6 May 2020

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan: This is time to work together with Russia to overcome common enemy coronavirus


U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan
Photo: U.S. Embassy Press Office

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has given an exclusive interview to Interfax special correspondent Renat Abdullin in which he speaks about U.S.-Russian interaction in fight against the pandemic, the stabilization of energy markets, prospects of the arms control dialogue, celebrations of the 75th anniversary of WW II Victory, and the situation in Venezuela and Libya.

Question: The presidents of the United States and Russia have communicated rather actively on countering Covid-19. What bilateral cooperation opportunities do you see on this track, in addition to sending personal protective equipment, ventilators, and so on? Is it possible to organize cooperation among doctors on developing a vaccine or other measures to counter this pandemic?

Answer: Well, that is a great and topical question. It is at the forefront of my mind every day. The United States is committed to the global fight against Covid-19, but as the President and Secretary Pompeo and others have said, we can't fight this virus alone – no country can. And I know that President Trump is grateful for - first for the phone conversation with President Putin back at the end of March in which the United States agreed to purchase needed medical supplies fr om Russia which were delivered shortly thereafter in New York City. I know the President and all Americans were grateful for that.

Both countries have provided humanitarian assistance to each other in times of crisis in the past and no doubt will do so again in the future. This is a time to work together to overcome a common enemy that threatens all of us.

As Secretary Pompeo has made clear, right now what the world needs is transparency and openness. We still don’t know the precise source and origin of the virus. And as Secretary Pompeo has said, we urge every country that has information about the virus and is working on a vaccine or therapeutics to share that information broadly in the scientific community so the world can stop this pandemic fr om continuing to spread.

With respect to future U.S. aid to Russia, I don't have any details to share at this time. I'm quite confident, however, that if there is a need, that the United States under the leadership of President Trump, would provide assistance that Russia needed to combat this pandemic. The President has made that clear, and we want to do all we can to save lives generally, and in particular to save the lives and improve the health of Russian people.

Q.: The other area of close personal contact between Trump and Putin happened when the new oil agreement was being prepared. Is it possible to say that stable working contacts at a high level on energy issues between our two countries were established, and that they are viable outside of the present active stage of negotiations?

A.: You're absolutely right that those recent phone calls between our presidents, our Secretary of State and the Foreign Minister, my friend and colleague Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and the Energy Minister here in Russia, were all important developments in addressing the instability in the oil markets, and I think a sign of the importance of our relationship, and of the need for continued dialogue. Just as we were discussing Covid-19, the relationship between that pandemic and the uncertainty and the unsettlement in global energy markets, it is important that our governments maintain the type of dialogue that they have to address those issues, and I think the recent conversations not only with the Russian government but with other leaders on energy issues by President Trump was an important step in that direction.

Q.: The 75th anniversary of Victory in WWII will be celebrated soon. How do U.S. authorities treat this anniversary and the cooperation between our two countries in the anti-Hitler coalition during the war? And one additional question, how important is the joint statement which was released recently by Trump and Putin on Elbe Day in spring 1945?

A.: Well, the end of World War II in Europe and the defeat of Nazism and fascism that it represents are important events in the United States that can never be forgotten. And I know how important it is to the Russian people, to the Russian government, that that victory also be acknowledged. Which is why the joint statement fr om President Trump and President Putin clearly underlined the fact that Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers were not defeated by one country, but by many nations coming together with a common goal.

So, I think that statement was an important one, signifying that the people of the United States, of the Soviet Union, the Russian people, and of so many countries around the world, suffered great losses in this war. And as we mark this somber anniversary, it’s important that we remember that joint sacrifice. We also remember that the Second World War continued for another four months, and of course the recovery efforts after the war lasted for many years thereafter.

I am, in particular, and I know the United States' people are proud that we supported the heroic sacrifices and struggles of the people of Russia and other countries in the Soviet Uni on through our Lend-Lease Program, and through our own sacrifices on many wartime battlefields, not only in Europe but also in Africa, Asia, the Pacific islands and at sea.

As we work together to defeat common enemies, in particular in this 75th anniversary this month in defeating Nazi Germany, it's a proud historic moment and I am honored to be a part of it as the President’s Ambassador here in Moscow.

Q.: U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien was expected to attend the celebrations in Moscow. Regretfully, the parade has been cancelled because of the pandemic. Is there an understanding regarding new dates for his visit or any other possible ways of contact with the Russian side?

A.: Well, first it is important to notice, as I did through a statement at the time the decision was announced, that we fully support the Russian government's decision to reschedule the commemorations fr om May 9. It is my understanding that a specific date for such commemorations has not been set. But we in the United States Government are looking forward to a time when we will be able to join together safely to celebrate properly.

