Question: Mr Ryabkov, it appears from statements made after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s talks in Moscow that this is a turning point, that the Americans are coming to see the benefits of maintaining normal relations with Russia. Or am I wrong?
Sergey Ryabkov: We maintain intensive contacts with American officials, including the Secretary of State. It may sound paradoxical but our dialogue has not only continued despite all the difficulties in bilateral relations and the serious falling out over several significant issues, but has become even more intense than it was at the time when our relations were better.
This was the third time in less than a year that John Kerry visited Russia. In itself, this is a signal and evidence that the United States is aware of the imperative nature and the absence of alternatives to working with Russia, at least in several areas, which are crucial for the global situation. At the same time, we have to admit that we haven’t yet seen a radical or fundamental improvement in our relations.
Any high-level meeting or contact is in itself an extraordinary event that affects many processes and I hope also the general mood in the United States. Yesterday’s visit was one such meeting, as you can see from the length of the conversation between the Russian President and the US Secretary of State.
But despite all of this, I wouldn’t say that yesterday’s visit was a landmark and a watershed, or that we turned a new page.
There has been progress towards the normalisation of relations on the Syrian track, which we have noted, with the issue moving to the stage of coordinated and consolidated efforts taken to make the ceasefire last and to add dynamics to the political process. This work and these efforts have continued, including at the meeting with the Russian President.
As for bilateral issues and Russian-US relations, progress has been minimal. The reason is, of course, Washington’s position regarding Russia and the refusal by a considerable part of the US establishment and political class, including the Administration, to recognise international realities.
Of course, we used the opportunity offered by the US Secretary of State’s visit to openly talk about our concerns regarding the accumulation of unsettled problems in bilateral relations, many of them growing into painful knots that are difficult to disentangle.
Question: Would you describe Mr Kerry’s visit to Moscow as a turning point in the settlement of the Syrian and Ukrainian crises? Do Russia and the United States see eye to eye on Syria’s political future?
Sergey Ryabkov: Regarding Syria, I would use the phrase “cautious optimism” about our views on the current situation there.
The talks were extremely clear on the need to continue exchanging information and coordinating our actions – no matter what the Pentagon may say, I insist on the word “coordination” when describing relations between the Russian and US militaries and other agencies – in order to make the ceasefire last and to reduce the number and scale of ceasefire violations that could threaten the process.
I cannot speak about the details of the talks or the technique of the process, because these are very delicate issues and we must keep this information exchange confidential.
But it’s a fact that we have reached serious practical results in this area, and this includes Mr Kerry’s visit.
As for the political process, Staffan de Mistura has announced the end of the current round of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. As a result of this, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria has put on paper the parameters for the possible move forward and sent this document to the negotiating parties for consideration. They must now do their homework.
It’s obvious that the formulation of these elements would have been impossible without creative and direct contributions by the Russian as well as the US sides at different levels and in different spheres.
I’d like to point out, though, that we are against forcing any specific solution on the Syrian parties. We can prepare models and formulate ideas, proposals and approaches, offer them for the consideration of the parties involved and explain the reasons we consider an action expedient at the given moment. We can only offer our rationale, nothing more.
If these approaches are rejected for some reason, or if it is necessary to adjust them, we’ll do this. The essence of what we have been saying and what we discussed with John Kerry is that we need to influence the negotiating parties and prod them towards admitting that there is no alternative to negotiation.
We must continue the talks for as long as it takes to attain progress, and we must prevent situations where the talks are threatened by the deep divide in the conflicting sides’ positions.
I believe this position can be described as honest brokering, and we see that Damascus has accepted it as the only possible path.
In other words, there has been progress in the military and political spheres, and yesterday’s talks were one more step in the right direction.
It’s important that John Kerry’s delegation includes Rob Malley, Senior Advisor to the US President for the Counter-ISIS Campaign in Iraq and Syria. The talks were held in the interdepartmental format and hence were also attended by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov. It was an opportunity to bring together everyone who is directly involved in the key processes so they could use the US Secretary of State’s visit to discuss essential issues openly and without losing time.
Question: So it was a brainstorm.
Sergey Ryabkov: Absolutely. This is the correct word. More than a brainstorm, it was a gradual movement in the direction that we hope will enable us to reach a new stage in our work on the Syria issue.
As for Ukraine, it’s not a secret that the Americans have indicated their impatience. For our part, we try to convince them that their impatience should not be addressed to us but to Kiev, which has not moved ahead but has been dragging its feet in implementing the Minsk Package of Measures.
But that’s not the worst part of it. Actually, we see Kiev rolling back on many issues. This is very alarming, because questioning the very agreements that took so long to prepare and that have no alternatives capable of suiting all sides, primarily Donetsk and Lugansk, is a road to nowhere, unless Kiev changes its stance.
