Ambassador John J. Sullivan’s Interview with RBC TV
Broadcast on July 3, 2020
RBC: Ambassador, thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to speak with you again. First question: the biggest challenge of the year is coronavirus. In Russia we have an expression – друг познаётся в беде, a friend in need is a friend indeed. So, can this global challenge become a driver for stabilization of the relationship between the United States and Russia?
Ambassador Sullivan: Thank you, Ilya, it’s great to see you again. I’m delighted to be able to have this conversation with you. You’ve raised an extremely important issue, the COVID-19 pandemic, in which both the United States and Russia have cooperated to our mutual benefit. It’s not the first time in history, but it’s among the most recent and most important, and I think most meaningful for both of our countries, where people were in need, had serious health needs, and the Russian government was able to provide medical equipment to the United States and vice versa, the United States was able to provide 200 ventilators to a prestigious Russian hospital here in Moscow to help save lives. It’s an example of the United States and Russia cooperating for our mutual benefit, for the benefit of humankind, really, to fight this COVID-19 pandemic. It’s appropriate in this 75th anniversary year of the end of WWII and our collaboration as allies in the second world war that we have another example of the United States and Russia working together to ward off a common threat and doing so successfully.
RBC: A fairly difficult question: Recently U.S. citizen Paul Whelan was sentenced in Russia. What is your opinion on this sentence? Is it possible to swap Paul Whelan for one of the Russians currently jailed in the US?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, as we’ve discussed previously, Ilya, I’ve been sent here by President Trump to improve the relationship – to do all I can to improve the relationship – between the United States and Russia, which has reached, as I’ve said before, and I think many of my Russian friends and colleagues would agree, a low ebb in the post-Cold War era. The Whelan case is an example of a very negative turn in the relationship. I’ve been quite outspoken in my opinion on Paul’s case and on his treatment in the Russian judicial system. And my point has been to seek justice for Paul. I know that the media, I’ve been asked many times about so-called trades for Paul, and I have no comment on that because my position is that Paul should receive justice from the Russian judicial system and that his treatment has been beyond shabby – it’s been shameful. He’s had medical issues that were unaddressed until they became a serious health problem for him. He wasn’t able to speak to his family or anyone for almost 16 months, and his trial – the trial itself – was a secret trial with secret evidence. That’s inconsistent with fundamental human rights. So, I’ve been quite outspoken in my defense of Paul and will continue to be. My disappointment – my grave disappointment – and how elements of the Russian government have treated Paul. But as I said outside the courthouse following his sentencing, this doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to have a dialogue with my counterparts in the Russian government, even about Paul and his case. And we hope that he will continue to receive the medical treatment he needs and that he will be released because there has been no evidence that has been produced that would indicate that he’s guilty of a crime despite statements that I’ve seen from some Russian officials that suggest that he was caught “red-handed.” But that’s just a slogan – that’s not evidence. Again, I’m very disappointed. It’s an impediment to improving our relationship, but it doesn’t relieve me of the obligation to do all I can to try to improve that relationship. And the relationship, as I’ve said on other occasions, is so much broader than even our government to government relationship. The relations between the people of the United States and the people of Russia, as evidenced by the fact that the United States – the U.S. taxpayers – donated 200 ventilators to help ease the COVID situation here. It’s a broad and complex relationship and I’m looking forward to continuing to do all I can to try to improve it.
