3 Jun 2011

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy: If U.S. were to breach New START with offensive weapons, Russia has right to quit it

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee in the U.S. Senate‘s Appropriations Committee, who visited Russia this week has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about U.S.-Russian bilateral relations, in particular the New START treaty and cooperation on Afghanistan, as well as the Middle East situation, the elimination of Osama Bin Laden and support to civil societies in Russia and Georgia.

Question: What are the reasons for cutting the U.S.‘ support for the Russian civil society?

Answer: The cuts are not aimed at Russian civil society. We haven‘t cut our support to Russian civil society. We have made major cuts in all our budgets. I am the chairman of the committee that handles all the funding of the State Department and all the funding for foreign aid, NGOs and humanitarian organizations. We have made cuts in every single area. We find the NGOs here in Russia to be very valuable. I met with a dozen of NGO representatives, very impressive in what they are doing. I support them. We have been cutting our budget in virtually every area. We are also cutting our budget in a lot of U.S. domestic programs that are very valuable to us.

Q: And what about other countries of the former Soviet Union? For instance, recent weeks have seen some riots, disturbances in Belarus and Georgia. Is the U.S. going to support civil societies there, in these countries?

A.: We have supported civil society in Georgia. We hope for moves towards democracy there. We do not agree with everything Georgians do by any means, and we do not agree with all that Russians do. But we do agree that there is great potential within some of the civil societies, educational, humanitarian and otherwise, and we will continue to support those.

Q.: What do you think about the recent situation in Georgia? I mean those anti-riot measures?

A.: I think that we have a number of areas around the world where people want to demonstrate. There should be a right in any country that claims to be democratic. They should be allowed to demonstrate as long as they are doing it peacefully without destruction and creating criminal activities. They ought to be allowed to demonstrate. I think that when governments put down peaceful demonstrations by violent means, ultimately it hurts the government. And that is a bad mistake on their part. It‘s certainly a wrong thing to do in any event, whether it hurts the government or not, it is a wrong thing to do. If a country wants to claim that its people are free, they better be free to dissent against the government, and they got to be free to state what their disagreements are with the government. We have people disagree with our government all the time in America. Ultimately, it makes us stronger, because it demonstrates that every voice can be heard. I have people come sometimes and demonstrate in front of my office. If this happens in cold weather, we bring out hot coffee for them, and I think it is wonderful. People should be allowed to do this.

Q.: Turning back to Russia. What is your opinion on the criminal cases against Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky? Is it possible that the U.S. Congress will impose sanctions on the Russian side in connection to these cases?

A.: What I know about the cases, is what I read in papers. I read the statement on the Magnitsky case and on the Khodorkovsky case. When you read the accounts of Khodorkovky‘s case in the European press and the U.S. press, you get a strong impression that you do not have an independent judiciary, especially in the second round of decisions. And again no democracy truly exists without an independent judiciary. This did not come across as an independent judiciary. The basic facts in Khodorkovsky‘s case - I‘m not going to judge those - but it certainly gives an impression that it‘s not being an independent judiciary. In the other case, again without going into the facts, we have a person who was ill and was being held in prison without anybody being able to at least take care of the illness. That‘s totally wrong. That would be unacceptable in any country, unacceptable in this case or in so many others we have heard about in the past. I would urge the Russians to make their prison system, their post-arrest situations far more transparent. We have to in our country. There were times when our authorities wished they did not have to, but overall we are better because they do have to. I believe the matter has gone before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Magnitsky to take actions on visas. And I have no idea whether this will go anywhere or not. Again I‘ve always been reluctant to interfere with a judicial system in another country if it is transparent.

Q.: Talking about our bilateral relations, what are the prospects for scrapping the Jackson-Vanik Amendment this year? Is it true that the Congress and the Senate are going to adopt a new document concerning the current situation in Russia instead of this amendment?

