Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell
On the Record
24 September 2018
Echo Moskvy: Mr. Mitchell, I’m really happy to see you here at Echo of Moscow but in the center of New York.
A/S Mitchell: It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for doing the interview.
Echo Moskvy: A few days ago your big boss, Secretary Mike Pompeo, said that Russia has not proven helpful in Syria and Ukraine. What does helpful mean here?
A/S Mitchell: I think it’s very clear to the Russian government what helpful means in both of these cases. Because there are international processes that were established to resolve both of these conflicts. The Russian government is at least nominally committed to both those processes. So in the case of Ukraine, it’s compliance with the Minsk Agreements. In the case of Syria, it’s the Geneva Process. And we see no indication on the part of the Russian government that there’s a sincere commitment to either of those processes. So I think that’s what he meant.
Echo Moskvy: But not helpful in Russian doesn’t mean harmful.
A/S Mitchell: Well I think from the standpoint of children in Syria who are the victims of chemical weapons or the standpoint of the civilians in Eastern Ukraine, I think it’s very harmful.
Echo Moskvy: So let’s talk about the topic that’s being conversed about between our governments now, but it’s not public yet. It’s the issue of disarmament. We do know that President Trump thinks that the START Agreement is harmful, and President Putin thinks that the START Agreement is helpful. So where are we now?
A/S Mitchell: Well, my understanding is that these issues were discussed by both Bolton and Patrushev, and we’re looking now very closely at the question of how and whether we would engage. I think we share some interests as very large nuclear powers and global stability depends upon us being able to cooperate in that area.
The timing in terms of that engagement are a different matter, something that needs to be discussed. But we’re also very sober in the realization that the Russian government is already not in compliance with many of its obligations including the INF Treaty. So we have the goal of constructive engagement in this area, but we’re very realistic that we’re dealing with an interlocutor who has at best a half-hearted commitment to its existing commitments.
Echo Moskvy: So for you the START Agreement and the INF Agreement are connected.
A/S Mitchell: Well, I would put all of these arrangements under the same broad heading of U.S.-Russian structured cooperation in the nuclear field. And of course you could add others to this as well, strategic stability talks. I think you have to look at them holistically. Obviously, each covers different types of weapons and has different terms, but together they point to the shared responsibilities that we have with regard to strategic stability and nuclear stability.
Echo Moskvy: If we’re talking about these agreements, are you more of an optimist or more of a pessimist?
A/S Mitchell: I’m a realist in that I tend to want to assess our interlocutors on the basis of their actions. I think Americans tend to be pragmatic and optimistic by nature. And I think this administration wants a better relationship with Russia and is willing to invest effort in building a better relationship with Russia. The President is working to try to build that foundation. Secretary Pompeo has been very clear, we want to see a more constructive relationship with Russia. And National Security Advisor Bolton has invested a lot of effort in his engagements with his counterpart.
Really, the question is not for the United States. The question is for the Kremlin. Does the Kremlin want to undertake the actions that would be needed to have that better relationship?
Echo Moskvy: Are you sending me to Bolton? Are you referring me to Bolton with all of these questions?
A/S Mitchell: No. I’m saying the position of the United States government as articulated by the President, the National Security Advisor and the Secretary, I think, is very clear.
Echo Moskvy: Do you think that the spread of chemical weapons is a real threat now after what happened in Syria and what happened in London? I mean of course the Skripal case?
A/S Mitchell: Yes.
Echo Moskvy: Where did it come from? It hasn’t been happening for years. Where did it come from? How did it start happening again?
A/S Mitchell: Well, in the case of Syria, these are weapons that the Russian government stepped forward and took some responsibility for securing, so I would refer you to the Russian government to understand how it is that Assad is using weapons against the civilian population that are not only controlled substances, but that the Russian government has taken responsibility for securing.
With Skripal, I accept the findings of the investigative committee and our friends and allies–the British–have worked very hard on this question, and it certainly appears that the material in question originated in the Russian Federation.
