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Obama advisor: It is better when the United States and Russia can work together

December 24, 2015, 12:30 UTC+3

Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the US President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting told TASS about results of the year regarding Russia-US relations

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US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, Ben Rhodes

US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, Ben Rhodes

© AP Photo/Steven Senne

- This time a year ago you were writing Russia off basically in your plans, calling for its isolation. Now our two presidents have met three times in three months, the Secretary of State has traveled twice to Russia. We have just launched a couple of major new initiatives at the United Nations. So Russia has always wanted to work together. What has changed in your policy?

- It has always been our policy that it is better when the United States and Russia can work together. It is easier to resolve difficult global issues and we do believe that there are interests that we have in common like fighting terrorism. 

What has not changed is that we continue to have some important differences, first, with respect to Ukraine. We continue to press for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and there is some progress but not enough to resolve that situation. 

On Syria, we, I think, share a common ground with respect for the need for the world to unite against ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, former name of IS — TASS] and with respect for the need for political transition in Syria. So, we’ve been able to work together constructively to the Vienna process and recently in New York to get the UN Security Council resolutions. 

We still, of course, have a difference about Assad’s future within that transition. But again, I think, the president would very much like to be able to find a way for the United States and Russia to attempt to continue to resolve these issues with diplomacy and to make progress on challenges that are important not only to our two countries but to the world.

- And then that was why Secretary Kerry traveled to Russia? What was achieved that couldn’t have been achieved on the phone?

- Well, I think often chance you can understand one another’s position is better by getting on face to face. And as for the three engagements the president had with President Putin, I was at two of them. I think they were able to gain a better understanding of each other’s positions and to try to identify areas on Syria where we could work to add momentum to the political process.  

- Did you see any personal ‘chemistry’ between them?

- This is always a subject of intense focus. I think the bottom line is that they understand one another well. They communicate very directly, they get right down to business. President Obama is very clear with President Putin about how he sees things and President Putin appreciates that candor. And when they disagree as they have on Ukraine, we are very clear and specific about that and we will continue to be.  

I think we describe this as business-like because that’s how the two leaders approach one another. But they also don’t shy away from being specific about where they differ. 

- Two brief points on Syria. Turkey, which is your coalition partner, downed our plane. Did you share the flight pass that Russians gave you with the Turks? 

- We made our determination publicly about the fact that we believe there was a brief period of time in which the plane was in Turkey’s airspace. But at the same time President Obama was very clear with President Putin that he regretted that this incident took place and regretted the loss of life on the Russian side. And that he wanted to see Turkey and Russia avoid a path of escalation and to resolve these issues diplomatically. 

With respect to sharing information, I have to check what we should have shared with Russia on this matter.

- With the Turks. The Russians under deconfliction were supposed to give you their flight pass. They said they did. So, did you share them with the partners in the coalition, including Turkey? 

- I have to check. I know under the deconfliction we are able to share information about our respective flight passes.  

It’s important that we have deconfliction measures in place with Russia. But we also think it’s important for Russia to have its own deconfliction mechanisms with other countries that are operating in the area. For instance, Russia and Israel have come to an agreement. And it would be good for Russia and Turkey to have the ability to have bilateral discussion, as well. 

- The other thing on Turkey and Syria is how soon will they close the border, in your opinion?

- We’ve been working for some time with Turkey to close the 98-kilometer stretch of the border. We believe there’s been good progress on the northeastern part of the border. We continue to see oil and fighters that could be crossing that border.

What we developed is a plan where the United States and our partners on the ground are taking action in Syria, do air strikes and ground operations by Syrian forces. And Turkey will provide troops on the Turkish side of the border to make sure that the border is sealed. 

Turkey has indicated that they want to pursue that with us. And their military is engaged in discussions with our military directly about how and when they will go about deploying forces to get that done. We hope we will be able to accomplish that in the coming months.

- Ukraine will almost surely enter the New Year in default on its Russian debt. Russia has made a generous offer to restructure asking only for reliable western guarantees. But you’ve decided not to help Ukraine with this. Why was the decision taken? Don’t you really believe in Kiev’s credit worthiness?

- Well, we do. I think our focus has been on the broad restructuring of their economy, their anti-corruption initiatives and the type of structural reforms that they can take to put their economy on a more solid footing. 

We certainly wouldn’t discourage them from having the type of economic and commercial relations that they had with Russia in the past. We do think this is a matter for Kiev to resolve with Moscow. Our focus has been more on what they are doing with the IMF, what they are doing with our loan guarantees and how they pursue structural reforms to make their economy more healthy. 

In the short term and even in the long term they will have a set of arrangements with Russia with respect of their energy and their economy. And again, we wouldn’t stand in the way of whatever Kiev and Moscow want to work out. 

- What’s the best thing that happened in US-Russian relations over the past year? What are you proud of most?

- I would say actually that the best thing that happened in US-Russian relations this year was the Iran deal. We would not have achieved the Iran deal without cooperation between the United States and Russia, both on sanctions and on diplomacy. Russia is playing an important role in the implementation of the Iran deal.

So, I think the Iran deal demonstrates what can be done when we do work together. And that’s the outcome of seven years of cooperation under both President Medvedev and President Putin. 

I think that we’ve seen more progress on the Syrian political track than in the last two or three years. And all that parties at the table together, Russia and Iran, as well as the United States and our friends and partners. And I think that represents a step forward.

- The upcoming year will be an election year in the US and the year of the NATO summit in Warsaw. Things will be inevitably said and done that will be seen in Moscow as harmful to the Russian interests. Does that mean we will have another wasted year in our relations?

