RUSSIALINK: “U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan: I hope we’ll see further progress at strategic stability talks in Geneva but I wouldn’t expect immediate breakthrough” – Interfax

John Sullivan file image, adapted from image featured at usembassy.gov

(Interfax – Sept. 30, 2021 – interfax.com/newsroom/exclusive-interviews/72748/)

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has given an interview to Interfax. He speaks about prospects of U.S.-Russia dialogue on strategic stability, Nord Stream 2, possible new U.S. sanctions, U.S. citizens incarcerated in Russia, Iran, as well as ‘visa war’ with Russia.

Question: A few months have passed since the Russian-U.S. summit in Geneva, from your opinion on what tracks progress has been achieved, on what tracks we can expect progress in the near future? And on what tracks the things are going on slowly?

Answer: Of course, it was a significant meeting in June. I think both sides seek a stable and predictable relationship. That remains the goal of President Biden and our focus here at the U.S. Embassy in Russia.

And part of seeking that stable, predictable relationship is really the obligation that both the United States and Russia have to manage responsibly their relationship. As permanent members of the [UN] Security Council, as two nuclear superpowers, we need to cooperate in all the areas where we can, where when it’s in our interests. And, when we have differences, and we certainly do have significant differences, it’s important that we have an open and frank dialogue. And that’s what the two presidents did in in Geneva.

So, I guess I would cite three workstreams, three areas, growing out of Geneva, where there’s been some momentum and further discussions between the United States and Russia.

The first is the strategic stability dialogue, which on the U.S. side is led by our Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, along with our Under Secretary for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins. And the Russian side is led by my friend, Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov. They met in Geneva in July to launch the strategic stability dialogue and these talks will lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.

And we expect the next round to take place very soon in Geneva. So that’s the next plenary meeting of that same group. So that’s one: strategic stability.

Second is discussion on climate issues. As you know, in July, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, former Secretary Kerry traveled to Moscow to meet with a number of key Russian interlocutors to discuss the seriousness of climate change and efforts to increase national ambitions, especially in the next decade. And, as we anticipate the meeting of COP 26 in Glasgow in November. Climate is a very, very important issue for the Biden administration. The President has said that. Secretary Blinken has said that this is a very serious, key issue for the administration. And both Russia and the United States are key countries that are part of the solution to the climate change problems that we confront. So, climate is a second area.

And then, third, and not as high-profile, but of equal importance I would say or close to it, is cybersecurity. So, my colleagues from the National Security Council have been engaged in regular contact with their counterparts from the Russian government on cyber issues – principally ransomware attacks – but cybersecurity in general, which was on the agenda for presidents Putin and Biden in Geneva. And both presidents expressed an interest to work together to investigate these matters, prevent future ransomware attacks. President Biden in particular, was clear that the United States will defend our national interests and defend ourselves against ransomware attacks. And, more generally, on cyber, you’ve heard that our president say that we will defend our sovereignty and our national interests. And that includes, if necessary, imposing costs on the Russian government if we believe that their actions seek to harm our sovereignty, or our allies, partners, and values.

So, three areas I would highlight are strategic stability, climate, and cyber. Those are key areas where our meetings continue, and we’re exploring cooperation.

But there are other areas where, as you know, we have we have not made progress.

