Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn magazine published on August 7, 2017
Question: Mr Ryabkov, you are currently one of the newsmakers given the huge interest in Russian-American relations. The anti-Russian law, adopted by the US Congress and signed by President Trump, has been actively discussed. Does the signing of this law mean the beginning of a long period when the United States turns towards a political and economic confrontation with our country, or is it a document that limits President Trump’s options and is a factor in the internal political struggle in the US?
Sergey Ryabkov: It is both. What President Donald Trump said as he signed the law about the attempts by both chambers of the Congress to encroach on his constitutional powers speaks for itself.
But as for the confrontation between our countries, I would try to avoid generalising. I hope that it will not run to a confrontation. We will strive to find ways to minimise the damage done by the law, if not to completely neutralise its destructive effect.
However, the problem is that without a new law approved by both chambers of the Congress which would eliminate all their blunders in the Russian-US relations, it will be very hard to minimise the damage and it will require much effort. These are the facts. I am speaking about the US Congress actions that will have a long-term effect. It is difficult to predict how long it will take to develop a more or less normal modus operandi with the US. But we will try to do so.
Question: In the current conditions, to what extent is the US President able to pursue his own domestic and foreign policy, and is he ready to do so?
Sergey Ryabkov: I would not say that the Trump administration is following a clearly defined foreign policy agenda. Yes, it is true, the President has an attractive domestic policy programme and it is still popular among many Americans. But as of the concrete implementation of this policy, it is not going as successfully as the White House and the executive branch in general would want.
Speaking about foreign policy, at least its Russia agenda, it has been pretty disappointing so far. I have to acknowledge that in many ways it still continues the worst of Obama’s political heritage. There is even some toughening of the rhetoric on some issues that led to problems between the US and Russia, and also some other countries, during the finishing period of the previous administration.
So, in general, it seems that we are dealing with a “negative succession” in the US policy towards Russia and also some slowdown, as an outside observer might notice, in the implementation of the slogans, ideas and proposals voiced by Washington earlier. We will see.
Of course, Donald Trump is a man of strong will and great experience, so I think the internal political fighting does not bother him much. However, we see that in some cases the administration is leaning towards the sentiments dominating in the Congress. So far, we can say that the Trump administration is at the stage of developing its approaches. But what is regrettable is that its relationship with Russia has failed to pass the endurance test in terms of it resilience against the attacks that have been intensifying over the past few months. As a result, the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate has, in fact, imposed its will on the administration.
Question: We say history knows no ‘what if’s. But what if Hillary Clinton had been elected? I do not think things would have been better with the Democrats.
Sergey Ryabkov: You may be right. There could have been a dramatic deterioration, but we cannot verify this; all we can do is speculate in an abstract and hypothetical way. At the same time, what seems important to me in this situation is that the anti-Russian genie, the spectre of pursuing an external enemy actually popped up fr om the depths of the Democratic Party, whose candidate lost. The resulting effect took the shape of the new law and a general paranoia around Russia in the US, the outbursts of accusations of every mortal sin, absolutely inexplicable in any rational categories, and a true persecution mania that has affected so many politicians and officials in Washington.
It was unprecedented how the Democrats, using Russia as a bogey man, using relations with Russia as an instrument, as a sledgehammer to thwart Trump's presidency, undermined the very possibility of building reasonable relationships with us for years to come. Unfortunately, this is the case. And whoever is the president of the United States, whoever wins the next election, he or she will feel extremely constrained with regard to a more reasonable policy towards Russia under the enacted legislation passed by both chambers of the Congress. This is a big problem they have not had before; in a sense, it is a new reality.
Question: The scale of trade relations between Russia and the US is not large and US sanctions can hardly affect this aspect of our relations. So there is nothing to fear, is there?
Sergey Ryabkov: We have really learned to live with the sanctions. Since 2014, we have seen thirty-something sanction waves, and nearly 400 Russian companies and about 200 individuals are now under sanctions. The new law adds restrictions on purchases of Russian securities, on the amount of investment in Russian projects, and on access to technologies for non-conventional hydrocarbon production. There are other facts besides the political component of this law, which in itself is outrageous. It's simply provocative in many ways. In general, it has added a lot of gloomy colours to the picture. Nevertheless, we believe it is possible to work in these conditions as well.
