Transcript of Ambassador Tefft’s Interview with Russian Wire Services

John Tefft file photo

(US Embassy Moscow – January 28, 2016)

Ambassador John F. Tefft: I thought I’d start and say a couple of words, and then I’d take your questions to focus on what you want to talk about.

I was back in Washington for a few weeks to see my children and my grandchildren. Like a good grandfather, I should be going and seeing my five-year old and almost 18-month old granddaughters who are the great joys of my life and my wife’s life. So we try to get back and see them.

But I also spent a little time in consultation in Washington with some of the key offices. And I think – this is not just my own sense but also the sense of people back there – is that we still have some very substantial differences on key issues. Obviously on Ukraine, we want to see the Minsk agreement implemented. We are very focused on trying to help the Normandy group – we are not trying to displace them. Toria Nuland’s efforts with Mr. Surkov in Kaliningrad were designed to support the efforts that were being made and are being made.

We’re working together on Syria with regard to the International Syria Support Group. We still have some very strong differences over the way Russia is conducting its bombing campaign. Specifically, Secretary Kerry made it clear, both privately and publicly – and others have done this in Washington: we see Russia seeming to support its bombing campaign to go after some of the opposition that could be a part of the future as opposed to ISIL. We really would like to see a more concerted effort to deal with ISIL first and to try to find a way to have a ceasefire with the others, which would mean a way forward on the negotiations. I think you know that Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Representative, is trying to pull together and to convene the beginnings of the meeting between the Asad regime and the opposition. I think they’re trying tomorrow or the beginning of next week to try to pull that together. We obviously support that very much, and we hope that it will be successful. We know this is going to be difficult, but we think a political solution is the way forward – that there is no fundamental military solution possible in Syria.

And so those are two areas where we continue to have serious discussions with Russia. Obviously, Secretary Kerry was here and saw President Putin in December. President Obama spoke with him on the 13th of January. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov are on the phone all the time talking about these issues and others.

I would just mention one other thing in foreign policy that we talk about and where we are hopeful of coordinated action, not just with Russia but also with China, and that is dealing with North Korea and this latest nuclear explosion that’s there. We want to move forward and work together to try to bring this to a stop. We share fundamental goals, I think, in that regard, but we’re looking forward to specific cooperation at the United Nations on this particular issue.

There are other issues where we have continuing conversations: counterterrorism; obviously our space ventures, where cooperation continues apace. But the overall relationship is still tarnished because of our strong opposition to what Russia has done in Ukraine, our desire to move forward and get a solution along the lines as prescribed in the Minsk agreement, and then to try to hopefully move our own relationship forward. President Obama has made this quite clear to President Putin in the meetings that they’ve had. The same with Secretary Kerry. I hope that 2016 will be a year where we can make some progress.

Maybe I’ll stop at that point.

Q: Can I continue Mr. Ambassador?

JFT: Please.

Q: Olga Golovanova, Interfax News Agency. Could this year be the beginning of lifting sanctions? What do you mean?

JFT: I think on sanctions, we’ve made it very clear – the President, the Secretary – it means the implementation of the Minsk agreements. And on that, we and our European allies are solid. Germany and France and we and all of the rest of the European Union are very serious about wanting to implement Minsk in its totality. And I know France and Germany are working extremely hard on this with Ukrainian and Russian negotiators. And our own efforts: Secretary Kerry and President Obama have talked to President Putin about this in a number of meetings they’ve had in the past few months. We want to see this move forward – this is a critical, critical key. And the whole question of sanctions, as we have said over and over again, the lifting of sanctions flows from achieving the Minsk agreement.

Q: Obviously, the Kremlin in the face of Surkov and Gryzov – it seems that it took this Ukrainian solution in its own hands. What does it mean for you, and what are the prospects for the Karasin-Nuland format? Will that continue?

JFT: Right now I don’t know of any specific meetings that are set up. I will just tell you: we’re focused on getting the agreement implemented. Whatever meetings it takes, I think, Secretary Kerry would say, would be fine. But we haven’t set up any specific things. The substance – getting the agreement, getting this worked out, getting the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk resolved – is more important than any specific meeting that we might have.

[Yuriy Kozlov (TASS)]: To continue this: what concrete steps must be done by Russia in order for the United States to consider the Minsk agreement as fulfilled?

JFT: We want all 12 Minsk agreement specifics fulfilled and for OSCE to certify that.

Q: Concretely by Russia?

