Ambassador Huntsman Interview with RBC TV

March 27, 2018
Spaso House

Q. Dear Ambassador, thank you so much, it’s a great pleasure.

AMB: The honor is mine, thank you.

Q. First of all, I would like to look at the timeline of events. President Trump congratulates Vladimir Putin with his re-election, despite the advice to the contrary from his policy advisors. Then he talks on the phone of a need for a personal meeting. And then just a week later he expels 60 Russian diplomats. What made him change his mind so abruptly?

AMB: Well, first of all, it’s a great honor to be with you. I’d like to state right at the top, to express the condolences on the part of the American people toward the families who have lost their loved ones, family members in the tragedy in Siberia in the shopping center fire. My heart has been broken as a result of this. I’m a father. I have children. This could have happened at any mall in the United States or anywhere else in the world, so it’s a tragedy that brings everybody together. We mourn with the people of this community, and I wanted to wish them the best. I went with Father Alexander to our local church in this neighborhood – the local Russian Orthodox Church – to light a candle in memory, commemoration and representing the sincere condolences of the American people. And I wanted to start with that.
To your question, which of course is a good one and it’s on a lot of people’s minds: the President of the United States, from the moment we had our conversation when he asked me to become the United States Ambassador to Russia, which I gladly accepted because this relationship is that important, has stated consistently that he wants to engage President Putin, that he wants to meet President Putin. And indeed they’ve had many conversations by telephone. They’ve communicated regularly. I’ve come to find that President Trump does that – he phones up people. I’ve had conversations with him. And he like to maintain and build relationships. I think that’s part of his style. So when he says that he’s like to meet President Putin, that doesn’t differ from anything he’s said from the moment he was elected president. And in terms of expressing a recognition that President Putin has been reelected for a six-year term, President Trump might be around for another six years. So they’ll be working together for six more years. So for two great powers to be in dialogue around issues like strategic stability or, as the two presidents talked about arms control, is a very very important thing for the stability of the world. So there’s nothing that took place there that surprised me. Perhaps it surprised some commentators who expect traditional behavior that they’ve seen before. President Trump is a different kind of president because of his background. He brings a much different approach to the presidency. He’s very results driven. And so when he talks about a meeting with President Putin, he’s expecting that will happen at some point based on real progress in the bilateral relationship. That together we will solve some problems and address some of the longstanding issues we confront.

Q. Why did the United States decide to expel Russian diplomats before the official results of the investigation?

AMB: Well, it’s based upon the very strong evidence that has already been put forward by British Prime Minister May. She has gone around to many countries, to multilateral organizations, to explain in very clear terms and based on the information that she has what she thinks happened and the connection to Russia. And the information is compelling, not just for the United States, but for a lot of other countries as well. As we can see, 25, at least, have lined up in support of this case based upon the information that has been brought forward. So it’s important to note that Prime Minister May put it out very clearly in her conversation with Moscow. And that was: it’s either one of two things. It’s either a result of state support of this heinous act, or Russia was in violation of its treaty obligations with respect to chemical weapons and the substance got loose, which would be extremely disturbing. Russia didn’t come forward with any explanation. In fact, today Russia still has not come forward with any rational explanation. People have heard over 20 different answers that carry a lot of different conspiratorial twists, and the water has been muddied. It’s confused a lot of people. So I think we need to get back, stick to the facts. There even is the Chemical Weapons Convention [OPCW] that will do their own rigorous backup to the work that has already been done. But the United States is confident in its work with the U.K., as are many other countries. Confident enough to have taken the action that you saw in the last 24 hours.

Q: On the other hand, the investigation is not over. We have not seen the official results, it’s just an assumption. Is that important to the U.S. to wait for the official results or your decision are made and based on assumptions?

AMB: It’s important for the United States in its work collaboratively with the U.K. to do its own assessment based upon the facts, and the professionals involved have assessed to their satisfaction, as have many other countries, that there was a direct connection here. And it’s important to note as well, again, that the United Kingdom has given many opportunities for Russia to come forward with a very clear explanation of what has happened, and as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been an explanation. But the United States has done its work with the U.K., as many other countries have, done by professionals who understand these issues, and they’ve drawn their own conclusion based upon the facts.

Q. You mentioned that the British Consulate provided information about the investigation. However, our Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Russian journalists don’t have any information about this investigation. Could you please tell.. She also said that she asked the U.S. Embassy to provide this information to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Have you received?

AMB: What I would do, is I would go to the transcripts of the talks and discussions made by Prime Minister May and made by my good friend, the British Ambassador to Russia, who in his presentation, very thorough and thoughtfully done, gave a lot of information, a lot of information to the media and members of the diplomatic corps who were there. But I think the U.K… listen… the United Kingdom has the obligation as an open and a transparent society – open and transparent – to present the facts. And I think Prime Minister May has done a very very good job along with her government in presenting the facts. So anyone who is questioning that simply needs to get on the internet or to follow up with the British government and draw their own conclusions.

