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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at Russia World Forum

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Washington, DC
April 27, 2009


Remarks As Delivered

I'm delighted to be here today. I want to thank Ed Lozansky for organizing this very timely forum.

The joint declaration issued by President Obama and President Medvedev at their first meeting in London on April 1 reaffirmed that Washington and Moscow share common definitions for many of the threats and opportunities that we see in the world today. The declaration recognized that more unites us than divides us. And it reflected the commitment of both Presidents to move beyond Cold War mentalities and to chart a new course in relations between our countries. The task is now to translate that sentiment into actual achievements as we look ahead to a July summit in Moscow.

While we have achieved a welcome change in tone in our relationship at the official level, I am under no illusion that translating this into practice will be easy or quick. There is a legacy of mutual distrust that must be overcome. I know first-hand from my time as Ambassador to Russia that mutual frustration and mutual misunderstandings often have obscured our mutual interests. We believe it is time to look ahead and build on our many areas of shared interest, and at the same time address our differences and disagreements openly and honestly.

Russia Still Matters

With that in mind, I'll make three basic points before sketching key elements of an agenda for cooperation. The first is glaringly obvious, but it bears repeating. Russia matters. The Bipartisan Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia recently concluded that "few nations could make more of a difference to our success than Russia." Russia remains the only nuclear power comparable to the U.S. at a time when the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a growing danger. Russia remains the world's largest producer of hydrocarbons, and America the largest consumer. Russia remains the largest country on the face of the earth, sitting astride Europe, Asia and the broader Middle East -- three regions whose future will shape American interests for many years to come. And as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia will have an influential voice on the most crucial diplomatic challenges of our times, from Iran to North Korea, to anti-piracy and Afghanistan.

My second point is equally obvious, but deserves emphasis: today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. For almost two decades, Russia has undergone rapid, deeply rooted, and - I believe - irreversible change. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is connected to the world in powerful ways. And despite the chill in official relations over the past several years, Russians and Americans are probably now more connected through business, travel, education and science than at any time in our history. Russians made over thirty-six million trips abroad last year -- three million of them to Europe, and 175,000 of them to America, including 32,000 Russian students who participated in the Summer Work and Travel program flipping burgers in the Outer Banks or life-guarding in middle America. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and Russia is among the top ten countries in the world today in total number of Internet users. About a third of the population is on-line and three million Russians are blogging in an uncensored cyberspace. Coming off a decade of strong economic growth, Russia aspires to become a middle class society, even as the economic crisis has resulted in a sharp downturn and rising unemployment. Russians have become accustomed to and expect basic personal freedoms -- the freedom to travel, to shift jobs and residence, to own and convey property, and to express individual viewpoints even as restrictions inhibit organized political activity. While we have our differences with the current government in Russia, they are not rooted in an ideological struggle between communism and capitalism. We do not seek or benefit from a new Cold War.

Rebuilding the Bilateral Relationship

Even as I look ahead with tempered optimism to the Moscow Summit, my third point is that U.S.-Russia relations will continue to be characterized by a complex mix of cooperation and competition. Our approach to Russia is premised on constructive engagement -- not talking for talking's sake, but a dialogue that is grounded in a realistic understanding of our different interests, values and goals. As Secretary Clinton has stressed, we need more trust, predictability and progress, and that only comes from working together. What I'd like to share with you is the scope of our agenda, whose significance too often has been overlooked.

First, we seek to conclude a legally binding treaty that reduces and limits strategic offensive arms. Together we possess 95% of the world's nuclear arsenal, which gives our two countries unique capabilities and unique responsibilities to set the example for nuclear nonproliferation. For the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to endure, we must reduce our nuclear arsenals, promote the safe use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and guard against weapons proliferation. In London, our Presidents agreed to begin negotiations on the first new verifiable arms control treaty in 20 years to replace the START Treaty that expires this December. Discussions between our negotiators have already begun, with Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller having a productive meeting with her Russian counterpart last Friday (April 24). The negotiators have been tasked by the Presidents with producing a framework by the July summit that reflects our shared commitment to further reduce our nuclear arsenals beyond the levels of the Moscow Treaty. The Presidents also reaffirmed their support for the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and we hope to finalize agreements to reduce weapons grade plutonium and other weapons-grade nuclear material by July.

