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U.S.: Defense Secretary Says 'Nobody Wants A New Cold War'

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, October 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with RFE/RL, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the United States is not in a new Cold War with Moscow and that Washington still holds out hope that democracy will take hold in Russia. In Prague to discuss U.S. missile-defense plans, Gates also told RFE/RL correspondents Ulrich Speck and Brian Whitmore that despite rising tensions, the United States can work with Russia on a number of issues.

RFE/RL: Over the past year, Russia has become increasingly aggressive. There's been a lot of saber rattling. There are a lot of conflicts over issues like Kosovo and Iran. I'm wondering if it still makes sense to call Russia a strategic partner of the United States.

Robert Gates: I think our approach should be to consider Russia a strategic partner until and unless it proves otherwise. There has been a lot of rhetoric, but in terms of specific actions so far, the Russians have not taken any irreversible decisions. And they have, in some areas, continued to play a constructive role. So my view is, we should continue to characterize them as a strategic partner. We should continue to work with them where we can. And we should try and persuade them of our point of view in those areas where we disagree.

RFE/RL: Some observers even talk of a new Cold War. You have a long experience dealing with Russia, how would you compare the old days dealing with the Soviet Union and dealing with Russia today?

Gates: We were engaged in a worldwide conflict with the Soviet Union. Often, it was through surrogates. But after all, at a certain point, we were dealing with 40,000 Cuban troops in Ethiopia, 40,000 Cuban troops in Angola. We had Cuba exporting revolution throughout Central and South American with huge Soviet subsidies. We had the Soviets subsidizing antigovernment movements in Europe. We were dealing with the Warsaw Pact, this country wasn't free -- the Czech Republic wasn't free. Neither was Poland, neither were Bulgaria or Romania or any of the others in Eastern Europe. We had an open-ended arms race going on with them. They were spending a huge amount more on their military then than they are now.

So, I mean, it was a very different world, and while some of the rhetoric has been strong, the reality, it seems to me, is that there are areas where we can cooperate and where we are cooperating. And we just don't have anything like the global competition or the global conflict that existed, and where people were worried that we had our missiles pointed at each other all the time. I just think it's a completely different world, and as I told the Wehrkunde Conference in Munich in February, nobody wants a new Cold War. And I don't think the Russians do, either.

RFE/RL: Going along the same lines of cooperation, the United States very much needs Russia's cooperation on a number of issues -- again, Kosovo, Iran, and so on. And, given Russia's authoritarian tilt, this implies on the one hand, that maybe we must work with the leaders in place there. Could you speak to the contradiction between classical "realpolitik" and the U.S. president's "freedom agenda." Is there a contradiction in our policy toward Russia, given the fact that we need Russia so badly?

Gates: No, I don't think so. And I would characterize it differently, actually. It's not just the United States that's dealing with Russia. Kosovo is above all a European matter, it's a NATO matter, it's for all of the Europeans -- the EU, and so on. So it's not just the United States trying to get the Russians to take a particular point of view on Kosovo, but it's all of Europe that is in this. And it's the same way on some of these other challenges that we face where we're talking with the Russians. Their rhetoric in terms of the Intermediate[-Range] Nuclear Forces Treaty [INF], in terms of the Conventional Forces in Europe [CFE] Treaty: these are agreements with all of the states in Europe, for the most part, and certainly in the CFE, and the Europeans clearly are concerned about the INF Treaty.

So, I guess my first problem is, this is not just a U.S.-Russian issue; this is an issue about how Russia is going to interrelate with the rest of Europe. Does Russia wish to be a part of Europe and wish to be a strategic partner with the United States? I think they do. And I think that the increasing business investments, both in Russia and Russia in Europe, can illustrate that that's true. I don't think there's any contradiction with the president's freedom agenda.

The reality is, Russia's a very different place today than it was under the Soviet Union. Is it more authoritarian than we would wish, is there greater limitation on freedom? Yes. But the reality is that it's very different than in the Soviet days. And frankly, as I said in my speech on democracy in Williamsburg a few weeks ago, it takes time to build the institutions of democracy. Just having an election doesn't mean you have a democracy. So these institutions have to grow. And you're looking at a country in Russia that in a thousand years of its history has not had a democracy. So my view is, I think we need to encourage the development of freedom in Russia, we need to encourage the development of democratic institutions, but also think we need to understand that those things take time.

In encouraging the development of democratic institutions in Russia, does the U.S. have any leverage, any influence? What can Washington do to help from the outside to increase these freedoms?

Gates: Well, we didn't think we had any leverage when we went to Helsinki in 1975, and it ended up playing a major part in the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the liberation of Eastern Europe. So I think that we can't underestimate a certain moral authority. And also, I think, we have to be persistent. After all, our engagement in the Cold War with the Soviet Union lasted almost half a century.

RFE/RL: Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly wants to establish a sphere of influence in what the Russians call the near-abroad, parts of the former Soviet Union. Georgia's bid to join NATO, and to cozy up to the United States, has clearly caused a lot of anxiety and anger in the Kremlin. And I'm wondering: how dedicated is Washington to Georgia's entry into NATO, and conversely, is it conceivable that Georgia could become a bargaining chip in the larger U.S.-Russia relationship?

Gates: I don't think we should link these things, in the relationship, at all; we'll judge these events on their own merits, these developments. Georgia in NATO, other nations in NATO, have to be evaluated on their own merits. In my view, you don't tie them to other issues; I wouldn't link them at all.

RFE/RL: So you would say there's not a risk of Georgia turning into a bargaining chip?