I would expect that, just as we were planning for a high-level delegation for May 9, once international travel is possible and a rescheduled date has been set, I would expect a similar level delegation would come for in-person engagement with our Russian counterparts to celebrate the end of the war.

Q.: The possibility of holding a 'nuclear five' summit, which was proposed by President Putin in Jerusalem, has been widely discussed. Is it possible that such a summit could be held in a videoconference format or in any other format in the coming months or perhaps before the end of the year?

A.: Well, we recently delivered a message to President Putin from President Trump agreeing that a P5 meeting was a good idea. It’s my understanding that the substance and logistics of such a meeting are under consideration.

More broadly, we've seen how important it is for the P5 members to work together to tackle some of the biggest challenges to international security. P5 members have found common ground on important issues, from promoting non-proliferation regimes to supporting the resolution of regional and internal conflicts and countering the scourge of international terrorism.

Russia undoubtedly has an important responsibility as a P5 state, though as we've seen in Syria, Russia has too often fueled instability - for example by continuing to support the brutal Assad regime, contributing to the horrible humanitarian and refugee situation in Syria and beyond.

But that doesn’t remove the need for us to continue to work with Russia as both P5 members and as major nuclear powers. In addition, as Russia and China expand their strategic capabilities, we need to work together to achieve effective, modern, multilateral arms control and risk reduction. And this is certainly President Trump's vision, and one of his highest national security priorities.

Q.: Has the dialogue on strategic stability and arms control been frozen due to the pandemic or both sides still have consultations? The United States insists on engaging China in such consultations. Russia proposes engaging France and the United Kingdom. What is Washington's attitude toward this idea?

A.: Well, on the broader issue, Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke some weeks ago to discuss, among other things, arms control including New START. And I believe they’ve had a subsequent phone conversation since that one, it’s probably a month ago.

The United States, as you note, has been quite clear that our priority is to think more broadly than New START - to acknowledge that New START is important, but to think more broadly. And you've heard President Trump say that it is his desire to include both China and Russia in our next steps in pursuing arms control.

We stand ready to engage with both Russia and China on negotiations for an agreement that meets our criteria of advancing U.S., allied, and partner security, is verifiable and enforceable, and includes partners that comply responsibly with their obligations.

We are continuing to review the possibility of an extension of the New START treaty, taking into account the threats we face today which are different than the threats we faced ten years ago. It’s simply a recognition of the fact that it is a changed security environment over the last decade. We also acknowledge Russia's statement that it has no preconditions to the extension.

We don't have meetings to announce at this time, but my expectation - based on the conversations between Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Lavrov - is that there will be dialogue between the United States and Russia soon on the New START treaty and arms control. We are slowed somewhat due to the Covid-19 situation, but my expectation is that we will engage with Russia at least virtually, and we will also continue to engage Russia in the New START treaty's bilateral consultative commission, and other diplomatic channels to work cooperatively to address both technical questions and issues related to the ongoing implementation of New START, and related issues.

Q.: Mr. Ambassador, I am sorry for pressing a little, but what about the Russian proposal engaging France and the United Kingdom in the future START talks?

A.: Well, we've discussed this. I have in particular in my prior capacity as Deputy Secretary [of State], and I noted, in connection with President Putin's P5 proposal, that there was an opportunity for all five countries to engage in arms control discussion, and I think that that may be an appropriate topic to include in a P5 discussion. Of course, that needs to be worked out with the P5 members as we address the agenda, but that is one opportunity to include France and the United Kingdom.

Q.: Is the United States ready for negotiations with Russia on hypersonic weapons? Is it ready for such negotiations within the framework of separate consultations, or as part of the general dialogue on arms control?

A.: Well, we certainly want to discuss all issues related to arms control, not simply New START. New START is important but it’s not the only issue on the agenda.

Our interest in dialogue and pursuing discussions on arms control was reinforced by the recent announcement that my friend and colleague Marshall Billingslea has been appointed as the Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control. I've spoked to Marshall and I know that he is eager to engage with Russian counterparts on these issues, as well as reaching out to the Chinese to extend, to expand our discussions multilaterally as we’ve just been discussing.

I expect, in light of Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Lavrov's conversations and Marshall's appointment, that there will be movement and additional discussion soon on arms control.

Q.: Attention to regional conflicts, which have recently been in the global media spotlight, has diminished against the backdrop of the pandemic. I'd like to ask you about just two of them. Do Washington and Moscow support the dialogue on Libya and Venezuela? As for the former, what steps do you think need to be taken to deescalate the Libyan conflict? And about Venezuela: Is the United States still seeking the ousting of Maduro? Is it possible to establish dialogue between Maduro and Guaido in any form?