JFT: Concretely by Russia and Ukraine. I mean, Ukraine has responsibilities here, too. There are issues that both sides need to resolve at this point. Russia still has military troops inside of Donetsk and Luhansk – President Putin said as much in one of his recent press availabilities – and we’d like to see them out of there. Ukraine has made some very serious steps forward in passing the first reading of the Special Status Law, in doing the first steps on the constitutional amendment, and that needs to be continued and fulfilled. Both sides still have work to be done. We want to see all of this done, and we want to see a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty in Donetsk and Luhansk as Minsk prescribes. Until all of the pieces are done, we won’t be satisfied. And I think, frankly, Germany and France will not be satisfied either. They will continue to press. They’ve done really terrific work so far to try to bring these two sides together and to try to resolve these issues.

Q: But Russia says it has no troops in Ukraine.

JFT: Didn’t President Putin say in his press conference that there were troops there?

Q: That there are some people.

JFT: Well, we know that there are troops there – put it that way. Okay. I’m pretty sure he said that, but you can check the transcript. We believe there are troops there. There are things Russia needs to do to comply with the Minsk agreements. The other thing that we worry about is that the OSCE continues to be blocked from doing its mission by the separatists, and we’ve urged our Russian colleagues to intervene with these people and tell them that they need to give unimpeded access to the OSCE.

Q: You mean regular army or not from Russia?

JFT: Russia should intervene with the people who are blocking the OSCE. There was a case, wasn’t there recently where OSCE was shot at? People were shot at by separatists. That’s got to stop. This is a critical part of the Minsk agreements to give the OSCE unfettered access to all of that area. And then ultimately to supervise the international border once it’s returned to the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Q: Mr. Ambassador, Tatiana Kalmykova, RIA Novosti. One follow-up question about Ukraine. Do you expect that the Nuland-Surkov format will become permanent, and are you satisfied with the first results of the meeting and the work of this format in general?

JFT: Yeah, I think the answer to your second question is: yes, we thought that it was a useful meeting and that our goal is to try to support the Normandy process. And we’re very carefully coordinating our work with Germany and France. I think nobody knows at this point whether there’ll be extra meetings. There may be. As I’ve said before, I think the key point is to implement this agreement, and we will do what it takes to support early and full implementation of the Minsk agreement.

Q: So no meetings in this format?

JFT: There are none that I know that are scheduled at this point.

Q: But could it become the permanent format?

JFT: Nobody has talked about things like that, as far as I know. This was an attempt by us and Russia to try to encourage this process.

Q: Talking about Russian-American relations in general and the latest contact between our president and John Kerry. Do you consider that a meeting between the American and Russian presidents could happen this year, and are you working on the possibility of such a meeting?

JFT: There is nothing scheduled at this point that I’m aware of. And I think a lot of it depends on addressing these specific issues that I’ve tried to highlight like Ukraine and Syria. Now we saw for example, in Antalya at the G20 meeting, there was not a formal meeting scheduled, but I think the two presidents ended up talking with each other for half an hour. And similarly in Paris at the climate change talks, they had yet another meeting. I think the point here is again, not to schedule meetings for the sake of meetings, but to try to push ahead and to try to resolve these problems that separate us at this point. So I would urge you to look at the substance, and I think that’s will dictate meetings as opposed to setting a meeting as a goal. It’s solving problems that’s the goal.

Q: But when could such a meeting take place? This year?

JFT: I don’t know – I haven’t even looked at that at this point.

Q: Mr. Ambassador, do you support the appeal of Mr. Poroshenko and the Finance Minister of Ukraine Jaresko to create some kind of international format to speak about the return of the Crimea to Ukraine?

JFT: I don’t know that we’ve taken a position on that that I’m aware of. So, I’m not sure that I could add a comment – I’d have to check on that.

Q: I wanted to change the subject.

JFT: You want to change the subject? Okay, alright, go ahead.

Q: You will not believe me, but there are many countries in the world, which are very closely looking at the United States in world situations. And such a situation is the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. The United States has signed this document but not yet ratified it.

JFT: We’re planning to try to do that, and our position is that other countries should go ahead and to ratify it.

Q: Not a good example for other countries.

JFT: Well, we’re working at it. If you know American history, you know it takes time sometimes to ratify treaties and documents. But that’s no reason why other countries shouldn’t ratify a treaty that they think is in their interest.

Q: This is very important because in that case, if you ratify this document, it will be easier to act together.