Echo Moskvy: Tell me, Wess, was the proof provided by your British colleagues persuasive to you? Was it enough for you?
A/S Mitchell: Yes.
Echo Moskvy: What made you think it was real?
A/S Mitchell: Well, I think the deliberations of the British government and the investigation that they’ve undertaken were very thorough. The denunciations from the Russian side have not been convincing. And we have a long history of cooperation and trust with the British government, and I don’t see any basis for doubting the findings of their investigation.
Echo Moskvy: To repair trust in this issue, what do you think Russia has to do? The Russian government has to do?
A/S Mitchell: I think a good starting point would be to take responsibility for these actions. The litany of denial and denunciation has not been helpful. So if you’re speaking specifically about Skripal, I would say the Russian government should take responsibility for its actions and disavow continued use of chemical weapons on foreign soil.
Echo Moskvy: But my government is denying this. How do you get out of this mess?
A/S Mitchell: Well, I think we get out of this mess by your government taking responsibility for its use of chemical weapons agents on foreign soils.
If you honestly believe that these two individuals in the employ of Russian Intelligence who were in England, if you honestly believe that they were tourists who went to see this cathedral, I don’t see any basis for believing that.
Echo Moskvy: Well Salisbury has a really good cathedral. I’ve been there. Have you been there?
A/S Mitchell: I have not.
Echo Moskvy: I do recommend it.
You have announced the creation of an agency called SARMAT. Like the position of the Senior Advisor for Russian Maligned Activities and Trends. Have you found the head of this organization?
A/S Mitchell: We have. And we believe that it’s important for the U.S. government to devote more time, energy and resources to countering the activities of your government and your intelligence operatives on American soil. I would use this as an opportunity to urge your government to cease those activities.
If you look, for example, at the most recent group of Facebook outfits that were expunged recently, these were really serious and well-funded efforts inside the United States to incite violence against the United States government, to encourage separatist movements. So we take that very seriously.
Echo Moskvy: We will talk about that later, but my main question is are we at war?
A/S Mitchell: No. We’re not at war. Your government often postures itself very aggressively towards the United States and towards the West. Our effort now is to find areas of cooperation. We don’t see a lot of indication that the Russian government wants to cooperate.
Echo Moskvy: In the ‘90s our governments used to cooperate. When and how did things break down?
A/S Mitchell: Well, we have a very long history of cooperation. We were on the same side in two world wars. Look, I think that’s a question for your government if you’re asking at what point did the behavior change or why. I think if you look back you can see really in the period since Vladimir Putin came to office, we’ve seen a fairly sustained and serious deterioration in the relationship.
Echo Moskvy: But do you have an understanding, as Wess Mitchell, where was that point when everything went wrong?
A/S Mitchell: I think the Georgia War and the Ukraine War were the first time in the period since the Cold War that we saw the Russian government attempt to accomplish its objectives by force of arms. So before that, we had seen a lot of threatening language from the Kremlin towards the Baltic states or various Russian(-speaking) countries, but I think the Georgia War was a clear moment in time where the behavior changed and became more aggressive. And I think the Ukraine, the start of the Ukraine war confirmed that trend.
Echo Moskvy: If you’re talking about Georgia now, do you think that Georgia should go into NATO? Join NATO?
A/S Mitchell: The position of the United States government continues to be that that’s a decision for Georgia to make. We support the NATO aspirations of any country that shares the values of NATO and can comply with the terms of entry into the organization. The last NATO Summit affirmed Georgia’s path towards NATO, and we continue to work very closely with the Georgian government. It’s ultimately a question for the Georgians and then for the entire NATO Alliance.
Echo Moskvy: You know that President Putin receives that very painfully. It’s a painful issue.
A/S Mitchell: Okay. I don’t see Georgia as a threat to Russia. We’re talking about a very small country. Our position has been and is that Georgia will someday be in NATO. That Georgia will some day be in NATO. And I see no threat from Georgia to a country the size of NATO, uh, a country the size of Russia.
Echo Moskvy: Let’s talk about a big state. Let’s talk about Ukraine. Do you think Ukraine should join NATO?
