QUESTION: What was the agenda of your visit to Russia?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I am very pleased to be back in Russia, where I have spent five years of my career including three years as ambassador. I have developed over those years a very deep respect for Russians and for the potential of partnership between our two countries. And as Deputy Secretary of State – my new job – I focus particular attention on how we can strengthen U.S.-Russia relations.
At the beginning of a new year, it is natural and valuable to take stock of the considerable progress we have made since the reset that was launched three years ago and to look ahead at how we can build on that in 2012 and beyond. I conveyed in all of my meetings here the very high priority that President Obama attaches to our relationship, to continuity in our partnership, and to expanding the reset in the years ahead.
We want to strengthen relations not just between our two governments but also our two societies. I met with a wide range of senior officials at the Kremlin, the White House and the Foreign Ministry. I also met with civil society and political leaders, as do on all my visits.
We discussed the truly impressive accomplishments of recent years – the New START treaty, the 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation between our two countries, strengthening of cooperation on Afghanistan which is in both of our interests, our work together on non-proliferation, especially in Iran and North Korea, the very positive partnership we have built on counternarcotics and counterterrorism, the creation of the bilateral presidential commission which provides a very important structure for our relationship, and most recently Russia’s accession to the WTO. We are especially proud of our strong support for Russia’s accession to the WTO. It is long overdue. But it is good for Russia, good for the United States and good for the global economy. We look forward to Russia’s graduation from Jackson-Vanik this year.
As we widen the arc of our cooperation beyond the foundation which we have already built through the reset, we are convinced that strengthening cooperation in economic affairs and trade offers a great deal of potential for both of us.
I am also stressing during this visit that the U.S. continues to strongly support Russia’s efforts at economic and political modernization. It is only natural as Russian citizens have built greater prosperity and economic opportunities over the last decade that they should also seek to strengthen the rule of law and democratic institutions, to participate responsibly and actively in how decisions are made, and to speak out against corruption and injustice. That is all part of the evolutionary challenge of building the secure, prosperous and democratic Russia that Russians seek and deserve, and that is also deeply in the interest of the United States.
We want our relationship to be a genuine two-way street between two strong partners, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. That does not mean that we won’t have differences from time to time. Of course we will. We have to be open and honest about them. The bottom line is that a healthy partnership benefits not only the two of us, but also the rest of the international community -- and that is especially important as we begin what is likely to be a very complicated 2012 for the world.
QUESTION: You have not mentioned missile defense. After the speech of the Russian president in November it seems like the relationship in this sphere has approached an impasse. How do you suggest coming out of it?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: President Obama has said on many occasions that the U.S. is committed to finding a mutually acceptable approach to missile defense cooperation with Russia. We believe that such cooperation can enhance the security of the United States, our allies in Europe, and Russia. And we are committed to being absolutely transparent about our plans and intentions.
NATO and Russia are preparing to resume theatre missile defense exercises. We are continuing to explore a framework for broader cooperation on missile defense. Our goal is to strengthen the overlapping capabilities that we have, to address the common threat that ballistic missiles pose for security in Europe including for Russia.
As the President has indicated, we can’t agree to legally binding limits on U.S. and NATO missile defenses -- but as he has stressed publicly and privately, U.S. and NATO missile defense efforts are not intended nor will they be capable of threatening Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. And we are prepared to put that in writing.
I am not naïve. I know this is a difficult process. It is going to take a lot of time and hard work. But it is still possible to build that kind of cooperation, and I certainly think it is still worth the effort.
QUESTION: Let me clarify. What exactly is the U.S. ready to put in writing?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The fact that U.S. and NATO missile defense efforts are not intended nor will they be capable of threatening Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.
QUESTION: But this is not exactly what Russia asks for, right?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I think it is a very important reinforcement of our commitment to transparency, and to provide every reassurance we possibly can about this issue.
QUESTION: Another topic which is very important now is Iran. How do you see Russia’s role in regulating the crisis around Iran?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: While we do have tactical differences from time to time, Russia and the U.S. share a very important common goal – to achieve a comprehensive long-term settlement that would restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Neither of us can afford to see Iran develop nuclear weapons; both of us appreciate the huge dangers such an outcome would pose for regional security and global non-proliferation. The U.S. and Russia – since our two countries possess 95% of the world’s nuclear arsenal – truly do have unique capabilities and responsibilities on this issue. Our leadership, working with our partners in the P5+1 process, is crucially important.
Both of us are concerned by Iran’s unwillingness so far to live up to its international obligations and responsibilities. The sanctions that we both supported in UN Security Council Resolution 1929, and the measures that the U.S. and others have taken since then, are the consequences of Iran’s failure to meet its international obligations. But they are not an end in themselves. They are a means to an end, a way to show Iran that it has no good alternative except to return to serious negotiations. And the sooner Iran does that the better for all of us. There is a lot at stake and we have a genuine sense of urgency about this issue.
QUESTION: Critics here in Russia say it is not really helpful from the U.S. side to move aircraft carrier groups into this region.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: First, I would say that we and many others in the international community are deeply concerned about some of the recent provocative Iranian statements threatening free access through the Strait of Hormuz. Transit passage through that strait is an international right and it is extremely reckless to threaten or challenge that international right, especially at a moment when the global economy is under such strain.
