23:08 GMT28 February 2021
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    On Wednesday, Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. His oath was preceded by Kamala Harris taking office as the first-ever female vice president.

    Biden's inauguration opens a door for Moscow and Washington to re-engage on key international security issues, including arms control, the Middle East, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov told Sputnik in an interview.

    Sputnik: Have there been any preliminary contacts with the incoming Biden administration, and if so, what themes were raised?

    Anatoly Antonov: We did not have such [preliminary] contacts. However, many of the foreign policy nominees in the new government are familiar to us. They have held leadership positions in preceding administrations.

    We expect to start a substantial dialogue with our colleagues on pressing bilateral and international issues as new people take jobs in the White House, State Department, and other departments. Most of all, this is necessary to address the multitude of accumulated "irritants" in our [bilateral] relations.
    Russian proposals concerning specific areas of cooperation have been voiced repeatedly and are still on the negotiating table. We are ready for a pragmatic and mutually beneficial dialogue to the extent to which the US side is inclined.

    Sputnik: Do you expect Washington to agree to an extension of the New START treaty and is Russia ready to start consultations after 20 January?

    Anatoly Antonov: As is already known, Russia offered the United States the opportunity to extend the New START treaty, with no preconditions, more than one year ago.
    The Republican administration categorically refused to extend the treaty in the form it was signed and put forward unacceptable terms. In fact, they turned the only existing Russian-US agreement on nuclear arms control into a political bargaining tool.

    Unsurprisingly, this position ultimately led the bilateral consultations on the fate of the New START treaty to a dead end. This is in spite of us offering to meet Washington halfway on a range of issues. We hope that the incoming administration will proceed from a more sound and realistic standpoint.

    Russia is open for a substantive dialogue on New START. There are still chances of reaching this agreement before the treaty expires on 5 February 2021. The ball is in Washington's court, we are waiting for constructive proposals

    Sputnik: Should we expect a meeting between the presidents and foreign ministers of Russia and the United States in 2021? Will the Russian side extend an offer to Joe Biden for talks in the 2+2 format?

    Anatoly Antonov: It is still difficult to talk about the possibility of holding face-to-face events, even at the highest level, amid the ongoing pandemic. Our position is that the creation of a schedule for political contacts depends on the state of the pandemic, the content of such meetings, the possibilities for communication "in the field" at multilateral events, and so on. In any case, any plans are subject to discussions with the new US administration and whether it gives its consent.

    As for the 2+2 format, we have repeatedly invited the United States to resume it. However, we've never received a positive reply. This initiative is still on the table.

    Sputnik: What are your thoughts on the already-announced nominees for Biden's foreign policy team? Is there any hope of resuming dialogue on Iran, Syria, or Ukraine? How you do assess the appointment of a separate director for Russia and Central Asia in the staff of the US National Security Council?

    Anatoly Antonov: It is not our task to evaluate candidates on Biden's foreign policy team. We proceed from the premise that the president of the United States, as any leader, selects specialists he trusts.

    I think we need to give the new team time to decide on its foreign policy priorities and approaches to specific issues and to judge its international course of action, rather than simply assessing pre-election rhetoric. As someone once aptly said, there are two colours before an election: black and white. After the election, there is only one: grey.

    We do not have any unrealistically positive expectations. Even if there are some changes regarding Russia, it will be about details rather than substance. Systemic containment of Russia will remain a very important part of US politics.

    Many of the high-ranking officials, however, are familiar to us from the Obama administration. For example, we had discussions with Brett McGurk, who is expected to take over the role as coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, during his tenure as special presidential envoy to the global coalition to counter Daesh*.

    Our diplomats are familiar with Kurt Campbell, tapped for the position of regional coordinator for Asia policy at the National Security Council. We hope to have a constructive dialogue with him on strengthening peace and stability — on the Korean Peninsula, among other locations.

    We expect the Democratic administration to keep its campaign promises on Iran. Above all, on the return to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. We expect it to help resume political dialogue and de-escalate the situation in the Persian Gulf.

    We assume that our troops in Syria will remain in contact to prevent any incidents. In addition, it would be useful to find areas where Russia and the US can cooperate. For instance, on humanitarian aid, post-conflict rebuilding, de-mining, helping refugees and internally displaced persons, and counterterrorism. We are ready for such cooperation on the condition that Syria's sovereignty is respected.

    The best thing the incoming administration could do in Ukraine is to convince [President Volodymyr] Zelensky's team to finally start implementing the Minsk agreements. We also expect the new leadership at the State Department to highlight that Kiev's attacks on the Minsk measures are counterproductive.

    Over recent years, we have heard the Ukrainian leadership's dangerous rhetoric about the need for modifying or even dismantling the supposedly outdated Minsk agreements. We have also seen a desire to replace direct negotiations with [the self-proclaimed people's republics of] Donetsk and Lugansk with the so-called Normandy format discussions. We have also observed efforts to present the endless and senseless reshuffling of the Ukrainian negotiators in the Trilateral Contact Group as "steps forward" on Kiev's part.

    In this context, it is necessary to state that the Minsk agreements were signed during the Obama administration. UN Security Council Resolution 2202, which approved them, was signed off by the then-US permanent representative Samantha Power, and Joe Biden, who was vice president at the time, did not voice any objections. We hope that the head of the new government holds a similarly positive attitude towards the Minsk agreements today.