Small trade turnover is rather bad than good. Had it been bigger, then maybe the interests of American businesses would have been articulated more clearly and the pack of the most notorious ‘rockstar’ politicians who stick to ‘the worse, the better’ principle, would not have been able to dictate their will to the rest and lead the people who, I admit, are not so interested in relations with Russia, but were still dragged into these destructive processes on an artificially raised Russophobe wave.
The economy will be drawing our attention in both good and bad ways. We are stepping up our import substitution efforts, reducing dependence on American payment systems, the US dollar as a payment currency, etc. This is now an urgent necessity.
Question: What other restrictions are stipulated in the law?
Sergey Ryabkov: In addition to what I mentioned, there are further restrictions on Russian financial and credit institutions concerning their access to resources on the international market. There is a whole series of instructions to the Department of the Treasury to dig up, so to speak, the sources of income certain Russian investments in US property came from.
There are requirements, absolutely unprecedented in their political arrogance, limiting the US executive government’s power to pursue an independent foreign policy, leaving them mostly hamstrung in their Russia-related policy. Any US administration, no matter what the president’s name is, now has minimal room for manoeuvre or any independent moves. Eliminating this pile of anti-Russian policies would require a bipartisan and both chambers’ joint resolution in the Congress, which, taking into account the prevailing sentiments, would be extremely difficult to adopt and secure both houses’ approval, as far as I understand. And it is unclear when this could happen in principle.
The new law requires cumbersome reporting on ‘Russian issues’ from the administration. Various aspects of the law’s implementation, and what Russia is doing internationally, will be submitted for hearings in the Congress with varying frequency, and reports will be written. This means the issue will not only become artificially heated, but will be maintained in an inflamed state, so that the group of Russophobes who are calling the tune these days could keep all those capable of critical thinking in the United States on a short leash.
Question: That’s worse than McCarthyism.
Sergey Ryabkov: It would seem so.
Question: There is a sense that the sanctions and the pressure are making Russia stronger.
Sergey Ryabkov: This thinking is correct. It is true that when it comes under pressure, Russia does not make concessions and does not follow the instructions of its opponents.
The question about how our economic mechanisms can adapt to this environment is a very serious one. I can assure you that we are working on it, as is the economic bloc of our government. It is a pretty common thing in our history to draw benefits from troubles. This is in our character. We have walked this path many times and worked out our behaviour model.
At the moment, we need to find ways to protect ourselves from the American total and pervasive voluntarism. The law and its political meaning, in general, strives to intimidate everybody as much as possible, if not to take the entire world hostage. The text consists of deliberately flexible, elastic statements. Apart from direct instructions it contains a large number of opportunities to use different approaches. The US Department of the Treasury has control over decisions: they are free to impose sanctions on someone who cooperates with Russia. The idea is to make business in third countries afraid of dealing with Russia. The policy of our enemies in the US Capitol is to draw as many dividing lines as possible. They believe that Russia can be isolated, if not directly then by trying to strangle businesses in other countries with sanctions.
We understand these games well. It is important for us to create working and efficient economic mechanisms with reduced dependence on the US payment and credit system. I am not an economist, but I firmly believe this as a diplomat. Otherwise, we will always be on the hook, and that’s just what they want.
Question: Many people ask why in the US Congress, most Republicans have launched a war on their Republican president?
Sergey Ryabkov: This particular draft law considers Russia to be the cause of all problems; it says that Russia interfered in the US election, that it mistreats its neighbours, and that it created a situation when we can talk about the collapse of the system which Western countries are used to and in which they exist comfortably.
Pinning labels is not just what propagandists do. It has become the alpha and the omega of the political line of the US Congress. To them, defending the wrongly interpreted American values and promoting those values is more important than the interests of their own country. I do not want to go deeper into the anti-Russian fever that has seized the US media, politicians and political experts, who love making up and discussing things that have never existed and never could exist. This behaviour is obscene and unworthy of such a country as the United States. But these are the facts. They are harming themselves. What has been going on in the Congress in the past few months is in itself a very serious blow to the image, reputation and prestige of the US as a leading and in many areas the most influential country of the world. It is extraordinary that they do not understand such obvious things. The petty games of US politicians are one of the most astounding phenomena of the recent time.
Question: According to a recent opinion poll by the Forsa Institute, most respondents in Germany support the German government’s course against the new US sanctions against Russia. Does it seem that Moscow is getting room for manoeuvre to strengthen its ties with Berlin? To what extent can Europe withstand the pressure from the US?
