Washington Has a Unique Opportunity to Agree on the Terms Offered

Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov discusses the limits of Moscow’s flexibility in negotiations with Washington

Kommersant, October 22, 2020, 22:42

Russia recently surprised many people by proposing that the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) with the United States be extended for one year instead of five and expressing its readiness to suspend the build-up of all nuclear weapons for the same period. In an interview with Elena Chernenko, Russia’s head negotiator with the US on strategic stability issues, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, explained the limits of Moscow's flexibility and what will happen if Washington fails to appreciate its concessions.

After the Russian Foreign Ministry’s October 20 statement, high-level individuals in the US started saying that the parties were "very, very close" to a deal. Does this align with what you see?

Naturally, we have kept careful note of Washington’s signals at different levels about extending the New START Treaty and continuing our dialogue on arms control. It’s a positive sign that our US colleagues are focused on making progress and finding solutions to existing problems. At the same time, they seem to be getting ahead of themselves and anticipating future developments that are still just possibilities. At this stage, we cannot say that we are on the verge of an agreement, or that we are within reach of a treaty or even a mutual political understanding as to whether the New START will be extended or as to what might happen in this area.

So, there is still no breakthrough?

We have to acknowledge the serious degree of difference between us, including on some essential points. Personally, I don’t see much cause for optimism. The Russian Foreign Ministry's statement of October 20 speaks for itself, setting out our readiness to extend the New START for one year. At a meeting of the Valdai Club on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin expressed clear and definite support for this position. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement also touched on the possibility of freezing the total number of nuclear warheads, but only if the United States puts forth no additional requirements.

You mean no verification requirements for potential agreements on freezing arsenals?

Verification is one thing, but it is not the only thing. This topic has been discussed at length in recent years at meetings that the two countries’ inter-agency delegations have held behind closed doors. Verification comes after agreement. We have repeatedly explained this and continue to explain it to our US counterparts. We restated this point in recent days. Until we know the scope and parameters of the agreement, we cannot say what kind of verification measures would be possible, or even whether they are possible at all. The verification agenda is extremely complex, and we cannot put the cart before the horse.

It should also be noted that we have shown flexibility twice in recent days: at the beginning, when the Russian President expressed his readiness to extend the Treaty for one year, and then on October 20, speaking on the subject of freezing warheads.

Now it is the United States’ turn to make reciprocal steps, which include accepting – and we insist on this – our requirement for reaching an agreement without any additional add-ons and attachments, without any aggravating elements that could lead to a dead end.

By saving time and extending the New START, we will have the opportunity, as the President noted, to continue discussing a whole range of related issues, some of which are not particularly easy ones for Washington. Some questions are just “prickly”' for the United States. This includes the subject of missile defense, but there are other issues.

In our contacts with the United States, we have proposed proceeding according to the scheme that was used to conclude the New START. First, we need a general framework for topics we will deal with comprehensively. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s October 20 statement made that clear. In fact, it ends with a statement on the need to act in this way and with a reminder that we still have not received a response to our official note dated October 16. This is the framework as we see it. We communicated this to the Americans in early October, but the United States has not issued a clear response to our proposals. We go easy on that: we understand that our concept of the future of arms control will differ significantly from the US concept. Since this is the case, we just need more time to continue working on these topics. In the current situation, nothing else is possible. Coming to an agreement the way the Americans propose doing it – by accepting their requirements regardless of what we control in the future – is the wrong approach because it distorts arms control methodology.

Are you planning any contacts with the Americans soon? On October 20, the State Department announced that it was ready to hold a meeting “immediately”.

If the United States confirms its readiness to accept our approach as it is set out in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s October 20 statement, we will immediately come to any place convenient for the United States, and we will work to formalize such an understanding. Otherwise, if they continue adding priorities of their own that do not suit us to the list of issues, as they are doing now, then our opinion is that a meeting is unlikely to be helpful.

The US media cites sources who say that by verification, US authorities mean that Russia would declare its tactical arsenal and install monitoring at sites where nuclear weapons are produced. Am I right that Russia is not prepared to take those steps?

Talk of perimeter control is from the distant past. It’s from a completely different era. There is no reason to restore anything like that. I do not see any reason to return to this topic in the foreseeable future, especially given the current level of relations between the two countries, which is close to freezing.

Ideas of this kind were dubious even before, and nothing like this has been practiced in recent years or recent decades. We see no reason to revive this topic again.

With regard to US non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, we have insisted and will continue to insist that the first step has to be the United States withdrawing weapons from the territory of its European allies and eliminating the infrastructure that would allow them to quickly and dynamically return those weapons there. That could significantly expand opportunities to work on strengthening European security.

