Sputnik: How do you assess the results of Russian-American relations in 2017? Can we say that our relations have begun breaking an impasse after the new administration assumed office or, on the contrary, the situation has been steadily deteriorating as the sanctions policy continues?
Antonov: Donald Trump came to power with the goal to improve bilateral ties. I am sure that the President did not give up on that goal. But he was unable to reach it. He failed to put into practice his plans, primarily because the US-Russia ties have deteriorated over the past year as they have become hostage to the internal political fight in the United States.
Against the backdrop of the anti-Russia hysteria raging in Washington, our adversaries continued to deal in allegations about some imaginary "Russian interference." Under this pretext, Congress approved a sanctions law targeting our country last summer and forced Donald Trump to sign it. Its title speaks for itself: Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Next there was the unlawful confiscation of diplomatic property facilities followed by searches and the removal of the Russian Federation's state flags. The Russian media outlets found their rights weakened: They had to register as foreign agents and were stripped of congressional accreditation. Visa problems have become more acute. There is no doubt that all these steps have continued to erode the foundation of Russian-American cooperation.
Russia does not accept US attempts to increase pressure and strongly reacts to unfriendly actions. However, Moscow does not aim to cause confrontation and remains open to improving the bilateral dialogue. It can be achieved if the states build relationships on a basis of equality and mutual respect.
As you know, the presidents met twice in 2017: on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, and as part of the Russian and US leaders' participation in the APEC summit in Da Nang in November, when a joint statement on Syria was adopted. In addition, the heads of state had several telephone conversations.
There are many areas where Russia and the United States should cooperate more closely. First of all, it concerns countering international terrorism. With this in mind, I would like to note, in particular, the United States' contribution to preventing the terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg in December.
We are united by the need to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to solve the Syrian issue, to contain the nuclear ambitions of the DPRK and to eliminate other sources of international tension.
As permanent members of the UN Security Council and nuclear powers, our countries have a special responsibility to sustain world peace. That is why instead of shutting ourselves off from each other and looking back, we should be guided by a strategic vision of common priorities, including more actively developing contacts between security councils, ministries, defense departments, and parliamentarians.
We should also seek to strengthen the economic foundation of Russian-American relations, a foundation that would safeguard them against situational fluctuations.
We should not forget about the cultural aspect either. The role of culture is becoming increasingly evident in relations between our two countries, being an effective tool for fostering mutual understanding between people and preventing new divides.
Given the current difficult situation, it is no less important to preserve and step up cooperation in peaceful space exploration. US astronauts use Russian Soyuz spaceships. The US still purchases Russian RD-180 rocket engines to put NASA and Pentagon payloads into orbit. There are plans to jointly implement some large-scale projects, which might serve as a logical continuation of the ISS.
I firmly believe that we are not enemies or opponents of the United States despite the fact that some promote such a narrative. We are partners who have been tested by time, partners whose friendship was tested in combat and by the 'spirit of the Elbe'.
Sputnik: The foiled terrorist attack in St. Petersburg showed a huge potential for cooperation between Russia and the United States in the fight against terrorism. Are there any plans or arrangements that could tap this potential in the near future?
Antonov: Amid the continuing tensions in bilateral relations, we propose to our American colleagues to focus on something that definitely is a common interest of our countries — the fight against international terrorism. It is a common challenge for both nations. The United States has suffered the biggest terrorist attack ever, we have also suffered from terrorist attacks many times. One of the key priorities is to develop anti-terrorism coordination and provide stronger cooperation between intelligence agencies of our countries.
The necessary regulatory framework for such contacts for the sake of people's security in both countries is already in place. The exchange of information, which prevented a major terror attack in St. Petersburg, has demonstrated that Russia-US cooperation can be truly effective. It is in our interest to see this cooperation continue and deepen in the context of President Vladimir Putin's initiative to create a broad international anti-terrorist coalition, as well as on a bilateral basis. There are no real obstacles to this.
Moreover, as we know, Vladimir Putin assured Donald Trump in a telephone conversation on December 17 that Russian special services will immediately hand over any information they have about terrorist threats against the United States and its citizens to the American colleagues via partner channels.
