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Sergey Ryabkov

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov’s interview with the International Life magazine, April 17, 2020

Question: Mr Ryabkov, let’s start with the most urgent issue – the coronavirus. Today, the United States is the anti-rating leader in the number of confirmed cases and deaths. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has been complaining about the actions of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and decided to suspend its funding. What would you say about this?

Sergey Ryabkov: For me the main thing is that these past months the WHO has been the centre of all information on the pandemic, a generator of recommendations and conceptual approaches, and a platform for analysing a complex of all data and producing rational recommendations. We can probably say that nothing is perfect under the sun and there is no limit to perfection but at present the WHO’s priority is to save lives, and help governments and healthcare systems work out optimal methods and practical approaches to countering the pandemic, including social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation and so on. In this situation, it is wrong and ill-timed to raise political issues that will affect the entire international system and undermine the WHO’s prestige. And to act the way Washington is doing and suspend financing is a below-the-belt blow. It is disgraceful.

uestion: Will this have a big impact on the work of the WHO?

Sergey Ryabkov: Of course, it will. All UN agencies are short of funding.  We can argue what methods to use in calculating national contributions or determining a share of voluntary contributions but it is better to do this in a calm atmosphere when the humanity is not facing such large-scale problems and priorities. Now we must concentrate on consolidating all efforts and expanding cooperation rather than undermining the foundations of the global governance system as it has been established over the past few decades.

Question: In yet another statement, Donald Trump threatened to impose sanctions on those countries that did not evacuate their citizens from the United States during the pandemic. What is that all about and what could follow?

Sergey Ryabkov: We are trying to figure it out. There are not a lot of details or specific information. We have seen fairly contradictory and vague signals from the United States over the past few weeks. A certain desire to shift the responsibility for what is happening there to others, to find an external enemy and to switch the attention of the public in the US and the rest of the world, at least its part that listens to Washington, to some “scheming.”

We are doing everything we can to help all interested Russian citizens to return home. This also applies to our citizens in the United States. Whether our efforts are good enough, is another matter. We are working around the clock (it’s not an exaggeration) without any days off and in very close coordination with many federal executive bodies. The Foreign Ministry is giving and will continue to give priority to this issue. Of course, some politicised statements may be made but they have nothing to do with reality. This is how we will look at the gist of the said signals from the White House.

Question: Some observers view the US attacks on the WHO as an attempt to distract attention from the situation in the US healthcare system. Are there grounds for this view?

Sergey Ryabkov: I don’t want to make judgements about the US healthcare system, or the approaches of the federal and state administrations to this topic.  This is ultimately a question for the experts. What is obvious to me is that the United States, despite the unprecedented nature of the challenge it is facing and the unique situation the entire world community has confronted, is unable to renounce its ideas that only the United States is always right all around. The international community must always take the cue from the US, or, to put it plainly, the world must submit to what is decided in Washington. The Americans’ unwillingness, disinclination and inability to overcome their own political and psychological barriers, to look at themselves from the outside is one of the lessons that can be learnt from the COVID-19 crisis.

Question: Mr Ryabkov, let us recall the New York Times publication which accused President of Russia Vladimir Putin of nothing less than a decade-long disinformation campaign in healthcare which allegedly sowed panic in the US and contributed to the spread of fatal diseases. The newspaper also wrote about Russian disinformation, RT and so on. In fact, to go back to the beginning, it has accused Russia of undermining the US healthcare system.

Sergey Ryabkov: This is absolutely predictable and expected. We believe such tunes will continue to be performed in various interpretations. It is not a matter of the New York Times or the US media generally. The matter is that responsible politicians in the so-called Western camp keep repeating all these non-stop, incessant narratives about disinformation, our attempts to sow discord and insecurity, our schemes to find some gaps, drive in wedges or do something destructive of the kind. 

I want to say that we clearly see when a certain campaign is launched in western government circles or the western media. Here is an example: as soon as the topic of Russia assisting Italy and the US during the epidemic emerged, as soon as China showed the effectiveness of fighting the coronavirus and stepped up its help to many countries around the world, certain centres (they are traditionally and pompously called centres of strategic communication and were set up in both civilian and military agencies on both sides of the Atlantic) instantly started hammering out instructions on how to counter it. The primitive thinking of those behind it at these centres is revealed by the fact that these instructions are typed on carbon copies of each other. The vocabulary, the terminology used is semantically American, US-British. So a person without special investigative skills in “strategic communication” who just reads those texts immediately understands a great deal. It causes nothing but a smile because the people who write these things expose themselves in full view.

