Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with Izvestia published on July 4, 2019
Question: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have given a positive assessment to their talks in Osaka. Has the meeting produced any concrete results that can serve as a starting point for joint work in the near future?
Sergey Ryabkov: The internal situation in the United States, if we look at the perception of Russia by their politicians, shows no signs of a significant improvement. The anti-Russian forces in Congress continue generating various initiatives and urging the executive authorities to take all kinds of steps that would make it more difficult to improve the atmosphere between Moscow and Washington. In all evidence, this will continue. The election campaign is under way in the United States and the constant references to Russia’s alleged meddling in the previous elections give grounds for assuming that subversive efforts will persist. We have worked with the Americans in this environment for several years and are prepared for any twists and turns.
The Osaka meeting itself was very positive both in tone and substance. Working in close contact, the leaders covered practically the entire agenda. I would name strategic stability and arms control as spheres where some progress is possible. We are getting ready to launch this effort shortly.
Another relevant field is trade and the economy. It seems to be dawning on Washington that the situation where last year’s bilateral trade did not exceed $25 billion is abnormal. The available potential is much higher. The sanctions are a hindrance, of course, but the whole matter does not boil down to sanctions alone. An indicative sign is a large US delegation attending the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. American business people have first-hand knowledge that there are opportunities for fruitful work in Russia. European and Asian firms that have been around for a long time have much interest in expanding forms of cooperation with Russian companies and increasing investment in the Russian economy. The Americans have to make up for lost time lest they fall behind their rivals. I think governments have a duty to help this process along, or at least abstain from making the going any harder.
Question: You said that security is one of the main subjects. It appears that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is now history. Does that mean that we are talking about the future of the New START Treaty? Will there be enough time to extend the Treaty, which is set to expire in 2021?
Sergey Ryabkov: Our NATO colleagues do not remove the INF Treaty from the agenda, saying that Russia can still take certain steps to make it possible to preserve the Treaty. This is nothing more than a propaganda ploy and a trick intended to artificially put the blame on us for wrecking the INF Treaty. After the United States launched the withdrawal procedure, which will be completed on August 2, I see no prospects for reversing this process.
If a miracle happens, and if the US side voices its readiness, first of all, to conduct a detailed discussion of our long-time complaints regarding its incomplete compliance with the Treaty and, second, to once again discuss the situation with the 9M729 missile in a professional and to-the-point manner, then certain changes are possible. But we see no indications of this in the US position and that of this country’s other NATO allies. It appears that the INF Treaty will become history in early August.
At the same time, the issue of the New START Treaty is becoming more acute. We would like to extend this document, but this should be preceded by a resolution of the well-known problem of the US decision not to include a considerable part of America’s strategic delivery vehicles in the overall ceilings. This is also a complicated technical and organisational matter because, under our system of coordinates, this will call for certain proceedings at the Federal Assembly. Even if members of the Russian Parliament examine this matter as quickly as possible, it will still take weeks, if not months; therefore, the New START Treaty’s future must be decided in advance.
So far, we don’t have even a vague idea of whether the United States is, in principle, ready to extend the Treaty. We will wait for a message from the Americans, and we will motivate them to clarify the matter more quickly, all the more so as an election campaign is now underway in the United States. As practice shows, Washington finds it increasingly difficult to resolve such issues in the context of the approaching elections. At some point, these matters will be put off until after the election period.
Question: Last year, Russia invited the United States to issue a declaration on the prevention of nuclear war similar to the Soviet-US agreement, but Washington did not accept the offer. Does it make sense to try again?
Sergey Ryabkov: The United States has not officially refused to consider such a joint statement, but it has not reacted to our proposal in any way. This can be connected to an internal coordination procedure. I hope the US standing has not deteriorated dramatically and that this pause is not connected with the Americans’ doubts regarding the provision, which is of crucial significance for such a Russian-US statement, that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be launched. If Washington doubts this provision, then things are even worse than we think they are.
Question: Does this mean that Washington believes a nuclear war can be won?
Sergey Ryabkov: Or it allows the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a conflict. There are many indicators that the US military and political thinking is moving this way. There have been alarming amendments to the US doctrines, which mean that the Americans are lowering the nuclear threshold. Projects have been launched in the US to create new warheads, including low-yield ones. And the dividing line between conventional and nuclear war has become blurred.
