25 Dec 2020

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: Russia should shift to policy of deterrence and engagement in relations with U.S.

Sergei Ryabkov

Sergei Ryabkov
Photo: Information and Press Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, in an interview with Interfax, discusses a totally new Russian approach to relations with the United States, options for the New START extension and prospects for a fully-fledged relaunch of the Iranian nuclear deal with the U.S. participation.

Question: The U.S. administration is again changing against an unfavorable backdrop for the Russian-U.S. relations. More restrictions have been introduced as the curtain falls on the outgoing one. At the same time, the future U.S. administration is already threatening Russia with cyberattacks and is accusing Russia of certain cyberattacks against key U.S. federal agencies. Some experts and analysts fear that we are on the brink of a cyberwar. How do you perceive the current situation following allegations that Russia hacked U.S. agencies? Are we sending messages to the new administration that we need to start a detailed conversation about the rules of play that would help avoid such events in our relations in the future?

Answer: First of all, I would like to say that the announced decision of the U.S. Department of Commerce on a large group of Russian companies and organizations means tougher U.S. export control legislation, or to be more precise its application in relations to Russian economic operators. In fact, it changes little for us in real life, considering that the range of goods mentioned in the U.S. resolution is already scarcely accessible in normal trade and industrial activity from the point of view of procurements, cooperation, etc. Besides, the vast majority of our entities and agencies listed in this resolution of the U.S. authorities have long been under sanctions, i.e. the presumption of denial of deliveries to these entities and agencies of ours has existed for a long time.

Indeed, we have heard the political message. This is the attempt of the outgoing administration at slamming the door shut more loudly, accommodating the domestic needs of those interested in further non-stop escalation of tensions in relations with Russia, and letting them know that Washington led by the current administration has no intention to slow down its anti-Russian campaign. Still, to my mind, this is mostly rhetoric, politics, and geopolitics, while the material aspect is much less significant than the rhetorical superstructure. This is how we feel about it, although the next U.S. president will receive a difficult legacy, and it will take a long time to sort it out.

Especially as I am not sure that those who might be responsible for Russia after January 20 are inclined and ready to seriously start strengthening a healthy foundation. I am not speaking of normalizing relations, I am speaking of a healthy foundation of dialogue channels or at least attempts at finding a common denominator in particular situations.

We are moving from bad to worse. The trend has been highly characteristic of the past four years and there is no feeling so far that it has run its course and is being replaced with something else, something more distinct and less one-dimensional. That's for starters.

And the second aspect I would like to speak about of course deals with our interest in the gradual mending of relations. Still, we are realistic and can see it will be very difficult to get out of the pile of problems, which our relations found themselves buried under as a result of reckless actions taken by the U.S. side over the years. If, at any stage of the development of the process of its thinking on Russia, Washington demonstrates the readiness to try to clear the way in at least some areas, we will not keep them waiting. We are ready for that. But we are not going to beg them to do so. We need relations with the United States as much as Washington needs relations with Russia. They should be fully aware of that. There is no solution-seeking moment here on our part.

We simply invite them to make headway together. If we receive no response, then everything will remain as is, and there will be a risk of further exacerbation. This is a rather disquieting and potentially dangerous moment, considering that the irresponsibility of U.S. policy-making circles strikes the eye: they ignore simple logic and obvious facts which indicate that they cannot achieve the desired result by putting pressure on us, and continue to pursue their course. The question concerns when the line they are pursuing breaks down, when it splits in half, and what would be the end result.

We will not make any unilateral concessions, this is completely ruled out. After all, it's up to the Americans to choose how, when, and what should be done about our bilateral relations. We are not initiating any contacts with Biden's transitional team, and we are not going to do so. Whenever they become interested, they are welcome, every address is known. The Foreign Ministry has not moved anywhere, and people working in Washington are perfectly aware of what should be done and how if such impulses follow, so, once again, welcome. But if there is no such inclination, then everything will continue the way it is now.

Q.: So, does this mean that there is vacuum now in our relations with the U.S.? Are there such contacts?