The political striptease we are observing against the background of the coronavirus pandemic is not very attractive and makes you want to look away. This time will pass, and other times will come. People will encounter different problems but we will still hear the same tunes about Russian disinformation, about our driving in wedges, and sow insecurity, and about one or another authoritarian regime trying to thrive on somebody else’s misfortune and to gain geopolitical  advantages. 

I can make a parody of such instructions, and then we can compare my notes with what those “strategic communicators” are spreading via their closed communications channels as instructions to be used through Western and pro-Western media, which in this case often function as refuse dumps.

Question: We must give credit to Trump for appreciating the assistance we have provided. Russia supplied the US with medical equipment to fight the coronavirus. Our military medical personnel went to help Italy. There has not been much criticism when it comes to Italy, but we were criticised for helping the US: they said we also need medical equipment and protective devices so why are we giving them to the Americans? My question is: what was the Russian party’s logic when it decided to provide such assistance?

Sergey Ryabkov: The logic is very simple. We felt that the US and New York in particular would soon see the peak of the epidemic, and that patients, doctors and medical personnel will require large numbers of relevant products, including equipment and sanitary devices. We considered it the right thing to do to offer a helping hand by sending such goods there. We did it selflessly. We did not ask for anything in return or make any appeals. We appreciated the US proposal that if we need assistance, including ventilators, the US will help us if it manages to launch the production in the necessary volumes.

This is an example of mutual help during hard times. It is wrong to add any external views and use geopolitics and ideology to judge others by your own standards. We are facing an unprecedented crisis, human tragedies, lives are being broken and people are dying.  How can we think of selfish interests or propaganda? It is irresponsible and indecent to discuss in such a manner things that any normal person would consider natural and right.

Question: There is another important matter: the demolition of the monument to Marshal Konev in Prague, the person who took part in the liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis. Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said that there is information that the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs supported the demolition. Moreover, a private company was traced that prepared a report justifying the demolition of the monument. Don’t you think it’s weird that the US has a hand in what happens in Prague?

Sergey Ryabkov: Not at all. For the past few years, both US legislators and executive representatives have shown the intent to rewrite history in their own interests. There have been many examples of deliberate downgrading the role of the Red Army in the victory over the common enemy during WWII. We are seeing how they play along with those who, in spite of the Nuremberg tribunal and all the following decisions, is trying to make Moscow and Berlin equally responsible for triggering WWII among other things.

We are seeing the activity of the so-called strategic communicators who begin to complain that they have to again deal with Russian propaganda and its intention to drive a wedge between the authorities and the people in Western countries, to foment distrust between these countries, when they are caught red-handed. These ‘communicators’ are hiding like vampires hide from the sunlight when everyone sees their schemes.

So it is a fact that the US had its malicious role in the demolition of the monument, and our ambassador rightfully points that out.

Question: Henry Kissinger wrote recently that we are living in an epoch-making period and the leaders’ historical mission is to overcome the crisis while at the same time starting the urgent work of planning for a new epoch. The failure to do so could “set the world on fire.”

Since Kissinger did not explain what he meant by such a striking metaphor as “setting the world on fire”, it looks like an apocalyptic picture. And what risks for the world order can you see after the end of the pandemic?

Sergey Ryabkov: I think that the esteemed Dr Kissinger was analysing just what concerns great many experts in international relations at the moment. The world is at the crossroads: will it go on along the path of globalisation or turn towards regionalisation and reinstatement of national sovereignty in a variety of areas after the pandemic? This is a key question.

The second equally fundamental question is what is the price of these developments for the world economy and the economies of individual countries as well as groups of countries. Aren’t the absolute priority given to sanitary standards and the doctors’ rigid dictatorship too costly for the world economy? Won’t the losses be excessive, especially for the poor, generally speaking, in different countries, for the low-income families that don’t have any savings for the rainy day?

