Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with The International Affairs magazine, October 2019
Question: Mr Ryabkov, 10 members of the Russian delegation to the UN General Assembly session have been denied visas. Is this a visa war? What will be Russia’s response?
Sergey Ryabkov: It should be said that two of the Russian delegates who have been denied visas are Chair of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs Konstantin Kosachyov and his counterpart at the State Duma, Leonid Slutsky. Visas have been also denied to our experts and members of the foreign minister’s team. This US action has brought an acute problem into focus. The United States has no respect not only for international law as a whole, but also for the obligations of the country that signed an agreement to host the UN Headquarters in 1947. I don’t remember Washington ever acting in such flagrant disregard for the accepted norms before. This is a new US low when it comes to its position on the international stage.
We can expect the United States to deliberately create barriers to a normal political process and the work of the UN, especially the member states which Washington views as its geopolitical opponents, because the position these states have taken does not suit the United States. One has to ask in this connection: What response do our American colleagues expect from the countries which receive such welcome from Washington, or rather, which are denied welcome? Do Americans really think that their actions will force us to revise our approaches, to adjust them to US “demands”? I believe that they will produce the opposite effect and that the United States is acting contrary to its own interests in this particular case.
The UN has been treating specific situations, ideas and proposals rather superficially lately, which is an established fact. So, last year the UNGA First Committee’s resolution in defence of the INF Treaty was thwarted by the United States, its allies and the so-called like-minded nations only because Russia authored it. No one even read the contents of that document. Russia’s authorship was all our detractors needed to go against the obvious logic of acting in order to uphold one of the pillars of international security.
With regard to our response, we filed a motion to hold the meetings of, say, the UNGA First Committee and the UN Disarmament Commission not in New York or the United States in general. Indeed, the international capitals in Europe have been hosting events of any size attended by all kinds of participants for decades now. They have proper infrastructure, equipment and staff. Transport access is seamless.
Let's see how other members of the international community respond to this proposal as not only Russia is faced with defiant manifestations of American arrogance, which is unseemly and shameful. There were similar precedents with other countries as well. This year, a very alarming bell sounded with regard to what the United States can afford in relation to the UN. This is a demonstration of total disregard for the UN located in New York, the United States. There’s a proposal to transfer the UN headquarters from there, and this idea is not new. At some point it was put forward by other countries as well.
With regard to the visa war, it is underway and was unleashed by the United States. Thwarting the participation of our representatives in the Fort Ross Dialogue is an egregious incident of recent times. Sending our employees on long-term business trips to Russian embassies and consulates general in the United States has been difficult for a long time now. This applies to short-term business trips as well. In such cases, we provide mirror responses. However, our offer to the United States is to come to an agreement rather than act on the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It hasn’t worked out yet. Apparently, those who determine and implement the US policy towards Russia are focused on actions from a position of strength. The fact that this policy is doomed to failure has been clear to everyone for a long time now.
Question: Has the UN responded?
Sergey Ryabkov: There is a UN Committee on Relations with the Host Country which discusses various kinds of complex situations, often controversial. Of course, we will continue to raise the issue with this body. When in New York, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly mentioned it, including in the General Assembly. I think everyone heard everything he said. I believe the response by the UN Secretariat could benefit from being more intelligible.
Question: What do you think about President Trump’s remarks during the UNGA session?
Sergey Ryabkov: This is a signal that, in the current circumstances, national sovereignty and national interests are more important than particular benefits derived from globalisation in its classical sense. His speech was full of violent attacks on the countries that allow themselves an independent foreign policy. A number of topics have been bypassed, such as all climate issues. I think there’s a certain context which is associated with the upcoming US elections. If you look at President Trump’s speech from that perspective, you could make some conclusions for yourself.
Question: Some experts scrambled to announce that Trump was aiming at Biden, but hit himself. However, it is possible that Donald Trump had figured out everything in advance. The failure of Robert Mueller’s inquiry probably made him more confident in confronting the Democrats before the election campaign. Still, how serious is the impeachment threat for Trump?
