Ambassador John J. Sullivan interview with Konstantin Remchukov of Nezavisimaya Gazeta

Ambassador John J. Sullivan interview

with Konstantin Remchukov

Editor-in-Chief, Nezavisimaya Gazeta

December 18, 2020 

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA:  I’m going to be brief in my questions, to give you some time to you to respond. And I will start with the news of the last days: cyber attacks allegedly conducted by Russians on major infrastructure, objects, and networks in America. And I read and saw a lot of comments of professionals who elaborated on the type of response: political, geopolitical, military even, [as] an attack on infrastructure is considered to be, and of course my heart is not feeling easy when I hear such things.

The first question is, how to be sure that Russians are behind these attacks, because they say it might be Russians, might be the Iranians, might be the Chinese. Because of the consequences of the response to the attackers, I think it is so important to be more than 100% sure that this party is specifically responsible for these attacks. And I want to hear your comments on this new bad news in Russian-American relations.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, thank you, Konstantin. It’s a difficult question, but it’s obviously a timely one in light of the screaming headlines that we see, both in the United States and around the world about this new story. The issue generally of cybersecurity in the United States, and in particular, efforts by elements of the Russian government, to penetrate U.S. systems has been a topic that’s been high on my list of priorities, extending back to my tenure as Deputy Secretary of State almost four years now.

In fact, several times I’ve testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the questions that I would often get both from the committee, from senators generally, and from the press, everything was focused on elections, and election interference in 2016, which I and my colleagues in the U.S. government have, of course, not only acknowledged, but talked about at length, including with Russian counterparts. But I’ve also been careful to note that the threat that’s posed to our systems is not just about elections. Elections is part of a larger threat. And I will have to defer to my colleagues in Washington — the experts — on details and attribution. But I’m confident in saying, as I know Secretary Pompeo has, that we are aware that elements of the Russian government have been focused on and attacking, for lack of a better word, cyber structures in the United States, and it wasn’t just about elections.

It’s a grave concern to the United States. This is an extremely serious issue, and is being treated as such by the United States government. I don’t want to at this point, say more other than to defer to what my colleagues in Washington have already said on attribution. But I will say, as I noted, and Secretary Pompeo has said, the threat that we were aware of, and seeking to thwart and dissuade elements of the Russian government from implementing, and protect against, was broader than election interference. And what we’re seeing today is being reported on in the United States, is that risk materializing. And the United States will be deliberate in its response. I’ve seen the statement that’s been issued by the President-elect, and there will certainly be more to follow from the United States which takes this issue very seriously.

Konstantin, if you don’t mind, if I could step back and broaden the aperture a little bit. This is to culminate a difficult year, in so many ways, not just for the globe and for the United States and for Russia, but for U.S.-Russia relations. This caps a very, very difficult year. Whether it is the Navalny case, the geopolitical issues that we continue to discuss with the Russian government, whether it’s in Belarus, Ukraine (Crimea), Libya, Syria, Nagorno Karabakh.  We’ve had challenges in those geopolitical issues. We have had unexpected impediments to our relationship — the Navalny case — and it’s not just the United States, of course, it’s our European allies and partners who feel the same way.

So I came here a year ago, Konstantin, with a charge from President Trump to work as hard as I could to try to improve relations between the United States and Russia. And I quoted my former boss, Secretary Tillerson, who, on his first trip to Moscow as Secretary of State in March of 2017, at a press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov, he said that we’d reached a low point in our U.S.-Russia relations in the post-Cold War era. And we were in a hole, and we needed to stop digging that hole deeper, and we needed to work together in areas where we could. But the United States would stand up for its values, and its allies and partners, and a confront Russia where it must. We’ve done that. Unfortunately, the confrontation — the issues on which we confront each other — the list has grown, the hole has gotten deeper.

But, several things I want to emphasize. It doesn’t diminish the need for the United States and Russia to continue a dialogue. That’s extremely important. And it’s a dialogue that the United States has had, not just with Russia, but before Russia during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We must continue that dialogue. Second, I distinguish between the confrontation, the issues that divide us, the U.S. government and the Russian government, and the relations between the United States and Russia, and the people of the United States and the people of Russia. And you and I have discussed this before. It’s important for us to keep that in perspective.