Second, the United States and Russia must work together to reduce the threat of the spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous regimes or terrorist groups, while safeguarding the peaceful use of nuclear energy. We both confront transnational terrorist and criminal networks trafficking in nuclear technology, as well as regimes that pursue nuclear weapons under the cover of peaceful energy programs. President Obama and President Medvedev recommitted themselves to the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism launched three years ago, and which now unites 75 countries, as well as to strengthen the UN provisions that prevent non-state actors from obtaining WMD-related material and technology. Thanks to the leadership of Senator Lugar and former Senator Nunn, whose Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative is celebrating its 17th anniversary, the U.S. and Russia can point to the denuclearization of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, the deactivation of over 7500 nuclear warheads, the destruction of more than 750 intercontinental ballistic missiles, the elimination of more than 30 strategic ballistic missile submarines and over 600 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as the removal of highly enriched uranium from more than a dozen sites around the world. In London, our Presidents recommitted to continuing vital bilateral cooperation under the Bratislava Nuclear Security Initiative to improve and sustain security at nuclear stockpiles.

As we take steps to reduce nuclear arsenals and guard access to material of proliferation concern, it is clearly not in our interests to allow regimes to defy both the letter and spirit of the IAEA and Non-Proliferation Treaty. We have worked together in the Security Council to address the proliferation challenges posed by North Korea and Iran. Russia is a pivotal actor in discussions on Iran, given its geographic proximity and historical relations with Tehran. With the Obama Administration's decision to engage Iran with our partners -- a decision Russia has long advocated -- we look forward to working closely with Moscow to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program -- to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.

At the same time, the U.S. and Russia are taking practical steps to demonstrate our seriousness in providing all responsible members of the international community with access to civilian nuclear energy. President Obama reaffirmed that constructive cooperation with Russia in 2009 should help to facilitate Congressional approval of the bilateral agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation -- the "123" agreement, building on our Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and commitment to support Russia's proposed international fuel center for countries that forego indigenous enrichment capabilities. As one of the world’s leaders in science, Russia has much to contribute in efforts to develop new sources of energy.

A third area of cooperation lies in conflict resolution. This includes working together to promote stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan, working toward peace in the Middle East, and reinforcing the principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. Russia's agreement to the transit of U.S. non-lethal equipment to Afghanistan, as well as the airlift and lethal transit that it provides to some of our NATO ISAF partners, is significant. Afghanistan's stability, security, and economic development require a regional solution. That’s why we attended the March Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference, reflecting our commitment to work with Russia and our Central Asian partners to halt the flow of narcotics and extremism from Afghanistan.

An area of outstanding disagreement that requires careful management is Georgia, as well as relations between Euro-Atlantic institutions, Russia, and its neighbors. Most of the world disagrees with Russia's decision to recognize the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- a decision which raised obvious concern over Russia's respect for the territorial integrity of its neighbors. In London, our Presidents reaffirmed implementation of the August 12 and September 8 agreements, as well as the discussions in Geneva to bring stability to the region, which we believe are essential to rebuilding confidence. While the U.S. understands the historical, cultural, and economic ties between Russia and its neighbors, we stand by the right of all countries to determine their own foreign policy and make their own choices about alliances.

We need to address the drift in relations between Russia and the NATO alliance, as well as the weakening of European security structures triggered by Russia's suspension of its Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty obligations. We look forward to discussions on how to strengthen European security, and are interested in learning more about President Medvedev's ideas for a European Security Treaty. The OSCE could serve as an important forum for this discussion, as the sole multilateral organization in Europe that brings us all together on equal terms. While the Administration's policy review of missile defense is still underway, we remain interested in cooperation with Moscow -- both on missile defense itself, and on reducing the threat posed by Iran, which would factor into U.S. plans for strategic defensive systems.