Sergey Ryabkov: Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation failed to produce the effect that certain circles had been counting on – not only in Washington, but also in other capitals. But we have always known it is exactly what would happen, because there was no way they could dig up anything to support their absolutely far-fetched and shaky claims of a conspiracy with Russia or Russia interfering in the internal processes in the United States. This was not even possible, for objective reasons. So they decided to find other vulnerabilities in the current administration’s positions. What we see is, in my opinion, a reflection of the unhealthy atmosphere prevailing in today's Washington, where the Republican and the Democratic Party seem to be tossing foreign policy “hot potatoes” at each other with domestic policy motives behind the game. We are keeping away from this, observing from aside. This is a very peculiar phenomenon indeed. We see what is happening as a reflection of the current difficult phase in the development of the domestic political discourse in the United States.
Question: Do you think the Russian card will be played in the US presidential election campaign?
Sergey Ryabkov: I think it is almost inevitable. Some say there is no reason to continue the tactic that has been played dozens of times on the American table and is not adding to anyone’s ratings. However, as I see it, the generally negative, even “feverish” approach to the current developments in Russia’s politics and the policy line Russia pursues in international affairs has become an integral part of the self-awareness of many American leaders, has become ingrained in the substance of what is happening in today's Washington.
Question: Russian citizen Alexander Korshunov, head of business development at the United Engine Corporation, a subsidiary of the Rostec State Corporation, has been arrested in Italy at the request of the US Department of Justice. This is not the first such case. Can Russia use any retaliatory measures to stop the US’s arrogant actions?
Sergey Ryabkov: As I understand it, Korshunov was recruiting people to work at the United Engine Corporation, and he was doing it openly, contacting those who were not employed by the corresponding American corporation at the time. So his case is not just far-fetched, it does not hold water. It is an outrageous incident when US law enforcement officers resort to illegal tricks for political reasons, speculating on a wide-spread stereotype of Russia’s general “toxicity.”
There are other, less resonant, examples of Russian citizens extradited by third countries on American warrants. We condemn Washington's ongoing violations of the 1999 mutual legal assistance treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States. It is a clear neglect of the rules of a normal dialogue between the relevant agencies on the settlement of such problems.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly issues warnings for Russian citizens traveling abroad. We are not trying to block anyone from going, just warning that people should be careful, vigilant and prepared for provocations on the part of American law enforcement officers or their colleagues in countries allied with the United States or even in countries not considered as US allies. We do not know how the machine that produces such accusations works, but our people might be facing long prison terms if they end up in such situations.
There are unresolved problems with the exchange of convicted prisoners to serve their sentences in the country of citizenship. Everyone has heard the names of Viktor But, Konstantin Yaroshenko, and Roman Seleznyov. There are many others. The American side ignores our calls to use the appropriate mechanism under the Council of Europe Convention and exchange American citizens (there are about 20 of them) currently serving their sentences in Russia for our compatriots. As for retaliatory measures, Russia is being steadily guided by the norms of international law and its national legislation. Tricks such as Americans resort to are unacceptable for us. Their system, tailored to processing fabricated cases, is unruly enough to use such methods.
Question: It is hard to imagine that any NATO country would extradite an American citizen to Russia.
Sergey Ryabkov: You are absolutely right. Moscow has been misleadingly accused of trying to sow discord in the NATO ranks for decades. This is all jabber, groundless accusations. Obviously, it is enough just to hint that a NATO country could show responsibility and independently analyse the consequences of its action or inaction, and NATO will close its ranks even more. It has iron-cast discipline if not the discipline of the rod.
