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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A Discussion on U.S.-Russia Relations

FPC Briefing
Ian Kelly
Department of State Spokesman
Foreign Press Center
New York, NY
September 29, 2009

6:00 P.M., EDT
MR. KELLY: Well, this is my Russia day. I came into the Foreign Service with a degree from Columbia in Russian studies. And I was invited back up there today and gave some remarks to a group from the Harriman Institute, which is their advanced study program for Russia and the former Soviet Union. And before I became Spokesman, I was director of the Office of Russian Affairs up till May, when I became Spokesman. And so I figured it was a good time for me to talk about Russia. It’s only been about five months since I’ve been – since I was director of the Office of Russian Affairs. And at a certain point, it’s going to start getting – all my Russia expertise will start getting overwhelmed by Honduras and North Korea and Iran.

And so I thought I would take advantage of this date to talk about Russia, also because in a couple of weeks – I don’t think we’ve announced a date, so I’ll just say mid-October – Secretary Clinton is going to lead a delegation to Moscow for the first round of U.S.-Russia talks. We call it the Binational Commission. And some of the areas that we’ll have working groups in are nuclear – energy nuclear security, arms control. Of course, arms control is ongoing. We have ongoing talks in counterterrorism, drug trafficking, business development, energy and the environment, health science, educational and cultural exchanges and also civil society.

So thank you all for coming. And with those very brief introductory remarks, I’d be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: I will start because I am the only non-Russian here, Renzo Cianfanelli from Corriere della Sera.

MR. KELLY: Ah (inaudible) --

QUESTION: I have been in Russia in the exciting times of Yeltsin and Putin.

MR. KELLY: Okay.

QUESTION: So that’s on – could I ask you, there’s a lot of talk about resetting the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. At which stage are we in now?

MR. KELLY: Well, the Binational Commission was announced in July. I think that that was kind of the formal launching of the reset of U.S.-Russian relations. President Obama was in Moscow July 6-8. But we have – even before then; we had started to engage very actively with Russia on a number of fronts. We knew that we had to go fast on the – coming up with a successor agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that will run out in early December, so we began those talks very soon after the President was inaugurated.

And we’ve just – we’ve had, I think, just a lot more activity between Moscow and Washington. There’s just been a lot more cooperation, a lot – many more bilateral visits. You know that last August, August 2008, marked really one of the low points in U.S.-Russian relations. And I think we all recognize that we had to put our relationship on a new footing, on a new track. And this whole metaphor of the reset button, I think, kind of captures the feeling on – in both capitals that we need to start in a new direction in U.S.-Russian relations.

QUESTION: I’m with Channel One Russia. My name is Vladimir Lenskiy.

MR. KELLY: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Is – Iran is on everyone’s mind now and --

MR. KELLY: Sure.

QUESTION: -- my question is how much leverage do you think – the American Administration thinks Russia’s Government has on Iran, really, in negotiations? What is the expectation – what are the expectations?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think Russia is a critical player in this process. You know that we have a dual-track strategy in dealing with the challenge that Iran presents to us. And Russia plays an important role because, first of all, Russia is on the Security Council. And we, of course, will – we will need Russia’s support in coming up with a unified approach. Of course, they’re in the – Security Council members are also going to be in these talks in Geneva on Thursday. And I remember well, when I was on the Russia desk that Russia was really encouraging us to engage Iran, that they believe that isolating Iran was counterproductive, and we have decided to adopt that approach.

And we are going into these talks on Thursday with our eyes open. We’re not really expecting any tremendous breakthroughs on Thursday, but we are very serious in our offer to have direct talks. And we’re hoping that Iran comes to the talks on Thursday ready to show us how they plan to restore the international community’s confidence in their nuclear program. They say it’s for peaceful purposes, but they need to show us how they’re – how they, in fact, are peaceful, because we have our doubts.

QUESTION: But aside from the Security Council at the UN, what do you expect from Russian Government? What do you need them to do? What do you need them to tell to the Iranians?

MR. KELLY: Well, first and foremost, we want to have unity in the international community, unity particularly in the Security Council and in the P5+1 context. So that’s very important. And we have regular contact and dialogue with Russia mostly at the political director level, this is – Bill Burns on our side and I believe Sergey Ryabkov on the Russian side.

And U.S. and Russia share the same goal. I mean, we do – neither side wants to see an Iran with nuclear weapons. We, of course, will have to see what happens on Thursday. And if this one – if this track doesn’t work, if the track of engagement doesn’t work, we’re going to have to look at other approaches. And we hope that Russia will be an active participant in a new approach – or not a new approach, but the other – on the other track, the track of pressure.

