Interview
William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Moscow, , Russia
September 13, 2010


QUESTION: Thank you for making time to give us an interview.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: My pleasure. I’ll just say at the outset that I’m always pleased to be back in Moscow. It was a great honor to be an ambassador here and I remain very much committed to doing everything I can to help strengthen U.S.-Russian relations, which is in the interest of both of our countries. We’ve made a lot of progress together over the course of the last 18 months and have some tangible achievements to point to: the New START agreement, significant cooperation in pursuit of our shared interests in Afghanistan, the resubmission of the 123 agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation to the U.S. Congress, diplomatic cooperation on issues ranging from North Korea to Iran, the establishment of a new presidential commission, which has paid practical dividends for both of us. The challenge now is to keep moving forward. As our two presidents agreed on June 24 in Washington, in the next phase of our partnership, we look forward to widening the arc of our cooperation, particularly to include areas of the economy, trade, and innovation. The centerpiece of this next phase of our relationship is to support Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia is making good progress in that direction, and President Obama has made it one of his very highest priorities in U.S.-Russian relations. We have a very full and challenging agenda before us, but I think the United States and Russia have a great deal to gain by working together.

QUESTION: You have discussed a wide range of topics here. Should we expect something new in our relations in the coming year?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As I said, U.S. support for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization is a very important goal, and we’re determined to do everything we can to help make that possible. The Russian government set a target of September 30 to resolve a number of outstanding issues, and we believe that it’s making good progress in that direction. The United States will work in the multilateral negotiations in Geneva to help support Russia’s case.

QUESTION: Is it possible to complete the procedures in September?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Russia and the United States, at the June 24 summit in Washington, set September 30 as the target for resolving a number of outstanding bilateral issues. As I said before, Russia is making good progress toward those goals. The United States is doing everything it can to be supportive, so I think it’s possible to preserve and build on that momentum. We’re at a moment where Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization is closer than it has ever been before.

QUESTION: Can the Russian government’s plans to raise the duties on imported cars prevent Russia’s accession to the WTO?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As a member of the WTO, Russia will have to live up to the standards that every other member of the WTO has to comply with. In the meantime, as Russia gets closer to WTO accession, it’s important to avoid protectionist measures.

QUESTION: The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is expected to go back to voting on the New START treaty in September. Do you expect the discussion in the Committee and the Senate in general of the issue of the ratification of the treaty to be difficult? What are the chances of it being approved and can this be done before the November Congressional elections?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We’re confident that the Senate will ratify the New START agreement. We are working very closely with the Senate to achieve that goal. It’s worth noting that each of the nuclear arms reduction treaties that have been reached, going back to President Reagan’s time, have been approved and ratified by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the Senate. You’re right, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote on the New START treaty next week, around September 15 or 16, and then we hope and expect that the full Senate soon thereafter will consider the treaty. As I said, we’re optimistic, we’re working hard with the Senate, which ultimately has to pass judgment on the treaty. We believe that it’s a very good treaty and in the interest of both the United States and Russia.

QUESTION: What do you think is the reason why the U.S. and Russia cannot begin practical interaction on the issues relating to the creation of a common missile defense system?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We have begun to explore some practical areas of cooperation in missile defense. For example, we are conducting a joint threat assessment of ballistic missiles. We’ve also begun to explore within the Russia-NATO Council ways in which we might resume cooperation on missile defense. I think the decisions that President Obama took last autumn when he significantly adjusted American plans for missile defense have opened up new opportunities for cooperation with Russia, and we are certainly committed to exploring those. Obviously, given the history of this issue, and given the difficulties we’ve had in the past, it takes time to do that. We believe that there are real opportunities here in the interest of both of our countries, and that’s what we want to work toward.

QUESTION: Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that he doesn’t see any indications of a reset (perezagruzka) in U.S. plans to deploy missile defense systems in some European countries and the fact that the U.S. continues the re-armament of Georgia. What would be your response to that?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Over the last 18 months, as I emphasized before, I think the reset in relations between Russia and the United States has produced a number of significant accomplishments in the interests of both of our countries. I’ve mentioned several of them, including the New START agreement and our efforts to promote Russia’s WTO accession. I think it should be no surprise that we continue to have differences over some issues. In the new atmosphere in our relationship, we will deal with those differences honestly, and I think in many respects we’ll manage them more constructively than we did before. On Georgia, it’s no secret that the United States and Russia have a serious disagreement over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but at the same time we share an interest in transparency and in stability and in avoiding a drift toward armed conflict again. With regard to missile defense, as I said before, I think we do have a new opportunity before us to build cooperation and that’s something we’ve been trying to do.

QUESTION: Russia has criticized the additional sanctions imposed by the U.S. in Iran. Can these new sanctions also affect Russian companies working with Iran, and does the U.S. intend to toughen the sanctions on Iran?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The record of cooperation between the United States and Russia on the Iranian nuclear issue has been a very strong one over the last 18 months. We worked together to launch new diplomatic initiatives last year. When Iran failed to respond constructively to those initiatives, we worked together with our other partners to produce UN Security Council Resolution 1929. The sanctions that have resulted are directed against Iran, not against Russia. The sanctions are not an end in themselves. They’re aimed at a producing a situation in which Iran realizes that it’s in its own interest to reengage with the international community to demonstrate the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program and to reengage seriously in the pursuit of a diplomatic resolution, which is something that the United States remains committed to. We want to work with Russia to try to accomplish that.

