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Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with the newspaper Kommersant,

published on September 22, 2020

Question: US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea has said that they offered Russia a good deal and if Russia accepts it, Washington would agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which will expire in February 2021. Is there anything positive for Russia in the US offer?

Sergey Ryabkov: It would certainly be a good deal for the United States itself. Ambassador Billingslea is right in this sense. As for Russia, there are no grounds for making any deal in the format proposed by our Washington colleagues. We believe that the three points advanced by the United States as preconditions for extending the New START are too far-reaching and do not include any positive elements. The offer made by the Americans does not look like a good deal.

For our part, we more than once described a balanced and mutually acceptable framework for future agreements in this sphere during our contacts with the American negotiators. Aware of the difficulties on the path forward in light of how widely different our approaches are, we proposed extending the New START as it was originally signed.

We do not want any unilateral advantages, but we will not make any unilateral concessions either. A deal may be possible if the United States is ready to coordinate a new document on the basis of the balance of interests, parity and without expecting Russia to make unilateral concessions. But this will take time. We can have time to do this if the treaty is extended.

Question: The United States claims that the sides must coordinate the parameters of a future treaty already now by adopting a framework agreement, which must include the three provisions of concern to them, as you said. First of all, they want the agreement to cover all types of warheads, including tactical, with a system of inspections that will automatically register all warheads going from and to the plants. At the same time, it is not ready to withdraw its tactical weapons from Europe, as Russia demanded. Is this acceptable to Moscow?

Sergey Ryabkov: These are different questions and it would be conceptually wrong to mix the widely different aspects of this multifaceted situation.

As for the practice of the sides’ permanent on-site inspections at the plants you have mentioned, it has long been abandoned and there are no grounds at all for renewing it. We understand that the Americans would like to resume that old practice by repacking old methods in a different way in the new documents. We held in-depth discussions on this matter during meetings with Marshall Billingslea, and our experts groups discussed it as well. The Americans know very well that there is nothing interesting for us in this proposal.

As for the US idea of controlling all types of warheads, our logic when it comes to this differs seriously, if not dramatically, from the American. We believe that delivery vehicles are at least as important as warheads for the purpose of arms control. Here is a simple example. Just imagine a cannon with five cannonballs (this is a metaphor from the days gone by). Would it be the same if the cannon had ten instead of five cannonballs? The difference is important, of course, but not as important as if we said that we had two cannons and five cannonballs. Two cannons can fire simultaneously. This is exaggerated logic, but I am using it to show that the delivery vehicles and launchers are equally, if not more important than the warheads.

The Americans, who have focused entirely on warheads, are keeping a window of opportunity open for themselves so as to be able to increase their delivery capability. Consequently, there is no parity in this sense, and we therefore do not see this proposal as attractive.

Moreover, the United States has refused to withdraw its non-strategic weapons, that is, free-fall or gravity bombs, from Europe. It is not ready to liquidate their storage infrastructure, so as to be able to quickly redeploy these weapons in Europe if Washington hypothetically agrees to pull them out. The Americans refuse to discuss all aspects of our position on the need to remove this factor, which has direct influence on our security.

Therefore, there are no reasons why we should take part in discussions on non-strategic warheads. The ideology of arms control as it was practiced by our countries during the past decades radically differs from the current US proposals. At the same time, the Americans have not provided any arguments that can convince us to change our approach.

Question: The second US demand is to strengthen the verification and transparency regime. Marshall Billingslea has more than once said that the New START has serious verification flaws. He said that the treaty gives Russia advantages in this sphere, whereas the United States is not satisfied with the amount of information it receives.

Sergey Ryabkov: The verification regime of the New START has been adjusted precisely to the goals of the treaty. The regime is quite sufficient for ensuring reliable certainty of the developments. The treaty ensures high-level predictability, and there are no reasons to change anything in this sphere. It is just impossible to imagine any additional measures in this sphere that would be in keeping with our security interests. Therefore, the statements made by Marshall Billingslea amount to a request which, he believes, must be granted because this meets US security interests. We are ready to negotiate. But this is a very complicated matter and very many aspects of it must be clarified.

In any case, there can be no returning to the practice of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The current treaty meets the requirements and the spirit of the time.  Now that relations between our countries are very tense and lack mutual trust, I believe that the intrusive verification measures proposed by the American side are unacceptable.

Question: Third, the United States insists that China must join the treaty that will replace the New START and that this arrangement must be formalised in a framework agreement with Russia. I have read what you told news agencies, that what Marshall Billingslea said was a deliberate distortion of Russia’s position. Ambassador Billingslea said that Russia and the United States agree that a future nuclear arms treaty must include China. Does this mean that Moscow is against separately mentioning China unless the agreement includes a provision on involving Britain and France, which have nuclear weapons as well, in the arms control process?

