Interview with Interfax News Agency
William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
February 12, 2009
QUESTION: First of all I would like to ask you about the word "reset." Mr. Obama and after him Mr. Biden said that it that was time to reset relations with Russia. Can you be more specific about that, and what do you think could change in Washington's policy toward Russia?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I'm very happy to be back in Moscow. I'm especially happy to be here during the first few weeks of a new Administration, to follow up on what have been some constructive initial conversations between our two Presidents and between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov. We do believe, as President Obama has emphasized, that we have before us an important opportunity to reset our relations onto a more productive path. In recent years, often times mutual frustration has tended to obscure our mutual interests. We believe it's time to look ahead. That doesn't mean that we won't have differences and disagreements from time to time; what it means is that we are committed to trying to take advantage of this moment of opportunity and of the common interests between us. 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 interest 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 unique capabilities and unique responsibilities. The U.S. and Russia together possess 95 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal. It's important for us to set a good example for the rest of the world in how we manage and reduce our own remaining nuclear arsenals; how we work together with other partners to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and how to ensure that terrorists are not able to get their hands on such weapons. That is one example of our clear common interest.
QUESTION: Could you confirm media reports suggesting that the Obama administration is willing to discuss with Russia the slashing of nuclear arsenals by eighty percent?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The U.S. administration is committed to negotiating a legally binding follow-on agreement to START, an agreement that preserves a strong verification regime, and an agreement which aims at further reductions in our nuclear arsenals beyond the levels of the Moscow Treaty. We haven't made any decisions in the American administration about the specifics, but we look forward at the earliest possible date to beginning discussion with our Russian partners on this very important issue, just as soon as our new negotiator is confirmed by the United States Senate.
QUESTION: Are you planning to reduce significantly the arsenals?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We are certainly committed to an agreement which aims at further reductions, but at this stage we are still developing the precise positions which we will seek to discuss with our Russian partners. These are issues – arms control, further reductions, the control of the proliferation of nuclear materials, which President Obama takes very seriously. The President, when he was Senator and when I was Ambassador to Russia, visited Russia in 2005 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 nuclear issues.
QUESTION: What issues do you think the Russian and U.S. Presidents can discuss at their meeting in London in April. Some newspapers have talked about an agreement on the common fight against corruption, and the creation of some mechanism for economic cooperation, such as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: It's up to the two Presidents to decide the details of their agenda, but I would simply say the following. I think that nuclear cooperation and arms control, and especially the possibility of reaching a post-START agreement that serves both our interests, will be an important item. Another important item is likely to be cooperation against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We share a common interest in ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Afghanistan is another area of common interest.
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 the two Presidents. Both of our economies have been seriously affected by the global financial crisis, and both of our countries have an important role to play in addressing that challenge. Finally, I think it will be important for our two leaderships to look at ways in which can structure our relationship and ensure that we are working together more systematically. But we have not yet made any specific proposals.
QUESTION: What about the meeting between Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton? Could this meeting take place before the summit in London?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Secretary Clinton looks forward very much to meeting Minister Lavrov. I expect that such a meeting will take place in the very near future, before the meeting in London, but I don't have an announcement to make for you this afternoon. I'll let my colleagues at the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs make that announcement at the appropriate time.
QUESTION: What about the meeting in the two plus two format? Could it take place before the April summit?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The two plus two format has been a useful one for both countries, and it could well be useful in the future. There could also be additional forms of meetings in the future, but I don't have anything specific on the timing of those meetings to offer today.
QUESTION: Could you clarify the new administration position on missile defense? Is the U.S. determined to deploy missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As Secretary Clinton said earlier this week after she met with the Czech foreign minister, we continue to consult closely with our partners in the Czech Republic and Poland. We have certainly heard Russia's concerns about missile defense. We hope also that Russians understand that no U.S. President can afford a situation where the United States is vulnerable to potential nuclear weapons on missiles from North Korea or Iran. 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 is cost effective; the nature of the threat, and if, through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners, we can reduce or eliminate that threat, it obviously shapes the way that we look at missile defense. We are also open to the possibility of cooperation with Russia and with our NATO partners on new missile defense configurations which can take advantage of assets which each of us have. We want to consult with Russia and with our NATO partners to see if we can't develop cooperative approaches to missile defense which protect all of us.
QUESTION: Does it mean that the plan of deploying missile defense could be revised if the nuclear problem of Iran and North Korea is resolved?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: It means that that is certainly one of the factors that we will consider.
