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Please enter the digits in the box below:  |  Interviews  |  John Huntsman: I can assure you U.S. will be very committed to arms control...


September 13, 2019

John Huntsman: I can assure you U.S. will be very committed to arms control negotiations with Russia

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Huntsman, who will leave his post in early October, has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about exchanges at the highest level between Moscow and Washington, a possibility of Russias return to G8, as well as his vision of the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

Question: So, how do you assess prospects of U.S.-Russian relations? Is there a chance, from your point of view, for stabilization and gradual improvement or are there some long dark times ahead of us in the future?

Answer:.: Where we are today is not what we are comfortable with. The American people arent comfortable with this relationship, and I think that the people of Russia arent comfortable with this current relationship. But politics have brought us to where we are, issues like elections meddling, issues like sovereignty of third countries, and so where we are is the result of events that have accumulated over multiple years.

I am a believer in the idea that Russian people and the American people do very well together. If you let them just be together, without politics, they become fast friends. And I know that because Ive lived here long enough to realize that. But we are going to have moments that are adversarial, and we are going to have moments that are collaborative. Because our past has produced that pattern. We fought together in WW II - closest of friends - and weve experienced the difficulties of the Cold War, and even the last two years. So, we have to have stable enough relationship where we can manage adversity and we can manage collaboration.

And when we hit difficult times, we dont collapse. We havent been prepared for that in recent years. But I suspect the future will hold elements of both. That doesnt mean that its abnormal. I think that in our relationship in the past, the patterns have been pretty consistent. They have been a combination of both adversarial and collaborative. And I think the future will continue to prove that. So, we need enough trust and enough open lines of communication, at all levels - president, foreign minister, working level - so that we can manage whatever the future has in store for us and produce a relationship that is always stable. Even when you have challenges, you can manage a stable relationship. Thats not impossible. But in the last couple of years, we had a difficult time managing stability. And I think thats abnormal.

I think we should be prepared enough and have confidence enough in our relationship and have enough trust where we can deal with both adversity - an adversarial relationship - and a collaborative relationship. Because we will continue to have elements of both.

Q: Speaking about strategic stability and arms control. Do you think there is any chance for Russia and the U.S. to reach the agreements on strategic stability and arms control after the INF Treaty is dead and there is nothing clear about the future of the new START Treaty? Or let the world go to the risk of confrontation?

A.: Well, my president believes in respecting treaty obligations. He also feels that strategic stability and arms control is perhaps the most important aspect of our bilateral relationship. He is very committed to it, as is the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. So, we have to break out INF, and we have to review the history, which would suggest that six to seven years ago, under a different administration, we started a dialogue with Russia. Dozens of times we brought forth evidence, on the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile and its violations. And nothing was done. And we gave it much time. We tried to open communication, we tried to present the evidence, and nothing was done. So, if you have an agreement with two parties to the agreement, and one of them is in violation, that isnt much of an agreement anymore. So pursuant to Article 15 in the INF agreement of 1987 we withdrew, after the obligatory six months. But we did it in full consultations, because I was in the meetings that, for example, our national security advisor had with President [Vladimir] Putin, that our secretary of state has had with President Putin and Minister [Sergei] Lavrov. And there have been very spirited conversations about arms control generally. But what we did was based on history, multiple administrations, dozens of conversations and our desire to want treaties respected. So that takes us to the longer-term in arms control, where we have some big decisions ahead of us on new START. We have to remember that new START began ten years ago. Ten years ago, cyber was not a big issue. Hypersonic cruise missiles were not a topic. The rise of China and its inventory of strategic weapons was not a topic. So, the world has changed in ten years. And to have an agreement that really addresses the issues of arms control in a way that is honest and global, you have to take into account the issues that today are highly material that ten years ago were not. So, the conversations that we have had with senior Russian officials I think have been very healthy.

