Interview by Under Secretary William Burns with Gazeta.ru

Gazeta.ru: So what is your schedule, what are your meetings, with whom are you speaking?

Under Secretary Burns: We have had a series of meetings with senior government officials, business leaders, and civil society representatives to talk about our relationship. After one year in the Obama administration, I think we’ve made real progress in laying a solid foundation in our relationship, in identifying and expanding areas of common ground, in dealing with differences that we have honestly and maturely, in building a relationship which is a genuine two-way street, which can bring benefit not only to Russia and America, but to the international community in general on a range of issues.

Gazeta.ru: So it was a kind of revising of the reset process?

Under Secretary Burns: It’s an opportunity to look at what we’ve accomplished in 2009 and how we can build on that in 2010 in a wide range of areas. Certainly US-Russian leadership in the nuclear field is very important for both of us and for the rest of the world. We’ve made very good progress toward a new START agreement, which I’m optimistic can be concluded soon. But we’ve also made progress in our common efforts in Afghanistan, in trying to build stability there and in dealing with the threat posed by Al-Qaida and violent extremists. We work very well together on a range of nuclear non-proliferation challenges like North Korea and Iran. We are looking for ways we can expand our economic relationship, which already is producing a number of examples in which American and Russian businesses work together to produce some of the world’s most modern aircraft, modern automobiles, modern factories, creating jobs and opportunities for both Americans and Russians. We formed, as you know, a new bilateral Presidential commission with a number of working groups. What we want to do now in 2010 is turn that from the stage in which you organize the commission and begin discussions to the stage where you produce tangible results that serve both of our interests. So it’s a full agenda, it’s an ambitious agenda, but I think it’s one that serves the interests of both countries.

Gazeta.ru: And returning to the START negotiations, the postponing of the process of the deal [i.e. the failure to get the treaty finished -Ed.], now is always seen in Russian public opinion with disappointment. Now what are the substantive differences between the Russian and American approaches to the negotiations and to the final accord?

Under Secretary Burns: Well as I said, I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to complete this agreement soon. The negotiations in truth have only been underway for less than a year. It’s a technically very complex treaty to accomplish. But I do think we share an interest in making real reductions in our strategic arsenals, to do that in a way that is verifiable, but which is less costly and less operationally complex than the existing START agreement. There do remain a few issues, related mainly to verification, that have to be sorted through. But I believe they will be sorted through in the coming weeks.

Gazeta.ru: You know, when the Presidents met in July in Moscow, they said with 100% certainty that the treaty will be done by the end of the year. So why were the presidents so optimistic in the beginning and why is the process taking so long?

Under Secretary Burns: I don’t think it should be surprising to anyone that a technically complex treaty takes some time to complete. It’s important for both of our interests not to rush that process. Over the course of the last few months since the July summit we’ve made considerable progress. We’re on the verge of completing the agreement and like I said, I’m optimistic that we’ll complete it soon. And I think that will not only serve the interests of both of our countries, but it sends a very important signal to the rest of the world as we approach further important events, like the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty this coming May. It’s important for the United States and Russia, who together control more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, to show responsible leadership in how we reduce and manage our own remaining arsenals. So for all those reasons it’s very important that we continue to move ahead, not only to complete this agreement, but to build on it in our cooperation on a range of nuclear issues.

Gazeta.ru: Now what about the Iran issue? Can we assume that the Russian position towards the Iranian nuclear program has leaned more towards the American one? So if Russia before stated that it will not support sanctions and now under some circumstances Russia can join with Western nations in having this kind of tension towards Iran? And does Russia have any guarantees that its national economic interests, I mean the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant and so on, will be kept intact if the sanctions will go on?

Under Secretary Burns: First, I’ll let my Russian colleagues speak with regard to Russia’s position towards Iran. What I would say is that the United States and Russia, along with our other international partners, have worked closely and effectively together on the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States and Russia have worked very well together in supporting a very creative proposal by the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Tehran research reactor to meet an Iranian request for fuel in a way that would make use of the stockpile of low-enriched uranium that Iran has already developed. It’s unfortunate and regrettable that Iran has not found a way to say yes to that proposal. And it’s unfortunate and regrettable that Iran has not followed through on the other tentative commitments it made when we met at the beginning of October in Geneva. The United States believes that we need to keep the door open to negotiations and engagement. But as part of our common two-track approach with regard to Iran, we will also need to begin to look at ways in which we can make clear the consequences of not responding constructively to the very creative proposals that the international community has put forward. So as I said, Russia and the United States are working together quite closely and effectively on this issue and I expect that this will continue.

