11 Feb 2011

U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns: I strongly believe there is genuine possibility for cooperation between us on missile defense

U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns speaks to Interfax about the purposes of his visit to Moscow and cooperation on missile defense, as well as the most pressing issues on the international agenda, including Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan.

Q.: Mr. Burns, what are the main purposes of your visit to Moscow?

A.: I‘m very pleased to get back to Moscow. This is a moment of great promise in relations between Russia and the United States. In the two years since the two presidents launched the ‘reset‘ we have made significant progress: we ratified the New START agreement, completed 1-2-3 agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, deepened our cooperation on Afghanistan. We are [working] closely together on non-proliferation issues, especially on Iran and North Korea, strengthened our partnerships on counternarcotics and counterterrorism, established a bilateral presidential commission to intensify ties not just between our governments but also between our societies on issues ranging from energy efficiency to health, to youth and sports exchanges. Trade and investments are also increasing in both directions. A recent polling, public opinion polling, suggests that more than 60% of Russians today have a favorable view of the U.S., which is more than two time what it was two years ago. There are similar trends in the U.S. towards Russia. The central purpose of my visit is to build on this momentum to move beyond the ‘reset‘ to widen and deepen our cooperation in the range of areas. I met over the course of the last couple of days with a number of senior governmental officials in the Kremlin, the White House, and the Foreign Ministry. I also met with political reform, civil society and business leaders. I emphasized the very high priority that President Obama attaches to doing everything that the U.S. can to help Russia achieve accession to the WTO and graduation from Jackson-Vanick this year, 2011. I also highlighted the value for both of us of building genuine cooperation on missile defense. Both of our president have stressed the importance for Russia‘s future of transparent accountable democratic government. That is not easy. As many Russians know far better than I do the truth is that there are problems and abuses at the path of that progress, whether it is pervasive corruption, which the U.S. is not a stranger to either. It is a challenge in our society. The unsolved murders of journalists like Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya, attacks on human rights activists and the selective application of justice. It is deeply in the interests of Russia, in our view, to address those challenges, and it is really deeply in the interests of the U.S. to do everything we can to support economic and political modernization in Russia. So, I guess what I would say overall is that we have come a really long way together over the last two years and I think more great deals can be accomplished in 2011 and beyond.

Q.: The New START treaty took effect last week. Will the U.S. seek the start of talks on tactical nuclear arms with Russia? Is the U.S. ready to withdraw its tactical weapons as a precondition for such talks?

A.: President Obama said in Prague when he and President Medvedev signed the START treaty, we are very much committed to continuing progress between us in the nuclear arms reduction in trying to build a more stable future for the two of us and for the rest of the world. The president mentioned in Prague the value of beginning to explore discussions on strategic, non-strategic and non-deployed nuclear weapons, and they were for very much to beginning those conversations with the Russian colleagues.

Q.: And what about missile defense? Russia previously said if the U.S. deploys the third and fourth missile launch sites, it would somehow damage the strategic balance and pose a threat to Russia‘s security. Does the U.S. plan to deploy these sites after all?

A.: I strongly believe that there is a genuine possibility for cooperation between us, between the U.S. and Russia and also between Russia and NATO, on missile defense. This, as you know, has been an area of differences and disagreements between us in the past. I think we are now focused on transforming that into an area of cooperation. And I really do believe that that‘s possible. The presidents have discussed this, I continued those conversations over the last couple of days here, and there will be other more detailed conversations in the weeks and months ahead. I am optimistic: we will find a basis for a genuine cooperation on this issue.

Q.: Do you think that the deployment of the third and fourth positioning sites will be a pretext for Russia to breach the START treaty, to withdraw from it?

A.: No. I started from the assumption, as I said, that it is possible to build a real partnership on the issue of missile defense. I think that is possible and I think we are going to make progress in that direction.

Q.: President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a sectoral missile defense for Europe. If my memory serves me right, there has been no answer from NATO. When can it be awaited?

A.: As I said, discussion between us, I think, have so far been serious and productive, and we are going to continue them in the same spirit. I do believe there is a basis for cooperation between us.

Q.: Russia and the United States are entering a pre-election year. Could this lead to a pause in the “reset” process?

A.: I know some people speculate about that, but I think that that is exactly the reason that President Obama and President Medvedev are committed to building on the momentum of the last couple of years, not to pause in our relations, especially to widen and deepen cooperation, to look for areas, like economic cooperation, which have had relatively less content in our relationship in the past, and look for ways in which we can we fill our relationship with more content. That is why the WTO accession for Russia is a high priority for the U.S. in 2011, and that is why we want to work together to deepen economic relationships along with a number of other areas of cooperation. So, we firmly believe that it is not in the interests of either of our countries to pause, we need to redouble our efforts.

Q.: Many experts believe that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment can be a threat to U.S. businesses in Russia. In this connection, what steps is the American administration taking to get this amendment scrapped by the U.S. Congress?

A.: As I said, we are committed to doing everything we can in 2011 to achieve Russia‘s graduation from Jackson-Vanick. There is a good case to be made for doing that. And we are going to work very hard to try to achieve that this year.

Q.: If you do not mind I would like to turn to Iran. The U.S. does not seem to be successful in pushing its position on Iran. Do you think the six-party talks have any future, or its format is outdated?

