Ambassador Tracy interview with RFE/RL Grani Vremeni

Riga, Latvia – October 12, 2023

RFE/RL: My first question, the relation between Moscow and Washington is at it’s worse since the Cold War era. What should diplomats [do] to prevent these conflicts from turning into a wider military confrontation?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: I think the other thing that I want to touch on before I get to that first question is to acknowledge the very terrible events that we saw unfold this past weekend in Israel. And I want to reinforce President Biden’s message of sympathy and condolence and concern for the missing, the wounded and those who have been killed, their families and loved ones.

The United States will be standing firmly behind Israel in its hour of need. And at the same time and this brings us back to our region, our commitment to Ukraine will not diminish. We will remain with our partners and allies, steadfast in continuing to support Ukraine’s efforts to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. And so, what can diplomats do in this situation?

And I think it is to maintain this resolve, this commitment to stand behind principles that are not just shared values because of our own national histories or developments, but these are principles that are enshrined in the United Nations charter, and they are commitments that Russia has made as a United Nations member and as a member of the Security Council. And it needs to be held to those commitments. 

And so there is diplomatic work, obviously, but right now, with Russia having made a choice to launch an unjustified invasion of Ukraine, I mean, our focus remains in the immediate moment on giving Ukraine the strength that it needs on the battlefield to be strong at the negotiating table.

RFE/RL: Have you any contacts with Russian politicians or only with the Russian diplomats?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: So, my contact at the embassy is primarily with the Russian government, but we’re in Russia. So, we’re always listening and keeping our ears open for the discussions that are happening inside Russia. But, you know, it’s a climate that’s very difficult. And I don’t think that I have seen, at least in my own experience with Russia and the Soviet Union, a level of repression that is present today, an atmosphere of repression that is denying Russians fundamental freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom of association.

That’s what makes having some of these conversations outside of government very difficult. But we have tried very hard, not just at the embassy, but from Washington, to make sure we do have some channels of communication with the Russian government, so we avoid misunderstandings, miscalculations. This is very serious times, very tense times. And so, we do try to understand what’s happening in Russia, to listen. But Russia needs to also listen.

RFE/RL: Have you had an opportunity to visit other cities besides Moscow, or only Moscow?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: In this assignment – as I said, I’ve been there before, but in this assignment, I’ve only been in Moscow. And then with a few trips out that have been very focused on supporting American citizens who have been detained in one particular case and Paul Whelan, who is one of our American citizens who has been wrongfully detained and who we are calling for his release.

And then, of course, there’s Evan Gershkovich, who is a Wall Street Journal reporter also wrongfully detained. He’s in Moscow. But the travel has been fairly limited.

RFE/RL: We remember the exchange of arms dealer Viktor Bout for basketball player Brittney Griner. Can we expect a similar outcome in Evan’s case? What do you think?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: You know, I don’t want to speculate about negotiations or discussions that are happening behind the scenes. I think what I can say publicly is that this is a top priority for the President and for the U.S. Administration to see that wrongfully detained Americans in Russia, Paul and Evan, are returned home to their families as quickly as possible.

RFE/RL: The next question, when you presented your credentials to Putin in Kremlin ceremony in April, instead of congratulating you, Putin was critical of Washington and did not even shake your hand. What about your sense of what you felt at that moment?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: Well, you know, I was there with a number of other diplomats who were presenting their credentials, and it was a ceremony where no one was shaking hands with President Putin. He was at quite a distance from us.

RFE/RL: Social distance.

AMBASSADOR TRACY: Social distance. So, you know, that didn’t really represent an opportunity for any kind of exchange there. But there are other opportunities, not just for me, but I think for others in the U.S. government to make sure that we are communicating clearly and addressing and pushing back on some of these false narratives that we hear about how the war in Ukraine started.

I want to emphasize: this was a war of choice. It was a war that Russia chose to launch on its neighbor and unjustified and unprovoked war. And it’s that simple. But I wasn’t given an opportunity in that setting in the credentials ceremony to provide any response to his point of view.

