Ambassador Sullivan – Interview with Ekaterina Kotrikadze, TV Dozhd
June 28, 2021
Ekaterina Kotrikadze, Dozhd: The first question is about your return to Moscow. What are your feelings about that?
Ambassador Sullivan: Thank you Ekaterina. It is good to see you again, and to appear on TV Rain with you. I’m thrilled to be back. I’m a little disappointed at the weather in Moscow. When I got off the plane yesterday, I thought I had mistakenly gotten on a plane that took me back to Washington, because it’s so hot and humid here, and [that’s] so unusual. I was joking with my family and friends when I left Washington that I was leaving them behind in what we affectionately call “the swamp” and going to the beautiful climate in Moscow this time of year. But apart from that, I’m thrilled to be back, Ekaterina. I love Russia. I love living in Moscow. And we have a lot of work to do following the summit meeting between President Biden and Putin. So, I have a lot of work to do here, too. So for all those reasons, I am delighted to be back.
Dozhd: All right now. You have just mentioned Geneva summit, and you returned to Moscow and Mr. Antonov’s return to Washington are a part of the agreements which were made in Geneva. Is there anything else that you can name as an achievement? You have been there.
Ambassador Sullivan: Right, right. Well, of course, Ambassador Antonov and I were a small part of the discussion in Geneva. And I think, having spoken to [Ambassador Anatoly Antonov] in Geneva as the meetings concluded, I think we were both very pleased to be heading back to our missions. But I think there were other achievements in Geneva that aren’t obvious, and that will require a lot more work to ultimately bear fruit.
The first and most important thing that was accomplished, which President Biden said in his press conference after the meeting, what he sought to accomplish, was to communicate directly face-to-face with President Putin his desire to have stability and predictability in the relationship between the United States and Russia, and doing so, by conveying directly and forthrightly to President Putin his views on issues that we can work together constructively on – strategic stability, climate change, the Arctic, et cetera – and all the other issues, the long list of issues unfortunately, on which we disagree, but it’s important that we communicate the basis of our views, and have straightforward conversations with our Russian counterparts. And for President Biden that is, of course, President Putin.
So that is, as President Biden said, this was a significant reason for him to want the meeting with the President. But we’ve also – the meeting, as I anticipated, has kickstarted discussions between our two sides on strategic stability issues, cyber issues, and we hope a number of other problematic areas where we’ve had disagreements in the past, but I think we can work productively to at least limit the scope of our disagreement. And I would cite those as what we accomplished, very briefly, in Geneva.
I might say I had my first bit of work, returning to Moscow less than 24 hours ago, was to meet with Ambassador Ushakov today at the Kremlin. And we agreed that the meeting in Geneva was useful, but just the start of discussions on a wide variety of issues. And as President Biden himself said, the proof will become apparent over the next six to twelve months as to whether or not we’re actually able to achieve more concrete accomplishments.
Dozhd: What if we talk about the concrete accomplishments, and if we talk about the priorities? So going back to the priorities of the Geneva summit and accomplishments that have just mentioned, is there an exchange of the prisoners between those priorities? And is there anything that we can name like a clear fact, as a result of the meeting?
Ambassador Sullivan: With respect to the detainees that were discussed in Geneva? Apart from the Presidents themselves discussing these cases, that as President Biden has made clear are extremely important to him – Paul Whelan, Trevor Reed, and another case involving an American businessman who has been doing business here in Russia for decades…
Dozhd: Michael Calvey?
Ambassador Sullivan: Yes. There was a discussion between the presidents. Those discussions will continue promptly between the United States and Russia. I think they are best conducted, in my opinion, behind the scenes without a lot of, you know, minute public negotiations. So, Ekaterina, I think I’ll need to leave it at that. It was on the agenda for the two countries to address, by the two presidents, and we are working toward that actively because it’s a very high priority for Biden and the United States.