Sergey Ryabkov: When at some point Europeans took a tough stance on the Helms–Burton Act, the EU found legal instruments to protect its business from the extraterritorial US sanctions. Then, for economic, political and other reasons, the EU built a legal fence and found such an antidote that the Americans were forced to come to terms with the resistance of the Europeans. And the embargo against Cuba that had been promoted by Washington for decades did not produce the desired effect. The EU’s countermeasures made a big breach in the US blocking of Cuba. But this is in the past.
As for the present, we hear statements that reflect the sentiments of a large number of Europeans, especially those who are interested in normal relations with Russia more than others, including economic ties. But words must be followed by actions. If I begin speculating about this, some of the embassies of the relevant countries in Moscow may read my comments and report to their capitals that the Russians are again trying to drive a wedge, or to weaken the transatlantic bond. As we know this is a reason for them to consolidate.
Generally speaking, I do not believe in the independence of modern Europe as a player, especially with regard to Russia. Unfortunately, they have made too many mistakes and created huge ballast in relations with us, and they will have a hard time trying to abandon it. We will see how it goes. The business lobby and economics are positive factors. Nevertheless, I would not overestimate their importance in the new environment.
Question: Mr Ryabkov, let us move onto the specifics. I am speaking about the seizure of Russian property in the US and the expulsion of diplomats, and Russia’s response. In your opinion, has the US taken Russia’s decision adequately and could it pave the way to some kind of constructive dialogue, at least regarding Russian property in the US?
Sergey Ryabkov: I do hope that the situation is just as you have described it. First, Russia has not done anything that the US was not aware of, since we have warned them, both publicly, and behind closed doors. Second, they cannot fail to understand that the measures that we have taken are a payback of sorts. On December 29, 2016, when the US illegally seized Russian property subject to diplomatic immunity and expelled Russian diplomats from Washington and San Francisco, Russia issued a warning saying that the absence of an immediate and harsh response did not mean that there will be no response at all. We have taken the number of Russian staff working in the US as a lim it. Accordingly, the US will have to cut its staff working in the embassy in Moscow and three US consulates general in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok down to this figure by September 1. Let us wait and see how they fulfil this mandatory requirement. We will seek to ensure parity in the future.
I do not think that the US views our actions in any other way. However, they can be expected to come up with a new pretext to further escalate tension, taking new negative steps regarding the Russian diplomatic missions in the US. If it happens, this will be a clear signal for Russia of their willingness to further escalate tensions. We have warned them against taking such steps on a number of occasions.
I would like to take this opportunity to do this again: I really hope that Washington will not take any such steps. In this case, Russia will reciprocate. As a result, it would further undermine the normal operation of the diplomatic missions, which is a prerequisite for the promotion of any kind of dialogue and healthy relations.
Let me note that Russia’s actions always come as a response to the measures taken by the US. They take a step back, we follow. We have never initiated anything negative, and in broader political terms we have never destroyed anything that was already there. It was the US that dismantled the dialogue mechanisms that are no longer working. Russia proposes restoring contacts in a number of areas, but has yet to receive a reply. We are ready to continue dialogue on Syria, Ukraine, arms control and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We would never say ‘That is it, it is too late, you adopted this law, so we will not work with you anymore.’
So who is seeking escalation? Who does things that have no place in interstate relations? Who fails to exercise restraint? Who fails to think about the future?
What the US does is by and large indicative of unfair competition practices. The US uses its dominant position in international finance, and the system of international settlements, as well as its legal system that prioritises the extraterritorial principle, to pressure businesses across the world, including in China, Europe and Russia, in order to gain an unfair advantage. We have seen this in many areas. The US is seeking to squeeze Russia out of the defence market. US officials openly say that the US will oppose Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream, etc. They don’t hesitate in saying this. A great nation has placed these dirty, corrupt and unworthy practices at the core of its Russian policy. However, this cannot continue indefinitely. Russia does not want to see the situation further deteriorate. A spiral of confrontation is not something Russia desires.
Question: Some experts have suggested certain categories of essential Russian imports into the United States as retaliatory economic measures. For example, titanium supplies for the US aircraft industry, uranium concentrate for nuclear power stations, equipment for the space industry. Is this scenario possible?
