Washington has repeatedly said it is not aimed at Moscow, but Russia this week accused the United States of starting a new arms race. RFE/RL correspondents Jeremy Bransten and Irina Lagunina interviewed Nuland about missile defense and NATO's operations in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Let's start with the proposed missile-defense system that Washington wants to base in the Czech Republic and Poland. Despite all the U.S. assertions to the contrary, it seems that Moscow believes it's going to be aimed against Russia. Russia this week test-fired an ICBM designed to carry multiple warheads. President Vladimir Putin said that it was part of a response to the U.S. shield. Is there a danger that this could escalate into a new arms race between Moscow and Washington? Isn't it irresponsible to risk such an arms race?
Victoria Nuland: You know, it's really quite unfortunate that Russia has chosen to escalate its own rhetoric. We have said repeatedly that this is a defensive system, that in fact the interceptors carry no warheads, that they are two-stage missiles -- they can't even catch anything coming from Russia -- and that we are prepared to offer full transparency, full verification of all of those things, and even more importantly, we've said to the Russians: "Hey, don't build missiles. Join us in building missile defenses. Let's develop these systems together." Obviously, you don't wake up one morning and say: "I'd like to launch an ICBM now." This missile has been in development for many, many years. It's designed to modernize their aging missiles. We consider that a normal part of development and it's just unfortunate that this has been counterposed.
RFE/RL: So what kind of concrete cooperation is Washington offering Moscow?
Nuland: We've offered a full range of things. The president called [Russian] President Putin in March and made a general offer and then [U.S. Defense] Secretary Gates was in Moscow about a month and a half ago. Everything from joint technology development to building radars together, sharing information from the system. It could only be limited by what we could agree to, so again, as I said, our hope is that the Russians, instead of focusing on building missiles, will join us in building missile defenses, because we think that just as we are at threat from an Iranian missile program, so is Moscow.
RFE/RL: Is the proposed missile-defense shield primarily aimed at Iran? What about North Korea and other 'rogue states?'
Nuland: The radar in the Czech Republic and the interceptors in Poland are the part of the system that would create additional coverage, not just for the United States but also for all of our allies against a long-range missile threat, primarily from Iran. As you know, for the North Korean threat, we have facilities in Alaska and California, so the primary focus now is on Iran. They today have missiles that can threaten allies that are at short range. They're developing medium-range missiles, and we believe that by 2015 they could have a long-range capability. As you know, it's going to take some time to finish our negotiations and our building, so we want to be ready.
RFE/RL: Why did the United States select Poland and the Czech Republic? Are they the optimal place for blocking potential Iranian missiles? Why not position the shield closer to the region?
Nuland: It's purely a matter of geography. What the radar does is it helps you cue on the incoming missiles so that the interceptor can catch it. If it is too close to the launch, for example if it were in Turkey or Bulgaria, it doesn't have enough time to cue the missile before it's already flown past, so you need a little bit of time, so that's how…it's pure physics and geometry.
RFE/RL: Let's return to U.S.-Russian relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 31 accused the United States of starting a new arms race. What is your response?
Nuland: We just find it ludicrous, frankly. President Bush and President Putin presided over one of the deepest cuts in strategic weaponry for both sides, Moscow and Washington, in history. That should be the legacy of these two guys. That is the legacy my president believes in for their time in office. We are talking now about a defensive system, as I said, that has no warheads on it, 10 interceptors, can't even fly high enough to reach Russian missiles, and Moscow is turning this into an enormous new strategic threat. The strategic threat for the United States, for our European allies, and for the people of the Russian Federation today comes from Iran and comes from the fact that despite our best efforts -- those of Washington, of Moscow, and of all the countries in between -- to stop, limit, deter Iran from trying to acquire weapons, we haven't succeeded. And that's where we need to redouble our efforts and need to redouble our defenses in case diplomacy doesn't work.
RFE/RL: So you're saying that Putin's wording -- that this is an arms race -- is just rhetoric that has no basis in fact?
Nuland: The concern is that it is completely mischaracterizing for the Russian people and for all of us what this is about. This is a defensive system. It's a tiny, tiny system, and it's designed for Iran. What we would hope is instead of spending his energy in that direction, he would put his energy towards building missile defenses with us, rather than new Russian missiles.
RFE/RL: There appears to be a certain contradiction. On the one hand, NATO officials, as well as the Russian military, say the two sides have very fruitful cooperation within the NATO-Russia Council. On the other hand, Russia seems to be treating NATO as an organization hostile to Russia's interests? How do you square the two?
Nuland: I'm a big believer in the NATO-Russia Council. We're about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of NATO-Russia relations and of sitting together as 27 countries in alphabetical order around the table in the same way that NATO allies do. And the hope was that obviously with the end of the Cold War, that the security challenges and threats that we faced, both allies and Russia, were more the same than they were different, and that we had the potential to cooperate across the range.
I would say -- and I say this not only as a diplomat, I say it as a mom -- the NATO-Russia Council has been important in the sense that there are a whole bunch of programs that we do together -- NATO military officers, Russian military officers, NATO civilians, Russian civilians that are below the level of this political rhetoric now -- that are important, and they are important for proving to the next generation that we can work together. For example, every single year we have an exercise to plan and be ready in case of a nuclear accident. For example, Russia just joined NATO allies in Wyoming last year. That gives NATO allies and Russia the chance to know each other, to work together, to know that in that kind of crisis we could do something.