I read a lot of distortions in the media about the United States forsaking its commitment to arms control and Russias being upset about it. I feel differently. First of all, we have a serious commitment to arms control, starting with the president. Both countries control 90% of the worlds nuclear weapons, 90%. The greatest obligation we have in this relationship, is to make sure that that aspect-- nuclear weapons -- is dealt with at the top level, seriously, in terms of safety, in terms of commitment to non-proliferation, in terms of ultimate disarmament, moving ultimately toward greater disarmament. Our histories prove that we can do that. And weve done that since the early 1970s, and we will continue to do that. But the discussions ahead are very important about what is a modern-day arms control agreement - not ten years ago, but today - what must it include and who must be part of it.

The negotiations will start at some point, and my president will be very committed to it, and his people will be very committed to it as well. I can assure you of that. Because of central importance in the U.S.-Russia relationship is arms control and strategic stability. We recognize that, and we will continue our discussions that will reflect that reality.

Q: A follow-up question. Is there a possibility that any meeting between Thompson-Ryabkov, Pompeo-Lavrov, will take place soon? Can we expect that President Trump will come to Moscow for the May 9 celebrations next year?

A.: Well, we are having a lot of discussions country-to-country, in many important areas, and I believe that doors should be opened, and channels of communication should be opened and maintained.

So just this week weve had very important conversations in Vienna, on counterterrorism, between Deputy Foreign Minister [Oleg] Syromolotov and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and theyve committed to a good follow-up plan that would allow us to exchange more important information in keeping the world safer. And thats good.

We also had negotiations yesterday on our bilateral relationship and how we can make sure that we can have a strong presence in each country thats able to do the diplomatic work. And John Sullivan was involved with Andrea Thomson in our last strategic stability discussion, and theyve committed to follow up. But I think that youll see more involvement at the higher levels of my government in the months ahead when it comes to arms control and strategic stability. I sense that very strongly.

My president has said repeatedly that he wants to visit Moscow. And that he would like to invite President Putin to the United States, at the right time. We go step-by-step: we solve some problems, we build trust and we earn our way forward to these kind of visits. But in these recent years weve not been this busy with discussions on issues that really do matter, whether it be North Korea, in our discussions with [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister] Mr. [Igor] Morgulov and our North Korea negotiator Steve Biegun, with respect to Afghanistan, with our special envoy Zal Khalilzad, in Syria and the de-confliction discussions that happen, and in Ukraine. There are many areas that are currently topics between our experts and our senior envoys. So, I am actually quite pleased that we have a lot of channels that are open.

Does that mean that we are solving every issue? No. But we are moving things forward, we are sharing more information, and we are building trust as we sit down at the negotiating table together and find where we have common ground. Because when we meet, we always find that there is more common ground than we thought. And I think that will give us more energy as we go forward.

Q: President Trump was speaking about the G8 format, some time ago, do you think that this format with Russia can be resumed, and if it will be resumed will Washington make some preconditions for Russia? For Russias participation in the next G8 summit?

A: Well, the president has stated his desire to do that, and our Secretary of State has said that he will work toward that end. It is a multilateral forum, so there are many voices and opinions that must be taken into account, but we believe in opening more doors, not closing them, and in using more channels of communication. Where at the table where we have more participants, we can solve more of the worlds problems. But it also means we need to solve some problems. Because what took us from the G8 to G7 to begin with? It was a violation of international sovereignty. Yet that hasnt been resolved. Weve had no movement on Ukraine for years. And it would be a good thing if we actually made progress in our discussions towards resolving some of the issues that gave rise to whether it be sanctions, or whether it be change in the status of the G8 to the G7. The president is desirous to see that done. I know that he also believes in solving some of the underlying issues that created this environment in the first place.

Q: A couple of questions connected with Ukraine. Question number one. There have some talks and statements in recent months that the United States is planning to join the Normandy format. That was stated by President Zelensky, by John Bolton before he resigned and by some other officials. So, can we expect that Normandy Four will transform to Normandy Five? And the other question concerning Ukraine. There has been progress, the recent exchange of prisoners. President Zelensky announced that some other steps are prepared, like further exchange of prisoners, and some disengagement on the conflict line, including besides Luhansk some other settlements. How you assess this process?

