William J. Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Interview With Interfax of Russia

Moscow, Russia

QUESTION: Nice to see you in Moscow again. State Department Graphic on U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission with Graphics of U.S. and Russian Flags in the Center

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I am very pleased to be back in Moscow. This is a moment of great promise in relations between Russia and the United States. In the two years since our two presidents launched the reset, we've made significant progress. We've ratified the New START agreement; completed the 123 Agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation; deepened our cooperation on Afghanistan; worked closely together on nonproliferation issues, especially on Iran and North Korea; strengthened our partnerships on counternarcotics and counterterrorism; and established the Bilateral Presidential Commission to intensify ties not just between our governments but between our societies, on issues ranging from energy efficiency to health and youth and sports exchanges. Trade and investment are also increasing in both directions. And recent public opinion polling suggests that more than 60% of Russians today have a favorable view of the United States, which is more than two times what it was two years ago. There are similar trends in the United States in attitudes toward Russia.

The challenge before us today, and the central purpose of my visit, is how to build on this momentum, to move beyond the reset, to widen and deepen our cooperation in a range of areas, but particularly in the economic area. I met, over the course of the last couple of days, with a number of senior government officials in the Kremlin, the White House, and the Foreign Ministry. I've also met with political reform, civil society, and business leaders. I emphasized the very high priority that President Obama attaches to doing everything the United States can to help Russia achieve accession to the World Trade Organization and graduation from Jackson-Vanik this year, in 2011. I also highlighted the value for both of us in building genuine cooperation on missile defense. Both of our presidents have stressed the importance for Russia's future of transparent, accountable, democratic government. That's not easy. As many Russians know far better than I do, the truth is that there are problems and abuses in the path of that progress, whether it's pervasive corruption; the unsolved murders of journalists like Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya; attacks on human rights activists; and the selective application of justice. It's deeply in the interest of Russia, in our view, to address those challenges, and it's certainly deeply in the interest of the United States to do everything we can to support economic and political modernization in Russia. What I would say overall is that we've come a very long way together over the last two years, and I think a great deal more can be accomplished in 2011 and beyond.

QUESTION: My first question is about nuclear disarmament. Last week we saw the START treaty come into force. What's next? Is the United States going to propose talks on the reduction of tactical weapons, and is the United States ready to remove its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe as a precondition for these talks?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As 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 nuclear arms reduction and 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 we look forward very much to beginning those conversations with our Russian colleagues.

QUESTION: What about missile defense? Russia previously said that if the United States deploys a third and fourth launch site, it will somehow damage the strategic balance and will pose a threat to Russia's security. Is the United States going to deploy these sites?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I firmly believe that there is a genuine possibility for cooperation between us ­ between the United States and Russia, and also between Russia and NATO ­ on missile defense. This has been an area of differences and disagreement between us in the past. What we're now focused on is transforming that into an area of cooperation, and I really do believe that that's possible. Our two presidents have discussed this. I continued those conversations over the course of the last couple of days here and we will have other, more detailed conversations in the weeks and months ahead. I am optimistic that we'll find a basis for genuine cooperation on this issue.

QUESTION: Don't you think that these third and fourth sites could become pretext for Russia to exit from the START treaty?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: No. I start from the assumption, as I said, that it's possible to build a real partnership between us on the issue of missile defense. I think that's possible, and I think we're going to make progress in that direction.

QUESTION: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a sectoral missile defense system in Europe, which is joint missile defense. And there is still no answer from the NATO side. When can we expect it?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As I said, the discussions between us so far have been serious and productive, and we're going to continue them very much in that spirit. I do believe that there is a basis for cooperation between us.

QUESTION: You mentioned that we have a lot of progress to make in our relations. Don't you think that the coming pre-electoral period, both in Russia and the United States, can be an obstacles? Can it somehow pause the reset process?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I know some people speculate about that, but I think that's 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 efforts. We especially need 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 fill our relationship with content. That's why WTO accession for Russia is such a high priority for the United States in 2011, and that's why we want to work together to deepen the economic relationship, along with a number of other areas of cooperation. We firmly believe that it's not in the interest of either of our countries for there to be a pause. We need to redouble our efforts.

QUESTION: Concerning WTO accession for Russia ­ many experts believe that the Jackson-Vanik amendment can be a threat to American business in Russia. What is Mr. Obama's administration doing in order to scrap this amendment in Congress?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As I said, we are committed to doing everything we can in 2011 to achieve Russia's graduation from Jackson-Vanik. There's a good case to be made for doing that, and we're going to work very hard to try to achieve that this year.