Dozhd: All right, let’s leave it there. And let’s hope for the best. And, if we talk about concrete results, again, our viewers, and lots of people – millions of Russians, [inaudible] hundreds of thousands, are concerned about the visa issues. Well, America is declared an unfriendly country in Russia officially. And there were some restrictions taken by the Russian part in terms of visas, and in terms of staff at the American Embassy and consulates of the United States in Russia. So can we say anything now at this stage about, about, you know, the services that you guys provide to the Russian citizens, any changes are coming maybe?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, again, and this will be a theme, I’m afraid Ekaterina, in my responses to all of these important issues that were discussed. In the relatively short amount of time that the two presidents had last week in Geneva, three or four hours or so, we covered a lot of territory; they covered a lot of territory. The status of our bad diplomatic relationship was among the issues that were discussed. I was present in the expanded meeting between the two sides where we discussed these issues. Both presidents agreed that it is in our mutual interest – the United States of America and the Russian Federation – for us to have two stable diplomatic platforms in our capitals, and elsewhere in our countries through consulates, to conduct all of the important diplomatic business that needs to be conducted by two large, important countries like the United States and Russia.
Visa services is high among those. I spend a significant amount of my time during the day answering queries, mostly from American citizens and American businesses that are concerned about their inability to get visas for Russian citizens, for example, who work for them. And so, we are engaged again. And we were, before the summit meeting happened, engaged with the Russian government, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to try to address the problems that have arisen in our diplomatic relationship. The most significant of which, from my perspective, recently was the decree that was signed by the Russian government that designated the United States and, I believe, the Czech Republic as countries that were disfavored, and limiting our ability to employ both Russian nationals to work at our respective missions and for that matter, third country nationals. It’s had a big effect, and it will have a big effect on our mission here in Russia. We have employed over decades, hundreds of third country nationals and Russian citizens. We need to come into compliance with the decree by August 1st, and we’re working to do so. But the effect on the operations of our mission, particularly our consular services, has been particularly significant. And we’re not able to process here almost all visa applications. Those need to be pursued at either U.S. embassies in the region, actually anywhere, but most conveniently for Russian nationals, [U.S. embassies] in countries nearby will be attempting to pick up the slack.
So we’re going to work hard with our colleagues and my friends at the Russian Foreign Ministry to try to address this situation and establish a floor for our diplomatic presence here and the Russian presence in Russia and, I hope, build back over time, to the missions we had not that many years ago. In 2016, we had over 1,200 people working at the U.S. Mission to Russia. We’re far, far below that. And after August 1st, we’ll have, you know, a very, very small number of people working here, which is why we’re not able to provide the consular services that I know Americans and Russians dearly want. And it’s an impediment to not just overall relations between the United States and Russia. It has significant personal consequences for families, and also commercial consequences for businesses, both United States and Russian.
Dozhd: Absolutely. Ambassador Sullivan, you are meeting Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ryabkov. He has officially talked about that, and he has announced this meeting with you. Are you planning to discuss this particular issue of Russian citizens who work at the embassy and consulates of the United States in Russia?
Ambassador Sullivan: So this is this has been a topic of many conversations already, Ekaterina, including between me and my dear friend and esteemed colleague Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov. It will continue to be. We will discuss, I’m sure next week when we meet, ways for the United States, for this Mission, to work around the restrictions – we will comply with those, with the decree – but a way for us to get visas to bring in more U.S. citizens to work here, or other contractual arrangements that we can enter into with either Russian nationals or third country nationals so that we’re able to provide the basic services that the United States Embassy in Russia, and before that in the Soviet Union, was able to provide. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs between us that our respective diplomatic missions have been diminished as they have been. We survived the Cold War, keeping our embassies functioning. My hope is that, particularly with the impetus provided by the meeting of our two presidents in Geneva, we’ll make progress on that and improve the situation for both missions.
Dozhd: Ambasador Sullivan, do you know that I have heard that statement by the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Maria Zakharova, and she was saying that no one is banned, actually, in the embassy and consulates – well, except Russian citizens – that American citizens are not banned, so you should not have a problem, you guys as the United States of America, should not have a problem with bringing your citizens to Moscow and other cities. What is the problem with this? Is it a technical issue or whatever, an official position?