Sputnik: Russia expects to expand economic cooperation with the United States and to attract investment. What factors could make it possible in 2018, given the new sanctions are to come in force? What areas and specific projects or companies Russia hopes will allow to increase economic interaction with the United States?
Antonov: Indeed, it is hard to ignore the fact that the August sanctions law provides for the American administration to make a series of steps at the end of January which will not only increase economic pressure on our country, but also pressure our companies on foreign markets. Among them is the possible "punishment" of Russian foreign partners in engineering and defense industries for mutually beneficial cooperation with us. This includes as well the publication of the list of assets of companies co-owned by the Russian Government and business leaders who have good relations with the country's leadership, and the prospect for third countries to get punished for cooperation with those listed. There is also a document on the consequences of a possible ban on transactions with Russian government bonds.
We are closely monitoring the situation. Everything now depends on the US administration's decision, on its understanding of the fact that further deterioration of US-Russian relations does not meet American interests either. I would like to stress that we will not leave such unfriendly actions unanswered.
These include Boeing, which has recently expanded its titanium project with VSMPO-AVISMA in Verkhnyaya Salda, Sverdlovsk Region. Then there is United Technologies, a participant of RD AMROSS joint venture with NPO Energomash supplying RD-180 rocket engines for US Atlas-5 launch vehicles, now expanding the production of heat exchangers for air-conditioning systems for modern airliners in Kimry, Tver Region. There are producers of medicines and manufacturers of medical equipment — Pfizer, General Electric and others, that are localizing production in Russia. Ilim Group has had a ten-year partnership with International Paper; there are Ford and Caterpillar plants in Russia; Chevron and Transneft are cooperating in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium.
By the way, they are also developing the annual Fort Ross Dialogue with Sovcomflot and Renova, an informal platform for developing a unifying US-Russian agenda. Its traditional events in California have been recently complemented with meetings in our country — in May, Veliky Novgorod will take over after Izborsk in 2017.
Allow me to remind you of the success of the last year's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, attended by 556 US representatives from 140 companies (a quarter of all registered companies on the forum). The president of Russia then spoke at the traditional roundtable on bilateral relations at SPIEF.
American businessmen are actively involved in the existing mechanisms that allow companies to resolve the issues coming up in their work in our market in direct dialogue with the Russian authorities. I am referring to the Advisory Council on Foreign Investments under the Government of Russia, international economic forums and conferences, etc. Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov's participation in the US-Russian Business Council annual meeting in New York on October 26 was taken very positively.
Russia aims to expand cooperation with US businesses. We are not going to punish businesses for political differences between the governments. We are interested in attracting US companies to implement mutually beneficial investment projects that help develop our industry and infrastructure, expand local production of competitive products with the prospect of exports to third countries.
Sputnik: Amid the withdrawal of the major part of the Russian forces from Syria do you believe that it is expedient to replace the existing Memorandum on the Prevention of Incidents with a new agreement, more appropriate for the current situation? What could this be? In view of a lack of cooperation at the military level (prohibited for the US military) how can the interaction be enhanced? Are there any ways for it?
Antonov: Indeed, on October 20, 2015, the Defense Ministries of Russia and the US signed the Memorandum on the Prevention of Incidents and Ensuring Air Safety in Syria. The document allowed the Russian Aerospace Force and the US-led anti-IS coalition to avoid incidents over Syria for a period of over two years. The military established regular communication channels, including at the level of the Russian and US Chiefs of Staff. The communication exists between the Operations Center of the Russian contingent in Syria, which is based at the Hmeimim air field, and the US Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
On July 7, during a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, the Russian and US presidents made a decision to establish de-escalation zones in the southwest of Syria in the regions of Daraa, Quneitra and Souweida. On the same day, experts from Russia, the US and Jordan signed a respective memorandum (signed on November 8). Moscow and Washington undertook a commitment to observe the ceasefire by all the parties present in the region, and to ensure humanitarian access there. A trilateral Russian-US-Jordanian monitoring center has been set up. As of July 9, the ceasefire was enacted in the southwestern regions, leading to a sharp decrease in violence and opening up an opportunity to deliver humanitarian aid there.
Regarding your question on the possibility and expediency of reaching additional agreements, I do not think that the Memorandum of Understanding signed in October 2015 should be abolished or replaced. Rather, it may be expanded, primarily to the operations on the ground. We proposed such ideas to the United States. But the United States, referring, in particular, to the National Defense Authorization Act, evaded these proposals.
