The following is an interview with the outgoing Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, on Russia-U.S. relations, published by Russian news agency TASS. Kislyak arrived in Washington D.C. in July 2008. TASS summed up his service as ambassador to Washington in a pessimistic tone. Kislyak had the misfortune of arriving before the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, which led to a sharp deterioration in Russian-American relations in the twilight of George W. Bush's presidency. The eight years of Barack Obama began on the right foot with an attempt to reset U.S.-Russian relations but concluded with an even steeper decline when Russia stood accused of meddling in the U.S. electoral process. "The opposition Democratic Party and the media allied with it continue fanning these accusations today as part of an assault on the Republican President Donald Trump."
Kislyak was prominently involved in the current controversy. Trump's first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn was forced to resign under a cloud following revelation that he had conducted telephone conversations with Kislyak during the campaign. Meetings during the 2016 presidential campaign, between Kislyak and the then Senator Jeff Sessions, currently Trump's Attorney General, also fueled criticism against the Trump administration. TASS added: "Then the president himself came under a volley of criticism for giving a warm reception in the White House in May to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and to Ambassador Kislyak. Trump was allegedly too frank with the visitors."
Below are excerpts from the interview:
Trump with Kislyak (Source: Twitter.com/RusEmbUSA)
Kislyak: 'We Have Always Wanted A Return To Normalcy In Russian-American Relations'
Sergey Kislyak: "I took up a position at our UN mission in 1981. Then in 1985 I transferred to the embassy."
Sergey Kislyak: "I have to address various audiences in the U.S. quite frequently, you know. And they often ask me if we've reversed back into the Cold War days. Most typically, I tell them we haven't, yet on the surface the signs look quite similar. Back then, a standoff between different social and political systems had existed.
"Presently, an anti-Russian frenzy that defies belief has been sweeping across America. It is spreading against the background of an unhinged political climate in the U.S. with its profound divide, its worked-up feverish mood, bogged down by a cycle of reciprocal accusations, and mired in suspicion. Along with it, the amount of problems that threaten U.S. national security inside and outside the country doesn't show any signs of abating. Yet, the chill in relations from Washington deprives us of many chances to take parallel action or to work together so that we could eliminate these problems."
Sergey Kislyak: "I simply think the world is changing. A sufficiently large enough number of countries are becoming more capable of influencing it and garnering more resolve in defending their interests.
"The opportunities for ensuring 'American leadership' – and the Americans surely would like to see their leadership remain unchallenged as in the past - are not what they used to be. However, Washington finds it very difficult to become willing to adjust to the changing reality. And that is why those who don't go along with the norms laid out by the Americans are perceived as challenges to U.S. interests and contenders, not as partners in finding a solution to common problems.
When it comes to Russia, the fears and prejudices of the Cold War era that seemed to have long-ago turned into fossils have gotten a new lease on life, and this is seriously blurring reality. As a result, a heap of lies about Russia's aspirations and specific steps are piling up and Russia is painted as the enemy. In this case, politicians often compete with each other on putting forward ideas on how to contain or penalize Russia.
"I think history will dispel these untruths in due time and America will begin to turn towards greater normalcy in relations with Russia, especially because it would serve their (the Americans') interests.
"Incidentally, the Americans have already had to give up their own lies many times in modern history. However, as a rule, they do it ex post facto, once they've made a huge mess of things. This was the case with the aggression against Iraq in 2003 and now they've started wondering about the 'justifiability' of the operation in Libya."
Sergey Kislyak: "The latest presidential race was not unusual by and large, but it did bring out some of America's peculiar traits in full. In the first place, [one could observe] the wide polarization of society in the run-up to the election and the extreme ferocity of the struggle that ensued. Secondly, there was an unprecedented injection of 'political' money into the electoral process and that fact stoked passions in the election even further."
Sergey Kislyak: "There were no preparations for this election on our side. This wasn't our election. But quite naturally we watched it with much attention and our counterparts from other countries did the same."