Ambassador Sullivan: It’s a significant problem, Ekaterina. Something that the spokesperson of the Ministry overlooked is that we’ve been unable in the recent past to get visas for Americans to travel here, to work here. And that’s the problem. In fact, it was specifically discussed at the meeting in Geneva, the need for us to get visas to replace, with American citizens, those local locally employed staff who we’re not going to be able to continue to employ. And it’s been a problem for a number of years, for both sides. And both sides have complained about the slow pace of visas being issued. The problem is not that. – We have the Americans to staff the embassy, but we can’t get visas for them. That’s the issue, the principal issue that we need to address most immediately.
Dozhd: All right, and how does the embassy work? How does the embassy work, now at this stage? What are the services you can provide physically, you have the opportunity to – because I have heard, and I have read the statement of the State Department saying that this is even a problem for the American citizens who are here in Russia, that this declaration of unfriendly status of the U.S. is a problem for the American citizens as well.
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, the way this has cascaded is, the decree which prohibits us from employing local staff, Russian nationals or third country nationals, combined with the significant number of personnel we have lost over the years to Americans being declared persona non grata who had to leave – ten had to leave last month – has reduced our staffing to the point where we can’t physically provide services here in Moscow, when we’re limited to provide essentially emergency services to American citizens present in Russia. And for others and for Russian citizens who were applying for visas, immigrant visas or non-immigrant visas, those have to be processed elsewhere, because we simply don’t have the staff to do it. I wish it weren’t the case. My hope is that we’re going to make progress in our discussions with the Russian government so that we restore the platform, and the consular office that we had here, to provide those services. But until then, we physically don’t have the staff to do it.
Dozhd: Just to make it clear, for me and for our viewers, what are your feelings? I understand that this is not something concrete that we can talk about, but what are the signals and feelings that you have after the Geneva senate summit? What are the issues that can be resolved in the near future? What are the, you know, first things that can be done by both sides?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, I think both presidents discussed both in their private meetings and in their public press commentary, some of the most prominent. The one that I think has been given the most attention is our desire to have a strategic stability dialogue with the Russian government as a follow-on to the extension of the New START treaty for a five-year period earlier this year in early February. The presidents, Presidents Biden and Putin, discussed the need for us to build on that progress and to have a dialogue, discussions, negotiations, face-to-face about strategic stability issues, what the arms control regime will be after the New START treaty lapses finally and for good in 2026. That sounds like a long time away, but in terms of negotiating major arms control agreements, it’s really not that far distant, and we’ve already now had a four or five months’ lapse since New START was extended. I know my colleague Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov is eager for those discussions to resume. He too noted that the clock is ticking. The presidents discussed that. And my expectation is that those discussions will begin promptly, not months from now, but soon.
Dozhd: What can you say about the atmosphere in Geneva where presidents were meeting? It was not only about the presidents – 800 people from one side, 800 people from another, half of the governments of both countries were there, as I can imagine. Unfortunately, TV Rain could not be accredited as we’re not in the presidential pool anymore. But well, we saw what was going on there, thanks to the information agencies. What was the vibe – if you allow me to say this word – what was the atmosphere in Switzerland?
Ambassador Sullivan: It was – I think the best way to characterize it, Ekaterina, is businesslike, professional. Both teams, both presidents, are very experienced, both in national leadership roles and in all of the issues that were discussed at the summit. The same for the two teams that supported, both on the Russian side and on the American side. So I think there was a realistic assessment of our relationship. Issues [were] on the agenda that we believe, both sides believe, can be addressed productively by further discussions between our two sides. We just talked about strategic stability. There are cyber issues which, of course, figured prominently in discussion. The detainee cases that we talked about earlier, climate change. The list – as I know someone as experienced as you watching these, watching the relationship that we have – knows about these issues. And for those issues where we have disagreements, explaining the basis for our position, each side’s position, listening to what our counterparts on the Russian side, I have to say, explaining what our views and expectations are our values. I think, yeah, President Biden, the atmosphere… I have to say, Ekaterina, my entire experience. – I’ve now been U.S. Ambassador here for 18 months, and I’ve had significant disagreements with my counterparts in the Russian government, but I have never had an unprofessional meeting. The relationships that I have with senior officials across the Russian government – not just in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – have always been professional, businesslike, and respectful. And that’s certainly the attitude I take toward the job I have to represent the United States here in Moscow in interfacing with the Russian government. And my view of what happened in Geneva was the Russian side approached our discussions with exactly the same mindset. As President Biden said, he quoted – I think he described it using a 1970s era expression from the United States – there was no “Kumbaya” good feeling, you know, needlessly high expectations. I think this was a very businesslike, professional interaction between senior leadership of the two countries to assess our relationship, identify issues that we can work on productively, and, for lack of a better word, the President confronting President Putin with areas where we have significant disagreements, whether it’s the Navalny case or any number of regional problems that don’t seem to have a ready solution at hand, at least in discussions between the United States and Russia.