The previous US administrations, at least after the signing of crucial agreements between the Soviet Union and the United States, considered a nuclear exchange only as a purely hypothetical scenario. However, we cannot be confident that the current US administration follows this line of thought. The Americans should clarify their views and consider our proposal rationally and in a responsible manner. The world is waiting for a coordinated signal from Moscow and Washington. There have been too many innuendos, inconsistencies, speculations and interpretations. There is no place for them in the nuclear sphere.
Question: Do you plan to hold consultations with the Americans on ways to prevent incidents in cyber space?
Sergey Ryabkov: I hope the issue of ICT and the impact they have on the overall situation will be raised in the context of strategic stability talks. As for the Mueller Report and the perennial subject of the alleged Russian hacking attacks, the upshot is that there was no collusion but the hacking attacks did take place. The Americans categorically refuse to hold a professional discussion, which is regrettable because we are ready for it.
Question: It seems that under Donald Trump the tactic adopted by the US consists of ratcheting up tension to the maximum degree, as it happened with the DPRK for example, before turning to negotiations. The situation around Iran and the nuclear deal is now heating up. Does Moscow see any chance to preserve the JCPOA and prevent the situation from spiralling out of control?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would refrain from any general conclusions. There is much speculation among political observers who point out that Washington’s tactics consist of sharply increasing pressure and intentionally seeking to exacerbate tension, followed by a rebound. It is alleged that a surge in tension enables the US to make sure that the opponent adopts a softer position to an extent that the final deal becomes more favourable in terms of US interests compared to a situation where no political or psychological pressure is applied ahead of the talks.
However, all cases are unique in their own way, and affected by diverging international factors. Sometimes the US can rely on proactive support from its allies, and sometimes the US opponents are the ones who play a key role.
Regarding the JCPOA, in political terms this deal is in the “intensive care ward.” I cannot guarantee that the patient will recover after effective methods of treatment such as diplomatic infusion drips or if defibrillators are used. But at least the patient is not getting any worse.
We are worried that in keeping with its official statements the US continues its maximum pressure policy toward Iran. Further attempts to build an anti-Iran front, including in the Persian Gulf, are also a matter of concern. It’s a good thing that our Iranian colleagues have nerves of iron. I do not expect them to make any mistakes. It is obvious however that the country did not benefit economically from this agreement, and has lately been facing major challenges for maintaining reasonable levels of oil exports and generating revenue due to the US sanctions policy.
That said, there are some positive developments in this sphere. For instance, the long-awaited INSTEX transactions mechanism has finally become operational, and Russia expects it to become available for serving transactions with third countries instead of just European Union countries. Experts are working on a number of other specific matters, all designed to keep the JCPOA in place.
The move by the US to withdraw from the deal last year and its subsequent actions were unprecedented and a direct violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and Article 25 of the UN Charter. We have never faced a situation before when one of the countries that is a party to an agreement not just backs out of it, but changes course altogether. In this specific case, it resulted in a blatant violation of international law by Washington.
Question: There is this idea that what the US does amounts to unfair competition in order to force Iran out of the energy market.
Sergey Ryabkov: If we look at the share of Iranian oil exports compared to the overall oil exports by all producing countries and global consumption, the figure is not big enough to be viewed as a key factor. This is not a question of someone trying to push a competitor out of the market. What we are seeing is that Washington uses economic aggression and coercion to redraw the region’s map, and scale back Iran’s presence and influence in a number of places.
It is possible that the US has an even more far-reaching design of exerting maximum pressure on undesired governments. Various administrations acted this way, which led to chaos in the Middle East. In a number of countries we are still witnessing the dire consequences of this US policy. History has not taught our colleagues in Washington much, who still believe that they have the right to impose their will on other countries.
