21 Dec 2021

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: Russian security proposals not an ultimatum to the West but a serious warning

Sergei Ryabkov

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

Russia published two draft agreements with the United States and NATO on security guarantees last Friday and called for substantial negotiations on these documents to begin as soon as possible. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has given an interview to Interfax in which he discusses the essence of this message from Russia to the West and what prompted Moscow to take this step, as well as other issues in Russian-U.S. relations.

Question: Could our security guarantee proposals to the U.S. and NATO be viewed as an ultimatum to the West, a last chance to make them understand and a last warning for them to stop?

Answer: We are not speaking the language of ultimatums with anyone. We are addressing our own security and the security of others very responsibly. The point is not whether we have issued an ultimatum, not at all, but the seriousness of our warning that cannot be underestimated.

Indeed, the security situation in Europe, the Euro-Atlantic region and Eurasia has deteriorated greatly. This is because of a series of targeted actions of the U.S. and its NATO allies, which in general could be called an attempt to undermine Russia's security and an attempt to create hostile environment around us. We cannot accept this.

Ukraine has found itself in the epicenter, in the focus of these policies. It's not independent in its decisions, this depends very much on the situation. Seeing unconditional and unequivocal support from the West, some people in Kyiv playing to the worst Western objectives and formulas. We categorically cannot accept the prospect of this country joiningNATO, which comes over rather clearly from the statements of Ukrainian officials. We will counter this.

We reject the very possibility of raising the issue this way. We can discuss the pros and cons, but we demand an unequivocal revocation of the notorious decision of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members. This must be revoked, revised and after that it will be possible to say that a small, if not comprehensive step in the right direction has been made. The West shows no readiness for this. This is why our proposals that arecomprehensive, all-inclusive raise before, first of all, the U.S. and also their allies issues that require immediate solution. We are following their reaction. That reaction is not encouraging so far. We are ready for negotiations on this basis, but so far we can see that our proposals have been rejected on far-fetched pretexts.

The recent statement of the NATO Council [of December 16] is a clear proof of this. Ninety percent of the text is just a repetition of ultimatums against Russia. We are issuing no ultimatums to anyone and won't allow anyone to speak this way to us. And it goes on to say that what Russia demands, what it is demanding – this is not an outstretched hand, this is our firm demand – this allegedly has nothing to do with NATO activity. NATO will decide itself who to admit and who not to. And that relations of Ukraine with NATO concern this country alone and 30 NATO member states.

No, this affects Russia to a far larger extent. I’m stating this clearly. The time of diplomatic phraseology has passed. We have to explain to people what is what in elementary terms. This, Ukraine's NATO prospects, first of all affects the Russian Federation.

Q.: Are we setting any deadlines for a response? And do we have a Plan B if the proposals are rejected?

A.: We are setting no deadlines. We invite them to hold the negotiations without any delay. I was ready to be in Geneva today for talks with [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen] Ms Donfried or the group that Washington will form to this end instead of meeting with you. We told the Americans that our interdepartmental delegation at these talks is led by the deputy minister who oversees this, and they are aware of this. We are waiting for a reply. We could go to any place they choose at any time. As soon as tomorrow. We need hardly any time to get ready. Everything is ready on our part. There is the position, we have worked on it for a certain time, which is why there are no technical, political or organizational obstacles for the soonest possible launch of these negotiations.

As for Plan B, we still hope that the other side will show a serious approach. We understand that time is needed to read all this, understand it and discuss it. As far I understand both NATO and the EU have held certain discussions on this topic recently [December 16]. This is easy to understand. However, in general, confirmation of readiness to meet urgently and to hold certain negotiations on the basis of our relevant documents and within the framework that we set would be a good reply. And it is by no means certain – and we know that from the experience of many negotiations – that we will agree on something right away, in a few days. No, these are serious issues. But the process needs to be started urgently, because the situation in all its complexity and with regard to an array of problems cannot be delayed.

Q.: You said that Russia understands that it is impossible to reach an agreement at once. Does this mean that Moscow is ready to make compromises and reach agreements?

A.: This issue was discussed repeatedly, over past days, including in our contacts both with American representatives and via other channels. What we cannot understand is essence of the position of the Americans when they say that we must, for instance with regard to the Minsk Agreements, do this and that. For several months now we have been trying to get them to put on paper for us what exactly they mean. They have not done so. I don't know whether they cannot or don't want to do that. They keep publishing same statements, quite straightforward and unyielding. Judging by what is written in those statements, reaching agreement on such a basis is impossible, of course. But any negotiation is always a search for compromise. And the question is not whether there is a will to agree - it is there on our part - but the question is whether we see such will from the other side.

