Ambassador Sullivan’s Interview with TV Dozhd (TV Rain)


JANUARY 28, 2021

Ekaterina Kotrikadze (Dozhd): <speaking in Russian>. Ambassador Sullivan, thank you, hi.

Ambassador Sullivan:  Hello, Ekaterina. It’s very good to be with you today.

Dozhd:  Thank you so much for doing this, and good to be with you. So my first question would be, of course, about this phone call between President Biden and President Putin. After this conversation, as we understand, there’s no doubt that there will not be any attempt to push the reset button between America and Russia. So it must be tough for you personally to work in these circumstances in Moscow.  How would you describe your mission here?

Ambassador Sullivan:  Well, thank you Ekaterina. Yes, and it was an important phone call between the two presidents. You know, from my perspective, there isn’t a need for a reset. We’ve always had to have a dialogue with Russia, and before that, with the Soviet Union. Our diplomatic relationship goes back well over 200 years to when the Russian Empire recognized the young United States in the early 19th century. As two vitally important countries, we have to talk to each other and we continue to talk to each other.

And we have disagreements.  You’ve heard President Biden say recently, this week, we have significant disagreements with the government of Russia, and those are well known, and we can talk about some of those issues today. But the relationship between the United States and Russia is so much broader than that. Even issues between our two governments, for example, the progress we’ve made on New START just within the last few days.

But it’s broader than that, It’s the relationship between our two peoples. It’s, in many ways, it’s different from — people keep talking about the Cold War and how we’re at a low point in our relations. And I can’t disagree with both the Americans and the Russians, both government officials and commentators, who say that.  Yeah, we’re not at a high point in our relationship, but still things are different from what they were during the Cold War.

We have over 1,000 U.S. companies doing business here in Russia. The connections between U.S. citizens and Russian citizens are so much more extensive than they were 30 or 40 years ago, when my predecessors as ambassador were dealing with a contentious relationship with the Soviet Union. So our dialogue continues. We continue to have communications with the Russian government on a variety of issues.  Some we disagree on — many we disagree on — but some we agree on, like the extension of New START, and that’s a positive that I’d like to emphasize. And I’m gratified to see that we’ve made progress toward getting that extension finalized.

Dozhd:  Okay, there are so many things you were saying, but then New START is pretty much the only thing that I can see so far. What are the topics that may be in the theater of common interest?

Ambassador Sullivan:  Well, COVID, our response to the COVID pandemic. And this isn’t just the Biden administration, but before that, in the Trump administration. The cooperation that we’ve had, for example, in exchanging medical equipment last year. I was pleased and honored to go to the airport twice, when a U.S. Air Force plane landed and delivered ventilators for use in Russia. Likewise, before that the first shipment went from Russia to the United States.

Dozhd:  I have to remember that ventilator scandal. I mean, you have just mentioned that so I can just, you know, forget about that. There was there was, you know, vice versa, Russian ventilators in the U.S. and no one used it.

Ambassador Sullivan:  Look, there was more that went from Russia to the United States than ventilators. I’m aware of the issue that that you’ve raised. There have been so many glitches in how both governments, and governments around the world, have responded to this pandemic, whether it’s in the production of tests, the efficacy of different tests that have been developed, ventilators, and so forth. So yeah, there were some issues with some part of the equipment that was sent to the United States, but it doesn’t detract from the fact, I’d urge, Ekaterina, that the effort was made by both sides to cooperate, and I think that’s what’s important to emphasize.

We also work together. There have been instances, and I know you’re aware of them, where we’ve cooperated on counterterrorism issues. And I know that that’s something that’s important to both governments. You’ll recall that President Putin called President Trump over a year ago to thank the American President for the information that had been provided by us to disrupt a serious terrorist plot here in Russia. That’s something that I have, as U.S. ambassador, I’m proud of the fact that my government will provide information to protect Russians from terrorist violence. And we will always do that no matter what the state of our relationship is, Ekaterina, even if we’re not having a public dialogue on counterterrorism, which we had, but has stopped — we can get into the reasons for that.