JFT: Yeah, but people shouldn’t wait. Secretary Kerry has made it very clear – we support this document and that the Administration will press for ratification, so there’s no reason others should sit around and wait. They should go ahead and act on what they believe is in their own interests and ratify what they have signed.

Q: How long is this process?

JFT: I don’t know. There’s no time frame that I’m aware of.

Q: Hillary Clinton has said in one of her latest statements about the possibility of a new reset in U.S.-Russian relations? Do you admit such a possibility and what conditions should be for that?

JFT: Okay, I have to say right at the beginning: I’m a career Foreign Service Officer. I’m bound by the Hatch Act not to be involved in the political campaigns or in political parties. So I can’t take a position one way or another on some of the issues that Hillary Clinton might raise, or Donald Trump might raise. This is her view, and you know, she’s now a candidate for President of the United States. We’re working through our process, our primaries system. I think at this point, I’ve seen a lot of different comments from different candidates and also people who are the advisors to candidates. I think it’s best we just wait and see what happens. I’m not going to comment on any specific proposals by Hillary Clinton or any of the others.

Q: Yes, I know, but it was just an example. And my question was separate about the reset.

JFT: I’m the Ambassador – the representative of Barack Obama and the American people – so I think I’m going to stay with that right now.

Q: Yes, in your opinion, if it’s possible…

JFT: I’m not going to enter an opinion at this point because I think that crosses the line into this issue of taking positions on political issues that different political candidates of different parties have. I’m not trying to dodge your question – I’m trying to be very careful to comply with American law and what my obligations are as a career officer in the Foreign Service of the United States. I serve the elected President, and my job is to carry out his or her policies.

Q: I can change my question because Lavrov talked about a new reset in U.S.-Russia relations, and he commented on that that the U.S. should launch a new reset in relations with the whole world. And do you consider the possibility of a new reset with Russia?

JFT: I think what I told you from the beginning of this interview is that we have some very serious issues that need to be resolved right now in the U.S.-Russian relationship. And we’ve talked about Ukraine, we’ve talked about Syria – these are issues that need to get sorted out. And I think that’s where we should direct our attention rather than spending time talking more about other possibilities in the future. Let’s get some concrete decisions made. Let’s get the Minsk agreement implemented, and then we can move forward. I’m a pragmatic guy.

Q: The White House spokesman has not ruled out that the sanctions that might be introduced against Russia after the United Kingdom published a report on Litvinenko. How real is this?

JFT: I think what Josh Earnest said is what Josh Earnest said. And he said that we have made no decision at this point. And I’m not aware that there’s been any further discussion of that, so I can’t take you any further on that one.

Q: And your Pentagon chief Mr. Carter in Davos also made an interesting statement, saying that there’s a necessity to conduct a ground operation in Al-Raqqah and Mosul, but he didn’t specify what countries could join and participate in this. Did he mean the U.S.? What did he mean?

JFT: I don’t know the answer to that question. I haven’t talked to Secretary Carter about this. This is something that really has to go to the Defense Department – I can’t really elucidate that for you. I try to be careful – I’m not going to tell you something that I’m not confident is going to be the policy, or if I don’t know what the specifics are that the Secretary referred to. I mean, he, the Vice President in Davos, Secretary Kerry, are all making comments all the time. And I understand the policy lines, and I’m trying to explain those to you, but I can’t elucidate every single issue that’s out there because some of these issues, they haven’t spelled out for themselves.

Q: Were there some phone calls after this statement to you from Russian ministries?

JFT: Not that I’m aware of, not to me. I was gone for a while because I went back for consultations and also to see my family, so I haven’t talked to anyone about this.

Q: There used to be a so-called 2+2 format for meetings between the ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs for solving urgent issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Do you admit the possibility of resuming that format, especially in regards of the common interest in the fight against ISIS?

JFT: We had a number of things that went on before Russia annexed Crimea and the current crisis ensued. We had a bilateral partnership commission, which has been suspended. We’ve had different meetings in different formats. I think at this point what I’ve said and I will repeat it again, because this is really where we are, we’ve got to solve some of these critical problems. The format is not so much the key part of this as is the substance, and the actions taken to resolve things, in both Ukraine and in Syria.

So, I’m not aware of any consideration for 2+2 meetings or anything like that at this point. The key is we have channels of communication open. President Obama and President Putin, as I said, talked recently, about Ukraine and on Syria, and also on North Korea. Secretary Kerry and foreign minister Lavrov are on the phone regularly, sometimes two or three times a week, to try to work to find ways ahead on some of these key issues – Ukraine, Syria and North Korea in particular.

