You are an expert on arms control, non-proliferation, disarmament issues – what advice might you have in times likes these?
It's one of the most interesting jobs in the world, and an honor to serve President Obama. Back in 2009 in Prague he said we must seek world peace without nuclear weapons. His focus was on the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
The only way to solve this problem is to get rid of nuclear weapons, get rid of fissile material, plutonium and highly enriched uranium that could be made into weapons.
So the billions of dollars – that funding is really devoted to reducing and eliminating our nuclear arsenal. A lot of it goes to the very careful process of the so-called life-extension program. We’re not building new warheads, we’re carefully taking apart the old ones, and refurbishing them and then making them into not new military capability, but into more safe and effective warheads at the same time as we continue to reduce and eliminate warheads.
The president said as long as we have nuclear weapons they must be safe, secure and effective. So the work we’re doing is not to give them new military capability, just to ensure that they are safe, secure and effective.
So it’s important to remember that money can be spent to create new weapons systems, but also to maintain old ones and make sure they perform safely.
You’re right that there have been some difficult days lately in the US-Russian relationship. And in the relationship between Russia and NATO, we are very worried about the crisis in Ukraine, about the way Russia has seized Crimea. We consider it entirely outside the realm of international law.
At the same time we look for a solution at the negotiating table and so we have the Minsk Agreement. We are hopeful that Russia will continue to implement its commitments under the Minsk Agreement.
What does it mean to be 'worried', or 'very worried', in diplomatic language? Let’s take the Budapest Memorandum – all the signatories, great powers, basically obliged themselves to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, that is, traded it for Ukraine giving up its nuclear stockpiles. Now Ukraine is non-nuclear, but Russia is not observing this memorandum. How is the US keeping up its part of it?
When people ask me about the Budapest Memorandum I always stress that Russia has violated a lot of international law and international principle in terms of territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. So we shouldn’t just focus on the Budapest Memorandum but on Russia’s responsibilities in the UN Charter.
I’m just saying that this is a bigger issue. The United States has been very clear that first of all we have to work very closely with our NATO allies to provide reassurance to our NATO partners. At the same time, we have to work very carefully and closely with Ukraine to try and seek first of all a peaceful resolution at the diplomatic table and to ensure that Ukraine has some capabilities to defend itself.
But at the same time we stress that this crisis is not going to be solved through battle, in combat and conflict. This crisis is really not going to be solved by military means, we have to look for another way to solve this crisis. But the last thing I’ll say is in response to those who say we’re not doing anything. That is that the very strong suite of economic sanctions that we have put into place, the US together with the EU, have actually been a very strong response and had a profound effect on the Russian economy.
So yes, we are looking for peaceful means to resolve this conflict, but yes we are responding with a strong economic reaction. And Latvia has been a great partner in that effort.
With all the sanctions and with all the effect they’re taking, then again we see that support for Putin is tremendous in Russia itself. Couldn’t you say that we’ve pushed this country into this mode of defense, which they could hold for quite a while, as during the Second World War?
Well I think you’ll have to ask Russians about where they stand today. As we see it, we would like to be in a situation where we could be continuing to work with Russia on important problems of international security. We continue to do so. The new START Treaty that I worked on negotiating back in 2009 is still something we are implementing rather smoothly. So we still have some opportunities to work with Russia on some matters of international security.
It would be better to have Russia as a partner and a country we can cooperate with, but at the moment its way of continuing to whip up this crisis over Ukraine and not look for peaceful solutions is really a matter of serious concern. So we just have to keep up the pressure there.
I think as far as the choices the Russian people make I would say it’s a question not for me but for them.
I imagine many people in Latvia would really congratulate upon the US proclaiming Russia to be the new ‘axis of evil.’ Instead of, you know, maintaining good working relations. When we hear on the news that Putin and Obama have had a telephone conversation, it seems a little bit weird that they should have a lot to talk about.
I wouldn’t say they have a lot to talk about these days. But as I said we are continuing to work with Russia on matters of international security, particularly regarding weapons of mass destruction. In addition to implementing the new START treaty Russia has played an important role in two projects that have taken place in the last year. One is removing 300,000 metric tons of chemical weapons from Syria. We did that in the midst of a civil war in Syria with a big international partnership. Russia was an important partner in that effort. And Russia has also played an important role in the so-called P5+1 negotiations with Iran to address the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. So there are some areas where we can work with Russia for international security, particularly involving weapons of mass destruction.
But, there’s no business as usual with Russia at the moment. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that because of the way Russia has whipped up this crisis over Ukraine. And really, in our view, seized Ukrainian territory against every basic tenet of international law.
You’re a great expert on Russia. How do you see it, where is the resolution?
The first step is for the countries involved and for the separatists in eastern Ukraine to fulfil their responsibilities under the Minsk Accords. It’s either black or white, make peace or war, there are other tools that we have to proceed with. And we will certainly look to a peaceful resolution with regard to the crisis.
Latvia, as a NATO member, has obliged itself to spend 2% of GDP to security and military needs.
And a big thank you to Latvia. There are a number of NATO alliance members who don’t do so great on their defense spending obligations. So we’re very grateful to Latvia.
With the US being invaluable with its knowhow on the functioning of democracy in the early 1990’s, about security, because it’s thanks to the US that we’re in NATO, after all, with all this, are we going to receive some good, timely advice about what exactly we should spend those 2% of GDP on? Once we had this margin already, but it was of little use because you can spend that percent for the sake of a mere checkmark, or you could spend it more meaningfully. What is it that we need? Basically, we expect that US troops will be the ones that come in to help in case of need. So what is it we need here – anti-tank missiles, air defense?
It will be important for the Latvian Ministry of Defense in the first instance, working with the entire government, the President and Prime Minister to make decisions about what your priorities are for your defense expenditures. But there are many opportunities for consultation and close cooperation within NATO, including with US advisors who have been spending time here in Riga and working with your government.
But it’s a matter for NATO as a whole to come to some decisions about what capabilities are needed among the member states and develop close coordination so that each country is not developing capabilities that could be better shared, perhaps among several countries. So there are a number of practical ways that we can work to ensure that the Latvian budget is spent in a very reasonable and practical way and is not being a waste of money.
That’s an important point and I think that first of all within NATO we can have those kind of consultations and we have some experts with whom I’ve even visited today when I went to your ministry of defense, who can also provide some advice in that regard. So it’s important I think to ensure we have a division of labor and that we’re not piling up military capabilities without a clear sense of what the priorities should be. And then how to coordinate them with different allies.
When we wanted to be a NATO member state, it was claimed by other western and senior NATO countries that we are not exactly defendable. Are we defendable now?
I think the most important thing is a strong deterrence. And a strong deterrence comes from having resolve in the first instance, it comes from having good training, it comes from having the right military hardware and software, but it’s a matter of being an effective military force and that comes from working together closely in the NATO alliance. So I think that the most important thing today is deterrence, and that is what we all need to focus on.