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INTERVIEW: Michael McFaul: U.S. wants to further relations with Russia, but “it takes two to tango”

Ambassador Michael McFaul file photo

(Interfax – November 8, 2012) U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has given its first interview to correspondents of Interfax Olga Golovanova and Kseniya Baygarova after the U.S. presidential elections’ 2012 on vital bilateral issues in U.S.-Russian relations and regional agenda, such as Iran and Afghanistan.

Question: Mr. McFaul, you are an author of ‘reset’. Everybody knows a lot of people in Russia and sometimes in America are a little bit disappointed of ‘perezagruzka’. Do you share this view? Are you disappointed too and will new Obama’s administration continue the policy of ‘reset’ in our relations?

Answer: Well, from our perspective ‘perezagruzka’ was always about engaging with the Russian government and Russian society to achieve our concrete national interests. We assumed that the Russian government would do the same with us and would never cooperate on an issue unless they thought that it was in their national interests as well. This is a concept that President Obama talks of as win-win outcomes. The only way one can realize win-win outcomes is to have an understanding of each others’ interests, of each others’ motivations. And the only way you can facilitate that understanding is to engage. Sometimes it is not well understood that it is not an end in itself. It is a means to these other outcomes. So President Obama – they are not here anymore, there is me playing football with Obama – we used to have photos in here of the various meetings he has had with President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin, now President Putin. They met last in Mexico, in Los Cabos. I was at that meeting. He is engaged much of his personal time into trying to foster this understanding, so that we could get the outcomes. He created with President Medvedev the bilateral presidential commission again to help increase connections, activities between our two governments. We think that the results have been very positive: the new START Treaty, cooperation on what we call the northern distribution network for supplies to our troops in Afghanistan; Russia is a key partner to us in that process. We think our cooperation on Iran and North Korea has been very robust at the UN Security Council. With respect to Iran both in negotiations but also on sanctions on Security Council [Resolution] #1929. Most recently – I don’t want to go into everything – the WTO accession for Russia. We worked very closely with the Russian government to make that happen. Concrete outcomes. I think it is fair to say when I hear the critics that we’ve done less big things in this last year, in 2012, so that the momentum has slowed down. I would say that there are two reasons for that. One is that we’ve got a lot done, so the things that are left are harder issues. So we’ve got these other things done. Now on to these other issues. Two, I would say that both your government was focused on domestic issues and election issues here. And so was my president:2012 was an election year. Therefore the president did not devote as much time to foreign policy issues. But now we have a new moment, we’ll soon have a new administration, and we’ll now have a better understanding of what can be done together from this kind of strategy or theory that we have in our relationship.

Q.: Will you continue ‘perezagruzka’?

A.: It obviously depends, generally speaking, because the president has won. The general approach I suspect will stay but I would add two more things. One is that it takes two to tango. It’s not up to us, it’s what the Russian government would want. So we’ll need to explore that matter when we have a new government. We don’t have any government. In all two-term presidencies – this is whether you are a Democrat or Republican there are always changes in the administration. For instance, Secretary Clinton has made it clear that she plans to leave the government. We’ll have a new secretary of state, we’ll have some new people. They will come with new ideas and their different kinds of approaches. Many of us, including myself, though I serve here at the pleasure of the president, I’ll have to check, many of us who were involved before will be involved again. I expect more continuity.

Q.: In a conversation overheard by journalists during the nuclear summit in Seoul, President Obama asked Dmitry Medvedev, then still Russian president, to pass over to Vladimir Putin that, if the latter were re-elected as president, the United States would be flexible on the European missile defense issue. Will Mr. Obama keep his word, and in what way will such flexibility manifest itself? Is there a chance of the U.S. agreeing to provide legal guarantees that the planned missile defense will not be a shield against the Russian strategic nuclear forces?