Sergey Kislyak: "We prepared for doing business with the Americans with whoever won, remaining unbiased as to who would get into the White House in the final run. Regarding the chances for victory, we had to rely much more on the assessments and opinions of US experts and sociologists who know their country better. When did I believe in Trump's victory? When CNN said he had won."
Sergey Kislyak: "As I've said, we were bracing for any possible outcome. And we presumed that whoever might win, the cornerstone elements of U.S. policies would change only at a slow pace. No doubt, nuances and adjustments in the patterns of converting policies into the scheme of things are possible but American political mentality is highly inert. We prepared for a possible victory by Secretary Clinton in the same way as for a Donald Trump victory. And the main thing was our willingness to work together on common challenges, as well to defend our own interests regardless of which party would govern."
Q: "I think all countries from as far as Canada and Mexico, to Mongolia and Burkina Faso would like to keep themselves up-to-date on the course of events in the U.S. and to have an opportunity to wield influence on them. I'm absolutely sure conferences are held ahead of U.S. elections in places like Paris or London and there's a lot of head scratching there as to what outcome is more preferable and how could it be possibly attained. What about ourselves? Why do we keep saying all the time we don't care, that we are prepared for just anything, that we don't want anything and don't interfere in anything?"
Sergey Kislyak: "We say we haven't interfered because we haven't interfered. As for the absence of wishes on our part, this isn't true to fact. We have always wanted a return to normalcy in Russian-American relations. We have always wanted a return to normalcy in Russian-American relations. This is the essential wish, the groundwork one can rely on in building a partnership. And partnership would objectively serve both countries' interests. I do believe in it.
"As for other countries, I would recommend looking into the statements of numerous European leaders ahead of the U.S. election. They were very often not neutral. Their support for Hillary Clinton, who eventually lost, was greater than that for the current President."
Q: "Russia itself is heading for an election in 2018. We're saying all the time the Americans meddle everywhere. Is there any U.S. meddling in our case? Do you have any such information?"
Sergey Kislyak: "They've tried to meddle and it is highly unlikely that they will abandon it. Take the U.S. legislation, for instance. It directly stipulates for the Secretary of State to 'develop' a democratic administration, clarity, and so on in the Russian Federation. The list is long and, by the way, it includes a provision on 'disseminating broadcasts with the support of the United States and it has already been bankrolled."
Q: "I see. And what exactly was it that went wrong during Obama's presidency? He seemed to be quite harmless and gentle. Just recall his slogans like 'Don't do stupid sh*t' or 'Lead from behind'. But he obviously was sore at us. Why?"
Sergey Kislyak: "I'd rather refrain from categorical assessments, especially the ones with regard to the leader of a country we're working in. The problem is generally far more serious. The U.S. finds it difficult to reconcile itself to the situation where someone else can have viewpoints and interests and is ready to fight for them. Yet, Russia is exactly one of these countries.
"In spite of this, we don't set a goal for ourselves like 'to cut the U.S. down to size'. We simply are ready to act on our own behalf in areas where our country's fundamental interests and our people are concerned. We are ready to take resolute steps, like we did in the situation of Crimea's return to Russia after the Crimean people had determined their destiny – to be part of Russia – at the polls.
"Naturally, some people didn't like it – here in the U.S. as well. A different option had obviously been drafted for Ukraine and we, too, realized the fact."
Kislyak: 'I Sometimes Feel Sorry For Those Americans Who Endlessly Dig Up Some Fake News About Russia'
Q: "How do you like the beginning of Trump's work? He promised to harmonize relations with us but they've tied him hand and foot. Now we've gotten new sanctions during his term of office. Did he fizzle out? Or is there still some hope?"
Sergey Kislyak: "Work with Donald Trump's administration is unfolding uneasily. The internal political struggle in the United States has dealt a heavy blow to Russian-U.S. relations. Sometimes, you are surprised at the ease with which the American establishment is ready to sacrifice normalcy in our relations. This is largely due to the strong inertia of both political thinking and Washington's realpolitik.
