An interview with US Undersecretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow.

US Undersecretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow, once American Ambassador to Russia, visited Moscow last week where pressing international issues (ABM, START, Iran) were discussed. Vershbow announced that military cooperation ought to become an important element of international security within the framework of the revival of the US-Russian relations proclaimed by Barack Obama.

Question: What is the objective of the visit to Russia?

Alexander Vershbow: It is a working visit. Following the successful negotiations between our presidents in July and the meeting between them in New York, the Pentagon is determined to play its part in advancement of the relations and cooperation with Russia. Considering the important decisions concerning ballistic missile defense made recently, getting a better feel of the Russian reaction was one of my objectives.

Question: Is the United States prepared to resort to military measures against Iran in the light of its missile and nuclear programs?

Alexander Vershbow: We have never dismissed any option. For the time being, however, diplomatic efforts remain a priority. The latest meeting in Geneva is Iran’s last chance to persuade the international community that it is not working on nuclear weapons.

Question: Its last chance to demonstrate willingness for a dialogue, in other words?

Alexander Vershbow: We do not expect any single meeting to solve all problems. Diplomatic processes take time but they cannot be expected to be endless. Our partners and we agreed that we needed progress by the end of the year or more serious measures including sanctions would be tried.

Question: Now that the United States revised its ABM plans, does it expect anything from Russia, say, in the matter of S-300 deliveries to Iran?

Alexander Vershbow: Our approach to the matter of ballistic missile defense is based on evaluation of threats. It is nothing to be bargained over. As for S-300 complexes, we believe that this is a matter of tremendous importance. The United States is convinced that these complexes will destabilize situation in the region.

Question: Some Russian politicians and experts point out that the new American ballistic missile defense framework might pose an even worse threat to the Russian strategic forces.

Alexander Vershbow: The whole system is about dealing with the Iranian threat. First and foremost, the matter concerns shorter- and intermediate-range missiles that have already been deployed and that threaten Iran’s Middle East neighbors and even our NATO allies. At the same time, the new system is also expected to be able to cope with the future long-range Iranian missiles, ones capable of reaching Central and North Europe. The missiles we are working on pose no threats to the Russian strategic nuclear potential. Anyway, the system being new, we are prepared to consider cooperation with Russia in its development.

Question: A few words on the Russian-American cooperation in this sphere, please. Does Washington consider the joint use of the radar in Gabala or, perhaps, the use of S-300 and S-400 complexes?

Alexander Vershbow: The Pentagon has already said that Russian radars in Armavir and Gabala might be used as early warning stations. It will enable our countries to deal with ballistic missile threats. Exactly how it all will work is something best decided by our experts.

Question: The new ABM configuration stipulates some installations in the Caucasus. In what country?

Alexander Vershbow: We’ve but only begun consultations with our allies in the southeastern part of Europe and with all other allies that might be interested in participation. A radar of the early warning system located somewhere relatively close to Iran (within 1,000 kilometers or so) will be one of the key elements of the whole framework. It will alert us to launches and enable us to deploy the rest of the system to try and intercept missiles.

Question: Can Georgia become part of the framework?

Alexander Vershbow: Too early to say anything in terms of particular countries.

Question: Russia objects to appearance of elements of the American ballistic missile defense system in the Caucasus.

Alexander Vershbow: It is necessary to remember, I think, that the matter concerns defense from potential attacks against us, our allies, and eventually against Russia. Strategy of defense is essentially the only consolidating factor for the countries facing common threats.

Question: The Russian-American START consultations continue in Geneva. Is Washington prepared to have a connection between offensive and defensive strategic arms recognized in the follow-on document?

Alexander Vershbow: We understand Russia’s insistence on the connection between offensive and defensive arms but we believe nevertheless that the negotiations should be focused on reduction of the former.

Question: Has the United States changed its position with regard to the terms of ratification of the modified Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty?

Alexander Vershbow: We still want Russia to return into the CFE Treaty. Russia suspended participation in it over a year ago. We would dearly like to find ways and means of persuading Russia to return into the treaty and persuading other countries to ratify it.

Question: When shall we expect the beginning of American military transit to Afghanistan via Russia?

Alexander Vershbow: I cannot give you an exact date. There are some formalities to be observed. Anyway, we hope that the flights will begin soon. Russia’s consent this July became a colossal contribution to the NATO operation in Afghanistan.

Question: The Tagliavini Commission established that Georgia had started the war in South Ossetia. Is there a chance for these conclusions to have an effect on the military cooperation between the United States and Georgia?

Alexander Vershbow: The report is being studied in Washington. So far as I know, however, it pins responsibility on both warring sides. We have always stood for independence and sovereignty of Georgia. As for the report, let’s wait for the US Department of State’s reaction.