quality effort.