And I would offer as just an observation and a difference from the Cold War era. And I’m old enough to remember those days vividly. It was when I began my service in government as the Cold War was ending, and my first trip to the Soviet Union was in 1988, so I remember quite vividly the issues that divided us then, and what relations were like between the United States and the Soviet Union, and more particularly, the United States and Russia. What’s different today is — we still have many of the same challenges and issues that divide us so we can talk about them, arms control, for example, new issues, cyber, which you quite appropriately led with today. But do you know what else is different? The connections between the United States and Russia, between U.S. people and Russian people. We now have over 1,000 U.S. companies doing business here in Russia. We did not have 1,000 U.S. companies doing business in the Soviet Union. People-to-people exchanges, cultural exchanges, have grown and prospered because of the relationship between our peoples.

And it’s important to keep that in mind, particularly as relations get more tense, as they have gotten, particularly in light of this latest cyber story and cyber attack, [this] broad scale attack on the United States. We must, the United States for its protection must respond. But we also must keep in mind that there is a longer term to our relationship between the United States and Russia.

And you and I began our conversation before we went online today talking about the 30th anniversary of your great paper, which started before the Soviet Union dissolved. And we think about the changes that have happened in those 30 years. I couldn’t begin to predict what the world is going to look like in 2050. What the relationship between the United States and Russia is going to be in 2050. And anybody who pretends to know, isn’t being truthful. So we need to keep perspective. We need to be serious about dealing with these dangerous issues that divide us. But we also need to keep perspective on the broader relationship between the United States and Russia and our peoples, and keep some historical perspective as well.

NG: Very nice. You know, and another big nation, looking forward to 2050, actually to 2049, when China is going to celebrate 100 years since its revolution.  They declared that there should be only one sun in the sky, and that sun should be China. And I read a number of very serious reports referred to in Congress, and in your intelligence community, about China’s policy, which is viewed by Americans as a threat to American interests. So in this regard, I would like you to comment on the Russian-American relations in view that Russia is more inclined to partner with China than with America. If the American government really develops China image as the enemy, would Russia suffer for continuing to be one of the most important partners of China?

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, it’s a it’s a difficult and complex question, Konstantin.  I can offer you some broad-level observations from my perspective, both having served here for a year as Ambassador and before that as Deputy Secretary of State.  It’s undoubtedly a huge strategic shift that’s happened in the last 20 or 25 years or so — the rise of China. And I can go back to my prior service, as Deputy Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush administration. And I’ll offer some preliminary thoughts on China, and then China and Russia and the United States.

So for China, it has been the long-standing position of the United States government over several administrations, that we welcome the rise of China in the sense that millions and millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. And that’s something to be celebrated, that China has prospered as much as it has. What’s happened in the last 10 years has been a recognition, and we’ve heard this stated most forcefully by Secretary Pompeo. about the means, some of the means by which China has chosen to achieve its prosperity, which has been to undermine the United States and engage in, for example, wide-scale intellectual property theft, unlawful technology transfer, unfair competition, et cetera. And that’s all been laid out. The President has been forceful about this, in commenting on it. My friend and colleague Bob Lighthizer, our U.S. Trade Representative, has as well.  What’s made the situation even more complicated is the rise of the Chinese military, particularly their nuclear forces which are growing at a very fast rate, and which do in fact threaten the United States, and not just the United States, but allies and partners, and I might also add, Russia.

The rise of China, not just the rise of its economy and its people, which as I say is to be celebrated and welcomed, but the rise of – and particularly the threat and the means by which that threat is acted upon by the Chinese Communist Party, whose strategy this is, to use this power to, for example, coerce smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific, engage in illegal and threatening behavior in the South China Sea, on the borders with its neighbors, in really horrific behavior against its own people, particularly in Xinjiang, focused on its Muslim-minority Uighurs. That’s something that the United States is very much opposed to, and over time, and particularly over this administration, you have seen as firm and hard a focus on these challenges as we’ve ever seen in our relations with China.

Now, factoring in Russia. Our approach is we treat both countries separately. We don’t consider them an alliance against the United States. We have, as I’ve said, enormous ties to Russia now. U.S. investment — the U.S. is the largest investor of any other country in Russia at this time, [with] over 1,000 U.S. companies doing business here.  We have even greater economic ties with China. You talked about the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2049. The growth in economic ties between the United States and China has, of course, been huge. But getting back to Russia, where we’ve seen this played out most prominently, as you know as well as anyone, has been in our arms control discussions.  And where we’ve tried to focus the Russian government on our mutual, bilateral interest, in including China in arms control discussions. Because the United States and Russia are no longer the [only] two nuclear powers that need to be discussing these extremely important issues of global security. China needs to be included as well.

