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VOA Interview: John Sullivan, US Ambassador to Russia

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a “massive act of aggression,” was a major topic during the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference in Washington on Tuesday.

Speaking at the State Department to VOA’s Russian service, Sullivan said, “I think it’s important to understand the scale of the problem and what the Russian government has done through its actions. Almost 15 million people are either refugees, have left Ukraine or they’re internally displaced persons. We’ve heard the casualty statistics — thousands upon thousands of innocent people, men women and children killed, but millions of refugees.”

“So it imposes an enormous burden on Ukraine itself. It imposes an enormous burden on Ukraine’s neighbors,” he said. “The United States, led by President (Joe) Biden, and our allies and partners, have very consciously provided humanitarian and other assistance to Ukraine, to neighboring countries that are Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria that have had this massive influx of refugees.”

“But it all goes back to the decision of a government, really one person – President (Vladimir) Putin, to launch this war,” Sullivan told VOA.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: From the annual Global Chiefs of Mission Conference in Washington, what is the key message from the U.S. ambassadors of the world in terms of the impact of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine?

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan: I just returned from Moscow at the end of last week for this conference and it’s amazing how the world has turned upside down since the Russian war, aggression started at the end of February, and it’s a big subject of this conference … (of) U.S. ambassadors worldwide, making sure that the world knows and responds to this massive act of aggression and aggressive war waged on the European continent with artillery shells, rockets landing on ancient cities in Europe, sites that we thought we had left behind us in the 20th century, innocents being slaughtered, women and children, hospitals, schools. All because the Russian government and President (Vladimir) Putin decided that he was going to wage a war of aggression and try to capture some or all of an independent, sovereign country that’s a member of the United Nations. And that’s what we’re dealing with now. President (Joe) Biden and Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken have sought to rally the world to oppose this.

VOA: President Biden on the World Refugee Day on Monday recommitted to engaging in diplomatic efforts to “bring an end to the ongoing conflicts” to help refugees. So, what diplomatic solutions are there to bring an end to this particular war? There were many opportunities before, but Putin is not agreeing to anything.

Sullivan: I think it’s important to understand the scale of the problem and what the Russian government has done through its actions. Almost 15 million people are either refugees, have left Ukraine or they’re internally displaced persons. We’ve heard the casualty statistics: thousands upon thousands of innocent people, men women and children killed, but millions of refugees. So it imposes an enormous burden on Ukraine itself. It imposes an enormous burden on Ukraine’s neighbors, small countries like Moldova, who’ve seen their total population spike because of the vast increase in refugees fleeing the violence that the Russian government has unleashed in Ukraine.

So the United States, led by President Biden, and our allies and partners have very consciously provided humanitarian and other assistance to Ukraine, to neighboring countries that are Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, that have had this massive influx of refugees. … We’ve got a program to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the United States. But it all goes back to the decision of a government, really one person, President Putin, to launch this war. And it’s a symptom (English playwright William) Shakespeare wrote a famous line from, I believe it’s “Julius Caesar:” “Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.” A person does that, when a government does that, the consequences are often unforeseeable. I think, in this case, it would have been foreseeable that there would be millions of refugees, but I don’t think the Russian government really cared.

VOA: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said in an interview with VOA in Kyiv, “We all understand very much what’s at stake and that’s why we’re here to help Ukraine prevail.” How confident are you in Ukraine’s overall success, after four months of full-scale Russian war and advances in eastern Ukraine?

Sullivan: I’m not a military expert, but I say this just as a human being, what (Ukraine) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy and his government has done to resist this massive aggression is inspirational. I don’t think the Russian government expected the Ukrainian government to stand firm and resist. For President Zelenskyy to stay in Kyiv with a Russian army headed south out of Belarus to get him, that took nerve, that took courage. It was inspirational, it motivated, I’m sure, his fellow Ukrainians, who believe in their country, are fighting for their country and they’re not going to give up. You know, the Russian government, Russian media types like to talk about the strength of Russia. They’ve underestimated the strength of Ukraine.

VOA: Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly said that he is ready for talks with Vladimir Putin. While the peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have stagnated and as the chief Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamiya, who visited Washington last week, said that Kyiv might resume talks with Moscow only at the end of August. What do you think should happen for Putin to approve a potential meeting or at least a call with Zelenskyy?

Sullivan: Well, it’s something that President Biden, leaders across the world have been urging the Russian government to stop the war, to stop the aggression and negotiate. I’ve seen no indication that the Russian government, that President Putin is interested in negotiating. They want the Ukrainians to give up their resistance, succumb to a Russian invasion, and then they’ll negotiate. And President Zelenskyy, on behalf of his people whom he represents, democratically elected president, said, “No, thanks, we’ll negotiate but not when you’re holding a gun to our head.” I think, as President Biden would say, this conflict will end as all conflicts do — with some form of negotiation. And what the United States is looking to do is to support Ukraine, to support President Zelenskyy, so that the outcome that the Ukrainians want themselves is what’s achieved not only in the battlefield but in the negotiations, eventually, with Russia.