Q: Last year, if I’m not mistaken, the head of the CIA came to Moscow for talks. Are there any prospects to repeat this experience or maybe to expect Russian delegates in Washington from the sphere of intelligence?

JFT: As far as I know, nothing is planned at this point. Because of the problems in our relationship, we don’t have business as usual. Again, I’d like to see some of these issues, these problems, resolved. If we can do that, other possibilities might develop. But right now, there’s nothing on that score, either.

Q: Speaking of the possible meetings, is there any possibility that Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Moscow this year and should we expect that the U.S. is going to invite Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Washington, because John Kerry visited Russia last year two times, maybe it’s time for our minister to go there.

JFT: I’m not aware of any particular plans right now, but you know, sometimes these meetings get scheduled on fairly short notice, depending on the problems. Right now, I’m not aware of any specific plans on either score. But, we could find out tomorrow that there’s some agreement to meet. Kerry and Lavrov meet frequently in Europe. They met in Zurich the last time, and given the travel schedules for both of these men, they see each other quite frequently, and they talk about a lot of stuff. I think we’ll just have to wait and see how this evolves. We have a fluid situation, in the sense that the relationship is not so stolid that we say, “Ok, we will meet in three months in such and such a place.” Given the immediacy of these problems that need to be resolved, it’s a continuing kind of discussion and the meetings will take place as the needs come up, I think.

Q: How would you comment on the statement of the chairman of Munich Security Conference, Mr. Ischinger, saying that it was a mistake to exclude Russia from the G8 group?

JFT: All of the members of the G8 made the decision to not include Russia after the invasion and purported annexation of Crimea. That’s still the policy. I think the French and German president and chancellor have made it clear that until Minsk is implemented, we’re going to continue with the sanctions that we have, so I think that would come under that larger rubric that there won’t be a change in the short-term until we get the implementation..

Q: So it’s the same about the lifting of the sanctions and the bringing back Russia to the G8 format – when the Minsk Agreement will be implemented, there are possibilities for Russia to come back to the G8?

JFT: I don’t know. That’s not a decision that I’m going to make. On sanctions, I was saying that the decision was made at the same time. But with regard to sanctions, Secretary Kerry and President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, have all made this clear, that the full implementation of Minsk is what’s required to get sanctions lifted. Some sanctions lifted. As long as Russia remains in Crimea, the sanctions on Crimea and the things that relate to Crimea are going to stay in place. That is my understanding of the policy. So what we’re talking about is implementing Minsk, which deals with the issues in the Donbass, and then the sanctions related to that will be lifted. So, that’s where we are. I’m trying to be as precise as I can.

Q: Every time when the U.S. imposed its sanctions, Russian officials were saying that our reply would be (disproportional), that the U.S. will feel it for sure, and in unexpected spheres. Have you felt some kind of effects in these spheres? What is so painful?

JFT: I think the issue of pain is not necessarily the right one to gauge here. Clearly, the sanctions were put on individuals who were involved in the Crimea and Donetsk operations, and then there were broader, sectoral sanctions, which have affected things like financial credit and things like that.

There hasn’t been something quite comparable to that in terms of Russian sanctions towards Europe or towards the United States. Now, sanctions were imposed on things like imports, and I’m sure that there are certain companies whose imports – whether they be chicken or whatever – have felt that pain. But, my own sense is that some of the sanctions that Russia put on toward the West have caused as much pain here in Russia as they have vis-à-vis Europe or the United States.

I have heard lots of my Russian friends tell jokes about cheese. You probably know what I’m talking about; I won’t go any further. There was a lot of cheese when I came back on the Aeroflot flight from the United States, there were a lot of Russians on there with cheese (laughter). I could smell it on the plane.

Let me just say, I eat a lot of Russian cheese. I’m a guy from Wisconsin, so I love cheese. The more developed Russian cheese can get, the better. The more aged, the more sophisticated, the better. It’s like pelmeni. I like pelmeni and I like cheese (laughter).

Q: Talking about our cooperation on North Korea, it seems that we have a lot of common views on this problem and do you consider any possibilities for the State Department’s representative to visit Moscow for discussing the settlement of the North Korean problem? Because as far as I’m concerned, there are some progress on meetings among the experts on this problem.