Russia, of course, has diplomatic relations with Tehran. Russia has a relationship with the nuclear community through its cooperation in Bushehr. So obviously, Russia has certain channels with Iran that we don’t have, and of course, that’s important as well.

Yeah, in the back.

QUESTION: Neeme Raude with Estonian Television. Russia’s neighbors are kind of asking now what is the United States doing with scrapping the missile defense plans. There is this view among conservatives that United States is showing weakness towards Russia. Russian prime minister was saying that U.S. should change the plans for Georgia and Ukraine to move towards NATO. So there are lots of questions. What’s going on?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Is – do the neighbors of Russia have to be afraid (inaudible)?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think that we have got to do a better job of communicating what we plan to do with the new missile defense plan, because we’re not scrapping missile defense. What we’re deciding to do is – based on assessments of the capabilities of Iran, we’ve decided that what we need is a system that can defend our allies against the medium-range ballistic – medium-range missile threat. And we saw that Iran is actively developing this particular capability when they test-fired missiles on Monday. And these missiles have a range of 1,200 miles. They can’t reach the U.S., but they can reach Russia and they can reach a lot of our NATO allies, including Southern Italy and the Balkans.

So what we want to do is, rather than have a system that’s designed to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles, we want to have a more – first of all, a system that can counter medium-range missiles, and also – but also a system that is more adaptive and can evolve as the threat evolves. And so the system that we want to develop together with our allies, and we hope with our Russian friends too, is designed to meet a more immediate threat.

Regarding the neighbors of Russia, I mean, Estonia is a valued ally. Estonia has been a very active participant in NATO operations, including in Afghanistan. We have not changed our policy regarding the NATO aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia. We believe quite strongly that it is the right of every country to decide with whom they want to have alliances and security arrangements, and that hasn’t changed.

I think that a lot of people are paying attention to the reset to reengagement with Russia, which is good. And we think that this is a better approach – to have direct talks and talk about issues that are of common interest. But our core values haven’t changed. The President met with the NATO Secretary General today, and he reaffirmed our commitment to NATO and to our responsibilities under NATO. And so I really – I don’t think there’s been any real change from one administration to another in that regard.

QUESTION: Why do you think the outcry among the Republicans with whom you worked in the previous administration was so strong (inaudible) – I mean, John McCain. But a lot of analysts now in the think tanks who were in the State Department before --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- they were just coming out with those statements that the U.S. is losing something (inaudible) --

MR. KELLY: Right.

QUESTION: -- and all that. Well, why it was so strong?

MR. KELLY: I think the reaction was strong in the beginning because I don’t think people really understood what this new approach was going to do. I think that now that it’s clear that we’re not scrapping missile defense, we’re just going to have a more mobile and adaptive system. I think that we’ve – or at least I’ve noticed a – that some of this criticism, I think, has been muted a bit.


QUESTION: My name is Alf Ask. I’m from the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Back to the NATO enlargement, do you think that these two countries, Ukraine and Georgia, will be member of NATO before the first term of President Obama ended?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think that each one of them carries their own set of problems, very different kinds of problems. I think in the case of Georgia, we have to be – we are focused more on, I think, stability issues in Georgia, trying to give an impetus to the Geneva talks, to try and lessen the tensions. We are – of course, we cooperate with Georgia. Georgia is also with us in Afghanistan, and we have some training programs with them. But I think that we have to – that Georgia has to focus on some immediate problems of dealing with regional tensions.

In the case of Ukraine, Ukraine has, as I say, a different set of problems. I think that there’s some – that Ukraine has to get its domestic political house in order, has to enact, some fundamental economic reforms. And I firmly think that Ukraine has a Euro-Atlantic vocation; I think that their place is in Europe. And I think Russia’s place is in Europe, too. I think it’s all part of one Western community. But it has to – Ukraine has to enact some fundamental political reforms, I think, before it’s really realistic for them to start acceding to NATO or the European Union.

Hope I didn’t make headlines in Kyiv with that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Evgeny MASLOV RTVi). It’s not a secret that now American society highly anti-Americanized, and this is somehow part of Kremlin propaganda. Does it bother in Washington or even out to Moscow, really, to cooperate in international sphere or area?

MR. KELLY: I think that this is an issue that I feel very strongly, and I know that my colleagues at the Embassy in Moscow feel very strongly about. That for us really to be able to – to be able to cooperate and to become partners, we have to break down these barriers of mistrust. And I think that there is a bit of legacy of the old Cold War, of old Cold War thinking, of back in the old days, if it was bad for Russia, it was good for us, and vice versa. And I think we have to try and break down those barriers. And the barriers are all in our heads. We need to – I think we have to try and change our thinking. And I think that’s one reason why President Obama spent so much time in Russia, because he recognized that, on the one hand, there’s just so – there’s so much we could do together, that Russia and American can do together.