What hasn’t stopped is the commitment by the United States, by the people of the United States, to provide information that would stop a terrorist from killing innocent Russians and people from other countries, if there were a terrorist attack here in Moscow, or, as was the case back in December of 2019, it would have been, in St. Petersburg. So there aren’t a lot of areas where there are highlights and areas of progress, but those are some of them, and there are more.

Dozhd:  Maybe it’s the Iran nuclear deal, which, you know, seems to be interesting for the United States, in terms of Biden has said that he would be interested in going back to the deal. Russia is a part of it. Obviously, you would be obliged, even if you don’t want to — you as the U.S. — to cooperate with Russia in this circumstance.

Ambassador Sullivan:  Well, you’re absolutely right. Ekaterina, you’ve hit the nail on the head. There are so many issues. You have mentioned one important one, which I know the administration is studying, which is the JCPOA. It’s a very complex question, and I know my colleagues in Washington are studying that very carefully, but it’s just one example of areas where issues on which the United States and Russia are engaged in very serious, substantive conversations.

I’ll give you another example. I was briefed by the Foreign Ministry not that long ago, along with my colleague the French Ambassador. The United States and France are co-chairs, along with Russia, of the so-called Minsk Group, and we were briefed on developments in Nagorno Karabakh and the conflict which has been stopped between Azerbaijan and Armenia. That’s another example of an area where the United States is engaged with the Russian government and in this case, the French government, as co-chairs of the Minsk Group, and we want to remain engaged on those issues.

We’ve had engagements on Libya, for example, my colleague, who is our Ambassador to Libya visited here, I think it was in November, for conversations with experts at the Foreign Ministry on Libya and the progress and positive steps that have been made toward a resolution of the serious problems in Libya with this ongoing political dialogue.

So yeah, there are many geopolitical issues, some of which we disagree on — Ukraine, for example. But the need for us to continue talking is acute. We haven’t had a lot of progress on some of these issues in my experience in the four years that I’ve been involved, either as Deputy Secretary or as Ambassador here, but we are certainly engaged in conversations with Russian government officials on these issues across the board, including, and I’ll end with this, on North Korea and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Dozhd: All right, then, let’s go to the topic, which obviously is a problem for Russia and for the United States as well, Aleksey Navalny’s poisoning and his detention. I’m sure you’re carefully following the situation with Aleksey Navalny. And there were statements from the government of the United States on this issue. So what’s your attitude towards the detention, poisoning, and you know, the whole the whole situation around it?

Ambassador Sullivan:  Well, it’s tragic, obviously, what happened to Mr. Navalny and the fact that he almost died.  And his life was saved because the plane he was on landed on short notice. And he was given emergency medical treatment here in Russia. Two points I’d make on the Navalny case. First – it’s not a U.S.-Russia bilateral issue. There are a lot of other countries that are concerned. You saw, for example, recently, the statement of the G7 foreign ministers on the Navalny case.

So there are a couple of aspects to it that are of great concern to the United States. First is the use of a banned chemical weapon, which we believe needs to be explained and accounted for. And then second, it’s the human rights issues that are implicated by first, the poisoning of Mr. Navalny, and then his subsequent – after his recovery – his arrest upon his return here. You’ve heard the statements that have come from everyone from President Biden on down in the U.S. government. So our position is clear on this, and it’s not just the United States, it’s countries around the world, and particularly in in Europe.

Dozhd:  If you could just specify please. What in particular, is your opinion on the murder attempt, and then detention of an opposition leader of Russia. Do you think that this is an issue that should be discussed between you, as Ambassador, and representatives of Russian Foreign Ministry, for example?

Ambassador Sullivan:  Well, it’s certainly an issue that needs to be discussed between the United States and Russia. But it also needs to be discussed in a multilateral basis, for example in the OPCW, with the use of the chemical weapon, the nerve agent that was used to poison Mr. Navalny.  And that’s a grave multilateral concern that that needs to be addressed in the OPCW. The United States and other countries who are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention are concerned about that. And then with respect to all of the human rights issues that are implicated by first the poisoning of Mr. Navalny, even if it wasn’t with a banned chemical weapon, if it was an attempt to murder him, an extra judicial killing, and then his subsequent – after he’s recovered — to arrest him immediately upon his return. We have human rights concerns about that. The obligations that all countries — the United States and Russia  – are obliged under international law, conventions that we have agreed on, to provide due process to individuals.