Q. To what extent the result of the investigation by the organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons affect further U.S. decisions?

AMB: Well that will simply serve to verify and validate the work that has already been done, and they will be an important part of this whole effort.

Q. But do you expect that OPCW to uncover any new facts?

AMB: Well that speculation at this points. We’re dealing with information as we know it today, and OPCW will simply validate that information in due time as we are confident they will. But all we can do it work with information that we have today in hand, which the U.K. government has done a thorough job of developing.

Q. Some experts believe that the situation with the Skripal poisoning is similar to Iraq dossier, when the allegations turned out to be wrong. Do you see any similarities between these two cases?

AMB: What I see similarities to are the obfuscating of facts that we saw with respect to MH17, Malaysian Airliner that was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. Or another example might be the events surrounding the annexation of Crimea in the early days. Or the invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Or the election meddling in the United States that we saw in 2016. All of which carried with it a high degree of obfuscation, a muddying of the water, and resulting in a sea of misinformation that confused a lot of people. So I think for concerned citizens who care about the truth, they need to take a step back and analyze the facts for what they are, not 20 different explanations. And that’s what I’ve heard so far in the Skripal case – over 20 individual explanations about who’s involved and what it could possibly be. I think that serves to create a sense of disinformation as opposed to enlightenment for those who really do want to understand the truth.

Q. Russian officials stated that there will be a response. Do you expect that the same number of diplomats will be expelled from Russia?

AMB: I don’t know. All I can do is focus on my job, which is to manage the U.S.-Russia relationship, which for the United States is a very very important relationship. But we’re prepared to deal with whatever response we get. And we’re prepared to respond again, if we have to. You have decision to make as a country. The U.K. is our closest friend and ally, and when you have a situation where a British citizen and his daughter, on the streets of Salisbury in the United Kingdom, have used against them a military-grade nerve agent, this can’t go without a proper response. And this is exactly what the United States and dozens of other countries have chosen to do. So I don’t fear their response. What I would fear is a United States that chose to do nothing, that just waited and watched and chose to not stand on principle or show support or commonality with our closest friend and ally, the United Kingdom.

Q. If a large number of American diplomats are expelled, would this affect the visa application process for Russian citizens? I think this is the main question for our citizens.

AMB: Well, we’ve already been impacted – our ability to process visas. So for me I think our most important weapon in diplomacy really are the people to people ties. Because I’ve come to find – not surprisingly, because I’ve believed it all along – is that the Russian people and the American people have so much in common. You can put them together in the same room and they become fast friends. They want the same for their families, they want the same for their communities. They want safety, good healthcare, good education, opportunity. So people-to-people connections are really very very important. And people who have been to the United States return with their point of view transformed. People who come to Russia from the United States return to America with their eyes open a little bit more. That’s a healthy thing. So processing visas and getting people-to-people engagement is so very very important. Now we had cut from our embassy just six months ago 727 people. We’re talking about numbers today that are pretty big, but nowhere near 727 that the Russian government imposed upon us! And included in that number, of course, were a lot of our staff who do consular work. So we have a brand new building in our embassy compound that has state-of-the-art visa processing booths – 25 of them – and we only have enough people today to staff less than half of that number. And it could get even worse. So we’re doing the best with the people that we have remaining, because the people-to-people engagement part and making sure that Russian citizens and our Russian friends understand what America is all about. And so friends from America are able to come here as well. That will always serve as the most important part of our relationship.

Q. How do you think, would there be any tightening of visa application process for any particular types of applicants, such as, I don’t know, students, officials…

AMB: We’re only speculating at this point. We don’t know, is the answer. But I think the answer that I gave you should really register most with people. I hope it does. Which is: our people-to-people relationships are the most important. We will move as quickly as we can through processing and paperwork to make sure that can have engagement between Russian people and American people. That will always guide our thinking. So in terms of where it goes from here, whether people are restricted or the processes become more onerous, I don’t know the answer to that because I don’t know what the response is likely to be.

Q. The response from Russia?

AMB: The response from the Russian government. I don’t know what it’s likely to be.

Q. British defense secretary made a statement saying that Britain is going to take actions against Russian assets. Does the U.S. have any plans for similar measures?

AMB: Oh, I can’t tell you what our future holds. I hope we’re able to steady our relationship.

Q: But is it possible?

AMB: Of course it is. If you look back, this room is full of books. I read them at night sometimes. And they tell histories going back in our bilateral relationship where we’ve had ups and downs. We’ve had expulsions. We’ve had tension in our relationship and we’ve had very good moments. The good moments come when we work together and we solve issues. When we’re honest with each other. And when we can sit down and honestly have conversations about what it means to be a reliable partner and a responsible partner. And right now the actions on the streets of Salisbury don’t represent a responsible partner. And the activities that we’ve seen elsewhere around the world don’t represent the responsible partnership that we would like to have. And I fear that we won’t have a healthy relationship until we can adequately address some of the issues that confront us. We will at some point. I have every confidence. So I’m not basing our relationship on the events of today. I think we need to play the long game and look out in the years to come, because if you look at the last many decades, we’ve had our share of ups and downs. I think we can do much better than we are today – that’s my lament – and why I get a little bit sad when I see this relationship play out because I know we’re capable of so much more. And we’re underperforming the expectations of the Russian people and the American people who expect us to have a healthy relationship and expect us to behave normally.