VOA: Do you think that China would have played a much bigger role in urging Russia to negotiate and maybe you had some talks with the Chinese ambassador in Moscow on that issue?

Sullivan: I have not. I know the U.S. government has, my colleagues in the U.S. government have made it clear that our hope and expectation is that China stands with the rest of the civilized world, those who support the U.N. charter, those who are against aggressive war and violence. And I think it’s fair to say there’s disappointment that the rhetoric from Beijing hasn’t been what one would have hoped. But I also don’t know that we’ve seen the type of material support that would actually bolster the physical effort by the Russian government to crush Ukraine.

VOA: Regarding repression of Russian opposition activists and independent media, you met with the deputy foreign minister of Russia on June 10 to protest threats against journalists working for U.S. media outlets in Russia. Also, the repression against opposition leaders like Alexey Navalny, who has been sent to a maximum-security prison, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was detained after his speech in Arizona about Putin’s war. How does the war impact those cases of people whom experts call hostages of the regime?

Sullivan: I’ve been in Moscow well over two and a half years now, and from the day I arrived, there’s been a snowball rolling of the gradual repression of civil rights, civil society, journalists, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). And it has been law after law that’s been passed, individuals and organizations being designated as foreign agents or extremists, people being driven out of the country. These are loyal Russians who have lived in their homeland their entire lives, who love their country, disagree with actions their government has taken. But they’re forced to flee their country if they’re lucky. If they’re not, they get thrown in a labor camp for a long time. And so this is something I’ve witnessed over the years. It has increased since the war started.

You mentioned Vladimir Kara-Murza. I met with Vladimir in early March, shortly before he was arrested. He’s a friend of mine and he’s a very brave man. He knew the risks he was running, but he loves his country. And he wanted to be there and speak to the Russian people. Of course, he writes for The Washington Post. And it’s tragic what’s happened to him. But it also doesn’t strike me as the sign of a government that’s confident in what it’s doing if they have to treat their people that way. We here in the United States enjoy a competition of ideas and rhetoric, sometimes a little too much, but it’s a strength, it’s not a weakness. And what they’re revealing is weakness not strength.

VOA: Former Marine Trevor Reid has been released from a Russian prisoner in a swap for Russian citizen Konstantin Yoshinaga. Reid’s family said President Biden might have saved their son’s life. Can you give us any details of the negotiations and how difficult it was because it came during the Russian war?

Sullivan: Trevor has been one of the most important cases I’ve worked on since I became ambassador. He was arrested a few months before I was confirmed as ambassador. And I got to know him very well. He’s an amazing American, former Marine. And one of my first visits to him was before he was convicted in a pretrial detention facility in Moscow called SIZO-5. We were having a conversation and just talking about things he needed, books we were going to try to get him, passing messages from his family. And he just looked at me out of the blue and he said, “Ambassador, I want to tell you something. I want you to know I will never do anything to embarrass the United States.” Wow. Usually in my job people want things from me. And to have somebody trying to reassure me that he was going to be OK. Incredibly strong character and I couldn’t be happier for him.

Unfortunately, though, and Trevor himself has noted, that we have other Americans there now — (former Marine) Paul Whelan, (U.S. Women’s National Basketball Association player) Brittney Griner and others who are there, whom we’re focused on now. I really can’t go into any detail on negotiations, if there are any, because it wouldn’t help getting to their release talking about it publicly.

VOA: This weekend, President Biden departs for the Group of Seven (G-7) Leaders’ Summit in Germany. Many discussions are expected to be about Ukraine. From there, he heads to the NATO summit in Madrid. What are your expectations from these crucial meetings? And is there enough unity being shown among the Western leaders? What do you think?

Sullivan: People have been asking me this question for six months and at every turn the United States and its allies and partners have shown remarkable unity. I am confident that will be the outcome, both of the G-7 meeting and of the NATO leaders’ summit. It’s been a mistake of the Russian government and President Putin underestimating the unity of the NATO alliance, of the United States and our EU partners. That was a mistake because we are unified, and we will resist this aggression.

VOA: There have been some European Union disputes about the Russian gas supplies, an issue that has long been one of the EU’s greatest fears.

Sullivan: It’s a short-term problem that we collectively will overcome, and we won’t make the mistake of being over reliant on such an unreliable aggressive and hostile country like Russia.

VOA: It seems like Russia is operating more through the propagandistic channels inside the country, showing that it’s not a war against Ukraine, but a war against the U.S., against NATO, against the West. What do you think about this? Do you think Russian people, from what you see, are eager to receive this narrative?

Sullivan: It’s difficult. I’ve heard many Russians here in the United States, whom I know, I’ve talked to about this … if that’s the only news you hear, at some point it starts to seep in and that’s just all they hear and it’s difficult for alternative points of view to become well-known.

But there’s an underlying sense, I believe, in Russia that something’s wrong and what’s happening in Ukraine is wrong. They support their country. They love their military. But something’s not right and they know it, and you can sense this lurking. People want to know: When is it going to stop? When is it going to go back to being the way it was? And the message is, unfortunately, it’s not going to be any time soon.

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