Of course we say absolutely sincerely, firmly, confidently that there is nothing far-fetched in these texts [of a draft treaty with the U.S. and a security guarantees agreement with NATO]. This is a rhetoric-free, legally-worded position of the Russian Federation on those issues which affect our core security interests. Nothing more, nothing less. That's exactly how it should be treated.

So, when we say that we need security guarantees, we are, naturally, working on the premise that the reply will be such as to allow [us] to say: there, we've made such progress in resolving this package of key issues that the security situation for us has changed substantially for the better, changed drastically for the better, we are not feeling concerned about what might happen next in relation to the non-stop activity to build up exercises, create infrastructure, redeploy troops, reconnaissance flights, development of territories and so on and so forth, practically across the whole western sector, especially in the Baltic and Black seas lately.

Through documents like this and their conclusion the situation here can be stabilized. And improved. But without them, the situation will remain extremely complicated and tense. No one should underestimate Moscow's resolve to defend its national security interests. No one should take lightly our stating the danger of what is happening.

Q.: Is it about mutual guarantees? Is Moscow ready to provide them?

A.: And do you think that we should draft security guarantees for NATO? I'm not sure they need them at all. NATO acts in the security sphere in such a way that the indivisibility of the security of the North Atlantic community alone has long been declared. It has long been said that they doing what they consider necessary to do to protect themselves from external challenges and threats – imagined or real ones. Nevertheless they say that they are dealing with their own security.

And we are dealing with our own security. But the problem and the difference is that we suggest reaching agreements at the same time. We certainly won't be drafting NATO’s position - what for instance will they receive if they meet us half-way. This is ridiculous. We won't, and this would be methodologically incorrect. So far there is no readiness on that side to even begin negotiations. But let's look what will happen in the future. If they come up with any real position, then this will be called real negotiations, which, as I hope, will soon take place behind closed doors.

Q.: And what about guarantees of, for example, not attacking Ukraine or any other actions against this country?

A.: They demand we take action in our territory, and such demands are naturally rejected by us, both in essence and form. The demands are unacceptable and inappropriate. And they're not asking for any additional security guarantees from us in this context. We have already provided all relevant guarantees when the Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994.

And I draw your attention to our Ukrainian colleagues' turning the meaning of the Budapest Memorandum upside down with the complicity of their Western sponsors. The Budapest Memorandum guaranteesUkraine's security as a non-nuclear state in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And all guarantees are ensured from this viewpoint. But the Budapest Memorandum does not make the slightest mention of the coups in Ukraine or subsequent actions, or the possibility that some of the population, which lived within the borders of Ukraine at the time, should decide whether they should continue living there or return to the Russian Federation.

The Budapest Memorandum is not about that. It is strictly about security guarantees for Ukraine as a non-nuclear state. And the Foreign Ministry has repeatedly mentioned it, now there is just another reason to give a reminder about this.

Q.: If we look at the worst-case scenario, which seems to remain on the table, where the Americans refuse to give Russia security guarantees, does this mean that Moscow will have a free hand, for example, regarding Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's proposal to deploy Russian nuclear arms in Belarus?

A.: We are extremely responsible as far as our obligations on all treaties that Russia signed are concerned. There are relevant obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). At the same time, I pay attention to the fact that the question we have been putting to NATO for many years, that the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in NATO member states that the NPT deems to be non-nuclear - not just deployment but exercises in using nuclear weapons involving personnel and equipment of these countries – is in our opinion deeply at odds with the NPT. They answer, no it isn't. They say when the NPT under discussion the Soviet delegation accepted the Western interpretation. But it didn't. We have looked in archives, and our position is there. We, Moscow, the Soviet Union, expressed our approach back then and this is reflected in minutes of the negotiations. But in the interests of concluding the treaty this issue was left as it was, every side with its own position. So, we had our position for 50 years, and they had theirs. That is why I'm drawing no parallels with Belarus, I'm just reminding you that there are options for addressing such claims of the other side in such issues.

Q.: You mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis, which involved nuclear weapons as well...

