U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman: We don’t need a summit today, we need more open doors more immediately
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, who arrived on his mission to Moscow last fall, has given an interview to chief of the Interfax‘s foreign political desk Olga Golovanova ahead of the publication of the so-called "Kremlin dossier". He called on to take this report without emotions and expressed Washington‘s desire to work together with Moscow on the elimination of sanctions. He also confirmed U.S. commitment to the New START Treaty and cut short suggestions that Washington may quit INF Treaty. He also said about what should happen for a U.S.-Russian summit take place.
Question: Mr. Ambassador, let me ask you about the upcoming "package of sanctions" fr om the "Kremlin dossier". Will referral of the "dossier" that consists of several parts – and it is expected that it will include a list of tycoons close to the Russian leadership, measures against Russian special services, army and defense industry, and measures against Russia‘s financial sector and sovereign bonds - to the Congress, which is due on January 29, mean that the content of this "dossier" will be made public? Will this mean that sanctions in all the aforementioned spheres will definitely follow such a "dossier"?
Answer: It is important to understand what this effort is versus what it is not. I remember six months ago when Congress voted 98 to two on the consolidation of these sanctions. Six months ago. So what we are looking for on January 29 is nothing new. It is simply the fulfillment of the vote that was taken back in August . Some are calling it a ‘list’ and they’re calling it things that it really is not. The legislation itself calls for the Secretary of Treasury to consult with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence to produce a report, and the report is then transmitted to Congress. Congress then determines how they’re going to communicate that report. That’s completely up to Congress. They may make it public, they may hold it close – it’s hard to know. So I would encourage people to think about it in terms of what it is versus what it is not and to take emotion out of this discussion. Because there is so much more to our relationship than this piece of legislation. And I was reminded of that when I went to Washington two weeks ago. I saw leaders in Congress, and I saw leaders in the executive branch. So many important policy makers and decision makers, and they all have a keen interest in seeing this relationship work, the U.S.-Russia relationship. Because when we work together on issues that are important to us, to our people and the world, then the world is a better place and our people are better served. I didn‘t meet a single person who wants to see this relationship fail. They want to see it work, and they expect to see the U.S.-Russia relationship managed responsibly. So when I come here, my first thoughts are (I got here three months ago – almost four months ago) – my first thought was 2017 was the most difficult year, maybe in the history of our bilateral relationship. I think there was damage done in 2017 that we are still suffering fr om. When you take 727 people out of the U.S. Embassy, almost overnight, it really reduces our ability to manage and operate effectively, although we’re doing that with far fewer people who are working much harder. So I arrived at a very difficult time in the relationship and my goal, as I told all of the leaders in Washington who I saw, is to make sure that 2018 ends better and higher than where I found the relationship when I arrived, just a few months ago. I know that relationships go in cycles – they never stay flat. They go up and they go down, they oscillate. It’s also important to note that we have to build trust in our relationship and the only way we are going to do that is by working together on issues like Syria and arms control and Ukraine and other bilateral issues where we can show signs of progress, where people in Russia and people in America will say, “I knew that they could work together and succeed and achieve something.” Yes, we are going to have problems. Yes, some of those issues are going to be unresolvable. But no one says we have to resolve all of our issues. But we do have to make some progress. That is the expectation for me, the expectation for Ambassador Antonov in Washington, who I also saw, and I think that is the expectation fr om the American people and the Russian people. Not that we are going to solve all our issues, but that we are going to manage the relationship in a responsible fashion that reflects the best instincts and best desires of our people.
Q.: VTB chief Andrei Kostin said in Davos that he is deeply concerned over the upcoming sanctions saying that it will grow into economic, even not trade, war and the aim is to influence Russia with the goal to change government. Could you comment on that?
A.: I would love an opportunity to get around to talk to people and to have more doors open so I can explain what it is versus what it is not. At a time when our relationship is experiencing difficulties, we should be opening more doors. I should be getting in to see more people, including leaders in the business community, most of whom I have not seen. In his comments, he says, “These new sanctions…” I don‘t see any new sanctions. What I see is a report that is being transmitted to Congress that is consistent with what the legislation called for back in August. “Economic war”? These are words I just can’t relate to because we have a strong economic relationship that must be improved and we should be working to improve it instead of engaging in a war of words. We have two strong civilizations – two of the great civilizations in the history of the world – Russia and the United States. We have talented people. We have big land masses. We have raw materials. We have access to big markets. We should be building our economies. And on the sanctions question, we should be working to resolve sanctions. We should be taking the relationship in a way that creates an environment that is free and clear of sanctions. We should not expect to live in a world forever that is a sanctioned relationship. They are there for a reason, or Congress would not have voted 98 to two. I’ve never seen Congress vote 98 to two on anything. They are divided as Republicans and Democrats. So they looked at the reports and they looked at evidence and they voted on sanctions six months ago 98 to two. But fr om here on, in 2018, we should work toward resolving the issues that underlie the sanctions. We should not engage in a war of words on sanctions. That vote happened six months ago, and now we’re watching it come to fulfillment: the report that will be transmitted to Congress. And we should roll up our sleeves and begin working on issues like Ukraine and resolve some of the issues that have created the environment where we have some sanctions. That’s what I hope we find possible in 2018.
