U.S.-Russia Relations: A Conversation with Sergey Ryabkov

Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Thomas Peter/REUTERS

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation


Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov as he discusses Russian foreign policy toward the United States and prospects for future cooperation.

GRAHAM: Thank you very much. My name is Tom Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And I want to welcome you to today’s Council meeting with Sergey Ryabkov, deputy foreign minister of the Russian Federation. And I want to thank you, Mr. Minster, Sergey, for being with us today and taking time out of your busy schedule.

There are over 450 registered participants today. We will try to do our best to get to as many questions in the Q&A session after Sergey and I have had a chance to discuss a range of issues. You have seen Sergey’s biography, so I don’t need to go through it. The only point I would like to stress is that he has been working on U.S.-Russian relations now for the greater part of twenty years. So he knows the issues inside and out. And my job is to draw out of him some of the key points in this evolution of our relation over the past—over the past decades.

And that’s actually where I want to start. In the early 2000s, Sergey, you were serving in the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. I was on the National Security Council as the Russia expert at the same time. And together, and with a bunch of other people, we were trying to build a strategic partnership on the basis of counterterrorism. The Trump administration has now labeled Russia a strategic competitor. And so the first question I have for you is what has changed over the past twenty years? To your mind, at what point was it that Moscow decided that the United States really wasn’t interested in building a strategic partnership with Russia?

RYABKOV: Thank you, Tom. And I thank you for having me for that occasion. I’m really honored to appear before such a distinguished audience. I’ll try my best to give my perspective given all these circumstances that everyone in the audience perfectly well understands.

Let me first say that when I first came to the American soil, and it happened last century in 1999, I had never been in the U.S. before that, I was amazed to follow what was on the news at that moment. If people who are of a similar age to my own remember this, the news line on TV at that time was almost all the day about a Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez. And I thought, what happens? Nothing happens in the U.S. And, you know, it’s kind of quiet, and not moving to anywhere.

Then 9/11 struck, and everything changed. We immediately found ourselves as if in a different universe. And subsequently, as you have exactly rightly said, Tom, both Moscow and Washington tried to build up a very intimate strategic partnership on the basis of a common cause to fight terrorism. It didn’t work this way, and we saw several instances in between 2001 and 2020 when we saw very rapid deterioration in our relationship. What was lost mostly is confidence and trust in one another. It’s very regrettable that people in the U.S. in the vast majority, at least among those that are decision makers or sitting in the Main Street, regard modern Russia as a source of problems, as a country that create troubles, as a toxic player, toxic actor in international relations. We recognize all this.

But equally and maybe even more so, we do see U.S. as a tremendous problem in the global sense of the world. I’m not trying to square this triangle or in any way oversimplify this, but we have no answer how to deal with this. The only obvious question is to talk more, to engage, to have dialogue, all the usual standard recipe prescriptions as diplomats and politicians offer. But they don’t work either. The record is very poor. And we truly don’t have a positive agenda this moment to follow. So I do think that after several cycles of relationship moving up and down, oscillating, in essence, between tops and bottoms. We now have mutual disenchantment, no illusion. No idea how to improve. And this is probably a task or a challenge of a major magnitude that those of us who will do this further will need to address in most professional and most focused manner in the years to come.

GRAHAM: Sergey, can I just follow up a little bit on this and get your sense of, when you look at the United States from Moscow today, what do you think is driving the United States in its international agenda? What do you see as the goal or the role that the United States would like to play on the international stage? And how does that impact on Russia?

RYABKOV: The U.S. foreign policy, as we look at it right now, is the policy of a work hegemon, a country that wants to impose its will, its solutions, its approaches to everyone else, including on the countries that are being described in the U.S. as strategic competitors, as geopolitical adversaries. And obviously it means that this policy of the U.S. is prone with huge and multiple conflicts. It’s a dangerous policy. We warn against this. Let me give you one example. We do not see any particular instrument in what otherwise has been a very, I would say, rich toolbox of the U.S. foreign policy, but sanctions. On every single instance where the is a dispute between Washington or capital X, the answer is sanctions and other sanctions. What happened to be a normal Wilsonian torch turned into a big stick with which U.S. tries to move everyone in its own direction. It’s unacceptable for Russia. And I suspect it’s unacceptable for many others in a broader world.