A.: Well, I think, the position that the 5+1 countries have taken is not the American position, it is a unified position which Russia and other partners share. We were all disappointed as Lady Ashton put it after the last round of discussions with Iranians in Istanbul at the end of January. But I think what was clear in those discussions was the solidarity of the 5+1 countries in support, what we believe is a very important choice that the Iranian government has to make, whether it will live up to its international obligations, address the concerns that have been raised by the UN Security Council in a series of resolutions, by the IAEA, because if it wants to address those concerns, there is clearly a diplomatic pathway for accomplishing them. That is in Iran‘s best interests, that is in the best interests of the international community. The alternative is the increasing isolation for Iran. I think all of us, the 5+1, including the U.S. and Russia, are committed to that proposition. The U.S., as I said, shared the disappointment of our partners after Istanbul, but our commitment to diplomacy continues. At the same time we need to sharpen that choice for the Iranian government and hope that they will draw the right conclusions. The best way to do that, we are convinced, is to continue to work in close coordination with other countries, including Russia.

Q.: You spoke about solidarity and unified position within the 5+1 format. But still Russia often claims that the U.S. and European countries impose unilateral sanctions on Iran. Could you please comment on this?

A.: I think Resolution 1929 when it was passed last summer made it clear that the commitment of all of us to holding Iran to its international obligations. I know there have been differences sometimes. All the steps that the U.S. is taking and other of our partner have taken, but I think in general there is a solid consensus within this group about the importance of ensuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons and ensuring that it meets its international obligations. That is what, I think, drives all of us in the 5+1.

Q.: You have already mentioned the importance of Russia‘s pursuing democratic ways. What do you think about scandals and trials of the Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky? Could it effect investment climate in Russia and its image in the eyes of foreign investors?

A.: Well, I guess, I would say several things. The U.S. government has been very clear in public, as well as in private, about our concerns about the Khodorkovsky case and the selective application of justice. We have been quite clear about our concerns, as have other counties around the world, about the Magnitsky case and the importance of a credible investigation into what happened. From the point of view of the U.S., our concern is certainly enrooted in the importance that we attach to universal human rights in any place in the world, but it is also enrooted in the importance of establishing the rule of law, as Russia moves ahead in what we know is the difficult challenge of modernization, because without respect for the rule of law and its equal and fair application it is very difficult to build an environment in which economic modernization can take place, as well as the modernization of political institutions. And so trade and investment, as I mentioned before, is increasing between the U.S. and Russia, and I hope very much that this continues, but is also important for us, both of us, to address obstacles in the path of that increase and questions that arise.
As to Yukos: there is a very practical reason that Americans are concerned about, and that is the number of American investors in Yukos. There are several billion dollars worth of investments. So that is a very practical reason for Americans to be concerned.

Q.: Can the satiation around Khodorkovsky effect some great plans between the U.S. and Russia in economic trade and investment spheres?

A.: I will repeat we have been very clear about the concerns that we raised about Khodorkovsky, as well as other cases.

Q.: Did you discuss the situation in Egypt during your talks in Moscow, and are there any fears that a wave of instability may reach Central Asia after Tunisia and Egypt? How can the U.S. and Russia cooperate in order to prevent this instability?

A.: We discussed all of those issues, because they are of profound importance to both the U.S. and Russia, given the state each of us has in the international community and in the Middle East. Egypt, as President Obama has made clear, thinks it cannot go back to the way they were. Egyptians clearly seek freedom, they seek responsible and representative and responsive government. And the U.S. supports Egyptians in their effort. We support universal human rights that Egyptians clearly are seeking. President Obama has also made clear our support for an orderly rapid process of transition, the process which involves deep and meaningful reforms of the political system, and we are going to do everything we can to support that. Clearly, other countries, other societies of the region are facing similar kinds of challenges, similar kinds of frustrations on the part of their population who seek those kinds of basic freedoms. So, we will continue to make clear to our friends and partners throughout the region that we have a long-term commitment to our friends in the Middle East. At the same time we believe that it is absolutely essential for leaderships and peoples throughout the region to undertake serious political and economic reforms, to address legitimate concerns of the people, because stability is not a static phenomenon. If societies are not addressing those kinds of concerns over the long-term, it is very, very difficult, in fact it is impossible, to maintain stability.

Q.: Will cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in their fight against terrorism intensify, especially after the tragic events at the Domodedovo airport?

A.: First of all, my condolences over the tragedy at the Domodedovo airport. Second, the U.S. and Russia have expanded cooperation on counterterrorism quite substantially over the last couple of years, but I think the attacks that both of us have suffered at the hands of terrorists is a reminder that that cooperation is going to be even more important in the year ahead. So, I think you can be sure that we will do everything possible to increase that cooperation, to align forces of authorities and in every other way that we can. Just as we have increased cooperation on counternarcotics as well.

Q.: Previously NATO said that it hopes that the U.S. will finance the supplies of Russian helicopters to Afghanistan. Has this issue been solved?

A.: We discussed this issue in my meetings today, and I believe we are close to the resolution on that issue. I think that it is a form of cooperation that we value highly, because it certainly addresses our common concerns of the U.S. and Russia that is to help Afghans to build a more stable society.