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Russian Foreign Minister Sees ‘Improvement’ in U.S.-Russian Relations

July 3, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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In the last of a series of reports from Russia, Margaret Warner talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the future of U.S.-Russian relations, last year's Georgian war, and negotiating a nuclear arms treaty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, Prime Minister Putin brushed back a comment from President Obama yesterday that the Russian leader had one foot in the Cold War era. Putin told reporters his country stood on both feet and was always looking to the future.

Margaret Warner continues her week-long reporting from Russia on the eve of the Obama visit there with an interview with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. She spoke to him earlier today in Moscow.

MARGARET WARNER: Minister Lavrov, thank you for having us.

SERGEY LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia: My pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama says he’s seeking a new relationship with Russia and that he wants to reset it. Do you see the prospects for resetting this relationship in a major way, in a significant way?

SERGEY LAVROV: Well, I think the relations already took a new start. The two presidents met on April 1st in London; the atmosphere of the meeting was positive. We share the desire of President Obama to improve our relations, and President Medvedev recently stated this on his video blog.

And the atmosphere is improving, no doubt about it. We feel more inclination to listen, to hear, and to look for common denominators on the issues which still divide us. And the issues which divide us are not very numerous compared to the issues on which we think alike and act together.

So, hopefully, a Moscow meeting would strengthen this atmosphere, but would also be the place where the two presidents not only discuss all important things of our bilateral relations and the important issues on the international agenda, but we’d also take decisions on quite a number of things.

U.S.-Russian Relations

Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister
During the previous administration, very good relations, personal relations between the two presidents [Putin and Bush] did not get substance at the next layers.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have straddled both sets of presidents, the Bush-Putin era and now the Obama-Medvedev one. You said you already see an improvement in the relationship. Is it simply from a change in attitudes on the American side, or has there also been a change in approach on the Russian side?

SERGEY LAVROV: Well, I think the main difference is that, as my president actually stated recently, is that, during the previous administration, very good relations, personal relations between the two presidents did not get substance at the next layers. And the relations, in general, apart from personal chemistry of the two leaders, were really deteriorating very fast on many issues, and they were very ideologized.

Well, it's not for me to say who was to blame, but I certainly can tell you that, whatever we committed ourselves to, we tried scrupulously to deliver. And this was not always, to put it mildly, the case on the part of our American friends.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, President Obama gave an interview yesterday -- I'm sure you've heard about -- in which he said he is also meeting with Prime Minister Putin because he thought it was important -- and I'm going to read this -- that "Prime Minister Putin understands that the Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated and that it's time to move forward in a new direction."

He also said he thought that Prime Minister Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one in the new. What's your reaction to that?

SERGEY LAVROV: Well, I think this is a stereotype which we have to overcome. Prime Minister Putin, when he was president, offered very broad spheres of cooperation to President Bush, especially after 9/11. And had those offers been met and had they been reciprocated, I'm sure we would have seen by now a radical positive change in the Russian-American relations.

What I would also say, that President Obama recently gave another interview to a Russian TV station, and he emphasized very important things -- that he is going to Moscow with the desire to make sure that the Russians see that the United States wants to have an equal and mutually respectful dialogue and that this dialogue should be translated in the practical steps, not only bilaterally, but also on the international issues, where, as he stressed, the United States doesn't want to dictate to others, but rather wants to be partners to all countries in resolving international problems.

If this is the philosophy which would be promoted and translated into practical action, we're not going to be found waiting.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the Obama administration correct, though, that progress won't be possible with President Medvedev unless Prime Minister Putin is basically also on board, even though constitutionally he's not in charge of foreign policy any longer?

SERGEY LAVROV: You know, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin work in tandem, as people say, and this is not just a phrase which describes their relationship. The president and the prime minister act together. There is a division of labor under our constitution.

And they both want good relations with the United States, both in issues of politics, but not to a lesser extent in economy, trade, where our two countries have huge potential, and this potential is being tapped, but we want to do more, and we can to do more, the main thing, just as in political discussions, in economy and in trade, to be guided by the principles of mutual benefit and equality.

Negotiating new nuclear treaty

Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister
It's absolutely important to understand that all the previous agreements on strategic arms reduction limitation had been concluded when the ABM treaty was in force.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's take one of the issues in which everyone expects progress, and that is moving the ball on this renegotiation or negotiation of a new long-range nuclear weapons treaty. How specifically do you expect the two presidents to move the ball, beyond what was achieved in their conversation in London?

SERGEY LAVROV: Well, as you said, the two presidents discussed this in London on April 1st. They issued joint instructions to the negotiators. The negotiators are working hard and productively, I would say.

We have agreed to put in the new arrangement, which would come to replace the START I regime, which expires in December, some very important principles on which a new agreement should be based. We have started to discuss figures. Whether these figures would also find a way in a presidential statement, this is up to the presidents to decide. We would be reporting to them.

There would be another round of negotiations before we submit our report to the two leaders. It would be up to them to put the final touch to this paper.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is Russia insisting that as a precondition for getting an agreement on that treaty, that the U.S. abandon its unrealized plans for putting part of a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland? Are the two absolutely linked in Russian eyes?

SERGEY LAVROV: They are linked, and they are linked not only in Russian eyes, but also in the American eyes. The statements by Presidents Medvedev and Obama issued in London on April 1st create a sense that we will continue our dialogue on strategic offensive weapons, we will continue our dialogue on missile defense, and that the two presidents recognize the interrelationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive systems, and they instructed the two governments to study this interrelationship.

It's absolutely important to understand that all the previous agreements on strategic arms reduction limitation had been concluded when the ABM treaty was in force. This one is going to -- is being negotiated in a new circumstances, when there is no more ABM treaty. And this interrelationship must be reflected in the absence of any ABM limitations.

