Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with Kommersant, March 5, 2020
Question: What are your projections for the upcoming NPT Review Conference? Is there any chance of adopting a joint document? Has tension eased around the planned WMD-free zone in the Middle East? And is there anything the nuclear powers have to say on Article 6 of the Treaty?
Sergey Ryabkov: We attach great importance to the upcoming Review Conference, not only because it is held every five years, but also because the situation is extremely complicated. There are difficulties on all tracks to be reviewed in New York.
We welcome the interest from a number of countries and the president-designate of this conference, Argentinean Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, in focusing on the unifying agenda. There is a whole range of issues, such as the peaceful use of atomic energy viewed from various perspectives, which should enable a constructive discussion.
As for arms control and nuclear disarmament, as well as non-proliferation issues, I expect unavoidable sharp clashes and debates. Under the circumstances, the chances of adopting a substantive final document are probably not very high.
Yet, the Russian delegation, as always, intends to work for a positive result. Let me recall that during the last such conference, we were one step away from approving the final document. The Russian Federation then reaffirmed its readiness to join the consensus, but that did not work out due to well-known circumstances, primarily the WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
This year, the situation is different because of the conference on that zone held in New York in November 2019. We understand the position of the United States and Israel, which is not a party to the NPT; we do not share it, but we believe that the new background, the new situation will at least help us avoid exacerbating the atmosphere at the conference over the absence of any progress on the MENWFZ.
As for nuclear disarmament, let us look at it in retrospect. It was hard to imagine even a couple of decades ago what Russia and the US have achieved in this area by now. It is clear that for a number of NPT parties, this progress is insufficient, but we do have something to show, especially given that the Russian Federation has lately proposed several important initiatives specifically aimed to stabilise the process, to ensure its further development and to prevent a complete collapse of the system of agreements. Unfortunately, this may be a likely outcome of Washington’s current reckless policy of imposing its own approaches and priorities in this sphere.
Question: Which initiatives are you talking about? Is it the proposal to extend the New START Treaty?
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes, this is one of our main initiatives in this area; it is a way to gain time to keep progress going in controlling nuclear-missile weapons and their further reduction to the extent possible.
Question: Can the permanent members of the UN Security Council adopt a joint statement in time for the NPT Review Conference on the inadmissibility of a nuclear war, similar to the Gorbachev-Reagan statement, if the United States refuses to respond to Russia’s proposal for doing this within the bilateral framework?
Sergey Ryabkov: We are working on this. We have received concrete proposals when it comes to the wording of a statement we issued in the bilateral format some time ago. It is difficult to say if we can coordinate a text that will be acceptable to all the five countries. Regrettably, it appears that some countries would like to water down this formula. In our opinion, the principle of the inadmissibility of a nuclear war and the impossibility of achieving victory in it must be set out clearly and unambiguously and that it should be reinforced by adding that modern technology in this sphere makes such a war even more dangerous than ever before.
Unfortunately, our colleagues in Washington do not appear to accept this approach. Rather to the contrary. Moreover, they seem to accept the possibility of scenarios under which they can emerge victorious in a potential exchange of nuclear strikes. We reject this as a matter of principle. Neither do we accept this politically-wise, because this approach contradicts all of the previous Moscow-Washington agreements in this sphere, and in military terms this implies military planning and exercises designed to help the US military acquire the skills for “defeating Russia” in a situation when the nuclear button has been pressed.
We believe that this is an irresponsible formula and a dangerous position. We have said so behind closed doors and openly, urging our American colleagues to take a more realistic view on the outcome of this worst of all possible scenarios.
Question: As far as can I see, Russia would like the five UN Security Council permanent members to adopt this statement before the NPT Review Conference?
Sergey Ryabkov: No, we believe that it can also be made public during the conference. If somebody needs more time to finalise their approach, and there is little lime left before the start of the conference on April 27, we would be ready to issue the statement during the conference. However, signalling our intention before it would be better.
Question: Since we are talking about the joint steps that can be possibly taken by the five countries, I would like to say that the United States has accepted Moscow’s proposal for the summit of UNSC permanent members. US President Donald Trump believes that the five leaders should discuss primarily arms control issues. Didn’t Moscow have a broader agenda in mind?