GRAHAM: Sergey, do you think that this is a view that is held across the American political spectrum, that this is a—very much a consensus view in the United States, so that even—we have an election coming up in November, as you know. Does the outcome have any importance for Moscow in the way you look at the conduct of U.S.-Russian relations, come next January?

RYABKOV: Hard to predict what will unfold and how it will develop. One thing is clear for us, and that is there is an obvious anti-Russian consensus in the U.S. mainstream, including on the Hill and among all major media. Our ability to penetrate through this is very modest and very limited one. We will use every opportunity to explain why, in our view, it is still better for the U.S., and U.S.’s own interests, to engage with Russia and work on development of at least some positive agendas. But it will most probably not happen within the foreseeable future.

Reasons for this can be multiple. One of the reasons is of course that, contrary to what was the case during the Cold War, during a bipolar international system with the U.S. and Soviet Union as two poles, contrary to that period U.S. does not regard Russia as an equal partner, which is, you know, worth of talking serious dialogue with, nor as a partner to which it would be possible to conclude binding deals, arrangements, not to mention binding treaties, because I don’t think any treaty with Russia’s participation could be ratified by the U.S. Senate, given the predominant mood there.

GRAHAM: So, Sergey, under these circumstances, what can we do? If you could think of two, perhaps three steps that could be taken that would help stabilize the relationship, even we dare say so to normalize the relationship, what would those be at this point? And I think an important part of the question also is what is Russia prepared to do to move in that direction? If I remember correctly, a year or two ago, particularly in the area of arms control, President Putin said that—you know, that Russia had made a number of different proposals, all rejected by the United States. And it wasn’t going to make any more proposals. The ball was in the United States’ court. Is that sort of the prevailing view in Moscow, not only on arms control but on the other issues that divide us or complicate the relationship between our two countries?

RYABKOV: Well, I’m a strong and very consistent proponent of a small steps approach to our bilateral agenda. I don’t believe anything but some small steps here and there are possible now. But because of enormous total lack of any positive developments, I think those small steps could be usefully looked into. And also they can create some tracking for ensuring a broader and more sustained progress. Let me give you some examples: For instance, we may start with, you know, lifting very artificial and unnecessary limitations for the normal operation of embassies and missions, diplomatic missions in both places.

Some of these limitations are—come from the time when, you know, there was no such thing as, for instance, digital technology that allowed to follow people almost instantly where they find themselves at any given moment. Why should we just harass diplomats in missions in capitals—in respective capitals and elsewhere demanding early notification, seventy-two or more hours before they travel somewhere? Another example of such an approach would be a proper address of issues of some humanitarian cases that are so well known for both countries, and for both governments. We have very, you know, politically loaded and very, I would say, resonate cases with our citizens that have been convicted and who serves their prison terms in the U.S.— Konstantin Yaroshenko, Viktor Bout, Bogdana Osipova, many more. Why couldn’t we find way how to assuage the situation?

Similar situations with the U.S. citizens who served their sentences in Russia. We have earlier proposed exchanges of those persons according to the procedures set forth by the Council of Europe Convention of 1983, to which U.S. is also party. So such type of things are in high demand. If we start doing those small, relatively small things to begin with, then I am hopeful that we may move forward to a broader progress.

On our proposals in different areas, yes, this is very true that we believe, for instance, in the area of arms control and associated issues like nonproliferation and some others, the balls is on the American part of the court. And, you know, we need to hear loudly and clearly what this administration wants—how we believe it would be possible to do something positive, and not just to dismantle one arms control or arrangement after another, as it is happening right now.

