William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary of State
Moscow, Russia
October 21, 2013

QUESTION: What has brought you to Russia this time? The Syrian problem is, looks is being solved [sic], we don’t have any negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons, we don’t have any problems with Afghanistan, [inaudible] is working somehow, maybe not so efficiently as the United States has wanted [sic]. What are the themes of your negotiations in Moscow?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The relationship between the United States and Russia is an important one for both of our countries and for the international community, and so the purpose of my visit is again to look at ways in which we can strengthen those areas of partnership in our relationship and talk through areas in which we have differences. I’ve spent five years of my career as a diplomat serving in Russia, the last three years as Ambassador, and I’ve developed over the course of those years a great deal of respect for Russians, for Russian culture and history, and Russia’s record of accomplishment. I’ve worked through periods characterized by considerable cooperation and achievement in our relationship, and also through periods in which difficulties and differences have been more apparent. But through all of those periods, I continue to be convinced of the potential of our relationship, continue to be convinced that ours is a consequential relationship. The reality is that Russia and the United States, as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, as the two largest nuclear powers in the world, as two of the largest producers of hydrocarbons in the world today, have a great deal to contribute to solving international problems across a wide range of issues. I am firmly convinced that we have more to gain by working together than we do by working separately and so it is very much in that spirit that I have come to Moscow again.

QUESTION: So the Syrian question was not on the table?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The Syrian question was one of the key questions on the agenda for my discussions today and continuing into discussions tomorrow. The cooperation between Russia and the United States on the question of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is an important positive step. We obviously both have a responsibility now to ensure implementation on what is a very ambitious time table for destruction. And the United States and Russia also share an interest in trying to move ahead toward a political solution based on the Geneva communiqué of last year. As you know, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov are working quite intensively to try to help bring about the resumption of the Geneva process and a Geneva II meeting at the earliest possible date.

QUESTION: Some people say that Russia has outplayed the United States in the Syrian relations with the destruction of chemical weapons. Also, the United States wanted to use Chapter VII of the United Nations charter, but it is not one the [inaudible] considerations right now. What is your attitude [inaudible], so the United States and Russia have managed to overcome all the tensions between them on the Syrian issue?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Undoubtedly the elimination, the successful elimination, of Syria’s chemical weapons program is a win-win. It would be an achievement for the United States, an achievement for Russia, an achievement for people across the region who might be threatened by such weapons, particularly if they are either used again by the Syrian regime or if they fall into the wrong hands. And I also believe that it is very much in all of our interest to make progress towards a political solution, because the United States has long been convinced, as I believe has Russia, that there is no military solution to the challenge in Syria and that the sooner we make progress towards a diplomatic resolution the better it will be for Syria as well as Syria’s neighbors, who are bearing the considerable burden of refugee outflow and the instability that comes with that.

QUESTION: But the Syrian issue is just one of the problems that we have on the table from the point of view of the international community. We have the Iran-Assad problem, Iran nuclear program, the North Korean nuclear program. Some agree that the United States does need Russia only in solving those problems because Russia is a member of the Security Council and we don’t see any progress in the [inaudible] agenda. So I have mentioned that we have dealt with the nuclear reduction, Russians are not willing to have any talk about their tactical nuclears, we have dealt with Afghanistan, the United States and NATO are leaving in a couple months or in one year, and the question disappears with the putting out of the army, so what is left on the table?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: There are lots of important issues left on our agenda. The United States and Russia, as you mentioned, have a particular set of capabilities with regard to nuclear weapons and a particular set of responsibilities to help the rest of the international community address the challenges of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We’ve demonstrated leadership together on the Syrian chemical weapons issue. We have worked closely and effectively together with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, and we are determined together to ensure the exclusively peaceful purpose of that program and see if we can make diplomatic progress. A lot of that is going to hinge on partnership between the United States and Russia. The same is true with regard to the threats that emanate from North Korea’s nuclear program. There again, US-Russian cooperation is going to be important. Afghanistan is going to be a challenge for both us, as well as other countries in the region for some time to come. The United States is committed to working with Russia and with others to help ensure not only a stable future for Afghanistan but also a stable neighborhood in which Afghanistan is an important part. We share an interest in making progress on other regional challenges like the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis and, more widely, Arabs and Israelis. Another item I’d highlight on our agenda is to continue to try to strengthen the economic dimension of the US-Russian relationship. The United States today is the world’s largest economy, Russia is the fifth largest economy in the world, but Russia today is only the 20th largest trading partner of the United States. That suggests that there is a great deal of scope for strengthening our trade and investment relationship. That is very much in the interest of both Russians and Americans, particularly as Russia seeks to modernize its economy, to diversify beyond hydrocarbons and to focus on innovation in the economy. Those are areas in which I think the United States can make contributions, and in which we can benefit by working together. The United States was proud to be strongly supportive of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization and that also will open up doors over the coming years for a stronger economic relationship between us.