Sergey Ryabkov: Indeed, we proceed from the assumption that the US side has agreed to hold a meeting with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. We do not believe that any other permanent member would protest against this idea, the more so that France and China have publicly announced their support for it.
As for the agenda, the five countries will have to do some serious preliminary work. The initial proposal made by President of the Russian Federation who initiated the idea in the first place, provided for holding discussions on a very broad range of matters. Arms control issues, even though they are extremely important, cannot overshadow everything else.
You can see the numerous regional conflicts raging around the world. We are facing numerous new challenges, including some that we could not even imagine in the past. Therefore, we will try to coordinate an agenda that would enable the five leaders to conduct a clear and in-depth discussion on the top priorities. Arms control, although a top priority issue, is not more important than the other top priorities.
Question: You mentioned the New START Treaty. This treaty will expire less than a year from now. Head of the Pentagon, Mark Esper, recently came up with three conditions for extending it: the treaty should cover Russia’s new strategic weapons, Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons should be made part of the treaty, and China should be a party to the treaty. How realistic is that?
Sergey Ryabkov: If the US administration tells us that the treaty can only be extended if these three conditions are met, it’s a non-starter. This is simply impossible. Changing the wording of the treaty the way you just mentioned is not feasible.
The New START Treaty is drafted differently. Its raison d’etre is to limit the weapons systems which are listed in it. To cover other systems would require drafting a whole new treaty. That is, it would essentially involve rewriting the treaty in full and then ratifying it. Clearly, such a complex, multifaceted and controversial goal cannot be achieved even physically or technically within the time remaining before the treaty expires.
Therefore, we propose leaving everything as is for the New START Treaty and simply extending it. The entire international community needs it, not just Russia and the United States (American officials also mentioned that the treaty has important aspects for the United States). We need to extend the time frame, the period during which the document remains valid, thus providing a predictable and understandable course of action in this area and gaining time to continue the discussion about what to do next.
In particular, we could address some of our concerns, as Russia is concerned about many things going on in US military policy and planning. This, of course, includes the ongoing development of a global missile defence system by the United States, its plans to develop strike capability from outer space, and much more. Clearly, the Americans have questions about what we are doing. We are ready and willing to conduct a meaningful discussion on each issue, not just exchange mutual reproaches and accusations, or try to impose unilateral decisions on other parties as is often the case with the United States.
Question: The American media are increasingly publishing conjecture as to what the United States is set to lose if New START is not renewed (primarily, it’s about transparency and predictability). What will Russia lose? Will it be able to compensate for these losses through national technical control means?
Sergey Ryabkov: We, including the President, have repeatedly stated that Russia’s security is reliably ensured for decades to come. The United States and its NATO allies are aware of that. But the effectiveness of ensuring national security will only benefit from efficient and working mechanisms in the sphere of arms control. The amounts spent on this work can be streamlined, if we choose to use this language. In political and diplomatic terms, predictability and understanding of what we can expect from our opponents in terms of their capabilities will sharply decrease in the absence of the treaty. Of course, what the US analysts point out as positive aspects of the New START Treaty – transparency and predictability – is important for us as well. Truth be told, a treaty built on parity and a balance of interests will do the same for us.
Even without the treaty, we will work to strengthen security and address issues, including political and diplomatic issues, through other means. As I mentioned earlier, it will be harder to do without it.
The choice is essentially the same for Moscow and Washington with regard to how we will deal with arms control in the future.
We made our choice with regard to New START. We are ready to extend the treaty without preconditions and believe that this would be the best solution for everyone, including the United States.
Question: Has any other country, in addition to France, responded to Vladimir Putin’s proposal to impose a moratorium on deploying medium- and shorter-range missiles? Have substantive consultations with France, which has shown a willingness to discuss this matter, begun?
Sergey Ryabkov: The position of the NATO countries, including France, is based on the false premise that by creating and deploying the 9M729 missile, Russia has violated the now defunct INF Treaty. This is a dead-end position. We are convinced that it is flawed from the point of view of the interests of the NATO countries themselves, because even in the absence of the INF Treaty we are willing to work to stabilise the situation, whereas they are working to escalate military tensions and build up their potential, supposedly to provide a military-technical response to this Russian missile.
