Interview With Diana Ray of Voice of Russia Radio
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Question: Thank you, Mr. Russell, for joining us and speaking with Voice of Russia Radio.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Question: Mr. Russell, why did the United States impose new economic sanctions earlier this month on Belarus?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: We imposed additional economic sanctions earlier this month in response to the continuing crackdown by the government of Belarus and the continued incarceration of individuals whom we consider to be political prisoners.
Question: Today Belarus responded by saying it was suspending an agreement with the U.S. to give up its highly enriched uranium stockpile which was part of the U.S. initiative to secure vulnerable stocks in nuclear material. What is the U.S. response to that?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: We’re disappointed with Belarus’ announcement. We hope that Belarus intends to meet a stated objective to eliminate all its stocks of highly enriched uranium. This is not a favor to the United States; it’s a responsible contribution to global security.
Question: Belarus has said the shipments would resume once the sanctions are dropped. Will this action by Belarus have any effect on U.S. sanctions?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: We regard, when we worked with the government of Belarus last year to try to eliminate their stocks of highly enriched uranium, we did that in parallel with our longstanding policy that respect for democracy and human rights remains central to improving relations with Belarus. And the crackdown and the incarceration of political prisoners following the December 19th presidential elections led the United States to impose sanctions. Our policy remains firm in calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.
Question: Do you think this action by Belarus poses a security risk?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: We have tried since the President made a landmark speech in Prague in 2009 to work cooperatively with other countries to try to secure nuclear materials around the world. Belarus has stocks of highly enriched uranium and they’re one of the countries we would like to work with, because we believe that elimination of these stocks of highly enriched uranium is good for security of the American people and people of the region. We think that we’re not asking Belarus to do anything different than we’re doing, which is to convert our civilian research reactors to much safer and cheaper low enriched uranium.
Question: Do you think their decision doesn’t pose a security risk?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: I’ll go back to the same point. We’re disappointed with the announcement because we had welcomed their decision to eliminate their stocks, and we still think that’s the right thing to do, both for the people of Belarus and for global security.
Question: Belarus has said U.S. sanctions are groundless, illegal, and politically motivated. How do you respond to that?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: This is a decision we have taken to respond to the actions by the government of Belarus following the presidential elections last year. This is a bipartisan policy of the United States and it’s a longstanding one. It dates back to the last presidential elections in 2006. When all of Belarus’ political prisoners were released, then we started the process of trying to improve relations because we believe respect for democracy and human rights lies at the base of better relations between the two countries. Unfortunately the events since December 19th have been a step backward for democracy in Belarus and therefore a step backwards for Belarus’ relations with the United States.
Question: In the latest sanctions four Belarusian state-owned companies were targeted. How did the U.S. government come to single out these four companies and what are the U.S. goals of these particular sanctions?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: These four entities all have been determined to be owned or controlled by Belneftekhim which is a Belarusian entity already designated under one of our presidential executive orders for being owned or controlled by President Lukashenko. We view these four entities as benefiting either indirectly or directly the individuals responsible for the crackdown in Belarus.
Question: What were the original sanctions imposed earlier this year?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: Basically on December 31 with the continuing incarceration of the individuals who participated in the largely peaceful protest in Minsk following the elections and the crackdown, we essentially took three steps. First, we imposed travel restrictions against officials whom we believed were directly responsible for the crackdown. For those same officials an assets freeze was instituted. Thirdly, economic sanctions were reimposed on two subsidiaries of Belneftekhim.
Question: And were these sanctions effective in any way? Was there any positive change as a result?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: I think it’s probably too soon to tell, but I would go back again to our earlier experience in 2008 which following sanctions led to the release of all the political prisoners in Belarus. So sanctions have worked before and they can work again.
Question: Is the U.S. caught in sort of a horn of dilemma with Belarus at all, unable to allow these repressions of fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, but yet running the risk of maybe perhaps having Belarus stop engaging with the U.S. completely?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: The ball is really in Belarus’ court at this point. I think it’s obvious from our policy before the presidential elections that we are open to better relations with Belarus and we are certainly ready to cooperate with Belarus. But again, democracy and human rights are the basis of a better relationship and that was true in the Bush administration, it’s true in the Obama administration.
Question: Let me ask you, how do you define specifically the U.S. goals with these new sanctions?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: I think what we want to do, we want to keep our overall policy towards Belarus focused on promoting democracy and respect for human rights. Without progress on these core issues there’s not going to be an overall improvement in relations.
We hope that by implementing targeted sanctions to press the government of Belarus to change its course that we’ll be successful. And we -- at the same time, it should be quite clear that none of these sanctions are directed against the people of Belarus -- we continue to support those in Belarus seeking a more democratic modern country that respects their rights. Democratic actors who represent the future of Belarus deserve our support and that support should be driven by their needs.
I should also add that we are acting in concert with the European Union and our other European partners in our policy towards the government of Belarus. I think you’ve seen the actions that the European Union has taken against Belarus as well.
But in answer to your question, I think we’re under no illusions that influencing movement toward democracy and greater respect for human rights in Belarus will be easy or quick, but we believe that the United States should encourage and support the people of Belarus’ desire for freedom and democracy. Their hope for modern democratic Belarus integrated into Europe’s mainstream is both in our own national interest and it’s the right thing to do.
Question: I have one last question here. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly said he believes sanctions are never effective and that they turn against those who impose them. How do you respond to that?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: I look at the UN Security Council sanctions that are in place against both Iran and North Korea because of concern of the international community about their nuclear programs. Those sanctions have been supported by the UN Security Council which of course includes not only the United States but Russia.
Question: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to add on this topic of the Belarus sanctions?
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: No. Like I said, our long-term goal is we would like to see a modern, pluralistic, prosperous Belarus fully integrated into Europe. I think that’s a good vision and that’s one that we would like to see in the future. What’s happened since the December elections is unfortunate because it doesn’t move Belarus in that direction.
Question: Mr. Russell, thank you very much for joining us and speaking with the Voice of Russia today.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Russell: Thank you very much Diana.
Question: Thank you, have a good day.