Question: Venezuela’s regime too is not to the liking of the United States. However, according to leaks from Washington, the US Administration has seriously toned down its support for self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido. What helped to defuse the tensions?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would refrain from looking at any crisis from one dimension alone, that is, only taking into consideration what Washington is or is not doing. Focusing too much attention on the United States is a mistake, which also occurs frequently in our media. Let me compare it to the Ptolemaic system that was disproved by Copernicus. It is not the Sun that rotates around the Earth but the other way around. We can see numerous factors of power and influence in international relations; we are in fact observing an evolution towards multipolarity. Presenting affairs as if all international events in different orbits revolve around the only “centre of gravity,” the United States, is inaccurate.
Of course, Washington has considerable power over the situation in Venezuela. But the responsible course of action followed by Nicolas Maduro’s legitimate government, its openness to dialogue, the contacts with the opposition that took place and will, apparently, continue, the interaction between various actors, including between an international contact group, its members and other players such as Russia, China and Turkey – all these factors combined encourage us to hope that a more sober and balanced approach to the settlement will make its way into American politics as well.
We have several “red lines” which we have communicated to the Americans. Specifically, we asserted that it is unacceptable to resort to armed interference or to impose a model on the Venezuelan people where the outcome of contacts and political exchanges is pre-determined.
I think that the joint efforts of all the sensible partners will push us forward in the right direction although I do not underestimate the risk of a new escalation. My experience tells me that in certain situations, the United States will stop at nothing, disregard warnings and even common decency, let alone its own international legal obligations.
Question: Recently former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that the United States allegedly offered to partially restore Russia’s rights to diplomatic property but the conditions were unacceptable to Moscow. If this is true, what were the terms proposed by the Americans? What are the prospects of settling this dispute?
Sergey Ryabkov: Unfortunately, there has been no shift in the US approach. We are confronted with a brick wall where obvious arguments are rejected, the main one being that it was a gross infringement of not only the inviolability of facilities protected by diplomatic immunity but also of one of the United States’ fundamental principles, the inviolability of private property – in this case, another state’s property.
True, at a certain point our American colleagues did suggest that we could return but our use of the property would be extremely limited and we would have to agree that US government representatives could come in at any time to check what we were doing there. Imagine how it would be if, after the forcible takeover of a tobacco kiosk, its owner was told: “You can occasionally make an appearance there and maybe you can even sell cigarettes but when we ask you to leave you must go without fail. What we do next is none of your business.”
This interpretation of the issue indicated that they were completely out of touch with reality and made a conscious attempt to insult us. We shut the door on that proposal, without showing any emotion. We demand that our property be returned to us unconditionally and with no strings attached.
In the meantime, we have repeatedly stated that if Moscow and Washington found an opportunity now to start moving towards normal functioning of their diplomatic missions, it would send a strong signal which, I think, would reverberate around the world. Most importantly, it would be the first real step if not towards normalisation, then at least towards a certain recovery in our relations.
Question: Once every two years, Russia sends requests to the US authorities to extradite Konstantin Yaroshenko. As a rule, these are turned down. What are the chances for Mr Yaroshenko to leave the United States ahead of schedule and return back to Russia?
Sergey Ryabkov: There is a legal framework for handing over Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was sentenced on absolutely far-fetched, baseless and malicious charges. I am referring to the 1983 Convention signed by the Council of Europe member-countries. This instrument is open to third countries and the United States is also a party to this Convention on the transfer of sentenced persons to serve their term in the country of citizenship. We suggested that the Americans use this instrument and repeatedly confirmed that we were ready to consider transferring certain Americans sentenced in Russia on various charges to the United States. There are prisoners of this sort here. But the US is unwilling to do this; in fact, Konstantin is hostage to their so-called law enforcement system.
I am not going to point my finger at anyone, but one high-ranking member of the former administration made a very characteristic confidential admission shortly before the change of guard at the White House, saying that Konstantin Yaroshenko was and would be in jail indefinitely. We will never accept this, the more so since we know about Konstantin’s health problems and how his family members feel about the whole thing. There were tragic events in this connection. I also take this close to heart. We will continue our efforts to this end in the most vigorous way.
Much in this respect depends on Washington’s political will. They should understand that we perceive the response of American human robots devoid of any feeling of humaneness as absolutely grotesque, particularly so amid our American colleagues’ incessant incantations about how important it is to ensure human rights everywhere and what an absolute value human personality is. The American duplicity and hypocrisy in the Yaroshenko case is a true eye opener.