RD Interview: Ambassador Richard Burt, former U.S. Chief Negotiator during the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in 1991, gives his take on how U.S.-Russia relations might change under the new American president. He also describes why cooperation between both countries to address urgent global security issues is so important.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting in Zurich in January 2016. Photo: Sputnik

The still unresolved crisis in relations between the Kremlin and the White House poses a serious challenge to the global security system. According to the experts present at an event held by the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow on Feb. 2, the confrontation creates risks for the national security of both states and makes the accidental use of nuclear weapons more possible.

Russia Direct sat down with Ambassador Richard Burt, former U.S. Chief Negotiator during the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in 1991, to discuss how the U.S.-Russia relations might change under the new American president and why cooperation between both countries to address urgent global security issues is so important now.

Russia Direct: What are the main trends to watch in Russia-U.S. relations this year? What are the key topics that are being discussed in Washington?

Richard Burt: First of all, the reality is, in terms of the U.S.-Russia relationship and any kind of direct dialogue, it is my impression that there is not much being discussed other than formal conversations taking place between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Syria, Middle Eastern issues as well as some conversations that take place on Ukraine-related issues. So the U.S. formal diplomatic relationship with Russia is pretty small.

In the United States the focus is on the presidential election, so the topic is shifting from the Obama administration’s foreign policy to what would be the policy of the new president. It might be Hillary Clinton, on the one hand, or Donald Trump, on the other, so there is a lot of speculation about how the new administration might address the U.S.-Russia relationship.

RD: Some argue that in any administration, the future policy toward Russia will be more critical compared to the current one…

R.B.: It’s really hard to say. It depends on who that personality is. I think there is a chance that Hillary Clinton would be a little more negative about the relationship.

Ambassador Richard Burt. Photo: LetterOne

RD: What about Donald Trump?

R.B.: Trump is a businessman – he likes to make deals and he seems to have a positive image or impression of Vladimir Putin. They said nice things about each other. So maybe Trump would surprise people and we might see a period of improving U.S.-Russia relations under President Trump.

Under another Republican – maybe President Cruz or President Rubio – that might be very different. So it’s too soon to say.

RD: To what extent, from your opinion, does the state of Russia-U.S. relations depend on the cycle of presidential power change in both countries?

R.B.: It may be so, but it also depends on political changes in Russia. For example, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev had a pretty good relationship. They worked out problems together, particularly negotiating the new START Treaty reducing deployed long-range nuclear weapons. So, I think, the change from Medvedev to Putin created a new dynamic which led to a more negative relationship. I think Obama didn’t develop with Putin the same kind of close ties that he had with Medvedev. So I think the political change at the top either in Russia or the United States can change the relationship.

RD: What would you say are the main areas where it is still possible to cooperate?

R.B.: I think there are two areas where we need to focus. One is the dialogue between the U.S. and Russia on nuclear arms control. It’s essentially dormant. There is no discussion going on. Nuclear weapons are too important a national security priority for the two superpowers not to be discussing ways to reduce the risk of nuclear war. That’s an obvious area where the relationship could improve.

The second area is what I would call the problem of regional conflicts. And there are two areas where Russia and the U.S. need to work harder.

One is Ukraine. Right now Russia is speaking to the major European countries in the Minsk format but the U.S. is absent. The U.S. in my view needs to be re-engaged and discuss the problem of Ukraine and solution to the conflict directly with Russia.

Secondly, Syria. Four or five weeks ago, it looked as though the United States and Russia were making progress coming up with a common approach for dealing with Syrian crisis and in particular on what to do about Assad. That seems to be breaking down. So the two sides need to work harder to come up with a common position. If they do, it will open a door to some kind of transitional process underway in Syria. Without the U.S. and Russia working together, Syria will continue to be a serious and tragic crisis.

RD: You said that the U.S. should take on a larger role in discussing the situation in Ukraine and participate in Minsk negotiations. Who should initiate this step?

R.B.: It’s got to be Washington.

RD: What if Russia objects to that?

R.B.: No, Russia isn’t going to say no to letting the U.S. come to the table. I think Moscow will welcome that as it makes it easier to resolve the crisis. I don’t think that is the problem. The problem is that the U.S. has not been sufficiently engaged in seeking a diplomatic solution.

RD: How has the position of the White House towards Kiev changed since the start of the conflict?

R.B.: Well, the Obama administration supports Ukraine and wants it to modernize and reform, deal with the problems of corruption and make necessary changes to the Constitution to give the people of Eastern Ukraine a greater voice and their own governments. This might be the key to getting a solution to the crisis.

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The United States has to become more engaged in looking for a solution. It can’t delegate this to the Germans and French. The U.S. has to be at the table.

RD: What about other areas of security cooperation, such as cooperation on dealing with cyber threats? What is the current situation and is a cyber confrontation between Russia, the U.S. and other states possible?

R.B.: I think there is a lot of competition on cyber technologies between the U.S., Russia, China and other countries. This is a whole new realm. Cyber is not the same as nuclear weapons. You can launch a cyber-attack and remain hidden so the problem is very different but it needs to be addressed.

What we don’t have in the cyber area is the kind of experience and a kind of modern conceptual thinking that we have in the area of nuclear weapons. There needs to be much more basic instruction on cyber between the United States and Russia so that we could understand each other and understand the problem better.

RD: What is your assessment, will the work of the NATO-Russia Council resume soon?

R.B.: Well, I hope it does. It can’t hurt, it can only help.

RD: What might be the preconditions for that?

R.B.: The major one is making some progress on Ukraine and I think also reaching an understanding about aggressive military activity between NATO and Russia. Both sides, I think, are raising tensions by their aggressive military actions. There needs to be more transparency, consultation and understanding of what kind of activities might lead to dangerous escalation.