The U.S. Navy has been deployed in the Gulf for more than half a century. It is a reflection of our partnerships with friends in the Gulf, and our commitment to secure access to energy in the Gulf, which is crucial for the global economy. These deployments are not meant to threaten the Iranian people. In fact, last week there was an incident in which the U.S. Navy rescued a number of Iranian fishermen who had been detained by pirates, and we have made repeated attempts to engage with the Iranian government. But there shouldn’t be any mistaking in the seriousness with which we and others view the international right of free transit through the Strait of Hormuz.
QUESTION: Another conflict state in that region is Syria. What would you say about the promises of reforms made by Bashar Assad. Are they enough?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: “No” is the short answer. Over the past year thousands and thousands of brave Syrians have sought exactly what other Arab citizens have been seeking during this historic year – dignity, respect, universal human rights, political and economic opportunity. And sadly the Assad regime’s response, its actions as opposed to its often empty words, has been brutal and unyielding. The result has been increasingly bloody.
The U.S. and Russia have deep concerns about this situation. Both of us worry about many of the same questions. How to avoid even greater bloodshed and the dangers of civil war? What might come after President Assad? How to avoid a spillover of sectarian violence into a region that already has more than its share of problems?
It is important that regional leaders have stepped forward to help deal with the Syrian problem. The Arab League has sent monitors and has demanded quite reasonably that the Assad regime release all political prisoners, pull back security forces from civilian areas, allow peaceful protest and permit monitors to fully operate. Unfortunately the truth is that the Syrian authorities have so far not lived up to those reasonable demands.
We look forward to working with the Arab League on next steps. We also want to work with Russia, including in the UN Security Council. The reality from our perspective is that Assad has become an obstacle to stability, not its guarantor. The sooner we can help bring about a genuine transition, the better it will be for Syrians, the region and both of our interests.
QUESTION: So you think that despite the differences of approach, cooperation with Russia on that issue is possible?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We have to be honest about the fact that we have had tactical differences on this issue, but I do think it is possible and very important to work together. Russia and the U.S. working together can help bring about the kind of stable transition that is important for Syria and the region.
QUESTION: Another topic that has been covered in the Russian press recently is the shifting of the U.S. foreign policy accents more towards the Asian-Pacific region. Some Russian experts argue that the U.S. wants to contain China. Is that so?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I think it is self-evident that the Asia-Pacific region is emerging in the 21st century as the most economically dynamic region in the world and an increasingly important part of the global security environment. It is natural for the U.S. to focus more attention and more economic, diplomatic and security resources on that region. That does not mean that we can afford to neglect Europe or the Middle East or any other part of the world – we have important stakes there too. Like the U.S., Russia is also a Pacific power. And it also has enormous interests in other parts of the world too. In the years ahead, I think it is going to be in our mutual interest to cooperate increasingly in the Asia-Pacific region and we welcome that.
The fact of our increasing focus on this region also does not mean that we seek to contain China. Nothing could be further from the truth. The U.S. and China have economies that are deeply interconnected. We seek with China a positive and cooperative relationship. Like Russia, and like China, we seek an Asia-Pacific region that is stable and secure, with a diplomatic architecture and rules of the road that enable all of us to prosper and grow our economies.
QUESTION: Let’s move back to Russia. After the protest demonstrations following the Duma elections Prime Minister Putin indicated that the U.S. might have helped organize them. What is your response? And what is generally your opinion of these elections?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Like many others in the international community, we have paid careful attention to the reports of fraud and irregularities in the Duma election. We and others have expressed concerns about that. We certainly look forward to the results of the investigation that is being conducted. We also look forward to the implementation of the reforms that President Medvedev has announced.
It is very important for people to be able to continue to express their concerns and their views openly and peacefully. We will continue to support Russians inside and outside the government who stand for transparency and accountability. That’s deeply in Russia’s self-interest.
I would stress that we have no interest – zero interest – in interfering in Russian politics. Russia’s political choices are the business of Russians – not Americans or anyone else. It is wrong to suggest that transparent cooperation between our civil society organizations is somehow aimed at destabilizing Russia. That is simply not true.
Nor do we seek to offer lectures to Russians or preach to them about democracy. I know from my own experience how unenthusiastic Russians are about such lectures.
What we can do, and what we will continue to do, openly and unapologetically, is to support universal human rights, to support the evolution of the rule of law and democratic institutions, to support Russia’s continuing political and economic modernization. That’s crucial for the continued emergence of a Russia that is the strong global partner that we seek.
It is only right and natural that Russia’s citizens, among the best educated and most capable people on Earth, should seek to participate in their own political system, help strengthen their own economic opportunities, help root out corruption and injustice, help build respect for the rule of law and a level political playing field, and help achieve political dignity as well as economic dignity.
QUESTION: Well here some opposition members say that something else that the U.S. could do would be to impose visa and economic sanctions on officials that have been involved in vote-rigging. A so called Churov-List like the Magnitsky-List that already is in parts put in place by the U.S. government. Is that something that the U.S. might support?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I don’t have a comment on the specific question, except to repeat the concern we have already expressed about allegations of vote-rigging and fraud. But I would say in general that we have broad legal authorities in the U.S. – which President Obama strengthened last year – to deny entry (and this applies to all countries in the world) to those who are responsible for serious human rights violations. And we look at each case anywhere in the world quite seriously.
QUESTION: Is that a yes or a no?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: As I said, we look at each case quite seriously.
QUESTION: Ok, we will leave it at that. The people who might have been involved in vote-rigging will take that as a “no”. And the opposition will think it is a “yes”.