Ambassador Huntsman Interview with TASS/Kommersant

Ambassador Huntsman Interview with TASS/Kommersant
March 26, 2018
Moscow, Russia

Q:  Mr. Ambassador, thank you for giving us such opportunity.  We just read the news, which actually, to tell you the truth, shocked me, that U.S. is expelling 60 Russian diplomats.  Could you comment, why the decision was so much stronger than the British decision and why it also affected the United Nations diplomats who work in an international organization and not for Russian Embassy in U.S.?

AMB:  First of all, let me express very deep and profound condolences to the families who lost children and loved ones in this horrible shopping mall incident in Siberia.  My heart just weeps every time I hear an update on the number of people killed, and I just wanted to express that first and foremost, which is the most important thing of all.  Let me just say, this is in response to a very reckless attack, the use of military grade nerve agents against a British citizen and his daughter on British soil.  For us, this was a reckless enough incident where it could not pass without an appropriate response.  The United Kingdom is our best friend and ally.  It’s a message that, if you’re going to treat our best friends and allies this way, then there will most definitely be a response. 

Q:  It also affected the Russian consulate, which the Brits didn’t go as far as closing facilities altogether.  Again, the same question is: why such a strong response, much stronger than the country which was attacked itself?

AMB:  This is in response to a large number of intelligence officers operating within the United States.  For us, this means the United States will not have as many intelligence officers who are spying on Americans and running covert operations that threaten American national security.

Q.:  You mean that they were working in the consulate in Seattle?

AMB:  Within the United States. 

Q:  And coming back to what you started with, haven’t you thought of maybe postponing this decision, having in mind what happened in Russia today – the country is in mourning.  And then it gets such a diplomatic hit from outside.

AMB:  Well, this decision was taken not just by the United States, but over a dozen other countries, and we felt that this kind of response was appropriate.  You can’t always choose exactly the timing of these things because there are many participants.  But I think the fact that there are so many countries that are involved having done their own analysis and their own review of the Skripal case, I think it says something that is quite extraordinary.  In my lifetime I’ve never seen this kind of coordinated or comprehensive response to an incident like this.

Q:  But the investigation in Great Britain is not over yet.  They said officially it’s going to take weeks, if not months, to figure out actually what happened.  And now there’s already punitive measures.

AMB:  We have trust in the investigative work that’s being done and that has been done by the United Kingdom.  Not only the United States, but many other countries have had a chance to review the evidence, and the evidence very much parallels the kind of pattern that we saw with MH17, with Crimea, and with election meddling in the United States. 

Q:  What do you mean by that?

AMB:  Resulting in a sea of disinformation, making it very hard for people to tell fact from fiction.  So we’ve had to rely, as the UK, on their own rigorous approach to the facts that they know and the rigorous investigation.  We have great trust in what they have done and what they will do.

Q:  I personally can’t understand how it can affect an international organization, as our diplomats in the United Nations work for an international organization.  Is it legal?

AMB:  It was done as a result of the total number of intelligence officers in the United States.  That was the decision that was taken.

Q:  So you mean that they’re working within the consulate and within the UN not as diplomats but as intelligence officers?

AMB:  Both.  As was stated by the State Department earlier today in a phone call by Assistant Secretary Wes Mitchell, he mentioned the number of intelligence operatives within the United States, therefore a decision was made to take that number down substantially to protect American people, and that’s a combination of intelligence officers both in the bilateral mission in Washington and also within the United Nations.  The United Nations process is a little bit different than simply the Vienna Convention that governs bilateral expulsions, and that is notification of the United Nations and of course a very rigorous evidentiary-based approach.

Q:  Was it somehow coordinated with the United Nations Secretary General?

AMB:  Those notifications, I understand, will be made.  But you can follow up with the State Department.  The Secretary of State will have to make that determination.

Maria Olson:  And if I could just interrupt on the quoting Wes Mitchell – that was said in a background call and TASS was on that call and others, but I think the rules of the background call were not citing specific officials who made the statement, so I would just cite it to a background call organized by the White House, if you don’t mind.

Q:  Have you asked the Russian side for any clarification, for any information on the Skripal case before taking this decision?

AMB:  They have given a fairly lengthy overview of their case and their evidence.  We had an officer attend.

Q:  At the briefing?

AMB:  At the briefing, that’s right.  We have complete confidence in the work done by the UK.

Q:  But you haven’t made any extra requests to clarify on something bilaterally before taking this decision today?

AMB:  I think the information was clear enough for not only the United States, but for over a dozen other countries on which to base a decision.

Q:  You went to the meeting in the British Embassy when it was discussed the situation around the Skripal case.  Was there any solid facts given to the Ambassadors convincing that Russia is really the one to blame for the Skripal killing?

AMB:  Well, I think you have to look at the information that was released publically by the UK.  They did a very good job corralling the information they had, both based on this incident and incidents historically, and they put it together in a handout.  So I would refer you to the handout, because it was a very convincing presentation.

Q:  We didn’t see any facts there.

AMB:  They handed out information to everyone that was there.

Q:  Information is not facts.

AMB:  Well, the information contains facts.  And you can follow up with them. They presented a very compelling case.  And their approach is a rigorous approach, based on international law, based upon their affiliation and membership in international organizations and treaties, and they are complying with all of that.

Q:  Do you somehow allow yourself the thought that this might be a provocation against Russia and its Western colleagues?  That it might not be the Kremlin that organizes it but somebody else?