If you look at, just at our geography, our sheer size, if you look at how strategically placed Russia is in terms of – I mean, it sits on top of the – sort of the main international problems that we deal with in the Middle East and Iran and Afghanistan and North Korea. I mean, Russia abuts all of those areas. Plus, ultimately, the biggest challenge I think we face is proliferation and the horror of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the wrong people or of nuclear weapons being fired in anger or by mistake. And between our two countries, we control 95 percent of all the nuclear weapons.

So President Obama recognized that it was important for us to get this relationship right and to start us off on a new track, and that’s why he went so early to Moscow. I mean, he went within his first six months and spent a lot of time there. I mean, that’s – for a president, I think it was almost three days; that’s a long time. And he did take a lot of time to talk to the Russian people, too. He took time – did interviews, he spoke to a university, and that’s because it’s just so important that we move on and look forward and look at how we can accomplish a lot together, rather than look at how we can try and score points off the other guy. We need to get away from this zero-sum type thinking.


QUESTION: Zdenek Fucik, Czech News Agency. A sort of follow-up question to my Estonian colleague, I believe. There have been worries in the last days that United States compares to the previous administration, they are sort of forgetting the Eastern Europe (inaudible). In the Bush Administration, there was the stress on close cooperation with Eastern Europe, and now there is this feeling, or you certainly read that in the papers – American papers.

MR. KELLY: Sure.

QUESTION: What would you say to sort of deny these worries or to calm the people who say that? Because I think that, as my colleague said, there is this feeling that Russian didn’t, sort of, do anything and the United States are stepping back from their previous plans. So what would you say to that? Still we hear some aggressive statements from Russia, like last year we heard from the Russian foreign minister that the Czech Republic is still in their zone of influence and such statements, and they are acting very aggressive towards Ukraine and its members. So what would you say to these people who – where these worries which are based on some activities by Russia?

MR. KELLY: Right. Well, I guess I’d say several things. One is that one thing that this Administration has decided is that isolating certain countries just hasn’t worked, that we want to engage countries to see if that will make more progress. And so a lot of the focus of the media, quite naturally, has been on our engagement – talks with Cuba, inviting Iran to P5+1 talks, starting this new dialogue with Russia.

That does not mean that we are moving away from our core values. And as regards Europe and Central Europe, those values are that the most important alliance that we have is the NATO alliance, that we believe that NATO is a force for peace and stability and is a way for the transatlantic community to meet the challenges of the 21st century, such as terrorism in Afghanistan, proliferation with Operation Active Endeavor. And we haven’t at all changed our policy vis-à-vis the aspirations of other countries in Eastern Europe to join NATO. We still support it. We still support the territorial integrity of Georgia. We think it was a huge mistake for Russia to recognize the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

I think that those values haven’t changed. It’s just that I think that the focus of people has changed. I mean, it’s a very different approach from the previous administration. But I think, since 1949, we’ve had the same – I mean, every administration has had the same strong support for the transatlantic community and the NATO alliance.


QUESTION: Kyrill Belyaninov, Oginiok (inaudible) Russia. If I can go back to the missile defense, as I understand, the negotiations about missile defense and (inaudible) started as early as January of this year, right after President Obama wrote a letter to President Medvedev. May I ask what was the main subject of these negotiations and who participated in that, and what U.S. asked Russians in exchange of changing initial plan of missile defense?

MR. KELLY: Well, first of all, you’re making an implication in your question that I don’t think is correct.

QUESTION: Well, that’s why I’m asking it, because --

MR. KELLY: Yeah. No, I mean, what the President decided in January – and he may have made reference to this in his telephone call with President Medvedev or in his letter to him. I don’t recall exactly. But he ordered a complete review of our missile defense plans, and he wanted a review that would judge the planned missile defense program with the interceptors in Poland and the radar in the Czech Republic that was based (1) on whether or not it would be effective; (2) whether or not it was meeting a realistic threat; and then (3) whether or not it was cost-effective.

And the review finished in early September, and the recommendation of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was that the real threat was a threat of medium-range missiles coming out of Iran. And their recommendation was a system that wasn’t fixed, but was mobile and could also be adapted easily as technologies change.

And this team in Washington is – they’re – I mean, they’re very serious and they want to make sure that what they do is based on the best facts available and the best intelligence available, and so they made the decision on that basis, on the basis of the recommendation of the people in the defense community and the intelligence community. And they – and that’s – so the President approved that decision. But then there really – there wasn’t any kind of bargaining with Russia on this at all.

