U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow: We didn‘t expect any quid pro quo for our new approach for missile defense
Answer: This was just a working visit, to have the opportunity to meet some Russian counterparts in the wake of the successful meetings between our two presidents, particularly the July Summit, but also the very successful meeting that they just had in New York. The Department of Defense is interested in playing its part in strengthening the relationship between Russia and the United States. There have been some very important recent decisions on missile defense, that is one subject that I work on at the Department of Defense, so one part of my agenda during these talks is to get a better understanding of the Russian reaction to President Obama’s decision and to determine whether Russia is interested in establishing a basis for cooperation on this. We believe that the new architecture that President Obama has announced provides a more effective and flexible way to defend all of Europe. Our focus of course has been on our allies in NATO, but we at the same time believe that there could be many opportunities for cooperation with Russia, recognizing the fact that there are common threats from the proliferation of ballistic missiles and by the build up of ballistic missiles by Iran.
Q.: How has the so-called reset of Russian-U.S. relations affected the countries’ military cooperation? Are there any plans for U.S.-Russian joint military exercises?
A.: That was one of the subjects of my consultations today, especially at the Ministry of Defense. I think the first positive result of the reset for our military-to-military relationship was the framework document that was signed at the summit in July by Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff admiral Mullen and Russian Chief of the General Staff Gen Makarov. They also agreed upon a work plan for the remainder of 2009 with about 17 or 18 joint activities and they are working on a much bigger and more ambitious work plan for 2010. So we hope that these activities will move ahead on schedule and will involve a whole range of exchanges, visits, and I think in the future we will certainly be open to discussing joint exercises. So we are still at an early stage. But I think we already have a good basis to reset the military-to-military relationship.
Q.: Is the U.S. considering military options among others to help resolve the Iranian nuclear and missile problem?
A.: Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates recently said that we never take any option off the table, but for now our priority is diplomacy. The meeting that is taking place tomorrow, October 1, is an opportunity for Iran to illustrate whether it is prepared to undertake the kind of measures that could convince the international community that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. The recent discovery of a secret facility for the enrichment of uranium and the recent tests of a series of ballistic missiles highlight just how urgent it is to resolve this issue. So we certainly will explore every possible opportunity to find a diplomatic solution, but we cannot allow this process to go on indefinitely given the continued advancement of Iran nuclear program. But I think that if diplomacy is not successful the next step is much stricter sanctions. If the international community can agree on strict sanctions we hope that that would convince the Iranians to change direction.
Q.: How far do you think that Iran has progressed in its nuclear program, and could you please comment on reports that the U.S. side recently provided Russia with some new information about the Iranian nuclear program?
A.: I cannot go very deeply into this kind of sensitive information. It is clear that Iran has been making steady progress in its capability to enrich Uranium, and is therefore producing increasing amounts of material that could be transformed into fissile material for a nuclear weapon. So the situation is very urgent. And taken together with the development of ballistic missiles of various ranges it is all the more important for the international community to stand together, and convince the Iranians that the time has come to change course. Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. The fact that they have conducted tests just at the time when diplomacy is about to start does not inspire confidence. But nevertheless we will explore every opportunity for a diplomatic solution.
Q.: Is Geneva meeting the last chance for Iran to prove its willingness for dialog and the peaceful character of its nuclear program?
A.: We have not suggested that one meeting is all the time that we will allow for diplomacy to succeed. We would hope that this could be the beginning of a process that could lead to a solution, that provides the kind of verifiable assurances and measures to guarantee that Iran is not moving toward a nuclear weapon. Now this process may last more than one day, but it cannot go on indefinitely. And we have agreed with our main partners that we need to see progress before the end of the year, or else we will have to shift toward tougher measures, including stronger sanctions.
Q.: Do these “main partners” include Russia?
A.: I think we have had very good consultations with Russia, including President Obama’s meeting with President Medvedev, but Russia will have to speak for itself.
Q.: After revising its global missile defense plans, does the U.S. expect Russia to make reciprocal steps, including those regarding its stance on Iran’s nuclear program and the possible exports of S-300 air defense systems to Tehran?