QUESTION: During the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, it was supposed that Obama and Putin will have a meeting and also a meeting with the Russian and U.S. business leaders. As you said, the economic dimension is very important to our bilateral agenda. Why didn’t this meeting take place?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The meeting between our two presidents?

QUESTION: Well and our business leaders. So if we have so important issues to discuss, why didn’t the leaders meet personally? And why didn’t they meet with the people with different issues to discuss?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We will have lots of opportunities ahead of us, not only for discussions between our leaders, but also for discussions which focus on the importance of strengthening our business and economic ties. I meet tomorrow morning again with the American chamber of commerce and a number of US businesses which are active in Russia. It is something I did quite frequently when I was Ambassador here, and so I think we have lots of opportunities before us to try and strengthen those connections. I had a long conversation today with Deputy Prime Minister Shuvalov about those issues. I think we have number of opportunities ahead of us in that area.

QUESTION: Well the postponing of that meeting has provoked a lot of bitterness in the wording of the Russian leadership after the Summit in St. Petersburg. One of the bitter words was by Vladimir Putin with the open accusation that the United States is hiding against the Assad regime [sic] with the same ties to Al Qaeda and Putin also said that during the hearings there was no mention of that, what is not true? Because we had the hearings aired on TV as well. So what is the position of the United States towards this Islamist rebellion that is a huge part of the Syrian opposition movement fighting with regime of President Assad?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We’ve been quite clear about our concern about violent extremist groups that are operating in Syria today. The United States formally designated Al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization. I can’t think of a clearer indication of our concern than that. One of the reasons that we are convinced that the sooner we can move towards a Geneva II meeting and toward a resumed political process the better it will be for Syrians and as well as for the entire region is because of our concern that the longer this civil war goes on the greater the dangers of extremists influencing Syria, the greater the dangers of spillover into neighboring countries which matter to both the US and Russia, whose stability matters to the United States and Russia, whether its Jordan or Lebanon or any of Syria’s other neighbors. We are convinced that we need to make rapid progress toward that political solution and we are very clear-eyed about the dangers that violent extremist groups can pose in Syria. And we will continue to support strongly the moderate opposition in Syria and ensure the genuine political transition envisioned in the Geneva Communique.

QUESTION: Well the Assad regime was not backed only by the Russians, but also by the Iranians. And during the campaign, Obama said maybe in the right time, in the prepared place, he will meet with the Iranian leadership. Of course, it was not possible with Ahmadinejad, who was a very hawkish person, but now we have a bit moderate, a bit more modest, newer Iranian leadership, headed with Mr. Rouhani. At the Assembly General [sic] of the United Nations it was very interesting; will they meet with President Obama? They didn’t. But do you think it is possible in the near future, maybe not on the level of the leaders of the state, but maybe some negotiations like the British have already done with regards to diplomatic relations?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: As you mentioned, there was a telephone conversation between President Obama and President Rouhani in New York. There was a face to face meeting between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif on the margins of the P5+1 meeting in New York. We remain very much focused, as do our partners in Russia, on making progress toward a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue and, as I said before, ensuring the exclusively peaceful purposes of that program. That is going to require more than words from the Iranian government, it is going to require verifiable actions. But there is a moment before us in which there may be an opportunity to make progress toward that kind of an outcome and it will be very important for the United States and Russia to work closely together, along with our partners in P5+1, just as we have done in recent years, to help realize that possibility. That would very much be in the interest of all of us. So that is really what our key focus is right now regarding Iran.

