Sergei Ryabkov hopes for continued cooperation

While in Moscow a few weeks ago, I was part of a group of U.S. scholars that met with Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and BRICS sherpa, who has particular expertise in arms control and European cooperation. The meeting with Ryabkov was in many ways the complete antithesis of the Russian speeches at MCIS, which took place the next day. He said that Russia did not want to remove anything from the bilateral relationship with the United States, expressed concern that the push for sanctions in the U.S. had taken on its own dynamics while perceptions of the other on both sides were only consolidating, and declared Russia’s intention to maintain all possible channels of dialog.

He mentioned three possible areas for bilateral cooperation, including Syria’s chemical disarmament, limits on the Iranian nuclear program, and management of climate change. In particular, he highlighted the danger of nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East,  depending on how the Iranian negotiations turn out. U.S. and Russian interests on this issue are very close, so prospects for cooperation are good. However, given the current state of relations, Russia will not seek to develop a new agenda for cooperation with the U.S. until after the dust settles on the current crisis — 12-18 months. Until then, Russian leaders will simply try to manage the situation to limit the damage to the relationship. At the same time, there is no plan to revise Russia’s fundamental foreign policy approach toward the U.S.

He said that there is no need for Moscow to backpedal on its Ukraine policy. Russian leaders truly believe in their explanation for why the crisis in Ukraine occurred and subsequent developments in the crisis will depend on further events in Ukraine. He wanted to make sure that we got the message that Russia has no ambition to further deteriorate the situation in Ukraine. He noted that Ukrainian plans for dialog were a step in the right direction. Russia would like to ensure that there is a new division of powers in Ukraine and to secure the status of the Russian language. He stated that a quest for establishing Novorossiya, either as an independent state or as part of Russia was out of the question and was not being considered by the Russian leadership in any way. He said that there was no risk of further deterioration in Ukraine and that therefore there was no basis for sectoral Western sanctions on Russia. At the same time, Ryabkov ruled out the possibility of any kind of negotiation with Ukraine over Crimea, since Russia considers the issue closed. Though he did not exclude the possibility of compensation of individuals or businesses for lost property, he said there would be no settlement on a government level.

The public tends to perceive the current state of relations with the U.S. as a natural outcome of past events and therefore unavoidable. Many people don’t care about or about how American political elites think of Russia. There’s no obvious vision on how build a different kind of relationship. As for the annexation of Crimea, most people see it through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and believe that one part of that historical injustice has now been remedied. References to Kosovo among some Russian commentators are to some extent artificial. The trope of “if others can do it, why can’t we?” only emerged after several cases of Western intervention. But at the same time, each case is unique, one can’t draw parallels even with the intervention in South Ossetia in 2008.

Given this divergence in views between Russians and Americans, it would be better to focus on less politically loaded issues. Russia needs to try to communicate in a more focused way with those who work Russia issues in Washington. John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have been speaking almost daily on the crisis. This has helped a more reasonable direction to emerge, including the involvement of the OSCE and international observers, as well as the withdrawal of Russian troops in late May. He believed that the situation in late May was much better in a political sense than it had been 2-3 weeks earlier.

I asked a question about the possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation on the Arctic once the current crisis is less acute. Ryabkov noted that contacts are still being maintained on practical questions, including monitoring fisheries limitation agreements and channels on environmental issues such as oil spill cleanup and protection of polar bears. Work in the Arctic Council is continuing, with a gradual consolidation of approaches by the Arctic littoral states. While competing claims to sectors on the continental shelf may produce some difficult motives, all sides have been trying to keep the dialog open and to keep it low key.

Another question was asked about other areas of cooperation. Ryabkov highlighted the importance of maintaining cooperative programs in peaceful nuclear energy. Although the U.S. canceled its participation in a June meeting in Russia on how to use spent fuel in energy production, the meeting was simply shifted to France. He mentioned cooperation with GE in this field and said that it was unfortunate that the U.S. government was influencing U.S. businesses against engaging with Russian economic actors.


6 thoughts on “Sergei Ryabkov hopes for continued cooperation

  1. Thanks for the post. Mr. Ryabkov sounds quite sober and reasonable, and therefore, I would not be surprised at all if he is soon labeled as a member of the ‘liberal 5th column’ which is working to weaken Russia’s great-power interests. In the current, rabid anti-US smog which has engulfed the Russian information space, any talk of cooperation or sincere dialogue with Washington is regarded as either naïve or traitorous. I’ll start putting credence in talk like this when I see people like Mr. Ryabkov repeating these suggestions on the Kremlin-controlled, national media and he is not booed off the stage.

    • I think they’re a bit more subtle than that. Ryabkov’s role is to be the urbane reasonable guy that gets trotted out to meet with Westerners and reassure everyone. I very much doubt that he’ll be labeled as a fifth columnist. He’s a consummate insider on the Russian diplomatic scene. Doesn’t mean we should take everything he says at face value, either, of course.

    • Indeed, Russia’s best interests would be best served by reorienting to the West, like they were under Yeltsin and by adopting additional free market reforms.

      Then the Russian people could return to the circumstances that had deaths there exceeding births by a million a year, like in 1999!

      • Looks like Ryabkov has fully drunk the Kremlin kool-aid. I think that all “good Russians” will now have to show their loyalty to the Kremlin by closely following the Kremlin’s perverse position on which forces are responsible for the downing of MH17.

        Vienna, 18 July: The US is accusing the [pro-Russia] militia [in Ukraine’s southeast] and Russia itself over the crash of the Boeing without bothering to understand the facts of the case, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.

        “The statements by the press secretary of the White House on 17 July as well as the statements of anonymous representatives of the US administration which have been quoted (in the media) show continuing deep political aberration in Washington’s perception of what is happening in Ukraine,” the deputy minister said today.

        “Without bothering to understand the facts of the case, and without even waiting for at least the initial agreements to be reached on the appropriate investigation, the (US) administration is de facto trying to lay the blame for what happened on the militia and the Russian side,” he said. “At any rate, that is how the statements in question sound.”

        “Our explanations on this situation were promptly given at the highest level, at the level of the Russian president,” Ryabkov recalled. “Further explanations were given by the Russian Ministry of Defense. We saw what DNR [rebel “people’s republic of Donetsk”] officials said on this subject.”

        “Despite the obvious and indisputable nature of the arguments put forward by the militia and Moscow, the US administration is sticking to its guns,” the diplomat said. “This is hardly a surprise, however, given that it’s the same administration that fomented internal political tensions in Ukraine, provoked an unconstitutional seizure of power and backed anti-Russian politicians.”

        “In fact, many of them were led into power virtually by the hand,” as the official put it. “Therefore, the US should first attend to the consequences of its actions.”

        “In its geopolitical intoxication and in a bid everywhere to apply the techniques of social and political engineering, the US is acting like a bad surgeon: first cut them open as wide as possible, and then sew them up as badly as possible for them to hurt longer,” Ryabkov said.

        Description of Source: Moscow ITAR-TASS.

  2. Pingback: RUSSIA & UKRAINE: JRL 2014-#140 contents with links :: Monday 23 June 2014 | Johnson's Russia List

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