A.: The Jackson-Vanik Amendment [if it had any use at all] is long passed. I‘ve never been a supporter of the Jackson-Vanik. I think strong bilateral relations with another country are usually the best way to avoid huge mistakes. I believe our restrictions on Cuba have not changed a single thing there. If anything, the U.S. embargo on Cuba (which is not your question, but just an example) strengthened Castro and sometimes allows the government to blame all their problems on the U.S.. I agree with what President Obama said that this is the reset of our relations with Russia. At the American Chamber of Commerce, I heard many of them say, including Republicans, that they applauded the President‘s statement that we want to reset relations. And of course it helped that here in Russia we have a very good active embassy. The Ambassador speaks perfect Russian and has done a great deal of outreach. The idea of reset seems like a simple term but reflects a very ongoing open policy.

Q.: You mentioned the U.S. embassy to Russia. Some U.S. media speculated that Michael McFaul will be nominated as the next U.S. ambassador. What do you think of that? Will you support his nomination?

A.: I just saw that as we were leaving Washington. As you know, there is always a turnover of ambassadors, and we had a series of very good ambassadors here. Our current ambassador has the complete confidence of President Obama. McFaul also has the President‘s confidence. And the reaction I‘ve got is that it will be a good choice apparently because of his own experience. I will emphasize that to people who see these changes, this is not in any way a criticism of our current ambassador who is highly respected by both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., by Americans. A respect what he has earned as a career diplomat. Ambassadors change. I think that with this new nominee it will have to take a few months to go through all background and confirmation by the U.S. Senate. I think that he is somebody who will be confirmed overwhelmingly by both Republicans and Democrats, and that will reflect the continuation of the American policy of wanting to have cooperation and work with Russia. There is a lot at stake for both Russia and the U.S. to have cooperation. This is not the Cold War rivalry, not how many warheads you have versus how may warheads we have. We could have fired more than enough to destroy the whole planet, and the fear was that we would, and now we are not adversaries. The Cold War era which unfortunately shaped many of the policies of both the USSR and the U.S. and often times to the detriment of both countries. We are not in the Cold War situation. Both countries face economic problems, both countries face problems of growth, both countries face the threat of terrorism internally or externally. In some ways that is harder to counter than the nuclear ballistic missiles, because you do not know where it is coming fr om. And yet both countries have the ability, intelligence ability and otherwise, and the global reach to stop terrorism in many, many instances. And so it is in our interest to cooperate. I know that it was not your question but I started to mention that.

Q.: The New START treaty came one of the major points of the reset. But still it has some problems like missile defense. Do you think that Russia has a legal right to break this treaty should the U.S. continue to develop their missile defense?

A.: That is not written into the treaty. I think that Russia‘s legal rights are within the four corners of the treaty: to what they agreed or not agreed. If the U.S. were to breach the treaty with offensive weapons, it has the right to breach the treaty. There is no provision as I recall to opt out of the treaty for the progression of defensive weapons. I know there are also ongoing discussions between the U.S. and Russia on what types of defensive weapons we have. These defensive weapons are not aimed at Russia, and there is no way they could be aimed at Russia.

Q.: But why is the U.S. so unwilling to provide Russia with legally binding guarantees that this missile system is not directed against Russia?

A.: We have given legally binding guarantees on offensive weapons against Russia. And that is really what they need. There is nothing we are doing here. They can see themselves. It is not an offensive weapon.

Q.: In recent years Afghanistan has become one of the major points of Russian-U.S. cooperation. Russia and the U.S. signed a contract for supplying Russian helicopters to Afghanistan. Could you specify the sum that the U.S. is ready to devote for this purpose?

A.: I do not know the sum. I know that Russia has made a major complement to cooperation that has been allowing overflights to U.S. in supplying Afghanistan. I find it interesting when I‘m going to our bases in Afghanistan there can be seen a number of Russian airplanes, transport planes. Russian helicopters are already there. Last time I saw a Russian helicopter in Kandahar. I do not know who was flying them, but it was taking off. I have no problem with Russia‘s selling helicopters to Afghanistan. There is no question that the Afghans should be able to train their pilots to a degree that they can easily fly them.