A.: As you know President Obama has made it very clear beginning with his speech in Prague in 2009 about his commitment to reducing nuclear weapons in the world and securing nuclear materials and their safety around the world. These are high priorities for him, and it is too early to say now that as the election was just yesterday, but I fully expect that once we have a new government in place – and I expect this will take some time after the inauguration, it takes some time to reorganize a government – that we will be exploring new ways to fulfill the president’s agenda at the very beginning of our administration and that includes strategic talks with Russia. Now with respect to the specific issue of missile defense we feel quite strongly that we are developing our missile defense capabilities around the world – by the way I want to emphasize it, not just in Europe but around the world to react to concrete threats. Threats that we see have been growing, not diminishing, over the last three or four years. So what we intend to deploy is in direct relationship to those threats that we pursue and has nothing to do with Russia, Russia’s strategic weapons, Russia’s strategic arsenal. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to come to an agreement with Russia about that basic concept yet. And I know I was involved in the new deployment of missile defense that we did – I think many people here in Russia forget that the Bush administration had one plan for Europe, we changed that plan. And we changed it so that it more directly address the threats that we see and want to protect ourselves and American allies and our partners from and first and foremost that is Iran and North Korea. We changed that program deliberately that way. I think that already shows the president’s approach to missile defense. Over the coming months and years I think that the more knowledge the Russian government and the Russian public has about precisely what we are doing the less concerned Russia will be about America’s missile defense.

I read a lot of misinformation about our capabilities. Concretely what an SM-3 can do and what a GBI can do. Not many people know the difference between those missiles. And that’s our job to explain them, to help educate people about their capabilities. Because once it is understood that an SM-3 not just cannot hit a Russian ICBM but it is not even designed to shoot missiles. It is designed to shoot warheads. And then when you understand the physics of how it works, you’ll understanding that SM-3s based in Europe are designed against warheads coming from somewhere else, not from Russia. That’s a conversation that we with the new government, with the new administration now we think we will fully engage in with Russia. Whether we can reach cooperation with Russia that is a high, high aspiration. And I am not sure. We may not be able to do that. But I am quite confident, I am very optimistic that we will be able to eliminate this issue as a sticking point, as a problem in U.S.-Russia relations even if we can’t cooperate through mutual understanding brought about through engagement I’m quite confident we will be able to get there because I know exactly our intentions and capabilities.

Q.: I don’t’ understand, maybe it is a naive question, but could you please explain me, why the U.S. can not give those written guarantees to Russia. Maybe if America gives such guarantees, everything will be okay?

A.: Because we don’t know how the threat in Iran will develop. That has nothing to do with Russia. We can’t constrain our military forces against a threat because the threat is a variable, it is not a constant. That’s precisely what. Now I want to remind you all that if the threat diminishes, the necessity to deploy that we have planned now can change. President Obama said that in his Prague speech. But we have to protect the American people and we are not going to constrain ourselves in that regard. But again I think there is one thing concerning constraints and legal guarantees and treaties and all those things. There is another thing about transparency, cooperation, trust that can be done without signing treaties. In the business world this happens all the time. If it’s good for you, is good for me, and we can do without these kinds of things. And I think the more people understand our system and what it’s designed to do and what it’s not, I think that this issue will diminish.

Q.: And question about Iran. There have been a lot of speculations that America can carry out military strikes against nuclear facilities in Iran or help Israeli to make strikes against them. Do you think it is possible or not in next several months or during the year? Does Washington support the initiative for full-format negotiations in November between the P5+1 and Iran similar to those in Moscow last summer?

A.: We are in the process of reformation of the administration. So I need to be careful. We will get a new secretary of state on the team and that process is just underway. But what I can say I do think we’ll see continuity here. We are quite pleased with our cooperation with Russia on this set of issues and the kinds of creative ideas we have about engagement. Then cooperation on sanctions later and the very close coordination that we have with Russia in the P5+1 which we believe has been a success in U.S.-Russia relations. We support the P5+1 process. We support negotiations. As the president has said many, many times – no options are off the table but we want to resolve the security issue through diplomacy and we see Russia as a partner in that process.