Instead of discussing the parameters of counter moratoria, as Vladimir Putin suggested back in September 2019 in his messages to NATO countries’ leaders, they are conveying to us their determination to take steps to “level out” the Russian threat. Our takeaway from this is that the United States and NATO need medium-range missile capabilities to meet their challenges in different parts of the world. It is likely that the United States is primarily focused on the Asia-Pacific region, but some of our opponents in Europe are not against testing our strength. It’s up to them.
France has adopted an open approach and expressed its willingness to discuss this subject, but we believe NATO’s general policy remains dominant. By and large, it is forming a security environment and the security architecture elements that NATO is seeking to build in the most convenient way for itself. This has absolutely nothing to do with Russian politics. This is yet another manifestation of geopolitical preferences, which have long been put at the forefront of their Russian policy by Washington and other NATO capitals. Of course, we have noted the French nuance for ourselves, but so far we don’t see the alliance’s willingness to take the necessary step and at least start a practical dialogue, using, among other things, the ideas put forward by the French president.
Question: And what verification measures can Russia apply to remove the Western countries’ concern over its developments, specifically the above mentioned 9М729? You call NATO’s position with respect to this missile dead-end and flawed, but what is Moscow prepared to do to relieve the Western countries’ concerns?
Sergey Ryabkov: During our bilateral contacts with our American colleagues in recent months, before Washington declared the start of its formal withdrawal from the treaty, we repeatedly proposed working out, at the negotiation table, the verification process and a transparency model that would satisfy the US in terms of its understanding what the 9М729 missile is and why it is not classified as a medium-range system. At the same time, we also said then that transparency should be reciprocal and the Americans could, in our opinion, give us a chance to alleviate some of our concerns related to their violations of the INF treaty.
However, that Russian package proposal was rejected, in a peremptory and rather firm way, and now, with the passage of time, it is clear why. The Americans just could not agree to transparency with respect to their weapons because in this case we would have seen and shown to everybody that the United States was actually in breach of the treaty. I am referring mainly to the Мk-41 universal vertical launcher used allegedly for purely anti-missile purposes, but it can also be used to launch intermediate-range cruise missiles, which was demonstrated 16 days after the invalidation of the treaty. If the United States had shown us the Мk-41 launcher when the treaty was still in effect, we would have caught them red-handed in violating the treaty, which of course they wanted to avoid.
At the same time, they were also not prepared to agree to our proposal on transparency because in this case they would see for themselves that Russia did not commit any violations and this would have upset their plans completely. And they needed to withdraw from the treaty, as finally happened, in order to quickly build up their own arsenal to deploy it in different parts of the world.
We have not formally rescinded our transparency and verification proposals, they are still on the table, but it is clear that now it would be a mistake to unilaterally spell out what we mean, when NATO has declared that they are preparing a military-technical response and will develop relevant systems and deploy them both to ward off the 9М729 quasi-threat and to build up their own potential. If one day we see signs that NATO is ready to discuss our proposals, that the United States understands our logic and wants to return to a detailed discussion of this subject, then we will be happy to cooperate. We will present our position. But either way, it will be done in the course of negotiations or consultations behind closed doors and not through the exchange of public statements.
Question: US media reported that just over a year ago your then-counterpart from the State Department, Andrea Thompson, suggested Russia took certain 25 steps to advance transparency and Russia allegedly refused.
Sergey Ryabkov: The US offered a framework on how Russia “must” destroy the 9М729 missile and all related equipment, and set out the parameters the United States could use to verify this, and verify regularly and intrusively. In fact, it looked like an ultimatum. There was no talk about mutual transparency or even Russia’s unilateral transparency. It was us, and not them, who suggested reciprocal transparency, which was rejected.
Question: The Pentagon announced its plans to test the SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptor by the end of the year. Do these plans raise Russia’s concerns, considering that earlier the US authorities said that their BMD system was only aimed against Iran and North Korea, which had no similar missiles?
Sergey Ryabkov: We are following with concern the way the United States continues to steadily, actively and intensively improve its BMD capacities, using huge funding and serious technological resources. In fact, Washington stopped saying that its system is designed to respond to limited missile threats from a small group of countries a long time ago.
Question: North Korea and Iran?