A/S Mitchell: That is a question that in the most recent NATO summit the Alliance took up and affirmed the progress that Ukraine has made in reforming itself. Obviously we’re nowhere close to Ukraine being a member of NATO, but we continue to work very closely with Ukraine and are engaged with the country on defense reform and strategic partnership.
Our position is similar to that with regard to Georgia in the sense that we continue to say that no third party should have a veto on a country coming into NATO if it shares the values of the Alliance and decides to come into the Alliance and the Alliance wants it to join, we would be supportive of that. But I think it’s a good, that question is a good ways down the road.
Echo Moskvy: I’ve already told Colin Powell once how I really hate diplomats and how I prefer generals. He said I’m both. So I’m asking you to be a bit of a general now and answer the question. If the government of the newly elected Ukrainian President, Poroshenko or whoever it would be, would ask to join NATO, what will be the U.S. reaction to that?
A/S Mitchell: I’m not going to engage in speculation. I think U.S. policy has been clear that we’re supportive of the efforts that both Georgia and Ukraine are making to come towards both the EU and NATO. That reflects the aspirations of their people. And again, is a question both for the people of Georgia, the values that they share with NATO. It’s a question really for the NATO Alliance at a future point on the merits of that, of the circumstances at the time.
Echo Moskvy: So to interpret it into general language, general’s language, it’s a yes.
A/S Mitchell: I’m sorry. What’s the question?
Echo Moskvy: Like if you played the diplomatic language into the military language, does that mean a yes?
A/S Mitchell: Look I don’t know generals as being the type to speculate. I think if you’re asking me to get into a military mindset I think generals tend to respond to the reality of the moment. So I don’t know that you would get any different answer from a general or a diplomat.
Echo Moskvy: There is a question if in case of emergency the U.S. would be ready to apply the 5th Article of NATO to protect the Baltic countries. Would that be possible?
A/S Mitchell: If you’re asking whether in the event of an act of hostility against a Baltic state and Article 5 were invoked, whether it would be honored, again, I don’t like to speculate but I think the position of the United States and NATO is clear in this regard if you’re talking about members of the NATO Alliance. So we would respect Article 5 for a Baltic member state of NATO.
Echo Moskvy: I’m going to rephrase my previous question when I asked you whether we were at war. Are we in a Cold War?
A/S Mitchell: Well, we’re certainly not in a state of normal relations. I can only speculate on the mindset of Russia’s leaders. I can tell you that America’s leaders are determined to have a better relationship with Russia. We have many areas where the United States and Russia appear to share interests and this administration wants to see us cooperate more in those areas. Counterterrorism, DPRK, North Korea. So it’s really a question, I think, for Russia’s leaders whether they want to cooperate in those areas or whether they want to continue on their current, very aggressive path.
Echo Moskvy: Plenty of people in Moscow, in the Kremlin, are starting to think that the U.S. supports ISIS in Syria. What can you say about that?
A/S Mitchell: It’s ludicrous.
Echo Moskvy: For instance, there’s an opinion in the Kremlin that for example the White Helmets are your agents in Syria which are dealing with provocations with the use of chemical weapons.
A/S Mitchell: It’s outlandish.
Echo Moskvy: I think in winter we saw a collision between the Russian private military and the U.S. soldiers, and we thought it was very dangerous. What would you say about that?
A/S Mitchell: It was a very dangerous incident. I think it’s a reminder that there are the ingredients in Syria for very dangerous escalation. I think we had another reminder a few days ago when another Russian jet was shot down. By my count that’s nine or ten aircraft that Russia has lost in the time that it’s been in Syria. And I think Idlib is another dangerously escalatory situation. And it’s a reminder of why the United States is encouraging Russia and all other parties to support the Geneva process.
Echo Moskvy: I was here in New York when President Putin talked to President Obama about the possibility of creating a coalition like the Anti-Hitler Coalition to fight global terrorism. And President Obama didn’t give him an answer, and neither has President Trump. So do you think it’s possible at all?