GRAHAM: Sergey, you know, on that point, if you look at the New START, which expires in February of next year, the administration has made a new proposal and has been pushing this for some time, and that is bringing China into the talks. Now, you know, I understand that you and your American counterpart, Marshall Billingslea, have agreed to meet sometime later this month to discuss the New START strategic stability, and that at least the Americans believe the Chinese have been invited to this meeting.

I think the question that many of us have here is whether Moscow, one, thinks that a good idea, two, will Moscow exercise any influence in might have in Beijing to persuade the Chinese to participate. And then I think the broader, longer-term question is, even if you believed that a trilateral conversation is inappropriate or impossible at this time, do you believe at some point in the future that it is imperative that China be brought into these discussions and that we have a common understanding in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing of what the requirements are for strategic stability, and how that might impact on various arms control measures?

RYABKOV: Thanks for this. I’m afraid it will take longer than the audience can sustain, but I’ll try to compress. Firstly, it is indeed true that we have agreed to see each other at the format of interagency delegations. We have agreed this with Marshall Billingslea and it will happen later this month in Vienna. We welcome this—I think this is good news, especially against the very dull and murky background that I tried to describe earlier. It is indeed true that the U.S. wants China to come to the table. And we understand why. We equally understand why China doesn’t want to do so. And we have heard on many occasions, both privately and publicly from our Chinese friends, why they don’t believe it would be right and appropriate to come to the very same table where U.S. and Russia continue their exchanges on arms control and strategic stability.

Our principled approach to arms control is based on the assumption—or, rather, based on the conviction, not an assumption. On the conviction that any country can only be conceived as a party to any negotiations upon this country’s very considered and very thoroughly thought-through consent to become party of this negotiations. We don’t see any Chinese readiness to do so. We do not anticipate that this approach will change anytime soon. And we do not intend to use whatever tools in our capacity to change this, because it’s a sovereign choice of any country. We are interested in continuing this dialogue with the U.S., and now it depends on the U.S. If the U.S. believes its worth continuing this dialogue with Russia, or for the U.S., to interview the Chinese participation is an absolute imperative that precludes U.S. from continuing a meaningful and forward-looking dialogue with Russia on arms control.

We think all these issues are extremely complicated, complex, and require further analysis and in-depth debate in every capital of interest in this context. Russia’s position towards future of arms control was formulated long before President Trump was elected to his position as the president of the United States, and well before the Trump administration started to introduce the Chinese issue into almost every single international topic at hand, our long-standing view has been, and still remains, that after conclusion of the New START, Washington and Moscow have reached a point after which any further conceivable negotiations on future arms control should be conducted in a manner where capabilities of all other nuclear weapons states, in a formal sense of the word according to NPT. Also, countries that possess these capabilities but not recognized as nuclear weapons states according to NPT, will be factored into this process.

We are not saying that all these countries necessarily and at all times should be at the table. Configuration is debatable. It’s negotiable. But we cannot just continue cuts after cuts on a bilateral basis. For Russia, it would be of extraordinary importance to bring to the table the closest allies of the U.S. and Europe, that is U.K. and France, irrespective of how much their national nuclear capabilities matter compared to those of the U.S. and Russia. The logic is a very simple one: The more we come down in numbers, the higher the price for every single warhead and payload. And we cannot simply ignore capabilities of some others as we move down to the numbers below—hypothetically below—I’m not saying that—I’m not suggesting that we are prepared to do so. I’m saying hypothetically below what is set forth in the existing treaty.

So this is, you know, kind of a picture that, you know, logically presents the next slide, if you wish. And that is, in absence of any clear understanding or, more importantly, common understanding on what to do here, the easiest way forward to buy time would be to extend the existing treaty as ratified in 2010 in both capitals, and then use five years of this treaty extension to continue exchanges and find probably a better way to address all sorts of issues, including those associated with new military technologies. We have many concerns on what is going on in the American buildup. This is American missile defenses becoming more and more global. These are perspectives for the U.S. to deploy strike weapons in outer space. These are hypersonic weapons that the U.S. is in a hurry to develop within the framework of global strike and many more. Cyberspace, all these issues require a very different approach to what has been before, a rather arithmetic counting of warheads and delivery means. I think it’s closer to what can be described as quantum calculation.