Sergey Ryabkov: Including them, yes. Nobody has been saying this for a long time. This issue is becoming more about countering rivals with equal potential, if we use Washington’s terminology, which means Beijing and Moscow. The upcoming tests of SM-3 Block IIA’s latest modification using targets equivalent to intercontinental ballistic missiles are consistent with this objective. Only a handful of countries have such missiles. This can only mean one thing: the United States has started to develop a system that is to be used against us and to build up a potential that can devalue the Russian means of nuclear deterrence.
I should note straightaway here that military buildup measures of recent years – our leadership has spoken about them many times – can reliably ensure this deterrence potential in the conditions of the further development of the US BMD system. But in fact what we have here is a classic scheme of escalating tensions and military standoff according to the logic of arms buildup. I don’t want to say an arms race, but it is a buildup of arms and their technical capabilities.
We still hope that it will be possible to deter the Americans from taking rash steps. However, by and large, there are all the prerequisites for destroying the nuclear arms control system. We believe this contradicts the intention, repeatedly stated by Washington, to limit defence spending and find ways to come to agreement and get along with Moscow, if we are to use the US phrasing.
Question: Will Russia respond?
Sergey Ryabkov: Of course, we will find a military-technical response. There is no doubt about that. The political and diplomatic answer has already been formulated, and we will not slacken efforts to promote our logic, our vision of why military buildup, including the development of the US BMD system, is a deeply destabilising step and a factor that affects global stability.
Question: The United States held a headquarters exercise recently, and its participants launched a simulated nuclear strike against Russia, which had supposedly attacked first under the escalate-to-deescalate concept. What is the Russian side doing to convince Washington that the Russian Armed Forces do not adhere to this concept?
Sergey Ryabkov: We are currently witnessing an interesting phenomenon in US foreign and domestic policy. First, high-ranking officials invent certain tall stories and start actively discussing them. Eventually they start believing their own tales. After they come to believe in these fake concepts, all this becomes an axiom not subject to critical analysis. And on this shaky, precarious and largely false foundation, they proceed to create entire structures and buildings from decisions, various practical policy aspects, etc. Claims about Russia’s meddling in the US election campaign are a classic example.
Question: Or what Russia is allegedly doing under its Gerasimov Doctrine on conducting a war by non-military means.
Sergey Ryabkov: This is also manifested in military development, when they claim that Russia uses the escalate-to-deescalate concept. We have repeatedly discussed this with our US colleagues. They cannot provide any specific evidence proving such insinuations apart from the fact that diagrams showing Moscow’s actions under such doctrines are hanging on the walls of their offices. We can draw up just about anything and hang this stuff on the wall, but it would not mean that we have acquired knowledge or an understanding of real-life developments.
Question: But NATO is not guided by hypothetical considerations alone. For example, they noted the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander-M short-range missile systems in the Kaliningrad Region and are speculating that Russia does not rule out a limited nuclear strike during some unsuccessful hypothetical conflict in the Baltics.
Sergey Ryabkov: Since the early 1990s, the Russian Federation has been keeping its tactical nuclear warheads at centralised storage facilities. Our doctrinal approach towards this matter has not deviated by a millimetre or an inch, compared to the military doctrine’s 2010 and 2014 versions.
A focus on non-nuclear deterrence is a new aspect of our current doctrine.
We don’t believe that the limited use of nuclear weapons and a conflict’s subsequent cessation are possible. On the contrary, the use of any amount of nuclear weapons, regardless of their yield, opens the gateway to hell. It is hard to assess and simulate any further scenario. In any event, it would be irresponsible to say the least to hope that the conflict would peter out after such actions, and that one of the parties that used these weapons would win.
We see no reasons why the United States is ascribing such calculations or expectations to us. The US is unable to explain to us what particularly they don’t like in our doctrine. At the same time, we are witnessing certain alarming trends: the US arsenal is acquiring highly accurate low-yield munitions, Washington’s doctrine has become more vague and includes allusions to certain vitally important interests when nuclear weapons can be used to defend, without any specification or definition, etc.
The US realises that all this cannot but cause concern in Russia and other countries worldwide. But it deliberately tries to preserve a vague and equivocal context and a grey zone in this field because it believes that an incoherent approach towards these extremely serious matters serves as a certain deterrent per se. In our opinion, it is wrong to pose the issue this way, and we are ready to continue in-depth discussion of military doctrine issues, including their nuclear aspects, with the United States, so that the US eventually realises how wrong it is.