Q.: It was reported on Wednesday that Georgia received the first batch of U.S. Javelin anti-tank systems. Ukrainian officials say the U.S. promised to start supplying Javelins to Ukraine within six months. Is it so?
Russian authorities believe that this could lead to the further escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. What is your opinion? Is the U.S. going to play greater role in attempt to resolve the conflict in Ukraine?
A.: Well, I’ll let officials in those countries address the specifics. But we’re talking about sovereign nation states that have a right to defend themselves, like any sovereign nation state, and there is nothing to worry about in terms of conflict if there are no Russian troops present. Beyond that, we all believe in the Minsk accord. We have an agreement that the parties have embraced that will take us to a diplomatic solution because there is no alternative. There must be a diplomatic solution. I think all the parties agree with this and we have to work hard in achieving the components of the Minsk Agreement. This should be one of our goals for 2018, and we should stay focused on all diplomatic options as we go forward.
Q.: Has the decision of deliveries of lethal weapons to Ukraine been taken in the U.S. or it is still under discussion?
A.: I‘m not the one who would announce that issue. The Department of Defense or Department of State, if they have already spoken, then you would know it. If they haven’t spoken, then they would be the ones you would want to get confirmation fr om.
Q.: As to INF Treaty how real are Washington threats to quit fr om it or impose economic or military sanctions on Russia for its alleged violations?
A.: We value the INF Treaty. We have for 30 years. It’s one of the most important arms control agreements negotiated in the history of countries. It’s eliminated a whole class of weapons over 30 years – the Pershing missiles in Europe and SS-20s in Russia. I believe it has contributed substantially to holding the peace. So we don’t have any plans to withdraw fr om or cancel INF. It is important to us. We respect the content. We want to make sure the parties are in compliance, and we’ve had conversations with Russia to that end: concern about deployment and testing of a ground launch cruise missile – and we are in consultations with Russia about bringing them into compliance with INF, but we have no desire to want to withdraw fr om something that important.
On New START, this is really important between the United States and Russia. Of all the issues I look at as Ambassador, I don‘t think there is an issue more important than this one. I’m glad that Russia and the United States are taking it seriously. On February 5, we have a very important goal that must be met in terms of the numbers associated with the New START agreement, which has been 10 years in the making. So for 10 years people have worked very hard to get us to where we are: to find ourselves February 5 with 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons. I think we are going to meet it and I think that Russia is going to meet it too. Both sides have worked very hard, and I think both sides should be congratulated. This is a moment where we should say, “This is a good outcome.” But in terms of extending the agreement, there will be a lot of discussions about that possibility, but let’s take one step at a time. Let’s make sure that we get to February 5 having met the goals that I think we are going to be able to meet. But there is no issue more important than what two countries do with 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. The fate of the world will largely be based on how responsible we are as possessors of nuclear weapons. This agreement will help bring us together around issues of reduction and nuclear security. That is a very very important part of our relationship. And of world peace, if I can say that too.
Q.: So you are open for the dialogue with Russia on this issue?
A.: It‘s been going on for some time and it will no doubt continue. But in terms of the extension, that’s a decision that will be have to be made as we, again, meet one milestone at a time. Right now February 5 is the next goal that must be met.
Q.: Now about a Trump-Putin meeting. So far there is no announcement regarding a possible personal meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. In your opinion, could such a meeting take place in a foreseeable future, in 2018? In your opinion, what are the preconditions for such a meeting, or it‘s better to say what steps should the sides make so that a meeting on the highest-level take place? What is in general attitude of President Trump to Russia?
