1 Oct 2020

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan: U.S. and Russia may reach arms control agreement by February 2021


John Sullivan
Photo: Press service of U.S. Embassy to Russia

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has given an exclusive interview to Interfax in which he assesses prospects for achieving a U.S.-Russian arms control agreement, comments on the situation in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Navalny case, and speaks about hockey and his favorite NHL player.

Question: It seems that the U.S.-Russia dialogue on strategic stability and arms control has reached a stalemate. Russia has described the proposals voiced by U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea as an ultimatum and has rejected them. How do you assess the current situation? In your opinion, is there a chance to secure a specific, maybe an interim, result on a framework agreement on arms control in the near future, for example, before the U.S. presidential elections?

Answer: Well this is an extraordinarily important topic, and I know President Trump is committed to arms control, and has tasked Ambassador Billingslea with pursuing negotiations with the Russian Federation on this subject. I know that Ambassador Billingslea’s recent interview with Kommersant has received a lot of attention, and that Deputy Foreign Minister [Sergei] Ryabkov has responded.

I wouldn’t characterize the state of the discussions between the two sides as a stalemate. I will, however, echo what my colleague Ambassador Billingslea said in that Kommersant interview – it really is up to Russia to decide if it wants New START extended.

Ambassador Billingslea made clear that we want to extend the treaty, but such an extension will only occur if we agree on a broader framework that, first, addresses our concerns with Russia's build-up of its unconstrained nuclear weapons; second, strengthens verification mechanisms under the existing New START treaty; and third, enables China's future inclusion in nuclear arms control discussions, and ultimately future arms control agreements.

I think what Ambassador Billingslea has proposed would be described by any impartial observer as a good, fair offer, with a proposal that’s reasonable and reciprocal, and will lead to greater transparency through increased verification.

My hope and expectation is that the discussions will continue between the two sides, between Ambassador Billingslea and Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov.

I personally remain hopeful that we can resolve this issue quickly. I won't specify about a particular timeframe other than to note that, unless extended, the New START treaty by its own, lapses on February 5 of next year, so we don't really have a lot of time.

But I believe that given what is the issues that have been discussed to date, I think we should be able to come to an agreement. But again, as I said, it really is up to Russia to decide if they want New START extended, given the proposals that Marshall has raised.

So, I'm personally looking forward to continuing discussions between the two sides on what both President Trump and President Putin consider an extremely important topic, which is arms control.

Q.: Ambassador Billingslea also said that the U.S. position may get even harsher if a framework agreement isn't reached soon. What's meant here, saying that it's going to be harsher? For how long is the United States ready to extend the New START treaty? Ambassador Billingslea said that the U.S. is thinking that it would be less than five years, while Deputy Minister Ryabkov said it would be wrong to extend the treaty for one year or less. So what are the preconditions and timelines for Washington?

A.: Well, I don't want to tread on negotiations between two colleagues, between Ambassador Billingslea and Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov. We are engaged in ongoing negotiations along the lines that I mentioned just a moment ago. I will note, however, that my friend Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov mentioned in reacting to Ambassador Billingslea’s interview, that while a five-year term is preferable for Russia, a shorter extension was not entirely out of the question. So I think that it's fair to say that there is room for negotiation on the length of any extension. And I don't want to say anything that will complicate the discussions between the two sides, which as I say, are important and ongoing.

And with respect to the timing, the one thing I will note is that the clock is ticking. And we have a hard deadline of February 5, 2021 when the treaty expires, so we're going to have to have to come up with an agreement sooner rather than later before the treaty is just allowed to lapse, which would be regrettable, but it's not something that the United States is going to just agree to an extension of without considering and addressing the issues that Ambassador Billingslea has raised with the Russian side.

Q.: From your point of view should the hypersonic weapons be included in the interim agreement, or at least mentioned in this agreement?

A.: I hesitate to comment on specific weapon systems, whether they're hypersonic or non-strategic. What I will say - I won't comment on specific systems. What I will say, however, is that Ambassador Billingslea, one of the points he made was that we believe that we need to both Russia and the United States address non-strategic nuclear weapons that aren't otherwise covered by the New START treaty and strategic weapons. So I think the scope is to be expanded, and how far and other under what terms, I will defer to our experts on the American side and Ambassador Billingslea, and in the ongoing negotiations to be had with the Russian side.