By the way, we are reminding the United States that we still need to deal with post-INF Treaty problems (the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, which expired in 2019 - Kommersant). There have been alarming signals in the past few days.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper acknowledged that the United States would deploy intermediate or shorter-range nuclear weapons in Europe, not just in Asia.

Yes, we are seeing talk reemerge about locating such systems in Europe, and not just in Asia. This complicates the overall situation, and we will have to deal with it regardless of what happens with the New START. This requires political will, and we call on our American colleagues to demonstrate it.

Some US experts believe that Russia's recent concessions on arms control are a pre-election gift to Donald Trump.

These are essentially malicious and reality-distorting speculations. We engage in dialogue with our American colleagues as it unfolds, and the ideas that we have now put forward are simply a product of the natural development of that dialogue. The election – whichever way it goes – will not make it any easier.

We call on the US administration to consider the flexibility we have shown and abandon its unrealizable demands and excessive expectations. No matter what happens, we will increase the future “fare” for Washington if it wants to reach certain agreements.

Proposals we have already made will not remain on the table for the indefinite future. That is out of the question. Regardless of the course of negotiations and discussions, we will have the opportunity to take a fresh look at certain elements of our approach and correct them to serve our own interests. Today, Washington has a unique opportunity to come to an agreement on the terms proposed. But this must solely concern the extension of the New START and the opportunity to agree to a concept for freezing nuclear warheads without bringing add-ons or making extra annexes and demands on Russia.

If the proposed terms are rejected, it will immediately destroy the possibility of reaching any such agreement.

I would like to point out that the actual extension of the New START is not critical from our point of view. The President of Russia set forth unequivocal and clear reasons why we believe we can reliably ensure our own security, even if our colleagues in Washington decide against extending the New START.

- You said that Russian-American relations are at zero and trust is nonexistent. How would freezing the total number of warheads work without verification in that kind of a situation? After all, the very next day someone in the US Congress will stand up and say that Russia is violating the agreements.

- We would hear that even if we agreed to the deepest, maximum degree of verification. We already hear it every day. It’s not about achieving a specific tangible result. It’s about pursuing an anti-Russian line and finding ways to put pressure on us.

Look at what is happening with Moscow's proposals to agree on IT security issues. Instead of substantive responses, all we hear from Washington is profanity and outrageous opinions, even from officials. The same thing will happen now.

Even if we agreed to verification, we would not achieve the tangible results we want. We would just face a new stream of accusations.

But I would like to emphasize again: that is not the issue. The issue is that you cannot build a house by starting with the roof: first we have to build the foundation and get a handle on the building’s design, how many floors, rooms and windows it will have. Only after that can we deal with the roofing and weatherproofing.

- Returning to the issue of Russia declaring its tactical arsenal: the lack of transparency here gives the US side an opportunity to present its numbers as the only accurate ones. Just a few days ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Presidential Special Envoy Marshall Billingslea said that the New START covers 92% of the United States’ strategic arsenal and only 44% of Russia’s, hinting that tactical weapons constitute most of Russia’s nuclear potential. Officially, the Russian side cannot refute this.

- Why not? I can say any number you want. It’s like saying that the temperature outside is six degrees Celsius above zero instead of four. Some people will want to verify it, and others will take it on faith.

We are not interested in the numbers they cite. The New START Treaty was concluded in the form in which it was intended. It’s based on absolute parity and balance. The agreement limits those of our systems that were of interest to the United States at the time the agreement was made. Even now (although I do not presume to speak for US specialists), we are getting signals that they are not indifferent to what is happening with these systems.

As for other systems they may talk about or be interested in, here’s the problem:the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty. Our President made that point at the Valdai Forum.

We will continue to insist on the indissoluble relation between strategic offensive and strategic defensive weapons, no matter how badly this may exasperate the Americans or how little they want to hear about it. This is our fundamental understanding of what underpins strategic stability.

If it isn’t possible to restrict some systems through arms control, compensatory measures will be taken in order to achieve a balance at a different level. This would undoubtedly be difficult and costly, but it would prevent us from being dragged into an arms race. Arms control would undoubtedly be better. That is why all the factors affecting strategic stability have to be dealt with comprehensively. The October 20 statement by the Ministry expresses this clearly.

- In the statement, my attention was drawn to the word “bilateral” describing negotiations on the future of arms control. You seemed to say earlier that the next treaty should be multilateral.

- We did not say that the next negotiation cycle should be multilateral. We said that we are very close to the line beyond which further efforts in this area will have to be multilateral. At the same time, we have said and continue to say that the involvement of certain countries in the negotiation process is a matter of their independent choice. We have our own interests and priorities as far as that is concerned. We know how important it is for the United States to cooperate with Great Britain and France, so these countries’ involvement is a top priority for us. As for including China, Vladimir Putin covered this issue comprehensively from the rostrum of the Valdai Forum.

Source: Kommersant