The third question that I think is worrying the maître of diplomacy and influential thinker is how the current practice of governments correspond to that of major electronic surveillance companies spying on people following the standards and principles of protecting human rights? How does the “coronavirus digitisation” correspond to what the Western community traditionally presented as an unshakable foundation of the civilisation’s existence – basic human rights and freedoms?

I think that neither governments, nor experts have definitive answers to these questions. When the humankind recovers from the pandemic, it will be different, at least mentally transformed. Let us hope the economic consequences will be quickly surmountable and the period of the coming and imminent recession relatively short.

I want to mention one more topic to be considered: the role and responsibility of the media and social networks. News spreads at the speed of light, or the speed of the electromagnetic impulse. The impact of this information flow on the minds, which the users, i.e. the consumers frequently find hard to sort through, is immense. Public and individual consciousness should be very stress-resistant to digest all this. It means that we need to practice brain hygiene during the epidemic in addition to the hygiene of upper airways and extremities.

As for globalisation and regionalisation, to my mind, competition between different power centres, at least in the medium-term perspective, will unfortunately increase. We won’t see a harmonisation of international relations or in the world economy.

Question: Experts have spoken about a global economic crisis for many years.  

Sergey Ryabkov: That’s true. We have to remember that long before the 2020 events, much research had been done and discussions held at various venues as to when the financial bubbles would burst on world exchanges and what should be done about the huge debt burden the world economy would have to deal with, including the private sector, and what solutions could be found. Some also were concerned that real production and the real economy were not just lagging behind the finance and service sector and the service industry as a whole, but were falling manifold as regards their GDP share. There were also talks that a black swan was imminent and the record would be set straight just naturally.   

And this is what is actually happening. But we are still lacking cogent answers to the aforementioned questions. So far we can see that most countries are following the policy of maximum mitigation for various sectors of the economy, both core ones and small and medium-sized businesses. This has in fact become a global concern, with each government making every effort, including in the financial sector, to solve this task.

I think that in any case one of the lessons to be learnt from the current events will be a shift in the elites' stances in many countries which will prompt them to cut wasteful expenditure and focus on production and other socially important fields. Decisions will be taken globally to significantly boost local healthcare systems and create reserves, including material ones. We can hope that following the pandemic a well-known rule saying that lightning does not hit the same place twice will prove quite true. However, the sheer scale of the current disaster will apparently make a drastic effect on governments' political compass.

Question: It appears that everyone is now engaged in their own internal political issues - that is, battling the pandemic - and foreign policy has sort of self-isolated. Is this the case?

Sergey Ryabkov: Foreign policy has in no way self-isolated; it is an essential function of any state, and twice as much effort is being taken during the current conditions. The majority of intergovernmental contacts have temporarily become virtual - yet, this only means that certain technologies are being used. Work is underway at all levels, and it is not always the case that it is easier to do this virtually. Our experience proves that personal contacts are often very much needed as they are more efficient and productive than talking remotely - and not simply because there are certain issues that are hard to discuss by telephone or via video link but because personal contacts and a person's immediate reaction are essential in building a proper dialogue. A solution can often be found solely through the use of what our English-speaking colleagues call, body language.      

Question: After a series of talks, the leaders of a number of countries have agreed on oil production cuts. It was unprecedented to see so many countries outside of the OPEC-plus join the deal. However, this begs the question whether the deal can guarantee success or that it just shows how unreliable the new framework really is?

Sergey Ryabkov: While I may lack a thorough understanding of the processes unfolding on the energy markets or, for example, the interplay between deferred demand, the current supply and the agreements on production cuts, I would venture to say that the solutions that were found primarily reflect the powerful political will demonstrated by the leaders of a number of countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other countries, to stabilise the situation. So what is going to happen next? All I can do is suggest that it will largely depend on what price level a barrel of oil settles in the course of time. Depending on the price trend, we will either see political will in action once again where there will be determination to take powerful and consolidated action in the OPEC-plus-plus format, or other priorities and ideas on how to best respond to these developments will guide some parties to act otherwise, as has already been the case before. For now, they have found a balanced approach. Overall, the market has been receptive to the importance of these agreements for all the producers.