"President Trump has said more than once he is interested in establishing dialogue with Russia but we can see how strong the political inertness in the U.S. is in real life. In many practical things, we can still see the continuation of the line inherited from the previous administration. Is there still some hope? It's hard to count on a quick and easy way to normalization: there are too many people who want to hinder its advance. The sanctioning frenzy against our country in the U.S. Congress only confirms that. The new sanctions are another headache…"
Q: "Given your depth of experience, what would be your advice to our politicians – and to foreign ones, too – so that we could put our relations on an acceptable track?"
Sergey Kislyak: "I think, first of all everyone should be calm. We have every ground to have confidence in our course, to trust our own strengths and refrain from succumbing to retaliatory frenzies under any circumstances.
It's important to remain firm and principled and to keep the doors open just in case our American counterparts develop the understanding that normalcy meets their own interests much more than confrontation."
Q: "How many years have you spent working in New York and Washington? Do you feel bored now? Or, on the contrary, have you gotten used to it?"
Sergey Kislyak: "I've worked in the U.S. for about 17 years. Do I feel bored? No. I never have had time for any boredom. There's plenty of work here plus there's daily responsibilities. That's why one has neither the time nor the energy for sentiments."
Q: "Predictions suggested you would move to New York, to the UN, from Washington. Did the Americans put the gate down quietly? Your current fame might be annoying them."
Sergey Kislyak: "I believe the UN Secretary General made a good choice by appointing an experienced Russian diplomat as his deputy. Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov is a great professional, and the UN will benefit from an appointment of this kind. As for my private life, my family and I myself are happy that we'll return home to Russia soon. I am sure there were no behind-the-scenes moves during the nomination of the Russian Under-Secretary-General, including by the U.S. administration."
Q: "And how do you treat this very same fame? You are portrayed here as an arbiter of people's destinies – something no one before you could even dream of. Does it thrill you at least a little bit? Or is it sickening?"
Sergey Kislyak: "This rather saddens me. This popularity is based on false narratives and lies with respect to what we do here at the embassy. I sometimes feel sorry for those the Americans who endlessly dig up some fake news about Russia instead of tackling serous issues facing their own country."
Q: "The situation goes even as far as cartoons or jokes. Are you aware of this? Have you seen something of this sort that has made you smile?"
Sergey Kislyak: "I've seen some of this stuff. My aides are keeping track of it. Some are even funny. I won't cite any examples because the humor is mostly unkind with regard to our American partners."
Q: "Is this kind of recognition an asset, or an impediment for an ambassador? Doesn't it so happen that the more efficiently you work and the bigger the benefits you bring to your homeland, the more you come under fire in a foreign country?"
Sergey Kislyak: "Strange as it may seem, in real life popularity neither helps nor hinders (the ambassador's) daily routine. What impedes it is something entirely different, namely, the poisoned atmosphere, in which we have to work."
Q: "What in your opinion is the main thing in an ambassador's work? Whom of the acclaimed diplomats, either Russian or American ones, do you feel the biggest respect for?"
Sergey Kislyak: "I think the most important thing in the work of a diplomat is love for his or her homeland and the realization of responsibility vested in a person working far away from home. We have had many great diplomats in the history of our diplomatic service. I had real luck as a young diplomat. The first ambassador I reported to was Oleg A. Trayanovsky, the USSR's permanent representative at the UN in the 1980's. Then I was invited to take up a position at the embassy in the US by Anatoly F. Dobrynin.
"These were great ambassadors. They were cultured, educated, strategically thinking, demanding but friendly. Both had a very subtle sense of humor. Such people embody our country's best diplomatic traditions."
Q: "Given the experience you've had to go through in Washington, one year of your service here should be counted as three years. I'd rather congratulate you as if it were a release from hard labor but people from the outside won't understand it. You'll miss the embassy later all the same. What do you think you will recall most of all?"
