TNI editor Jacob Heilbrunn interviews Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov about the New START Treaty and the state of U.S.-Russia relations.
Jacob Heilbrunn: What is your assessment of the state of U.S.-Russia relations?
Sergei Ryabkov: The current state of our bilateral relations is probably worse than we have experienced for decades preceding this current moment. I don’t want to compare this with Cold War times because that era was different from what we have now—in some ways, more predictable; in some ways, more dangerous. From Moscow’s perspective, the Trump era is worrying because we move from one low point to another, and as the famous Polish thinker Jerzy Lec said once, “We thought we had reached the ground, and then someone knocked from beneath.”
This is exactly how things happen today. We try hard to improve the situation through different proposals in practically all areas that pull Moscow and Washington apart. It doesn’t happen. We recognize that everything that is associated with Russia policy is now quite problematic, to put it mildly—quite toxic for the U.S. mainstream in the broader sense of the word. But the only answer to this, we believe, is to intensify dialogue and search for ways that both governments, businesses—structures that impact the general mood of the public—maintain and probably deepen their interaction and discourse so as to remove possible misunderstandings or grounds for miscalculations.
One of the most troubling areas in this very dark and dull picture is of course arms control. There we see a downward spiral that is being systematically enhanced and intensified by the U.S. government. It looks like America doesn’t believe in arms control as a concept altogether. Instead, it tries to find pretexts to depart from as many arms control treaties, agreements, and arrangements that Russia is also a party to. This is very regrettable. But make no mistake: we will not pay any price higher than the one we would pay for our own security in order to save something or keep the U.S. within this system. It’s squarely and straightforwardly the choice that the American government may or, in our view, even should make—because we still think that the maintenance of these agreements ultimately serves American national interests.
Heilbrunn: What is your view of the Trump administration’s approach to the START Treaty?
Ryabkov: I can easily say that the Trump administration’s approach to the START Treaty is quite strange. Number one: we understand the reasons why the Trump administration wants China to become a party to any future arms control talks or arrangements—although we equally understand the reasons why China doesn’t want to be part of these agreements, and thus we believe that it’s up to Washington to deal with Beijing on this issue. And in the absence of a very clear and open and considered consent from the other side—that is, from China—there would be no talks with China or with China’s participation. That’s an obvious reality that we face.
So the next element of this logic brings us to the natural conclusion that it would be in everyone’s interest just to extend what we have now—that is, a new START in the form as it was signed and subsequently ratified—and then defer contentious issues and unresolved problems, including the one that is associated with U.S. non-compliance with this treaty, to a later point. An eventual extension of the treaty for five more years would give sufficient time to both Washington and Moscow, and eventually for others, to consider the situation and make decisions not in a hurry but with due regard to all aspects and to the gravity of the challenges before us, including those associated with new military technologies. But again, we are not there to trade this approach for anything on the U.S. side, to get something from the U.S. side in return. I think it’s quite logical and natural as it stands, so we invite the U.S. to consider what we are telling them at face value.
Heilbrunn: Traditionally, Russia has worked well with Republican administrations starting with Nixon. Is that era at an end?
Ryabkov: I don’t know. It completely depends on the U.S. We do believe that irrespective of what party is in the government in the U.S., there are choices; there are opportunities; and there are possibilities that at least should be explored with Russia. I don’t know if this administration regards Russia as a party worth having a serious dialogue with. I tend to believe it’s not because of domestic political reasons, because of different approaches to matters that are quite obvious at least for us, including the international system of treaties and international law in general.
But then again, it may well be so that the current Republican administration will in effect become a line in history in which a considerable number of useful international instruments were abrogated and that America exited them in the anticipation that this approach would serve U.S. interests better. Having said that, I will never say or never suggest that it was for us—at least in the mid-2010s—better with the previous administration.
It was under the previous Obama administration that endless rounds of sanctions were imposed upon Russia. That was continued under Trump. The pretext for that policy is totally rejected by Russia as an invalid and illegal one. The previous administration, weeks before it departed, stole Russian property that was protected by diplomatic immunity, and we are still deprived of this property by the Trump administration. We have sent 350 diplomatic notes to both the Obama and the Trump administrations demanding the return of this property, only to see an endless series of rejections. It is one of the most vivid and obvious examples of where we are in our relationship.
There is no such thing as “which administration is better for Russia in the U.S.?” Both are bad, and this is our conclusion after more than a decade of talking to Washington on different topics.
Heilbrunn: Given the dire situation you portray, do you believe that America has become a rogue state?
Ryabkov: I wouldn’t say so, that’s not our conclusion. But the U.S. is clearly an entity that stands for itself, one that creates uncertainty for the world. America is a source of trouble for many international actors. They are trying to find ways to protect and defend themselves from this malign and malicious policy of America that many of the people around the world believe should come to an end, hopefully in the near future.
Heilbrunn: If President Trump were to respond to your last point, he might say, “What’s wrong with uncertainty from the American perspective? What’s wrong with keeping your adversaries off balance? Why should the U.S. be a predictable power?” What would your response be to that?
Ryabkov: My response to this would be that we are not asking the U.S. to be a responsible and predictable partner because we don’t believe it would be possible any time soon. We are saying that this is a reality that we all face, and thus we only adjust our own reaction and our own response to it trying the best way possible to protect our own interests.
Heilbrunn: Related to that, and on the START Treaty, a Trump administration State Department official recently announced that the U.S. was ready, essentially, to bury Russia, to spend it into the ground in a new arms race just as it had in the 1980s.
Ryabkov: To bring it into oblivion.
Heilbrunn: Right. What is your response to those kinds of threats?
Ryabkov: There is no response. We just take note of it, and we draw our lessons from the past. We will never, ever allow anyone to draw us into an arms race that would exceed our own capabilities. But we will find ways how to sustain this pressure, both in terms of rhetoric and also in terms of possible action.
Heilbrunn: What does this kind of rhetoric imply for the future of an extension of the START Treaty? Doesn’t it suggest that the treaty may in fact already be doomed and that the Trump administration is using China as a poison pill to kill the treaty altogether?
Ryabkov: On China, I think the U.S. administration is obsessed with the issue, and it tries to introduce “Chinese discourse” into every single international issue at the table. So it’s not about the START Treaty. It’s much broader, deeper, and it’s by far more multifaceted than anything that relates to arms control as such. My view on this is that chances for the new START Treaty to be sustained are rapidly moving close to zero, and I think that on February 5, 2021, this treaty will just lapse, and it will end. We will have no START as of February 6, 2021.
Heilbrunn: Do you feel the American stance toward Russia is inadvertently helping to promote a Russia-China rapprochement that is actually not in Washington’s interest?
Ryabkov: We don’t think we can operate on the premise that because of some pressure or some external impact on us, something happens in terms of the evolution of priorities or approaches to China or to anyone else. We don’t believe the U.S. in its current shape is a counterpart that is reliable, so we have no confidence, no trust whatsoever. So our own calculations and conclusions are less related to what America is doing than to many, many other things. And we cherish our close and friendly relations with China. We do regard this as a comprehensive strategic partnership in different areas, and we intend to develop it further.