Sputnik: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Russia was ready to invite US observers to attend the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue, should Washington display such an interest. Has the US side expressed their interest in attending the event? Have any invitations been sent to US representatives?
Antonov: Russia is ready to continue and increase cooperation with the United States on a solid international legal basis to reach a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict.
Based on this premise, Moscow has decided to send an invitation to the United States and other member states of the UN Security Council to participate as observers in the Congress, scheduled to be held in Sochi on January 29-30. As for the level of the participation, each side, including the United States, will determine who and at what level will be sent to Sochi — and whether to send anyone at all.
We consider the Congress as a forum designed to give serious impulses to the negotiation process under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva and to the achievement of the accords by the Syrians themselves by mutual agreement and without preconditions.
We call on international and regional players that have an influence on the development of the situation in Syria to take an unambiguous position in support of the Congress.
Sputnik: How do you assess the situation in the area of strategic stability? A rather alarming situation is shaping up around the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Is it possible to modify the INF Treaty and to allow new countries to join it? Are you considering the possibility of resuming inspections under the INF Treaty that were suspended in 2001?
Antonov: Despite rather tense bilateral relations, Russia and the United States resumed a dialogue on strategic stability in 2017. Deputy heads of foreign policy agencies met in Helsinki in September and reached an agreement on the need to continuing this communication.
Bilateral and multilateral arms control treaties have been implemented. Although the US administration kept blaming Russia for violating its obligations in this area, the START and INF treaties and the Treaty on Open Skies remained in force.
The cooperation between the two countries on disarmament and non-proliferation issues at the UN continued. Our countries voice similar positions regarding the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that was coordinated in 2017 and opened for signing. We agree that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons might be fraught with negative consequences for the non-proliferation regime and fail to facilitate nuclear disarmament because it does not take into account the legitimate security interests of nuclear states.
We continued to cooperate on major international initiatives in the area of non-proliferation and counterterrorism, including the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.
A complicated situation has arisen around the treaty on medium- and short-range missiles. Washington continues to politicize this issue, reinforcing its line of publicly, accusing Russia of ‘violating' the INF.
In 2007, Russia proposed that the INF Treaty become multilateral. Unfortunately, our proposal was not supported by the European countries — the US allies in the NATO bloc. We believe that this subject remains relevant, especially taking into account the changes that have taken place in the sphere of international security and strategic stability since the conclusion of the Treaty.
We are not discussing the resumption of inspections under the INF Treaty. According to the Treaty's provisions, it was only possible to conduct inspections for a period of 13 years after its enactment (until May 30, 2001). As we understand, all provisions of the INF Treaty were fulfilled.
Sputnik: The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty gives Russia and the United States until February 5, 2018 to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550. Can we expect its full implementation by both sides?
Antonov: By February 2018, Russia and the United States must meet the limits on strategic arms stipulated by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. We will fulfill our obligations.
As for the fulfillment of the Treaty terms by the United States, we have questions. In particular, with regard to the re-equipment of part of the US strategic offensive arms. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said on January 11, this is possible only if we are able to verify that there was no potential for the reverse conversion of such objects. So far, Russia has no such evidence, and this causes some concern.
We continue the dialogue on these issues with the American side. We hope that the United States will unequivocally carry out its obligations under the Treaty as well.
Sputnik: Where do things stand with the withdrawal of Russian diplomatic property in the United States? Do you think there is any chance to get it back? How did the US side explain its refusal to provide access to our property? When do we plan to file a suit in a US court? Is it possible in 2018?
Antonov: The outrageous situation with our diplomatic property has not changed. The US authorities still do not want to give the reason, and abandon their unprecedented and unlawful actions. As a matter of fact, Russian real estate properties are being held by force in violation of generally recognized norms of international law.
Our notes sent regularly to the Department of State with a request to give Russian foreign mission representatives access to the premises, which remain our state property, have been met with continuous refusals, with no explanations.
As for defending the interests of the Russian Federation — the bona fide owner of treacherously seized property — the preparatory work for judicial procedures has been completed. In the near future, you will learn about the modalities and timing of going to court.