Q.: What is the situation surrounding the P5 Summit? Is this idea still alive and being discussed between parties, or is it dead, at least in the medium-term? And one more summit issue: it seems that the plans to invite Russia to a G7 summit have come to naught. Is that true?

A.: Well, I'm afraid that like many things that have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, a P5 Summit, a potential P5 Summit, and indeed the G7 Summit, have been adversely affected. We saw that just last week at high-level week at UNGA, which, for the first time in the 75-year history of the United Nations was conducted virtually.

I think, a potential P5 Summit, which some months ago, President Putin proposed and [to which] President Trump responded affirmatively, I think those discussions about that have not progressed because of the Covid pandemic and the fact that it wouldn't be possible to do such a summit now in person.

And we've seen just recently here in Russia, within the last few days a reminder that globally, the Covid-19 pandemic is still a menace, as we've seen the number of cases rise both here in Moscow and across Russia generally, which the Russian government has quite appropriately responded to.

So I think the planning for those types of large international gatherings, whether it's a P5 Summit or even our own G7 Summit, which the United States is scheduled to host this year. I don't have anything further to add on that, other than the fact that some time ago, President Trump proposed, including inviting Russia to attend. But I don't believe that beyond pushing the G7 Summit past our elections on November 3, I'm not sure that I have anything more to add on when even the G7 will convene, and if so, whether it will be virtual or, or how.

And, of course, we have to take into account you know, all what's happened in the last few months in the bilateral relationship between Russia and the United States. I mean, even as we've imposed sanctions and penalties for Russia's actions that we object to, we are still open to dialogue and cooperation. But, you know, there have been subsequent developments that would need to be considered and I just don't have anything further from Washington on the current thinking on either of those summits, a P5 summit or a G7 summit and whether there would continue to be a potential invitation for Russia to attend.

Q.: Russia has said it is planning to cooperate with Iran in the military sphere after the anti-Iranian arms embargo is lifted on October 18. The United States intends to apply sanctions to countries which interact with Iran. So are we waiting for some new sanctions?

A.: The way I would answer that is to say the United States is focused on the great threat to peace that we believe the Islamic Republic of Iran represents. We're not looking to sanction any country, but we do not want Iran to be able to receive the money, the resources, the wealth, the weapons to continuing their destabilizing and malign activities in the Middle East and elsewhere. So, in response to the threat and the violations of international law and UN obligations in the JCPOA by Iran, the United States has sought and has re-imposed virtually all of the previously terminated UN sanctions pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

And we believe that the re-imposition of those sanctions is a step toward international peace and security, because as we've seen, and as I just said, the Iranians continue their malign activities across the region, from Yemen to Iraq, to Lebanon and Syria.

So the snapback of UN sanctions obligates Iran to suspend enrichment, reprocessing, and heavy-water related activities. We're not going to let the world's leading state sponsor of terror obtain nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. And we are going to work to make sure that the rest of the world agrees with us and does not fund, support, and arm Iran to under undertake these destabilizing and malign activities. And that includes the potential for sanctions.

So, I can't comment on any particular sanctions that are under consideration, but I can reaffirm the seriousness of the United States’ commitment to constraining the ability of the Islamic Republic of Iran to pose such a great threat to peace in the Middle East and beyond.

Q.: A number of incidents involving U.S. and Russian troops have taken place in in northeastern Syria recently. Washington made rather harsh statements as far as one of these incidents is concerned. Have the sides managed to smooth out their differences within the framework of the de-conflicting mechanism?

A.: Well, the United States has worked hard to establish de-confliction protocols with the Russian forces in Syria. And it's to protect both sides or forces to avoid accidents and to reduce the risk of miscalculation.

The problem is that there was, as you note, an unsafe and unprofessional action by the Russian side, which was a breach of the de-confliction protocols -- this was back in in late August. Both sides, both the United States and Russia in December 2019 committed to these de-confliction protocols. And there was an incident, as you mentioned, that was unsafe and unprofessional at the end of August, and our hope and expectation is that the Russian side will resume its compliance with the protocols that both countries agreed to at the end of last year.