RBC: Recently, the entire world, including Russia, of course, followed as Elon Musk successfully launched his new craft Crew Dragon. Now American astronauts can use this spacecraft to reach the International Space Station on their own. How do you see further development in space? Will we see a new space race between the two countries or, just the opposite, will we see a new partnership between the United States and Russia?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, Ilya, you’ve gone from one good news story, which is COVID-19 pandemic cooperation, to bad news – Paul, to good news, from my perspective, which is U.S. – Russia space cooperation. And it has been for decades, dating back to the Soviet Union with the creation of the International Space Station. It’s not a U.S. space station or a Russian space station, it’s an international space station. The Russian government and the U.S. government, NASA and Roscosmos, have worked cooperatively for many years and will continue to work cooperatively going forward. As you note, there was a successful launch from the United States of a U.S.-made rocket, the Crew Dragon capsule, which docked with the International Space Station, which is a great moment for the United States. It’s been, I believe, over a decade since we’ve had such an event happen. But the cooperation between the United States and Roscosmos continues. In fact, I believe there is going to be a U.S. astronaut this fall who will be launched on a Russian mission to the International Space Station. I believe it’s Kate Rubens, an astronaut who will be launched via Roscosmos to the International Space Station. So, it’s continued cooperation, Ilya, it’s not a negative story. That’s one of the areas where we continue to have positive interaction and cooperation between our two governments.
RBC: A global issue: the role of the United Nations. Both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say that a new summit (P5) should be held. In your opinion, is the activity of the UN and the UN Security Council still relevant?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, of course it’s a great question to ask at this time, because we just passed the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco on June 25th, 75 years ago establishing the UN and the Security Council. We have had, as you know, the Trump Administration has had concerns with aspects of the UN. We’ve had concerns with how certain institutions affiliated with the UN have functioned, whether it’s the WHO or certain other human rights organizations that we believe have not treated the United States fairly. But the United States is the largest contributor to the United Nations, host the United Nations in New York City. It has been the biggest benefactor over the past 75 years, and beneficiary, in many ways, of that legacy that was left to us at the end of World War II. So we’re continuing to work on the Security Council with the other four permanent members of the Council to try to achieve progress on many troublesome areas around the world, whether it’s North Korea, Syria, Libya, you name it. It’s been challenging – there’s no doubt about that – but we’ll continue to work to try to make progress with those permanent members and the 10 other members of the Council who are not permanent members.
As you know and as you’ve said, President Putin suggested, I think in connection with the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN, that the P5 members, leaders, meet to discuss issues of mutual import, and President Trump thought that was a good idea and has agreed to it. I don’t believe there has been, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that there won’t be an in-person UN General Assembly high level week the way there usually is in September, that has interfered somewhat in the planning for this P5 meeting, but it’s something that the President has committed to and an example of how those five members of the Security Council continue to remain relevant to global issues today.
RBC: Why does Donald Trump want to call a G7 summit, inviting Russia as an observer but without inviting China?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, again, COVID-19 has interfered with international diplomacy in many ways, including postponing the G7 meeting, as you know. The United States is hosting the G7 this year, and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that meeting has been postponed. President Trump has been clear that he would like to include Russia and some other countries in the discussion at the G7 as, I think, I’m paraphrasing the President, he said something to the effect of, ‘All of the issues I discuss with my colleagues at the G7, Russia is implicated in, and it would be good to have Russia at the table, President Putin at the table.’ So he has suggested, he has proposed, that Russia participate, and we’re working on the details of that and are engaged with the Russian Foreign Ministry and with the other G7 governments about whether there is an appropriate role for Russia at the G7. But as I said before, you’re well aware of what President Trump’s view on this is.
RBC: Unrest in the United States: This summer in the United States the situation is evidently very heated. Unrest has reached the level where many monuments are being removed. Russia endured such a period in our history. Why do you think these protests have been going on for so long and should the white people of America apologize to the African American population?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, it’s been a heartbreaking time, as an American who loves his country, to be away from home and to watch on television and on the internet some of the scenes that we saw, particularly from some weeks ago. Let me say at the outset that happened to George Floyd, his murder – and four officers, police officers, in Minnesota have been charged with his death – is an abhorrent tragedy. And the President and Secretary of State Pompeo have made that clear. The American people have made that clear as well in protests across the United States seeking justice, not only for Mr. Floyd, but for others, African Americans who have been abused and had violence done to them in the criminal justice system by the police. And protesting more broadly for improvement in our democracy in the United States, in our way of life.
