26 May 2009

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns: U.S.-Russian relations need reloading

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns visited Moscow this week and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Burns gave an interview to Interfax correspondent Alexander Korzun in the wake of the visit.

Q. U.S. President Barack Obama and later U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden said that it was time to push a “reset button” in relations with Russia. Could you be more specific as to what the new U.S. administration might be actually implying by saying that relations with Russia should be “reset” and what do you think will change in Washington’s policy towards Russia?

A. First, I am very happy to be back in Moscow. And I am especially I happy to be here in the first few weeks of the new administration. There have been some constructive initial conversations between the two presidents and between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

We do believe, as President Obama has emphasized, that we have before us an important opportunity to reset our relations on a more productive plane.

In recent years, quite often our mutual frustrations have tended to obscure our mutual interests. And we believe it’s time to look ahead. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have differences or disagreements fr om time to time. But what it means is that we are committed to be trying to take advantage of this moment of opportunity and of the common interest between us.

And what we need to do now together is to try to translate those good intentions and that positive rhetoric into practical progress. That serves the interests not only of the United States and Russia but of the rest of the world.

One clear concrete example is nuclear cooperation. That is an area where the United States and Russia have both unique capabilities and unique responsibilities. The United States and Russia together possess 95% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. It’s important to set a good example to the rest of the world in how we manage and reduce our own remaining nuclear arsenals, and how we work together with other partners to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to ensure that terrorists are not able to lay their hands on such weapons. That’s one example of our clear common interests.

Q. Could you confirm media reports suggesting that the Barack Obama administration is willing to discuss with Russia the slashing of up to 80% of their strategic offensive arsenals?

A. The administration of President Obama is committed to negotiating a legally binding follow-on agreement to START. An agreement that preserves a strong verification of the regime and an agreement that aims at further reduction of our nuclear arsenals beyond the levels of the Moscow treaty. We haven’t made any decisions yet in the American administration on the specifics but we look forward at the earliest possible date to beginning discussions with our Russian partners on this very important issue just as soon as our new negotiator is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Q. Are you planning significant cuts in nuclear arsenals?

A. We are certainly committed to an agreement that aims at further reductions but at this stage as I said we are still developing the precise positions that we’ll seek to discuss with our Russian partners. This is an issue - arms control issues, further reductions and control of the nonproliferation of nuclear materials - that President Obama takes very seriously. The president, when he was Senator Obama, visited Russia in 2005 when I was ambassador, precisely because of his very strong interest in these issues and his recognition that U.S.-Russian leadership is essential in the whole range of these issues.

Q. What issues do you think the U.S. and Russian presidents could discuss at their meeting in London in April? Some Russian and American media reported about the idea of Washington to discuss during the summit the conclusion of an agreement on fighting corruption and the possibility of creating some mechanisms to develop economic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia – like, for instance, the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission.

A. First, it’s obviously up to the two presidents to decide the details of their agenda. I would simply say the following. First, as I mentioned, I think nuclear cooperation and arms control, especially the importance of reaching a post-START agreement that suits both of our interests, will be a very important item. We will… I think another important item on the agenda is likely to be our cooperation against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We share our common interest in ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapons capability, a nuclear weapons potential.

Afghanistan is another area of common interests. Both the United States and Russia have an interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a platform for the export of violent extremism from which both of us have suffered.

Global economic issues will obviously be an important subject for our two presidents. Both of our economies are seriously affected by the global financial crisis. And both of our countries have an important role to play in addressing that challenge.

And, finally, I think it will be important for our two leaderships to look at ways in which we can structure our relationship in ensuring that we work together more systematically. But we have not yet made any specific proposals.

Q. What about the meeting between Lavrov and Hillary Clinton? Have you discussed this question with Mr. Lavrov? And could this meeting take place before the April summit in London, and if yes, wh ere could it happen? Is there any possibility that Mrs. Clinton could visit Moscow any time before the summit?