A.: The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most difficult moment in the entire history of the Cold War, when the world was actually on the verge of a nuclear conflict. A lot has been done in arms control and not just there, but also in understanding the concepts and doctrines of the use of nuclear weapons, since then, so it is impossible to simply discard this experience and end up, frankly speaking, in 1962 again.

But the lightness with which our opponents in NATO approach the deployment of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons where there's growing uncertainly, vagueness, where the threshold is lower,including by means of capacities, in other words, thinking logically, what they are doing makes it easier to go about using nuclear weapons, including in combat - we clearly see all of that and we're not just opposed to it, but also concerned about it.

We call for embarking on a different path. For instance, the one which we tried with the Biden administration when a joint statement on the inadmissibility of a nuclear war was issued.

But risks of escalation exist, risks of incidents exist, they cannot be ignored and disregarded, they must be addressed and we're also calling for this.

Instead, we're reading a lot of moralizing in various texts issued by our opponents. That moralizing doesnot change our stance, I would say that they only strengthen it. On the other hand, they expose the unwillingness of the other side, the U.S. in the first place, to address real threats to security.

Q.: It was reported earlier that the U.S. is talking the EU into synchronizing tough financial and economic measures against Russia. Do we have tools to respond to such measures, and will sanctions affect our position on security guarantees negotiations?

A.: We encounter this constantly. It is clear that we got used [to it], have adapted to it. I don't want to kind of joke about what is happening, because all this is not very good. The Western community’s programmed, differently formatted policy actions on Russia are striking. The impression is that there people who participate in these discussions are obsessed with the idea of collective responsibility for what is happening, i.e. no one can or wants to offer any alternative, everything just goes the way it goes. This is something one has to put up with, and apparently, this will continue because those who hope for the possibility of Russia giving consideration to the West's demands as a condition for some steps on the sanctions track are naive, not to mention that there is practically no experience of lifting sanctions, once imposed. But that's a separate big topic, and quite a revealing one as well. But to the other topic. The West's routine claims about readiness to develop constructive relations with Russia and hold a constructive dialogue with us, as long as Russia does what the West insists upon, are worthless. They are expressed in different ways, the most terse and concise form being that the choice is Russia's, we the West are ready, the choice is Russia's.

Yes, okay, we re-read it, this made our eyes even sorer, nothing more - that's all we got from it.

Q.: But still, will sanctions affect the security guarantees negotiations?

A.: Essentially, we are proposing to agree on those aspects of the situation in the sphere of hard security,which is now of the biggest concern. All this is a product of the constant, inexorable NATO enlargement eastward, recently accompanied and supplemented by military and military-technical expansion into countries near us that are not formally in NATO. All this is accompanied, moreover, by increased provocative activities, openly provocative, designed to test our reaction, its toughness or, conversely, readiness to somehow modify our approach, i.e. if I did not engage in diplomacy, I would have called all this teetering on the edge of war. But I would not like to go into this in my assessments and reasoning. We don't want it, we don't need a conflict, what we want is to agree on a sound basis, i.e. shift all this activity and all this wide-ranging activity, largely anti-Russian, if not entirely malicious and premeditated, where roles are being assigned, to shift it farther away from ourselves in order to obtain some kind of guarantees of normal co-existence in this space and in this area.

It is why sanctions or some of our other tracks of work do not fit into this logic. This is an independent, standalone set of issues which we have now formulated and done so in a fairly direct and comprehensible form for our opponents, thereby showing, among other things, that this is no joke, this needs to be addressed now, tomorrow.

Q.: Are the 'sanctions from hell' hat the Western countries threaten us with a threat to our security?

A.: I would like to share an observation in this context. Not so long ago, one year, one and a half, two years ago, some topics similar to the one that you mentioned were discussed in the West with, as we thought, if not some inner trepidation, but at least with the understanding that they deal with some fundamental, very serious things. And now there is the-called Bucharest Nine, the most anti-Russian wing in NATO and the EU, with which the White House recently held special consultations, apparently explaining its own interpretations of our suggestions - I don't know, I just hypothesize. It is they who are imposing the intra-NATO, intra-EU narrative, which Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose 200th birthday we recently celebrated, would describe as “anything goes,' literally anything. The people are simply pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and appropriate for them while discussing various issues. But they somehow disregard the fact that we, acting by the same logic as NATO, would take care of our security, we would start pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable for us sooner or later as well. We have already expressed ourselves slightly differently and will continue to do so. This is a serious matter.