So you’ve seen the statements as I mentioned, from Washington and from the embassy here reflecting our concern about Mr. Navalny’s arrests, and our call for fair treatment for him and his release from prison.

Dozhd: Maybe you have already discussed this situation and drama, the whole drama around Navalny with your counterparts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.

Ambassador Sullivan:  I have, I have. We have spoken about this. Well, it started, actually, when my successor as Deputy Secretary [of State], my dear friend Steve Biegun, who’s now our former Deputy Secretary [of State], visited here in August, and met with Foreign Minister Lavrov – he and I did.  And it was not long after — I believe at that point Mr. Navalny had already been transferred to Berlin. But we raised the Navalny case starting then. And the most recent conversation — which I know has gotten some publicity – I discussed this by phone with my counterpart, and also my friend, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov this past weekend – concerns which you’ve seen expressed by the Russian government – which are unfounded in my opinion, and I’m happy to explain why – about a warning we gave to Americans to stay away from the demonstrations which everyone knew were going to happen on Saturday.

Dozhd:  I definitely will ask this question, but I would like to first understand and know, what was the position that you have expressed during this conversation with Mr. Ryabkov? Anything that he agreed on or disagreed, I mean the details.

Ambassador Sullivan:  Well, I’m going to have to consolidate my answer. I can’t go conversation by conversation. But I would say that the response that we in the United States have received, and I know  other governments have received, is that, first with respect, to the poisoning of Mr. Navalny, the Russian government’s position is that they haven’t received seen evidence that Mr. Navalny was, in fact, poisoned – in Russia at least.  And they’re waiting for evidence so that they could start an investigation. Our view is that the evidence is clear, crystal clear, from what happened to him, starting from the dramatic episode on the plane when he was first stricken. But the Russian government’s view is that they haven’t seen the evidence that would indicate that he was poisoned, let alone with a banned chemical weapon, which the Russian government has denied. And then with respect to the arrest of Mr. Navalny on his return to Moscow, their position has been that this is an internal legal matter. He’s being charged under, being processed under, Russian law. The concern I have with that is that the specific legal proceeding that has been the basis for detaining him has been declared invalid by the European Court of Human Rights and not a valid basis for prosecuting him.

So we do have a definite disagreement across all of the issues that the Navalny case raises, and it gets more complicated as time passes. And I’m not optimistic that we’re going to come to an agreement on this, but my hope is that he’ll be released. And that you’ve heard both Secretary Blinken and President Biden’s comments on that.

Dozhd:  What was the tone in your conversation with Mr. Ryabkov? I mean, is it friendly or aggressive? Or I mean, how do you communicate?

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, I’ll step back and just say generally, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov is one of the finest professionals I’ve ever worked [with]. My engagements with him, my conversations with him, have been always been professional, polite. We disagree. And we’ve had a lot of conversations over the years, going back to when I was Deputy Secretary [of State]. He and I met back in the summer of, I guess it was July of 2019 in Geneva, to talk about strategic stability issues. And my engagements with the Deputy Foreign Minister, and I have to say with his colleagues across the MFA, all of the Deputy Foreign Ministers, and the Foreign Minister himself, have always been professional. And we have exchanged candid views – that favorite diplomatic expression – which means we disagree, but we do so politely and professionally. And I have no reason to believe that that is going to change. My relations, particularly with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov – and I’ve said this to him myself, how much I respect him, and value the opportunity to be able to speak to him when I need to about issues that that concern the United States.

Dozhd: All right. You have just said, you can explain the position of the U.S. Embassy in Russia on the rallies that you – as the Russians say, they say that you were like inviting the people who took part in these rallies to go to the Kremlin – to storm the Kremlin.  What was your position? What did you explain to them?