No one wants to see any accident or miscalculation that results in in violence and injury or even death to either sides’ military forces. So we're committed to honoring those protocols and hope and expect the Russian side will as well.

Q.: My question is about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We’ve already seen the U.S. State Department statement on this question, and we know that Russia, France, and the U.S. are the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. Is there an opportunity for an urgent meeting via videoconference of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs? And what is the position of the U.S. because we are seeing so much information about Turkey’s participation, and Turkey is a part of NATO?

A.: It’s an important question, and tragic and delicate situation. As you know, the United States along with Russia and France are the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. And as a Co-Chair, the United States remains committed to helping both sides come to a peaceful and sustainable settlement to the conflict. And we’re urging both sides to work with Minsk Group Co-Chairs, and I’ve spoken to Russian government officials about this, to return to substantive negotiations as soon as possible. We of course are greatly alarmed by reports of continued large-scale military actions along the Line of Contact in Nagorno-Karabakh, and by reports of significant casualties including, tragically, among civilians. We in the United States extend our condolences to the families of those who have been killed and of course to those who have been injured and their families.

As you know, the State Department released a very strong statement condemning the escalation of violence, and expressing our concerns that any participation by external parties would be deeply unhelpful and exacerbate an already volatile situation in the region.

So we’re committed with our Minsk Group Co-Chairs to revive substantive negotiations between the parties as soon as possible to stop the violence.

Q.: The next question is about the Nord Stream 2 project. Is it possible that the United States and Germany could conclude a deal that would allow U.S. sanctions to be lifted from the Nord Stream 2 project? Some media has been reporting on closed bilateral consultations to this end.

A.: Well, I think it's fair to say that the United States’ position has been clear over many years in expressing our concerns and our objections to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and we continue to discuss those concerns and objections with our partners and allies.

I don't think it's accurate to say that there are discussions about our lifting sanctions to allow the Nord Stream 2 project to proceed. Secretary Pompeo has been quite explicit in recently re-articulating the long-standing United States objection to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which we believe creates risks for Europe by becoming even more dependent on gas coming from one source. And it also threatens Ukraine, which I know many in Germany and across Europe are concerned about the stability and economic viability of Ukraine. So we continue to urge that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline not be completed, and we're making sure we build out a coalition that prevents that from happening.

Q.: And again about sanctions, because it's a big section in our relations, unfortunately. We all know about the Navalny case. May the United States impose sanctions against Russia over this case? Is it possible to speak now about dates and the measures that could be applied? Recently, Washington said it is unaware of how else Russia could be punished, because the whole stock of sanctions has already been utilized.

A.: Well, I don't want to speculate about sanctions decisions which may be under consideration in any capital, whether it's Washington or elsewhere in in Europe over the Navalny case. What I would emphasize is that this is not a bilateral issue between the United States and Russia, or between Germany and Russia for that matter.

I think what we have witnessed is the international community expressing its concern over the use of a lethal chemical nerve agent. In this case, it was used against a Russian citizen on Russian territory.

As a result, the G7 foreign ministers, including my boss, Secretary Pompeo, adopted a statement condemning Mr. Navalny’s poisoning in the strongest terms. In fact, Secretary Pompeo has been clear that the use of chemical weapons in this way as happened against Mr. Navalny is unacceptable. And as a result we’ve made clear our expectation that the Russian government should allow an investigation that will permit the determination as to exactly how it was that Mr. Navalny was poisoned by this banned chemical weapon.

When all of the facts are available, including from the OPCW, then the United States and others will decide on a response. But this much we already know - that laboratories - and these are not in the United States, these are laboratories in Germany, Sweden, and France have confirmed that the chemical agent used in the attack on Mr. Navalny was Novichok, a substance developed solely by Russia, or actually, I believe, during the Soviet period. So, it implicates a number of different issue, and the most prominent, of course, is the use of this chemical nerve agent, and the OPCW is now examining the evidence. And we will be guided by the facts, and by our commitment to banning the use of dangerous chemical nerve agents and enforcing the obligations that all the parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including United States and Russia, that we've made against the use of such toxic weapons.