Sergey Kislyak: "I'll surely be missing the embassy. We have extraordinary staff here. Incidentally, many staff members are quite young. We have many talented and ambitous diplomats. It's working together with them that I will recall most of all from my life in Washington."
Q: "Beyond any doubt, there are many interesting and talented people here, like in Russia."
Sergey Kislyak: "And I must admit that, despite all 'highly-charged' relations between our countries, I've formed good relations with quite a few Americans over the years. They are people from different spheres of life – the diplomatic service, arts, and even business. Beyond any doubt, there are many interesting and talented people here, like in Russia. And they have the ability to maintain normalcy in professional contacts and in personal relations as well, even at a time when international relations are not blossoming."
Q: "Will you write a book about it?"
Sergey Kislyak: "Well, time will tell."
APPENDIX I - Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov's Interview With The Newspaper Izvestia
Ryabkov: 'Expanding The [U.S. Expanded] Sanctions Lists [Against Russia] Was A Blow And We Were Bound To React To It'
Sergey Ryabkov (Source: Pircenter.org)
Q: "In Russia many hoped that under Donald Trump Moscow and Washington will manage to come to terms. However, it seems that the crisis in relations is only getting worse. How do you explain this?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "I would not say that relations are in an even worse crisis than they were during the departure of the Barack Obama administration. But, indeed, it takes a lot of effort to improve them. By and large we haven't achieved the required dynamics of improvement. This is a consequence of a combination of factors. The main one is the extremely heated confrontation of various political factions in the United States. There are very serious and influential circles that are still unable to accept Mr. Trump's election victory and are using relations with Moscow in their internal political struggle.
"They are trying to limit the new administration's ability maneuver in relations with Russia and to create obstacles to its attempts at home to promote its agenda that differs in many respects from the ideas of Mr. Trump's opponents in terms of where America should go and how. There are also very serious, fundamental disagreements in approaches to a number of international issues. We see what was and is happening in Syria. We have reached a point where we have different views on what a legitimate government is and how to the fight against terrorism should proceed. There are differences on the issues of strategic stability and so on."
Q: "Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have agreed to establish a Russian-U.S. working group. You met with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon but another face-to-face conversation was cancelled. What conditions are required for these contacts to be resumed? What conclusions did you derive from your meeting with Mr. Shannon?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "Mr. Shannon and I had one face-to-face conversation as part of fulfilling instructions of our leaders. It took place in New York on May 8. After this we talked over the phone but the meeting scheduled for June 23 in St Petersburg did not take place. We haven't cancelled it for good. We suspended it. And it wasn't even because of U.S. strikes on Syria, although the April attack on the Shayrat air base was a blow to the foundation of our relations with the United States. There are also other circumstances. First, on June 20 the U.S. administration substantially expanded the lists of Russian citizens and companies that are under U.S. sanctions. There were no grounds for this whatsoever. We are not at all convinced by the explanations that the administration regularly reviews its sanctions policy. We do not care what reviews they conduct.
"Expanding the sanctions lists was a blow and we were bound to react to it. The second reason that prompted us to make this difficult decision is that, contrary to the signals we heard from Washington for several weeks, representatives of the U.S. administration did not give us specific proposals on what to do with the expropriation of diplomatic property that took place under the outgoing Obama administration. We were promised that some ideas on this score would be presented to us a long time ago but nothing happened. Consultations simply became pointless against such a political background and in the absence of specific proposals. But let me repeat that we have merely suspended consultations and, I am sure, will resume our dialogue in due time."
Q: "You mentioned property. Russia did not respond to the actions of the Americans in late 2016. Has any progress been made in resolving this issue?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "No progress at all. Our continuous appeals to Washington demanding the return of our property without any terms or delay are ignored, even though it is protected by diplomatic immunity. In legal terms, the United States is flagrantly violating the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It is acting at variance even with its own laws, which exclude such encroachments on private property. This property was acquired by the Soviet Union and then reregistered in Russia's name. There can be no other interpretation. This is a blatant violation of legal norms."