Q.: For example, if they refuse, will be have our hands untied?

A.: We will find all possible means, ways and solutions needed to ensure security. We don't want a conflict and we want to negotiate on a reasonable basis. Any movement of a diplomatic nature, any initiative, any suggestion it is a test for those who are being approached of their ability to negotiate. Before we reach any conclusion on what to do next and what steps are possible, we need to be sure that the answer is negative. It could be a straight 'no,' it could be emotional to a varying degree, it could be neutral, whatever, I don't want to anticipate anything, I expect at least a relatively constructive answer and then we'll set out in terms of a dialogue and talks. It is yet unclear, but we will see how it ends up. And there will be further options, lots of them, in different areas. But it is simply counterproductive to talk about it now, this is why we are trying to focus attention on our own proposals.

Q.: So, security guarantees negotiations will be separate negotiations outside the framework of the strategic stability talks?

A.: We are offering a separate negotiating track, which is between interdepartmental delegations with the U.S.

Two rounds of the strategic stability dialogue have taken place. We are getting ready for a third one, we are working on our position, and we hope that we will move further in the direction of specifying possible solutions. Although a conversation, discussions on security guarantees will take place there as well, moreover, one of the two working groups is on Capabilities and Actions with Strategic Effects. NATO actions have a strategic effect which is negative for us. Something should be done about this, we should stop them. I hope we will address this though a separate channel, but discussions in that format will also take place with the U.S. I'm not talking about NATO now.

Q.: Do the Americans continue to insist on engaging China in our strategic stability dialogue, or do they want a separate U.S.-China channel to discuss these issues?

A.: I saw reports that influenced experts, including retired officials and analysts, had published several materials on the China factor and it, naturally, creates a certain background and context. But this subject was not mentioned during the meetings and discussions, as well as what is called simply contacts, that we had with the U.S. this year after the meeting of the presidents in June. My understanding is that the U.S. has certain channels to discuss arms control with Beijing, and there is also the five-sided format, the nuclear five, which holds useful events. And such work is also quite intensive now, ahead of the review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Hopefully, it yields some results which we will announce at the conference or in relation to it. And China is involved in it very actively, productively. In other words, we have no shortage ofvenues. As for our specific strategic dialogue, the dialogue on strategic stability with the U.S., the China factor emerges there at the U.S. initiative, but our policy remains the same, we respect China's stance and consider it the country's sovereign choice, as well as those of the UK and France, whose participation in this process we're really interested in. A sovereign choice deals with what those countries' national interests are and when those interests could converge with variousarms control formats. We're not going to force anyone to do anything. We're calling on the UK and France to be responsible about this situation. We cannot simply ignore the opportunities which U.S. allies have in various areas, like in NATO's case, and we'll be dealing with this, too.

Q.: Could visa consultations take place before the year-end?

A.: We don't have any consultations on the schedule before the end of the year. The embassies continue to discuss these issues. I want to confirm what was voiced several times, and what our Ambassador Anatoly Ivanov was talking about, and we here also mentioned that there is certain progress on some issues if secondary importance. There are some categories of travelers, such as guests of embassy employees, it's easier for them to acquire visas now. The situation with those temporarily posted for various assignments, for instance, to maintain buildings and so forth, has somewhat improved. Although there is also a tremendous room for improvement and a lot to do, but something, something not crucial, was improved, but there are no signs of rapprochement at all in relation to the main issues.

If the U.S. doesn't stop and demands that our employees leave before January 30, they will face the same and then, the second time, the equivalent, corresponding number of employees of their diplomatic mission will leave here too. And then it will result in the most severe personnel shortage on both sides. I don't know why the American side would want this. Since the beginning of time, embassies and consulates have always worked to maintain normal bilateral relations and to facilitate dialogue. Unfortunately, the visa issues have turned into an issue in relations.

We have never ceased to urge the Americans to try bringing this matter out of deadlock, but unsuccessfully so far. It is unclear how to interpret this approach that they show and why it is so uncompromising and disregards any obvious needs, including those of the U.S. side itself. Do they really think that we will unilaterally meet them halfway, when our people will not just be able to rotate or simply go to the U.S. and have to apply for visas in other countries, while they get what they want? This is simply goes against the logic on which diplomatic relations are based, not to mention the state of affairs in Moscow-Washington relations, if they hope for such things. This is one aspect.