Gates: I don't think so, no.

There's concern in Tbilisi....

We certainly don't intend to let it become one.

RFE/RL: Ukraine also has a growing interest, or a long-standing interest, to join NATO, even if the domestic support is weaker than in Georgia. How do you judge Ukraine's chance to get into NATO in the next years?

Well, I think that's probably not a near-term likelihood. There clearly is some interest in Ukraine. But there's also, as I understand it, still substantial domestic opposition to it. So I think we'll just have to see how things evolve.

Gates with RFE/RL's Speck (center) and Whitmore

RFE/RL: A lot of analysts think that Russia is creating an alternative security architecture in the world. This came up after there was talk if Serbia loses Kosovo, that perhaps Serbia would cozy up to Russia, and they are saying, "Here's a new architecture, and we invite you to join." Is this a cause of concern in the defense and security community in the United States?

Gates: It's not a concern to me because I don't think it'll be successful, even if they are trying it. Serbia knows that its interests are with the Europeans and with the European Union, not with some kind of linkage back to the East. Russia and Serbia have had a strong political relationship going back well before World War I. Serbia can have it both ways: it can have a friendly relationship with Russia, but its economic future is almost certainly tied to Europe.

And I think these other countries, it's an open question, in my opinion, whether Russia's actions are intended to -- whether they actually think they can create some sort of an alternative architecture, or whether they're trying to build a bulwark against what they might see as NATO and the Western architecture enveloping them. So whether it's an offensive or a defensive reaction, I'm not entirely sure.

RFE/RL: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and things like that don't cause concern?

Gates: They don't bother me very much. We can't be terrified and looking over our shoulder every time some other country makes an overture to others about associating with it. We, the United States and the NATO alliance, this is the most powerful alliance the world has ever known, and I don't think we need to be afraid of our own shadow.

RFE/RL: You travel to Germany and the Netherlands in the next days. What is your message for the Europeans? You mentioned that you want to encourage the Europeans to do more, to take over more responsibility, especially with regard to Afghanistan, sending more troops. So, your approach is to bring the Europeans more into play in regards to Russia and to Afghanistan?

Gates: No, it has nothing to do with Russia, the message I am going to have in the Netherlands at the NATO defense ministers meeting is a very simple one and that is that the nations should fulfill the commitments that their leaders made in Riga, in terms of their support in Afghanistan. It is not about us, it's about commitments that were made by the leaders of NATO in Riga and I just want to make sure that everyone understands that those obligations continue. That is the fundamental message.

RFE/RL: On missile defense, how would you assess your visit here in the Czech Republic?

Well, I think that the Czech leadership was intrigued, as was the Russian government, by the new proposals that Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice and I put on the table when we were in Moscow a couple of weeks ago looking for ways for greater transparency to provide the Russians reassurance. Going forward with the agreements, we made it perfectly clear in Russia that we were going to proceed with the negotiations with the Czech Republic and Poland regardless and, if those negotiations are successful, then to proceed to deploy, or build, these radars and interceptors.

However, we also said that if the question is about the threat, then we might be willing to sit down and talk with the Russians about not activating the completed systems until the threat was apparent, in other words, until the Iranians or others in the Middle East had flight-tested missiles of a range that could hit Europe, as an example. And I think the government here, as in Moscow, was taken with it, even President Putin referred to the proposals as constructive.

RFE/RL: The press played up a lot of the so-called chilly reception that you received there with Secretary Rice. Do you think that was more spin, or did you feel a chilly reception?

Gates: Well, first of all, that's inaccurate. The big piece of this was the perception that Secretary Rice and I were kept waiting for about 40 minutes. Well, the reality is that about five minutes past the time for the meeting, we were taken to the room where the meeting with President Putin was to take place, all the press was already in place, we were waiting outside the door, we waited a few minutes and an aide came to tell us that he had had to take an urgent telephone call.

We subsequently were able to confirm that that was the fact, that it was a foreign leader who had called, that it was a fairly important call, and I don't think that either Secretary Rice or I felt that we were impolitely treated or kept waiting in some kind of old Soviet way, if you will, and in fact our meeting with President Putin went about half an hour or 45 minutes beyond the scheduled time, or the allotted time. So I think that we both felt that they were very productive meetings.

RFE/RL: Coming back to the larger picture, how do you see Russia in 10 years?

Well, one of the things that impresses me is it has been about 18 years since my first visit to Russia in 1989 and certainly in terms of the well-being of the Russian people, materially, they are a lot better off than they were. And as I wrote in my book, I think one of President [Mikhail] Gorbachev's last contributions, and historic contributions, in Russia was that in dismantling the Stalinist economic bureaucracy and in paving the way for democratic change, he really gave the Russian people their future.

And I think that future is still open for the Russian people. My own view is that there will be a gradual increase in democratic reforms and freedoms in Russia. I think part of the problem in Russia was that because the economy collapsed along with the Soviet Union, in the early stages after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the minds of many Russians democracy became confused with economic disaster, with criminal activities, with activities of the oligarchs and thievery and so on, and chaos. And so an opportunity was lost. And I think now, with stability, with economic growth, with growing prosperity, my hope is that that opportunity that we missed, that the Russians missed early in the 90s will be recaptured and that would be my hope for Russia over the next 10 years.

RFE/RL: Can we recapture it even given the backsliding on democratic reform right now and given the fact that former KGB officers are in power?

We can't recapture it but the Russians can. And frankly, the role of the KGB today, of the Russian intelligence services, is nothing like what it was in the Soviet period.

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