All news

Anatoly Antonov: Russia-US ties teetering 'on brink of abyss' but embassy’s work goes on

Anatoly Antonov
© Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov sat down with a TASS correspondent to share his views on the future prospects for the tense relationship between Moscow and Washington, developments in the Ukrainian crisis and the situation surrounding the freezing of Russian assets held in the West.

- How do you see the current state of US-Russian relations?

- Last year was extremely hectic. The US administration's actions were becoming ever more destructive and unpredictable. For this reason, US-Russian relations continued to deteriorate, teetering on the brink of an abyss. There are no glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.

In December, two dozen more staffers had to leave our diplomatic mission, in accordance with the instructions from the US authorities. Despite the adverse working environment, such as the Russophobia that is deeply entrenched in [official] Washington, which has in fact become its trademark attribute, the [Russian] Embassy has tried to maintain contacts with both the White House and the Department of State.

We have endeavored to prevent the bilateral relationship from collapsing once and for all. To preserve [the two countries’] mutual diplomatic presence and to normalize conditions for the functioning of the Russian and US foreign missions on each other's respective territory.

It is patently obvious that America's ruling circles see the special military operation in Ukraine as a challenge to the Washington-led unipolar world. Therefore, they will do their utmost to preserve and keep intact that [prevailing model of a] world order which is favorable to them and detrimental to everyone else.

This is a short-sighted policy. Those at the helm here are not yet ready to come to grips with the fact that the demonization of Russia effectively nullifies the chances of overcoming the multitude of global challenges facing humanity. We try to convey these thoughts not only at meetings with administration officials, but also to the local public through our contacts with political analysts, retired officials and journalists.

We also carry out active outreach within the Washington diplomatic corps. In 2023, we arranged two major receptions for our African colleagues in conjunction with the Russia-Africa summit. We also hold evening social events featuring Russian music within the Embassy grounds, where we have an opportunity to communicate with representatives of friendly and neutral states. I believe that such events put all things in their proper place. Our partners demonstrate their understanding of the underlying reasons and causes of the special military operation. They realize that the West’s fury stems solely from the fact that Russia has not only stopped NATO's eastward expansion but also shifted this process into reverse.

- What are the priorities for the work of the Russian Embassy in the United States in 2024?

- We will continue to firmly safeguard Russia's national interests. We will fight against Russophobia and the mass circulation of myths regarding the so-called “Russian threat.”

Of course, we will continue to try to prevent Russian-US relations from plunging further down into an uncontrollable tailspin. We are firmly convinced that the nullification of ties between two nuclear powers that are permanent members of the UN Security Council does nothing to meet the aspirations not only of the Russian people and the American people, but also of the human race as a whole.

We see one of the Embassy’s primary tasks as lying in the effective organization of voting [by expatriate Russian citizens] in Russia’s presidential election within the territory of the United States. We will make every effort to ensure that the necessary conditions are in place for our fellow citizens [residing in the US] to cast their votes.

Of course, we will continue to support our compatriots living in the United States. Helping the Russian diaspora as much as we can to preserve their ties with our [common] homeland is our unwavering priority. We will do everything we can to preserve the memory of the Russian heritage in America. We will not allow the [pivotal] events of the Great Patriotic War and the decisive role played by the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazism to sink into oblivion.

We take particular care in handling the requests we receive from Russian-speaking schools for help in obtaining teaching materials and children's books. On New Year's Eve, to bring smiles to the faces of the schoolkids, we organized the delivery and distribution in Washington of books by the great Russian classic authors, as well as some Russian sweets, of course. The bright eyes of those children who happily accepted such gifts were our best reward and our contribution toward strengthening the ties between the children of our compatriots and their historical homeland.

We will push forward with our efforts to preserve the memory of the combat brotherhood of our countries during the Second World War. Recently, Embassy staff visited Elizabeth City, [North Carolina,] where they held a memorial ceremony in honor of the Soviet pilots who died 79 years ago during the transfer to the Soviet Union of Catalina seaplanes as part of Project Zebra. On April 25, we plan to make a visit to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Spirit of the Elbe memorial plaque.