So we will need to have an extra sort before we enter into something as uncharted as this pass. So naturally we need to extend, in our view, something that served well for ten years. The U.S. believes that the New START is prone with, you know, deficiencies. It’s not in the U.S. interest to continue the way it was done. But who said that Russia would be able to do anything different but to extend the existing START? Let me stop here.

GRAHAM: OK. Sergey, let me—just two very quick follow-up questions on this. One, you know, as I understand it, China is not likely to join the discussion at this point. Moscow will put no pressure on China to do so. The question I have is whether you discuss these issues with China in the bilateral context. I mean, after all, Russia and China have an increasingly close strategic alignment where you seem to be able to discuss freely a whole range of economic, political, security issues. Does the issue of strategic stability come up in your conversations, or bilateral conversations with the Chinese?


RYABKOV: Oh, I am sorry. Sorry for this. (Laughter.)

Indeed it does. Indeed it does. It happens now and then at different levels in different formats. We exchange on known issues of relevance in this context. But we never do it in a manner that would mean that Russia shows, you know, an interest different and apart from what could be described an understandable Russian national security interest. No more, but no less. And I think this is exactly the approach that we follow with the U.S. We never do anything because someone wants us to do or not to do something else. We do not try to introduce in our dialogue with China any hidden agendas or issues that are interested for someone—that are of interest for someone else.

GRAHAM: OK. And, Sergey, and then a final question, when you were talking about strategic stability and the new environment you mentioned cyberspace, which is clearly becoming a much more prominent domain for competition at this point. As you know, the issue of Russian meddling in U.S. domestic affairs has been a big issue here in the United States. It will be an important issue as we move towards the presidential election. I don’t want to get into the question of whether Russia has meddled, or not meddled. I want to ask a more practical question, which is, how do we manage this issue going forward? Is there something that the United States and Russia could do jointly that would reduce the salience of this factor as an obstacle to improve relations? Or is this something where Washington and Moscow really need to act unilaterally as they define their own interests and advance their own policies?

RYABKOV: Yeah, Tom, totally depends on the U.S. side what would be the choice here. I recognize how central and how inflamed all this has been since several years ago and continues to be. We definitely reject all accusations on the Russian meddling, as we did with all accusations on so-called collusion. I’m not going to, you know, kind of analyze every single twist and turn of this debate, because it would be extremely counterproductive from my position to try to do so. What I know for sure, though, is that we have offered on several occasions to let these things to be looked into by professionals, by those who understand much better than I do what all these IP addresses mean. How come it could be considered that this or that association of some structure or private person could be ballooned to something that kind of politically overshadows everything else in bilateral relationship.

And there have been cases in the past when these issues were addressed in an appropriate format by professionals, by services, by intelligence people, by those who oversee national security. It didn’t work this way further, and it doesn’t work now—I think mostly for political reasons in the U.S. I hate to quote anyone without consent of that person. I will just say that a very influential American official a couple of years ago responded to our offer once again to consider this type of a structured dialogue on this type of things by saying: Look, it’s now much bigger than all of us. It’s a very different life, and almost a different universe. Let it be kept—let it be this way. Let it be kept there.

So we don’t think this is the right answer. We think it would be much, much better to take, you know, a somewhat cartesian look at this, to look at this from a distance, to come down, and cool down, and try to at least initially figure out what is possible here in terms of professional dialogue.

GRAHAM: Sergey, I’ve got hundreds of other questions to ask you, but I think it’s time to bring our members in for their questions for the next half-hour. So I’ll turn this over to the operator who will explain how we’re going to do this and remind everybody that we’re on the record in this conversation.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Alexander Vershbow.

Q: Surprised to be the first. Sergey, good to see you again. Thank you for participating in this discussion. Although, I have to say some of the frustrations I’ve experienced in other conversations with you in the last few years are still very much there.