A.: Only through the embassies – the Russian Embassy in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Plus the president's congratulatory message was sent to President-elect [Joe] Biden 

Q.: Are we concerned about threat to respond to alleged Russian cyberattacks not only by sanctions by also with cyberattacks of their own? Is there a risk of cyberwar? Washington is speaking of 'something bigger than sanctions' on behalf of the Biden administration.

A.: We register malicious activity coming from servers outside the border of the Russian Federation on a daily basis, and U.S. sources of various kinds of attacks prevail, as a rule. We do not make such things public and do not present them as some sort of sensation. The Americans have found yet another excuse to attack Russia; there have been such pretexts before and, perhaps, they will continue to appear as totally unfounded accusations and even as accusations against Russia that are not clearly formulated by any officials. It is just assumed that Russia is allegedly behind this. There is not even a subject for discussion here. If this is addressed professionally, then we should follow Putin's proposals dated September 25, which state the program of how all these things should be dealt with if we speak about something serious.

Considering that the United States is not ready to make this decision and is not even inclined to discuss it, we believe that they have a different political standpoint. No matter what we do, whatever refutations we make, and how many rhetorical techniques we use in our refutations, that won't change anything. So, I do not see any subject for discussion here.

We are much more concerned about the earlier effort of certain Washington officials to implant the issue of the so-called malicious activity in cyberspace in the context of their nuclear policy. The effort has extremely dangerous consequences, this is a manifestation of Washington's readiness to continuously lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons. We would like to warn U.S. colleagues once again against this perfunctory approach to their doctrinal view of nuclear weapons and the admissibility of their use. But the general inclination of Washington to believe that it alone is right, that any alternative opinions are ruled out, and that those who have a different idea of the events and give different interpretations should be pressured - this inclination prevails in the U.S. foreign policy, its various aspects, and I think we won't be able to get rid of it even after the inauguration of the next U.S. president. This increases risks to international security, complicates normal interstate communication and, clearly, does not improve the prospects for Russian-U.S. relations.

Q.: But still the majority of our proposals have been on the U.S. table for a long time. What do we expect from the Biden administration given that members of his team are known to Moscow? What will be the priorities in our relations?

A.: We obviously do not expect anything good. It would be strange to expect anything good from people, many of whom have built their careers on Russophobia, and slinging mud at my country. Therefore, if they show their own, so-to-say, vested interest in having a meaningful discussion with us, not by means of slogans but a substantive conversation, we will always be ready for that. But if ideologization of relations with Russia and formation of the approach to Russia as a strategic rival, adversary, or enemy, you name it, continue, then we will treat them accordingly.

In my opinion, the Russian Federation should shift to the two-track approach, which implies total deterrence of the United States in all areas, considering that the U.S. policy on Russia is deeply hostile and contravenes our fundamental interests. That is the first track, deterrence. The other track is the selective dialogue, the engagement with the United States only in those areas that are interesting to us, instead of the areas interesting to them only. As we take this path, I think there may be some grounds for a phased normalization of relations with Washington.

Q.: And do they need us?

A.: I don’t care.

Q.: They are closing consulates general. Is this a sign of them losing even more interest in us, or not?

A.: Probably. I think this could well be the case. But the main thing is that this should not cause us any anxiety. This should not turn into a topic for our internal discussions, in my opinion.Of course, it's a pity that consular service will grow complicated for those who need to apply to U.S. consulates due to certain circumstances, interests, connections, or contacts. But, in the end, it is not us, it is not the Russian side who should be blamed for the fact that people, say, from the Far Eastern Federal District, will have to file their visa applications with the consular department of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

I do not rule out that the U.S. side has done that on purpose, but many logical moves and chains of arguments in favor of particular decisions made in the U.S. system the way it exists nowadays are not obvious to me, and I'd rather not interpret them. I know for sure there was no interest in normalizing relations with the Russian Federation when the Trump administration was in office. 