A.: The new approach which we have decided upon for missile defense was based on an analysis of the threats and of the available technologies, and was not presented as something on which we expected any quid pro quo. But the issue of the possible Russian transfer of the S-300 is a very critical issue in its own right, and we have said to Russia many times that we believe that that system could be very destabilizing in the region, and therefore have urged Russia to exercise restraint. So this is not something which we are negotiating on but simply something that we believe that Russia should see as in its own interest.
Q.: How would you comment on the concerns of some Russian experts that the new U.S. anti-missile system could be even more dangerous to Russia than the previous one, and if need be could Washington provide guarantee to Moscow that the U.S. missile defense program will not be targeted against Russia?
A.: We look forward to further consultations with Russia to explain in greater detail than we have thus far the characteristics of the new system. Russia has already been briefed, primarily through the Russian ambassador in Washington who is a great expert in these matters. So we think Russia understands already the basic elements of the new architecture. But the whole rational for this new system is to deal with the threat from Iran, both the existing threats from short and medium range missiles, which are deployed today and already are capable of threatening not only Iran’s middleeastern neighbors but also some of our NATO allies in southeastern Europe. That’s what the first phases of the new system are focused on, providing immediate protection of our allies in the south east [of Europe]. But over time, to deal with future Iranian missiles which are already in the testing stage, and which will have longer range capacity to threaten allies in central Europe and northern Europe, the characteristics of the missiles which we are developing and the overall architecture, in our view, does not present any threat to Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. And so far I think we have found some understanding from Russia in this regard. But still, it is a new system and we are fully prepared to engage in consultations with Russia to answer any questions and to explore possibilities for cooperation. Iranian ballistic missiles are a potential threat not just to NATO but to all countries within range of these systems, and cooperating on either a U.S.-Russia or a NATO-Russia basis would be a very valuable way to strengthen our common security.
Q.: In what particular areas can Russia and the U.S. cooperate on missile defense? Does Washington consider the possibility that the two countries could jointly operate the Russian radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan, and its S-300 and S-400 air defense systems?
A.: Secretary of Defense Gates and other senior defense officials have already pointed to the possibility of some form of link between Russian radars at Armavir, at Gabala, to provide additional data and early warning information that could benefit both of us in defending against ballistic missile threats. Exactly how these links would be established and how it would work technically is of course for the experts. But I think that the basic idea of sharing this kind of information against a common threat makes sense. And of course it could be just the beginning of a program of cooperation between NATO and Russia or between the United States and Russia on missile defense.
Q.: The U.S. missile shield plan reportedly envisions the deployment of some of its elements in the Caucasus. Could it be in Georgia, Azerbaijan, or some other state?
A.: We are just at an early stage of designing this system and we are just beginning consultations with the allies in the southeast European region, as well as all our allies who could be part of the system in the long term. So, it’s really too early to comment on what countries might be participants in this system. I think that General O’Reilly, the head of our missile agency has emphasized that one of the keys to this system is to have an early warning radar relatively close to Iran, within a thousand kilometers of Iran, to provide an immediate detection of a launch, so that the rest of the system could do good work trying to intercept the missile before it hits its target.
Q.: Could Georgia be part of it?
A.: I really cannot say anything about specific countries. Right now we are consulting with our NATO allies. I can’t say anything more. Russian General Staff Chief Nikolai Makarov told that Russia had a negative attitude to the possible deployment of U.S. missile defense sites in the Caucasus. I think the important thing to remember is that we are talking about defending against the potential threat and potential attacks against our territory, our allies’ territory, and potentially Russian territory. I think that defensive strategies are inherently ones that bring countries together, countries that are facing a common threat. So that’s why we would hope that we can establish a basis for cooperation with Russia, so that everyone interested are protected.
Q.: Russian-U.S. consultations on strategic nuclear forces are now being conducted in Geneva. The parties continue to differ on some issues, specifically: the number of nuclear delivery vehicles, the issue of delivery vehicles in non-nuclear equipment, and the relation between defensive and offensive weapons. Has any progress been achieved on any of these issues?
A.: It is not really very appropriate for me to comment on the issues in the center of negotiations. They are making progress. Our two presidents both agree that completing these negotiations is not only necessary, but possible before the expiration of the START treaty on December 5. So I think the negotiators try to narrow the differences between our two sides and try to find acceptable solutions.
Q.: Which of the problems are more complicated?
A.: There are many complicated issues, and of course, the issue of verification which is also complicated. I think we have lots of experience going back many decades in negotiating on these issues, so I think that with the help of the experts and with political will from the leadership we will find solutions.