A/S Mitchell: Well, I would certainly want to see the United States and Russia work together against terrorism and I think we have had some examples in the recent past of our intelligence services cooperating on an ad hoc basis.
I think at the same time we have to recognize that the United States and Russia have very different objectives in a place like Syria. From what I can tell, the Russian government defines as a terrorist in Syria anyone who is working against the Assad regime. So we may have a disagreement on definitions. But I think it’s in both of our country’s interest to find pragmatic cooperation where we can to work against Islamic extremism.
Echo Moskvy: Does Assad have to go?
A/S Mitchell: The position of the United States government is that we want to see the Geneva process move forward. We’re not insisting on the removal of Assad as a precondition. But we do believe that Russia has to take responsibility for Assad. The Kremlin is acting as a kind of patron and encourager for Assad. And this is a very nasty regime. So if Russia is going to enable Assad militarily it has to take responsibility for him politically. And that includes compelling him to participate in the political process.
Echo Moskvy: What do you think about my country delivering lots of weapons there? And now there’s talk that it’s going to deliver the S-300 systems.
A/S Mitchell: I think we’ve been very clear that we view this as an escalation of the conflict. And that we will hold Russia responsible for that behavior.
Echo Moskvy: There are lots and lots of players there right now. There’s Iran, there’s Israel, the Assad government, the rebels, Turkey, Russia. Do you think Syria would survive as a country?
A/S Mitchell: I think the ability to see Syria, a Syria that has territorial integrity and that is participating in an internationally supported political process is the only way forward in this conflict. I don’t see any military solution to this conflict.
Echo Moskvy: But there is your base in there, there are others, our bases there. There are military bases in there. What do you do with that? It looks like the only solution there is a military solution right now.
A/S Mitchell: I think there certainly is not a military solution in Syria. And I think Russian military participation in Syria of the last several years shows that. And I would certainly hope for the well-being of the people of Syria that your government’s position is not that there is only a military solution.
Echo Moskvy: Does the Russian military have to leave Syria?
A/S Mitchell: I think the U.S. position has been consistent and clear that Russia has a role to play vis-à-vis the regime, in encouraging it towards a more constructive position. I think we’ve also been clear that there’s only a political solution. The question of a Russian military position in Syria has to be looked at through that lens.
Echo Moskvy: How about the American military? Same thing?
A/S Mitchell: Well, I think we’ve been clear that the United States military will not leave Syria until Iran and Iran-backed forces have been compelled to leave Syria.
Echo Moskvy: What’s the connection, Wess? Between the Iranians and the Americans being there?
A/S Mitchell: That Iranian presence and influence in Syria is a key source of instability. Number one. Number two, that Iran appears to be positioning across the Middle East with greater long-term influence in mind. And so the United States is not interested in leaving to create a vacuum that Iran fills.
This is a concern that Israel shares, and we are told that the Russian government shares this concern as well.
Echo Moskvy: How about Turkey? Do you think Turkey is a constructive participant in Syria? Player in Syria?
A/S Mitchell: Yes. We have worked very closely with the Turks in Manbij. The Turks are urging restraint on the part of your government and the Syrian regime in Idlib. And Turkey is playing a very constructive role in brooking the flow of, in slowing the flow of migrants to Europe. So yes, I would say Turkey is acting as a constructive player in Syria.
Echo Moskvy: Ukraine now. Lots of people say that we understand why Europe is dealing with the Ukrainian problem, but how does the U.S. have anything to do with it?
A/S Mitchell: You know, the United States has a long history of supporting political self-determination. And so we’ve consistently said that we support the democratic decision of Ukraine to choose its own future.
Echo Moskvy: But you’re really far away. You’re across the ocean.
A/S Mitchell: You know, the United States has both national security interests and a set of values that are global in nature. Your government has interests that it pursues in many parts of the world.
Echo Moskvy: So your government supported the Egyptian Revolution and when others at the National Security Council, they were thinking about who’s of more value to us? What is more important to us? Our values or our ally, Mubarak? What is more important? The values or the benefits of supporting your allies?
