26 May 2009

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov: Obama administration shows signs of easing position on strategic arms

Moscow says that Washington’s approach to offensive strategic arms instills hope and counts on the fact that the U.S. administration will take into consideration Russia’s position when a new treaty which is to replace START I which expires this December is worked on

“There are many signs that allow me to state with a sufficient level of certainty that the current administration will take into consideration our priorities and preferences to a larger extent than the George Bush administration,” Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax in an interview on Tuesday.

Asked whether he thinks that Washington is ready to reduce not only warheads but also delivery means and preserve verification mechanisms of the START I, the diplomat said: “I hope for this.”

The Russian side is at the level of first contacts with new U.S. disarmament negotiators, and “these contacts are rather intense,” he said. “Now it is too early to speak about what is happening in detail and what shifts can be seen in reality, because just the first exchange of approaches and positions is underway,” Ryabkov said.

“We have yet to reach the track of full-scale talks when the dialog gains tempo, intensity and when expert groups will work,” he said. “We are at the very beginning, but what we have at present instills hope,” the diplomat said.

The first Russian-U.S. consultations on strategic arms will take place in Rome on April 24, the deputy minister said. “This will be the first introductory visit on strategic arms. Russia will be represented by the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Security Affairs and Disarmament Director Anatoly Antonov. The U.S. side will be represented by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller,” he said.

“The discussion of this topic will continue after the Rome meeting during Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Washington in May,” he added.

Describing Russian-U.S. relations, Ryabkov said that “everything is going smoothly, and the tone which has changed after the new U.S. administration came to power has been maintained.”

“The tone is positive, which is a plus as it is. But the main thing is that one manages to realize some declarations on mutual aspiration to promote relations,” the diplomat said.

“Results of the London meeting of the Russian and U.S. presidents, two statements by the presidents, the atmosphere of the discussion, mutual aspiration to fully prepare and hold Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow in July are the first achievements on the way to making something real of the ‘reset slogan,” Ryabkov said.

“The notion ‘rest has become slightly soiled. But this does not change its essence,” Ryabkov said. “Today the issue is about trying to give a new look to the whole range of bilateral relations and defining the base on which current problems can be resolved,” he said. “This succeeds. But it is common knowledge that the first swallow does not make spring. We should bolster the dialog, and we are ready to interact with the U.S. in this manner,” Ryabkov said.

He also said that there was no reason for a drastic reduction of offensive strategic arms.

“I do not think that anything supernatural will happen from the viewpoint of reducing these parameters. Preconditions for this have yet to mature, and in my opinion there is no reason to speak about such drastic reductions,” Ryabkov said, commenting on the opinion of some experts that Russia and the United States could reduce their nuclear potential down to 1,000 units or even less.

Asked about Russia’s readiness to reduce arms ‘ceilings’ down to these figures, the diplomat said: “A thousand or five hundred units are not the figures we can hear from the U.S. side when it states its official position.”

Any figure can be hypothetically discussed, but one should bear in mind that the lower we go as to the number of warheads and delivery means, the more serious issues linked to missile defense and the strategic potential of other nuclear powers appear,” Ryabkov said.

“The logic of strategic stability impedes the further movement in the direction of reducing the potentials,” he said, adding that “one should be realistic and should not set tasks that knowingly cannot be fulfilled.”

Ryabkov abstained from answering the question to which level Russia is ready to reduce its nuclear potential, stressing that this issue will be a subject for discussions with the U.S. side. “It is easy to understand that there is no possibility in announcing any figures, moreover in public,” the diplomat said.

It is "impossible" and would be "counterproductive" to draw other nuclear powers into Russian-U.S. talks on proposed reductions of strategic offensive armaments, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister said.

"That is impossible at the current time. We are holding negotiations with the United States on a new framework for our joint action in reducing offensive armaments. Before any agreement has been reached and has begun to be put into practice, it would be counterproductive, in my view, to make any other proposal, including proposing that the format of such negotiations be extended and other nuclear powers be drawn into it," Ryabkov said

"After all, it does remain a fact that today the strategic nuclear potentials of the United States and Russia seriously exceed those of other countries," he said.

"We do nOt believe there is any reason for anyone else beside Russia and the United States to join in discussing these subjects, which are traditionally dealt with in a bilateral format," the deputy foreign minister said.

Ryabkov said he foresaw "serious debates on this subject, including at the Review Conference of the [Parties to the] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons."

"I would like to take this opportunity to draw attention to the Russian proposal for imparting a universal character to the treaty on intermediate- and shorter-range missiles [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or INF]," he said.

"So far we have not heard any coherent reaction from other countries that have [such weapons], nor have we seen readiness on their part to join in the process of universalization of the INF treaty," Ryabkov said.

"With time, those states would also have to agree to get down in earnest to self-limitations or contractual limitations in the strategic armaments sphere. At this stage, progress is possible without their participation. But afterward it will be unavoidable," he said.

