Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak: “What about Russian-American relations?”

Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak first served as a Soviet diplomat in a U.S. posting when the Cold War was in full force in 1981. He’s seen relations with this country go from bad to worse to better. And now they’re bad again. During a recent visit to address the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, The Dallas Morning News asked him to discuss Russia’s pivotal role in major world events. 

– What’s your assessment of events in Ukraine?

– What I’m disappointed about is that, whenever we are discussing with the American press or the American public the Russian-American relations, people are always asking: What about Iran? What about Syria? And, now, what about Ukraine? Sometimes I ask my interlocutors: What about Russian-American relations?

When it comes to Ukraine, it’s very, very bad situation in the country because of a chain of events that led armed overthrow of the [Russian-backed] government. The newly installed government wasn’t able to start a dialogue with all the regions. And that is the biggest problem. Sometimes it’s portrayed here, when it comes to Russian-American relations over the Ukraine, as a kind of Russian-American standoff, which it’s not as far as we are concerned. Some people portray it as a Russian-Ukrainian standoff, which it’s not. The problem in Ukraine is that there was an overthrow of the legitimate government. It was done in an unconstitutional way, and the government that came to power wasn’t even able to talk to its own people.

When [residents of the Crimean peninsula] said that we want more autonomy, they were told by the newly established acting government that they were separatists. Some extreme rightists were threatening them. Some people had to organize themselves into a resistance. We also had armed forces there, and those armed forces were there under agreement with the Ukrainians for years and years. We had to think about protecting ourselves there because the situation was developing in a very, very chaotic way. The presence of Russian forces certainly made sure a lot of things happened in a very peaceful way because all these threats to attack these people were neutralized with not a single shot fired – just because we were there.

We had a number of forces significantly lower than what was allowed under the agreement. We sent a little bit more troops, but not much, just to reinforce our position, because we had the Ukrainian forces standing next, and we didn’t know what they would do.

There was a referendum. I would say to you that we had never planned anything about Ukraine because we had never thought that kind of situation would happen. But the Crimeans themselves saw the country where they used to live almost stolen from them. They decided that they wanted to return back to Russia where they feel safe and at home. When they went to the ballot booths, they overwhelmingly voted to come back to Russia. As a consequence, the Russian president and the Russian population – all of them – embraced the idea of [Crimea] returning back. One of the polls I saw at the time suggested that about 83 percent of Russians supported the [return of] uprising in Crimea after the referendum.

Some people call it an illegal annexation. First of all, it’s not annexation, and you cannot deal with this issue like a piece of real estate. It’s not about loyalty, it’s about people. It’s about people who have the right of self-determination, and it’s enshrined in the U.N. charter. In terms of the legality of it, I also have problems when I hear it was done illegally because the U.N. charter has several principals, on, self determination, second the inviolability of sovereign borders.

– What term would you use, if not annexation?

– I would say, well, in the daily life, people call it Crimea coming back to its motherland. Rejoined the Russian Federation.

– Israel annexed the Golan Heights. The Kurds are seeking self-determination and the formation of their own state carved out of parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Would you support that?

– I don’t know. It’s theoretical. I think it would be difficult to make automatic parallels. Each situation has its own character.

– There’s nothing theoretical about the annexation of the Golan Heights. Moscow has always opposed that.

– I’m talking about Crimea, and it’s a very particular situation with its own historical context, with a situation that is very unique, where the government of the country they were a part of was overthrown in an unconstitutional way. So that certainly brought a situation where the government in Kiev wasn’t totally legitimate.

– Would that not have been a situation for the Ukrainians to work out for themselves, instead of having a Russian military intervention and holding an election under military occupation?

– There was no occupation. Our forces had been present there [under a treaty].

– It was a naval basing agreement, not an agreement to have uniformed troops on the ground, without insignia assisting in the takeover.

– We didn’t assist in military actions. What we had was military forces that were legally there. It’s not only naval, there is an airport, a military airfield, marines. So there are all sorts of troops. Certainly all of the deployments there were based around the navy base.

– And that agreement allowed for Russian troops to be deployed on the streets of Crimea?

– I’m not sure that that kind of agreement spoke about anything of the kind. And I’m not sure that the agreement was providing for solutions in a situation when the government was overthrown, where nobody knew what kind of stability was [in place], where we didn’t know whether our forces would be threatened. So they repositioned themselves. They didn’t participate, as you call it, in military operations. What they were doing was just being there, protecting our people and protecting the local people against provocations from rightist forces. … At the same time, there were self-defense groups who organized themselves, who relied most probably on a number of veterans that still live in Crimea. There are also a number of veterans from the Russian fleet, from the Ukrainian fleet. We were one country.

– Then why not use the same rationale to justify the absorption of other conflicted areas like Donetsk?

– We didn’t prepare any rationales for the Crimea situation and Donetsk because we never thought about the situation.

– Russia had a large concentration of troops on the border before this broke out. How can you say you didn’t prepare for this?

– It depends on how you define very large. First of all, you should remember that we are in our own country. We operate in our own country. We didn’t occupy any other country.

– And the videos of combat helicopters overflying Crimea?

– Helicopters, most probably they’re a part of the Russian fleet. We did have an airfield there, that were legally there. So don’t blow things out [of proportion]. The point is that we had never planned to take up part of the Ukraine. We never wanted to make incursions into eastern Ukraine. What we want to happen in eastern Ukraine is for the government and the new president, we want them to be in an inclusive dialogue with their own people and to find solutions where at least people feel comfortable to live in a country in whatever form. We have always advanced a federal structure to be a group model for a country like Ukraine that consists of a number of ethnic regions. At the same time, it is decentralization that some call it, that satisfies the concerns of some people who want to be able to govern their own lives, who want to be able to give education to their children in languages and culture that has always been the language and culture of their ancestors.