Sergey Ryabkov: Our actions both in the economy and politics must be first and foremost guided by national interests. This is exactly the case when you put yourself in first place. We cannot act in order to hurt someone whatever it takes. This behaviour is not right and perhaps would even indicate certain political insecurity and even nervousness on our behalf which we are not suffering from. If we took this course of action there would be plenty of people in the US Congress who would note, with satisfaction, that they did manage to get under the Russians’ skin.
My personal opinion is that we need to exercise restraint and patience, if you like, strategic patience, and not be in any hurry. Let’s remember the Harmel Report from 1967 that laid down recommendations for NATO with regard to Moscow during that period of time. It is quite informative. Now let’s apply Pierre Harmel’s approach to today’s Washington. I think Russia needs a two-track approach to its relations with the US. The first track is deterrence in the face of Americans’ aggression, attacks, constant attempts to bring us down which US officials simply use to brag about, their ambition to load up our neighbours with NATO military facilities, military infrastructure, massive deployment of well-equipped troops.
The second track of this approach is engagement. Engagement of the United States in a dialogue but only on the issues that serve our interests. First thing in the morning we must think how to come up with what needs to be done for us to become stronger and more secure against the US pressure – and go to bed still thinking about it. We must correlate our actions and policy with respect to the US relations only with these tasks and proceed only within this scale of coordinates. We will see how it goes. And let’s line this matrix of the two-track approach with strategic patience. But once again, this is only my personal opinion. The Russian President determines foreign policy.
Question: By the way, the law approved by Mr Trump also states that the sanctions must not contradict national interests of the United States. Is this why they did not withdraw from, for example, cooperation in space?
Sergey Ryabkov: They know their own interests very well and they will never hesitate to include a paragraph saying that the US will, based on its principled inference, be smashing an X country. Literally in the next paragraph they can still, without a tinge of embarrassment, write that “if country X will somehow help us, the United States, in the Y area, we will support this country or at least it will avoid sanctions in this area.” This is normal practice. This is an example to follow.
Question: Are there any opportunity windows left for Russia-US cooperation and what will be the future of our agreements on nuclear disarmament?
Sergey Ryabkov: This is a very serious subject. This area requires thorough analysis and planning for years to come. Unfortunately, it is not quite clear to us what position Washington will adopt in this area. Time is ticking, and the February 5, 2018 deadline stipulated by the 2010 New Start Treaty is approaching. There is a lot of speculation and unworthy political fuss around the INF Treaty. It has been a long time since strategic stability issues have been raised. Russia is ready to engage in dialogue on all these matters, although we have to understand who will represent the US in this dialogue and what their approaches are all about. The US is expected to complete the Nuclear Posture Review by the end of the year. This is an important document that will outline the preferences and reference points adopted by the US regarding arms control.
The principle of the peaceful use of outer space must remain in place. The recent trends within the US defence and political elite and their sentiment, as well as the US military planning are very alarming. They seem to be increasingly inclined to put offensive arms in space, expand the military use of space facilities, etc.
There are other subjects that are literally more Earth-bound, which does not make them less important. For example, Russia believes that there is a need to draft an international convention to counter chemical and biological terrorism. This is an extremely topical issue, including in the Middle Eastern context. In this sphere too we have yet to hear a response to our proposal. Everyone in Washington seems to be engulfed in the endless tilting at windmills in the form of various bogus stories about the Russian influence or meddling that are not and could not have been true.
If the US continues to back-pedal on our common priorities, there is no way we can strengthen international security. These priorities include counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, regional conflicts and many other things. Time and again we find ourselves in a situation when something happens, serving as a reminder that we should have addressed this or that topic before. We should not be waiting for a pretext. All we need to do is show consistency in dealing with these matters. This is what Russia stands for both in its bilateral relations, and at international platforms.
Question: Mr Ryabkov, is it possible in the current environment, for Russia, China and the US to work together effectively when it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue?
Sergey Ryabkov: The situation in Northeast Asia is explosive, and it is unclear how it will unfold. You see, the question is about finding a way to align the interests and possibilities of Pyongyang and Washington. Taking into consideration the contradicting political cultures and approaches of these two players, finding a constructive solution to this issue would be impossible without them coming to an agreement. Mediation is possible. There were six-party talks that proved their efficacy at a certain stage. They helped keep the situation within an acceptable framework. There was the 1995 document we all remember, and many other things. However, as far as I understand the US is ready to promote direct dialogue only in theory, since what they are offering is unrealistic for the other party. Accordingly, the other side seems to have come to a conclusion that the only way to stop this pressure is to counter it with some kind of force. Raising the stakes in this game is dangerous and leads nowhere.