Q.: Are you going to provide more tough policy on Iran?

A.: It’s very clear the outcome we desire. The international community has a great problem there. As I said before Russia has been a central partner with the United States in defining the outcomes we seek. Sometimes we have disagreement about the means to achieve that outcome and we believe, the Obama administration believes firmly that more pressure on the regime will help us get to the outcome that we desire. And to pressure – I mean sanctions and we believe that sanctions are having effect, putting pressure on the regime. Again I don’t what to get ahead of the new administration, but if necessary to reach that end more sanctions are necessary I think we will be prepared to do that. But we always have two tracks – the diplomatic track and the pressure track. Both are designed to achieve the same end in Iran to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Q.: No military strike in your plans?

A.: I think I said enough on this issue.

Q.: Do you expect more cooperation with Russian government in the coming years on the Iranian issue? Because the Russian stance on Iran was quite tough, especially speaking about other sanctions?

A.: It is one of our highest priorities. I can tell you that for sure. There has never been a meeting between the presidents or lower levels where Iran is not one of the most first issue that we get to including the last time that President Obama and President Putin met in Los Cabos in Mexico. Generally speaking we think that to achieve the outcome that we both desire we don’t see any difference in the Russian definition of the desired outcome and the American definition of the desired outcome. I think we are very, very close. But because of our inability to have successful dialogue with Iran this is going to become I think it is going to grow in importance in the coming months in terms of U.S.-Russia relations.

Q.: Mitt Romney’s campaign has been accusing President Obama of being too soft on Russia, among other things claiming that the president has been shutting his eyes to human rights violations in Russia. Do you see this as fair criticism? And can you say that new Obama’s administration will continue its support of NGOs and Russian opposition?

A.: First of all, with regard to tough or weak characterizations we always define our strategy to meet our desired objectives. And we don’t get into characterizations of whether it is tough or s soft or sweet or nice. By the way, we never actually went out of our way to make friends or become closer to Russia. It was always a means to the ends. I have to tell you from personal experience: I participated in negotiations over the new START Treaty. The negotiations were every tough. We were tough. I personally was tough. You can ask your Russian counterparts. And they were tough. They were very tough. Mr. Antonov, the chief negotiator, is a tough negotiator, very tough negotiator. I respect that. Those negotiations were tough because we were trying to seek what is in Russia’s national interests and ours. The negotiations over the sanctions against Iran – I also participated in those – those were tough negotiations, real tough. The negotiations over WTO – those were tough . Sometimes people were screaming at each other. Those were tough negotiations. Your team was tough, Mr. Dvorkovich, Mr. Shuvalov. Our team was tough. And without that no good outcomes.

So, I think you know we should be judged not by the soft or toughness but the concrete outcomes. I think we have been tough negotiators in the defense of American national interests and we will continue to do that at talks on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan etc. With respect to the issues of democracy and human rights we will continue to be the same which is to say we do support the development of Russian civil society. We made that clear from the very beginning of the reset. We will continue to commit to that . We continue to speak out when we see violations of human rights and we want to keep to that course. We call it dual-track diplomacy: engage with the government, engage with society. And again we have to wait for the new administration. My expectation is that we will have continuity with that dual-track approach.

Q.: Russia has accused the United States of interfering in its internal affairs. Will the U.S. boost its support to Russian non-governmental organizations and opposition by money, I mean 50 millions support? How will you realize it? We know USAID was closed, but will you continue its policy and through which channels?