RFE/RL: Did you discuss the situation with other ambassadors at that moment?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: The atmosphere wasn’t really one that allowed for that kind of exchange. It’s a very formal atmosphere. And so there wasn’t really an opportunity to do that.

RFE/RL: Are there any cultural links left between the United States and Russia now?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: I would say that we are working very hard to maintain our people-to-people ties. We have had these ties for decades going back into the Soviet era, certainly. And what we see is that even when the government-to-government relations are in such a terrible state, in fact, it makes it even more important to try to find ways to keep people to people-ties-going: exchange, visits, other kinds of contact.

And the United States is open. We’re open to visits for personal travel. We continue to be open for Russian students to study in the United States. It’s a place where Russians can continue to come to work. So, I think we see those efforts to keep the people-to-people ties going as a very important way to keep the door open to what we hope will be a better future, keep the door open especially to young Russians.

RFE/RL: There used to be a tradition in Moscow to invite to Spaso House residence different people – politicians, scientists, film directors, artists. And I’ve been there several times. I represented Radio Free Europe at that moment. Do you have this tradition now?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: I’m very happy to say we are reviving that tradition. We had a period when the Spaso House was closed for technical, structural reasons, we needed to do some repairs. So, we weren’t able to hold events there. But I am at Spaso House. I’m resident there now, and we are preparing a number of events in the coming months in which we will be inviting not just diplomats, but Russian citizens who we hope will come for cultural events and so that we can try to promote some of that, as I said, people-to-people ties that can help us in this very difficult time.

RFE/RL: A very important question. The Nansen passport, an international document to verify the identity of the holder. Initially the League of Nations issued them to stateless refugees, from 1922 and 1938 a total of 450,000 people got this document. Is the West, including the United States, considering such a prospect, option, which could save tens of thousands of Russian and Belarus persons who are against the war? What do you think about this?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: Well, what I want to say, first of all, is that this is just exemplifying how the war that the Russian government launched on Ukraine is a tragedy not just for Ukraine, but it’s a tragedy for Russia, because it has forced so many Russians, yourself included, to flee, flee out of a sense of fear for safety, for being persecuted for simply expressing a view that is not in keeping with the view of the Russian government.

I can’t say that this particular document is the answer in the situation we’re in today. But I think if we see that this condition continues where people are not able to return to Russia, then we’re probably going to have to be looking for mechanisms that help Russians who have to remain outside of the country.

And as I said, I think this may be a possibility, but there may be others as we see what is required to help people who are outside of Russia.

RFE/RL: Are you discussing this problem among the diplomats or not in this moment?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: I would say it’s very… I think what we’re seeing is where Russian citizens have gravitated that it’s more focused on specific locations and how to help people obtain residency permits. I mean, I think that’s been the focus right now more than I think the kind of document that you were describing. But as I said, I don’t rule it out.

But at the moment, what I’ve heard diplomats talking about is support for and giving those who are supporting independent media or supporting maintaining the voices of civil society, how do we help them, at least at this moment, to get settled, have a safe place in which they can live and work.

RFE/RL: Very important things of this problem and other problems. America became a refuge for many European scientists who suffered under Nazi Germany during World War Two. Today, scientists in Russia [are] imprisoned [on] false charges. Does the United States government have a program that can provide support for these people who not only the United States can benefit from, but in all over the world?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: So, I want to reinforce what I said a moment ago. We’re open to Russian citizens to visit, to study, to work. And I’m not aware that there’s a program along the lines you have mentioned that’s under consideration, but I would say to any Russian citizen who’s listening to this program that, we’re in a world now where we have a lot of connectivity, the means of reaching out that we didn’t have in earlier times and we have companies that are very aware of the kinds of contributions and talents that exist in Russia or that Russian citizens have.

I mean, we have a history of some of those citizens coming to the United States and being successful in the program you just mentioned. But even outside of U.S. government programing, we’ve had many Russians come and go on to leading roles in business and other parts of our society. And so, what I would say is, again, that there are ways to reach out to companies and universities.