We pay particular attention to the promotion of our cultural and humanitarian agenda. We will continue to organize musical social events and film screenings for compatriots and members of the diplomatic corps.  Just two days ago, together with our friends, we watched the wonderful Russian movie “The Challenge.” We are very pleased with the sincere words of thanks that we hear in abundance at the conclusion of such events. All of this once again demonstrates the futility of attempts to isolate the Russian Embassy in Washington.

In 2024, Russia has assumed the chairmanship of such important [intergovernmental] organizations as the CIS and BRICS. In this connection, we intend to hold a number of meetings with the participation of members of the diplomatic corps. We will make our own contribution toward informing you about the priorities of Russia’s "watch" on both platforms, which are now going through historic stages in their maturing and development.

- Have there been any shifts in the US stance on Ukraine?

- It should be understood that the US political elites have no insurmountable disagreements among themselves over Ukraine. The idea of inflicting a "strategic defeat" on Russia is the cornerstone idea around which the Democratic team [of President Joe Biden] will attempt to reach an agreement with [Ukraine aid skeptics among Republican] conservatives on Capitol Hill on the eve of the US election. Therefore, the [core] policy of trying to weaken our country, to undermine its military and economic potential, remains unchanged.

Washington is unable to achieve what it wants. It appears that the Russophobes have tried everything: multibillion-dollar financing and direct arms deliveries. Tremendous sums of money are being spent, but to no avail. In seeking to shield itself from criticism, the administration has no qualms about declaring that 90% of the funds allocated to the Ukrainians end up being deposited on the accounts of domestic defense industry enterprises. It deploys terms like "effective investment" as a cover. This spending, they say, is ostensibly fueling the national economy.

However, such a linguistic juggling act only serves to demonstrate a [profound] lack of understanding of what is actually happening in the world, that is the gradual breakdown of the US-centric order. Hence the inability of the domestic "hawks" to draw any lessons from the fiasco of the so-called Ukrainian counteroffensive. It is not enough for them to see that they are neck-deep in the ditch that they have dug for themselves. Now they are dragging their allies into it. It is as if they do not notice that their partners have opened their eyes and see the growing problems of the United States in the Middle East and in the dialogue with China.

Here is one telling example. In 2013, we invited representatives from the US armed forces to the first Tank Biathlon contest near Moscow. For reasons that were unclear at the time, they declined the invitation. Today, however, we can now see that there were doubts [among the US military brass] about their success in competing with our [military] vehicles. Such fears were absolutely justified. The special operation has proven conclusively: [US-made] Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are simply unable to radically change the situation on the battlefield. We will stand firm, because the freedom and independence of our homeland is at stake.

- What retaliatory steps can Russia take in case the West actually steals our frozen assets and transfers them to Kiev?

- Indeed, the confiscation of Russian sovereign assets in the United States is being actively discussed. A bill to empower the administration to do so is now being considered in Congress.

Although the behavior of the White House in this regard is not very predictable, everyone here knows well enough that drastic steps, essentially, the theft of money, may well entail significant implications for the dollar. Quite remarkable in this regard are comments by US experts to the effect that the United States is not prepared, acting unilaterally, to put the status [as the global reserve currency] of the [US] national currency at risk, the more so since the legal basis of [such potential asset seizures] is very controversial. Even for the sake of confirming its commitment to the notorious mantra: "We will help Ukraine for as long as it takes."

From this we have the endless tweaking of the [asset seizure] narrative, stoked by Washington, among its allies, primarily in the Group of Seven. However, domestic [US] analysts openly acknowledge that Washington's "body language" at the possibility of seizing Russia’s sovereign assets is primarily part of an attempt to prod the Europeans into taking more decisive action. Especially since it is precisely in the Old World that the "lion's share" of our funds are stuck (according to the European bureaucrats, about $200 bln).

At the same time, domestic [US] experts doubt that any breakthrough decisions will be agreed upon at the upcoming G7 meetings in February. Even Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen herself acknowledged the discord among the [G7] participants in light of concerns that the global financial system overall could be thrown off balance not to mention the fact that there are no legal grounds for such drastic action.

Nor does the West want to see serious quarrels with the developing countries, for which the confiscation of foreign assets would serve as a vivid precedent [and preview of what may befall them]. The Global South would have even stronger doubts about the reliability of those [Western] capitals that place political subservience to their [dominant] partners above the inviolability of the rule of law.

