Newly-appointed Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov in an interview with Kommersant newspaper
Question: What do you feel as you depart for Washington? Are you concerned about the close attention given by the US establishment and media to your predecessor, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who was referred to as “the toxic ambassador”?
Anatoly Antonov: I am going to Washington to work. The main mission for any ambassador is to uphold and protect the interests of his country. The ambassador must be ready to do this under any circumstances and regardless of the situation in the interstate dialogue with the host country.
Unfortunately, Russia-US relations have seriously deteriorated over the past few years because of the actions taken by the previous US administration, which was set to undermine the foundations of Russian-US cooperation that took a very long time to create. As President of Russia Vladimir Putin said repeatedly, this was not our choice. We have always wanted to maintain constructive interaction with Washington on all issues on the bilateral and international agendas.
Moscow appreciated US President Donald Trump’s resolve to improve Russia-US relations, which he outlined back during his election campaign. However, the atmosphere, not to mention the quality of bilateral relations can only improve if joint work is based on the fundamental principles of equality, real respect for the partner’s interests and non-interference in the partner’s internal affairs, without any attempts to blackmail or force one’s will on the partner.
Question: Why, contrary to what many people expected, nothing has come out of attempts to start a dialogue with the new US administration?
Anatoly Antonov: It is no secret that the dialogue with the current US administration is hard-going. On the one hand, this is the effect of the difficult legacy left behind by Barack Obama’s team. On the other, there are persistent attempts by certain forces in the Washington establishment to play the Russian card in domestic political infighting, including by endlessly feeding the insinuations about our supposed “interference” in last year’s US elections and other slanderous charges.
Of course, this stands in the way of interaction and creates a far from simple background for Russian diplomatic operations in the US. We cannot call normal a situation, where the media present the usual, routine contacts maintained by the embassy heads and staff as spying, our diplomats are expelled en masse from the country without being given any official reasons, and Russian diplomatic facilities are expropriated in violation of international law.
The recent US law designed to boost the sanctions pressure on Russia is also a reflection of the “overheated” political situation in the United States and the hyperactivity of the Russophobic lobby. This is a serious blow to bilateral relations and chances for productive cooperation.
For our part, we have repeatedly stated that we do not yield to emotions; we display restraint, despite all the difficulties, and remain open to looking for points of contact and moving forward with a degree of intensity acceptable for the US administration.
On July 28, the Americans were advised of the need to bring, by September 1, the number of their diplomatic staff in Russia, including the locally hired Russian employees, in full conformity with the number of Russian diplomats and technical staff on long-term missions in the US. This means that they will have to cut their staff, whose number exceeds 1,200, to 455 persons. We have also reciprocated by suspending, as of August 1, the US Moscow Embassy’s use of its Serebryany Bor dacha and a warehouse in Dorozhnaya Street.
The US decision of August 21 to impose restrictions on the issue of non-immigration visas is regrettable and puzzling. On the same day, this step was clearly and succinctly assessed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that the main reason for this decision was not the technical problems confronting the highly professional and well-equipped US consular service but clearly considerations of political nature.
It is high time to stop; anti-Russian actions cannot be multiplied ad infinitum. For the Russian missions abroad, it will be business as usual and they will perform their functions in full.
We hope that common sense and the understanding that all attempts to pressurise our country are futile will gain the upper hand in Washington. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Russia and the United States possess the biggest nuclear potentials and have particular responsibility for global stability and security. The world is calmer and safer when we act together on the international arena.
Bilateral cooperation on the most pressing international issues is still of much importance, including cooperation in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, organised crime and the cyber threat. On the whole, our two countries would equally benefit by creating more interactive cooperation that would ensure predictability, rule out unpleasant surprises, minimise opportunistic behaviour, and make it possible to ward off tensions in good time.