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, what I what I’ve said to everyone who’s asked is that I, as Ambassador, have an obligation to make sure that Americans in Russia are safe. And if I know – we’ve done this in my tenure as Ambassador any number of times – if there are going to be demonstrations, whether they are in favor of the government, whether it’s a United Russia demonstration, or if it’s a demonstration by people who are opposed to the government, our position has been that Americans, U.S. citizens, should stay away, because there is always the prospect for demonstrations to turn in character from peaceful assemblies to more violent episodes. And that’s what happened on Saturday. So we have to tell people, we have an obligation to tell people to stay away. And that’s all we did. We weren’t sending messages to anyone. We weren’t providing directions, we were providing information to keep Americans away and keep Americans safe.

And I’d ask you this, Ekaterina: if we didn’t do this, and if there were, because we hadn’t warned them, Americans who stumbled upon a demonstration last Saturday, for example, and they were arrested. Can you imagine the accusations that would be made that, you know, that we had, we The United States, had sent people, [or that] we’re organizing these demonstrations?  I can affirm to you, without equivocation, that our message last weekend, as they have continually been when there are demonstrations, are just to keep Americans safe. And I’ll conclude by saying other embassies here in Moscow did the same thing last Saturday. And, I might add, the Russian Embassy in Washington does the same thing when there are demonstrations in the United States. So, it’s a common diplomatic practice. It’s unfortunate that it was seized upon by people in the Foreign Ministry to criticize us because it’s really just a question of keeping Americans safe and keeping them out of trouble here. We want to be respectful visitors and stay out of trouble.

Dozhd:  Ambassador, anyway, they see in Moscow, there are people, for example, the representatives of the state television station, and also the representatives of the government and the Foreign Ministry of Russia, who think that you guys are meddling in Russia’s internal life and that, even more I would say, that you Americans finance the opposition, that Navalny works for the CIA. You have heard these words about the CIA involvement. I mean, on the highest level they say that you Americans are involved in this, that you are the head, masters of the process. What would you answer?

Ambassador Sullivan: I as Ambassador, the United States of America, our only interest is making sure that we protect Americans here, and that Russia, the Russian government, complies with its obligations under international treaties to provide due process and protect human rights. I would not presume to tell any single Russian person, let alone the Russian people, whom they should support as a leader. That’s not my place. I do not, we do not, interfere in internal political conversations in Russia. That’s for Russians, just as we, Americans, our democracy – we expect that our democracy is carried out with discussion among Americans, with views expressed from the outside, but it’s a question of respect for the democracy in Russia which we all want to support and nurture. It’s not a question of picking and supporting someone. We want to support democracy, democracy worldwide we believe is, and I’ll paraphrase Churchill, it’s a terrible form of government, except for every other form of government that’s been tried over time immemorial. So, we’re proponents of democracy. We’re proponents of human rights. We are not proponents of any particular party candidate or individual.

Dozhd: This is a common thing that diplomats meet different representatives of different social groups and political groups in different countries. Have you ever met Aleksey Navalny personally?

Ambassador Sullivan: I have not.

Dozhd: And anyone from the opposition? I would just, I was just wondering, what do you think of those people? Are they capable of being politicians, like grownups?

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, what I would say, Ekaterina, is – and this this comes honestly from the heart – and my comment about Russians, the Russian people, and the Russians I have met, are so capable of governing themselves without any input from John Sullivan, or the U.S. Embassy.

Dozhd: Thank you.

Ambassador Sullivan: I am more than confident of that. And I respect democracy here. And I am a huge fan of Russia. I was thrilled when the President, the current President, asked me to stay in my post because I’m a big fan of, I love living in Moscow. I’m a huge fan of Russia.

Dozhd: And you are staying as an Ambassador, right?

Ambassador Sullivan: For the time being. I always – you know, I was interviewed by the Washington Post when I was departing [Washington], this would have been I guess in December of 2019. And I said, then that I serve at the pleasure of the President. My tenure is indefinite. President Biden has asked me to stay for the time being. I serve at his pleasure. And if it pleases him for me to stay, I am honored to do so, both because I love representing the United States, and in particular, I love representing the United States in Russia and in Moscow.