Q.: Are you optimistic about a successful conclusion of the negotiations by December?
A.: I am by nature an optimist. I think a successful conclusion of the negotiations is possible.
Q.: Can the U.S. agree that a new strategic arms deal with Russia would stipulate a certain ratio between defensive and offensive weapons?
A.: You have identified another issue that is being negotiated. The U.S. view is that this treaty is about the reduction of offensive nuclear arms, just as the START Treaty that it will replace was about offensive nuclear arms. We certainly understand the Russian view on the inter-relationship between offensive arms and defensive arms. We believe the focus of the talks should remain on the reduction of the offensive weapons. We certainly are ready to discuss missile defense on its own terms and as I have stressed we are interested in exploring the possibility of cooperation. But these are issues that our negotiators are talking about every day. Leave it to them to find a way forward.
Q.: Has the U.S. changed its position on the ratification of the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)?
A.: I would not say that we have changed our position. We remain interested in finding a way to bring Russia back into the CFE Treaty, because it has unilaterally suspended its implementation. And this suspension has now gone on for more than a year. So the situation is not satisfactory and we would like to find a way to bring Russia back into the treaty and find a way to move forward toward the ratification of the CFE Treaty, but there are many issues that would have to be addressed in that process. We have lots of discussions between the United States and Russia on different approaches but so far we have not found a way to move forward. We are still interested in that, but the longer Russia remains out of the treaty, the more complicated the situation becomes.
The dialogue is continuing and we have not found the basis for a way forward. We are still searching.
Q.: When is the U.S. going to start using its right of military transit to Afghanistan through Russia?
A.: I can’t give you an exact date (when the U.S. will start transit through Afghanistan) There are still some procedural issues that are not quite completed. I don’t think there are any differences between the countries, but there are some processes that have to run their course. We are hoping that these flights can begin very soon. The agreement in July was a very important commitment by Russia to contribute to the success of the NATO operation in Afghanistan. And putting that agreement to effect, I think, will not only be of practical value, but will be a strong signal to people of Afghanistan and to the surrounding region that the United States and Russia are working together to deal with a major challenge to international security.
Q.: What else could Russia do in cooperation on Afghanistan?
A.: We continue to discuss other ways that Russia could contribute to the solution in Afghanistan. I think Russia is particularly interested in the problem of narcotics trafficking and it has already provided valuable training to some of the Afghan national police at the Domodedovo training center. And there may be other ways to deal with the narcotics problem, as well. And of course, Russia may be able to make an important contribution to Afghanistan’s economic development, which is one of the many elements of the international community’s strategy to strengthen the Afghan state and to strengthen the attractiveness of the legitimate government of Afghanistan and to reduce the appeal of the Taliban.
Q.: The U.S. earlier criticized Russia for failing to honor its obligations on reducing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Does Washington still see the things this way?
A.: Well, this is a subject I think that we would like to take up maybe at the next stage of the nuclear arms reductions process. President Obama, of course, has laid out a very ambitious agenda to substantially reduce and, in the long term, eliminate our nuclear weapons. In the current negotiations we‘re focusing on the strategic arms, but I believe President Obama would certainly want to explore with Russian leaders the possibility of extending the disarmament process to tactical nuclear weapons in the future. But I think it‘s premature to speculate on the details of this. First we need to get the START-following treaty finished and then move on both to implement that treaty and begin a new stage of nuclear arms reduction talks.
Q.: Reduction of tactical nuclear weapons?
A.: I think that‘s certainly one of the possibilities that‘s definitely in our conceptual framework.
Q.: An independent international commission has determined that it was Georgia which started the war in the South Caucasus last August. Do you think these findings could affect the U.S.’ military cooperation with Georgia?
A.: Washington is still studying this report, from what I have read only in the news it talks about the responsibility of both sides, but I think that it is really premature to draw any other conclusions before we have a chance to fully assess the report. We have always stood by Georgia’s sovereignty and independence and we will continue to support Georgia’s sovereignty and independence, and in the context of this report we should await the first comments of the [U.S.] State Department.
Q.: But in any case you will continue to support the sovereignty and independence of Georgia?
A.: Yes. And of course we continue to support the territorial integrity [of Georgia].