QUESTION: Concerning the cooperative approach of the U.S, Russia and NATO on missile defense, are you speaking of what was proposed in the Sochi declaration?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I can only speak for the United States, but certainly we are quite open to the possibility of new forms of cooperation on missile defense. 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 Poland and in the Czech Republic.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. administration prepared to take into account Russia's new position that there should be a linkage between the issues of missile defense and START?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: All I can say on that is that the United States is interested in a thorough discussion of the whole range of security issues with Russia.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. administration intend to push ahead with the entry of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, despite Russia's negative attitude?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The United States attaches a high value to the NATO alliance. Our view is that sovereign nations have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances. That means that Ukraine and Georgia have the right to membership in NATO. But that depends first upon all the members of NATO agreeing to that. It means that the people of those two countries or any other potential members must support membership; and it means that any country which wishes to a member of NATO has to meet the requirements of NATO. Today, Ukraine and Georgia are not ready for membership in NATO. Membership is a complicated and time-consuming process which deserves to be handled carefully. In the meantime, the United States is committed to close ties between NATO and those two countries through the bilateral commissions which have recently been created.
QUESTION: You mentioned Afghanistan as one of the main topics. How critical for the United States is the planned closure of the base at the Manas airfield? Is the US still determined to talk the Kirgiz leadership out of this decision? Did or will the U.S. discuss this issue with the Russian side?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The issue of Manas was not the purpose of my visit to Moscow. As Secretary Clinton said, we regret 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 effort to help 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 What we have discussed during our visit to Moscow and what will remain an important subject of conversation between the United States and Russia is our overall cooperation on Afghanistan. Because I believe that there is more that we can do together to promote our common interest in stability in Afghanistan. We 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 for Afghanistan.
QUESTION: As an alternative, are you considering the possibility of deploying bases in other Central Asian countries?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We're considering a wide range of options.
QUESTION: Do you see the possibility of discussing with Russia the possibility of the transit through Russian territory of military materials to coalition forces in Afghanistan?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We're already working together on the transit of certain kinds of equipment, non-lethal equipment, but we certainly are looking forward to broadening that cooperation in any way that serves the interests of both of our countries.
QUESTION: About Georgia, the U.S. is taking part in the Geneva dialogue on South Ossetia an Abkhazia. How can this problem be resolved, and how does Washington view the Russian plans to build Russian military bases in these republics? There are reports that the U.S. plans to deploy two military bases in Georgia.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: 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 they were true, they would be inconsistent with the agreements into which Russia entered 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 very important to have a peaceful resolution of differences. The Geneva process is the mechanism that all of us are engaged in and we continue to support it, and we want to work with Russia and the other participants in this process to bring more stability to this region.
QUESTION: What prospects do you see for Russian and American cooperation in dealing with the global economic crisis?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think the United States and Russia share an important and growing interest in economic cooperation. The global financial crisis affects us both seriously. We both have a role to play in addressing that challenge. That reality deepens our interest in expanding trade and investment in any way that we can.
QUESTION: There have been attempts to boost cooperation, such as the Chernomyrdin-Gore commission. Should there be a similar mechanism, perhaps with Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We haven't made any specific proposals about new forms or structures of cooperation. That's something that we'll have to discuss together in the coming months. But I do think personally, and I thought when I was Ambassador here, that it is important, given the significance of our relationship, to look at ways in which we can deal with each other more systematically, and build more structure into the relationship. There are a number of different models that we can look at. We haven't made any specific proposals yet.
QUESTION: What will be the position of the new U.S. administration toward Russia entry into the World Trade Organization?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We support it. It's in both of our interests.
QUESTION: When you were U.S. Ambassador here, you hoped that the civilian nuclear agreement would be ratified. What is the future of the agreement?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: One of my last steps as Ambassador was to sign the U.S. Russian agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, the so-called 1-2-3 agreement, and then I returned to Washington. I continue to believe that there is great potential in civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and Russia. The new administration is reviewing a whole range of issues, including the question of civilian 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.
QUESTION: Speaking earlier, you talked about the new U.S. chief START negotiator. Do you have any idea who this person will be?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Not that I can announce to you, no. The process on our side is that it must be announced formally, and then approved by Congress. We want to move very quickly on this issue.
QUESTION: How do you see the prospects of energy cooperation following the crisis in January?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The reality is that today Russia is the world's largest producer of oil and gas, and the United States today is the world's largest consumer. It's obvious that we should have a serious and sustained dialogue on energy issues. It seems to me that the dialogue ought to based on the same principles on which we all agreed at the St. Petersburg G-8 summit in 2006- a market oriented approach; transparency; and diversity in supply, demand, and transit routes. We should also look together at 21st century challenges, such as energy efficiency, alternative sources of energy, and clean coal. There are a range of 21st century issues on which we can both benefit from cooperation.