– Russiahas condemned the United States for this kind of meddling in the affairs of other sovereign states, and possibly with justification. Are you now using previous U.S. actions to justify your own meddling?

– It depends on how you define meddling. We have given our view publicly and in context with the Ukrainians. If we are asked what we feel about it, we are certainly watching the situation with enormous concern because people get killed, especially now in these days when the so-called anti-terrorist operation [in eastern Ukraine] uses regular armed forces against their own people. It’s not only about dealing with checkpoints. They are shelling the cities to intimidate people.

– Much like the Russian-supported Assad government is doing in Syria?

– I would hate to draw any parallels with any situation. We are dealing with the Ukrainian situation. For us, it is particularly painful to watch. Ukraine is not just another country in the world. It’s not just a neighbor. We have always been part of the same [entity]. Before the Russian Empire, it was kind of an alliance of Slavic nations – Russians, Beolrussians, Ukrainians. And this union was almost 400 years ago. We have lived in one space. Our cultures are almost the same. Christianity to Russia came from Kiev. Our cultures are so intertwined, our traditions are almost the same. But more than that, there are so many families that live in both Russia and Ukraine, extended families. … [The violence in Ukraine] is awful to watch. It’s like part of your family being threatened.

– How, as a diplomat, do you sift out the Ukraine controversy from all of the other issues that the U.S. and Russia have to deal with?

– It’s been 23, 25 years since the end of the Cold War. I lived through the times at the peak of the Cold War and left when Gorbachev came. There was a sea change in our relations. That was a kind of stage before the Cold War. There were so many expectations. I wouldn’t try to qualify what were the American expectations. … We felt that the Americans would become natural friends with us. But we’ve learned the hard way that it’s not so simple because, from time to time, we’ve had significant disagreements that have exploded almost into crisis.
Sometimes people ask me, are we back in the Cold War? I say, I don’t think so. We are not going to fall into this trap, and there are simple reasons for that. There are no longer ideological divides between Russia and the United States. Russia, for whatever people criticize it for from time to time, is a democratic country. … It’s a market economy, still very young. Just try to imagine, it’s only 23 years that we’ve operated in this new setting. Because prior to that, the state owned everything on behalf of the people. In 23 years, we have developed a market economy. More than 60 percent of GNP is produced by business rather than the state. And it’s increasing.

At the same time, we are still haunted in our relations with the stereotypes of the past. I’m certainly tempted to say that we are less to be blamed than our American friends, but I won’t do that. We honestly have been trying to build something productive and mutually important relations. … We decided to help you, for example, in Afghanistan to provide your troops the ability to transport, which is not unimportant for the Americans. And we haven’t discontinued it either. We have always seen a number of situations where, when Russia and the United States work together, we still have a chance to advance things. It’s not guaranteed, but when we work one against the other, there will be a big, big problem.

We certainly are not trying to impose our will on you or anyone else, but we want others to at least respect and listen to what we say, and sometimes we say things that prove to be right. … On trade, we thought that people working together, Russians and Americans, on projects that bring something positive is the best way to overcome the kind of division that comes through stereotypes. It has always been a significant confidence-building measure.

If you look at the ties we have, apart from the executive levels, the parliaments do not speak to each other. The Senate is no longer in discussions with its [Russian counterpart], and it’s also disappointing. It is definitely not because of our position. I remember even in the Cold War time, we had ties and exchanges visits by the Supreme Courts of the two countries. But the problem is, as a result of it, all of the concerns and stereotypes and distorted views of each other – especially here, because Russian people know more about the U.S. than the average American knows about Russia.

– What kinds of stereoypes?

– For example, that no matter what Russia does, it is a threat to the United States. That Russia is working against the American interests. Or, for example, the willingness of the congress of the United States to make judgments about what is right, what is good in Russia. They pass their own laws to punish people there. It’s something that doesn’t have any practical consequences except for poisoning the atmosphere in our relations. It certainly creates a significant reaction in Russia. That’s something I hope is going to be fixed in the future. How long it will take, I don’t know.

I came here in 2008, immediately after the war that the Georgians launched against Ossetia. … Most probably [the current status of relations] is one of the worst.

– You blame what’s happening in Ukraine on rightists there. You blame U.S. stereotypes for the problems between the two countries. You blame the Georgians for the war in Ossetia. In all this, do you see anything that Russia has done wrong?

– I’m not suggesting that we are angels. What I’m suggesting is that we are trying to build more productive relations with the United States, but we have views. And sometimes these views are pretty strongly held. If you want to judge another country, in this case Russia, just by measuring how many disagreements we have, that would be a very distorted view of the potential we have in our relations. We have been trying seriously, but some of the situations were just thrown on us, and we had to take decisions.

– Please explain your decision to give asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked classified information.

– It’s another situation that wasn’t invented by Russia. It was thrown on Russia, because Mr. Snowden was traveling from China to someplace in Latin America [Ecuador]. At the moment when he arrived at the [Moscow] airport to make the transition to another airplane, his passport was revoked by the State Department. So not a single airline would put him on board. He got stuck, like in that famous movie, in Russia. We had nothing to do with this.

But what happened next was that the American government asked us to give him to the Untied States, but we do not have an extradition treaty. So there is no legal basis to do so. … This gentleman came to Russia, he hasn’t violated a single Russian law. So what should we do? Arrest a person who is absolutely innocent, as far as Russian legislation is concerned? And send him to another country just because we were told he would be traveling to Russia. The legal instruments weren’t there. As a result, there was another irritant, to put it mildly, in our relations. It’s not something of our invention, as for the question of who is to blame more.

Tod Robberson, The Dallas Morning News

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s email address is

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