DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Dobriy dyen, s prazdnikom. Good afternoon. I am very pleased to be back in Kazakhstan, a critically important strategic partner in a critically important region at a critically important time. I want to thank President Nazarbayev and Prime Minister Masimov for their hospitality. And I want to extend my best wishes to the people of Kazakhstan on the eve of Victory Day.
I have come to Kazakhstan to underscore a simple but important message: America’s commitment to Kazakhstan and Central Asia is enduring because America’s interests in Kazakhstan and Central Asia are enduring. The crisis in Ukraine and the ongoing transition in Afghanistan underscore what’s at stake and reinforce the importance of building a stronger and deeper relationship between our governments and between our peoples.
In my meetings today, I had the opportunity to emphasize our support for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all the countries in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan. We are deeply appreciative of Kazakhstan’s constructive statements on the very combustible situation in Ukraine and its efforts to encourage de-escalation. As we’ve made clear, we do not seek a confrontation with Russia – we believe that it is deeply in the interests of Ukraine and Russia to have a healthy relationship, born of their centuries of cultural, economic, and social ties. The same holds true for Russia’s other neighbors. But so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure.
We also talked about the next steps in Afghanistan’s transition and how we can continue to work together to preserve and sustain Afghanistan’s positive momentum. We remain ready to sign a bilateral security agreement to allow a number of U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan in a train, advise, and assist capacity. And we look forward to Kazakhstan’s continued partnership, whether through its support for the Northern Distribution Network or its efforts to accelerate Afghanistan’s economic development. Kazakhstan is working to build its own international aid agency and we look forward to working closely together in Afghanistan and beyond.
Our meetings today also focused on some of the top priorities in our bilateral relationship, including our cooperation in the security, commercial, legal, and education sectors, and our support for Kazakhstan’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization. And we had a candid and constructive conversation about how to ensure that the country’s political progress keeps pace with its economic development. Both are essential not only for Kazakhstan’s future but also to realizing the full promise of our partnership.
This partnership began in the very first year of Kazakhstan’s independence and it has withstood the tests of time. I am convinced that this relationship is as strong and as resilient as ever and that there is much more we can accomplish together, as partners, in the years ahead.
Thank you very much. I look forward to your questions.
QUESTION: Rumors are circulating that Iran and Russia are about to sign an agreement involving a great deal of money, and allegedly, according to this agreement, Iran will supply crude oil to Russia, and Russia will supply food to Iran. Some say the United States will impose new sanctions. Is this true and, if so, when would these sanctions be imposed?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The United States has expressed our concerns about the reports of a potential deal along the lines you described. And I would simply add two things. First, the United States is committed, along with our partners in the P5+1, to trying to reach a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. And we continue to work with our partners, with the European Union, with the permanent members of the Security Council, as well as with Germany, toward that end. Second, we also believe that it’s very important to sustain the international sanctions regime, which is designed to create the circumstances under which Iran will negotiate seriously on the nuclear problem. Those sanctions are not an end in themselves; they are designed to achieve the negotiated solution we all seek.
QUESTION: Yesterday President Putin made his surprise move when he suddenly called on pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine to put on hold the secession referendum. And do you think that there are now real prospects for peace in Ukraine after this move, and do you think this is a genuine move towards peace in Ukraine?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The short answer is: we’ll see. We certainly welcome any genuine step to deescalate the situation in the Ukrainian crisis, and help make it possible for Ukrainians to make their own choices about their future.
QUESTION: There is information saying the White House is changing the U.S. Ambassador in Astana, nominating George Krol. Could you please explain the reason for this replacement, and whether it means a change to the White House’s direction in Central Asia?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The White House has announced our new Ambassador. George Krol is an extremely capable diplomat. I would add that we are very fortunate to have Ambassador John Ordway here now, who is a well-known figure in Kazakhstan, and also an extremely capable diplomat. I can say with certainty that the United States will continue to attach very high priority to our strategic partnership with Kazakhstan. We attach a great deal of value to the leadership that President Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan have demonstrated on many issues. And, as I said in my opening remarks, the United States will remain engaged in and committed to Central Asia for many years to come.