Question: What could you say about the current condition of Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko? What assistance do they receive?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have helped and will continue helping Bout and Yaroshenko and their families. We will make sure there is no power abuse on the part of prison administrations. It happened in the past – sharply toughening the detention conditions and denying medical aid. Yaroshenko has health problems. We will do all we can to provide him with qualified medical assistance. Bout is holding steady. They have already served a considerable part of their terms. The problem is that the Americans ignore our proposals to use the mechanisms of the 1983 Council of Europe Convention. This reflects their strictly political stance. There is no hidden agenda. Discourse about the independence of these or other links in their state system is idle talk. We cannot take it seriously. All their links strongly depend on their own megalomania, their pretense to being infallible.
Question: Marina Butina’s ordeal seems to have been resolved to the great delight of her family. How would you explain this outcome?
Sergey Ryabkov: After the arrest, Butina was subjected to strong psychological pressure. She incriminated herself by entering into a plea bargain. This happens. The US law enforcement system is stunning in this respect. Lobbyism is officially legal in the United States as well as a plea agreement. If a person cooperates with the prosecution and allows them to catch someone else, his or her term is reduced and detention conditions improved. In many cases, the US law enforcement system commits abuses for political reasons, especially as regards Russian citizens. This is exactly why we warn all travellers abroad that if they have even the slightest suspicion that the US authorities may raise a claim against them, it is better to think twice before going to any foreign country. American human hunters may appear anywhere.
Question: President Trump's hard words against Iran interspersed with threats caused mixed response around the world. Iran is categorical in denying its involvement in the drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil rigs. In turn, Iran advanced the Coalition of Hope initiative and invited the Gulf countries to jointly ensure the region’s security and even to conclude a comprehensive non-aggression treaty. Do you think this will help bring down the wave of confrontation initiated by Washington?
Sergey Ryabkov: The question is ripe, as they say. The idea of organising a new algorithm for resolving regional issues in the Middle East is in the air. We are acting in parallel. Our approach is largely in tune with Iran’s ideas. Recently, we proposed an updated position on forming a collective security system in the Gulf region through a dialogue and confidence-building measures and an exchange of relevant information. Much has been accomplished. It just needs to be applied to the material that is available specifically in this region of the world.
Unfortunately, the United States and influential countries in that region do not understand this in full. They believe that the maximum pressure policy, as they call it, will bear fruit and Iran will be forced to sharply lower the level of its own security and substantially worsen the terms of the agreement on its nuclear programme. Discussions are also underway about putting a lid on the Iranian missile programme, changing its approach to what is happening in the region in general, etc. Such a policy with regard to Iran is still a reflection of the US absolute faith in the omnipotence of its sanctions, blackmail, and the omnipotence of its aircraft carriers. This region has become a powder keg a long time ago. So, there’s no alternative to our proposals. We will continue to push our ideas, in conjunction with the Iranians whenever possible. We think that in the end, common sense will prevail and a new outbreak of the conflict will be averted.
Question: Journalists and analysts are still asking the question: Who are you, Mr. O’Brien? How will the appointment of a new person to the post of the National Security Adviser tell on the US-Russia relations?
Sergey Ryabkov: Unfortunately, personnel shifts in the US administration have not led to any improvements in Washington’s Russian policy so far. This is a fact. Despite our efforts and contrary to our numerous verbal and written proposals on almost the entire range of issues that are now being discussed as part of our dialogue and constitute the fabric of our relations, the United States sticks to its usual course, which can be summed up very concisely: Russia is a geostrategic adversary and it needs to be restrained. This is Washington’s official policy enshrined in its doctrinal documents. I’m not in a position to presume what kinds of adjustments are possible in US foreign policy at all after the appointment you mentioned. And until we get practical proof that something has begun to change for the better in our relations with the United States, we will stick to the point of view that personnel shifts do not really matter. Based on what we know from the remarks and publications, we conclude that continuity, negative continuity in Washington’s Russian policy will remain with a very high degree of probability.
Question: After the US pullout of the ABM Treaty and the INF Treaty signed by Moscow and Washington, there is only one treaty left – the New START Treaty, which expires in 2021. How do things stand here?