And, you know, the first, most recent issue that is that has been of quite, you know, high prominence here, was the recent Duma elections. And, as the State Department and the U.S. Government have said, we believe that the conditions in Russia were not conducive to a free and fair election. In particular, the Russian government’s use of laws and extremist organizations, foreign agents, and undesirable organizations, really, before the vote, restricted political pluralism and deny the Russian people choice in in the election and prevented them from exercising their, their civil and political rights. And this is not – I know, I often hear from the Russian government that this is somehow an interference in – the United States making this commentary, interferes in Russia’s internal affairs. But, this is a matter of Russia’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as its commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. So, these are international obligations that Russia has undertaken to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, which we believe have not been protected. Those obligations have not been followed through on. And then finally, with respect to the election, we – as was made clear in the statement from Washington – we don’t recognize holding elections for the Russian Duma on sovereign Ukrainian territory and reaffirm our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Another area that it was of recent interest to me, and it’s been a continuing interest since I got here, concerns the treatment of American citizens, particularly American detainees, Paul Whelan, and then Trevor Reed. I was able to travel to Mordovia this week and visit with both Paul and Trevor. Each of them traveled to Russia as tourists, were arrested, and then were convicted without credible evidence; and, in Paul’s case, in a secret trial. We don’t even know what the evidence was. I continue to advocate for their freedom and will continue to do so. It’s been far too long that they have been imprisoned. For Paul, we, unfortunately, passed the recent milestone of the 1,000th day that he has been held here in Russia. So, detainees – the Whelan and Reed cases in particular – of, areas where we haven’t made progress.

And then, finally, of most immediate interest to those of us here at Embassy Moscow and concerns of the operations of our diplomatic mission here. As you know, on August 1, we were forced to let go of hundreds of staff members across Russia, due to a decree issued by the Russian government that prohibited employment of Russian and third country nationals at the U.S. mission. And these measures, had an enormous impact on our on our operations – the safety of our personnel, as well as our ability to operate the embassy.

So, those are some of the negative issues that I’ve been focused on. But on the positive side, as I laid out at the outset, some significant talks that are that are ongoing. And, as I say, the strategic stability dialogue will continue this week in Geneva.

Q.: Do you fear that the possible new U.S. sanctions against Russia could undermine the dialogue that began in Geneva, and all the positive follow up that we have after this summit?

A.: Well, you know, in general, I would say that we’ve been clear: the United States has been clear; President Biden has been clear; that he seeks, we seek, a relationship with Russia – as I said at the outset – that’s stable and predictable. However, we’ve also been clear, publicly and privately, that we will defend our national interests and impose costs on the Russian government for what we believe are actions that seek to harm our sovereignty – U.S. sovereignty, or our allies, partners, or values.

And, President Biden said this in Geneva. And, since Geneva, for example, when he called President Putin in July, to urge the Russian government to move against ransomware groups operating in Russia, warning that we’re prepared to respond if cyberattacks continue.

In speaking with President Putin before the Geneva summit, President Biden raised our strong concerns about Russia’s malign activities, including the use of a chemical weapon in the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny. The other matters – the Solar Winds intrusion, the placing of bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Russia’s interference in the 2020 U.S. election. Those were issues that were emphasized by the President this spring. The United States has taken action in response.

We’re hoping for an improvement in our relationship with the Russian government. But as President Biden said in Geneva, we don’t – we’re not expecting to get positive results. We’re going to work hard to try to do that. And we’ll work hard and cooperatively in all areas where we can with the Russian government. But, hope is not a strategy or a policy. And, we will be vigilant to defend American sovereign interests.

Q.: Mr. Sullivan, I have a follow up question concerning strategic stability talks. Do you expect any breakthrough in this sphere during forthcoming round of talks in Geneva? What are the main differences between Moscow and Washington in this sphere? And in your opinion, is it realistic to bridge the gap between two sides?

A.: I think it’s certainly realistic to bridge the gap that that exists between the United States and Russia on an array of issues that are covered by our strategic stability dialogue. Our experience in negotiations with our Russian counterparts, of course, extends back many decades to the U.S.-Soviet discussions on arms control. Whether it’s Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, START, New START Treaty, and so forth.

So, we have a history of dealing with these issues. The issues now are much more complicated; not surprisingly, both technologically, and otherwise. And, the number of issues that need to be addressed has grown significantly. Whether it’s cyber space, a whole host of issues that weren’t relevant or weren’t even of concern or some technologies were not even in existence when our predecessors were engaged in Strategic Arms Limitation Talks decades ago.