A. First, Secretary Clinton looks forward very much to meeting Foreign Minister Lavrov. I expect that such a meeting will take place in the very near future, probably before the meeting in London. But I don’t have an announcement to make for you today. I’ll let my colleagues at the White House and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announce that at the appropriate time.

Q. And what about the meeting in the 2+2 format? Could it take place before the April summit?

A. Well, the 2+2 format has been a useful one for both of us and I think it could be useful in the future. And of course there could also be additional forms of meetings between us. But I don’t have anything specific to say about the timing of those meetings today.

Q. Could you clarify the new U.S. administration’s position on the global missile shield plan? Is the U.S. still determined to go ahead with the deploying of missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, which the Russian leadership suggested would prompt Russia to deploy Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region?

A. Well, as Secretary Clinton said earlier this week, when she met with the Czech foreign minister, we continue to consult closely with our partners in the Czech Republic and Poland. We certainly have heard Russia’s concerns about missile defense. We hope also that Russians understand that no U.S. president can afford a situation in which the United States is vulnerable to potential nuclear weapons on missiles from countries like North Korea or Iran.

And as we pursue the issue of missile defense, we obviously have to take into account a number of factors – whether the system works and whether it’s cost-effective, and what’s the nature of the threat. If through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners we can reduce or eliminate that threat, it obviously shapes the way at which we look at missile defense. And we are also open to the possibility of cooperation with Russia, with our NATO partners on new missile defense configurations which can take advantage of assets that each of us has.

We want to consult with our NATO partners, with Russia to see if we can develop a cooperative approach to missile defense that would protect all of us.

Q. Does it mean that the plans of deploying the elements of missile defense system could be reconsidered in case the nuclear problems of Iran and North Korea are resolved?

A. What it means is, as I mentioned, that’s one of the factors that we are going to consider.

Q. About the cooperative approach of U.S., Russia and NATO to the problem of missile defense. Does it mean, that the United States is ready to cooperate with Russia and NATO in creating a missile defense shield against Iran or North Korea?

A. I can only speak for the United States but certainly under the Barack Obama administration, the United States is quite open to the possibility of new forms of cooperation on these issues. But as I said before and as Secretary Clinton said earlier this week, we are going to continue to consult closely with our partners in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Q. Is the new U.S. administration prepared to take into account Russia’s new position that there should be a linkage with the issues of ABM, missile defense and START?

A. All I can say is that the United States is interested in a thorough discussion of the whole range of security issues with Russia.

Q. Does the U.S. administration plan to push ahead with the admission of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO despite Russia’s negative attitude toward this?

A. The United States attaches a high value to the NATO alliance. Any sovereign nations have the right to make their own decisions, to choose their own alliances. And that means that Ukraine and Georgia have the right to membership in NATO. But that depends, first, on all the members of NATO agreeing to that. It means that the people of those countries or any other potential members support that. And it means that any country that wishes to be a member of NATO has to meet the requirements for membership. Today, Ukraine and Georgia are not ready for membership in NATO. Membership is a complicated and time-consuming process that deserves to be handled carefully. And in the meantime, the United States is committed to close ties between NATO and those two countries through bilateral commissions that have recently been created.

Q. You mentioned Afghanistan as one of the main topic in the dialogue between Russia and U.S. How critical for the United States is the planned closer of the airbase at the Manas airfield and is the U.S. still determined to try to talk the Kyrgyz leadership out of this decision? Will the U.S. discuss or is discussing this issue with Russia?

A. The issue of Manas was not the purpose of my visit to Moscow. As Secretary Clinton said, we regret that the decision by the Kyrgyz leadership or the announcement by the Kyrgyz leadership that it seeks to end access to Manas for the United States.

