I will not let current Russia-U.S. relations hold peace & security hostage – Russia’s envoy to UN

Russia’s new ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, talks to Sophie Shevarnadze about the challenges the organization is facing and his plans to use this platform to build a constructive dialogue with American colleagues at a time of unprecedentedly fragile relations.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, Mr. Nebenzia, it’s good to have you in our program. Welcome! It’s our first. So we are going to start right away. Russia’s delegation to the UN is dealing with several pressing issues right now, namely, the North Korean nuclear crisis with the country reporting it conducted a hydrogen bomb test. Now, at the latest Security Council session youve said that a military solution to the crisis is impossible. But do you seriously think any calls for a military solution go beyond emotions or populism, does anyone seriously want war?

Vassily Nebenzia: Hello, Sophieco! Nice to be with you! I hope they are not. We had an extraordinary Security Council meeting on the recent test, and everybody, everybody strongly condemned it. It was indeed a flagrant violation of all previous Security Council resolutions on North Korea, including the latest one, 2371. You know, nobody, I believe, wants a military solution. Everybody wants the crisis to be resolved peacefully. But the problem is that recipes for it differ. Some countries, like the United States, France, Japan, UK, South Korea, and others say: “We need to impose a new set of sanctions on the DPRK to deprive them of the means to develop their nuclear ballistic missile test program, and to bring them back to the negotiating table. Other countries, like Russia, China…

SS: We’re going to actually get to the sanctions. Before we talk precisely about the sanctions, those countries are proposing, Russias position is that further sanctions on Pyongyang wont work. I mean, Vladimir Putin says: North Koreans would rather “eat grass” than give up nukes, right? So, if calls for restraint aren’t changing anything and neither do sanctions, obviously, how else do you get out of this mess?

VN: Yes, indeed. Sanctions, unfortunately, do not work. First, they are ignored, secondly, they have been long time factored in, thirdly, a new set of sanctions may be not an invitation to the negotiating table but rather to new further tests. We are stressing on the political and diplomatic solution, and China and Russia have already proposed, even in July, an action plan to solve the crisis with an initiative on double suspension, which was criticized by Nikki Haley by the way. I don’t know what she found so insulting in that, as she said. If she has something better than the new sanctions set, then maybe the United States could come out with it. We would only welcome it. We would welcome any efforts and any initiatives to start a genuine dialogue. We heard about the Swiss initiatives, we would welcome the efforts of the Secretary General, anybody can help.

SS: But, like you’ve said, the Americans are actually opposing the strategy proposed by Russia and China. Do you think it stands a real chance with America proposing it?

VN: What is the option? A military one? It should be completely excluded, because the consequences will be too dire. They may think that it’s not the right time for them, but it’s never too early to start the process.

SS: So why are your UN partners insisting on further sanctions on North Korea if the sanctions, clearly, are not working? What is the point? 

VN: That’s exactly the question that we are asking them. In the Security Council Nikki Haley gave us a history lesson of the Security Council resolutions on the DPRK adopted and not working. That exactly proves the point.

SS: So, like you said, the US ambassador to the UN said that North Korea “is begging for war” and called for “toughest measures possible” against it. Do you think North Korea is ready for that?

VN: We’ve seen evidence that it is not. That it reacted to the common will, I would say, of the international community, rejecting it. So I don’t think why they should be forthcoming now with the new sanctions which they consider to be insulting to them.

SS: So, if we look at it from the North Korean side, and if they are not ready for this war, why are they so defiant of the international community? What makes them so brave?

VN: That’s not really a question that you should address to me, Sophieco, I think that you’d better ask them directly. But, you know, they…

SS: Yes, I mean, but you surely have you opinion on that, right? I mean, you cannot think of what makes this guy so sure that he can do what he is doing. What is the answer that you find for yourself when you ask that question?

VN: Well, we understand what the motives are, because the world has shown evidence of what happened to those leaders that voluntarily gave up their nuclear programmes and maybe that has also affected them in what they are doing, which is not right in any way. And, of course, the stakes are being raised too high by all parties, by all sides, in fact.

SS: There are other crises in the world Russia’s UN mission has to deal with - just recently, you’ve proposed a resolution concerning a peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian president has talked about deploying peacekeepers for a long time - but Kiev isn’t happy about Moscow’s proposal. What’s the difference between the two approaches - and why do you feel yours is better?

VN: We’ve heard about ideas floating, vague talk about certain peacekeeping mission in Ukraine that was aired by Kiev for some time, but we are taking this as a disguise not to implement the Minsk agreement. Because the only plausible solution to the crisis at the moment is the Minsk agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council resolution. So we didn’t hear anything definite or conclusive from them on the peacekeeping mission, while our proposal is based, first of all, on the resolution 2202 of 2015, which endorse the package of measures to implement the Minsk agreement. It is aimed solely at protecting the special monitoring mission of the OSCE observers at the line of actual contact. It is not entrusted with any political or other tasks, because these tasks belong to the established formats, like the SMM OSCE, which I mentioned, or the contact group, or the Normandy format.