QUESTION: There were no negotiations or any kind of talks --

MR. KELLY: There were no negotiations.

Yeah, we’ve got to --

QUESTION: I’m sorry. I was going --

MR. KELLY: Okay, maybe (inaudible) should call the questions. Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Andrej Brtovsek from newspaper Dnevnik from Slovenia. There were some reports that the United States is considering to put some elements of the missile shield on the Balkans. Can you comment on that?

MR. KELLY: Well, I know that as we look at the emerging threat out of Iran, if you look at a radius of the range of the missiles they have, of course, the Balkans are in that range, in that radius, as is southern Italy. But I mean, no decisions have been made about where to place any of the infrastructure, and I’m not aware of any plans for missile defense elements in the Balkans.

QUESTION: But is this area a part of consideration?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, because it was under threat.

QUESTION: When can we expect these decisions to be made concerning the new missile defense?

MR. KELLY: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean, there’s a lot of different things that have to happen within NATO and bilaterally. And I mean there are elements that we can do pretty quickly because some of our best short- and mid-range missile defenses are based on ships, on U.S. Navy ships, and those can be moved around pretty easily.

QUESTION: My name is Vladimir Kikilo. I’m with the Russia News Agency ITAR-TASS. Mr. Kelly, do you think that

Mr. Kelly, do you think that the reset in Russian-American relations has already taken place? If we could talk about it as a fact, if something is moving?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: And the second question: Do you think that Russian-American relations need some kind of roadmap, some kind of benchmarks?

MR. KELLY: No, I don’t think it needs – to answer your second question, I don’t think we need a roadmap necessarily. I think that we’ve got a very broad range of issues that we need to get working on in the security area, and also – but also in economics and trade. Our trade relationship should be a lot bigger than it is now. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but there’s this tremendous potential with U.S.-Russian trade. There’s a lot of pent-up consumer demand in Russia, and I know that there are a lot of U.S. retailers that are very eager to satisfy that consumer demand.

In terms of real progress, I think one thing I can point to is the agreement that was announced at the July summit that Russia will allow transit of its territory for equipment, including lethal materiel for our efforts in Afghanistan. And – but as I say, there’s a lot more that we could be doing. And I think this fall is going to be – it’s going to be a busy fall for the U.S-Russia relationship with the talks we have in October. And we’ve lost a lot of time and we need to start making up for some of this lost time.

QUESTION: I actually wanted to ask you about Afghanistan since you mentioned it. How much more do you think Russia can participate in solving this problem since, you know, the Russians have some experience in that country?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, I think that they already are contributing in some of the counternarcotics efforts, doing training in Central Asia and doing training in Domodedovo. And of course, Russia has real concerns about the narcotics that emanate out of Afghanistan. Russia is, I think, probably the main transit country, so they have real interests in helping us there and they are helping us there.

I don’t have a whole lot of details, but I think that there’s a lot that Russia could do in helping equip the Afghan National Army – provide materiel for them. I think there’s a lot Russia could do in terms of infrastructure development, engineering projects. There’s a lot Russia could do. And like I say, we need to pick up the pace.

QUESTION: A follow-up question, if I may. How difficult do the Department and the Administration find to deal with this duality in Russian Government right now? Who – I mean, there is the president and there is the very powerful prime minister.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Who do you think you should address the questions and certain, you know, things that you want to discuss first?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Or who – where do you expect the answers to come – you know, from the government or from the president?

MR. KELLY: Right.

QUESTION: Do you find this duality a little difficult?

MR. KELLY: No, I mean, I wouldn’t say – not in particular. I mean, I think we know when we need something addressed, we – I think we know where to go. It depends on the level. The – I mean, it’s spelled out in the constitution in terms of foreign affairs and security policy; it rests with the president. We also recognize the role played by Vladimir Vladimirovich, and when President Obama went to Russia, of course he had several meetings with the prime minister as well. But we have excellent cooperation at the level – at the diplomatic level. And as I say, we – if we need a question answered, we know where to go, so I wouldn’t say it’s really a problem.

QUESTION: Could I ask you another question about – in the context of this resetting of relationship between Russia and the U.S., has the issue of the so-called human rights been put in the back burner? I’m referring, for example, to cases like Politkovskaya --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- for which there was not the proper investigation, or the case of alleged human rights violations in Chechnya.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. No, I would – it hasn’t been put on the back burner. I think that because we had so little cooperation with Russia, especially after the events of August 2008, that when we talked about Russia, it was mostly to criticize Russia. We still criticize Russia. We still have problems with – especially with the whole fact that there’s been so much violence committed against journalists and human rights activists that has gone unpunished. And we tell the Russians, publicly and privately, that this is a big problem.