As for the Russian Embassy in Washington and all other Russian diplomatic missions in the United States, it ill becomes diplomats to take fright at or fear anything, no matter what our working conditions are. We will consistently work to implement Russia’s foreign policy and the guidelines of its leadership.
Question: You have the reputation of a tough negotiator who firmly upholds national interests. As far as we know, you were approved for the post of ambassador to the United States back when everyone in Russia and the United States believed that Hillary Clinton would replace Barack Obama as US president. Does the fact that Moscow has not revised this decision when Donald Trump won the presidential election mean that Russia needs an ambassador like you in any case?
Anatoly Antonov: Under Russian law, the appointment and withdrawal of ambassadors is a presidential prerogative. The procedure is clear: the foreign minister submits his proposals, the concerned committees of the Federal Assembly hold consultations, and the application is made to the host country. In my case, all these formalities took place after the US presidential election.
I will work steadily, professionally and openly to stabilise and subsequently improve Russian-US relations jointly with my colleagues in Moscow and Washington. Our relations must be equal, pragmatic and mutually beneficial and based on mutual respect. I will do my best to convince the Americans that we are not enemies and that we must become partners working in the interests of Russia and the United States.
Question: Can Russian-US relations improve if US sanctions against Russia are not lifted?
Anatoly Antonov: The Russian leadership has commented on this issue more than once. First of all, unilateral restrictions violate international law and are a double-edged sword. These restrictions are affecting us in some areas, but not more than they are affecting US exports, which Donald Trump has pledged to stimulate in order to create new jobs.
Russian-US trade has decreased by almost one-third, from $29 billion in 2014 to $20 billion in 2016, due to an unfavourable market situation and the sanctions. But the biggest damage has been done to US exports rather than to Russian consumers. We have even benefitted from this situation by enhancing domestic production and boosting trade with other countries. The US companies that were ordered by the US authorities to curtail promising projects in Russia were hit the hardest, for example, ExxonMobil that has invested $10 billion in Arctic shelf oil projects.
The US business community sent the largest delegation to the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2017: it included representatives from 140 companies.
Russia has never asked and will not ask for the sanctions against it to be lifted, although it is obvious that the sanctions are evidence of an unfriendly attitude to our country.
At any rate, Russia and the United States will only develop effective cooperation if pressure, blackmail and attempts to force one’s will on the other party are removed from their dialogue. The ball in this game is in Washington’s court.
Question: The US media recently discussed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s “three-point plan” to improve relations with Russia. What do you think about this plan?
Anatoly Antonov: The media reported that the US Department of State had prepared or was working on this secret document in late June, before a meeting of the Russian and US presidents in Hamburg. It allegedly contains a request to Russia to avoid “aggressive actions” against US interests, to engage on issues that are of strategic interest to the United States, such as the civil war in Syria and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and to work jointly towards mutual geopolitical goals in the sphere of strategic stability.
I don’t think I need to comment on or assess this information. Diplomats don’t work with leaks and speculation. They only work with official information that is provided orally at meetings and talks or in the form of documents. We have not received any information from Washington about the reported three-point plan to normalise relations with Russia.
By the way, back in March we sent a document to our American partners with our ideas on possible ways to improve the atmosphere in our relations in the context of preparations for our presidents’ meeting. That document focused on the areas where we have coinciding interests and where we could therefore achieve practical results very quickly. Apart from counterterrorism, Russia and the United States could also coordinate their efforts to fight other threats and challenges, such as illegal drug trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cybercrime.
If there was a constructive approach on both sides, we could do a great deal for the settlement of regional crises, including the Palestinian-Israeli, Yemeni, Libyan, Afghan and Syrian crises. At the same time, we should remove the arbitrary and random elements that are complicating our interaction and get rid of the numerous irritants in our bilateral relations.
We discuss these questions with our American partners, but it is a fact that the new Washington team’s views on many international issues have not yet taken final shape. We also need to factor in the complicated internal political situation in the United States. Anyway, we will only be able to return our relations to a sustainable development trajectory if our dialogue is based on the principles of equality and real respect for each other’s interests.