QUESTION: Is the United States ready to resume negotiations with Iran on the supply of fuel for the Tehran research reactor within the framework of the Vienna Group? One Russian government official cited by Reuters said that the United States is impeding the resumption of these negotiations.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: When Resolution 1929 was passed by the Security Council, the foreign ministers of the P5+1 countries issued a clear statement indicating our readiness to reengage diplomatically with Iran, and we remain committed to that. Baroness Ashton from the European Union has been in touch with the Iranians about trying to schedule a new meeting. We are certainly committed to doing everything possible to achieve a diplomatic resolution of this issue, consistent with Iran’s obligations to the IAEA as well as to the UN Security Council. Within the context of the renewed P5+1 diplomatic effort, we’re certainly prepared to discuss the possibilities for fueling the Tehran research reactor. You’ll recall that we, along with Russia, made a proposal last October with regard to the Tehran research reactor. Unfortunately, after initially expressing interest in that proposal, Iran failed to respond constructively to it. Later, last spring, the Iranians in the Tehran declaration offered another version of the Tehran research reactor proposal. We and Russia and France made clear that we had a number of concerns about that proposal but we are certainly prepared to discuss them.

QUESTION: The case involving Russian citizen Viktor Bout has caused friction between Russia and the United States. Some experts believe that the question became too politicized and declared that Bout’s extradition to the U.S. could negatively affect the reset of Russian-U.S. relations. What is your opinion on this?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: All I can say is that the verdict in the case of Viktor Bout was something that was reached consistent with Thai law and consistent with the U.S.-Thai bilateral extradition treaty. I can’t comment, as a matter of U.S. practice, on an ongoing judicial process, an ongoing extradition request.

QUESTION: Another issue is the adoption of Russian children. Why do you think have there been so many incidents involving Russian children, especially in America? What are the prospects for signing the agreement on adoptions?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: As a father and as an American citizen, I’m appalled by the abuses that have taken place. As a government, we’ve condemned quite strongly those abuses. We’ve worked together with the Russian government over recent months to develop a new bilateral agreement to better ensure the safety and well-being of children who may be adopted. I think we are very close to finalizing that agreement, and we believe that it’ll serve the interests of the United States and Russia, but particularly of the children who are involved.

QUESTION: The next issue is that of tactical nuclear weapons. Is the United States ready for negotiations with Russia on the reduction of these types of weapons? Is it ready to withdraw these weapons from Europe?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: First things first. We want to work to ensure that the Senate ratifies the START treaty. Beyond that, President Obama made clear at the signing of the New START agreement in Prague last April that the United States is interested in discussions with Russia about further reductions in strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons. We believe in those discussions that we ought to consider reciprocal measures to increase transparency, and the United States will certainly consult carefully with our partners and allies in that process.

QUESTION: How do you assess the interaction between Russia and the United States on Afghanistan, and is the United States planning to take part in financing the supplies of Russian Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan armed forces? Do you expect something more from the Russian side?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: We welcome Russia’s contributions to our shared efforts in Afghanistan, to help the Afghan government produce a more stable situation and to create a better economic future for Afghans. Russia’s willingness to enter into a new air transit agreement, as well as to follow through on a ground transit agreement, have been extremely important contributions to the international effort in Afghanistan. Already there have been some 500 flights under the new agreement, which have transported something like 60,000 American servicemen to join the international forces in Afghanistan. There’s also been a significant amount of equipment moved by rail. We welcome Russia’s involvement in economic reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, and we welcome Russia’s diplomatic support, along with other key regional players in supporting efforts to help stabilize Afghanistan. We welcome the offer that the Russian government made to donate some Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan armed forces. We are exploring the possibility of further commercial purchases of Mi-17 helicopters as well.

QUESTION: Commercial purchases by the United States or by NATO?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: In this instance, by the United States, but we’re exploring a number of possibilities.

QUESTION: You met today with representatives of Russian civil society. A human rights activist told us after the meeting that during this discussion, you discussed the Magnitsky case. Is the U.S. government concerned about this?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I very much appreciated the opportunity, as I always do in Moscow, to meet with a number of civil society and human rights leaders. We had a very useful and wide ranging discussion. I should note that it’s regrettable that Lev Ponomarev, who was supposed to be at the meeting, was not able to attend. Freedom of assembly is very important to the United States and important in any democratic society. To answer your question about the Magnitsky case, yes, we did discuss that. The United States has made clear, both publicly and privately, our concern about that case and our belief that there ought to be a full investigation of what happened. My colleagues have met with Mr. Magnitsky’s mother, and we’ve met with others involved in the case. We continue to believe that a full investigation is very important.

QUESTION: Senator Benjamin Cardin sent a letter to Secretary Clinton asking her to prohibit the entry of Russian officials involved in this case to the United States. Is the State Department considering this suggestion?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: All I can say is that we, of course, take seriously the concerns raised by Senator Cardin and take seriously the letter he wrote to Secretary Clinton. The Magnitsky case, as I mentioned before, remains a matter of concern to the United States.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

[This is a mobile copy of Interview With Interfax of Russia]