We are both now training Afghans and Central Asians in counternarcotics. The threat of drugs from Afghanistan is a threat to Russia and a threat to all of us, so we're working together there, and our drug enforcement folks are learning to work together. They know we have a common purpose.
So the NATO-Russia Council is important in building those next-generation relationships of confidence and cooperation. I think the distressing part is that the political rhetoric is going in the opposite direction, because I want to live in a world -- my kids want to live in a world -- where we're working together to beat the common threats, not creating artificial threats between us.
RFE/RL: Moving to the situation in Afghanistan, the number of Afghan civilian casualties has risen recently as the result of U.S. air strikes and other U.S.-led combat activity. It's putting pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Nongovernmental organizations say that compensation mechanisms for the families of those killed are inadequate. Is there any initiative under way by the U.S. government to see that proper compensation payments are made to the families of innocent civilian victims?
Nuland: The United States, particularly our military operating in theater, does pay compensation, not only to affected families but also to tribes in affected areas as compensation for the loss of life, the loss of breadwinners. What we're trying to do in a NATO context now is to get more of our allies to have similar funds, either in common as a NATO fund or nationally, because we find that they don't often have that ability to react quickly. I think that everyone is conscious of the importance [of this issue], whether they are coalition forces or NATO forces.
We are doing all we can to minimize civilian casualties and any civilian loss of life is one too many. That said, I think we have to appreciate what the Taliban are trying to do. They understand that it is a vulnerability, and they are increasingly trying to use Afghan civilians as human shields and to abuse the hospitality of the population and put civilians in harm's way. We also need to speak up and say that there is no -- as the secretary-general likes to say -- moral equivalency between us and an enemy who beheads, kills schoolteachers, bombs indiscriminately.
So that's what we're facing. It is a war and civilians are unfortunately being targeted.
RFE/RL: That can be explained in a sort of abstract way but are you concerned that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is being put in an increasingly tenuous position because the more civilian casualties rise, the less he's going to be able to explain that to his people?
Nuland: I think what's important is that whenever we have an incident like this, we are prepared to investigate quickly to, as you say, compensate to the best of our ability, to explain to the population how it happened and why it happened, and often to tell the story of the active abuse by the Taliban of the village. And I think President Karzai understands that. He's frankly been a true father to his nation in going to comfort those who've been caught in the crossfire. He went down recently to Shindad himself. He always sees the families in the [presidential] palace, so it is a long and difficult struggle. We need his leadership and we also need to continue to be as careful and caring as we can be.
RFE/RL: Recently, there were several reports from Afghanistan saying that key Taliban commanders had been killed in numbers that would not allow their followers to regroup and stage major offensives. That was clearly incorrect and Taliban fighters have regrouped and continue to be very active. What went wrong?
Nuland: I think actually we've had considerable success over the winter and spring months. There was a lot of talk six months ago about a massive Taliban spring offensive that, in fact, did not materialize because NATO forces, coalition forces, and Afghan forces have been so active, particularly in the Kandahar area, Helmand, and throughout the east. And, as you say, we have been able to take out some of the ringleaders.
But we still face a serious and committed movement, and they work very actively to grow new leaders as quickly as they can. So this is not a quick struggle. This is going be a long struggle and it's going be a struggle not only on the military side, the part that we hope increasingly Afghans can take over. But this is a very poor country, the fifth-poorest in the world before this started, that has gone through 20 plus years of civil war, and we have all got to be committed to the strengthening of the Afghan economy, the democratic system, a better way of life for a long, long time -- and, obviously, beating the drug problem, too.
RFE/RL: Some argue that the Taliban has regained popularity among parts of the population because the same warlords that ruled the regions for years are still there, so locals don't see any benefit, any changes, under the Karzai administration. Do you see this reliance of warlords as a weakness of the Karzai administration and of NATO operations in Afghanistan?
Nuland: I think that one of the great successes of the Karzai period has been his ability to create a big tent and bring a lot of the old warlords into a political process, whether they're in parliament or government. I think what we still see is the Taliban being able to operate and move within its historic Pashtun belt and largely doing it the way insurgents do it. They do it by intimidating the population, and so our job is to help the government offer another way of life, offer the security to help the population withstand that kind of intimidation and offer economic opportunities other than growing poppies, which obviously fueled the Taliban. That's the challenge as we see it. It's less a warlord challenge, and more a challenge of better governance, better economic opportunity, better security than what the Taliban are offering.
RFE/RL: What's at stake for NATO in Afghanistan? The alliance has made this mission its key priority and it seems it can't afford to fail or it could raise a big question mark about its purpose and viability for the future. Do you agree?
Nuland: I'm an optimist by nature, but I've also been out to visit our soldiers every few months since this operation started and I've got to tell you: this ain't your daddy's NATO. This is a NATO that is working hand-in-hand with the Afghan National Army, working multinationally on the ground, as trainers from the air, and also training the next generation of Afghans, whether it's security providers and even in terms of growing their economy -- we have an economic commitment there too. So I think NATO is more than up to the challenge as a military-political organization. I think what's important is that European leaders continue to remind their populations that this is a mission that needs to be supported in our own security interest.
OVER THE NEXT HURDLE: Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, gave RFE/RL a wide-ranging presentation on issues related to European integration in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as strengthening relations between the West and Central Asia.
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