A.: President Trump gave me pretty specific instructions when I came here. He wants to see the relationship improved. Period. He told the same thing to Ambassador Antonov when they had a meeting. I’ve heard nothing fr om President Trump other than those words. I’ve heard the same thing from our Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson. I’ve heard the same thing from other leaders in Washington. We know the direction we want to go. We must earn a more positive outcome by solving some of the issues that are before us. We must make progress. We must manage these issues responsibly, and we must show progress. Right now we are flat. We need to pick ourselves up and move forward and begin to make progress on issues that matter most. I think arms control will be a good moment wh ere we will see a step in a very important direction. I think that’s truly important. Syria is another example wh ere we have worked together in a responsible fashion. There is a lot of disinformation and propaganda about the United States and Syria that is very unfortunate, coming from politicians. Because when I talk to the military people, they say we are working very responsibly together. We’re communicating. We’re deconflicting wh ere we need to. And we’re proving the point that we can hold a ceasefire - perhaps the best ceasefire that we have seen since the war began in the southwest. Done by who? Done by the United States and Russia through our military channels. This is an area wh ere we should not be accusing each other through political channels, but letting the military people do their work. And wh ere we have successes and wh ere we make progress, we should recognize that in ways that build greater trust in our relationship. So when I met with the top people in the Pentagon two weeks ago, they’re talking to General Gerasimov and they’re having helpful conversations and wh ere they have issues and challenges, they’re picking up the phone and saying, “We have a problem here. We have a problem there.” And they’re resolving them. So this is another example of wh ere we are coming together and showing signs of progress. But we must do more, because I know that the President would like to see this relationship improved. I think he would like to spend more time on the relationship itself, as he has already. He’s talked a lot about the relationship and shown his commitment to it. We now have to show some signs of progress and move it in a more positive direction that would allow for interaction between our leaders.
Q.: And what about your personal opinion: will the summit happen in 2018?
A.: Any summit has to be earned. You just cannot have a summit for the sake of a summit. You have to take steps in a direction that would allow you to have a meeting. We know that from the history of Russia and the Soviet Union going back to – I used to work for President Reagan and I remember those really important meetings he had with his counterparts here. He had a couple of them before Gorbachev. But they were always based on positive steps and important progress, and that we need to see before any such meetings are considered.
One thing that I would love to see – we don’t need a summit today, we need more open doors more immediately. We need more open doors wh ere we can get in and have proper conversations so there is less disinformation and more trust. We wouldn’t have sound bites like the one we heard earlier from a senior business person if we were talking. Those are the kinds of soundbites that you get when you are not talking and when you are imagining the worst in each other and when you have access to limited information.
Q.: Is Washington ready to cooperate with Russia on North Korea? And do you need Russia as a mediating power for dialogue with Pyongyang?
A.: We all need to step up and show our commitment to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, which we are both committed to. We need to reinvigorate our commitment to non-proliferation, which we are both committed to. Russia will be an important part of the pathway forward, and China will be an important part. So will South Korea. So will Japan. We must all work together, because the stakes are very, very high in Northeast Asia, which is one of the most vibrant parts of the economy in the entire world. I mean, in a few years it will be 20% of the world’s GDP. When you look at that geographic region and how important the sea lanes are for trade and commerce. For my country, we get a high percentage of our trade that goes right through those waters in East Asia and Northeast Asia and across the Pacific, so these are vital sea lanes. We have friends and allies in the region. We must work out the issues which will take all of the players I mentioned earlier. And I think the good news is we are all committed to peace and stability in the region. We are all committed to non-proliferation. We are all committed to the denuclearization of the North and bringing this ultimately to some sort of diplomatic endpoint. Russia is one of only a couple of countries that has an ongoing dialogue diplomatically with Pyongyang, which means that could be used for good or it could be used for bad. It can be used for good by channeling the right messages to Pyongyang. Hopefully it can be used for good by respecting the UN Security Council resolutions which all of us agreed to very very recently. That will be a really important step from here. Now that China, Russia and the United States have been part of voting on UN Security Council resolutions, will we now be able to enforce those resolutions and will each member be able to enforce with rigor and a sense of commitment those resolutions? Because if that happens, I think there will be more and more pressure on North Korea to do the right thing. The Olympic Games is also going to play an important role. That will be a period of calm and it will allow North and South to carry on a dialogue that will be a very very important dialogue. We’ll see if that leads to additional steps on some kind of moratorium on testing and production, which again will be an important sign coming out of the North, as we move forward step by step.
Q.: What do you feel after Epiphany bathing in an ice-hole? Have you grown to better understand the mysterious "Russian soul"? Are you going to repeat this experience? What other aspects of Russian traditions are you going to test in the future?
A.: I loved it. I really loved it. I have such great respect for the Russian people. Everywhere I go I meet Russian people and they want to talk and they want to be friendly and they want to hear about the United States and they want to share perceptions. I’ve met Russian people in churches and in synagogues and in mosques and in schools I love my interaction with Russian people, because they remind me so much of people from my own country. They care about their families, and they care about their communities. They really do. I might have challenges sometimes with the government, and I might get a little frustrated that they are not opening up enough doors for dialogue, but I love the Russian people. I really do. I felt by getting out and engaging in that Epiphany plunge that I was participating in something that was very sacred and important to the Russian people. I will do it again, particularly if I can talk some senior leaders in Russia to do it with me!
Q.: One of the mayors in Yakutia went bathing having outside temperature of -62 degrees. Will you join him next time?
A.: That depends on what senior leader from Russia will join me!