I wanted to ask a question relating to the problem that caused a stalemate in our relations now more than six years ago, namely the Russian aggression—you don’t have to agree to the term—but the Russian aggression against Ukraine. It seems to me that we’re not going to get out of this vicious circle unless there is some real progress, at least in the resolving of the Donbas. Crimea may take a much longer time to address. But I continue to wonder why Russia can’t accept the idea of returning Donbas by the means of internationalizing the problem. Put international peacekeepers and international administration in control of the occupied territories, conduct elections and all the other things required by Minsk under international supervision, and then bring about the return of Donbas to Ukraine, which would allow the lifting of the majority of the sanctions on Russia. Why can’t we return to this idea, not a new idea, and at least settle the major issue that led to the collapse of the relations six years ago?

RYABKOV: Thank you, Sandy.

Let me first say that the issue of sanctions is completely irrelevant in this context—totally and completely. It has nothing to do with the situation in Donbas, or for that case the choice which people of Crimea and Sevastopol took in 2014. You may remember well that the Obama administration started to introduce sanctions after sanctions on Russia as early, quote/unquote, as “2012.” That was four years before coup d’état in Kyiv, which was orchestrated and sponsored by U.S. and some others. And before the developments that let people of Crimea take their choice of coming back to Russia, to homeland, to motherland, because they were frightened by the resurface of neo-Nazi and other similar sentiments in the rest of Ukraine.

Similar things happened in Donbas, but as you know, exactly as I do, no action that equals that of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol took place there. And everyone agreed at different levels and on many occasions that the only visible and possible way forward to resolve this issue would be to fully implement the Minsk package. The package of actions and set of arrangements that was agreed by parties to this conflict. Russia is not party to this conflict. So if you want something there to get changed to the better, you better advise your clients—your standing clients in Kyiv—to completely and fully implement the Minsk package. That is the only thing that is required. And then everything will be in place, both in terms of special status for the territories.

And then as a final element of the package, the final and not the first one, reestablishment of the Ukrainian control of that part of the border. You know, this exactly as I do. But as in many other cases, in the U.S. policy everything is being put in a reverse order, whether it is about talking to Russia or squeezing some concessions from Russia, just because U.S. wants this to happen. Again, sanctions are completely irrelevant. We don’t care.

When the decision of concluding an intergovernmental treaty between at that moment independent Crimea and the Russian Federation was taken both in Moscow and in Crimea, we here at the Russian Foreign Ministry said: Look, now sanctions will be imposed associated with the requirement to, quote/unquote, “bring Crimea back to Ukraine” before those sanctions will be lifted. So we knew this one hour after it happened. And we wrote this in our own memos. So there is no news in U.S. policy. It’s very primitive, very predictable. And it has no way forward. It’s a deadlocked policy that you follow and pursue.

GRAHAM: Can we have the next question, please?

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Stephen Biegun.


Secretary Biegun?

Q: Sergey, I’ll say it’s very nice to see you this evening. This is Steve Biegun from the United States Department of State. Let me thank you for making time today.

Can you hear me now, Tom?

GRAHAM: Yeah, it’s still—you’re still breaking up a little bit, Steve.

Q: I’m sorry.

STAFF: Secretary Biegun, are you still there? If not, we’ll move onto the next question.

GRAHAM: And we’ll come back to Steve.

STAFF: Great.

We’ll take the next question from Michael Gordon.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Let me try one more time. Can you hear me now?

GRAHAM: It’s a little bit better, but you’re still breaking up. Why don’t you proceed, Steve, and we’ll see what we can do.


Now let’s go to—let’s go to Michael.

STAFF: Mr. Gordon, please unmute yourself.

Q: OK. Thank you.