These relations were affected greatly by a group of officials and politicians who really think that Russia is an adversary and that, subsequently, just methods of pressure can work with Russia, and they are deeply mistaken and the whole practice of our relations prove the falsehood of these considerations. And the third thing is that in general the level of expertise and approach to foreign political issues, in my opinion, has considerably declined in Washington over the past few years. Consequently, the risk of miscalculations and mistakes has grown, and the Americans have made quite many of them recently, in particular regarding Russia.

Q.: Will we somehow respond to tougher export control? For example, the U.S. has toughened restrictions against two of our space companies. Could we for example stop supplying RD rocket engines to them, or something else? Or will we leave this unanswered?

A.: No, they will stop buying the rocket engines themselves. They have created a certain reserve of those engines for a period comfortable for them. They are not denying plans to sever our cooperation in all areas for two reasons. The first reason is to weaken the 'dependence' developed by them for objective reasons in certain cooperation areas, including the space industry, the dependence on us, Russia. But this is no dependence, this is mutually advantageous cooperation, in my opinion.

Secondly, there is a mere ideologized approach, according to which Russia should be deprived of all income and pushed out of any market, starting with their own; this is simply a guideline.You see? Whenever we tell the Americans that the whole thing looks quite unbecoming, they simply do not understand what we are saying. What do you mean by saying unbecoming? If you are adversaries, you should sit in your trench, while we will do everything we can to make things worse and more difficult for you. This is the essence of the U.S. policy on Russia, it is crystal clear. This is what we should proceed from and we have no illusions about who we are dealing with on the other side. The situation will fully persist under the new administration.

I think it's a long-term trend. And now is a to a certain extent a historical moment of truth, when the masks slip and when there is no need to cover with empty words some things that have become obvious recently. This is what is called the naked truth of life. It should be perceived in all of its diversity as it is.

Q.: And do you mean to scale down cooperation ties in all spheres?

A.: The U.S. is determined to not just deprive us of the opportunity to interact as usual in various spheres, but to hinder our usual interaction with the rest of the world. This is one of the key elements of Washington's policy on Russia.

Q.: The main intrigue for the immediate future in the Biden administration is the future of the New START. Taking into account everything that Moscow has said at various levels, just as well as the absence of contacts with the future administration,as you have said, it turns out that there will be just two weeks, 15 days, to extend the treaty after January 20. If the Biden administration expresses readiness to extend the treaty, it is possible to do it in 15 days? Are there any mechanisms for this?

A.: In my view, it's impossible within this time to ratify an extension agreement, which is analogous to the full ratification of an international treaty. I wouldn't like to dwell upon some options, which could probably be discussed, but for such a discussion to happen, it should be understood what the next U.S. administration is prepared for. We've had no messages from that side except for what the media have reported and except for what was said, so to speak, during Biden's campaign.

Meanwhile, December 20 marks exactly one year after Russia handed an official note to the United States proposing that the treaty be extended for five years without preconditions. There's been no answer. Perhaps there'll be none within the upcoming months, either. But we won't ask again, or otherwise there could be a false impression from discussing the matter that we are concerned about this situation more than the other side.

The New START is a result of joint efforts and joint work, and this is one of the few documents existing in relations between Russia and the U.S. that, as acknowledged by those who deal with the matter professionally, has not yet exhausted its resource and can actually continue to serve both Russian and U.S. national interests. If the U.S. is unwilling to extend this document in the shape it was signed, then it means that interests and approaches having nothing to do with the goal of ensuring strong military security in its current attitude toward the treaty. This means that there are a lot of circumstantial factors there. It most likely is the case. Whether anything will change after the next U.S. president's inauguration is an open question. There is a significant aspect here, namely that we won't beg or entreat anyone to do anything, because the document is balanced, and there are no one-sided advantages for Russia in it. On the contrary, I'd like to tell you that, when the treaty was discussed and ratified in the Federal Assembly, there were some questions on a number of the document's aspects to the executive branch, to its authors - to those who negotiated it.