SS: I want to move on to Syria, because it will be part of the discussion at the General Assembly. French President Emmanuel Macron says fighting terrorism is the priority right now. So, I figure, it seems like the Assad must gorhetoric is not the dominant stance anymore. Has something changed in how your UN colleagues view the situation?

VN: It cannot, but admitted even reluctantly by those who didn’t want to admit it, that the situation on the ground in Syria is changing. And it is changing for the better. You know that Astana process led by Iran, Russia and Turkey, has led to the establishment of 3 de-escalation zones where life is coming back to normal, where humanitarian aid is reaching people, with the fourth zone around Idlib being negotiated. The territory that terrorists possess in Syria shrink every day. The situation is changing, you cannot deny it. And we can see a political horizon in the Syrian crisis. We need more political effort, because the solution can only be political, and we are aiming at it, and we are working on it, and, yes, the rhetoric on Syria has changed in the Security Council and the UN in general, I admit.

SS: Ambassador, why do you feel that Russian, Iranian and Turkish efforts to advance the peace process in Syria are more efficient than those that are led by the United Nations?

VN: I didn’t compare the efficiency. I said that these two processes are mutually reinforcing.

SS: No, you didn’t. I’m comparing them actually – because it’s pretty obvious that the efforts undertaken by the three countries are much more efficient than those that have been undergoing for years now by the UN. So why do you think — because I think ours are more efficient — why do you think it's more efficient?

VN: I don’t think — I’m not, again, branding them more efficient or less efficient; I’m saying that these efforts play in and contribute to the Geneva process very much by creating conditions for the Geneva process led by the UN to succeed.

SS: Alright, fair enough. I want to move on to what’s going on inside the United Nations. President Trump recently wrote on his Twitter that the UN is just a “club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” That’s a quote. Is that just another populist announcement from Trump? Or is the UN really losing relevance?

VN: Well, he was not far from the truth. Indeed, the UN is a good place to meet people and have a good time but it’s not all about the UN, of course. The UN is a multifaceted organization working not only in peace and security but in many other areas which do not have anything instead of the UN. It is very active in the economic and social area. It is doing human rights. It is doing law. It has a plethora of specialized agencies in various fields of activities. The UN is a very busy place, and a very important one.

SS: Because for people who aren’t directly implicated in UN work, observers like myself, it does seem like, you know, mostly what the UN is doing is resolutions, resolutions, resolutions. And that’s the only thing it can really get done.

VN: That’s not lethal. This work that’s being done by the UN leads to concrete results, in fact. You know that the new UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has embarked on the reform of the organization proposing a so-called “repositioning” of the United Nations system to make it more effective and closer to the present-day challenges. This is a track that we will follow later, during the General Assembly, this fall. We are waiting for the proposals to materialize but the trend is very interesting. We want to make the United Nations more relevant.

SS: Now, with so many members in the United Nations, each pursuing their own agenda, is any kind of radical reform of the organization possible, can any consensus on that be reached at all?

VN: We don't need any radical reform of the organization, we need some certain fine-tuning, yes indeed. And you are correct that this organization is owned by all member states and they all have a say, big and small, in what's going on in it. And they will need to have a voice in whatever reforms are being proposed because it should be an intergovernmentally-led process. The countries are the owners of this organization, they should have a say in the reform process, too.

SS: Then of course we have some incredible or exceptional cases, when powerful countries actually ignore the UN approval for military action and just go and do whatever they feel like doing, and that for sure ruins UNs credibility. How should the UN react to those kinds of situations?

VN: Of course, unilateral actions are inadmissible, and UN was established by its founding fathers to ensure and safeguard the peace and security around the world, and the UN has the final say and should have the final say on any action, in particular a military one, which without UN approval would be illegitimate.

SS: You know, exchanges between American and Russian envoys in the UN have often been quite heated, especially lately. Yet youre saying that behind the scenes the diplomats are trying to be friendly to each other, be professional - how does that work? I mean, how do you go for tea with someone who was just, I don’t know, for instance, calling you a war criminal?

VN: I didn't engage yet in any of the war of words with my colleagues, and I hope it will stay that way, because I think that the United Nations and the Security Council in particular should not be a place for futile rhetoric and a spotlight to master their rhetoric skills. It should be a place which should perform its main responsibility: to maintain the international peace and security. I didn't have those exchanges, I was very well-received by my colleagues. Indeed, outside the Security Council room, well, and often inside the Security Council room, we're all friends, and we maintain very friendly relations, and that's important. Personal relations matter.

SS: So is there like a professional camaraderie, a caste feeling between diplomats that actually perseveres despite their respective countriesrelations?

