An exclusive interview with US diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

Question: You are known as an architect of the US policy in the Balkans in the 1990s and one of the initiators of the Dayton peace accords. What is your opinion of the current situation in the former Yugoslavia?

Richard Holbrooke: I’d have done some things different, had I known what problems they would foment.

As for the Dayton peace accords, they were not perfect of course. (Nothing is.) What counts, however, is that they worked. They resulted in establishment of a federation comprising two parts… Something like the United States or the Russian Federation, if you prefer. They (the US and Russia) are different of course, but they are federations. I’d like to emphasize that it would have been utterly impossible without Russian support and Russian participation. I view it as an important moment in the US-Russian cooperation, as an example of what these two countries might accomplish when they set aside discord and work together.

Question: What about declaration of independence by Kosovo? Some political scientists in Russia predict dismantlement of the whole post-WWII framework of international relations.

Richard Holbrooke: I believe that it was actually the best thing that could happen under the circumstances. The way I see it, there were only three options: return Kosovo to the Serbian jurisdiction which would have sparked a war; leave Kosovo under the UN control indefinitely; and grant Kosovo sovereignty with all guarantees to ethnic minorities and a special status for the Serbians.

Question: Will the discord over Kosovo have any effect on the Russian-US relations?

Richard Holbrooke: Let me put it bluntly: there will be no Cold War over Kosovo. It is a sheer impossibility. There was the Cold War in the period when we had profound ideological differences and lots of weapons aimed at one another. The Cold War is over now, and the world is no worse for it. Russia should keep doing what promotes its national interests. I respect it.

As for Russia’s stand on Kosovo, I cannot say I second it. I believe that Russia could have played a more positive part and helped us with the whole situation. Unfortunately, the government of Russia chose to mount tension instead and began drawing parallels with the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There are essentially no parallels between Kosovo and any other region because of Kosovo’s unique history. Declaration of independence by the government in Pristina sets no precedents for others elsewhere.

There are other problems where our countries, our governments, disagree. Say, the matter of the US national missile defense. I do not think that the US Administration in this particular case paid sufficient attention to the aspects that worry the government of Russia and some East European capitals.

Question: Do you expect any changes in the US policy with regard to Russia when Dmitry Medvedev is the president?

Richard Holbrooke: I’ve never met Mr. Medvedev. Neither can I presume to make a guess on what changes, if any, Russia might introduce into its foreign policy. It is, however, necessary to respect President Putin’s colossal economic accomplishments. Actually, Russia owes its return to the political map of the world precisely to Putin. It does not mean of course that I agree with the government of Russia on absolutely everything. There are things we dislike and object to – the state of affairs with supremacy of the law or freedom of the media, for instance. These are the matters the Russian population itself should settle. All I’m saying is that it’s a mistake to take criticism for hostility.

Question: A few words on NATO’s expansion, if you don’t mind. What is the purpose of this expansion? Why would the United States want Georgia and Ukraine in NATO?

Richard Holbrooke: That’s a serious question, one that comes down to the very essence of the US-Russian relations. I’m telling you right here and now that the Americans do not view Russia as an enemy. It was the expansionist Soviet communism that was viewed as a menace once. Not anymore. In any event, there are matters Washington and Moscow disagree over, and I do not think that George W. Bush’s Administration handled this discord the way it should have been handled. I do not think that the US Administration discussed them with the Kremlin in the manner gravity of the matters at hand deserved. That was why the situation was permitted to get out of hand.

Washington’s dialogue with Moscow was never straightforward because the US Administration did not take Putin seriously. Hence the discord nowadays. I’d like to emphasize, however, that nobody views Russia as an enemy or wants another Cold War.

As for NATO, I was one of the principal architects of its expansion in the 1990s. Repeating what we kept telling Russia then is all I can say now: NATO’s expansion has never aimed to encroach on Russian interests. The Alliance is no longer an anti-Russian structure. It was anti-Soviet once, but it has never been anti-Russian.

Question: International Committee of the US Senate passed a resolution supporting the idea of the Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine…

Richard Holbrooke: If you ask me, neither the United States nor Russia should be telling Ukraine what to do. If it is membership in NATO that Ukraine wants, it should formally apply for it. Ukraine will be admitted if it is judged that it meets the requirements and if it understands plainly that NATO is not an anti-Russian structure.

As for Georgia, I’m convinced that Russia and Georgia should finally normalize their relations. A colossal and powerful country like Russia should come up with a means of reaching a consensus with President Mikhail Saakashvili who has my sympathies and respect. Russia should do it to abate tension.

Where Georgia’s aspirations for membership in NATO are concerned, I think that the Membership Action Plan should be applied to this country. Once again, it is wrong to view it as encroachment on Russia or its interests.

Question: What stand on the matter of the national missile defense in Europe do you think will the next US president take? Provided he is a Democrat, that is?

Richard Holbrooke: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama are quite skeptical of Bush’s ideas with regard to the US national missile defense. I share their skepticism.