Dozhd:  I would like to ask you a question about Belarus, because you have mentioned Karabakh, and I understand you were involved in this, but Belarus is different. And even a couple of days ago, when I was reading a statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, they have mentioned that actually, they did not like the position of the United States in terms of the Belarus protests and that it was also kind of a meddling in Belarusian or Russian internal affairs, I would say. What’s your position on this? And do you think that something should be done? When you look at the violence on the streets of Minsk and other cities of Belarus?

Ambassador Sullivan: Yeah, well, I mean, it’s, you know – I’ll come back to this – what will become a familiar refrain – our commitment to democracy, to the right of individuals and people as a group to gather peacefully and express their views, and our belief that violence shouldn’t be used against them. And those have been our concerns, of course. The legitimacy of the election in Belarus back in August.

I mentioned that my colleague, former Deputy Secretary [of State] Biegun came here toward the end of August, and the principal point of discussion for that mission here was to discuss Belarus and in particular to make sure that there wasn’t an escalation of violence. But we’re continuing to monitor that situation carefully. But again, we’re committed to democracy and to non violence. And the people of Belarus have a right, should have a right, to express their views, to vote in a free and fair election. It’s not for the United States or any other country, or any individual, to tell a citizen of Belarus, you know, how they should, govern themselves. That’s their right. And we hope that’s respected.

Dozhd: There was a concern, I would say, from the opposition leaders of Belarus, that there was no strong reaction from the United States, from the administration of Mr. Trump. They are waiting for stronger reaction from the administration of Joseph Biden. Should they wait for something like a sanction, for example?

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, we are, you know, the United States has, in fact, imposed sanctions since the elections in August. And I think you’re going to see that President Biden, as he has already demonstrated in the last week, is as committed as any American president has been to promoting human rights and defending democracy. And I’m sure you will see statements by him, by Secretary Blinken, on those issues, and in particularly with respect to Belarus in the near future.

Dozhd: What about the sanctions against Russian officials? They are, you know, the people who are absolutely sure, the experts and politicians and journalists, were absolutely sure that there would be, will be, some kind of sanctions against representatives of the Russian government, maybe the inner circle of Vladimir Putin. Anything you can say right now, any details that you can open to us about the sanctions that are coming from the Biden administration on those things?

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, it’s obviously something that I can’t speculate about. But what I would say is that it’s not just this administration, or the prior administration. It includes the administration before that, the Obama administration. You’ve seen, across three administrations, a commitment to the issues that I’ve been talking about, democracy, respect for human rights, international law, non interference in other countries affairs, etc.  The United States and our allies and partners have used sanctions to express our severe disagreement with Russia on a number of issues that implicate those values that we all hold dear. And it’s not just a particular administration. It includes our Congress, as well. So this is really a U.S. government undertaking. And it’s not just the United States. It’s our allies and partners too.

I can’t predict what we’ll come forward with in the future on any particular matter. Whether it’s, you know, any case you want to mention. You’ve seen the prior administration, the Trump administration, impose sanctions in the last few months. What the new administration will do, we’ll have to see. As you know, President Biden has asked for a review of certain matters, the SolarWinds hack, the Navalny case itself, broadly defined election interference, and he’s waiting for the report back, and I expect you will see more to follow after he’s briefed on that. But we’re only a week in. So there’s still a lot of study that needs to be done. And as experienced as all of my new colleagues are, my soon-to-be new colleagues once they’re confirmed, they do need to get up to speed on the most recent information. And once that happens, I’m sure you’ll see more that will come out of Washington.

Dozhd: You had just mentioned like a couple of minutes ago, 20 minutes ago, that it’s important to, you know, to have this connection between the people of Russia and the people of the United States and to maintain the friendship, or whatever, the relations between the two peoples. And at the same time, the sanctions that may be imposed, may be imposed, that sanctions may be problematic for the people of Russia, not for the authorities or the official representatives. So do you, will you, for example, talk to someone in State Department to explain to them not to impose sanctions against people… [inaudible] And this is actually what Navalny is asking from the Western countries, not to impose sanctions which may harm the people of Russia. Sorry for this long question.