Q. But when it comes to actions against Russian property, what about the inviolability of private property, private assets?

AMB: Well you have the Vienna Convention that governs inviolability which will always be part of these discussions, but property, diplomatic facilities, there are lots of agreements and conventions over the years that determine how they’re handled. It’s not fair to speculate at all on where the future might go.

Q. What could be the next step from the United States? For example, in January, the U.S. published the so-called Kremlin Report. Do you have any plans to impose sanctions on so-called Putin’s Inner Circle?

AMB: Well, the work that you saw done earlier this year with respect to sanctions really is a carryover of the legislation that was voted on last year in my country and signed by the President on August 2nd of last year. And this combined a lot of the ongoing sanctions from Crimea to Donbas to Magnitsky, more human related, to election meddling. There were many layers that were combined in that vote last summer. And the vote in the Senate in the United States was 98 to 2. I’ve never seen my Senate with Republicans and Democrats who don’t agree on anything who voted 98 to 2 on these sanctions. So what you saw delivered by the Treasury Department and the State Department in the United States to the Congress was simply mandated under that legislation, and it asked for information about people and about entities. And now it’s up to Congress in their work with the Executive Branch, which has never happened before. It’s always been the Executive Branch – the President and his agencies – who have been in charge of sanctions. Never before has it been with Congress, so this is something new in the United States. And they’re figuring out how best to work together and what the priorities will be. And we’ll have to see. But Congress, based on the vote that I mentioned – 98 to 2 – our Congress that represents the American people – they’re very very concerned about the relationship and the events that brought about the sanctions: the election meddling, the violation of international law in Eastern Ukraine, these are issues that are of great concern to members of Congress. So we will see more demands from Congress to act on sanctions. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. When that will happen and what it will cover, I’m not in a position to say right now.

Q: If we assume, just for a moment, that the ongoing investigation will arrive to the conclusion that Russia had nothing to do with the Skirpal poisoning. What should we expect from the United States?

AMB: Well, I wouldn’t speculate about anything going forward. What I would do is base decisions, as the United States has, on the information that is today available, that has been rigorously undertaken by professionals in the security and investigative services in the U.K. And it’s sufficient for my professional colleagues in the United States and it’s sufficient for many other countries in the world who are acting in the last 24 hours, and I think that’s noteworthy. I think the message is a very very important one: that this kind of attack using these means of military-grade chemical weapons on the soil of another country will not be swept under the carpet. It will be addressed and it will be dealt with. And the ongoing patter of unfortunate behavior by Russia in other places in the world will also be seen as disturbing and an issue that countries are going to want to address. And they have. So this isn’t being done for nothing. I think the people need to understand that when you’re in a diplomatic relationship, you like to build, you don’t like to diminish. I like to build, I don’t like to diminish. But when you have compelling events, like those that we have seen play out in the streets of Salisbury, a country like the United States that stands for rule of law and that respects its treaty obligations must act. And many other countries have chosen the same course of action.

Q. And the last question: what is it like to work with Donald Trump? Is he an easy person to work with?

AMB: I’ve worked with a lot of Presidents, and I first met Donald Trump 20 years ago. I come from the business world too, so I understand the kind of attitude and personality that he brings to the presidency. I’ve worked with presidents who have spent their whole life in politics and never in business. Republicans and Democrats I’ve worked for. And each brings their own unique approach based on their experiences, based upon their life history, based upon those people around them who have influenced them. And Donald Trump is a result of a successful, hard-charging, decision-making entrepreneur, who has built a very successful business in the United States. And he hasn’t spent any time in government, so he demands results. He doesn’t like to wait around for things. He likes people to get out and work hard and bring results based on those issues that he campaigned on. And so whether it’s tax reform that we’ve seen in the United States, whether it’s addressing the regulatory environment that he feels very very strongly about. We’ve seen the stock market over the last year add about 6 trillion dollars – 6 trillion – to the United States economy, which was already the largest in the world, and it’s added that much more just based upon the infusion of business confidence that… I’m a former governor in the United States, and I can tell you from my experience, if your economy is working, and if your economy is strong and producing jobs and bringing in revenue, you can take care of all your problems. You can address almost all of them. And our economy is very very strong in the United States, and that’s a result of a strong, impatient, at times, president, who is demanding results. And I find that approach, even though a lot of people aren’t accustomed to it, I find that to be refreshing sometimes when it shakes up things that need to be shaken up in government.

Q. Thank you so much.

AMB: It’s a great pleasure to be with you. Thank you.