Question: Have your professional activities been affected by the fact that you are on the EU’s and Canada’s sanctions lists?
Anatoly Antonov: This does not discomfit me in any way. I don’t need to make working visits to Ottawa or, say, Brussels in my new capacity. You may be interested to know that in my job as Deputy Defence Minister of Russia I was to explain our actions regarding developments in Ukraine, including the tragic crash of the Malaysia Airlines plane. The statements I made probably touched a nerve and provoked an inadequate reaction in the EU and Canada, which decided to impose sanctions against me. Do people in Brussels and Ottawa really believe that as a result I will get cold feet and stop upholding the foreign policy of my country? At the very least, this short-sighted decision only proves that the West has a poor understanding of Russian diplomats.
Question: You are an expert on Russian-US relations with many years of experience. Can you explain why the numerous attempts taken to improve bilateral relations after the Cold War, usually by each new administration, have failed? Why do we get disappointed every time?
Anatoly Antonov: Hundreds of dissertations have been written on this issue, and historians and experts will spend years debating the reasons for the ups and downs in Russian-US relations. One thing is certain: Russia has never invited confrontation.
When the Cold War ended 25 years ago, many people hoped that the end of the bipolar confrontation would open the door to a fundamentally new stage of mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the United States. For our part, we worked energetically and consistently towards this, encouraging Washington to develop honest cooperation based on equality, real respect for each other’s priorities and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other.
Naturally, our actions were not dictated purely by altruism; we believed that pragmatic cooperation would be in the interests of both nations and was also called for by the objective realities of the multipolar world. This world was just beginning to take shape 25 years ago, but it was clear even then that serious threats and challenges can only be overcome if the key players coordinate their approaches and act jointly.
Meanwhile, Washington pursued its interests quite aggressively, including with the use of military force, in complete disregard for the interests of other countries and also in violation of the fundamental principles of international law, which has resulted in numerous tragedies, in particular in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.
In relations with Russia, the United States routinely demonstrated its reluctance to accept us as an equal partner and to respect our opinions. Moreover, it viewed the strengthening of our positions on the international stage and our concept of a polycentric world as a serious challenge that could undermine the notorious theory of American exceptionalism. This generated tensions in Russian-US relations and resulted in crises and upsets.
The attempt to reset relations during the Obama administration in 2009 did not change the situation much, although there were some encouraging signs, such as the New START Treaty and progress towards settling Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.
Yet Washington never tired of using every available opportunity to penalise Russia, to make a show of taking us down a peg or two. It was with this aim in view that Washington adopted the Magnitsky Act sanctions in 2012, long before the Ukrainian crisis, hindered the operation of our companies and launched a world-wide hunt for Russian citizens, as in the case of Viktor Bout.
The White House went even further when it declared the policy of system-wide containment of Russia over Ukraine. In addition to suspending the majority of dialogue channels, including the working groups of the Bilateral Presidential Commission, the United States has applied economic sanctions and other methods of pressure, including military ones, against Russia. And lastly, Washington fuelled an anti-Russian hysteria during the presidential campaign last year in order to help its candidate. This not only delivered a blow to the mutual understanding between our nations, but also had an extremely negative effect on the system of international relations as a whole.
Question: From your perspective, what is the United States for Russia: a desirable friend, a difficult partner, or a rival?
Anatoly Antonov: Choosing any one of the suggested answers will look like pigeonholing, which is unacceptable in diplomacy. Clearly, Russia-US relations have issues, major ones at that, but there is also considerable potential for mutually beneficial cooperation in various spheres. We would like to unlock this potential and achieve results together with the United States, make progress in establishing a normal sustainable dialogue and finding collective responses to common threats and challenges. To be able to do so, it is imperative to conduct business based on fundamental principles of equality, real respect for interests and non-interference in each other's internal affairs.