Q.: One of the major concerns for the international community is the situation in Northern Africa, first of all in Libya. Do you think that the U.S. was right to start a NATO operation against Libya, and do you think it is legal that the coalition forces want to eliminate Col. Gaddafi?

A.: The U.S. did not begin action in Libya. It was a NATO-led and directed action. The U.S. acted as a part of NATO in accordance with a significant UN resolution that could have been vetoed by any number of countries, including Russia. I listened to what the Russian president has said that it is time for Gaddafi to go. I agree with him. As far as targeting Gaddafi, if the U.S. had targeted Gaddafi, he would not be alive today. We target those forces he uses against his own people, he was using his forces to kill and murder innocent Libyans who in his mind spoke about their own aspirations for freedom. That we stopped. I think if you look at the [opposition Libyan forces] their primary target is Gaddafi. There has been great care in the bombing to date [by NATO forces] to go after command and control airfields, tanks, planes, but not Gaddafi. If that changes he would be well advised to seek another place to live. Press accounts say that Zuma fr om South Africa supposedly offered places to Gaddafi to go, but Gaddafi refused to leave. I think this is a mistake. He cannot stay dictator of this country all these years. The dictatorship which has made him and members of his family extraordinary wealthy. Things are changing, times are changing and that [regime] is also going to have to change.

Q.: What about other North African and Middle East countries like Syria. The U.S. often says that it supports democracies in the Middle East. What is this support like? Is it financial, political or something else. If it is financial could you specify the sums that the U.S. gives to the Libyan or Syrian opposition?

A.: We will support democratic movements that speak up for human rights and democracy all around the world. Syria I think is making the same mistakes others have made thinking that they can just stop people‘s hopes and aspirations with tanks and guns. It does not work. It has never worked in history. It ultimately changes. Syria is not a country that wants to be like North Korea for example. I do not want and cannot predict wh ere Syria will be in two or three years. I suspect a changed state. I know there is a lot of concern in Iran, which has openly but also covertly supported Syria with money and weapons, intelligence operatives, and others.

Q.: You mentioned our common fight against terrorism. One of the biggest victories lately has been the elimination of Bin Laden. Do you think it was legal? Is it true that in the U.S. had spent several billion dollars to track him down and eliminate over the recent years?

A.: The billion dollars is greatly exaggerated. Bin Laden, the mastermind, struck at the U.S. within our country, killing thousands of totally innocent people: Christians, Muslims and Jews all died in that strike. Children, adults totally innocent people. It would be the height of stupidity for someone to think that the U.S. is not going to react and pursue who did that. Bin Laden could have turned himself in anytime he wanted, he would have been brought back and held for trial in U.S., he would have been given the same rights as any criminal. He could have been treated the same as any criminal, be it a mass murderer in this case. He is a terrorist. He did not. We learned more of other attacks against our embassies and other things he had organized. I think he would have been caught in Afghanistan a decade ago when he was basically surrounded. A big mistake by the U.S. was taking our special forces and others out of there to go into a war in Iraq. Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. And unfortunately many in the government tried to act as though he did. While diverting our forces, Bin Laden was able to escape into Pakistan, and it cost maybe a trillion dollars and loss of countless lives in Iraq. It had nothing to do with 9/11. When President Obama came to the office, this has been made public. One of his first orders to the new head of the CIA Leon Panetta were to track and find Osama Bin Laden, capture him and bring him in. There was a special governmental unit who tracked Bin Laden. It was expensive. It was not billions of dollars, but it was expensive. They tracked him and then ultimately came about his capture wh ere he had been living next to a large military installation in Pakistan for years. The execution of the capture was one that very few countries could have carried out. The President wanted to avoid bombing which would have killed children, women and innocent people, and he might not have known whether Bin Laden was actually dead. They did it with great precision. He was killed. His body was treated with appropriate Muslim respect and he was buried at sea.