If Washington and its satellites do decide to steal our sovereign assets, I assure you that Russia will not leave such a challenge without a strong and proportionate response. We will, in fact, be compelled to act symmetrically.

- What is the current state of affairs with regard to ensuring the work of Russia's diplomatic missions in the United States and the issuance of visas to Russian diplomats and support personnel? Have any solutions been found on these issues and on the unblocking of Russian diplomatic properties? What is the situation with Russian citizens in American prisons?

- The American authorities continue their hardline policy of putting up groundless, unreasonable obstructions to the normal operation of our foreign missions in the United States. The Embassy and consulates general in New York and Houston are still experiencing problems with the entry of new staffers. Russian officials often spend years waiting for visas. In addition, the Department of State refuses to revise its own rules that set a three-year cap on the duration of stay in the United States for the personnel of Russian foreign missions.

It has been more than seven years since we lost our consulates general in San Francisco and Seattle. We are not even allowed to inspect the buildings to assess their technical condition. There are no prospects for getting our properties back.

On a regular basis we make arrangements to provide mobile consular services. Last year, we visited nine cities (Anchorage, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Salt Lake City).

More than five thousand [expatriate Russian citizens] were able to apply for passports and complete the necessary paperwork to continue receiving retirement benefits.

Is this enough, or not enough? The answer is obvious: not enough. There are hundreds of thousands of Russian passport holders here [residing in the United States].

With regard to prisoner exchanges, I would like to note that a dialogue on this issue is being conducted through the relevant agencies. The repatriation [to Russia] of Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout are clear examples of how effective such cooperation can be.

The Russians residing here are our main concern. For various reasons, they settled in the United States, but they are Russian citizens [nonetheless]. Therefore, we are obligated to provide them with consular services and, if necessary, to protect them.

I should reiterate that ensuring the rights of Russian citizens in US penitentiaries is one of the Embassy's unconditional priorities. Our diplomats closely monitor the health and conditions of our [incarcerated] compatriots, maintain regular telephone communication with them, and make visits to prisons.

Last year I personally visited Alexander Vinnik, Vladislav Klushin, Anatoly Legkodymov, Dmitry Ukrainsky and Vadim Konoschenok. It was a very jarring experience. I saw hope in the eyes of all those Russians. I saw faith in the strength of the Russian state. Many of them are experiencing serious health problems. In the near future I intend to visit Vladislav Klushin, as well as Roman Seleznev, Alexander Vinnik and others.

We try to help them, but, alas, not everything is within our power. I cannot help but mention the particularly serious condition of Roman Seleznev. He must be brought back to his home country as soon as possible.

We will continue our efforts to secure the release of all Russian citizens [incarcerated in US prisons]. We will press for their early return home.

- What, in your opinion, do rampant Russophobia and attempts to "cancel Russia" by the US political class indicate?

- It is amazing how easily the United States abandons the fundamentals on which the country was once built. Freedom of speech has given way to attempts to muzzle anyone who may express views different from those deemed acceptable by Washington’s Beltway groupthink consensus.

Even the most hard-core, uncompromising Russophobes realize the illusory nature of their wish to "cancel" our country, with its great history and culture and major say in world affairs. It is impossible to solve virtually any problem of importance to humankind without Russia, be it challenges to international or regional security, the fight against terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or climate change.

Another thing is that not many brave souls in contemporary America will dare to openly admit this. Not to mention government officials, who simply use Russophobia as a means to climb the career ladder or as a convenient tool to wheedle more budgetary largesse for their particular agencies.

We continue to record attempts to intimidate our fellow citizens, including those by intelligence services, the Ukrainian diaspora and representatives of the "fifth column," who have been given shelter by the [US] authorities. The blatant anti-Russian activity stems from the unwillingness of the American political class to bear any responsibility for its failure. Gritting their teeth, they continue to doggedly pursue their policy of achieving our country’s "strategic defeat."

We, as diplomats in Washington, are confident that Russia will withstand these tests and emerge from them even stronger and more truly sovereign. Our former Western partners may feel free to engage in self-hypnosis, but they will have to reckon with us.

Interviewed by Dmitry Kirsanov, Washington, DC