Q: "If the Americans continue delaying their response, can we reply in kind?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "We are appealing to common sense and hope the U.S. side will comprehend the clear-cut rules of conduct in international affairs. So far it has not had an effect. The Americans are stubbornly defending their position, compelling us to think about reciprocal measures. Reciprocity is a fundamental principle of interstate relations when damage is done to the interests of one side. Therefore, I do not rule out reciprocal measures at all. Moreover, we have warned the U.S. side more than once that further delay of a positive resolution will lead to reciprocal steps, including identical measures."
Ryabkov: 'We Stand For The Preservation Of Syria's Sovereignty And Territorial Integrity'
Q: "Many American political scientists say that the DPRK is one of those issues that could help Russia and the United States to start building their relations anew. What do you think about this view?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "We are very concerned over the lack of a political and diplomatic solution to this issue, which has been the case for a long time. We are next-door neighbors and this is one of the main factors of Russia's attention to this issue. Given US political will, we can achieve much together. We have certain ideas that are formulated in a specific plan that we shared with other participants in this process. We propose that the United States renounce the vicious logic of escalation, when a step by one side is followed by a counter step of the other side, which is supposed to bring more pressure on the opposite side.
"As a result, tensions are spiraling and it is very hard to stop this process. Therefore, it is necessary primarily to freeze the status quo at some point and then reduce tensions step by step and intensify the search for political solutions. Diplomats, including our American colleagues, know this method very well. We are urging them to join these efforts, although we understand that considering the campaign to demonize the DPRK, which has been going on for many years, the Americans will find it difficult to give up this logic of pressure. But there is no alternative to this method. The pressure may eventually burst and cause a clash. This would be a disaster for this region, which is so significant for us all.
Q: "The Americans have increased their support for Syrian Kurds, who have announced the creation of a federal system in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Does Russia view this as a threat to Syria's integrity?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "We stand for the preservation of Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This integral part of our policy will not change. We believe that the Astana process, which has helped dramatically reduce the level of violence in Syria and in which the United States can take part, is a vital element and possibly the key condition for transitioning to a calmer and more peaceful forward movement. The Astana process is an organic addition to the Geneva talks. Russia is actively involved in both. We believe that our proposals on developing the constitutional process and direct dialogue on a wide range of issues between the legitimate government and the opposition, from counterterrorism to humanitarian issues, are the path we should follow.
"Some U.S. actions show that Washington still wants to pander to one of the conflicting parties, including militarily. We have said more than once that this approach is unacceptable. You cannot divide the terrorists into bad and moderately bad in a bid to achieve one's own geopolitical goals. Regrettably, this knot of contradictions includes so many interests and factors that there is no simple solution to this problem, although the Americans refuse to accept it. Only a comprehensive approach involving all parties to the conflict can produce a result. We have been working consistently towards this for many years. It is likewise obvious to us that no agreements are possible with the terrorists. The liquidation of the terrorist nest in Syria has been and remains our key task. Had the United States accepted constructively the idea of a broad counterterrorist front, which President Vladimir Putin advanced, many misunderstandings and misrepresentations could have been avoided. We urge our American partners to take this into account when formulating their policy."
Q: "Moscow has announced that augmenting the Normandy format by involving the Americans is unacceptable. What U.S. initiatives on Ukraine does Russia expect to hear at the bilateral level?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "Paradoxically, the core of the U.S. and other Western countries' policy towards Russia is the demand for the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. We again have to say to our colleagues in Washington and the EU countries that this demand is misdirected. Moscow is not a party to the Minsk Agreements but one of their guarantors. If you read these agreements carefully, you will see that they stipulate the sequence of steps to be taken by the parties. Simply speaking, the first priority is the provision of a special status to Donbass, after which Kiev will be able to resume control over the border between its southeastern regions and Russia. They accuse us of violating the Minsk Agreements and demand that the sequence be changed. In other words, Russia must ensure, in some mystical way, the resumption of Kiev's control over that territory in order to create conditions for the lifting of the anti-Russia sanctions. This is more than simply putting the cart before the horse; these are illogical demands that contradict the very same Minsk Agreements. Therefore, Washington and Europe conclude that the sanctions against Russia will stay. It is a very comfortable position, when you do not need to deal with the problem but can keep and even broaden the sanctions.