Question: The United States impressed with its gesture to cover some of Mexico’s oil cuts. Considering that Trump is known for his pragmatism, this could seem as a “luminous feat of generosity.” What does this actually mean?

Sergey Ryabkov: We all know that the American oil and gas sector is guided by its own laws and rules in its development and operation. Deviating from these norms always poses a major challenge for US oil and gas companies. I do not have the details on how the recent OPEC-plus-plus deal was worked out. Probably different scenarios were presented to Mexico’s representatives. However, compensating quotas as part of agreements of this kind is unprecedented. However, this can hardly be described as a US charity. Our American as well as Mexican colleagues probably have an understanding how the steps they take now will affect the pricing and the production volumes in the future. Without balancing interests as a common denominator the agreement would not have been possible.

Question: The presidential campaign in the United States is in full swing. Joe Biden is now the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. We are quite familiar with this political figure, including his anti-Russia rhetoric.

Sergey Ryabkov: Is there anyone who is free from this rhetoric?

Question: You are right, everyone is infected with this virus, at least to some extent.

Sergey Ryabkov: Some have only mild symptoms, or do not show any at all, but it is still extremely contagious.

Question: Biden is a severe case. In your opinion, how will the situation around the coronavirus and the inevitable economic downturn that will follow the pandemic affect the presidential race in the United States?

Sergey Ryabkov: The US economy was hard hit by the pandemic. In the coming months it will substantially alter many economic indicators that the current administration used to take credit for. In a number of important aspects the US economy will be in the red. I believe that both the current administration and its opponents understand this all too well. On the other hand, the US authorities are acting on multiple fronts to overcome the epidemic in the country and to reset the economy. We are aware of the opinion polls and what the Americans think about their government.

At this stage it would be irresponsible to predict the outcome of the election. In principle, this is a thankless task, especially for an outsider. Going back to the annoying topic of strategic communicators, I can suggest that they closely monitor everything Russian government officials say in order to distort the message and present it as “meddling in US domestic affairs.” I think that we must deny them this opportunity.

Question: The Foreign Ministry has recently issued a statement concerning the 10th anniversary of the treaty between Russia and the US on the further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms. What are the prospects of renewing the treaty?

Sergey Ryabkov: The treaty expires on February 5, 2021. The prospects for its renewal are diminishing. Unfortunately, our reminders to the Americans that this issue needs to be dealt with have yielded no results. In the first place, they told us that Washington had not completed the interagency formalities, and then the epidemic broke out. Maybe there are difficulties involved. We understand this. But the issue has not been addressed yet.

Question: Why does the US want China to join this treaty? And what is Beijing’s motivation when it refuses to take part in such talks?

Sergey Ryabkov: It is a very interesting question, and I am glad you asked, because some aspects of the US position are still unclear to us. We have not received any explanations from our American colleagues on how they believe the joining mechanism would work. Likewise, we cannot understand what they mean when they say that the treaty does not cover the latest Russian weapons, and that the renewal depends on the solution of this ‘problem.’ 

The treaty cannot be rewritten. If anybody wanted to do this, it would be a completely different document. And in any case, such a text cannot be rewritten in the few months that remain before it expires.

Bringing up China is a huge political challenge and a very complicated, large issue. Even in terms of the working procedures and diplomacy it is an infeasible task.

Actually, one of the problems with US foreign policy in recent years is that the public is fed a slogan, an idea and then the entire American position is based on repeating this slogan or idea. We have seen it for a long time in relation to the so-called nuclear deal with Iran. It was announced that a ‘new deal’ was needed and the US’s opponents are being presented with a series of requirements, but nobody knows how to reach this deal or what it should look like. I am not sure whether the authors of these slogans and ideas know what they want to achieve. It is the same story with New START.

We have great respect and understanding towards China’s position that they are not ready to take part in such talks. This logic, as I see it, is based on several inviolable, undeniable facts. The first one is that China, in its potential, is way behind Russia and the US. The second point is that there is a much simpler and more acceptable way to move on with strategic stability. That is, the renewal of the treaty, which the Russian party is proposing. We agree with China that before trying to reach some dubious and hard-to-reach goals, it is better to begin with the preservation of what is already there. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Source: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

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