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Victoria Nuland: We do want to be able to communicate clearly with Russia

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Ambassador Victoria Nuland in an interview with TASS


Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Ambassador Victoria Nuland in an interview with TASS dwells upon the US-Russia relations, the US position regarding the crisis in Ukraine, Iranian nuclear program deal and visa problems Russia's Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko has recently faced.

- Secretary Kerry's trip to Sochi in May was widely interpreted as a reflection of US intention to open a new chapter in its relationship with Russia. Was this perception correct? If not, then, from the US Administration point of view, where are the US-Russian relations right now and where are they headed to?

- I think the Secretary's intention, as he said, when he was in Sochi in the press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov, was to try to ensure that we were talking directly to the key decision makers in Russia. Our President speaks on the phone to President Putin. But when we went to Sochi in May it's been quite some time since they'd seen each other and we obviously know how the system is working in Russia now - that if you want to get your message across you need to do it directly with President Putin.

So that was the hope, that by speaking directly we could make progress on issues where we are already working together, for example at that time, the Iran deal, we could see whether there were other issues where we could bring our positions more closely into alignment, like on Syria, which they talked about in Sochi, and we could be frank and clear about areas where we disagree, which was the conversation about Ukraine, and see whether airing these differences would help and in that case would help with the implementation of the Minsk agreement which we continue to believe is the best path to peace in Ukraine.

So, the goal was to have a direct, frank, open conversation and see what was possible.

- But why wasn't it possible to just pick up a phone or use Skype or videoconference or any other modern technologies that you use?

- Well, we do that, too. Obviously, the President talked to President Putin on the phone a couple of times. But it's a different thing than being in a room and having a conversation face to face. Otherwise, diplomats would be obsolete, wouldn't we?

- To me it's evident that to normalize US-Russian relationship and to normalize ties between Russia and the West in general a broad set of new discussions centering on security issues is needed, a new European security architecture is needed. I believe one of the main causes, if not the main, of a flare-up in relations in both 2008 and now was a fact that NATO, despite its own past promises, keeps getting closer and closer to Russian borders, and also the US' unwillingness to consider Russia's concerns and interests. Henry Kissinger in an interview with the National Interest said recently that at this stage "breaking Russia has become an objective" while "the long-range purpose should be to integrate it." What is your response to these points?

- I would argue that since the breakup of the Warsaw pact, since the breakup of the Soviet Union the entire orientation of US policy, of Transatlantic policy and by that I mean the US, its NATO allies, its EU partners, has been to try to integrate Russia into not only Western institutions but also global institutions.

I participated in two efforts to create good relationships between Russia and NATO - first the Permanent Joint Council and then NATO - Russia Council in 2003 and the idea there was to try to solve European security problems together. We had some good moments of work together, we worked together in Bosnia, after a difficult start we deployed together assure peace and security in Kosovo, people often forget that. Our interest align on many things. We helped ensure that Russia came into WTO, when it was able to make its legislation and practices WTO-compliant, we worked on that for many, many years, we helped bring Russia into the OECD [that process has actually been suspended - TASS].

The problem that we've had in recent history begins with the fact that Russia broke the rules of the road. It violated international law, when it invaded first Crimea and then supported separatism in Eastern Ukraine. So it attempts to change borders by force, which was one of the fundamental tenets of the international law, not just in the Euro-Atlantic space but globally.

So from that perspective, if you want to have Russia that is integrated into the Euro-Atlantic system, it has to live up to the fundamental tenets that we all agreed to in Helsinki and that undergird the UN Charter. Russia can't benefit from the system while breaking its rules. That's the root of our concern in Ukraine, that for all of that period from the time that the Soviet Union collapsed, one of the key things was not changing borders by force. And that's the problem that we have.

That said, where we can we work, where our interests are aligned, where we are working within the international system, we do OK. Witness the Iran agreement, where our interests were very much in alignment. So, we are not prepared to change the fundamental principles and rules of the international system and the UN Charter whenever they don't suit Russia's interests. But by that same token we'll continue, where we can, work together, when we can.

