Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with Interfax news agency, December 26, 2019
Question: Mr Ryabkov, this not the first time the year is coming to an end with the United States imposing sanctions on Russia, and a new sanctions bill “from hell” is around the corner. Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream are now under sanctions. We already said that we would respond. Is there an understanding of what measures we are talking about? Will they be symmetrical in that they affect US businesses?
Sergey Ryabkov: No one is forcing us in any way to respond symmetrically. As for taking economic measures to respond to the illegal US sanctions, these measures have been taken a long time ago, they are in force, and relate to imports of specific US goods. We can debate whether these measures produce any meaningful impact considering the size of the US economy and its foreign trade, but it is a matter of finding sectors where we can live without US imports without hurting the domestic market or consumers. There are those who were affected by these measures in the US. I mean the manufacturers of these goods. As for the presence of US investors in Russia, companies working on projects, including in the real economy, various firms who work with Russian partners or are about to establish these ties, of course, I do not expect them to face any pressure or restrictions, since this would be at odds with the course set by our country’s leaders to draw in foreign investment and promote normal relations with all our partners who are interested in working with us.
We will find a way to respond, and it may consist of adding new names on the list of persons who are banned entry to Russia. It is not uncommon for the United States to publish the lists of people facing travel restrictions, but this is not our approach. However, people who played the most active role in promoting this specific decision in the US administration alongside other sanctions initiatives, and there are quite a few people like this, since over a dozen drafts to this effect are circulating in Congress, these people can rest assured that they will not be able to travel in our country as any US citizen would consider normal and natural. They will not be able to cross the border into Russia, and will probably only learn that they are designated when applying for a visa. This is simply one of the ways this can be done.
We will go beyond statements, as the country’s leadership has said. There is no hurry though, since this is not a race to have it done or announced by a specific date. Unfortunately, we continue to witness the same cycles when Russian legal entities and individuals face various restrictions on totally far-fetched and illegal pretexts. It cannot be ruled out that they will continue next year. But we will respond in a measured manner without hurting ourselves, so that the other side knows that this will not be left without a response.
Question: Do our latest statements on our willingness to extend the New START treaty without preconditions mean that we have set aside our concerns that some delivery vehicles are not being counted in the total?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have never regarded the need to resolve this problem as a precondition for extending the treaty. We have always said that we have a serious concern regarding how the United States was fulfilling its commitments as they artificially removed a substantial number of strategic delivery vehicles from the count. This problem has to be resolved. We said that this issue had to be addressed even before we started to hope – and we still hope – that the treaty would be extended. But we did not link the extension of the treaty to the resolution of this issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke recently quite explicitly in favour of extending the treaty. The reason for why we are urging the Americans to address this issue as soon as possible is that we are running out of time and the President has also said this on more than one occasion. If we keep dragging our feet on this we might end up under intense time pressure. We would not like to be forced to bring the attention of the Trump administration to this matter as the [presidential] election campaign reaches its peak. That’s why President Putin has stated this twice publically.
We have used diplomatic channels to officially approach the Americans with a proposal that we promptly start the discussion to extend the treaty in keeping with the article of the treaty that provides for this option. However, we have not set aside our concerns about the artificial removal of US delivery vehicles from the count; we will keep working on this issue. Unfortunately, we do not see any attempts to meet us halfway but this does not mean that the problem will just disappear, not at all, as it is something very important. We see yet again that the United States tends to deliver on its international commitments in a selective way. They pull out of some treaties and agreements for a certain reason and in other cases they act selectively. At the same time, they dare preaching to others, accusing them of failure to deliver in full on their obligations. I remember the situation with the INF Treaty. For years, the Americans openly violated the treaty, and we talked to them about this, but we did not use this as a pretext for pulling out of the treaty.
When they wanted to get rid of the constraints this treaty imposed on them they immediately used a missile that had never been tested for the capabilities that are banned under the treaty, as a pretext. At the same time, 16 days after the termination of the INF Treaty, the Americans tested a [land-based] cruise missile, which was fired from an MK-1 launcher. By that time the MK-1 had already been deployed in Romania for several years. We have nothing to add – they themselves have proved to the world that we were right about this.
As for the other aspects of this matter, target missiles have been tested recently. They are ballistic missiles, not cruise missiles, and are enabled by technology – a rocket stage, to be exact – which was earlier used to launch target missiles. Again we were proved right and we received proof, direct proof of what we had been talking about for many years. It is another matter that it is of no practical significance for the fulfillment of the treaty, because the treat doesn’t exist. We would not like the same to happen to the New START treaty.