A.: Well, let me start with Libya. Basically, I can summarize the United States' position on Libya very simply. We want to see three things: the implementation of a ceasefire; the withdrawal of all external forces; and a return to a UN-facilitated, Libyan-led political process.

We are against external or foreign forces in Libya, and that includes private military contractors and others who are supported by outside governments including Russia. We don't want the conflict widened beyond what it has already become. We want there to be a ceasefire, and a withdrawal of all those external forces - because it’s a situation wh ere foreign interventions are only exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the country.

The United States will continue to support Libyan parties in achieving a long-term cessation of hostilities and ultimately a political settlement that will enable all Libyans to enjoy a more peaceful future. And so, we call on everyone to uphold the commitments they made at the Berlin Conference several months ago and abide by UN Security Council resolutions that are already in place.

You also mention Venezuela. And our position again on Venezuela, I can summarize succinctly. The United States supports Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaido and the democratically elected National Assembly’s efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela.

Just last week, Secretary Pompeo spoke with interim President Guaido to discuss the Framework for a Democratic Transition that the United States through Secretary Pompeo proposed at the end of March, which shows how the crisis and U.S. sanctions could be ended.

This framework for a democratic transition is the most recent and strongest example of the United States' commitment to securing a peaceful political resolution for Venezuela. And that’s the most important thing - a political resolution that respects the democratic rights of the Venezuela people.

The Maduro regime’s increased repression of Venezuela's democratic actors, and of doctors and of journalists telling the truth about the Covid-19 response, should be condemned by all countries. Maduro has been blocking international food and medical assistance for the people of Venezuela. He is hurting his own people. He’s an obstacle to the development of his country. And this must stop. The United States, as I mentioned, has laid out a framework for a democratic transition that we've discussed with a number of interested governments, including the Russian government, and we believe it is the best way forward to achieve that democratic transition and peaceful solution for the crisis in Venezuela.

Q.: When will it be possible to resume practical operations of the U.S.-Russia Business Council? The agreement about establishing such council was reached by two presidents. And in general, what promising areas of economic cooperation between our two countries in the future can you name - because the economic and trade relations between U.S. and Russia is, to be honest, at a low very level at present.

A.: You are quite right, and it’s been a priority of mine since I was appointed Ambassador to focus on economic cooperation between our two countries. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused disruption, not only with the economies around the world, but also with my plans for focusing on increasing our economic cooperation. But as we work through the current situation, the most important thing we can do is to work together to make sure people are safe, and as we discussed at the outset, that there is appropriate exchange of necessary medical equipment and supplies and so on.

At this point, and we hope that's soon, experts will determine that we can start slowly resuming some sel ect, lower-risk pre-pandemic business practices. And I certainly hope that business engagements between our countries will resume in ways that are safe and that the approximately 1,000 U.S. companies working in Russia will be able to get back to work.

These companies range from large multinationals to small American entrepreneurs, and they employ thousands of Russians and make an important contribution to the Russian economy. I've told the American business community that promoting business ties in the non-sanctioned portion of the Russian economy is one of my key priorities as Ambassador. And I have some experience with this having previously served in the U.S. Government as the Deputy Secretary of Commerce before I was Deputy Secretary of State.

In the interim, during the quarantine as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, I've tried to maintain my outreach to the U.S. business community. I've spoken with members of the American Chamber of Commerce twice over the past month by teleconference and am scheduled to speak with them again this week. And I can assure you that these American business leaders tell me they are eager to resume business operations here in Russia but understand the need for patience as we all work to flatten the curve and defeat this virus.

As for the high-level Business Leaders Dialogue, we were looking at different models of engagement that would be productive before the travel restrictions came into place. There is one thing, however, that I do need to mention, that's going to be difficult to convening this type of dialogue, and that is the continued detention of Michael Calvey, a prominent American business man who has been successfully working here for decades, but he has been under house arrest for a long time as the result of a criminalization of a business dispute. And that type of activity casts a pall over the entire business and investment climate in Russia. So, resolving Michael Calvey's case is going to be key to getting a business leaders' dialogue into gear.

In the meantime, there is a lot of work going on in the background as we prepare for reengaging. I continue to reach out virtually with American and Russian business leaders. In addition to my virtual meetings with the American Chamber of Commerce, I recently held a virtual briefing with the Business Council of International Understanding, which included over 50 senior American and Russian business leaders. The embassy trade team is holding several sector-specific engagements – all virtual unfortunately – including in the information technology, life sciences, and franchising sectors.