VN: I wouldn't call it a caste, it sounds too exclusive, but professional camaraderie - yes, I agree.

SS: So like, on one hand, youre the one doing the face-to-face negotiations, but at the same time, all diplomats follow orders. How much influence do you and your partners actually wield personally? I mean, if your American partner wants compromise and their White House boss doesnt, hypothetically - what can you both personally do to change that?

VN: On how the US ambassador regulates it with her White House you should ask Nikki Haley, I wouldn't comment on that, but in our case any ambassador, any Russian ambassador in the world, would have quite a flexible opportunity in formulating the country's position, but of course the final say - and that's a general rule in diplomacy - is with the capital. But we are rather free in what we can offer, and most often, practically all the time, we are in full agreement with the capital.   

SS: So like, if you look at the recent situation, the relations between the US and Russia have been pretty dire, and you said that it’s probably worse than during the Cold War. How do you manage to work efficiently in the atmosphere of hostility created by the current Russia-West standoff? 

VN: It so happened, unfortunately, that the Security Council maybe is one of the few platforms left for us and the US to cooperate, and I said initially when I arrived here that I will not make our bilateral relations hostage - I will not make peace and security hostage to our bilateral relations. And that's not in our tradition, not in our political culture, and I will stay that way. We have developed good rapport with Nikki Haley and she is committed to doing what she can, on her part, to make it happen, and we are trying, we are trying. Hopefully, that platform that is the Security Council will help us in many things, including improving Russian-American relations.  

SS: This is a question from our viewers when they heard we have an upcoming interview with you. They wanted me to ask personally how do you manage to have friendly relationship with your American colleague, when the two countries are pretty much at the state of Cold War?

VN: Look, I never, never imagine that the Russian and the American people have anything like hostility towards each other. It's the political situation that is to blame, but on a personal level we are all humans, first of all, and secondly, we feel sympathy towards Americans and I feel that Americans feel sympathy towards Russians. So I have no problem in communicating personally on good terms with any American colleague, not only Nikki Haley, but her colleagues in the mission and elsewhere.  

SS: So I heard you say that other countries have been also calling for an improvement of the US-Russia relations. Which countries are you talking about? And will Washington listen, most importantly?

VN: Many countries privately and openly say that too much depends on our bilateral relations, and it's not appropriate that they are so low these days and they should be improved, and that that will be for the best- for the better of the world and not just our two countries.  

SS: So recently Moscow says that it considers the recent US law enforcement inspectionraids on Russian diplomatic mission in America a violation of diplomatic immunity. President Putin said that Russia will go to an American court over property rights. Do you think legal action can be successful here?

VN: I don't think that it's appropriate for me to comment on that. Comments have been made in Moscow, and I don't think I have anything to add to it, except that I agree that moves that were made - not only which moves, but how they were made - were not very friendly.

SS: But how do your colleagues in the United Nations react to this situation? Because it was all over the news. It was huge, everyone was talking about it. Surely they also had some...

VN: To which situation?

SS: To the US law enforcement’s inspection raids.

VN: We didn't discuss it with them, frankly. We didn't have time for that. Time runs so fast here that it doesn't leave an opportunity for an outside discussion. We didn't have simply an opportunity to discuss it, but since you reminded me, I will raise the issue with them a bit later. 

SS: So you’ll owe me another interview, then. Also I wanted to ask you how both Moscow and Washington were very optimistic about mending relations after Donald Trumps election, but then latest events show that the situation is getting worse. Why, do you think, these hopes never materialized?

VN: I think you know the answer to this question yourself: it's mainly due to domestic dimension of it, not only of course, but the domestic dimension and the political situation within the United States of course affected it badly too, because we, unfortunately, became a very convenient scarecrow, including in the domestic political battles that are raging here.

SS: So you feel it’s more resistance inside the American establishment to warming up ties with Russia rather than irresolvable differences, objectively hampering the relationship?

VN: President Trump, when he was campaigning, and shortly afterwards he promised to deliver on improving US-Russia relations, but unfortunately, due to many reasons - I will not enumerate them all or judge them - he was not able to do so.

SS: Can you from your UN stance, UN position, influence that? Do something that could get this relationship going better?      

VN: We have to do what we can do where we are, and I told you that I am committed to improving these relations, working together for the better of the world, working together with the United States and other partners, of course, in the Security Council and outside the Security Council, and I hope that step by step that will lead us there, if we see the movement on the other side, too.

SS: Ambassador, thank you very much for this insightful interview. We wish you all the best of luck. We were talking to Mr. Nebenzia, discussing the many challenges that the UN is facing today, from the North Korean crisis to fighting terrorism in Syria. It’s been great talking to you. This is it for this edition of SophieCo, and I will see you next time.

VN: Thank you very much, Sophieco.