Next year, the Bilateral Consultative Commission under the treaty will hold two regular sessions. There might be contact between the ministries on strategic stability. In addition to these sessions, we will keep bringing up this issue as persistently, directly and with a focus on detail as we have been doing this until now, seeking a reasonable reaction from the United States, rather than looking at it as it slips into word juggling that only covers up an unwillingness to deliver on the treaty in full and honour the letter – and not only the spirit – of the treaty. This was about the ability of the United States to honour its obligations under the treaties. Unfortunately, we face a new reality, meaning that those who make decisions in the United States to join certain international agreements are guided by the following logic: “We are allowed to do whatever we want and nobody can do anything about it.” This is the new image of the United States and we will explain this situation to other members of the international community to alert them to the damage that Washington’s policy is inflicting on the international security architecture.
Question: You said we sent them a proposal via official channels. Have they replied?
Sergey Ryabkov: No, they haven’t.
Question: Is it correct that an extended New START would not provide for any further reductions in strategic offensive arms and would be limited to maintaining the strategic arms control regime, and that in this sense the proposals by the United States on mutually acceptable solutions regarding transparency and rules of conduct relating to strategic offensive arms are in sync with Russia’s position and can provide a foundation for extending the existing treaty?
Sergey Ryabkov: There are several aspects to this. First, it is true that we have been saying for many years that further steps could be made on strategic offensive nuclear arms limitation and reduction. These steps can only be made after taking into consideration all the factors affecting strategic stability.
There are quite a few factors of this kind. Apart from the deployment of weapons in outer space and the continuing roll-out of the US global missile shield with its obvious anti-Russia bias, these factors include the designation by the United States and NATO of cyberspace as a new operational domain, which means that offensive and other operations are now possible in this environment. Another factor is the continuing improvement of conventional weapons, including long-range and high-precision weapons, which blurs the line between nuclear and conventional arsenals of long-range weapons of this kind. The list of these factors goes on.
We believe that further reductions in strategic offensive arms would be impossible without drawing the attention all these aspects deserve and getting to their substance. In addition, we have been saying for several years now that after the conclusion of the New START treaty and considering that Russia and the US comply with its provisions, we have reached a threshold beyond which this topic must be addressed in a multilateral setting, or at least taking into consideration the capabilities of other nuclear powers in the context of ongoing developments. For Russia, taking into consideration the capabilities of Great Britain and France is especially important, since they are the closest allies of the United States, NATO members and countries whose military capabilities are deeply integrated into the NATO framework.
As for the New START, it provides for a multi-layered verification mechanism that has been operating successfully. It includes inspections, demonstrations, information exchanges and so forth. Losing this mechanism with the expiration of the treaty would be a serious lapse, a grave mistake, and a blow to international security and global stability.
The future of the New START remains an open question. In order to have a meaningful discussion on this subject we need to understand what our colleagues on the other side are ready and are not ready to undertake.
Question: Yes, of course.
Sergey Ryabkov: We hope the time we can save by extending the treaty for just a few years, and in any case for not more than five years, as the treaty stipulates, will enable us to decide what to do with arms control. Nothing can be ruled out. What you mentioned in terms of specifying the approach of the US is real. But this has been entirely speculative and not sufficiently specified.
We have not received any documents from the United States, and by and large there has been no meaningful professional discussion, especially in an inter-agency setting with experts from the government bodies involved in these issues. We hope these efforts resume in 2020 after a long pause. This is when we will look into this.
Russia maintains open and receptive to proposals. There is no dogma for us when dealing with these questions, and what I mentioned earlier is underpinned by the logic of events and naturally follows from the processes unfolding around the world regardless of nuclear arms control. However, if the treaty is discarded and becomes the last bilateral instrument in this sphere and we no longer have anything like this in our relations with the US, it would mean that the two sides can proceed as they see fit. Considering the technology currently used by the military, this unrestricted freedom would be extremely risky and would definitely do nothing to strengthen security, including the security of the United States following any irresponsible actions like this.
Question: What is the approximate timeframe for resuming these discussions? Who are you dealing with?
Sergey Ryabkov: Christopher Ford. He is Assistant Secretary of State. After Andrea Thompson’s departure Christopher Ford took over her duties.
Question: When are consultations expected to take place?
Sergey Ryabkov: Quite soon. We have taken note of the statements coming from the State Department whereby the US invited Russia to hold these consultations. It is true that discussions are underway to arrange this inter-agency meeting in the coming weeks, but it remains to be seen who will be hosting whom. We invited the Americans to hold this meeting on multiple occasions last year in order to keep the process, which was revived in July last year in Geneva, going. After pointing out to the US several times that we need to have a meeting, and having received no response, we finally said: fine, in this case we will wait until you are ready and come up with something. So now the US is finally ready, and has invited us to have a dialogue. We accept this invitation. We are now agreeing on the dates. It is not our intention to cause any delay in carrying out this arrangement, especially since it has almost been reached.
Question: Will this meeting take place in a third country?
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes. It will not be in Russia or in the United States.