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, no, no, it’s a very, very important one. And it’s not just with respect to Russia, you’ve seen this, the argument that’s been made with other sanctions programs that have been adopted by the United States and by our allies and partners, for example, on North Korea – concerns that humanitarian assistance, or the response to the COVID 19 pandemic has been disrupted because of sanctions. And that is a) not the case and b) not the intent. There not the intent to punish the people of a particular country. To the extent that sanctions are imposed, the intent is to target those who are responsible for the behavior that is illegal and objectionable, and not to punish a people. And you know, why I am particularly sensitive to that. We’ve seen the claims made that U.S. sanctions have disrupted humanitarian assistance, and again, that is emphatically not the case. I know my colleagues who work on sanctions issues back in Washington, have issued guidance and made it clear that humanitarian assistance, particularly with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, is not implicated by U.S. sanctions, and certainly not the intent.

But if I if I could, Ekaterina, just a follow up to tell you how important it is to me, the relationship, particularly the commercial relationship, between the United States. You mentioned business. I have a regular – because of the COVID pandemic I can’t meet with them in person, but I have a regular video check-in, a town hall, with the American Chamber of Commerce. And I hear from all types of businesses large and small, about how important the Russian market is to them, and how hard we are working to improve access to that market. So you ask about sanctions – we’re not looking to, we are, on the one hand, promoting U.S. business in Russia. But on the other hand, we do have sanctions imposed because of actions that the Russian government has taken – originally, you know, stemming, you know, getting back to when the most serious sanctions started almost seven years ago now over Crimea, Ukraine. So it’s a balance. And we’re looking to change, we and our allies and partners, are looking to change the Russian government’s approach to, for example, Ukraine. And that’s why the sanctions are …

Dozhd: I’m sorry for interrupting. Do you have a feeling that in Ukraine something can change? Because we were witnessing, for example, the visit of RT’s editor in chief Margarita Simonyan and her husband Tigran Keosaya to Donbas. It was this kind of a very obvious thing, the thing that they were saying to the Western countries, and to justify them in particular I suppose, that Look what we are doing here, we’re not going to hear what you are saying about Donbas and Ukraine and aggression of the Russian – as it was said in the statement of Biden – towards Ukraine. So what do you think about that? Is there anything that you can feel on the future of Ukraine?

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, I know it’s a high priority for this administration and for President Biden, and he raised Ukraine in his conversation with President Putin. And, you know, the position of the United States government on Ukraine hasn’t changed over seven years and across, now, three administrations. We’ve been consistent, both the Executive Branch and Congress, about the need for borders not to change without following the rule of law. And that’s basically what’s at the heart of this. Whether it was starting in Crimea and including the Donbass shortly thereafter. We’ve struggled for seven years to try to resolve this issue, we’ll continue to work hard on it. We won’t relax, at least it’s not  the intent for the United States or allies and partners to relax the sanctions that have been imposed because of what’s happened. But it doesn’t relieve – and this is where we started the conversation, we will continue. And I know our allies and partners, the French government, the German government, Chancellor Merkel, President Macron, are very deeply committed to seeing a resolution that does right by Ukraine and the Ukrainian people across the entire country. So we’ll continue to have that dialogue and work through the various processes that were engaged in, whether it’s the Normandy format, and other communications between governments. So, we haven’t achieved a lot of success in the past six or seven years, but it doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to continue to work to achieve that.

Dozhd: Alright, so you can, I mean, as I understand there is no changes from the Russian side.

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, I will let my colleagues in the Foreign Ministry address that. I can say from the U.S. government side, there’s no change in our sanctions policy, or in our approach to Ukraine and the agreements that were made years ago, the Minsk agreements, on resolving the situation.

Dozhd: All right, thank you so much. Thank you. I have so many more questions.

Ambassador Sullivan: Well, I hope we can continue the conversation, Ekaterina. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

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