Q.: From your point of view, how probable is a situation in which the events in Belarus could lead to the deterioration of relations between the West in general and Russia? Russia has accused the U.S. of trying to arrange a color revolution there, and says that the U.S. is playing a key role behind the scenes in the developments in that country. Is Belarus now a topic of discussion between Washington and Moscow? Is there a threat of military build-up on both sides of the Polish-Belarusian border and the Lithuanian-Belarusian border?

A.: Well, this is an extremely important question. And let me say at the outset, the events in Belarus are not a contest between the United States and Russia or the west and Russia. I think what we're seeing is a peaceful expression of the Belarusian people objecting to a fraudulent election and subsequent police violence that amounted to serious human rights abuses.

We remain and urge others to be committed to non-interference in Belarus's sovereignty and territorial integrity. But as well, we urge a commitment to supporting the Belarusian people's aspiration to choose their own leaders free from external intervention.

I've had a number of discussions with Russian officials in which we have urged Russia to respect the Belarusian people’s right to determine their own future and encourage President Lukashenko to accept the OSCE offered to mediate between the government and the opposition.

But I can assure you that the accusation of a military buildup by the United States or by NATO, on the borders of Belarus is not true, completely unfounded, as is the accusation that the United States or any Western countries or NATO members, that we are fomenting some sort of color revolution in Belarus is entirely false and unfounded.

What we are witnessing is the expression of the Belarusian people in response to a fraudulent election and violence by the government. It is not something that has been fomented by the United States.

And as I say, I have specifically said to my Russian counterparts that we do not approach this as a confrontation between the United States and Russia in Belarus. We want to see a peaceful resolution of the situation in Belarus without intervention by any outside country.

I would be the first to acknowledge the close historical, social, political ties between Russia and Belarus. And all that the United States is interested in is peace, not intervention in Belarus, but respect for the concerns and the rights of the Belarusian people and respecting those, those rights. That’s been our consistent position in discussions with the Russian government.

Q.: Mr. Ambassador, in general, how do you perceive the prospects for U.S.-Russia relations? It looks like the situation is going from bad to worse. A couple of days ago, you said that we are digging a hole in our relations, which is getting deeper and deeper. Is there a bottom in this hole from your point of view? Could this negative trend be reversed after the presidential elections in the United States?

A.: It's a question that I talk about and discuss almost every day. The quote you reference, I actually heard my former boss Secretary [Rex] Tillerson say, back in the spring of 2017, when he visited Moscow on is his first trip to Russia as Secretary of State in a press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov. He said that we had reached a low point in our relationship and we were in a hole and had to stop digging. And then the three plus years since he made that statement, I'm afraid we haven't; the hole has gotten even deeper. And just within the last few months, we've had a number of additional concerns that complicate our relationship. We've discussed a couple of those in this conversation: the Navalny case, the situation in Belarus. We're going to work hard to try to make sure that those cases, those matters - Navalny and Belarus - don't further complicate an already difficult relationship between our two countries.

Having said all that, I remain committed to doing all we can - I can personally, this embassy, our government, the United States can do - to try to improve our relationship with Russia. President Trump sent me to Moscow to do this. I have to be honest, though, since I got here at the beginning of the year, there have been some further impediments to trying to improve our relationship. And I would include among those recent impediments the treatment of certain United States citizens in the criminal justice system here, two of whom have been convicted, and one of whom has a still has criminal charges pending against him while he's in home detention. You've heard me talk a lot about these cases, and I won't go into greater detail on them, other than to say that the welfare of those three Americans, Paul Whelan, Trevor Reed, and Michael Calvey is my highest priority - how Americans, American citizens and American business businesses are treated here. So, the short-term picture has not improved.

I remain, however, convinced that long term, and it may be years, but long term, the relationship between Russia and the United States will right itself, and that there is hope for the future.

