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Resetting Russian relationship is top priority, U.S. senior defense policy official said

Continuing the job of resetting the relationship with Russia is among the United States’ highest priorities and one of its biggest challenges, a senior defense policy official said today.

Alexander Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, spoke at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Service here. He has served as a U.S. ambassador to NATO, the Russian Federation and South Korea.

The Obama administration’s objective “has been to establish a more coherent Russia policy that acknowledges that Russia is still important as a partner on the front lines of many of the key security challenges,” Vershbow said.

Russia, he added, is “a partner that we have to handle with care if we’re going to achieve our common objectives.”

Since Vice President Joe Biden introduced the “reset” concept at Munich two years ago, Vershbow said, this opportunity for improving a “formerly toxic atmosphere” in the relationship between the United States and Russia has created important successes involving Afghanistan, strategic arms control, Iran and its nuclear challenge, and the bilateral defense relationship.

“One of the key outcomes of the reset was progress on our common objective of negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty,” Vershbow said, “and we’re very pleased with the results of these negotiations.”

Vershbow said the new treaty includes significant reductions in nuclear weapons, cuts delivery vehicles roughly in half, includes a comprehensive verification regime and gives both countries the flexibility to protect their security.

The new treaty, he added, also allows the United States to carry out its security commitments to its European allies.

“During his meeting with [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev in Japan last weekend, President Obama reiterated his commitment to get the START treaty passed by the Senate during the lame duck session,” Vershbow said. “He’s made clear that this is a top priority and he reaffirmed that again just yesterday.”

As soon as the new START treaty is ratified, Vershbow added, follow-on talks will begin addressing non-strategic and non-deployed nuclear weapons, in addition to further reductions in the strategic force.

Vershbow also noted increased cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan, including facilitating the transportation of material to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“The Afghan Air Transit Agreement, which was one of the main deliverables from the 2009 Moscow Summit, allows us to fly over Russia with military equipment and provides redundant transit routes as we have been building up our troop levels in Afghanistan,” he said.

“To date, approximately 90,000 of our troops have flown through Russian airspace to and from Afghanistan,” Vershbow added.

Since rail transit for non-military supplies to the forces in Afghanistan was offered by former Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, tens of thousands of containers have transited Russia, easing the strain on other U.S. supply routes.

Russia also has cooperated with the United States in countering Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability, Vershbow said.

This effort, he said, included joining with China and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors in 2009 to demand that Iran immediately freeze operations at the previously covert Iranian nuclear facility at Qom. Russia also worked constructively with the United States in the U.N. Security Council on resolution 1929, which imposed stricter sanctions on Iran.

One of the most dramatic moments based on the Russians’ interpretation of their obligations under U.N. resolution 1929, Vershbow said, came when Russia cancelled a significant contract to provide S-300 air defense missiles to Iran.

“Having Russia working hand-in-glove with us on Iran gives us a better chance of finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, which remains our goal,” he said.

In September, Vershbow said, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov visited U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for five hours of meetings and a renewal of dialogue between the two nations. The leaders signed a memo outlining the U.S.-Russia military relationship that makes defense cooperation a cornerstone of broader relations, and noted shared threats and similar challenges. They also signed an agreement creating a defense relations working group to resolve issues in armed forces reform and transformation, defense policy priorities and national security, transparency and confidence-building, and regional and global security.

Issues with Russia that have traditionally been more challenging include Russia’s relationship with NATO, missile defense cooperation, conventional arms control and regional security issues, Vershbow said.

“While we do not see these issues in zero-sum terms,” he said, “we have also been clear that our efforts at cooperation cannot involve jeopardizing core U.S. principles or interests.”

Ahead of the NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, this week, Vershbow said promising areas for greater NATO-Russia cooperation include terrorism, piracy, countering weapons of mass destruction, disaster response and expanded cooperation regarding Afghanistan.

“Even efforts at cooperation that don’t always bear as much fruit as we might hope can help in reducing some of the uncertainty about Russian interests and intentions and by reducing their uncertainty about ours,” Vershbow said.

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