One of the working groups we’re going to have in the binational commission is on civil society. It’ll be headed by our Senior Director for Russia at the White House Michael McFaul on our side, and on the Russian side by Vladislav Surkov. And Russia recognizes too that it has – that there’s room for improvement in the rule of law and in trying to encourage elements of civil society. But I would respectfully disagree that it’s been put on the back burner.

MODERATOR: There’s time for maybe two last – two more questions. Go ahead, Gabriel.

QUESTION: Gabe Plesea writing for Romanian press. Turning back to Eastern Europe, I’m sure you are well aware that the relationship, you know, historical problems, you know, between Romania and Russia.

MR. KELLY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And I’m referring to Bessarabia.

MR. KELLY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And I read reports that the Americans and the Russians participating in these talks about solving the Transnistrian conflict.

MR. KELLY: Yeah, right.

QUESTION: My question is: Why would the Americans get involved into this looking for a solution?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. I think it’s not just the U.S., but it’s also the EU involved in this. And I know it’s got a name, this process, but I’m blocking on the name. I mean, we have interests, obviously, in that part of the world. We have interests in stability. And this is another one of the frozen conflicts left over from the breakup of the Soviet Union, and of course, we’re interested in finding a solution to it. We only get involved if we think we can play a role in it and if we’re invited to play a role.

I haven’t been following it that closely, so I can’t really give you a chronology of where we are with it, but I know we’ve been actively involved in it.

QUESTION: A follow-up.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: How would the U.S. look upon the tendency or wish for Bessarabia to go back into Romania?

MR. KELLY: Oh, I don’t think we would look very well on that at all. I think we support the territorial integrity of Moldova within its present borders.

QUESTION: Yeah, but this – the U.S., with the Baltic states, took another approach, why not so with Bessarabia.

MR. KELLY: Boy, you’re testing my historical knowledge here. I’m not sure why there was a different approach.

QUESTION: Soviets gave Romania ultimatum to seek the – you know, the – after the (inaudible) to get out of Bessarabia. So that’s the story.

MR. KELLY: Okay.

QUESTION: So with the Baltic States, the U.S. never recognized the annexation. Why --

MR. KELLY: Those were sovereign countries, though, weren’t they?


MR. KELLY: There were a number of borders that were redrawn during – before, during, and after World War II. But I don’t have a ready answer to you what the difference is between the Baltic States and Moldova. I just know that we strongly support the territorial integrity of Moldova.

MODERATOR: Okay. One last question.

QUESTION: Okay. My question is unrelated to, I mean, all these political issues. Here what – I’m just wondering if you can elaborate. Recently, there was a much-publicized case of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov buying a major stake in New Jersey Nets, it’s from NBA team. And he’s investing also significant amount of money for building an arena here in Brooklyn.

So my question is, although, obviously, sports doesn’t fit into the strategic industries for the United States, but in the past, attempts of buying major stakes in American companies, for example, by China – I think one of their petroleum company a few years ago tried to buy a stake in American company, and it was actually rebuffed by the Congress. It’s been – and occasionally, those kinds of purchases being reviewed by the Congress, ifthey are considered a strategic interest.

My question is more general. Do you think, in general, United States Government will be kind of like, looking with a good eye or be welcoming more investments from Russia from these kind, like from private investors from Russia?

MR. KELLY: Oh, I think that we welcome foreign investments. I don’t think that’s an issue at all. I mean, there are – there have been times when we’ve identified an industry as, as you say, being strategic or in some ways sensitive. And we – in very rare cases, we have objected to it. But in the case of Mikhail Prokhorov buying a sports team, I can’t imagine how the federal government or the State Department would have any kind of say in the matter.

QUESTION: Well, is it possible in such major purchases – okay, let’s put Prokhorov aside. I mean, is there any – some kind of review process within the American legal system about the origins of the capitals which are being invested?

MR. KELLY: Well, I mean, they’re getting into possibly law enforcement issues, too. I mean, if the – I mean, the buyer has to be legitimate, I think. That’s not really a foreign – that’s not a foreign policy issue.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) I mean their legitimacy? For example, a person like Prokhorov, I mean, the --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- origins of his capitals and stuff --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: I mean, according to the U.S. law, I mean --

MR. KELLY: I don’t know. You’re asking me a legal question that I really can’t answer.

MODERATOR: Ian, thank you very much for spending time with us this evening. Thank you all for coming. Have a great day. Thanks, all.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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