I have a follow-up question to Tom’s on arms control, please. Marshall Billingslea and other American officials have quoted you, Mr. Ryabkov, from some comments you made in 2014 as saying: We cannot endlessly negotiate with the United States the reduction and limitation in nuclear arms while some other countries are strengthening their nuclear and missile capabilities. And they say that these comments on your part indicate a willingness and an interest in bringing China into these negotiations. And the question I would like to ask you is, was that ever your view in 2014? Are these American officials misinterpreting what you meant to say at that time, because they keep quoting it? And is your government willing to put all nuclear warheads, including tactical systems, on the negotiating table, as the Trump administration has indicated is necessary for a future treaty? Thank you.

RYABKOV: Thank you, Mr. Gordon.

Not only in 2014, but also in 2015, ’16, ’17, and 2020 I am saying the very same thing, which is: We have reached the point with the conclusion of a New START beyond which any considerable effort in the area of nuclear arms control could be applied and conducted, provided that capabilities of other countries that possess such type of weapons are factored into this effort. Whether this effort will be a pentagonal one, a trilateral one, whether it would be, I don’t know, eight parties to this exchanges and talks, I don’t know. And this is something that solely and squarely depends on the sovereign political will of each and every country in question, or each and every country that can be considered as a potential party to this type of an effort or this type of an exchange.

We would welcome multilateralization of an arms control, but we do not see any particular perspective for this to happen anytime soon. We—you know, we show utmost respect to everyone’s country, every country’s national position, including that of China. And we do not believe that China would agree to something like this. So for us, the easiest way forward would be at least to continue what we have now bilaterally with the U.S., and try to avoid situations when unilateral action by the U.S. inflicts one blow after another on the arms control architecture as we know it since long ago, and architecture that served well not just national interest of Russia, but also the cause of strengthening of international peace and stability.

So my answer to a direct question whether or not we think it would be possible to bring China to the table would be a flat and straightforward no, because we know that this is the Chinese position. Thank you.

GRAHAM: Next question, please.

Q: Can you answer the other part of my question on whether you were willing to negotiate over tactical nuclear weapons all nuclear weapons, including in stockpiles?

RYABKOV: We have not received any particular layout of any possible future arrangement and/or agreement with the U.S. from the U.S. side. We do not believe that the U.S. is prepared to do so, because somehow the U.S., in my view, tends to believe that it is still possible to get China on board. Any conceivable future agreement or arrangement with the U.S. or in a different format should be looked, from Moscow’s perspective, only as a tool—as a means to serve Russian national security interest. Nothing but Russian national security interest.

Because the U.S. is a country that one time after another finds itself in a material breach of a number of international treaties and agreements, it would require on our part a very thorough verification regime with the U.S. We cannot sustain anything that just allows to—allows U.S. to freely drift further in its disregard to international law. So if the U.S. wants something to happen, then we should receive something really attractive in exchange. It should be a real deal. And this deal should serve Russian national security interest. In absence of any of this indispensable ingredients, there will be no such things that any future arms control agreements with the U.S.

GRAHAM: OK. Can we have the next question, please?

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Alice Wells.

Q: Hello, Ambassador Ryabkov.

I was wondering, when you iterated the small steps that could be taken to potentially increase the U.S.-Russian relation why you didn’t include Afghanistan. And do you see that as an arena where both the United States and Russia can work to bring into being a negotiated political settlement that respects the gains of the last eighteen years and precludes Afghanistan from becoming a launching pad for terrorism.

RYABKOV: I’m very sorry, Ms. Wells, I didn’t hear you properly. Would you—would you excuse me if I ask you to say it again?

Q: Is it possible that Afghanistan, in helping to midwife a negotiated political settlement that would both protect advances that we’ve seen over the last eighteen years, but also preclude the emergence of a governing structure that would tolerate terrorism, is this a natural area for U.S.-Russian collaboration and cooperation?

