December 5, 2018

Russian Ambassador Takes Tough Stance, Seeks Dialogue to Improve U.S.Relations 

AMBASSADORIAL EXCHANGE: Russian Ambassador Anatoly Ivanovich Antonov  defended Russia’s position in Ukraine and on the world scene, responded to sharp questioning from two Princeton panelists, and called for “respectful dialogue” between Russian and U.S. leaders, in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Arthur Lewis Auditorium of Robertson Hall last Thursday afternoon.

By Donald Gilpin

Speaking to an overflow crowd of about 200 at Woodrow Wilson School’s (WWS) Arthur Lewis Auditorium of Robertson Hall last Thursday, on a day of significant tension in Russian-United States relations, Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Ivanovich Antonov called for increased dialogue between the two nations on a range of urgent topics.

“Russian-United States relations cannot stay on the decline forever,” said Antonov, combining a demeanor at times conciliatory and at times steely tough. Questioning Antonov on a range of contentious issues were nuclear security expert Bruce Blair of the WWS Program on Science and Global Security, and visiting WWS Lecturer of Public and International Affairs Anna Makanju.

Meanwhile, at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires last week, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin were not talking. Trump on Thursday announced that he was canceling talks with his Russian counterpart because of a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea earlier in the week. Not mentioned in his reason for canceling was the ongoing investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In his opening remarks of about 20 minutes, focusing on U.S.-Russia relations and the future of international arms control systems, Antonov emphasized positive aspects of the rapport between the two countries ever since Catherine the Great supported the American Revolution and the Russians supported the Union in the Civil War.

“From an historical standpoint, the fundamental interests of our two countries have almost never clashed,” he said. He noted that, as two members of the United Nations Security Council, who possess 95 percent of the nuclear and missile arsenal of the entire world, the U.S. and Russia bear “special responsibility for peace and security on the planet.”

He added, “It is high time for President Putin and President Trump to discuss strategic stability and the future of arms control.” He pointed out that previous agreements have “showed the understanding that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

He continued, “There are many problems with strengthening arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament. The Russian side is ready for serious substantial discussion on all matters, but the conversation has to be candid, respectful, transparent, and professional, with no megaphone diplomacy.”

After briefly criticizing international sanctions against Russia, he went on to note strategic partnerships between the U.S. and Russia on such matters as space exploration, nuclear disarmament, and information sharing between intelligence services. But he pointed out a lack of trust between the two countries, an issue taken up by Blair in the ensuing discussion.

“Creating a crisis is always easier than finding a solution to it,” Antonov said. “Mending Russia-U.S. relations will take long-term and persistent efforts. A lot of ground, and, above all, trust will have to be rebuilt from scratch. But the complexity and scale of the task is no excuse for doing nothing.”

Blair followed up with a series of pointed remarks, questioning Russia’s capacity for cooperating in international affairs. Emphasizing the importance of building coalitions, Blair asked, “Where do we stand today on that dimension of coalition building, cooperation, and trust?” 

He went on to mention “the general state of confrontation between Russia and the U.S.,” Russia’s “lack of allies,” their “inability to attract foreign investment,” their isolation, and the recent attack on Ukrainian ships. 

“It’s fine to talk about cooperation, but what are the big, bold steps that Russia is prepared to take to enhance this strategy of cooperation?” Blair asked.  He went on to question Russia’s nuclear strategy and whether, in light of a demographic crisis with declining population, Russia would rely more on nuclear weapons and cyber weapons for its security. “Would Russia join with the U.S. in pledging never to be the first to use nuclear weapons?” Blair queried.

In response, Antonov questioned the U.S.’s trustworthiness and its compliance in international agreements, and suggested that the U.S. might be isolating itself. “We respect the United States’ interests everywhere, but we need reciprocity,” he said. “We would like to offer you a strategic partnership, and it’s up to you to decide whether you are ready.”    

In her questioning Makanju asked about Russia’s spreading of “fake news” and anti-American propaganda, and she challenged Antonov to explain how Russian actions against Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea complied with United Nations rules.

Antonov dismissed the naval incident as a border issue and a political gambit by Ukrainian President Poroshenko with Russian sovereignty at stake. “How should our sovereignty be protected?” he asked.  “Russia has a logical right to protect its own borders. Our border guards protected Russian sovereignty professionally.”

Antonov has been ambassador of Russia to the United States since September 2017. A lifetime Russian politician, military officer, and diplomat, he served as deputy minister of foreign affairs and deputy minister of defense before taking his current position.

Near Eastern Studies Professor Michael Reynolds, director of Princeton’s program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies, moderated the event.

—Donald Gilpin