Russia has certain proposals. So does China. In fact, these proposals boil down to freezing the situation and ensuring a status quo, at least temporarily, so that the situation can unwind little by little, lowering the level of tension and stabilising the situation. This is a natural thing to do. This has been done before us and used many times in various diplomatic situations. Unfortunately, so far this approach is not working.
At the same time, again and again we have situations in the UN Security Council when the US comes up with unrealistic requirements in terms of the scope and nature of sanctions-related documents that go far beyond any possible red lines. Over the years, the US representatives have been growing less and less inclined to compromise. On international platforms, they are increasingly guided by the principle whereby ‘those who are not with us are against us,’ which means that if someone is not with them, the US should bend such a country across its knee without any talk of compromise, no attempts to find solutions based on a balance of interests. It seems that they even forgot how documents are drafted, that this should be done by working together bilaterally in order to come up with mutually acceptable phrasing. Sometimes it seems that they simply do not know how to do it. As a result, there are more problems. Among other things, this undermines the status of international organisations. The question is, what should Russia do so as to be able to move forward?
Question: So what are the opportunity windows in terms of cooperation?
Sergey Ryabkov: Regarding the so-called global challenges, this is the security in information and communication technology, among other things. So far, we have been unable to make any progress in the dialogue with the US in this area, even though we have signalled to the US on a number of occasions what we believe we should do together in this field.
There are many other problems that we need to resolve by working together: settling a number of conflicts, illegal migration, issues that have to do with the environment in which international and national businesses operate, including protectionist trends and artificial anti-dumping investigations we face. All these things should be discussed constructively.
We are free from any dogmas, and we know that the US has its interests. We also understand that with every new administration Washington rethinks its approaches and sets new priorities. At the same time, everything that was done before should not be erased. As the situation with Russia-US relations shows, it is impossible to sacrifice so much to politics and the distorted perceptions of the outside world. So far, our calls have been falling on deaf ears. We struggle to maintain dialogue, including on the settlement in Ukraine, a subject that the US says matters to it. The US appointed a special representative, but the dialogue has yet to begin.
Question: The Americans say it was Russia who asked for the appointment of a special representative of the US president in Ukraine. What will this mean, and will the appointment contribute to the implementation of the Minsk Agreements?
Sergey Ryabkov: The President of Russia has repeatedly told the US leaders, as far as I understand, that we are ready for a dialogue with them on Ukrainian affairs, on the situation in southeastern Ukraine, and first of all, on Kiev fulfilling its commitments under the Minsk Package of Measures.
We never asked for any appointment of an American special representative. We said it was a bit strange to hear their constant speculations on the need for a dialogue while we have no such vis-a-vis. In Obama’s administration, these functions were performed by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Ambassador Kurt Volker was appointed US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. To be honest, I do not really understand what is meant by ‘Ukraine Negotiations.’ Who is negotiating? Why don’t we just ask this question to Mr Volker himself, when and if he appears in Moscow or elsewhere in Russia?
Question: There is much talk about the US’ hypothetical delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine...
Sergey Ryabkov: The Trump administration is being pushed hard in this direction. Kurt Volker has actually made several statements in favour of this plan during his trips to Ukraine and other countries.
Moreover, I must note that military equipment and other hardware that cannot independently inflict mortal defeat on self-defence fighters have long been flowing into Ukraine in great amounts, not only from the USA, but from many other NATO and non-NATO countries. Military instructors from the United States, Canada, and other countries are intensively training the Ukrainian military, teaching them how to use this equipment and special hardware.
The hypothetical delivery of ‘lethal weapons’ would be a qualitatively new step. Will it be made? Recently, we have noted a certain ‘drift’ in this direction in Washington. This decision would lead to extremely dangerous developments. Clearly, politically, the ‘war party’ in Kiev would see this as a powerful signal of support. In practical terms, this would mean a significant destabilisation of the situation in southeastern Ukraine. Here, too, we try to analyse all circumstances soberly, carefully, and unemotionally, and warn Washington against new mistakes.