JFT: There’s no planned meeting now. We had a meeting last year. You remember Ambassador Sung Kim came from the United States for talks with Mr. Morgulov, our special negotiator on the North Korea nuclear issue. I know that in the wake of the nuclear explosion that the North Koreans recently did, that there’s obviously lots of consultation in New York about a new U.N. Security Council resolution. Clearly, Ambassador Churkin and his team are involved, along with the Chinese and our delegation on that. Right now, there’s not a plan for any visits here by our experts, and as you say, we have a very similar view. We all feel that the North Koreans should not have a nuclear weapon, so right now, the key action is on this Security Council resolution.

Q: Do you think that it will be a positive step toward resolution? A meeting in an expert format?

JFT: It’s always possible, but nothing is scheduled right now. Having experts meet is what I’m saying. And these experts also talk to each other on the telephone. We have communications; I think the last time there was a phone call, our North Korea negotiator put out a statement to that effect. People are in touch. I don’t think we have any lack of understanding of each other’s positions, both strategic and tactical.

Q: So even now, American and Russian diplomats are staying in touch on the North Korea problem?

JFT: Absolutely. Exactly.

Q: Would you confirm information that the U.S. and Russia create air bases in the north of Syria 50 kilometers apart from each other?

JFT: I don’t know that we have. I don’t know anything about that, to be quite honest with you. These would be inside of Syria, is what you’re talking about?

Q: Mm-hmm.

JFT: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t have any information.

Q: On North Korea, is it necessary to make sure that it was a nuclear bomb, and is it necessary to increase sanctions?

JFT: I think people are pretty sure on that already. I can’t give you the details of that here. I don’t have it, but we’re confident. As I remember, the issue was the North Koreans claimed it was a hydrogen bomb and then there was some discussion, at least that I saw in the press, as to whether this was, the yield that was measured by the seismometers all over the world, was big enough to be a hydrogen explosion. And there was still some questions and experts were analyzing that. But I think the fact that there was an explosion in itself is a violation of the Security Council resolution. So that’s the fundamental point here. What exactly the kind, that’s not the critical part here. They broke the rules again and we should react together, and that’s why the discussion of the Security Council resolution is on the table.

Q: But it was not a nuclear explosion?

JFT: It was a nuclear explosion, as is my understanding. And the North Koreans admitted that it was. I don’t have here with me today the actual information, but my understanding was that not just our experts, but others around the world, because you know there’s a whole battery of independent countries that have seismic capabilities to be able to measure these things. The fact that there was an explosion, I don’t think, is in question. The question was this claim that this was a hydrogen bomb, and then the question becomes yield and how you measure all of that, that gets into lots of specific details.

Q: I’m sorry, just to specify. So we understand that it’s not a question of if it was an explosion, but what kind of explosion, you’re not sure. Or you’re sure?

JFT: I don’t know exactly. I haven’t seen the latest analysis from our own people. My point is that the explosion in and of itself is a violation of the Security Council resolution and we should act on that. That’s my point.

Q: The latest comment, from the American side and the Russian side, is that we are not sure what kind of explosion…

JFT: That’s what I’m trying to say, is it a hydrogen? The fact that it took place, I don’t think there’s a question about that. Today’s papers have articles that they’re getting ready to launch another missile, which would be in violation as well, as I understand the Security Council. So I think common action is important here and I think that’s what we’re looking for.

Q: Do you think that a new resolution and new U.N. Security Council could be passed soon?

JFT: I don’t know. This is one of those things in New York that they spend a lot of time discussing and until it’s ready to go, you don’t know for sure, because it’s commas, periods, language that is worked on there very carefully. I don’t have the latest on the discussions on the resolution in New York.

Q: Mr. Joe Biden said that the United States, related to a military solution in Syria, that political (solution) is impossible. In your introduction, I heard you say that a military solution is impossible.

JFT: I’m going on the basis of what my president has said all along. I’m not sure that Joe Biden was quoted correctly on this, but certainly Barack Obama and John Kerry have made it very clear that a final solution in Syria is going to need to be done politically. And we’re going to have to find a way to do that, which is why we’ve invested so much effort in this international Syria security group, to try to find a way forward. And we’re happy that Russia is with us; we’d like to see these negotiations, that de Mistura is putting together, to see those succeed. We’d like to see the plan that was endorsed by the Security Council implemented. That’s where we are at this point.

Q: Last question. Have you received a letter from the All Russian State Library that there is a proposal to resume cooperation and is the embassy ready for that (where the American Center used to be)?

JFT: I haven’t seen any letters. Have we got a letter?

Embassy Spokesperson William Stevens: We got a letter, and I gave an interview to Izvestiya about it yesterday.

JFT: Alright, well thanks very much.