But similarly, some questions were also asked in Washington - I mean not the same questions, but identical ones in extent. This indicates that the document provides for the right and stable balance of interests, I mean really a balance. We are interested in preserving this agreement no more than the U.S. If the U.S. discards it, we will deal with this as a fait accompli. In the final analysis, the question is what Washington is going to do and how, while technical options for formalizing an extension do exist. They are complicated due to time pressure, but this issue is not hopeless.

Q.: President Vladimir Putin said at the press conference that the arms race was already on. This did not fail to draw attention as previously we used to say that we would not engage in any arms race, that we were not interested in this and that we would in any way try to avoid this. Does it turn out in the New START context that should the treaty not be preserved an uncontrolled arms race would be unleashed? And in general. Can the New START stop the arms race or somehow restrain it? Or a broader treaty is needed?

A.: We've always said, and this fully remains valid, that we won't let ourselves be dragged into a costly arms race. We've said we've laid the solid groundwork, and we already have some weapon models, something has already been put on combat duty, and something's in the pipeline, which will guarantee our security in the foreseeable future.

The Russian president has spoken on the matter clearly and unambiguously, based on the premise that he has also formulated - that if the U.S. hadn't quit the [Anti-Ballistic Missile] ABM Treaty, there would've been nothing of what actually happened from 2002 to 2020 as concerns the creation by Russia of weapon systems and types that no other countries have now, including the U.S. And an appropriate assessment was made from this point of view.

But I'd like to warn you against a simplistic view on this process, as you can hear from time to time that these cycles will continue endlessly, and the U.S. has far more powerful resources to win this new race. This won't happen. Firstly, because there is such a thing as lessons of the past, and secondly, because asymmetry has manifested itself more and more, including in the strategic stability field. And the logic that worked some time ago, that a warhead on one side must be counterbalanced by just the same one on the other, that there must be a quantitative parity, that there must be a parity in systems, and that all of this must be equalized exactly this way - perhaps this logic belongs to some other era, after all.

And non-linear answers are quite possible nowadays, and that's why we are saying that multiple factors should be taken into consideration in our further efforts toward formulating a new strategic stability equation. This is a complex process, which takes time and thoughtful analysis, and no experience exists yet in comparing capabilities either quantitatively or qualitatively and determining where this equilibrium can ultimately be achieved to negotiate arms control in new conditions. This is what we are calling for.

As this process takes a lot of effort and time, certainly, in defining an optimal timeframe, it would probably be correct to have a valid New START, so as to make sure there is no such buildup at least in the spheres covered by this treaty and on systems that are not listed as super-advanced but which make up what we call the core of nuclear deterrence, as we know it today. In my view, this is quite sensible human logic. Until we invent something new, until we invent a petrol engine, let's drive a steam engine, something like that. Why break down everything that is available now and then wait to create something new one day?

Q.: Imagine that the New START ceases to exist on February 5, could Russia give guarantees to the international community that it would not build up its nuclear arsenals? It seems that there would be no international transparency mechanism, is that right? Will we be in a black box, will the Americans be in the black box, and will the world fail to know what is happening in the nuclear sphere?

A.: To begin with, there are national technical control means which allow to a large extent have a rather precise, let me say, understanding of what is happening in this sphere. And the system of verification measures that is envisaged by the New START – inspections, shows and so on – given that it is a multi-layer, a multi-element one, does not eradicate national technical control means. Probably, it even complements them. Secondly, it is always possible to negotiate. In fact, in the absence of the New START we propose to negotiate the verification of mutual non-deployment moratoriums.

Speaking at the expanded meeting of the Defense Ministry's board, the president again raised the issue of these moratoriums. The extreme ideologization of approaches of the U.S. and its NATO allies to this idea makes them unable to perceive these proposals as an open door through which it is possible to enter. If they really were more preoccupied with Europe's security, the security of Asian regions, nothing would hinder them from saying, 'Okay, Russians, we don't believe you, let's try to negotiate regulations governing the checks of the absence of such systems in the aforementioned regions. Let's at least discuss this topic.' But they say, 'you have already made a system, you must destroy it, and, well, it is so mobile that in fact there is no need to further discussions because you still can redeploy it from one place to another.' As if these gravity bombs stored in four countries of NATO allies in Europe intended to be used by aircraft, as if they are nuclear bombs dug in someone's garden, cannot be redeployed anywhere. This reflects the unwillingness to seriously address important things.