Let me take a step back and distinguish, for example, the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s is so much different from the relationship we have now with the Russian Federation. We have over 1,000 U.S. companies doing business invested in Russia, employing large numbers of Russian citizens. We have so much more interaction between our two countries. The relationship between the United States of America and the Russian Federation is so much greater than the bilateral diplomatic and political relationship and discussions between the United States government and the Russian government. And it’s that deeper, broader social, economic connection, those connections, that give me give me hope for the future.

This is a great country, and the Russian people are a great people with so much to offer, not just the United States, but the world.

And what I hope our governments can do is to allow the relationships that have already been formed - the substantial relationships [formed] over the last 30 years, let's say - to continue to grow and to prosper, so that both countries both peoples, United States citizens, Russian citizens, are able to benefit from increased commerce and prosperity, and in the general, good results that would flow from closer relations between our two countries. So that's our long-term goal, which I still have great hopes for.

In the short term, we have a lot of issues to address and overcome that are difficult, that haven't been resolved. Some of them have been pending for years - Ukraine and Crimea, for example. We've got some new ones that have been added to the list with, potentially - we'll see how things play out - Belarus and the Navalny case. My hope is that those latter two, we’re able to come to understanding so that those don't become greater impediments.

But we've got a lot to work through, to overcome these, you know, the impediments that have accreted over time to our relationship. And that's what diplomats and politicians are committed, at least in the United States side, to do, and I know from conversations with many Russian government officials that there is a there is a commitment to try to overcome these issues.

But it's very challenging. I can't disguise that. It's a challenging environment. And we're going to continue to work hard, as the President has charged me with, in trying to improve our relationship, but it is a difficult road.

Q.: Mr. Sullivan, my last question. You're known to be a keen hockey fan and to play hockey yourself. As far as I know, you even brought some hockey equipment with you to Moscow when you moved to Moscow as ambassador. Have you managed to watch any games of the Russian Continental Hockey League? Or maybe you played hockey yourself in Moscow during this winter. And some politics in this question: when other means are not quite successful, isn't it high time to use 'hockey diplomacy?'


John Sullivan (center) and Vyacheslav Fetisov (second from right)
Photo: Sergey Rybakov

A.: Oh, absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more! And you know, people smile when I say that, but it's an important link between the United States and Russia, between Canada and Russia. It's a game that Canada as a nation, Canadians to a person, I believe or are all great, great hockey fans, and there are a lot of hockey fans in the United States, particularly fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Stanley Cup yesterday. So congratulations to the Lightning.

But hockey here is such an important sport, I know, in Russia and to the Russian people. I think it's a great connection between North America and Russia. And that's why I emphasized it when I when I first arrived. It's just an example of the things that unite us and our shared passion for the game.

Yes indeed, I love hockey. I'm a lifelong season ticket holder for the Washington Capitals. I actually got to meet one of my hockey heroes, Alexander Ovechkin, who's back in in Moscow now after unfortunately the Capitals' Stanley Cup playoff run ended a little too early for my liking, and certainly for Alexander Ovechkin, the captain of the Capitals, liking.

With respect to the KHL, I was honored to join a hockey legend, Slava Fetisov, an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, in going to a Spartak-Dynamo game back in February, and that remains one of the highlights of my tenure here in Moscow.

Unfortunately, I did bring my equipment with me, but I've only been able to skate once, because almost within weeks after my arrival, Covid restrictions kicked in and I just haven't been able to participate in any hockey games.

My hope is that when the weather gets colder, I might be able to go at least skate outside and have some fun back out on the ice. And I do look forward to watching more KHL games. It's a great league - great players here. We're fortunate that in the United States, we've been able to convince a number of the best players in Russia - and I’d put at the top of the list our 'Great Eight' from the Washington Capitals - in my humble opinion, he continues to be the best player in the world, Alex Ovechkin.

But I said at the State Department when I was sworn in as ambassador, I took the oath, I said that we in the United States are grateful for the opportunity to have great Russian players come, as they have for a number of years now, starting with Slava Fetisov back in the 1980s, and play for hockey fans in North America. And of course, we've got Canadians and American players and coaches in the KHL. And so it’s a great link between the United States and Russia, and one I hope to continue to emphasize during my tenure here.