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Russian Official Discusses U.S.-Russian Relations

June 15, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Two weeks from now, Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to the famed Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, as the guest of President Bush and his father, the former president. For two days, the leaders will talk about issues that have generated the greatest tensions in the U.S.-Russian relationship since the end of the Cold War.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Vladimir and I just had a very constructive dialogue.

MARGARET WARNER: As differences over policies, from missile defense to the state of Russian democracy, have deepened this year, the rhetoric between them has grown unusually harsh. At a security conference in Munich in February, Putin criticized the U.S. for what he called an “almost uncontained hyper use of force” around the world, adding, “The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.”

And at a World War II commemoration in May, Putin appeared to make a veiled comparison between the foreign policies of the Bush administration and those of Nazi Germany. Later that month, in Potsdam, Germany, Secretary of State Rice had some criticism of her own to make, saying, “We want a 21st-century partnership with Russia, but at times Russia seems to think and act in the zero-sum terms of another era.”

Russia also reacted heatedly when Bush officials, including Vice President Cheney, began talking this spring about deploying elements of a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland to protect against rogue states with nuclear ambitions, like Iran or North Korea.

On the eve of last week’s G-8 meeting of industrial nations, Russia tested some new missiles. And Putin said, if the Czech-Polish deployment went forward, he would retarget Russian missiles at Europe.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): A new deployment area in Poland, a radar in the Czech Republic, what shall we do? We cannot watch this unilaterally any further.

MARGARET WARNER: Stopping in Prague on his way to the summit in Germany, President Bush sought to allay Putin’s concerns.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Russia is not our enemy. It’s a purely defensive measure, aimed not at Russia, but at true threats.

MARGARET WARNER: But in a speech later that day, President Bush aimed this criticism at President Putin’s moves against the media and political opponents in Russia.

GEORGE W. BUSH: In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development.

MARGARET WARNER: When the two men finally met at the G-8 late last week, Putin made a surprise offer for a joint U.S.-Russia missile defense system in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. President Bush called the Putin idea “interesting,” but did not back off the Czech-Polish plan.

Yesterday, in Washington, I talked with President Putin’s spokesman about the U.S.-Russia tensions and the upcoming meeting.

Dmitry Peskov, welcome.

Addressing nuclear tensions

DMITRY PESKOV, Vladimir Putin Spokesman: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Two weeks from now, President Putin will become the first foreign leader that President Bush has ever invited to his family compound up in Kennebunkport, Maine. What does President Putin hope will come out of that?

DMITRY PESKOV: First of all, he really appreciates the kind invitation, and he is prepared for the summit. The expectations are in favor of continuation of the dialogue with President Bush, touching upon serious international problems that we have on the agenda, both that we agree upon and disagree upon, and rounding out sharp corners, and also, of course, monitoring the whole context of our bilateral relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: This meeting comes at a time of really a big chill between the U.S. and Russia, with deep differences on some serious issues, and also some harsh rhetoric that's been exchanged on both sides. Is President Putin concerned about that? Is he concerned that perhaps even the two countries are sliding back into -- some commentators have called it a new Cold War?

DMITRY PESKOV: He doesn't want any Cold War, and Russia doesn't want any Cold War. We're the last country to lead things to any kind of confrontation. To the contrary, we stand for a pragmatic relationship with mutual taking into account each other's interests.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's take one issue that they've had serious differences on, missile defense. The president, as we know, proposed to put rudimentary defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. President Putin was very, very opposed. Then, last week at the G-8 summit, he came up with a proposal of his own. Why that turnaround?

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, we never hide our concerns regarding the plans of the United States to deploy elements of its national strategic arms in Eastern Europe next to our borders. We still believe that it would break the existing balance in the European continent, and it will, of course, inevitably make Russia to take some countermeasures to rebalance the situation again, should it happen.

But, again, let's say the initiative of President Putin regarding the possible usage of Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan...

MARGARET WARNER: That's in Azerbaijan?

DMITRY PESKOV: Yes, actually it demonstrates the readiness to search for a consensus, to search for the way out, by taking into account each other's interests. So we are ready to take into account concerns of the United States.

Plans for the presidents' meeting

MARGARET WARNER: So do you expect some resolution of this at the time of the Kennebunkport summit?

DMITRY PESKOV: The problem is too sensitive and too complicated to wait for immediate resolution, but, of course, we hope that the process will not go on forever. But we'd highly appreciate if the process of deployment of the elements of the weapons in Eastern Europe discontinues for a time being until the situation is clear.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're calling on the United States and NATO to freeze its plans, its planning process, for putting these systems in the Czech Republic and Poland until, what, the U.S. has fully considered the Russian offer?

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, yes, Russia will really appreciate such a move. And in our understanding, it will create comfortable conditions for further attempts to find a solution to that problem.

MARGARET WARNER: But, otherwise, President Putin's threat, which is the way it was seen here, to retarget Russian missiles at Europe remains a live option in the Russian mind?

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, it will be one of the measures of counterbalance. And if we see a radar in Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland, of course the Russian military will have to counteract. And, in this case, one of the measures, like retargeting, may take place.

MARGARET WARNER: Does the fact that President Putin has a counterproposal indicate that he, too, sees a potential threat from the nuclear-armed Iran?

DMITRY PESKOV: No, to the contrary, Mr. President has stated already that we still believe that there is no possibility, potential possibility of Iran's possessing nuclear arms that will threaten the security of Europe or the United States in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, we are ready to take into account concerns of Americans' side, even if they are extremely hypothetical. So these are the concerns about non-existing weapons.

The Kosovo conflict

MARGARET WARNER: Another contentious issue that is expected to arise at Kennebunkport involves Kosovo. And the U.S. is supporting a plan at the U.N. Security Council that would essentially allow Kosovo to separate from Serbia. Russia has been opposed. How far is President Putin ready to go to oppose that?

DMITRY PESKOV: As far as it is necessary, because we are convinced that the case of Kosovo is not unique. If this problem is being solved by imposing the solution to Belgrade, which is obviously not ready for this kind of solution, then thus will create a precedent in the center of Europe for other regions in post-Soviet area that is potentially very dangerous for destabilizing the situation.

MARGARET WARNER: So would Russia exercise its veto to stop it, if it came to that?

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, theoretically, as far as I can understand, this cannot be excluded.

MARGARET WARNER: How does President Putin in sum see the relationship now with the United States? Is it a partnership, a rivalry? How would he characterize it?

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, we would like to see it as a partnership, as a partnership. A partnership does not exclude the problems. Problems are inevitable. The more relationship you have, the more problems are on the agenda. But, of course, we still have to make some homework before we call our bilateral relations a real partnership.

MARGARET WARNER: And in President Putin's view, do he and President Bush still have the rapport that they seemed to have several years ago?

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, their relationship is sincere. They are very open in their judgments. They never try to avoid sharp corners. Maybe now we have more sharp corners than we used to have, a couple of years ago, but it doesn't mean that we are close to a dead-end or close to another year of tension.

MARGARET WARNER: Dmitry Peskov, thank you.

DMITRY PESKOV: Thank you very much.