A/S Mitchell: You know, I think the United States has to strike a balance and always have in mind our strategic interests as well as our overarching values that animate our mission as a large power.
I think in most equations that we face, our values and our interests are consistent with one another, which is to say when we’re strong and clear on democracy, individual freedom, human rights, religious freedom, it’s, these are things that are good in and of themselves. But it’s also in the U.S. national interest to see a world where those principles are respected.
So to use the example of Ukraine, we should want to see Ukrainians free and democratic, able to choose their own future. All of those are consistent with American democratic ideals. But I think it’s also in our strategic interest to see a European order where borders are not changed by force. And we had understood the Russian government to be committed to that same set of principles.
Echo Moskvy: So how do you reach that balance in Ukraine? How do you see that balance to be achieved? Because some say that Ukraine is a failed state, is a failure as a state.
A/S Mitchell: I would say Ukraine has made tremendous progress in the period since 2014. Reforming the courts, growing the economy, fighting corruption. So I don’t agree with the premise of your question that Ukraine is a failed state. I hope they succeed. And I think they’re well on their way to succeeding. And that appears to be what the Ukrainian people want.
So who would Russia be to deny them that future?
Echo Moskvy: Well, at some point you have to talk about this to President Putin. And he’d tell you this is like a separated nation. We and the Ukrainians are a nation that was separated. Just like the East Germany and West Germany. He’s said that already. I don’t remember if he said it publicly, but he has said it.
What would you answer to that? To this argument?
A/S Mitchell: I will not endorse the idea of empire building. I’m familiar with Russian history. And I would say that the Ukrainian people have a right to determine their own future. And I would assume if an outside power tries to coerce them, they will resist. I can’t choose Ukraine’s future from here in New York or Washington. I think they’ve chosen that future. And the United States’ position is to support political self-determination.
Echo Moskvy: Another big block of questions is the sanctions. And now what we see is the sanctions are growing like a pyramid, up and up and up and up. So from your experience, do you think the sanctions are efficient?
A/S Mitchell: Well, I certainly think that they’re necessary for holding the Russian government accountable for its actions. With regard to Ukraine, Syria, Russian meddling in the United States. I can’t imagine that sanctions are not having an impact. We see the state of the Russian economy, and I would think from the standpoint of the Russian people having a less aggressive foreign policy and the more productive economy that that creates would be a good thing.
Echo Moskvy: President Obama once said that the job of the sanctions is to tear up Russia’s economy. Do you agree with that?
A/S Mitchell: Well, I think we don’t want to use sanctions to hurt the Russian people. I think the ultimate job of sanctions is to encourage Russia’s leaders to choose a different kind of foreign policy.
Echo Moskvy: Does Putin have to go?
A/S Mitchell: It’s not the position of the United States government that Russia needs to change its government. It is the position of the U.S. government that Russia needs to change its foreign policy.
Echo Moskvy: Last question. One day you will leave this room. Either you will be leaving the office satisfied or dissatisfied. What has to happen if while leaving your office you will tell yourself oh, I did such a good job? Nobody can do this, but I did it. And then you will write a book titled Only I Could Do That.
A/S Mitchell: Well, as I told you, Alexsey, I don’t like to speculate.
I think with regard to Russia, I think it would be a success if the United States and Russia can find areas for cooperation. I think it will be a success if we can convince the Russian government to change its posture in Ukraine and truly support the Minsk Agreements to change its position in Syria and truly support Geneva. And to stop meddling with internal U.S. affairs.
I think that if those accomplishments can be had by this or any other administration,that would be a success.
I hope that your leaders realize that if they continue to conduct operations in the United States in the lead-up to the mid-term elections, this will have extremely negative consequences for our relationship. So we want a better relationship, but the ball is in your court.
Echo Moskvy: I can already see that book. I’ve Done It, Wess Mitchell.
A/S Mitchell: I don’t plan to write any book like that.
Echo Moskvy: Thank you.