My friends and colleagues in the Russian government will often bring up other states that have nuclear weapons, whether it’s NATO allies like the UK and France.  When they bring them up in they say, well, if we’re going to include China, we need to include them, and I say, they’re not the only countries that have nuclear weapons, we’ve got to talk about India, Pakistan, you name it. But what’s different about China is their plan to grow their military and their nuclear forces in ways that none of those other countries have either the plans or the means to do. China does, and will reach a level where — we believe they’ve already reached that level — we need to include China in our discussions with Russia on arms control.

And the Russian government, to be precise, my friends and colleagues on the Russian side, when we’ve had conversations about this, haven’t necessarily disagreed with us. But what they’ve said is the Chinese are not willing to participate, and we are not going to pressure China to engage. But Russia is not opposed to China engaging. In my opinion, Konstantin, the Chinese ultimately do need to engage.  Over time, the pressure will be such that — whether it’s next year or the year after — that the United States and Russia will be engaging with China on these strategic nuclear issues and broader national security issues related to them. And as I said before, we don’t approach this issue thinking that we are negotiating with a diplomatic pairing of Russia and China. We treat each country separately, but we want those arms control talks to be trilateral.

And finally, if you’ll allow me, just looking at the immediate issues for arms control and focus just on the United States and Russia, we in this administration, in the Trump administration, are still eager to speak to the Russian government. I know President Putin in his lengthy press comments [Thursday] said that Russia is willing to engage. And my colleague Ambassador Marshall Billingslea has noted that we too, have been seeking to continue those discussions with our counterparts on the Russian side, and have made that offer multiple times, you know, within the last month or slightly more, which hasn’t been acted upon. But time is running short. There’ll be a change of administration on January 20th. You’ve seen the statements by President-elect Biden and his team on New START and an extension of New START. So we’ll have to see what happens with the transition, with the new administration, but it’s simply a fact that from January 20 to February 5 of next year —  February 5 being the date that the treaty expires — there’s not going to be a lot of time to engage in complex discussions. And if there is to be an extension, if the Russian government’s approach is to delay and engage with a Biden administration, there isn’t going to be a lot of time to discuss that after January 20. And I know that the transition team, the Biden team, is very much focused on this. So there’s a lot that’s going to happen early in the year in the U.S.-Russia strategic relationship, and we’ll have to wait and see how that develops.

NG:  Very good, thank you for this very profound view of the relationships between the U.S., China, and Russia. I appreciate your words that you separate Russia and China in your picture of the world. And I do agree with you that it is important, not only for our countries, but for the entire world that China is put [at] the table of negotiation, because such a huge nation, being non-transparent on its military, and strategic and nuclear carriers, poses uncertainty, and potentially a threat to a lot of countries. So it is a huge task, not only for our two countries. And my last question is how you view — since Russia is, of course, a predominantly European country, though it is Eurasia, we call it, but most of the population of Russia lives in the European part. And in the previous four years, we know that America kind of distanced itself from NATO and distanced itself from Western policy developments, which caused the French President’s famous or infamous statement, that the brain of NATO is dead.  So my question is how you view this triangle of the relations, of the U.S., Western Europe, and Russia? Are there going to be more cooperative efforts to improve relations or it is going to be a military buildup and separation between these three major forces?

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well that’s, again, a large and very important strategic question. Konstantin. I would make the observation, I agree with your premise about, particularly, the locus of population in Russia with a Euro focus. I would add, however, that if I as a U.S. diplomat, were to dare to say something like that to my friends in the Russian Foreign Ministry, I would be admonished that Russia is a Eurasian country. It reminds me of back in the day when — you will appreciate this — when U.S. diplomats and pundits and newspaper people would talk about the Soviet people — singular — and would always be admonished that you Americans don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s the Soviet peoples.

But I take your point, though, there’s always been, of course, traditionally, in U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russia relations, this European focus in NATO. And we celebrated the 70th anniversary not that long ago, in Washington, of the North Atlantic Treaty. It’s been a bedrock of U.S. Security, defense of the United States, since the Second World War. And what I’d say is, I’d have to disagree slightly with the premise of your question, Konstantin. I think what you’ve seen in the Trump administration from President Trump is pressure on NATO allies to live up to the commitments that we have collectively made to each other, particularly on national defense budgets, and meeting commitments to fund the collective defense of this North Atlantic area that we’re defending. And what I think you’ve seen is, though, particularly in this last difficult year, is I think the Alliance has strengthened both because of the increased focus on maintaining — and that requires money — maintaining our defensive capabilities. And again, emphasis on defense, not offense — defense.