- But I don't think this is the case, I don't think Russia is asking for any special treatment. Ukraine, it was far from certain, still is, that the majority of the population wants to see its country in NATO. And yet the West did everything it could to just drag Ukraine into NATO. For Russia, this is an existential problem. This is a neighboring country and NATO is a military bloc. However much you say that NATO is not against Russia, if you are in the military, you should take into consideration a potential. And the potential is there. You are doing the same thing...

- NATO doesn't seduce countries, it doesn't go out and recruit countries, it responds to the requests of countries for closer relations. At the time that we took the decisions that we did in Bucharest, it was at the explicit request of the Government at that time and, as you know, we stated our openness to Ukraine Euro-Atlantic aspirations but then for a long time we had Ukrainian Government that set the NATO issue aside. Now our conversation with Ukraine is about restoring stability, restoring sovereignty and territorial integrity, peace, prosperity, good clean governance.

But ultimately it's not Russia's choice how any country other than Russia allies itself. These are the sovereign decisions to be made by those countries.

We will always have a conversation with Russia about the fact that NATO does not have hostile intentions towards it but we will also ensure that NATO's deterrent is strong particularly in a world where Russia has behaved in Ukraine in a manner inconsistent with international law and where we have to worry that similar steps could be taken on NATO territory.

- Minister Lavrov said publicly that Russia is receiving signals from the US indicating its desire to restore some channels of bilateral cooperation. According to Minister Lavrov, there is a clear understanding now that the US' decision to suspend a bilateral Presidential Commission was not a constructive one. Your comment.

- We don't expect to have any change in posture in a coming period with regard to the bilateral Presidential Commission.

That said, we do want to be able to communicate clearly with Russia and we do want to cooperate where we can. But we also have to be clear when we don't think that Russia is living up to its commitments. And we currently do not think that Russia is doing all that it can to implement its own obligations under the Minsk agreements.

- What, specifically?

- With regards to Minsk? First of all, in the last couple of weeks Russia has mounted a massive public relations campaign aimed at blaming Ukraine for violations of the ceasefire when OSCE evidence and our own intelligence indicate that the vast majority of attack on the line of contact are being initiated from separatists-held territory across the line into Ukrainian-held territory with the full support of Russian experts and equipment.

It is our concern that, as we saw in January 2015, Russia is fanning the flames of aggression by separatists, at the same time that it's blaming the victim. And you'll remember that when we saw this tactic in January it was preparatory to the land grabs at Donetsk airport and at Debaltsevo by combined Russian-separatists forces. So we are worried that we are seeing same kind of pressure and intimidation again and that's why you see us speaking out about it, expressing our concern.

And while we were very glad to see President Poroshenko, Chancellor Merkel and President Holland meeting in Berlin to talk about how we can revitalize Minsk and we hope that that will lead to a strong Normandy-format conversations.

We really believe now that if Moscow believes in Minsk, if Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed leaders believe in Minsk, now is the time to prove it on the ground.  Because the level of violence is dangerous and unacceptable.

- President Putin is coming to New York in September to take part in UNGA. Would the US like to use this opportunity to arrange a meeting between President Putin and President Obama or use it in some other way to advance bilateral ties?

- Well, I don't have anything to announce today. Obviously, those will be White House decisions to make. There are a number of multilateral events that we expect the President to participate in. Some of them may bring the President and President Putin together.

I think what's most important now, particularly with regard to the situation on the ground in Ukraine, which has become more dangerous over the last few weeks, is that we use time between now and UNGA to communicate clearly, to seek a de-escalation, to conclude the heavy weapons withdrawal that Minsk calls for, so that we can get back to the rest of Minsk implementation, including the political aspects - elections, amnesty, special status - but that's not going to be possible at this level of violence.

- Can I ask you a visa question. It's about Valentina Matvienko, the Chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council...

- Yes, I saw some false information about that...

- But on the other hand, it's widely expected that you wouldn't grant her visa.

- As the Embassy said, we have not yet made a formal decision. She is subject to visa ban because she's sanctioned under US sanctions. So. it's a question of the purpose of her visit. US sanctions apply to a business done in the US with the US, so the question is whether this US business or whether this is a UN business. We'll be making a decision shortly.

- It's the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization.

- I think we will let the US Embassy inform her in coming days.