Gazeta.ru: It was often said that Russia has some influence over the Iranian issue, in terms of the special relationship between Tehran and Moscow. But during the last few months, we have seen that the relationship between Russia and Iran has become more complicated. We have postponed realization of the Bushehr station, we have seized the S-300 missiles that should be shipped to Iran but have not. Also, we have the refusal to deal with Russian uranium. So does this complicate negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program?

Under Secretary Burns: What’s important is for the international community to send a strong common signal to Iran that the issue here is not Iran’s right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program; none of us are challenging that. The issue here is whether Iran lives up to its responsibilities, like any other member of the international community, to meet international standards – to demonstrate to the rest of us the exclusively peaceful nature of its program. And as I said, I think it’s important for the United States, Russia, and our other partners to send a strong common signal that we seek a diplomatic solution to this problem but at the same time we’re quite determined to ensure that Iran lives up to its international responsibilities. Russia’s role in that is important and the United States looks forward to continuing to work closely with Russia and our other partners.

Gazeta.ru: The non-proliferation issue is one of the issues that are being discussed in the format of the working groups. How do you estimate the intermediary results of the working groups of the presidential commissions?

Under Secretary Burns: I think we’ve made a good start. We’ve begun a process to form sixteen different working groups under the umbrella of the presidential commission. One of the purposes of my visit, as I said before, is to review where we stand and especially how we can work together now to translate this structure and the discussions that have begun into tangible results. Certainly in the area of our cooperation in non-proliferation we already have a lot to build on. We’ve accomplished a lot, even over the course of the last year. The United States and Russia, for example, lead an international effort to fight against the possibility of nuclear terrorism. The United States and Russia are working closely together to prepare for the nuclear security summit that will take place in the United States this spring, to try and ensure the safety and security of nuclear materials around the world. This is an area in which the United States and Russia both have unique capabilities and I think unique responsibilities for leadership. But there are many other areas, in health, in energy efficiency, in business development, in promoting exchanges in culture, in sports, and in education, in which I think we can widen the agenda for cooperation and interaction, not only between our two governments but between Russian and American societies. So I think we’ve put in place a useful structure but now the challenge before us is to turn that into practical initiatives.

Gazeta.ru: Russian opinion [is beginning to lean towards] the recent idea that maybe the Americans indeed intend to bring together Russian and American societies in terms of cooperating among opinion leaders. But [some see] the Russian [government], as using the Presidential commission as another tool for the big diplomatic game. Do you think this view is adequate or do you think it’s something else?

Under Secretary Burns: I think the Presidential commission has the potential to build stronger ties and stronger understanding, not just between our two governments but between our two societies. I offered a number of examples where I think we can promote those kinds of exchanges. As I said, the United States is going to differ with Russia on a number of issues and we are not shy about expressing our concerns. That’s true with regard to human rights issues sometimes, with regard to the cases of murdered journalists, which we like many others, have raised over the years and will continue to. We will do that in a spirit that is not lecturing, that is not patronizing, but that’s honest and that fits the kind of mature relationship that I think we’re building. So it seems to me that the structure of the Presidential commission is something that could be useful to both of us.

Gazeta.ru: Returning to the July summit of our presidents, it was said that Afghan issue, the Afghan air transit of lethal cargo, it was presented as a big result. In fact we all know that the American side used this possibility to transit its lethal cargo only once. Was this done because of the pressure from Russian bureaucrats?

Under Secretary Burns: No, we’ve used it several times already and I think you’ll see us making increasing use of what is a very helpful transit agreement in the coming months as the United States follows through on the increase in the military and civilian presence that President Obama has recently announced. Afghanistan is an area in which the United States and Russia and our other international partners share a strategic objective, and that is to defeat Al-Qaida and the violent extremists connected to it and to help Afghans build a stable state. That is a big challenge, but it’s one that both of us have an interest in and I believe the transit agreement will contribute to that increasingly in the coming months.

Gazeta.ru: The last question: NATO. NATO retains its focus on the enlargement to the east and Ukraine and Georgia are still on the list, maybe not in the next few years but in the next decade. What can you say to the Russian public to remove this very critical issue from the agenda?

Under Secretary Burns: Well first I would say, as the NATO Secretary-General has said and as President Obama has said, that NATO views Russia as a partner, not as an adversary. I think the clearest example of that is what I mentioned before, our common interest in Afghanistan and the ways in which we are working together to stop the flow of narcotics out of that country and to promote stability in Afghanistan. It’s true that the possibility of further enlargement of NATO remains on the table. The door is open, as all of NATO’s members have made clear, to enlargement in the future. But I would simply stress, first, that there are high standards that have to be met for membership that any new prospective member would need to meet. Second, that any prospective new member has to make the choice to pursue membership. And third, that a membership decision has to be accepted by all of the members of NATO.

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