    Regarding changes in the structure of the National Security Council, this is a common practice. A similar post existed in the White House under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. We intend to establish a regular dialogue with our American colleagues in the White House.

    Sputnik: Is Russia planning to present Biden with an offer to hold a meeting of the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council?

    Anatoly Antonov: The Russian proposal was previously supported by the leadership of the five countries and still remains on the table. The agenda was also communicated to our colleagues, consisting of key issues that affect global politics, the world economy, and security. The date and venue for such a meeting have not yet been determined.

    We expect the new [US] administration to study Russia's idea carefully and to have the P5 summit organised as soon as the situation with the epidemic permits.

    We're convinced that a direct conversation between the leaders of the P5 states about fundamental international issues is timely and necessary in order to find ways of eliminating areas of tension.

    Sputnik: Will Russia and the United States continue to hold anti-terrorism consultations?

    Anatoly Antonov: A high-level Russian-US dialogue forum on counterterrorism was revived in December 2018 and led by Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov and then-Deputy US Secretary of State John Sullivan, in line with an agreement reached by the presidents of Russia and the United States.

    In 2019, two high-level meetings were held in March and June. Coordinators then held their second round of negotiations in September.

    In October 2019, we invited the Americans to consider arranging new consultations in late January 2020. In principle, our partners did not refuse. However, there were no contacts on anti-terrorism in 2020. We hope that as the situation with the pandemic improves this dialogue can be resumed.

    Sputnik: Will Russia make a new offer to the United States to cooperate in combating the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Anatoly Antonov: The pandemic has been a challenge for everyone. That is why we have repeatedly suggested we set aside our differences and join forces to fight the disease. This means removing the barriers to medical supplies and basic necessities, reducing underdeveloped countries' debt burdens, casting aside political pretexts when it comes to providing financial assistance to countries in need, and expanding scientific cooperation.

    In the end, we established a degree of cooperation with the United States. Firstly, Russia sent a plane with medical cargo to New York in April, after which, 200 ventilators were delivered from the United States in return [in May and June]. This took place at the height of the pandemic. This agreement was a vivid reminder that the peoples of our two countries are ready to show solidarity and support one another, regardless of our political differences.

    Another good example was the 30 July signing of a cooperation agreement between the Russian Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences on coronavirus-related research.

    As for the vaccine, the situation turned out to be more complicated. Some people in America tried to make this about politics. Washington is openly sceptical about our achievements. I mean Sputnik V and EpiVacCorona. False information about Russian vaccines being ineffective and unsafe is being spread.

    The scientific community, however, rates the Russian advances highly. We are open to further cooperation with the United States to combat the pandemic, including in areas such as the development of effective treatments for the infection.

    Sputnik: Does Moscow plan to negotiate mutual commitments with the new administration not to deploy intermediate- and short-range missiles, in particular, in Europe?

    Anatoly Antonov: We have to state that after the unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty in August 2019, the United States did not show a willingness to cooperate to minimise the destructive consequences of the collapse of the agreement.

    We are fully aware of the risks of a missile arms race escalation. For almost a year, Russia has been honouring its unilateral commitment not to deploy ground-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in regions around the world unless US-made intermediate- and short-range missiles appear in other countries.

    We have invited the United States and its NATO partners to reciprocate in kind. They, however, rejected our initiative to introduce mutual moratoriums.

    Washington has relied on the accelerated development of arms previously banned under the INF Treaty and has carried out several tests of such systems. The military-political leadership of the United States makes no secret that it is heading for the deployment of ground-based intermediate- and short-range missiles on its allies' territory, including in Europe.

    For our part, we are doing everything possible to prevent a worst-case scenario. Specifically, last October, Russian President Vladimir Putin came up with new proposals to stabilise the situation in a "world without the INF Treaty".

    Our initiatives are still on the table. If the new administration is interested in looking for mutually acceptable solutions regarding intermediate-range weapons, we are ready to work on that.

    Sputnik: Has the US provided any evidence that Russia is behind the SolarWinds cyberattack? Or were the accusations unfounded? Did they provide evidence to substantiate the Afghanistan bounties?

    Anatoly Antonov: No official accusations have been voiced against Russia or the citizens of our country in connection with a large-scale hacker attack on the American information infrastructure. US intelligence services claimed those responsible are cyber intruders and "probably of Russian origin". The assumptions of a number of high-ranking officials are their own point of view, but cannot be considered as evidence.

    The United States is continuing its "loudspeaker diplomacy" — spreading versions of events through the media, but not providing any proof.

    We have repeatedly offered Washington to exchange information on computer attacks and computer incidents. In particular, to transfer data through the National Coordination Centre for Computer Incidents. A statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin from 25 September 2020, proposed a comprehensive programme of measures to restore Russian-American cooperation in the field of international information security.

    Among other things, they include maintaining continuous and effective communication channels between the relevant agencies in our countries via the centres for the reduction of nuclear danger, computer incident rapid response task forces, and high-level officials.

    Claims that the Russian Federation allegedly paid monetary rewards for the killing of American servicemen remain on the consciences of the authors of the respective publications. Administration representatives at various levels have repeatedly confirmed there is no evidence of any threats to US troops in Afghanistan from Russia.

    Moreover, our countries have never stopped cooperating on Afghanistan. Our special envoys are in close contact. We hope that this work will continue under the new administration in the interest of peace in Afghanistan.

    *Daesh (also known as ISIS/ISIL/IS) is a terrorist organisation outlawed in Russia and many other states

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