Question: US President Donald Trump has been invited to Moscow for Victory Day celebrations on May 9. Is his possible visit connected to the possibility of President Putin attending the 2020 G7 summit if President Trump as the head of the summit’s host country invites him? Does Russia expect to receive such an invitation from the US President?
Sergey Ryabkov: There is no, nor can there be any connection between these events, and it would be strange if we regarded them in this context. As for the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Victory, it would be correct from any point of view if the president of a country that was a member of the anti-Hitler coalition and our WWII ally attended the celebrations to be held in Russia.
The G7 and the US presidency of the group is a completely separate matter. We have not made any suggestions regarding this to the Americans or received any such signal from them. By and large, we have no issue with what can happen in this connection. If we receive such a signal from the Americans at some stage, we will consider it. But our president and foreign minister have said more than once that over the past few years the G7 has lost its significance as a global governance tool. All major issues directly pertaining to the global economy, finance and climate, that is, the most topical issues on the international agenda are being discussed at other formats, including the G20 and other associations.
I would like to mention in this connection BRICS, the SCO and the EAEU. We are prioritising multilateral cooperation on these matters at venues that have no connection to the G7. We will continue to monitor G7 meetings held to discuss international topics and issue statements regarding them, but we will not make a great effort here.
Question: Has Donald Trump replied to our invitation to the May 9 celebrations?
Sergey Ryabkov: The US President said that he was considering it. We will wait for an official reply, an official reaction.
Question: And we have not received an official invitation for our president to attend the G7 meeting from President Trump as the head of the host country, have we?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have not received an official invitation, and there is no sense at all in talking about this. It is pointless because, as I said, we have other priorities, and the G7 is not among them.
Question: Could 2020 be the last year for the JCPOA, because what Iran still has to reduce will obviously not be enough until the end of next year? Also, the UN arms embargo on Iran expires in October 2020. As far as I am aware, the Americans urged us to extend that embargo in August. What is our position? Are we ready, under some conditions, to extend the embargo or will we veto it?
Sergey Ryabkov: I will start with the second part. Pacta sunt servanda. Agreements must be implemented. If the participants in the JCPOA, co-sponsors of resolution 2231 have once agreed to restrict the supply of certain categories of weapons and military equipment to Iran, weapons that are in the relevant seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms – the supplies of the said products to Iran are currently limited. However, there is another side to the so-called arms embargo. I am referring to the ban on arms exports from Iran. Both will expire next year by virtue of the agreements on the duration of this regime. There can be no question of extending it. We cannot always pander to our American colleagues. Or else they might want us to do something else the next time around. What they are doing in foreign policy is actually over the top. I take it that they will continue what they call the maximum pressure policy with regard to Iran. Accordingly, the chances that the JCPOA will be maintained and will be fully implemented in the future, these chances are being reduced by US efforts, with the connivance from our European colleagues. This should be admitted. We are alarmed by this. We urge all the parties to show restraint and responsibility. We are talking about this with our Iranian friends. We are telling them that their consistent steps to reduce the volume of their own commitments under the JCPOA are adding additional tension to this whole situation, although we understand their logic, and always say it, too.
There is a whole range of matters that the remaining participants in the JCPOA should now be closely addressing. Among them is the preservation of the Fordo and Arak projects. There are also issues related to the so-called supply chain to Iran, the expansion of the scope of operations, the INSTEX mechanism and making it available to third countries outside the European Union. We have repeatedly raised all these questions before our colleagues. We provided details, presentations, and specific proposals. We will continue doing so. Unfortunately, the situation has not yet stabilised, and if anything, the situation around the JCPOA is deteriorating. We support any efforts that can help correct this. This also applies to the French government’s diplomatic initiative and to the efforts that, as we understand, the Japanese government is making, too. The Russian Federation fully supports such steps. However, the United States plays the key role and bears primary responsibility for the potential collapse of this agreement. The United States is the one who initiated what is happening now. They brought the bomb and set fire to its cord. We would rather avoid an explosion, but there is a danger of this happening.
Question: And will this affect oil? Given that we are taking part of our quota. We are covering Iran’s quotas.
Sergey Ryabkov: I am not too competent when it comes to how the hydrocarbon market works today. The psychological impact is obvious indeed. But we have not seen any spasmodic fluctuations in prices in recent years, regardless of what is happening on the markets. I think everyone would agree that we have a fairly efficient OPEC+ arrangement. There are ongoing contacts between professionals and a relative balance of supply and demand is maintained on the world hydrocarbon markets to prevent such fluctuations, sudden spikes or landslides that would benefit no one's interests – neither suppliers nor importers. This goal is now being achieved far more effectively than before. And I must say that Iran has actually cut its oil exports significantly, but we remember that when their exports were at its peak, a few years after the JCPOA was put in place, the price and quotas for crude were about the same as now. I have no expectations or predictions here. I am just saying that I do not quite picture an iron-clad direct and unconditional correlation between various events and the oil market situation.