RYABKOV: Thank you. I think it truly is, as I think it would be very right to put into the very same category the problem of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There are few, but still important, other issues. But speaking on Afghanistan, I’m heartened by the fact that our special envoys, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, good friend and colleague of mine, are in close contacts, as are their teams. And they are—they’re working in parallel. We don’t see here any particular disagreement or source of frictions or tensions between Moscow and Washington. Rather, this is an excellent example where the two countries are able to work if not jointly then in parallel, in sync, rather, with each other, to the common benefit and for the cause of improvement of the situation in this very important region. Thank you.

GRAHAM: OK. Next question, please.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Danila Galperovich.

Q: Hello. This is Danila Galperovich from Voice of America Russia Service.

First, I want to thank Tom. Thank you very much for this opportunity because this is I think historical when we have this open conversation with deputy foreign minister of Russia. My question to Mr. Ryabkov is what strategy Moscow has for Venezuela? And do you have any hope to find a common ground with Washington on this issue? Thank you.

RYABKOV: Thank you, Mr. Galperovich.

I do think that the Venezuela issue remains a very contentious one, both for our bilateral relation with U.S. but also in a broader sense of among international membership. There is a huge degree of disagreement on what to do and how to progress. We don’t think that we have much of a common ground with the U.S. on this, although we maintain contacts of a bilateral character and we also now and then work in broader formats, multilateral formats on this issue.

The core of the problem, from our point of view, is that we favor a continued intra-Venezuelan dialogue with good offices offered if need be by international actors. This is therefore—we very consistently and for a long period of time have supported the Norwegian mediation. We continuously work with countries of the so-called International Contact Group. Early in the process we saw efforts on the so-called Montevideo mechanism, which is less active right now. So choices are multiple, but the problem is that the U.S. in its Venezuelan policy puts as a number one, as an absolute top priority a requirement on the removal of the legitimate government, headed by President Nicholas Maduro. And we cannot, for principled reasons, accept this approach, because within—this is a continuation of a regime change policy that folds out with considerable frequency on the U.S. part in recent decades. So it’s less about Venezuela and more about principled unacceptability for us on what the U.S. is trying to achieve there.

GRAHAM: OK. The next question, please.

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Amy Jaffe.

Q: Yes. Thank you, Ambassador, for joining us.

I wanted to ask you, in thinking about the broader relationship, the Arctic is under severe stress right now in a variety of ways, from the melting of the permafrost to summer fires, and other humanitarian concerns. I’m wondering how you see the path forward for cooperation on bringing a brighter future to the Arctic, and how you see that as part of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

RYABKOV: Thank you. I think Arctic can still be maintained as an area of cooperation rather than area of competition. The Arctic Council, as a composition, a collection of literal states, so to say, offers a natural opportunity for cooperation in all areas. Besides Arctic Council, Russia participates in appropriate format, together with some European countries. We recognize the fragility of the environment there. We have applied substantial efforts to improve international cooperation in this area, and situation now I think in many ways differs from what was the case some decades ago. Changes of climate and technologies that are being applied there require that we reinforce this effort.

And by the way, even in the area of military security the Arctic Council once was a format, a framework where even senior military officers, top brass, heads of general staff of those states got together and discussed their business among themselves. We would advocate reestablishment of this practice. We will not in any way stay quiet, though, if someone—and I’m in no mood to finger-pointing—would try to test our readiness to defend our interests of national security in this area. Again, the only way forward would be to have more dialogue, more exchanges, more joint effort through this to diminish the level of mistrust and try to find practical ways how to do positive things together there. I think our Canadian, Danish, and other colleagues are inclined to consider this approach, together with U.S., and Russia, and others involved. So let’s work collectively at this and other appropriate formats.

GRAHAM: Can we have the next question, please?

STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Bob Einhorn.

Q: Sergey, I’d like to turn to Iran. Minister Lavrov has made clear that Russia opposed the U.N.-sponsored resolution to extend the U.N. arms embargo against Iran. In that case, the Trump administration suggests that it may seek to exercise what it considers its right to snapback all previous Security Council sanctions against Iran. In that event, what would Russia do? What do you think other members of the original P5+1 would do? And how do you think this will play out over time? Thank you.

RYABKOV: Thank you, Bob.