But, President Biden is committed to embarking on an integrated strategic stability dialogue. And we’ve described our aim as having a discussion that is deliberate and robust. We remain committed, even in times of tension, to working toward that predictability and stability and reducing risk.

So, we had a meeting in July. The U.S. delegation discussed U.S. policy priorities, the current security environment, national perception of threats to strategic stability, prospects for new arms control, and the format for future dialogue sessions. And, the Russian government engaged on those issues, and others as well. And, my colleagues who participated, reported that the discussions were professional and substantive. And they look forward to building on those discussions this week in Geneva.

And, I’d just say, this is a long-term undertaking, this dialogue. Dialogues on issues this important, this complex, will take a lot of hard work. And I expect that there will be many rounds of talks going forward.

So, I wouldn’t expect an immediate breakthrough, particularly with respect to some sort of really detailed, substantive agreement. But, I’m confident that both sides – given the work that’s gone in July, and then since then, consultations between both sides have continued leading up to this dialogue this week. And, I expect we’ll see further progress to be announced by my colleagues, and by the Russian side, when they conclude the discussions this week.

Q.: Does Washington have an understanding of the final results you want to achieve in the negotiations with Russia on strategic stability?

A.: Well, as I mentioned, we’ve worked hard to prepare for this next meeting, this next plenary meeting – which means it’s a large group of both sides. I don’t want to prejudge that meeting. But, our Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman, and our Under Secretary Bonnie Jenkins, and the whole U.S. delegation, is committed to working hard on this dialogue; engaging on all the issues both, we want to raise, and any issues that the Russian government wants to raise. It’s important for us to hear from the Russian side about what concerns them, what they consider security challenges they face from their perspective.

So, among the most important things, particularly early on in these discussions, is that we share our own observations about how we see the security landscape, what we think is threatening to the United States, what Russia thinks is threatening to Russia. And then we will build on that – I’m confident – and have more meetings going forward; and, they may be smaller working groups. But, we’ll see what’s decided in Geneva. But, this is going to be a long-term undertaking with a lot of people on both sides – the Russian side and the U.S. side – involved.

Q.: I have a question about gas. It’s a little philosophical question. So, Nord Stream 2 has become one of the core elements of U.S. foreign policy on the Eastern European track. But doesn’t it seem to you that the situation in the world economy and energy, in particular, is developing so fast that the politics is simply falling behind it. And, Washington is to certain extent behind the reality. Many experts treat the price shock on European gas market as proof of the economic need for a new channel of secure deliveries which now there is no certainty that U.S. LNG can fill this niche. How, could you comment on this?

A.: Well, we are, we, the United States, are very concerned about gas storage in the region: that it’s low, the market is under-supplied compared to prior years, and we’re approaching fall, and winter will be here before you know it. The lower-than-normal levels of gas storage illustrate the importance of diversified energy supplies, to meet Europe’s energy needs, and its energy security.

And that’s the focus of U.S. policy. It’s to actively engage to enhance energy security in Europe – whether it’s in in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine, or other European partners and allies during this, this critical time of energy transition. And, Russia stated that it has sufficient gas supply to meet European energy needs. And we believe and urge the Russian government to provide additional supplies through Ukraine – which has sufficient pipeline capacity now, without Nord Stream 2. And, our concern is that failing to do that now hurts European energy security and brings into question Russian assurances about gas supply and potential motives for withholding supply.

Q.: Following the theme of Nord Stream 2. The construction of this gas pipeline is over and it will be launched soon. Can you say that, for the U.S., the project is now inevitable? So, can we say that this question is closed for the U.S.? Or we may expect some new sanctions from Washington? And Washington will continue to put up barriers after the gas pipeline is launched?

A.: It’s an issue that I confronted as Deputy Secretary years ago. I was asked about this during my confirmation, more than two years – well, almost two years ago, now, at this point, to be Ambassador in Russia. At that point, I think, Nord Stream 2 was more than 90% complete.