A.: I would say a couple of things. First of all the idea of internal affairs and interference. You know I read what Mr. Churov said, I read what the Duma says, I read what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. And you know we welcome those kind of interactions. We don’t run away from them. We are very proud of our democratic traditions and our practices. I think as I said at Spaso House last night in front of many cameras: “We had a superbly democratic, free and fair and competitive election.” And the fact that Mr. Romney agrees with me I think is a testimony to the process. But we are happy to engage in talking on internal matters in America because all societies can better. In fact President Obama said that in his acceptance speech today very strikingly. He said: “We are tying to work to go forward towards a more perfect union. “It means we are not perfect. He even mentioned, he said the lines were too long for people to vote. He said we got to fix that. So strong self-confident people don’t fear criticism. They engage with it to go to these other ends. That has been a very good thing for America to have these debates. Again the president said in his speech today to have there kinds of debates makes our political systems better, not worse, including debates with people from outside of the country. What color your passport is should not define what your ideas area. With respect to civil society as you know there are lots of organizations, lots of foundations, European, American, Canadian, all over the world that support civil society in Russia, support civil society in my country, by the way, too, in other countries. We will look two ways to continue that support. We believe it was a step in the wrong direction to ask USAID to leave here. We are very proud of the work USAID has done here over the course of 20 years, working both with the Russian government and Russian society. Something that I think is not well-understood. We think that it was a useful organization in terms of developing our bilateral cooperation especially the work USAID supported in the bilateral presidential commission that will now be more constrained. But we haven’t changed our policy, there’ll be new ways to commit to the same objectives.

Q.: The U.S. State Department’s approval of the ‘Magnitsky list’ has drawn an extremely harsh reaction from Moscow. Is it true that Washington may extend this list by putting on it officials involved in the Leonid Razvozzhayev and/or Pussy Riot cases?

A.: There is a fundamental misunderstanding about this issue. Let me try to clear it up. We have a presidential decree that’s built on a set of regulations that the State Department already had in place, the Bush administration put them in place, we then strengthened them under President Obama. And I can send you the link, so you could have it.

So the secretary of state and the State Department and the U.S. government, the executive branch of the government is already empowered by President Obama to deny visas to all individuals from all over the world, not just Russia, if we assessed that they have grossly violated human rights of individuals. It’s already in place. And it is a long, long list, by the way. There is a notion that it’s just about this one case, just about Russia. It’s a misconception. So the powers to do that are already in place. What we don’t do is we don’t publish these lists. There is a reason for that. Because we believe in the rule of law. You do not have a right according to the American constitution to come to my country. It is not your right, according to our constitution. It’s a privilege. Just the same it is a privilege for Americans to come to Russia. And your government gets to decide who comes to and who doesn’t. By the way I think you decided that Mr. Browder can’t come to your country, the Russian government decided. It is the sovereign right of every country.

Q.: Is Washington going to respond to Russia on its concerns regarding your future military bases in Afghanistan after 2014, why do you want it so much to be there? And do you hold negotiations with other Central Asian countries on this topic?

A.: As I said earlier I believe that one of the great accomplishments of U.S.-Russia relations and it involves other countries – but we are talking about Russia today – is the development of the Northern Distribution Network. When we came to office most of our supplies, 95% of our supplies to Afghanistan went through Pakistan and only 5% came through the Northern Distribution Network. Now the Northern Distribution Network is where the majority come through. And that is tremendously important to what we believe is in the common interests of security inside of Afghanistan. Especially when we have had difficulties with other supply routes. Now we still have things going in but we will also be moving things out because the president has said the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and we are going to need to use those routes facilities to move things out as well over land, over rail and through air and using transit centers, air transit centers like in Manas to move things out. That’s what we need these facilities for. We believe we have had a very positive dialogue with Russia about this set of issues. The four-star general who is in charge of all this whole operation was just here 10 days ago, a week ago and met interlocutors here. And we believe we have a common understanding of what we are and are not doing. And that’s what these facilities are for. For nothing more than that. But notion that we somehow want to have bases in Central Asia to play a great game of balance of power between the Chinese and the Russians. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is about concrete interest, concrete threats and cooperating concretely with Russia and other partners in the region to deal with those security threats that are common to these countries. This is not a threat just to the United States. These are threats that could also be destabilizing for Russia and I am impressed by the level of understanding, not the level of disagreement that we have had over these sets of issues.

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