As Secretary of Defense Gates said earlier this week Manas is important for our collective efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan but it’s not irreplaceable. We continue to engage the Kyrgyz leadership on this issue. But we are also looking at alternatives. And what we have discussed during our visit to Moscow, what will remain an important subject of conversation between the United States and Russia is our overall cooperation on Afghanistan. And I do believe that there is more we can do together to promote our common interest and stability in Afghanistan.

And we’ve had a team of experts here earlier this week to talk about further cooperation, including how best to take advantage together of Russia’s offer of transit - of equipment and materials to Afghanistan.

Q. As an alternative, are you planning to discuss the possible deployment of similar bases in other Central Asian countries?

A. We consider a wide range of options.

Q. Are you seeing the possibility of discussing with Russia the transit of military equipment for the coalition forces in Afghanistan?

A. We are already working together on the transit of certain kinds of equipment, non-lethal equipment. But we certainly are looking forward to broadening our cooperation in any way that serves the interests of both of our countries.

Q. Talking about Georgia, the U.S. is taking part in the Geneva dialogue on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The next round will take place next week, I think. How could this problem be resolved how does Washington perceive plans to deploy Russian military bases in these republics? There were some reports that the U.S. plans to deploy military bases in Georgia in response.

A. First, the United States has no plans for military bases in Georgia. Second, I don’t know the details of the reports that you mentioned about possible Russian bases. But if there were true, they would be inconsistent with the agreements that Russia signed last September with the French President. Most of the international community disagrees with Russia on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But we believe it’s important to have a peaceful resolution of differences. The Geneva process is a mechanism that all of us are engaged in. And we continue to support it. And we want to work with Russia and the others involved in that process to try to bring greater stability to the area.

Q. Presuming that economic cooperation between Russia and the U.S. plays a significant role, what prospects do you see for such cooperation amid the ongoing global crisis?

A. I think, as I said before, the United States and Russia share an important and growing interest in economic cooperation. Global financial crisis affects us both seriously. Both have a role to play in addressing that challenge. And that reality deepens our interests and we are expanding trade and investment between us in every way that we can.

Q. In previous times there was a certain set of mechanisms to boost economic cooperation between our two countries. Under Yeltsin and Clinton, there was the Chernomyrdin-Gore commission. And some experts both in Moscow and Washington say that probably there is just an idea that we should probably reinstate these mechanisms, for example, create a commission Joe Biden-Vladimir Putin. What’s your idea about that?

A. We haven’t made any specific proposals about new forms or structure of cooperation. That’s something we will have to discuss together in the coming months. But I do think personally and I though personally when I was ambassador here that is important, given the significance of our relationship to look at ways in we can deal with one another more systematically and build more structural relationship. There are a number of different models that we can look at. We haven’t made any specific proposals yet.

Q. What will be the position of the new U.S. administration toward the support of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization?

A. We support it. This is also in our interests.

Q. You told our news agency while you were serving as U.S. ambassador in Moscow that the new administration would certainly readdress the ratification of a U.S.-Russian civil nuclear cooperation deal, which has been recalled from the Congress. What will be the future of this document?

A. It was actually one of my last steps as the ambassador to sign the U.S.-Russian agreement on civil nuclear cooperation, the so-called one-two-three agreement, and then I left to return to Washington. I continue to believe that there is great potential in civil nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia. The new administration is reviewing a whole range of issues, including the question of civil nuclear cooperation and what the next steps would be on our agreement. And we would also have to consult carefully with the U.S. Congress.

Q: How does the U.S. view prospects of energy dialogue with Russia following the January crisis over supplies of natural gas to Europe across Ukraine?

A: The reality is that today Russia is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. The United States today is the world’s largest consumer. So it’s obvious that we should have a serious and sustained dialog on energy issues. It seems to me that this dialog ought to be based on the same principles that we all agreed to at the St. Petersburg G8 summit in summer 2006. And that is to say a market-oriented approach, transparency, diversity, and supply, demand and transit routes. And we should also look together at 21st century challenges: energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy, clean coal, a range of 21st century issues in which we can both benefit from cooperation.