So, this is an issue that the United States has been confronting for some time. The United States position is well-known, in opposition to Nord Stream 2. But, you’ve also seen in recognition of the almost complete – completely finishing and getting the pipeline certified for use, that the United States has reached an agreement with Germany to address energy security issues, and particularly energy security and Ukraine.

With respect to sanctions, we continue to examine entities potentially engaged in sanctionable behavior. And this is a matter of law in the United States. The administration remains committed, and is obliged, by statute. The statute is called, I think, it’s Protecting European Energy Security Act. So, the administration will continue to implement that act. We’ve sanctioned seven persons related to Nord Stream 2 and identified over 15 vessels, as blocked property. But that’s a legal obligation that our Congress has imposed that we will continue to follow.

Q.: The Russian Foreign Ministry has recently stated that the U.S. is meddling in electoral processes in Russia, and the Russian side later said that a great deal of evidence has been provided to the American side. Is the U.S. ready to give necessary explanation to the Russian side? And, do you consider that, due to mutual accusations, meddling in elections, the cyber security dialogue is very important?

A.: Yes, these issues have been front of mind and front page news, as they used to say in a pre-digital world, those of us who are old enough to remember that. Election interference, whether it in the United States, as we’ve demonstrated. Or the allegations, which are really baseless – the baseless allegations by the Russian government, that the United States, and the United States Government has attempted to interfere in, and threaten the integrity of the Duma elections here.

What – the problem with these elections was the increasingly repressive environment that Russian authorities have created to advantage certain candidates – the ruling party’s candidates – obstructing electoral transparency, and, in particular, marginalizing independent media, and preventing opposition participation. An election is free and fair if candidates are allowed to run and present competing ideas and have a competition. And that competition needs to be covered by media that’s independent.

And, the facts are pretty stark. In 2021, in this calendar year, it’s dozens, it’s probably more than 30, independent media outlets or individuals were added to the register of media foreign agents – a huge increase in the number. Sixty percent of all undesirable organization designations – which fully criminalize an organization’s operations in this country – 60% of all those, of those designations have been made since 2020, and include many investigative reporters. And the Kremlin, as you know, increased pressure on private technology companies, including those from the United States, Google and Apple, to remove from their social media platforms, political content, expressing dissent or criticism.

And these steps restricted Russian citizens’ access to diverse perspectives; opposition candidates weren’t allowed to run. And, particularly in the pre-election period, it was difficult to get alternative messages out for Russian citizens to consider. Then, finally, for the election itself, there was there wasn’t really an independent, effective electoral monitoring. So, those were among the concerns we have with the recent Duma elections. There have been other concerns raised by Russian citizens, Russian political parties, including with respect to the e-voting. So, it’s not just the West Europeans and the United States who’ve got concerns; Russians and Russian political parties do as well.

Q.: Following the topic of Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, are there any shifts for the moment in discussing of the exchange of these U.S. citizens for some Russian citizens that are in prison in the United States? And do you have the numbers of how many Americans are serving prison terms in Russia?

A.: Well, first as I said at the outset, President Biden raised the cases of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed with President Putin during the summit in Geneva in June. And their cases have been the highest priorities that I’ve had as Ambassador; because they were both denied the right to a fair and public hearing, before an independent court. And as Ambassador, the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens is one of my highest priorities.

So, we keep very close track of Trevor and Paul and all Americans who are detained here. That’s why I went to Mordovia this week to visit with Paul and Trevor personally. And it’s why I continue to speak out on their behalf. And, as I mentioned, on Thursday, I issued a statement marking the 1000th day of incarceration for Paul Whelan.

So, the bottom line is this: we’re very concerned about Paul and Trevor. We expect them to be treated properly. And we continue to call for the Russian government to do the right thing and return them to their families in the United States. They’ve been deprived of their freedom for far, far too long. It is a daily source of concern for me, something that we at the embassy and my colleagues back in Washington are working on every day.

I really can’t say more about any other aspects about discussions between the U.S. government and the Russian government on these cases, that wouldn’t be productive.