Sergey Ryabkov: We are calling on our American colleagues to stop wasting time. There is almost no time left. At least, it is important to understand what they plan to do with the treaty. Our position is well-known: this treaty has to be extended. The extension period is subject to discussion – we are poised to exercise flexibility in this respect. However, we believe there will be no excuse if nothing is done to prevent the demise of this treaty. The international community will see it as a reflection of the neglectful attitude to one of the main pillars of international security. An assessment like this is quite justified. The treaty must be extended, and we are set to do this. There are channels that can and must be used to discuss this, and there are issues that must be reviewed in this context. The Americans are also well aware of them. We are receptive to signals from their side. But, so far, there have been no signals.
Question: A short while ago, several Russian experts drafted a report on relations with the United States which was discussed at the Foreign Ministry. It proposes to radically change approaches to foreign policy and arms control. The people behind the report believe that “it is not only impossible to work out new agreements on arms limitation, but it is probably counterproductive.” Do you think this approach is realistic?
Sergey Ryabkov: In this regard, I would like to touch on several aspects. First, as you may be aware, humankind, including the United States and us, went through thorns, an arms race and realisation of how destructive a nuclear war can be for the entire civilisation, not just individual countries, before it reached the current system of agreements, including legally binding arms control agreements. The entire system of international relations was based on ideology. It was also based on fear and constant anxiety that the continuation of uncontrolled nuclear missile arms race is not only economically costly, but can lead to fatal consequences. The instinct of self-preservation prevailed even among the most die-hard Cold War ideologists.
Then came a period of getting used to a more comfortable and quiet life amid expanding arms control. Now, something new again. The generations that are now starting to set the tone in politics, in particular, in the United States, are the generations not familiar with the horrors of war as the people of the 20th century knew it. Remote warfare, drone warfare, computer warfare, a war where even the blood pouring on a screen is seen as a fragment of a Hollywood action movie rather than something caused by one’s own actions, a war that is fought not in the trenches, but sitting in the rooms and hitting the keyboard at a distance of many thousands of kilometres away from the actual battle ground – such a war is seen by some to be by and large possible. If not consciously possible, then at least possible at the subconscious level. There’s a mental feeling of permissiveness which is dangerous. So, what is needed is the system of checks and balances which may vary.
The people behind the report – this is the second aspect that I would like to touch upon – did a great job and put major analytical efforts into developing materials and articulating the findings that they shared. That alone is great and is good for the cause. For a more accurate development of a particular policy it is extremely important to use a detached view, often critical, so as not to make a mistake and to use accurate reference points, to improve political navigation.
A number of considerations in this report can be used in practice and are significant from our point of view. I would like to emphasise that the concept of strategic stability is not something frozen. It is evolving, and the contribution of researchers is very useful in this regard.
The third point is whether peace is possible without agreements on arms control and will there be enough confidence-building measures to ensure security? We do not know this. This is a rather risky way to frame a question. We are only beginning to get a little closer in our own understanding of what a world without the INF Treaty is, and what the post- INF Treaty life will be from the point of view of ensuring European and Asian security. We are accumulating a certain layer of ideas and considerations with regard to how to deal with this.
I agree with the assertion that influential figures in the US administration, including the retired ones, were overwhelmed – some of them even obsessed – with the idea that the agreements in their previous form are no longer needed and are detrimental to the US interests. Washington started thinking that verification, transparency and the like are enough to ensure security. Our position is that verification for the sake of verification and transparency for the sake of transparency are not needed. They must be tied in with obligations. There’s no need to check things for the sake of checking. It cannot become an end in itself. Transparency and verification should ensure reliable implementation of particular agreements. This approach has worked so far.
To understand what will happen next, we need to understand our US and other NATO colleagues’ approach. Getting exposed well in advance and saying that we have our own groundwork in this area, or sharing our system of preferences, priorities with our opponents is, by and large, a way to weaken our own position.
Question: I think the Americans are of the same opinion.
Sergey Ryabkov: There’s an expression in English, “the poker face.” It’s about someone who should keep a straight face when holding cards in front of him, so as not to let his opponents understand how good or bad his hand is. We need to keep a poker face when talking with our opponents.