QUESTION: But the U.S.-Iranian mutual approach, will it endanger the special US- Israeli relationship? You see, it is said the Obama administration has noted some cold relationship with the Netanyahu government but it has experienced a lot of problems. During the Assembly General [sic] we have seen the same situation, Netanyahu was very hawkish, he didn’t [inaudible] his position, he is on the same very radical oppositions [sic] concerning the Palestinian movement, concerning Iran and Syria. So do you see that could be problematic for the United States diplomacy to have some negotiations process with Iranians, or just to step back from the confrontation with Assad’s regime, having the Netanyahu government criticizing every time?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I don’t. The United States is going to continue to have a very strong relationship with Israel. President Obama underscored that when he traveled to Israel last spring. We remain in very close consultation with the Israeli government about a whole range of issues – Iran , Syria, other issues in the region. We share the concern of the Israeli leadership about the dangers of an Iran that acquires nuclear weapons and President Obama has been very clear about our determination to ensure that that does not happen. So, as I said, I am certain that we will stay in very close touch with our partners in Israel as we pursue the possibility of the diplomatic resolution that I described before.

QUESTION: Last question, of course about the human rights problem in Russia. We have seen some anti-gay laws that could criminalize even the modest, the most modest, LGBT activity. We have seen the NGOs called foreign agents, blatant name-calling of the soviet-style era. We have the NGOs closed or be fined with huge fines … almost [inaudible] activity. Well the United States always said, during the Obama Administration, that we have two tracks approach: we have something in common and we have to work with it, and we have some differences, some tensions and we have to deal with it [inaudible]. We have some with Iran, Syria, North Korea and human rights. While we see some progress in the international problems, we don’t see such progress in the human rights issue within Russia. So Secretary Clinton said that she will find a way to turn around the NGO legislation that is put on the table in Russia. It was also said during the preparation of the Magnitsky Act that the Obama Administration will find a way to have 50 million dollars for a special foundation to support the pro-democracy NGOs and movements in Russia. But it is only some wording on paper, while we are seeing our civil society still in a state of disorder without a hope or any idea of how to deal with the situation inside the Russian federation, so is it still a problem for the US? Is it mentioned in our negotiations or in negotiations of other US officials?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We have never been shy about expressing our concerns about the range of issues that you just described, whether it is measures that undermine the rights of LGBT citizens, or whether it’s restrictive measures that hamper civil society or nongovernmental organizations. We will continue, as we do in every society around the world, to express our strong support for healthy, vibrant civil societies, in the self-interest of those countries, not as a favor to the United States, because we are convinced that active civil societies help ensure that citizens in any country can realize their full potential. They help hold governments accountable, they help ensure effective approaches to issues like the environment or corruption, and so they are extremely important as Russia seeks to modernize, open up and make more prosperous its economy, as it seeks to offer its own citizens more opportunities. Civil society groups are going to play an important role. I met with a group of civil society leaders during the course of my visit, and emphasized to them, just as President Obama emphasized to a group of civil society leaders in St. Petersburg last month, the continuing American support for their efforts. I’ve always been struck during my time in Russia by the enduring commitment of those kind of groups to Russia’s best interest. We’ll continue to attach a high priority to those issues and we’ll continue to be very clear about it.

QUESTION: Thank you.