But, with respect to the number of Americans in Russian prison, unfortunately, that’s not information we would publicize due to, to privacy considerations. And, so, what I would say, however, is the number can be sometimes difficult to track because of number of people are dual-citizens. They consider themselves both Russian citizens and U.S. citizens. But we keep very close, close track of them.

So bottom line is I’m not going to comment – I can’t come in the media about potential exchanges. But I will always be advocating for Paul and Trevor’s fair treatment and for their release.

Q.: Let’s talk about Iran. May I ask this question about Iran? U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said that the pause in Iranian nuclear negotiations become a point of no return. Is the U.S. ready to somehow spur Iran to get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible? And how closely is Washington interacting with Moscow in discussions of Iranian problem?

A.: Very closely. Very closely. And, in fact, I can cite as specific evidence the fact that my friend and colleague Special Presidential Envoy for Iran Robert Malley was in Moscow just a couple of weeks ago for discussions with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, which I participated in. And, the Russian government and the U.S. government are aligned in seeking to have Iran come back to discussions on the JCPOA and for the JCPOA – to return to mutual compliance and reach an understanding on that. So, Special Representative Malley had productive meetings with, as I say, with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov.

And we are, it’s another area in addition to the three broad areas that I described at the beginning – strategic stability, climate, and cyber – Iran and the JCPOA is another area where the United States and Russia share the goal of quickly returning to negotiations to reach an understanding on a return to mutual compliance with the with the JCPOA.

And, as I said, I was with Special Representative Malley, when he met here with the Deputy Foreign Minister. They were positive, productive discussions. Those have continued, I believe, including in New York this week. So, we’re working very hard on this. It’s a priority for the Secretary, and for the President.

Q.: Russia has many times proposed to the U.S. ‘zero out’ restrictions in the work of the diplomatic missions of both countries. Is the U.S. ready to stop the visa war and start a joint move toward the resolution of the visa problem? What is the reason for the reluctance to send to the Moscow embassy employees from the U.S.? Is it purely financial?

A.: Look, the real question is whether or not the Russian government is committed to a stable and predictable relationship with the United States. I’ve pointed out publicly that there is a great disparity between the size of the U.S. Mission in Russia and the Russian Mission in the United States. When I became Deputy Secretary of State, we had approximately 1,200 employees – Americans and Russians and third-country nationals working in Russia. Now, the U.S. Embassy is one-tenth that size. We have approximately 120 people, all based at the embassy in Moscow. According to public data, there are over well over 200 Russians in the United States staffing their embassy and their two consulates. Including Russia’s Mission to the United Nation in New York, they have over 400 diplomats in the United States. The disparity is large and obvious.

It’s deeply unfortunate that the Russian government has chosen to limit the diplomatic interaction between our two countries. For example, we want to issue visas to Russian students, businesspeople, journalists, tourists, flight attendants, and pilots, so they can visit, work, and study in my country. But without adequate staff we cannot issue those visas.

This problem could be resolved if the Russian government issued as many visas to American diplomats as we do for Russian diplomats. The U.S. is fully committed to a stable and predictable relationship with Russia.

By whom is the U.S. guided as far as forming a position on the results of Russia’s State Duma elections is concerned, since, as we understand, there are no U.S. observers at the elections? And what is your personal opinion as an ambassador on the absence of contacts between the legislative branches of the two countries? Is the U.S. ready to develop relations with the new composition of the State Duma?

When looking at an election, such as the recent Duma elections, we look at the conditions on the ground. We ask if the conditions on the ground allow for free and fair voting. Unfortunately, as we noted for the Duma elections, the Russian government used laws to severely restrict political pluralism and prevent the Russian people from exercising their civil and political rights.

But, when it comes to increased contact between the United States and Russia, the direction from President Biden is clear. The U.S. seeks a stable and predictable relationship. But, recently we have seen how the Russian government has chosen to limit the diplomatic interaction between our two countries. So, we have to ask if Russia shares that goal.