We are ready to discuss any scheme in the arms control sphere on just one condition – there must be no ultimatums, there must be no unilateral demands. There should be to a large extent a sane balance and normal approach. The same thing is in the New START sphere. If it turns out that there is no more treaty after February 5, a new situation would emerge. The sky would not fall on the earth, this does not mean that everything would change on February 6, that we would run to bomb shelters and air raid sirens would scream. There will be nothing of the kind. But then we would have to look for another base for reaching fragmented agreements, in segments, in some other configurations. This is difficult. Probably, this is possible but why looking for a bypass if these complications could be avoided?

Q.: But can we somehow guarantee to the international community that we will not build up our arms more than it is needed?

A.: Yes, this is the key thing. In our military building policy, including the strategic area, we will be guided exclusively by the task of guaranteed provision of our security, not to excess, but to be sure that no one, not a single potential adversary can encroach on our security.

Q.: Are we ready to work to convince the Iranians that there should be no preconditions for the U.S. return to the JCPOA? How lawful are Iran's demands that the U.S. pay possible financial compensations in this case? The IAEA general director said that some kind of additional protocols will be needed to relaunch this agreement.

A.: I have not heard about any preconditions on Iran's part. I know for a fact that Iran has pretty formally declared a readiness for the swift, instantaneous resumption of the full-scale implementation of the JCPOA - and please note that for now Iran has been deviating from the JCPOA terms only in regard to its voluntary obligations - for the instantaneous return to the JCPOA as soon as that is done by the United States. I suspect that the United States will be insisting on the reverse sequence: let Iran come back first, and our return will follow.

I am not speaking of the possible appearance of any additional requirements, I am simply speaking of the situation when both sides, Washington and Tehran, decide that the JCPOA should better be preserved the way it was signed and was in effect since then. By the way, we also speak in favor of this. Perhaps, in that case, it would be right to prepare beforehand a certain plan, a schedule, a 'roadmap' regarding the sequence of steps in order not to find ourselves in a situation of the endless dispute on who should take the first step, who should blink first, etc. Actually, we have spoken in favor of this.

In the past, Russia, Minister [Sergei] Lavrov, proposed that the JCPOA be developed on the phased and reciprocal principles, and those principles served as the deal's basis. Now, we probably can graphically present the phased and reciprocal principles in reverse, as a way to resume the implementation. I would say that this natural political-mathematic approach suggests itself, there is nothing unusual about it, and we speak in its favor. But if attempts are made to add something to the existent deal, then, perhaps, the situation will deteriorate dramatically. So, we believe it is wrong and untimely to propose such ideas as JCPOA+.

The Iranians also indicate their interest, firstly, in receiving economic gains from the deal, which they have been deprived of, especially after the Trump administration quit the JCPOA in May 2018. As I understand, other aspects of this vast agenda, which our Western colleagues are talking about, are being rejected by Tehran. Generally, I am inclined to admit that the Iranians have their logic: there are relevant formats for various aspects of the issues, which we discuss irrespective of the JCPOA, and this is where they should be addressed. We have proposed a security concept for the Persian Gulf and a platform for its discussion. The Chinese have made proposals, and the Iranians have put forward a security initiative for the Ormuz Strait; there is experience of holding the relevant dialogue under the aegis of the European External Action Service with the participation of Iran and some other countries. All that could be organized if necessary, but the reinstatement of the JCPOA activity the way the deal was signed should be the primary objective. There is need for a certain algorithm, which could be coordinated, of course, on condition that the next U.S. administration shows an interest in doing so, instead of being the prisoner of the policy of utmost pressure, the pressure by sanctions the way it was practiced by the Trump administration for quite some time.