Dozhd: They do have a feeling that Vladimir Putin is ready to listen when Biden talks about the human rights violations in Russia?
Ambassador Sullivan: I think both presidents spoke what was on their mind and listened to what was expressed by the other president. It was a very productive professional exchange. And I think both presidents in their press conferences reflected that. It wasn’t a party or a celebration of a friendship, although there are personal relationships across the table, as I have with a number of my counterparts from the Russian government who were present. But there are many, many, as you know Ekaterina, difficult problems that exist between the United States and Russia that aren’t going to be solved by discussions between government representatives. There are fundamental differences on values, on lawfulness, and so forth. And that was one of President Biden’s goals was to express his view on those issues where we disagree vehemently, explaining why he does and why he has the views that he does, so that there isn’t misunderstanding on the Russian side which would contribute to instability and unpredictability.
Dozhd: Just the final question, if you don’t mind. [inaudible] and reserve back to two. You are meeting Mr. Ryabkov, as we have mentioned. So, will you discuss these human rights issues? Are you planning to talk about Aleksey Navalny, about the elections, about the banning of the opposition candidates who just cannot take part in the selections and campaigns and so on? Are you planning? Have you decided to talk about this to him?
Ambassador Sullivan: Sure, absolutely. We raise – we, the United States, raised these issues in discussions with the Russian government. President Biden did, in Geneva. I consider it an important part of my job here to reflect our President’s, our country’s, views on these important issues. I haven’t discussed yet with the Deputy Foreign Minister all of the issues that we will cover in our meeting next week. But I would imagine that those would be on the agenda, in addition to a number of other issues that…
Dozhd: Like other issues, including what?
Ambassador Sullivan: For example, a related issue, the treatment of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Russia. I know that the presidents discussed this. President Putin discussed this in his press conference.
Dozhd: And other foreign agents, right?
Ambassador Sullivan: Right. Foreign agents. It is, you know, in addition to the political and legal problems that these types of actions create, it inhibits, in my view – and this may sound a little philosophical now – but it inhibits the progress of humankind. If we don’t have academic exchanges, scientists exchanging their views, how can we make progress in preventing future pandemics if our scientists are not able to communicate? For example, I just saw while I was back in the United States that among the entities that has been targeted under this, under these laws as an undesirable entity is Bard College, an important academic institution of higher education in the United States which has had a relationship with St. Petersburg University for 30 years. I don’t think it serves U.S. interests or Russian interests for those types of academic exchanges to be disrupted, declared illegal. Professors, scientists, scholars, poets, are not foreign agents. They are intellectuals.
Dozhd: And journalists.
Ambassador Sullivan: And journalists as well. Ekaterina, as I noted, I’m concerned about Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. In addition to the actions that are being taken against other entities here in Russia. It inhibits the advancement of science and learning, and certainly inhibits building on the relationships – and there are many that have been built between the United States and Russia, not just between our governments, but between our peoples, particularly over the last 30 years. And that really, that bothers me and I want to do all I can to try to stop that disruption of those relationships, which as I say, have been of great value to both countries.
Dozhd: Thank you so much. I’m sorry about this long time conversation, but I just could not…
Ambassador Sullivan: Oh no, Ekaterina, you’re kind. It’s always great to speak with you and I look forward to continuing our conversation too.