At the same time Ryabkov noted that Moscow doubted that the United States would revise its plans of deploying elements of its missile defense and has stated that the U.S. side bolstered work in this sphere in particular in the NATO format.

“The U.S. side has not revised its plans. I do not think that this may happen. On the contrary, we can see that work in the missile defense area has intensified, including in the NATO format,” Minister Ryabkov said.

The diplomat said he does not think that the issue of deploying U.S. missile defense elements in Eastern Europe has stopped in midair. “Firstly, talks that schedules of deploying missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic could shift appeared at the dusk of the previous administration. Secondly, we do not have any more details from the new administration in addition to what has already been announced,” Ryabkov said.

The diplomat pointed out that Washington earlier intended to examine the balance between the technical efficiency of the project and its costs, as well as to take into consideration results of the tests.

“And I cannot say that this position of the U.S. side is understood as a large shift. There nothing particular to be happy with,” Ryabkov said.

Russia has not changed its position regarding the U.S. plans to deploy missile defense facilities in Europe and will deploy Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad territory if this happens, said Ryabkov.

"Nobody has changed this position. I would only add that, if there is no third phase [of the U.S. global missile defense system], then there will be no Iskanders," Ryabkov said.

"We are far from seeking to put them there. We really do not want to do that," he said.

In commenting on Washington‘s declared willingness to reconsider its approaches toward missile defense in case the Iranian nuclear problem is resolved, Ryabkov said, "We have never agreed that the building of the third phase of the U.S. strategic missile defense system has been prompted by a missile or nuclear threat emanating from Iran."

Russia has "a somewhat different approach toward the qualification of this threat than the U.S. administration does," he said.

"What is more important to us is that the potential of the third phase of the missile defense system undeniably threatens the Russian strategic potential. These are the fundamentals. It seems to me that everybody understands this now," Ryabkov said.

"We do not see any signs indicating that Iran is approaching the possession of nuclear weapons," Ryabkov said.

"I am saying this absolutely responsibly. Moreover, I presume that Iran, as a non-nuclear state and a signatory to the NPT [the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] should have the right to civilian development of its nuclear power industry as well as all other rights under the NPT," he said.

Therefore, "any attempts to build a policy based on the U.S.‘ mistrust in Iran, which could, say, raise questions and cause doubts among other members of the international community, do not promote the resolution of the problem itself," Ryabkov said.

"The problem can be boiled down to the restoration of confidence in the purely civilian nature of Iran‘s nuclear activities. Therefore, there is no subject for bargaining or trading here," Ryabkov said.

Moscow is still concerned over the fact that the U.S. is not destroying its nuclear warheads but stockpiling them in implementing the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT Ryabkov said also.

"This is a very important subject. We still disagree with the idea that restrictions apply only to operationally deployed warheads. We cannot be indifferent to what happens to the warheads that are not deployed on means of their delivery but that are stockpiled," Ryabkov said.

"We could not find a common language on this issue with the previous U.S. administration," Ryabkov said.

"We hope that the new administration sees fit to take a constructive look at this issue. We will continue to bring it up," he said.

Asked whether the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty will make sense if the U.S. and Russia sign an agreement replacing the expiring Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START), Ryabkov said, "As regards SORT, this treaty has worked and existed only in connection with START-1."

"SORT has made sense as a way to lower the ceilings of warheads in the context of the agreements stipulated by START," he said.

"However, SORT would turn into a pointless text without START," he said.

Ryabkov also commented on U.S. cruise missiles not armed with nuclear warheads, that are not subject to START.

"The U.S. has a program that envisions the rearmament of the submarine fleet with conventional, that is, non-nuclear, cruise missiles. This is a serious issue, and we deem it important in the process of negotiations with the U.S. to find out how much the new administration is willing in principle to deal with the very problem of strategic non-nuclear weapons as a subject of a future treaty," he said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister said also that the NATO exercises planned to take place in Georgia in May were aimed at upgrading the Georgian armed forces‘ combat potential, and Moscow viewed them as support for an aggressor, said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

"Georgia is an aggressor, and we cannot characterize what is happening as something different than the provision of military and political support to an aggressor," Ryabkov said.

The essence of these exercises is "to train operational compatibility with the Georgian troops and the practicing of a number of tasks that would upgrade the Georgian armed forces‘ combat potential," he said.

"No matter how someone is trying to explain to us that these exercises were planned long ago, that these are not purely NATO exercises but exercises under the Partnership for Peace program, and that these are command post exercises, all these arguments sound cheap and unconvincing," Ryabkov said.

The diplomat also expressed Russian concern over U.S. military support for Georgia. "In our view, this obviously violates a number of agreements that were reached together with the U.S. and other countries. In particular, the matter involves the Wassenaar Arrangement on control over weapons exports and at least two OSCE documents that stipulate that countries should refrain from shipping weapons to conflict areas," he said.

The exercises under NATO auspices will be conducted in Georgia on May 6-June 1.

NATO Press Officer Robert Pszczel told Interfax earlier that the exercises had been planned long ago and have nothing to do with the current political situation in that country.