Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with the Kommersant newspaper, published on October 22, 2020
Question: After the Russian Foreign Ministry statement on October 20, US high-level officials started talking about the parties being very close to a deal. Is that how you see the situation?
Sergey Ryabkov: It goes without saying that we carefully followed all the signals from Washington at different levels concerning the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and continuing our dialogue on arms control. It is a positive sign that our American colleagues are focusing on achieving progress and searching for solutions to the existing problems. At the same time, it appears to us that they are getting ahead of themselves and largely second-guessing what may be happening next. At this stage, it is not possible to say that we are on the verge of an agreement and that this agreement – or even a general political understanding of whether the New Start Treaty will be extended and what may be happening in this area in general – is within our grasp.
Question: So there has been no breakthrough yet?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have to state that the degree of our differences is rather significant, including on some fundamental aspects. Therefore, I personally do not see reasons for strong optimism. The Foreign Ministry statement of October 20 speaks for itself. It registers our readiness to extend the New START Treaty for one year. At a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin absolutely clearly and definitively spoke in favour of this decision. The Foreign Ministry statement also highlighted the possibility of freezing nuclear warheads – provided that there are no additional demands on behalf of the United States.
Question: Do you mean additional verification demands regarding possible arsenal freeze agreements?
Sergey Ryabkov: Specifically, the verification, but not only that. I would like to note that this subject has been discussed for quite a long time in the course of the contacts that interagency delegations of both countries have held behind closed doors during the past few months. We repeatedly explained to the Americans, and continue to do so today, including during the last few days, that verification is a derivative of an agreement itself. As long as we do not know its scope and parameters, we will not be able to say what kind of verification measures are possible at all and whether they are possible in principle in a number of cases. Verification issues are extremely complicated, and we just cannot put the cart before the horse.
It should also be noted that we have displayed flexibility on two occasions during the last few days or so: first at the start, when President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia was ready to extend the treaty by another year, and then on October 20 by agreeing to freeze [nuclear] charges.
Now it is America’s turn to meet us halfway, including – and we insist on this – by accepting our demand to reach this agreement without any additional linkages or make-weights, or any aggravating elements that might lead the whole thing to an impasse.
By buying time and extending the New START Treaty, we will get an opportunity (and President Putin has also declared this) to continue the discussion of the entire range of related matters. These include a number of points that, let us put it this way, are not quite Washington-friendly. Some issues from this category are simply abrasive for the United States. Among other things, I am referring to missile defence and a number of other matters.
During our contacts with the Americans, we, in fact, suggest following what preceded the signing of the New START Treaty. At first, the general framework should be outlined, identifying the range of matters that we will tackle in an inclusive manner. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement of October 20 points to this directly. In fact, it ends by pointing to the need to act precisely in this way. It also contains a reminder that we have got no reply to our official note of October 16. This is the right framework, as we see it. We communicated these proposals to the Americans in early October, but there is no coherent reply to them up till now. We are taking it easy because we understand that our arms control concept for the future is substantially different from its US counterpart. So, in this case it is simply necessary to get additional time in order to continue focused and concerted efforts on these matters. Nothing other than this will work in the current situation. Coming to an agreement the way the Americans suggest (that is, by accepting their demands regardless of what we will control in the future) is the wrong approach. It distorts the arms control methodology.
Question: Are you planning contacts with the Americans any time soon? The State Department said on October 20 that they were ready to hold this meeting immediately.
Sergey Ryabkov: If the United States confirms its readiness to accept our approach as it has been outlined in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement of October 20, then we will immediately redeploy to where it is convenient for the US and will work on giving shape to this understanding. In the opposite case, if they continue adding, as they do now, some or other priorities of their own to the list of issues, priorities that do not suit us, we see this kind of meeting as hardly expedient.
Question: The American media write, quoting sources, that speaking of verification, the US authorities expect Russia to declare its tactical arsenal and install monitoring in places of nuclear weapons manufacturing. Do I understand it correctly that Russia is not ready for this now?
Sergey Ryabkov: Things like perimeter control are part of some distant foggy past. They are from a completely different era. There is no reason to restore anything like that. I don’t see any reason to return to this topic in the foreseeable future, especially with the current level of relations between the two countries, which is quite close to freezing.
Even in the past, this kind of ideas sounded questionable. Nothing of the kind has been practiced in recent years and even decades. We see no reason to revive this discussion.
With regard to US non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, we have insisted and will continue to insist that, as a first step, the United States should withdraw the respective weapons from the territories of its European allies and remove the infrastructure that enables fast redeployment of these weapons in Europe. This, perhaps, will significantly expand the chances to work out a stronger European security agenda.
By the way, we remind the Americans that the post-INF Treaty agenda still needs to be handled. We have noted some alarming signals in this connection in recent days.
Question: The head of the Pentagon, Mark Esper, has admitted that the United States would deploy intermediate or shorter-range nuclear weapons not only in Asia, but also in Europe.