Another – and it sometimes seems to me that our counterparts once underestimated our resolve to respond and to respond asymmetrically to theirconstant anti-Russian practical steps. When Russia got another series of absolutely unsubstantiated and illegitimate sanctions in April, in my opinion a quite balanced and wise decision to ban them from hiring local personnel was made. Since then, they have been linking all their destructive actions to that decision – not sending the appropriate number of consular officers which results in the non-issuance of visas or their issuance with huge difficulties, and many others. They also started to exert more pressure on our embassy as well.

But we are not even proposing to figure out who started it and who was responsible and for what, although there is an absolutely indisputable situation where we waited for many months back under the Obama administration without making any response to the initial expulsion of a large number of our personnel that happened then. But now, right now let's not waste time figuring out who did what, why and when. We just need to put the most problematic issues on hold and saythat while this is not happening let's use the time to find solutions. Had this happened, I don't think any Foreign Ministry employees who engage in relations with the United States would be here, because I would have been in Geneva at the security guarantees negotiations, and my colleagues here would have left the next day for various places, for Helsinki or to Vienna, in order to get rid of these visa irritants. Our wives would have forgiven us even if we are not back by the New Year.

Q.: So, there will be no visa consultations by the end of the year?

A.: No.

Q.: Russia is saying that it is demanding or will demand from the U.S. compensation for seizing our diplomatic premises and not letting us in to them. Is a legal compensation claim being drawn up? Has it been sent to the Americans? If so, what are the damages?

A.: The diplomatic property issue is being resolved. There has been no progress because of the U.S. position. We have emphasized this issue at all levels, I stress at all levels, including the highest one. There is no effect, no effect that we need. At this point of time we would like to particularly stress the need for our technical personnel to at least visit these premises in order to take stock and assess what happened, what damage was done, and what is left there and what is not. We don't know this, we aren’t allowed in there. And we will look in the future at what is possible regarding the steps you mentioned.

Q.: Moscow states that Russian-U.S. relations hit rock bottom during the last days of the Trump administration. Have we moved away from rock bottom almost one year after the Biden administration came to power in the U.S.? And secondly, you said in an interview with us last year that you expected nothing good in relations with the U.S. and that we need to switch to a dual-track approach in relations with the U.S., total deterrence, including in the military sphere, and selective dialogue. Is Moscow pursuing this policy now?

A.: With regard to whether we have hit rock bottom, I don't think we have, thank goodness, and in certain aspects there is still movement of sorts, and not everything is hopeless. But there are areas where potential for deterioration is evident. And this needs to be addressed before things fall apart further. Now, our proposals on security guarantees are a signal that, in the western direction generally, from the perspective of military-political aspects of security, there are many grounds for alarm. This needs to be addressed. Another area where we don't see reasons for much optimism is matters to do with bilateral irritants, with visas, and so on. Yet the way forward here is obvious. It does not even require any talks, just making a political decision before people gather and over the next few days to write down on paper a sequence of steps by this side or that. This, in principle, is very easy. U.S. reluctance to do this clearly attests to their lacking the political will to improve relations. So, in some places there is slight progress and we will extend this positivity, as much as possible; and in other places there are risks.

The dual-track approach, I think, is essentially the only possible way with Americans under the circumstances. But this is purely my subjective opinion. Our policy does not reproduce in the least what the West has for decades not just been practicing but declaring in respect of Moscow as the Soviet, and later Russian, capital.

The dual-track approach was for the first time stated in the report of [former Belgian Prime Minister and former Belgian Foreign Minister] Pierre Harmel in a NATO report in 1967. And they have adhered to it ever since. The same thing could be called different ways but the essence is the same. What is a Higgs boson? Is it a particle or field? It is both.

I am not getting caught up in my own words about the dual-track approach. I know one thing: we need to establish, as the Biden administration’s top officials like to say, a stable and predictable relationship with Moscow - well, we do need stable, predictable relations with Washington. This is achievable by demonstrating the seriousness of our approaches and intentions in various areas, but remaining open to dialogue. And the problem on that side often is, and it will, apparently, resurface now against the backdrop of our proposals, that while they are very good and skilled at demonstrating firmness, bordering on rudeness at times, they have very little readiness for dialogue. So, like in two communicating vessels, both sides, we too will be maintaining balance. Call it a dual-track approach or whatever, ours is the president's foreign policy: we abide by the decisions made by the head of our state.