QUESTION: I'd like to turn to Iran. Lately, the United States has not seen success in pushing its position toward Iran. Do you think that the six-party talks have any future, or is this format outdated?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think the position that the 5+1 countries have taken is not an American position; it's a unified position which the United States, Russia, and our other partners share. We were all disappointed, as Lady Ashton put it, after the last round of discussions with the 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 of what we believe is a very important choice that the Iranian government needs to make: whether it's going to live up to its international obligations, address the concerns that have been raised by the United Nations Security Council in a series of resolutions and by the International Atomic Energy Agency. If it wants to address those concerns, there's clearly a mechanism for accomplishing this. That's in Iran's best interest, that's in the best interest of the international community. The alternative is increasing isolation for Iran, and I think all of us in the 5+1, including the United States and Russia, are committed to that proposition. The United States 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 in the hopes that they'll draw the right conclusions. The best way to do that, we're convinced, is to continue to work in close coordination with our other partners, including Russia.

QUESTION: You talk of solidarity and the unified position within 5+1. But still, Russia often claims that the United States and European countries impose unilateral sanctions. Could you please comment on this?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think UN Resolution 1929, when it was passed last summer, made clear the commitment of all of us to holding Iran to its international obligations. I know there have been differences sometimes over steps that the United States has taken, that some of our partners have taken, but I think in general, there's a very solid consensus within this group about the importance of ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, and in ensuring that it meets its international obligations. That's what drives all of us in the 5+1.

QUESTION: You already mentioned the importance of Russia pursuing democratic ways. What do you think about such scandals as the Khodorkovsky trial, the Magnitsky case. Could this somehow affect the investment climate in Russia, and its image in the eyes of foreign investors?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I would say several things. The United States government has been very clear, in public as well as in private, about our concerns over the Khodorkovsky case and the selective application of justice. We've been quite clear about our concerns ­ as have other countries around the world ­ about the Magnitsky case and the importance of a credible investigation into what happened. From the point of view of the United States, our concern is rooted in the importance that we attach to universal human rights any place in the world. It's also rooted in the importance of establishing rule of law as Russia moves ahead in what we know is the difficult challenge of modernization. Without respect for the rule of law and its equal and fair application, it's very difficult to build an environment in which economic modernization can take place, as well as the modernization of political institutions. Trade and investment, as I mentioned before, are increasing between the United States and Russia, and I hope very much that that continues, but it's also important for us ­ both of us ­ to address the obstacles in the path of that expansion and questions that arise. In the case of Yukos, for example, there's another very practical reason that Americans are concerned, and that is that there are a number of American investors in Yukos with several billion dollars' worth of investments at stake. So that's a very practical reason for Americans to be concerned.

QUESTION: Can't the situation around Khodorkovsky affect the implementation of some grand plans between the United States and Russia in the economic, trade, and investment spheres?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: All I would repeat is that we've been very clear about the concerns that we've raised about Khodorkovsky, as well as about those other cases.

QUESTION: During your talks in Moscow, did you discuss the situation in Egypt, and are there any fears that a wave of instability could move from Egypt, Tunisia, to Central Asia? How can Russia and the United States cooperate in order to prevent this instability?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We did discuss all of those issues because they're of profound importance to both the United States and Russia, given the stake that each of us has, that the international community has, in the Middle East. In Egypt, as President Obama has made clear, things are not going to go back to the way they were. Egyptians clearly seek freedom, they seek responsible, representative, and responsive government, and the United States strongly supports Egyptians in that effort. We support the universal human rights that Egyptians clearly are seeking. President Obama has also made clear our support for an orderly, rapid process of transition, a process that involves deep and meaningful reforms of the political system, and we're going to do everything we can to support that. Clearly, other countries, other societies in the region, are facing similar kinds of challenges, similar kinds of frustrations on the part of their populations, who seek those kind of basic freedoms. We will continue to make clear to our partners throughout the region that we have a long-term commitment to our friends in the Middle East, but at the same time, we believe it's absolutely essential for leaders and people throughout the region to undertake serious political and economic reforms, to address the legitimate concerns of their people. Stability is not a static phenomenon. If societies are not addressing those kinds of concerns, over the long-term, it's very, very difficult ­ in fact it's impossible ­ to maintain stability.

QUESTION: Do you expect that cooperation between the United States and Russia in the fight against terrorism will intensify, especially after this tragic event at Domodedovo airport?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: First, my condolences once again, as I've expressed them before, to the victims of this tragedy, this brutal attack, that occurred at Domodedovo. Second, the United States and Russia have expanded our cooperation on counterterrorism quite substantially in the last couple of years. 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 years ahead. You can be sure that we will do everything possible to increase that cooperation, between our law enforcement authorities and in every other way that we can, just as we've increased our cooperation on counternarcotics.

QUESTION: The last question is about Afghanistan and our cooperation in this direction. Previously, NATO said that it hopes that the United States will finance the supplies of Russian helicopters to Afghanistan. Has this issue been resolved, and when can we await an answer?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We discussed that issue in my meetings today. I believe we're close to a resolution of that issue, and I think it's a form of cooperation that we value highly, because it certainly addresses a common concern for the United States and Russia: helping Afghans to build a more stable society.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

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