Question: The image of Russia in the United States is extremely negative. The Americans are convinced that the Russian special services interfered in their election process, and that Russia supports the “bloody Syrian dictator” Bashar al-Assad and wants to tear Donbass away from Ukraine. Do you believe it is possible to improve Russia's image in the United States given such a low starting point?
Anatoly Antonov: Of course, we have to take into account that the Russophobic hysteria has been artificially fomented in the United States recently. The Americans are being told that Russia is the enemy and the source of all misfortunes; Russian hackers and spies are used to scare them, and all kinds of false stories about our country are spread.
This adversely affects bilateral interaction in various spheres. However, I’m positive that the absolute majority of people in the United States are immune to such crude propaganda and take with a grain of salt the attempts to impose stereotypes and fears about Russia that have nothing to do with reality.
Of course, acting within the scope of the embassy's authority, we will strive to deliver objective information about our country and its foreign policy. Russia-US cultural and humanitarian ties and non-government contacts are of great importance in this context, as they help strengthen mutual understanding and trust between our nations. This sphere is least susceptible to fluctuations in the political situation, and must definitely work to improve our relations.
Our common history is one thing that does bring our two nations together. For example, this year will mark a string of anniversaries, such as the 210th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States in December, the 200th anniversary of the Russian squadron’s arrival in Hawaii, the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Treaty, and the 80th anniversary of the legendary Chkalov Moscow-Vancouver flight.
An interdepartmental working group on preserving Russian historical and cultural heritage in the United States was recently created at the Foreign Ministry, which, in addition to relevant ministries also included representatives of almost all organisations and institutions operating in this area. It has already sponsored the first round of the bilateral forum of socio-political and business circles Fort-Ross Dialogue (Pskov, Izborsk, May 28-30) and the celebrations dedicated to the anniversary of the transpolar flight by Valery Chkalov (Fort Vancouver, Washington, June 24).
A number of promising initiatives in various segments of the cultural and humanitarian sphere have been adopted by the group for further action. They include searching for and digitising archival materials on Russia’s participation in developing the North American continent, creating museum exhibitions dedicated to Russian America, and preserving in the United States various cultural objects from personal collections of famous Russian and Soviet cultural figures, such as Nicholas Roerich, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Sergey Rachmaninov, as well as prominent emigrants. Of course, these projects are being implemented in close cooperation with US stakeholders and our compatriots, who show great interest in our common heritage.
Question: Does Russia have any specific ideas on how to normalise relations with the United States?
Anatoly Antonov: In general, we are interested in normalising bilateral relations. Russia and the United States are powerful nations and permanent members of the UN Security Council. We also take into account the role of the United States in global trade, and its vast industrial capacity. Our people have much in common. We simply have to make the most of the advantages of constructive interaction in the interests of Russia, the United States, and international security.
No one will benefit from confrontation. Significant improvements in Russia-US relations can be achieved only through building the potential of bilateral cooperation.
Already today, we could think about establishing working cooperation between the Security Council of the Russian Federation and the National Security Council of the United States, including for purposes of considering issues related to combating terrorism, cyber threats, and strategic stability.
In addition to regular meetings between our respective foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Rex Tillerson, it would be useful to establish working contacts between Russian and US defence ministers, Army General Sergey Shoigu and James Mattis, respectively. It is time to resume joint meetings of the foreign ministers and defence ministers of Russia and the United States in the 2+2 format.
In the context of fighting international terrorism, the leaders of Russia’s FSB and Foreign Intelligence Service, and the FBI and the CIA of the United States hold much value. Strictly speaking, there are many such channels of interaction. The more we cooperate, the closer our countries become, and the stronger international security becomes. I’m convinced that all of that is in the interests of the Russian and American people. We cannot afford wasting time. It's time to look around and deal not with imaginary threats, but real security problems facing the two countries, the main of which is fighting international terrorism.