I’m glad that you remember our time at the talks that preceded conclusion of the JCPOA. And I’m sure you know much better than I do how extraordinary and how unique this arrangement that you refer to was at the moment when it was approved, and much more so during the period when it was designed and put on paper. I think no one at that moment could ever imagine that something like the U.S. complete departure from the JCPOA would happen.

And that we would at this moment in time talk not about whether or not the International Atomic Energy Agency has the right basis for eventual issuance of so-called broader conclusion on absence of any undeclared nuclear material and no diversion of nuclear activities in Iran, but on something very, very, very, I would say, contrary to the purpose, and that is to activation of snapback by a nation that departed the arrangement in which this snapback mechanism was agreed upon and subsequently approved by the U.N. Security Council resolution.

I think it’s outrageous that the U.S. administration now tries to freely pick and choose what serves its interest in complete rejection of the views of the others, and even in complete rejection of the common sense, trying to defeat JCPOA and trying to continuously stay in significant nonperformance vis-à-vis JCPOA, and in material breach of Resolution 2231. So if this will happen the way, as you suggest and as many think tankers, op-ed writers, just people knowledgeable believe would happen, then we will inevitably end in a severe crisis situation at the Security Council. And it would be a huge blow to the authority of the Security Council. And the U.S. will bear square responsibility for this.

GRAHAM: I think we have time for one very quick question. I wonder if Stephen Biegun is still on the line, and whether he’d like to pose his question now.

STAFF: He is not in the question queue.

GRAHAM: I think then perhaps one very short question.

STAFF: We’ll take the last question from Mona Yacoubian.

Q: Thanks very much.

I hope this—hopefully, this doesn’t have a short answer, but let’s see. I’m curious if you could offer your views on the conflict in Syria and the prospects for any sort of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. There’s been discussion of a possible negotiations between the two countries, looking to accelerate a political settlement. What are your views on that? Thank you.

RYABKOV: Thank you. It’s difficult. It’s highly political, quite emotional to many actors in this. It’s very tragic for many people. I think that the current situation with the Idlib escalation zone and the arrangement at which Turkey and Russia arrived at some time ago is a minimal standard of diminishing further troubles and tragedies for the Syrian people. But we cannot but mention that, contrary to what is the case for Russia, the U.S. presence in Syria has no legal base. And in many ways, the U.S. is there contrary to what is the normal practice in intergovernmental relations.

We are in contact with U.S. counterparts on political aspect of it. We intend to continue these contacts. We work with special envoy Geir Pedersen of Norway. We are working with other guarantor states, which are Turkey and Iran. And the so-called Astana process does not in any way, you know, contain an element that is contrary to the overall goal, that is to bring peace to the Syrian soil through political means. We are in a very intense and professional contact with the U.S. through our military channels. Deconflicting is functional. It’s a good experience that we are hopeful could be used elsewhere as well. And we reconfirm our interest to improve bilateral agreement with the U.S. to avoid dangerous military activities, and an arrangement on avoidance of dangerous military incidents. To draw on the Syrian experience would be right in this case as well.

But all in all, we have, I would say, more contentious and difficult issues rather than interfaces for our common work with the U.S. on Syria. We will do our utmost to ensure that the U.S. understands properly what we’re doing, why we are doing these things, that things there. And we will expand interfaces of our dialogue with the U.S., if the U.S. reciprocates, if the U.S. wants so. We are ready on our part. Thank you.

GRAHAM: We could go on and on, but I have to bring this conversation to a close. So I want to thank everyone for participating, and special thanks to you first, Sergey, for taking time with us today.

The audio and the transcript of this conversation will be posted on the Council’s website. And I also want to invite everybody to participate in our next virtual meeting, which will take place on June 10, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. And we are going to do that with our CFR fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper, who will be discussing her new book, which is Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances.

So thank you very much. And thank you, once again, Sergey.

RYABKOV: Thank you, Tom. All the best. And stay safe and well, everyone. Thank you.


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