So this, you know, must be very clearly understood. Our American partners understand this. And missile defense systems, as they are planned now, are certainly creating risks for the Russian security.

We have presented our alternatives to the missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. If it is indeed about potential threats from the south, then the configuration of missile defense activity should be slightly different.

MARGARET WARNER: But, bottom line, does getting a START treaty absolutely depend on Russia getting satisfaction on this issue?

SERGEY LAVROV: Well, it's not about Russia getting satisfaction; it's about both countries being satisfied with the language, which we are negotiating.

Georgia, Ukraine and NATO

Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister
We're very concerned that [Mr. Saakashvili] is being rearmed again, he is receiving new arms from various sources, though quite a number of countries made their conclusions and stopped cooperation with Georgia, supplying them military hardware.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama administration officials also said that they are not at the summit going to "trade away," as they said, the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. Can Russia live with that?

SERGEY LAVROV: Well, we're not going to trade away anything on our side, either. You know, it's a sort of old thinking, which we all want to renounce: trading, bargaining, conditioning.

We want to concentrate on two blocs of issues: one, where our positions coincide; another one, when we don't see eye to eye, but where we really must work hard to close our positions together to find some common denominator, which would be to the benefit of the United States, of Russia, and to the benefit of the international situation.

Certainly, NATO expansion is one of the issues on which we don't see eye to eye. And Georgia is also another one.

I think that the United States, just like our European friends, understands quite well what actually happened and how it was all prepared. We had been warning for years before the war last August about the danger of supplying Georgian regime with offensive arms to the level beyond any reasonable needs.

And we were told that this would never happen, because the very fact that Georgia has NATO aspirations and that NATO wants to take Georgia into its embrace would guarantee against any wrongdoing.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, of course, as you know, there's a difference of view of who started the Georgia war, but let me ask you this: How strong -- or what is the danger you see of the prospect of a renewed conflict there?

SERGEY LAVROV: First, I don't think there is any difference of view who started it. There is difference of presentations. When we talked to our bilateral partners in a bilateral format, everyone understands how and who did it. I also know that, you know, when the Americans talk to Europeans, they don't even try to pretend that it was not Mr. Saakashvili who started it.

MARGARET WARNER: And how great a danger do you think there is that conflict will break out again in Georgia, whether triggered by the Russian side or the Georgian side, or the Ossetian side?

SERGEY LAVROV: We have never attacked anyone until attacked by someone. It all depends on how Mr. Saakashvili behaves. We're very concerned that he is being rearmed again, he is receiving new arms from various sources, though quite a number of countries made their conclusions and stopped cooperation with Georgia, supplying them military hardware. I hope that others would follow suit, because this regime has a very clear record.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying now that you think there is the prospect of renewed conflict there because of President Saakashvili?

SERGEY LAVROV: We know only too well that President Saakashvili started it once, and I hope he wouldn't start it again. If he doesn't start it, there would be no war.

Advice on Afghanistan

Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister
The new approach by Obama administration towards more regional involvement, I believe, is the right one, and we have been discussing this with the Bush administration. The situation is very difficult, but only together we can resolve it.

MARGARET WARNER: I know you're aiming for some other agreements, including on, for instance, the transport of U.S. military supplies into Afghanistan through Russia. Given Russia's experience in Afghanistan, what advice do you have to the United States as the U.S. now doubles, triples its effort there?

SERGEY LAVROV: Promote national reconciliation. Promote the efforts by the government of Afghanistan to establish normal working state, which must be a state where the central authorities cooperate very closely with the provinces.

Fight drug barons. Strengthen the Afghan army and security forces. Promote reconciliation between all the ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan. This is the key to everything.

Involve neighbors more. Rely on neighbors' advice. Combine neighbors and all other countries who can influence the situation in a group which would have, you know, unity in promoting the common goal.

And the new approach by Obama administration towards more regional involvement, I believe, is the right one, and we have been discussing this with the Bush administration. I am glad that this is now taking place. The situation is very difficult, but only together we can resolve it.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think it's doable?

SERGEY LAVROV: I think it's doable if we all concentrate on the future of Afghanistan and don't try to make Afghanistan a country where we play these zero-sum games.

MARGARET WARNER: To end on a broader note, Obama officials say they're afraid that Russia is still looking at the world in zero-sum terms, in that the U.S. is always trying to advance its own interests, not only at the expense of Russia, but actually aims to make Russia weaker. Is that the Russian view still? And if so, do you think this summit can begin to turn that around?

SERGEY LAVROV: You know, I never heard that President Obama said that he believes Russia views the world from the philosophy of the zero-sum games. I think that we have been saying this in the past, and this was actually substantiated by quite a number of developments.

For example, take NATO expansion. We think it's a zero-sum game. And an alternative to this would be having security guarantees, not just to NATO members, but to the entire European continent, in the context of OSCE, for example.

That's why President Medvedev suggested to adopt European security treaty, which would clearly codify and make legal obligations out of existing political commitments that no one shall expand his security at the expense of security of others. This is a non-zero-sum game approach.

NATO expansion and leaving legal security guarantees only for NATO members, I think, is a zero-sum philosophy. And I hope this would be -- this is being reconsidered, actually. And a lot of reviews is going on in Washington on missile defense, on European security, on Afghanistan, on Iran, on Iraq, and I hope that this review would be conducted not in the cabinets, but in very close consultations with us, with Europeans, with Arab countries, with all others who can play a role.

MARGARET WARNER: Minister Lavrov, thank you so much.

SERGEY LAVROV: Thank you very much.