Sergey Ryabkov: Beijing’s “obligation” to join the talks is an issue on which we and the Americans have completely different positions. We believe that China should take a decision on this matter separately as a sovereign state. We are aware of every detail of China’s position, which has not changed for a long time. We can understand it and believe that it is a logical position. China is not ready to join trilateral talks with the United States and Russia. We respect its position, but if China shows interest in this format at any time in the future, we will not object, of course. But there cannot be any obligation in this respect. We will just accept any decision China makes as a given. As for the format of the future talks in general, we have clearly indicated that Britain and France as the closest allies of the United States should join them.

Question: Considering all these differences, I can presume that there are minimal chances of adopting such a framework agreement before the November election in the United States. However, your American colleague has warned that the price of admission would go up after the election, which means that Washington will lay down additional conditions for extending the treaty.

Sergey Ryabkov: This reminds me of a scene from The Twelve Chairs [by Ilf and Petrov – Ed.], where the main characters sold tickets to see the Drop when there was no charge. Exactly the same situation. You can set any price, but it is not a fact that those who stand or not stand at the entrance will be ready to pay it.

Question: It seems there has been progress with regard to Russia’s concerns about the conversion of US strategic systems (Moscow had previously said it might not be about any real reductions in ballistic missile launchers for Trident II submarines and B-52H heavy bombers, but rather about re-equipment, and that can be easily reverted to the original configuration). Have any solutions been found?

Sergey Ryabkov: I was actually surprised this topic has been covered by the American side. We are in the midst of a discussion on this point, and the matter has not been completely cleared. Yes, there is some progress. But, unfortunately, it is not yet clear when the bilateral consultative commission on New START can meet. COVID-19 is putting limitations on our plans. We are working to appoint a date.

As for the problems with the potential conversion of the ballistic missile launchers for Trident II submarines, I can confirm that there is some progress. Yet, taking into account the entire combination of factors, I would prefer not to discuss the details now. There are some remaining questions about the conversion of American heavy bombers – something we have talked about and continue to talk about when we point out that it was illegal for Washington to artificially exempt a significant part of its strategic delivery vehicles from accounts. I don’t know whether we will find a way to reach an agreement in the time that remains, but we are making significant efforts to this end.

Question: How do you assess the US statement about being ready to begin the reverse conversion of its strategic systems the next day after the expiration of the New START Treaty, if the parties fail to agree on its extension?

Sergey Ryabkov: This confirms what we are saying: the methods the Americans use in the implementation of the treaty provide them with a significant reversal potential. We have always pointed this out; it is our major concern. A similar situation developed with the now defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). We have repeatedly pointed out that the MK-41 installations can be used to launch cruise missiles (not just interceptor missiles), but the United States did not react to this. And 15 days after the INF Treaty expired, they carried out just such a launch, materially confirming that we had been absolutely right.

Question: According to Marshall Billingslea, the United States is in any case reluctant to extend New START for five more years. What is the minimum renewal period acceptable for Russia?

Sergey Ryabkov: We would prefer a five-year extension of course. But if the US is not ready for this – which we regret – a shorter period is possible. But, reasonably shorter. If the New START extension period the United States would be willing to agree is shorter than it would take to agree on anything serious with them for the future, this would be a bad solution. Yet, something is better than nothing.

But again, we are not going to pay their asking price even for a five-year extension, let alone for a shorter period.

We are not determined to prolong the treaty at any cost. We are interested in trying to reach a different agreement on a reciprocal basis, but so far, there is no such readiness on the American side. So by and large, there is no difference when we fail to reach an agreement – right now or a short period after the current New START Treaty’s expiration.

Question: Joe Biden promised to extend New START for five years if he wins the election. So hypothetically, would it be possible to turn it around in the two weeks after the inauguration of the new US president, scheduled for January 20, before February 5?

Sergey Ryabkov: We are holding consultations and will continue working on it with full awareness of responsibility for what is happening and the need to focus the political will right now. We are not playing solitaire and trying to guess which cards they will have on their hands in a given situation. We can see that many important events converge at some point in time, such as the inauguration of the President of the United States. It is largely immaterial who that president will be and none of our concern. We will work with the person sworn in on Capitol Hill on January 20 and try to find solutions with them. Accordingly, we are not wasting our time but keep focusing our efforts to finally reach our colleagues in Washington and encourage them to look for solutions rather than impose one-sided approaches on us.

 

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