But we all look forward to a time when conditions warrant a high-level business dialogue. And when that day comes, we will be ready for a substantive discussion on ways to increase trade between our two countries.

Q.: Space has recently been one of the few positive examples of interaction between Washington and Moscow. But the situation is changing. How will growing competition on the space services market impact cooperation between Roscosmos and American aerospace corporations? Wh ere do you see potential conflicts of interests and wh ere do you see opportunities for growth?

A.: Well, my colleagues at NASA – I've met with the Administrator of NASA, Administrator Bridenstine, and several other colleagues at NASA who are working very hard on these current challenges and opportunities. I would have to point to our continued positive cooperation as a signal for the future. But my NASA colleagues are better placed to discuss the most recent, current issues involved in our space relationship.

I can speak more broadly about how, over time, our relationship with Russia on space issues has been extremely important. In fact, as we speak, U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy is aboard the International Space Station with two Russian cosmonauts, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. All three of them traveled to the International Space Station on a Soyuz rocket last month. And that could not have happened without the decades of cooperation that preceded it. It's just one in a long, long line of successful collaborative efforts between the United States and Russia in space.

In fact, we have had a human being in space every single day for the past 20 years. The International Space Station has been continuously occupied since November 2, 2000. We could not have accomplished that without great cooperation between the United States and Russia. And I know my colleagues at NASA are working hard with their colleagues at Roscosmos to continue that cooperation.

Q.: Mr. Ambassador, can I ask your permission for my last question if possible? I would like to return to the start of our interview when we spoke about the energizing contacts between the leaders of our two countries. I think Trump and Putin spoke in recent months more often than in a couple of years before, and there are also contacts between Pompeo and Lavrov, and O'Brien and Patrushev. Is this just a temporary thing related to the pandemic and the crisis of energy markets, or do you see potential for activating bilateral and international interaction to cover other topics as well given the fact that the world is now facing a unique set of challenges?

A.: Well, I might challenge the premise of your question, because I’ve been either Deputy Secretary of State or Ambassador to Russia for three years now, and our level of communication, whether it is at a presidential level or at the secretarial level, has been relatively constant. I recall my first boss Secretary Tillerson traveled to Moscow in the Spring of 2017. And the recent interactions that you have cited between our presidents, between Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Lavrov, and at lower levels – I speak with colleagues in the Foreign Ministry all the time. I know that my successor as Deputy Secretary of State does as well.

It's an indication of the importance of the United States and Russia as permanent members of the [UN] Security Council with many mutual issues of interest, a number of which we've talked about today. So I would say, that there has been - I think the frequency has picked up in the first three or four months of this year because of Covid-19 and the energy markets, the unsettlement in the energy markets, but I think you will see that there is a longer term trend of the United States and Russia continuing to focus on issues of mutual importance, both on large strategic issues and on smaller people-to-people issues.

And in that connection, I'd mention that Russian authorities continue to make allegations about U.S. exchange programs and about Russian students in the United States and the U.S. Government role in this that, unfortunately misrepresent the facts, and are just simply false. It appears as though the United States is being portrayed as unconcerned about the welfare of young Russians in our country. In fact, it's the exact opposite – we are profoundly concerned about their welfare, and very interested in providing with them with the opportunities to come and study in the United States.

And for these programs that we are talking about, we feel that Russian parents have the right to decide how and wh ere to educate their children. We are grateful and gratified if Russian parents want their children to study in the United States, we welcome them, we work to ensure those students are safe.

What the Russian government has been talking about recently was a private sector program for high school students. And on this program, participants receive no funding from the United States Government. Also, for privacy reasons, neither the U.S. Government, nor the organizations implementing these exchange programs, give out the names of minors without the permission of their parents. But these were all minor children who came to the United States at the direction of their parents and with their parents' approval. And these students and their families have been given information on how to register with the Russian Embassy if they choose to do so.

Private host organizations managing these programs maintain contact with all students, and in particular with the Russian students, at all times. And we in the United States Government continue to provide support so that Russian students, foreign students, all foreigners in the United States who want to return to their home countries can do so safely if they choose.

My friend, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Antonov noted in an op-ed in the New York Times not that long ago, and I think I am quoting him, that "our countries can develop stereotype-free perceptions of each other only through frequent and authentic cultural exchanges." And I wholeheartedly agree.

And I also think exchanges should be separated from politics. So, we are going to continue to work to support all students, Russia students and all students from other countries who have come to take advantage of the marvelous educational opportunities in the United States.

And with respect to Russian students whose parents have sent their sent their children to study in the United States, we will work with the Russian Embassy and the Russian government for those students who want to return home to Russia to do so safely and promptly