Sequence- specific protein -based ribonucleases are not found in nature. Absolute sequence selectivity in RNA cleavage in vivo normally requires multi -component complexes that recruit a guide RNA or DNA for target recognition and a protein –RNA assembly for catalytic functioning (e.g. RNAi molecular machinery, RNase H). Recently discovered peptidyl -oligonucleotide synthetic ribonucleases selectively knock down pathogenic RNAs by irreversible cleavage to offer unprecedented opportunities for control of disease -relevant RNA. Understanding how to increase their potency, selectivity and catalytic turnover will open the translational pathway to successful therapeutics. Yet, very little is known about how these chemical ribonucleases bind, cleave and leave their target. Rational design awaits this understanding in order to control therapy, particularly how to overcome the trade-off between sequence specificity and potency through catalytic turnover. We illuminate this here by characterizing the interactions of these chemical RNases with both complementary and non-complementary RNAs using T m profiles, fluorescence, UV -visible and NMR spectroscopies. Crucially, the level of counter cations, which are tightly -controlled within cellular compartments, also controlled these interactions. The oligonucleotide component dominated interaction between conjugates and complementary target s in the presence of physiological levels of counter cations (K + ), sufficient to prevent repulsion between the complementary nucleic acid strands to allow Watson -Crick hydrogen bonding. In contrast, the positively -charged catalytic peptide interacted poorly with target RNA, when counter cations similarly screened the negatively -charged sugar -phosphate RNA backbones. The peptide only became the key player, when counter cations were insufficient for charge screening; moreover, only under such non -physiological conditions did conjugates form strong complexes with non -complementary RNA s.