Paradoxically, the United States and other Western countries, including the Normandy format parties, continue to insist, regardless of the above circumstance, that it is Russia that must fully implement the Minsk Agreements.
This position suits Kiev very well. Kiev understands that doing nothing to implement the Minsk Package costs it nothing and has no consequences. At the same time, Ukraine’s Western sponsors accuse Russia of failing to implement these agreements. The package of illegitimate sanctions against Russia remains in force, and this too fully suits the Ukrainian authorities.
How can we change this situation so as to encourage Ukraine to take a more responsible attitude toward launching dialogue with Donbass, which is the key provision, as well as approving amnesty and formalising a special status for Donbass through constitutional process? It was one of the key issues, of course, but I can’t say that Mr Kerry’s visit has added any new elements or innovations to this complex knot of issues of great concern to us. The party of war is very strong in Kiev, which we cannot disregard. We have openly and firmly told this to the US Secretary of State.
Question: What does “indicated their impatience” mean? Does the United States want to implement the Minsk Package of Measures too fast, skipping some stages?
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes, this too. But they are also making suggestions on adjusting or changing some elements. But we believe that this would disrupt the delicate and well-calibrated balance that underlies the Minsk Agreements, which have evolved since their adoption. We must implement instead of trying to change these agreements.
Question: Are Americans trying to change them?
Sergey Ryabkov: I can’t speak for the Americans, but we are under the impression that they are considering this possibility.
Question: In other words, does this mean that Americans have not shown willingness to pressure Kiev to implement its part of the commitments?
Sergey Ryabkov: We’ve noticed that during their recent contacts, including at a high level, US representatives signalled to Kiev that it should implement the Minsk Agreements, but the number of these signals pales in comparison to the demands the Americans place on us. By and large, the current Kiev authorities are so tightly controlled by Washington that the problem could have been solved very quickly.
Question: Speaking of Syria, it was announced yesterday that Russia and the United States had agreed to convince the Syrian sides to launch direct talks. Is there a possibility for direct contact between Damascus and the opposition at the next round of intra-Syrian consultations?
Sergey Ryabkov: Of course, we’d like to believe that direct talks will begin during the next round. The necessary conditions for this are present, including in the form of documented proposals. Staffan de Mistura held a series of intensive meetings with all Syrian delegations, as well as other participants, during the latest round. He knows the positions of all sides in detail, and he probably knows each side’s “red lines” that should not be crossed. He probably knows the margin of flexibility of each side. This detailed knowledge of the situation during negotiations will help him organise the next round and push for direct contact.
But much will ultimately depend on how the irreconcilable forces, which is a generic term, will act with due regard to their external sponsors. Much will depend on the ability to overcome Turkey’s stubborn refusal to allow the Syrian Kurds to participate in the talks on a par with the other forces represented there. This shortcoming of the negotiating process, this serious drawback concerned with the absence of a fair and necessary Kurdish representation, can greatly hinder or even stop the talks. We hope, and we have agreed on this issue with Mr Kerry, that the United States will use the time before the next round to intensively work with Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the interests of encouraging direct talks.
Question: Was the issue of President al-Assad raised at the talks with John Kerry yesterday?
Sergey Ryabkov: Yes, it was.
Question: John Kerry said yesterday that “Russia will have to speak itself as to what it is going to choose to do in order to help Mr Assad make the right decisions.” Does this point to major differences between Moscow and Washington on the fate of al-Assad? Will this complicate movement towards a political settlement?
Sergey Ryabkov: The ongoing political process was largely made possible by Washington’s acceptance of Moscow’s basic idea that this is not the right moment to decide the future of the Syria’s President. This issue should be removed from the current agenda as an insurmountable barrier to the talks.
This roadblock has been removed, and Russia’s dialogue with the United States and the other members of the International Syria Support Group is focused on the agreement that the Syrians are to decide how to address this issue and at which stage in the talks. We have formalised this position, and we haven’t abandoned it. There are more immediate goals we must achieve. There is a long list of much more pressing issues that must be addressed at the talks or they will continue to hinder a possible settlement. It is on these issues that we must focus now.
Bashar al-Assad is a legitimate president with whom we are cooperating. It is at the invitation of Bashar al-Assad and his government that Russia is conducting military operations in Syria. We cooperated [with the West] very well and at all stages of the efforts to close the Syrian military chemical programme, and now we are working with the Syrian Government, with Bashar al-Assad’s representatives, at the UN, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other organisations.
There are no grounds whatsoever for demonising Bashar Al-Assad. This is nothing other than an attempt to achieve geopolitical goals with unacceptable means.
Question: Will there be more Russian-US high-level contacts before the expiry of President Obama’s term?
Sergey Ryabkov: We believe that contacts between the Russian and US presidents will continue this year. There are opportunities for this, including for personal meetings.
As of today, and taking into account the latest talks with the UN Secretary of State, no concrete agreements have been reached.
We will continue discussing different scenarios.