- This is a year when we could see real progress on the two issues that have been the main ‘irritants’. On Syria, I think we do see Russia playing a constructive role in the Vienna process. We believe that Russia is very important to helping achieve a political resolution. And we’ve been able to narrow our differences in setting its timeline and having a process for ceasefire, then a constitution, and then a political transition. 

I think just resolving this question of the nature of Assad’s departure is what’s essential for us because we just don’t think it possible to have a political resolution that doesn’t specify Assad’s exit. But given our shared belief that there has to be a political transition and our shared focus on the terrorist threat there is the possibility that we could achieve significant progress on Syria. 

And as on Ukraine, we continue to believe that there is a good framework of the Minsk arrangements to make progress on that issue in a way they could ultimately begin to see relaxation of sanctions. But if there is no progress, we are going to continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

It could be a year in which we see Russia and the United States work through our differences. But that will require follow-through on Minsk and will require many more common grounds on Syria. 

And again I think that the relationships between the United States and Russia are so important to both our countries and the world that even as you will inevitably have flare-ups in rhetoric, we are going to make our judgements based on what actions are being taken, what progress we are able to make, recognizing that there is always high rhetoric in the political environment.

- Aside from Russia and Ukraine, I am thinking if there is any positive agenda that you can offer to Russia for moving forward because, frankly, many people in my country say that we need to write off relations with your administration. They say you are lame ducks and there is nothing good that’s coming from you anyway. What’s your response to that?

- I think that would be a mistake because the issues that are confronting us are too urgent to put off. 

And on Syria, I think the urgency is clear to all that we shouldn’t kick the can further down the road. 

In other words, the urgent nature of the challenges before us would make it very much in Russia’s interests to work cooperatively with the United States and our partners. And again, if we are able to resolve these issues, that would be good for both our countries and also be good for the rest of the world. 

- At last, a couple of things, one look back and one look forward. Looking back, we started so well, we tried to have this ‘reset’ to our relationship and now we have what we have. What went wrong? Is there a specific moment, the turn of events that you would change in our relations now if you could? 

- We’ve always taken the same approach, we believe it is better when Russia and the US can work together and that was the foundation of the ‘reset’. Because of that we were able to make progress on the issues like the START, like the WTO, like the Iran deal. 

I think the moment where things went wrong, most profoundly, was on Ukraine. Again, in response to Russia's actions in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine we essentially had to pivot to a place where we were at odds with one another and applying pressure. That was a very serious policy difference that I think obviously was the most significant downturn in relations.

- But if we blame Russia for everything, it tells me two things. First, that Americans don’t really believe in that ‘leadership’ you keep talking about, that you are basically reacting, not playing the proactive role. And secondly, more importantly for us, it means that implicitly the goal of the US policy is the regime change in Russia because you are unable or unwilling to accept things as they are in Russia. How would you answer back?

- The core point that is wrong is that is not true that the United States pursued the policy of regime change in Ukraine. I think often that is seen as an indicator of US policy being regime change in different countries. In fact we worked with the previous Ukrainian government. It was only after the Ukrainian people pursued months of protests and the corrupt leader decided to leave the country that there were then a series of events that led to the crisis in Ukraine. 

So, the US does not have a policy of regime change, certainly not with respect to Russia. Russia’s leadership is up to the Russian people to determine.

We do have a principle that we apply to every country in the world, which is that nations’ sovereignty must be respected. Actually, that’s the position Russia has taken over the years and when we only saw Ukraine’s sovereignty being violated, we had responsibility to take the position.

- My last question is what ‘Russian legacy’ you want to leave to your successors, what words of advice or caution you would offer them. And hopefully, I will re-ask this question in a year. 

- I think the advice that we would offer is that when we can find common grounds, the US and Russia can accomplish important things in the world together. As we did with respect to the Iran deal. But we also have to be clear and candid when we have differences as we had on Ukraine. And it’s important to Russia to understand where the United States stands on varied issues. And that type of clarity is important. 

Hopefully, a year from now we will be in the position where there is substantial progress in the resolution of the Syrian political conflict and the civil war. And Russia and the United States could be more focused on the shared adversary of ISIL. That would be the type of progress we’d like to see. As well as again on Ukraine, we’d like to see the full implementation of the Minsk arrangements so that the work began to resolve that crisis, as well.

By Andrey Sitov, Washington.

Minsk Agreements on Ukraine

On February 12, 2015 a comprehensive package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk Accords was signed with assistance from the Normandy Quartet. Over the ten months since last February the parties have managed to achieve relative observance of ceasefire and the pullback of weapons from the engagement line. Nevertheless, Kiev’s forces have systematically violated the ceasefire. Observers have regularly identified the presence of Ukrainian heavy weapons within the security zone, from where they should have been pulled out. Moreover, just recently Kiev’s forces have moved into seven communities within the so-called “grey zone.” Kiev has completely refused to comply with the amnesty provision. Kiev continues the economic blockade of Donbas.

Without any prior coordination with Donetsk and Luhansk the Ukrainian parliament on July 17 adopted a law on local elections, which ignores the specifics of local elections in Donbas. Kiev is in breach of another key item of the Minsk Accords – consultations and coordination of the constitutional reform with the self-proclaimed republics. The authorities in Kiev unilaterally drafted and adopted in the first reading a bill on amendments to the country’s constitution regarding decentralization which fails to match the Minsk Accords’ requirements. Nevertheless the Ukrainian parliament’s committee concerned has already advised the legislators to put the bill to the vote in the second, final reading.

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