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes, the idea of deploying such systems in Europe, and not just in Asia, has begun to surface again. This complicates the overall picture. And of course, even irrespective of what will happen with the New START treaty, we will have to deal with it. This will take political will, and we are calling on our American colleagues to use it.
Question: A number of American experts believe that Russia’s recent concessions to the United States on arms control are a pre-election gift to Donald Trump.
Sergey Ryabkov: These statements are nothing but malicious and reality-distorting speculation. We are acting in accordance with the logic of our dialogue with our American colleagues, the way it is developing. The ideas we have recently proposed are simply a product of the natural development of that dialogue. But no matter how the election ends, things won’t be easier in any case.
We call on the US administration to properly assess the flexibility that we have shown and to abandon their unfeasible demands or any excessive expectations. In any case, in the future, we will increase Washington’s “fare for the ride” with regard to certain agreements.
We certainly imply that no current proposal we make would remain on the table indefinitely. Regardless of the course of any future negotiations and discussions, we can always take a fresh look at any part of our position and adjust it depending on our own interests. Right now, Washington has a unique opportunity to reach an agreement on the specific terms we have just offered. But this only and exclusively applies to the deal to extend New START and freeze nuclear warheads – without any attachments to it, without any additional appendages or demands on Russia.
Rejecting this condition will immediately destroy the possibility of reaching the agreement.
Let me emphasise that the New START extension per se is not that critical from our point of view. The Russian President has clearly and unambiguously explained to the world the reasons why we believe that our security can still be reliably ensured even if our colleagues in Washington decide against extending the New START Treaty.
Question: You said yourself that Russian-US relations are down to zero and there is no trust. How can a freeze on warheads work in this situation unless it is verified? Someone in the US Congress will take the floor the very next day and say that Russia is violating the agreement.
Sergey Ryabkov: We will hear the same thing anyway, even if we accept the most thorough, comprehensive verification process. We hear that every day as it is. The problem is not whether they want to achieve a specific, material result. This is about pursuing an anti-Russia course and finding opportunities to put pressure us.
Look at what is happening to Moscow’s proposals to come to terms on security in the area of information and communications technologies. Instead of a substantive reply, we hear nothing but abuse, unseemly conjecture coming from Washington, including from high-ranking officials. The same would happen with this.
So if we were to go that far we would still not get any actual result and would only face another stream of accusations.
But I would like to stress once again, the problem lies elsewhere. The problem is that a building cannot be built starting with the roof. First of all, you must lay the foundation and understand the design, how many floors, rooms and windows the building will have. Only then can you go on to covering the roof for weather protection.
Question: Let’s go back to the issue of Russia declaring its tactical arsenal. The lack of transparency in this area allows the US to pass off its figures as the only true ones. The other day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Ambassador Marshall Billingslea declared that the New START Treaty covered 92 percent of the US strategic arsenal and only 44 percent of Russia’s, thus implying that the bulk of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is composed of tactical arms. Officially, Russia cannot say anything to counter this.
Sergey Ryabkov: Why do you think so? I can give you any figure. Can’t you understand that it is the same thing as saying the outside temperature is 6 degrees, rather than 4 degrees? Someone will certainly find it interesting to check the figures, but others will take it at face value.
We are not interested in the figures they give. The New START Treaty, as it is, is what was signed: it is distinguished by absolute parity and balance. The Russian systems that are limited by the treaty were of interest to the United States at the time of signing. Now (I am not trying to speak for US experts), we are getting signals that they are not indifferent to what is happening with these systems.
As far as other systems are concerned, systems that they can discuss and show an interest in, the problem is (and Russia’s leader mentioned this at the Valdai Forum) that the United States has unilaterally withdrawn from the ABM Treaty.
We will continue to insist on the undeniable interconnection between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, no matter how it upsets the Americans, who do not want to hear it. This is our fundamental and pivotal understanding of what strategic stability is based on.
If some systems cannot be limited via arms control, this means that some compensatory measures will be adopted to achieve a balance at a different level. Of course, this is a difficult and costly alternative, but either way, we will not let anyone drag us into an arms race. This would be worse than arms control. Therefore, we should address all factors influencing strategic stability as a whole. The Foreign Ministry’s October 20 statement said this in a clear and easy-to-understand way.
Question: What attracted my attention in this statement was the word “bilateral,” bilateral talks on the future of arms control. Earlier, you seemed to say that the next treaty should be multilateral.
Sergey Ryabkov: We did not say that the next negotiating cycle should be multilateral. We said that we had come close to the line where further efforts in this sphere should be multilateral in nature. In this context, we were saying – and continue to say – that inviting other countries to join the negotiating process should be based on their sovereign choice. We have interests and priorities of our own in this area. We know how important it is for the United States to collaborate with the UK and France in this area; accordingly, the priority for us is to have these two countries join the process. As far as China’s accession is concerned, Vladimir Putin has covered this matter in detail at the Valdai Forum.