But as well, politically, I think you’ve seen, Konstantin, because of the events that have happened in this calendar year that we started off talking about, whether it’s a cyber attack on the United States — which leads me to observe the German government’s grave concern about the cyber attack on the Bundestag — [or] the Navalny case, which has united us. So I think you’ve seen more unity among NATO allies. And my hope is that we will be able to, at some point, structure a more constructive dialogue as an alliance with Russia. What has been the principal stumbling block, if I could make this observation, and it’s just my observation,  what’s been a stumbling block to discussions between our NATO alliance members collectively and Russia, has been Ukraine. And it started — the inability for us to make progress on solving that difficult set of issues in the Donbas, Crimea, et cetera, that has been the biggest challenge.

And I just conclude with the following observation. I can’t say it’s my original idea, I have to credit former Secretary Mattis, but the emphasis on the defensive nature of NATO, and particularly the United States and NATO in Eastern Europe. And I use this example: there was great concern and controversy when the Trump administration changed policies from the Obama administration and provided the Javelin weapons system to Ukraine. And it was Secretary Mattis, who knows a heck of a lot more about these types of military matters than I, who in response to that criticism said the only people who should be concerned about provision of the Javelin system to Ukraine are those who have offensive-minded intentions with respect to Ukraine, because the Javelin system is strictly defensive. And that’s what I would emphasize about our NATO alliance. It’s an alliance where we have committed under the North Atlantic Treaty to defend one another.

There’s no excuse for giving up on continuing to engage in discussions on Ukraine. If we could make progress on Ukraine, my hope is that would lead to more significant discussions with NATO. But until we make that progress, Ukraine is going to be a stumbling block. And then, you know, it’s been, I think, one of the challenging issues and disappointments, frankly, over the last four years on my part, that we haven’t been able to solve the problem in Ukraine, even with a new president in Ukraine and some prior momentum to address those issues.

But we have a lot more to work on, as Americans and Russians in 2021, and I know the new administration coming in is going to be energized and focused on these issues.  With the support of our respective peoples, the American people and the Russian people, my hope is we’ll ultimately come to a better position between our two countries, and you and I could have a more uplifting conversation in December of 2021.

NG: Thank you. I appreciate your very frank answers about the NATO policy and American policy. But I can’t help saying that, you also might well know that this major stumbling block of Russia’s perception of your intention is the expansion of NATO towards our borders. And when you talk to military people in Russia, not only politicians, they all mention such a thing as a potential. They say words are words, potential is potential. So when the infrastructure of NATO comes closer and closer to our borders, it is a well-shared concern of most Russians that our security is not increasing because of that, but okay, it’s a long term contradiction of the intentions.

And at the end of our wonderful talk, I would love to wish you personally, your embassy staff, good Christmas and New Year celebrations. And I also wish to all American people a good Christmas and New Year, that you fight successfully with COVID, that you spread evenly and fast your vaccine so that most American people could get it as soon as possible, that businesses return back to normal, that people return to get their usual income, and the smiles appear on their faces rather than gloomy, concerned, crying eyes. And my sincere wish to the American people is to have a good 2021.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, you’re very kind, Konstantin, and I return the sentiments to you personally, to your organization, and to the people of Russia. Wishing only the best for a happy Christmas, a happy and prosperous New Year, and more success in 2021 than we had in 2020 in trying to improve our relationship.  But as always, it’s such a great pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

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On the U.S. consulates in Russia:

By now your readers will have seen the news that the United States has taken the difficult decision to close our consulate in Vladivostok and to suspend operations at our consulate in Yekaterinburg.  This decision was not taken lightly.  It is part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safe and secure operation of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Russian Federation.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow will continue to carry out our important mission to support the many U.S. citizens who live, work, and travel in Russia, to further the foreign policy interests of the United States, and to maintain our relationship with the government of Russia and the people of Russia.

Let me take this opportunity to reiterate my great respect for the people of Russia.  Our multifaceted relationship runs deep through culture, education, business, and a long, shared history since our two countries first established diplomatic relations in 1809.

The staff of the U.S. Mission to Russia and I remain committed to continuing, and to working to improve, this relationship.