A: We support the Normandy process. We would be very delighted if the Normandy process actually produced something. Weve been talking about the Normandy process for many years now and it has produced nothing. If the Normandy process were able to do more with an additional member as Five instead of Four, I am sure that the United States would be happy to consider that.

But whats important here, again, is not process, its results. Its actually getting something done, and that conversation will continue, I suspect. And on Zelensky, and the prisoner exchange, and issues more broadly, I personally was very heartened by the exchange. I think it was a good thing. I think it builds confidence; I think it creates a new dynamic between Moscow and Kyiv. I think it will produce more momentum to get more done, maybe in Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine. So overall it was a good thing and one that now must be built upon. President Zelensky has good political momentum in Ukraine. With the Rada elections, it produced a strong majority for him. He is now able to pass legislation that is quite meaningful in Ukraine, and that makes him a strong political figure and therefore somebody who would be absolutely critical in solving some of the issues pertaining to Donbas and in creating a more positive dynamic between both countries.

I hope that there is more diplomatic space between them because, in the end, it isnt the fighting in Donbas thats going to solve it. Thats just a frozen conflict that doesnt serve any purpose other than a malign purpose. Diplomacy, in the end, will be the answer to this, and diplomacy is driven by people. People of goodwill with the desire to get things done. And I hope there is enough space that is created, now that the prisoner exchange has happened and there had been some good conversations between President Zelensky and President Putin, that diplomacy will prevail and that there will be more confidence. Because in the past we had no confidence, at all, in the conversations between Kyiv and Moscow. Something better is happening. And we hope it continues to move in a good direction that produces more diplomatic outcomes.

Q: After this good example between Russia and Ukraine, can we await something similar from Russia and the U.S.? We have enough people to exchange, like Yaroshenko, Whelan, Butina, and others.

A: Well, we have a different system in the United States. I know when I read media accounts in Russia, they complain about our legal system. But Ive been governor of a state, and I have appointed judges, and I know how the system works. Its based on strict transparency and rule of law, and careful balance among those involved in the judicial aspects of American jurisprudence. In the case of, for example, Paul Whelan, hes been in prison for eight months, and we havent seen one bit of evidence. Ive asked for it, Ive made public statements, and weve seen nothing. And he sits at Lefortovo: he cant speak to his parents, he doesnt get his mail, his health is deteriorating. I worry about him. Ive gone to see him, a couple of times. And its an unfortunate set of circumstances.

Meanwhile, youve got some Russian prisoners in the United States who have press conferences and are doing interviews with the media. Its a different set of circumstances: there is no pre-trial detention, there is judicial review and the sentence is given based upon rule of law and then the sentence is served. So, I hope that we can hear more from our Russian friends about the Paul Whelan case specifically and see some evidence that would allow us to move forward and ultimately close this case.

Now, youll see tomorrow there will be a very important expression on the part of the United States Congress, its called a resolution, and its quite rare, as a matter of fact, for a joint resolution between Republicans and Democrats, to speak out together [the resolution was adopted on September 12. There will be a resolution on Paul Whelan, coming out of the U.S. Congress, that will be asking for his release. And this, I think, is an example of how far within the U.S. political system this issue has gotten and how much people care about Paul Whelans well-being.

Q: And the very last question. We have one more current Russian - U.S. topic, - its the story on Mr. Smolenkov. So, for you, is this a real story or its just speculation, that was made within the framework of the election campaign, and it is something directed against Mr. Trump?

A: Look, the American system is very open and very transparent. We have freedom of the press thats enshrined in our Constitution of the United States, and the press talk about a lot of things. And some of it is accurate and some of it is not so accurate. In this case, Ive seen the reporting and as Secretary Pompeo has said, the reporting is materially inaccurate and factually wrong.


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