There’s no doubt, and I think it’s important as an American that I be transparent as we always are with our faults, and there’s no secret that the United States has had a problem with race relations since before the founding of our republic, and under our current system of government, under our Constitution, 230-some-odd years ago. It’s an issue that we’ve struggled with, sometime violently, but we do openly, and we do so under a system of government, that, despite the unrest, despite the dissatisfaction among large segments of the American populace, and the potential for violence as there has been – there was a Civil War that we fought 160 years ago – our system of government has persisted. Not only persisted, but been improved by the people of the United States, using the tools that our founders gave us when they founded our system of government back in the 1780’s with a Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, a whole host of rights that Americans hold dear.
Using those rights, America has been – some historians have called it an experiment in democracy and in representative government. We have sought to use those rights to improve our system of government, to expand the franchise, for example, to include half the population that was excluded at the founding of our republic when women couldn’t vote and weren’t represented in the founding of our republic, either during the revolution or at the Constitutional Convention. Which is not say they weren’t key to the founding of our Republic. They simply weren’t physically present. If you look at the artwork form the late 18th century there weren’t many women depicted – or no women depicted – in the famous paintings of the founders of our country establishing our system of government.
But over time, those major defects in our system have been corrected so that there is now a complete franchise, universal franchise. And there are any number of examples that I could cite to you that have required Americans to protest, to struggle, to get angry, to dispute and argue with each other. Our right to peaceably assemble is Constitutionally guaranteed, and we have exercised that right for hundreds of years, but our system of government has persisted and been improved. And that’s the thing I want to emphasize for you, Ilya, and for your audience, is that our system of government has survived for centuries. And I know that people think of the United States as a new country, and culturally, sure we are a relatively new country compared to the ancient Russian civilization going back to Kievan-Rus and before, of this great people and this great country here. But our system of government is actually quite old compared to most others in the world. Our democracy, our Constitution – it hasn’t been overthrown, it has been amended through a process that the Constitution itself provides for. And that’s our strength. We are upfront about our flaws. We seek to address them openly, publicly, unfortunately sometimes violently — which is not contemplated by the Constitution, it’s illegal. We can’t have government by the rule of law when people take – use violence to try to overturn a system that they are dissatisfied with. But the images you saw of violence on tv, I think was not representative of people protesting across the United States. I think it gets – and this is not a criticism of the media – but I think there’s an emphasis on the more sensational and graphic expressions of the protests which were violent and difficult to watch. But it was the vast, vast majority of protests and protestors were peaceful and seeking to improve our system of government.
And I’ve gone on, I’ve been a little long-winded here, but I’ve thought about this a lot, because we are coming up on July Fourth, our national holiday. It’s the day we declared our independence from Great Britain, from the British king, and it’s a day we celebrate our system of government and the freedoms that we value. So, I feel very strongly and passionately about it, and I’m very proud of my country and our system of government. I’m not proud of what happened to Mr. Floyd – that was a grotesque tragedy and an abuse of power, and those involved should be punished to the maximum extent possible under the law. But I am proud of my fellow Americans who are exercising their rights and looking to improve our system of government.
RBC: A few more difficult questions about bilateral relations between Russia and the United States: The U.S. withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. Why did this happen and what are the next steps?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, I think the President summarized it best. I think he was asked about this as he was on the South Lawn of the White House after a trip some weeks ago when the United States decision to withdraw – as is our right under the Open Skies Treaty – was announced. He said we won’t stay in treaties, a bilateral – what is in effect, in this case, it’s a multilateral treaty – with a treaty party who won’t comply. We have been in compliance with the treaty. We believe the Russian Federation has not been in compliance with the treaty. We’ve made that position clear over a long period of time, and the violations that we have identified have not been addressed. And so, we announced our intention to withdraw from the treaty. The President has said, and I think Secretary Pompeo has also said, that we reserve the right, if all parties come into compliance with the treaty, to resume our participation in the treaty which, I think our withdrawal is effective sometime toward the end of November, I think November 22 – I may have the date wrong by a day or two, but, end of November.