Question: Do you remember when Margaret Thatcher said that the nuclear bomb kept the peace?
Sergey Ryabkov: This was a provocative statement at that time.
Question: We often hear today about artificial intelligence, a forthcoming prospect when robots will be in command of combat operations. Who is going to reveal their achievements in cyber security, which is on par with nuclear security in its effect?
Sergey Ryabkov: A drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle of any kind – be it light, heavy, strategic reconnaissance or assault – are controlled by people using computers. We may not know when the line will be crossed whereby these autonomous systems will be self-controlled and self-learning. However, when this happens, a host of questions will arise about what sort of programmes are installed in them and how these programmes will be processed, and this is just a miniscule part of a set of questions that will come up in this connection. At present, a discussion is underway at the Geneva platform about various kinds of the so-called lethal autonomous systems. Unfortunately, we see that technological progress in this area is way ahead of political diplomatic processes. We have not even agreed on basic terms, to say nothing about artificial intelligence in its classical understanding. Nevertheless, I am in favour of natural intelligence trying its best, while there is no artificial one yet, to keep that progress within the bounds of reason – in the direct meaning of the word “intelligence”.
Question: A special group is operating in cyber security which at least drafts some general principles and approaches.
Sergey Ryabkov: We must go deep into this. The leading countries, and not they alone, have already set up teams generally called “cyber command” that are actively engaged in working out offensive operations. We oppose this and put forward respective initiatives, including within the SCO and other formats. There is a severe need for a normal process of consolidating common sense. The information environment needs a responsible code of conduct.
Question: You said not so long ago that the deployment of US missiles on land close to the Russian borders could lead to a crisis similar to the Caribbean one. How likely is this scenario, given that Trump is not very much like John F. Kennedy, and Vladimir Putin is not Nikita Khrushchev?
Sergey Ryabkov: I believe that the deployment of such systems in Central Europe, and even in Western Europe, will lead to a radical change in ways to ensure our national security. It has to do with the flight time and the response time to a particular launch. No country’s missile attack warning system is capable of telling remotely whether the missile launched has a nuclear warhead or some conventional equipment. The deployment of such weapons, with a range covering most of the territory of the Russian Federation, at least its European part – if we are talking about the hypothetical deployment of such systems in Europe – would require response measures on our part. Such measures do not necessarily have to include the deployment of similar (or some other) systems only in places from where they could hit these new American weapons. Substantial asymmetry is possible in our response.
However, the Caribbean missile crisis lessons need to be remembered and refreshed. We are offering an alternative in the form of a moratorium on the deployment of such systems. We have declared our own moratorium. We believe that responsible NATO politicians could take a similar step. But we are always told that NATO is a defensive alliance; we constantly hear the chant that NATO is fighting for peace and is a guarantor of security. So go ahead, dear NATO gentlemen, show us in practice how you will continue fighting for peace now.
Question: According to Forbes magazine, the revenues of foreign companies operating in Russia rose by over 10 percent despite the sanctions. The United States is the most represented among the largest companies. In 2018, the US became a leader in direct investment in Russia for the first time since 2013 (before the Crimea events). According to Ernst & Young, US companies invested in 33 projects, whereas a year ago the number stood at 19. How can you explain this development?
Sergey Ryabkov: Rankings, including those compiled by the most respected agencies and analytical centres, reflect the fact that the investment climate in Russia is improving rather than deteriorating. It has been improving each year. US companies operating in our market feel that very well. Recently I have had no complaints on my desk from US companies regarding obstacles from Russian federal or regional authorities that affect business or making investments. How does that correlate with the policy of the Washington administration, which is trying to move from bad to worse sanctionwise, including with regard to Russia? It does not correlate in any way.