AMB:  Again, that’s not for me to decide.  My government, with an interagency review process, along with over a dozen other countries, came to their own conclusion, which was all the same.  That there was enough evidence here.

Q:  I think taking such decision, Washington can expect that Moscow can answer with the same.  Is the U.S. diplomatic mission prepared to work with even more staff reductions and is it prepared to close any of its consulates?

AMB:  Well, we never like to see the diminution of diplomatic presence.  This is a time where we ought to be speaking more, not less, with each other and having more honest conversations about the issues that confront us.  We’re holding open the hope that we can continue our dialogue with Russia and that we can open new doors as we go forward.  But we must do so in an environment where we have a responsible partner in Russia.

Q:  Talking about dialogue, did you see somehow the meeting between the presidents being organized or happening any time soon or in the coming months?

AMB:  The President of the United States, since the moment he asked me to take this job, has talked consistently about having a meeting with President Putin where they can discuss issues in common.  He has not changed.  He has not changed from his approach to wanting to do that.  But he also insists that that happen in an environment where we are making progress on bilateral issues, and that must happen in order for us to have a meaningful summit.  The President believes that we can get there.  I believe that we can get there.  Our doors are open and our desire is as strong today as it was when the President was elected to maintain our dialogue.  But we have to while at the same time building trust and acting as responsible partners.

Q:  You said progress, but since we are witnessing regress today, that means that no meeting any time soon.

AMB:  I don’t think we had any specific meeting date planned yet.  But we hope that at some point we can make that happen.  But again, it has to take place in an environment where we are actually solving problems, moving toward common goals where we have common interests, and doing it in a way where my president and, I presume, President Putin will see that as representing progress in our bilateral relationship.  That must happen first.

Q:  Will there be any other contacts on different levels, for example between Foreign Ministers or between Mr. Ryabkov and Mr. Shannon, or between Mr. Surkkov and his counterpart?

AMB:  We always have interaction among our professionals and must continue to do that.  Notably, we’ll have a verification commission meeting on New START that will take place in Vienna in the coming weeks.  And we hope that we have a strategic stability round of talks in the weeks ahead as well.  These are discussions that deal with the most important issues not just between us but indeed confronting the world with respect to global stability.

Q:  And the dialogue on strategic stability, where can it take place this time?  In Moscow or in Washington or in some other country?

AMB:  We will let the Foreign Ministry and the State Department work out those details.  What’s important to me is that we actually find a time to sit down to have these conversations. We have too many issues that must be sorted out, and the best way to sort them out is face-to-face at the negotiating table.

Q:  Can I follow up on the START Treaty and you said this verification commission?  Vladimir Putin said that Russia is ready to consider the prolonguement of it or even further reductions.  He said it in an interview with Megyn Kelly.  Is the U.S. ready to do that?

AMB:  We are ready to meet, and these are all issues that must be taken up in such a meeting.  Let’s get on with the meeting first, and let’s see what comes of the very important gathering on strategic stability that must take place.

Q:  Another sphere where we can cooperate, and Moscow is ready to cooperate, is cyber security, but last round of consultations in Geneva was cancelled by the decision of the American part.  Why was such a decision made?  Why was it cancelled?

AMB:  The environment around cyber security is a very difficult one right now.  Based upon the experiences of election meddling in 2016, I think that if we’re successful in getting through the elections this November without meddling, we’ll be able to build trust going forward.  We’ll see where that takes us.

Q:  That’s a bit weird.  The U.S. agreed to those consultations.  The Russian delegation came to Geneva and was waiting for their American counterparts, and then just a few hours before they were about to start, the Americans said, “Oh, we are not coming.”  Why agree first and then not come at all?

AMB:  Well, I’m not going to re-litigate meetings that didn’t take place.  All I’m here to tell you is that we have our door open and we want to continue discussions in the areas of strategic stability, bilateral irritants, and our broader agenda, which includes Syria, DPRK, and, hopefully, Ukraine, which still sits are the center of our agenda, as needing to be discussed and dealt with in order for us to see any sense of normalization.

AMB:  The last point I want to make is the one that we’ve just been hitting on, and that is: the bonds between our people are strong.  I see that everywhere I go.  We just put astronauts in space – two Americans and a Russian.  We’ve been doing it for 18 years in a row.  Some of the most sensitive work in the world which is space-related, we’ve done and we’ve done consistently.  We work together in so many realms of life, there’s way more to be gained by continuing a strong bilateral relationship – the people-to-people ties – and it’s my hope that we will be able to improve our bilateral relationship – government-to-government – in ways that really do build trust and enhance and deepen our dialogue.  I hope that through it all I’ll get in a few more doors and meet a few more Russian leaders.  That’s the only way we can expect to build and deepen trust is by developing people-to-people relationships.

Q:  But it seems only to get worse, not better.

AMB:  We’ll see.  

Q:  No open doors, only closing doors.

AMB:  Only closing doors for me. 

Q:  But also for the Russian side.  What was happening today nobody expected so many diplomats to be expelled?  Why was this decision even harder than the British decision?  I can’t understand it.  Was the Skripal case not the (unintelligible)?

AMB:   I think this reflects the deep concern on the part of the American people and American elected officials with respect to the size of the Russian intelligence.

Q:  So it’s still because of elections and not because of Skripal?

AMB:  Oh, it is directly the result of Salisbury.  There’s no question about that.  It’s in direct response to that, and our willingness and desire to want to stand by our best friend and ally.