And we’re issuing visas, even if we’re not issuing visas in Moscow in the way that we once did, we have mechanisms in place to allow Russians to apply elsewhere. And so, as I said, this program is not one that I think we are currently looking at, but I think there are other channels and avenues that people can pursue if they’re interested in coming to the United States.

RFE/RL: I remember the situation with a Russian scientist who got a Nobel Award several days ago and he just now he lives in the United States and left Russia many, many years ago. Maybe this case is proof that America has the opportunity to save these scientists?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: It’s a great example of the contributions that Russian citizens, Soviet citizens are making, sadly in some of these cases now outside of their home country. But I think that your point and what I’m trying to say is there are still many opportunities and ways in which these people, I think, are able to come to the United States, if they are interested.

RFE/RL: You’ll receive the U.S. State Department heroism award. What was the story?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: The story was a very difficult and challenging assignment in Peshawar, Pakistan. We had a security environment where the threat of terrorism was very high. But I really want to emphasize that the day and the events that led to that award were not just about me, but about also my team around me, where we faced a very deadly, potentially deadly challenge in a terrorist attack as I was moving from my home to the office.

And I’m very proud of my team who made sure that I was safe, and I was able to carry on my assignment there because I felt that was what was very important, that we show that solidarity with our Pakistani colleagues who were also taking many risks with their lives to try to stand up against terrorism.

And I think it’s a continuing message that I would give in the present environment, that it’s very important for us to find ways to show support and solidarity for Russians, both those who are outside of Russia, but those who are inside of Russia, who have taken great risks in standing up for fundamental freedoms. People like Vladimir Kara-Murza and Alexei Navalny.

And sadly, the list goes on to people who are not of high public profile, but who have said something or done something to try to show that they don’t approve of the course of action of the Russian government and have found themselves in jail. We need to make sure that we keep the spotlight on supporting those people in their efforts to exercise their fundamental freedoms.

RFE/RL: You have a big experience when you worked in the former Soviet republics, how you can use this professional experience when you are working in Russia, is it help for you or it is different as a country, It’s a different culture, a different political culture. What do you think about your professional experience?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: Well, there’s certainly differences. I mean, each country in the former Soviet Union has its own and specific identities and history. But there is also, certainly because of the Soviet times and even further back, a lot of connections, historical connections, cultural connections. And I find that having served in other parts of the former Soviet Union and Central Asia, my most recent assignment was in Armenia, that it also has given me a lot of background and understanding of the current situation that we’re in now.

Because what I saw in my experiences in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, was that the thing that these governments, these countries all had in common was a desire for sovereignty and to maintain their territorial integrity. And what we need to remember now is why is the United States, why are our partners in Europe and more broadly – why does Ukraine matter?

And it matters because of these fundamental issues of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Because what Russia has done in trying to change borders by force, it is a calamity for Ukraine. But what it is also – it’s a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent that if it is left unchecked, unanswered, unaddressed, can encourage other leaders, other countries to think that they can also proceed in this manner.

And I think this is something that really in my own background of having served in other countries that regained their independence, there’s the right to set their own course of action – that has informed the work that I’m doing in Russia now and why it is so, so important that we remain focused on helping Ukraine succeed.

RFE/RL: And my last question [is], [in] the next year [there will be an] election in the United States. It’s a very important event. How important is the United States presidential election for the future aid to Ukraine? What do you think?

AMBASSADOR TRACY: So, I don’t want to speculate about the U.S. presidential election. I think what I can say very clearly is that there is strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for aid to Ukraine. The United States is a democracy. We have debates about issues of foreign assistance, but no one should mistake debate, vigorous debate, for weakness.

The president has been clear about our commitment to Ukraine. And as I said, the majorities of both parties have expressed support for Ukraine. So, my expectation is that is going to continue. And I think that we need to stay focused on ensuring that Russia isn’t able to sow divisions amongst us, amongst our allies and partners when we have these debates in our capitals, in democracies, because I think we have the fundamental commitments that we need to support Ukraine going into the future.

RFE/RL: Madame Ambassador, thank you for this discussion, for this conversation. And we are very glad to see you again.

AMBASSADOR TRACY: Thank you, Mumin.