The companies that invest in Russia – not only from the United States but also from other countries – can see that our economy has adapted to operating under this kind of restrictions. We have established a healthy investment climate and a business environment that might not be ideal but it is still attractive. Correspondingly, they are working actively and we welcome their vigour. As far as I know, this set of issues will be reviewed in detail at the forthcoming meeting of the Foreign Investment Advisory Council headed by the Russian Prime Minister. We have plans to launch a business dialogue, as some people call it, in the Russia-US context, i.e. to establish a business advisory council. The presidents, who met in Osaka earlier this year, revisited the topic that they began pondering just over a year ago in Helsinki. I think, progress is possible. Meanwhile, large companies from both sides will be engaged in making recommendations to the governments so as to further improve conditions for investment and business and make the environment even more favourable.
Question: You recently took part in the talks between President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. What does the President of Venezuela think about the situation in and around the country and how can Moscow help Caracas?
Sergey Ryabkov: We share the opinion of our Venezuelan colleagues that the complexity of the situation must not be ignored. As you know, there were several absolutely illegal attempts to overthrow the government in Caracas. This does not happen anymore.
There are economic difficulties and it is necessary to take specific measures to improve the situation in some areas. This was discussed during the Venezuelan President’s visit to Moscow. Russia renders political support to Venezuela. Moreover, Russian specialists conduct comprehensive work with their Venezuelan colleagues on normalising the situation in various areas. Our dialogue is running smoothly and we continue implementing projects that have only an indirect bearing on the domestic situation in that country, if any. This work is mutually beneficial.
The visit was very positive. I think the Venezuelan leaders and all our Venezuelan friends have again seen for themselves that Russia firmly supports the international law and the efforts made by Nicolas Maduro and his government in different areas, including dialogue with the realistically-minded opposition.
Question: Was military-technical cooperation discussed at the talks?
Sergey Ryabkov: All aspects of our cooperation were discussed, all without exception. This was a very serious all-inclusive conversation on the Russia-Venezuela strategic partnership.
Question: Is Russia ready to render humanitarian relief to Venezuela, considering that it needs it?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have already done this more than once. We supply Venezuelans with food and medications, including vaccines. This work is ongoing.
Question: The Department of State announced that the United States and its allies want to invigorate the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, commonly known as the Rio Pact. This pact provides for military assistance to its signatories that are subjected to foreign attacks. Why is it necessary to invigorate it?
Sergey Ryabkov: This is yet another attempt to scare and blackmail others and to remind them that the policy of creating “controlled chaos” remains at the core of Washington’s ideas about what needs to be done in and around Venezuela. We know that there are true masters of provocations working in the relevant agencies of the United States and some other countries. Let’s not be too naive. Naturally, this has nothing to do with protecting the opponents of the Maduro government. The Americans are again seeking to orchestrate an illegal change of power in a sovereign country.
Question: You do not rule out the possibility of foreign interference in the situation, do you?
Sergey Ryabkov: How can we rule it out if the authors of the US policy on Venezuela repeat every other day that all options are on the table? Their terminology and vocabulary do not change. Hence, as before, we do not rule out the possibility of destructive foreign interference.
Question: A BRICS summit will be held in Brasilia in November. In the current tense period it will attract close attention. What can be expected from it?
Sergey Ryabkov: We note the effective work of Brazil’s Presidency of BRICS. They have formed the framework of potential results of the forthcoming forum – both political decisions and documents that may be adopted and signed there. We are pleased to note steady progress on the projects that had been neglected before. There were many of them in a wide variety of areas. The programme of events under Brazil’s BRICS Presidency is being successfully implemented. The summit will crown this work and map out a plan for the future. We will take over BRICS Presidency from Brazil. For us as a country of the next Presidency, next year will be largely a year of BRICS in terms of foreign policy priorities.
Important bilateral meetings will take place on the sidelines of the summit. The programme includes a business component: it is important for us to use every opportunity for developing trade and economic cooperation with our BRICS partners. We will carry out bilateral projects in addition to those involving all BRICS members. A summit in Brasilia is a wonderful opportunity to discuss all these issues.