What I would analogize it to is what happened with the INF treaty. We believe the Russian government – we know the Russian government violated the INF treaty with the production of a missile that was expressly prohibited by the treaty. That treaty is in effect a bilateral treaty between the United States and Russia, and it made no sense for us to stay in a treaty that the other party was blatantly in violation of, even though for years we had asked the Russian government to address our concerns about this missile that they had developed, and they hadn’t and so we withdrew from the treaty. Similarly, for Open Skies, we have had concerns with Russian noncompliance with the treaty that are longstanding. We’ve raised them with the Russian government. They haven’t been addressed. If they are addressed, and everyone is – and all parties are in compliance, then the United States, as the President said, would consider resuming participation in the Open Skies Treaty.
RBC: Nord Stream 2: The United States strongly opposes its construction. Why? Perhaps Europeans should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they need Nord Stream 2?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, Nord Stream 2 has been a problem that the United States has been focused on since the beginning of my service in this Administration. I was, for the first almost 2 years and 10 months of my service, I was the Deputy Secretary of State. And a major focus of our concern was the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. And our concern is that this is not a commercial project. This is a political project. It’s designed – and I think eventually European leaders have acknowledged this – it’s been designed to basically cut Ukraine out of the transmission of natural gas into Europe. It’s a political move; it’s not an economic move. And that’s why the United States has been opposed to it. Our concern is with European allies being over reliant on one single country for energy resources, which we think is a grave strategic error.
It’s been a problem that the United States has been focused on for decades. I remember President Reagan raising this issue in the mid-1980s, not with Nord Stream 2, in particular, but energy dependence on the Soviet Union. So, Ilya, I look at this as a political and strategic issue, not an economic issue. It is not increasing the supply of gas to Europe, it’s changing the route of transmission to cut out Ukraine, and that’s what we have concern about.
RBC: In May, when the world celebrated the anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, the official White House account posted a tweet that said that the United States and Great Britain won World War II. And so, my question: what about the USSR? Should we see this as a rewriting of history or was the tweet a mistake?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, Ilya, I remember when this event happened and being astonished at the reaction. It is neither a rewriting of history nor a mistake. The tweet that was issued was a tweet to our British allies. The United States and the United Kingdom, who worked very closely together – as you know and as all Russians know – extremely closely during World War Two. We had many American airbases, naval stations. Millions of Americans stationed in the United Kingdom and then launched from the United Kingdom, and Operation Overlord, and even before that in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. This wasn’t an attempt to list all of those countries that participated in the defeat of Nazi Germany. If it was, then I’m afraid I will not only have to apologize to Russia, but to Canada, and to the Free French, to the Polish squadrons that participated in the RAF [Royal Air Force]. There were a lot of other countries that are omitted from this tweet.
But, the reason this concerned me was, it seemed to indicate a lack of sensitivity and appreciation for the United States’ view on Russia’s role in World War II. There is undoubtedly no other country that suffered as much as the Soviet Union at the hands of Nazi Germany. There is no other country that bled, fought, or did as much as the Soviet Union in fighting Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front. There is just no doubt about that. Just the number of Russian citizens, in addition to citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, all of the other Soviet Republics. President Putin wrote movingly about this in his recent article a week or so ago. About his own family’s history in Leningrad, his father’s wounds suffered in the Siege of Leningrad. My interpretation of what happened with this tweet was, I think people were a little overly sensitive at the time. And it was not an effort to diminish in any way the role of the Soviet Union, Russia as part of the Soviet Union, in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Similarly, I would hope that Russians would appreciate the fact that the United States contributed, as President Putin said in his article, a substantial amount of materiel through Lend-Lease to help the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany. As allies, we participated, and of course we contributed a substantial amount in our campaigns in North Africa and Italy, Operation Overlord, and the march east from France and the Low Countries into Germany. And, also fighting the war against the Empire of Japan in the Pacific. It was a world war, a global war, an awful, awful thing I hope never happens again, but the United States made enormous contributions as well which we are very proud of, and we will celebrate on the final day of the victory celebration of World War II in early September when we commemorate the 75th anniversary of our victory over the Empire of Japan.
RBC: Thank you.
Ambassador Sullivan: Thank you, Ilya, it’s been great to see you.
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