"Sorry, it doesn't work like that. The United States will have to get down to business and start working with Kiev in earnest, instead of pandering to its revenge-seeking aspirations and speculating on the possible delivery of lethal weapons to it, or else the situation will not change. We are open to dialogue, and we are willing to explain this position and listen to alternative views. The United States has not yet appointed a high representative for the dialogue that was waged between Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland. It has been hinted that someone will be appointed to this post soon. We will resume dialogue as soon as this happens. We are ready to explain patiently that our American colleagues should abandon their views on the situation and accept reality."
Ryabkov: 'Relations With Russia Are Used By A Number Of Leading U.S. Media… As A Weapon In The Internal Political Struggle'
Q: "Reading the U.S. media one has the impression that ordinary Americans have never been as highly interested in foreign policy as now. How can you explain this?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "I don't think the U.S. citizens are so much engrossed in foreign policy stories, specifically those on relations with Russia, as it appears if you follow mainstream media publications in the U.S. I think this Russia complex is characteristic of the U.S. elites plunged in political squabbles from morning till night and seeking to complicate life for the U.S. administration. Sad though it is, it's a reality we must reckon with. Relations with Russia are used by a number of leading U.S. media, political science centers, influential Democrats and certain prominent Republicans as a weapon in internal political struggle. For some people, it is just a tool to address their own agendas. Others think that the damage being inflicted on relations with Russia is just collateral and can be tolerated, because what they see as more important internal issues are at stake."
Q: "How do we separate fake news from true news in the stream of Russia news published by the U.S. media?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "It is very simple to tell fake news from true news. There is almost no more truth left in certain US media. What they deal in is either half-truth, or distortion, or customization, or quasi-analysis based on such insignificant events that no one would have noticed them were it not for a plethora of false interpretations. It's a tempest in a teapot. I am confident that the search for a 'Russian connection' would never produce results because there is no such connection. But it is sad that many people in the United States have to live with a range of negative conclusions and assumptions about Russia in their consciousness, which have nothing to do with reality. We can resist this with a consistent course, openness, clear statements, confidence in what we are doing, unacceptability of time-serving vacillations, and readiness to come to agreement with the United States on the basis of reciprocal respect for each other's interests.
Q: "Are there any shifts in the case of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko [sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011] imprisoned in the United States?"
Sergey Ryabkov: "We would like to convey our profound condolences to Konstantin on the recent passing of his mother. We are in contact with his family and wife. Regrettably, the US administration does not see human tragedies and fates behind this case. Their approach is bureaucratic and hands-off to the extreme, a political legacy of the former administration. Washington systematically disregards our arguments and responds with pseudo-legal subterfuges. We have received a new refusal to our request to send Konstantin to Russia under the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. We deeply regret this. Washington should be under no illusion that Konstantin's case will be put on the back burner. This is a key issue on our list of unresolved problems in relations, as is the entire range of issues related to illegal actions by the U.S. law enforcers that encroach on the rights of our citizens in circumvention of the existing agreements and go so far as to abduct them under far-fetched pretexts. I am again calling publicly on all citizens of Russia to thoroughly analyze, before they go abroad, whether or not the Americans may have any grievances against them under this or that pretext. Unfortunately, no one can be guaranteed against the U.S. law enforcers' high-handedness. Read the warning for Russian citizens travelling abroad posted on the Foreign Ministry website."
(Mid.ru, July 3, 2017)