A fourth area of cooperation is our response to the international financial crisis, while continuing our efforts to expand Russian-American economic ties and hasten Russia's full membership in global economic institutions. The financial crisis has taught us all painful lessons, but it also reinforced the reality of Russia's integration into the global economy over the last 18 years. While Russia’s economy is the eighth or ninth largest in the world, with two-way trade and investment expanding at double-digit rates, over 85% of its exports are based on energy and commodities such as metals and chemicals. The steep decline in oil, gas, steel and other basic input prices has had a devastating impact on the Russian economy. Russian and American interests are obviously served by working together as part of the larger effort to help revive the global economy. Our presidents began that process at the London G-20 meeting, and Secretary Geithner and Finance Minister Kudrin are in direct contact on next steps in restoring the health of the international financial system.

The U.S. is committed to policies that contribute to a prosperous Russia fully integrated into the international economy. Bilaterally, our goal is to relaunch intergovernmental and business dialogues that will reinforce G-20 efforts to restore international stability, support Russia’s economic modernization, and create more stakeholders invested in U.S.-Russian relations. Despite the near-term effects of the crisis, we expect Russia to become one of the world's largest economies in 20 years. Russia’s ambitious modernization plans will require deeper integration into the world economy to take full advantage of foreign technology and investment. However, as Prime Minister Putin acknowledged at Davos earlier this year, to accomplish this Russia will need to invest in its infrastructure and education and social welfare systems, continue to deepen its international integration, and diversify its economy away from oil and gas. The second gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine in January was a reminder that global energy markets will continue to reward transparency and punish opacity. Given the temptation to increase protectionist measures during times of economic crisis, fulfilling the 15-year goal of integrating Russia into the World Trade Organization is all the more critical. Supporting Russia's entry into rules-based organizations, including the OECD, should help open the economy, speed diversification, increase efficiency and competitiveness, strengthen the rule of law, and fuel bilateral trade and investment.

That said, it does little good to gloss over the real dangers that could derail Russian efforts to modernize its society and economy. President Medvedev has identified corruption as among the most critical challenges facing Russia. It is, in effect, an extra tax, weighing most heavily on small businesses. It is a primary source of Russia's high inflation. It has a corrosive effect on the rule of law, crippling law enforcement and media freedom, breeding violence, and making a mockery of jury trials and judicial independence. In stressing the need to end legal nihilism, empower civil society, and limit intrusive government bureaucracy, President Medvedev is making a powerful argument for how political modernization and economic modernization are closely intertwined. His approach strikes us as sensible, but Russians and their leaders face very tough choices.

Finally, in this increasingly interdependent world, physical borders are little protection against the degradation of our environment. President Obama is committed to developing a new U.S. approach to climate change and to working with the rest of the world on this challenge. This includes working with Russia on Arctic issues, which we both recognize are critical to our security and economic futures. While some portray the Arctic as a new arena for strategic competition, our mutual belief that the Arctic should be preserved as a peaceful region for international scientific cooperation provides a new area for intensified cooperation. We have a solid foundation from which to start. Since 2006, over 4,000 tons of obsolete pesticides in Russia have been inventoried and placed in safe storage under a program of the Arctic Council, in which the U.S. and Russia are partners.

Similarly, as the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Russia's cooperation is crucial to combating global climate change. Russia and the U.S. share many common views regarding how to reduce greenhouses gas emissions, including the importance of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. Russia is joining the U.S. and 15 other major economies here in Washington this week at a Major Economies Forum on energy security and climate change, which will begin laying the groundwork for a successful outcome at the UN climate change negotiations that convene this December in Copenhagen. Again, by combining our intellectual capital, we’ll go further in addressing modern-day challenges, than either of us could alone.


Twenty-seven years in the American diplomatic service, split mostly between Russia and the Middle East, have stripped me of most of my illusions, but not my sense of the possibilities before us. While the challenges are complex and demanding, it is vital to get U.S.-Russian relations right. Our Presidents have gotten off to a fresh start and set an initial agenda. Now it is up to the rest of us, both in and outside of government, to translate that agenda into practical results.

The United States and Russia matter to one another, and how well or how poorly we manage our relationship matters enormously to the rest of the world. We have a chance, at the beginning of a new Administration in Washington, to make a new beginning in our relations. Let's make the most of that chance.

Thank you.

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