The following is a transcript of an interview with Dmitry Peskov, deputy chief of staff and press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, conducted by Paul Saunders, associate publisher of The National Interest and executive director of the Center for the National Interest, Washington, D.C. The interview was conducted Wednesday morning, January 23, 2013.
Paul Saunders: Thank you very much for taking time to talk to us. The "reset" in the U.S.-Russia relationship was one of the first foreign policy initiatives during President Obama’s first term. We heard recently that senior State Department officials have said that the word "reset" should be retired because the relationship has moved in a new direction and it’s no longer necessary to have a reset. How do you see the future of the reset after President Obama’s reelection?
Dmitry Peskov: Well, as a matter of fact Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov would say that is a very popular idea here in Moscow [to retire the word “reset”] and that it is a process that cannot be endless. And if the reset lasts for too long, that means to make something different, a different operation to get the process going. So let’s hope together that this is not the case. Well, unfortunately the flow of our bilateral relationship, the flow of some steps from Washington, it shows a kind of an attitude that unfortunately cannot be treated in Moscow as a “reset” mood. So that’s why we are very sorry because we are looking forward to having a working relationship of close partnership with the United States, developing a mutual responsibility for global security, for global strategic security, for regional security and solving all the issues in that connection and originally by diplomatic and peaceful methods, taking into account each other’s relationship, but definitely it takes two to tango. I mean we cannot build a bilateral relationship of friendship and partnership on our own. Unfortunately we witnessed some steps that in no way can be treated as a “reset” attitude.
Saunders: Can I ask which steps you have in mind?
Peskov: Well, I mean the Magnitsky law, the way it was discussed, the whole attitude towards Magnitsky actually. The Magnitsky case was artificially politicized and then the way it was supported, the toughest version of this draft was supported by President Obama, which definitely does not contribute to the further development of our bilateral relationship or a sphere of mutual understanding and mutual trust.
Saunders: The Obama administration, as you know, opposed that legislation, although of course when it was approved by Congress President Obama signed it. In Russia of course there has been the Dima Yakovlev law passed by the state Duma and signed by President Putin, with one of the bigger impacts being its effects on adoptions to the United States, which many Americans and particularly people in Congress have seen as disproportionate. Is that something— the Yakovlev law in the Duma, which obviously President Putin signed—is that something he supported? Or did he oppose that law before it was passed by the Duma?
Peskov: Well, there was a reaction of Russian lawmakers to the Magnitsky law definitely and the fact that that the Magnitsky law was adopted was a trigger for Russian parliament members. And the initiative of Russian deputies was supported by the President and the law that passed through the Duma was signed by the president. Definitely there is a response. What do you say now? What you say now is that Russia has zero tolerance towards laws like Magnitsky. That it is inappropriate to use an artificially politicized issue to interfere in domestic affairs. To raise the fear that does not exist in reality. This is a subject of zero tolerance for us.
Saunders: The way that you were talking about the reset suggested that maybe you don’t see the U.S.-Russian relationship as a major priority for the Obama administration in dealing with Russia. There have been press reports that the U.S. national-security advisor was coming to Moscow, then that trip was delayed. There have been reports that President Obama might come to Moscow, but there have been other reports saying that President Obama may not come to Russia until the G-20 Summit and not make a special trip. Do you believe that the Obama administration sees its relationship with Russia as a foreign-policy priority?
Peskov: Well definitely, I repeat, we would like to have our relationship with the United States be as advanced as possible. We would like to ensure that the relationship is a genuine relationship of strategic importance, of global importance. We attach very great importance to this relationship. We hope for a reciprocal attitude from Washington in this respect because otherwise there will be no chance for this relationship if the interest comes only from the Russian side. And definitely the Russian side will not be able to lead without any reaction and with any steps of the kind that have been witnessed lately.
Saunders: There are some Americans who would look at President Putin’s decision not to come to the G-8 Summit at Camp David not long after he was reelected, and also President Putin’s May 7, 2012 foreign-policy decree, which really seemed to give greater emphasis to Russia’s relations with Europe and Asia than its relations with the United States, and who see that as a reflection of Russia not really seeing the United States as the same kind of priority that perhaps it did in the past. Do you believe that Russia’s relationship with Washington . . . (interrupted)
Peskov: No, I definitely believe that this is not the case. It wasn’t an attempt to show anything or to prove anything by not coming to Camp David, as Russia was represented by the prime minister and the president [Putin] had a very serious explanation that was delivered to our American partners for why he was not able to attend the meeting at Camp David. To the contrary, it was actually quite a good atmosphere—in our relations, quite a promising one. There were very significant hopes that with the beginning of a new presidency, President Obama will have a very, very fresh continuation of a positive environment in our relationship. So this is it, we cannot go backwards.
Saunders: Maybe I could ask a couple of foreign policy questions that aren’t so narrowly connected to the U.S.-Russia relationship. One is about Syria. Now of course as you know in the United States, U.S. officials, many members of Congress have been, I guess I would say, disappointed with Russia’s role in international efforts to find a solution to the civil war in Syria and to remove President Assad. What is Russia prepared to do to resolve the Syrian crisis?
Peskov: Well, the question is what we are all prepared to do in order to solve the Syrian crisis. Because there are lots of countries giving different kinds of support to rebels, to opposition, that definitely do not support a viable or sustainable solution to the Syrian crisis. To the contrary, it leads to further degradation of the situation there in Syria. As a matter of fact, we support the idea that the future of Syria is subject to decisions taken by all sides of the Syrian conflict—President Assad, his government, the Syrian people, including those who are being named as opposition. Those are the only ones who should make a decision. The decision about the future of Syria cannot be taken somewhere abroad, cannot be taken in the other capitals, because this kind of decision cannot be viable. We sincerely believe the plan that was suggested by President Assad is a kind of continuation of the Geneva talks and could constitute a very good basis for further attempts of a settlement of the problem.
Saunders: Turning to Iran, its nuclear program is another priority for President Obama in his second term and certainly for other governments as well. Iran appears to be moving closer to having a nuclear weapon capability. There are many people in the United States who believe the only way to avoid military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is a united international effort that would put more pressure on Iran and encourage Iran to negotiate. Do you think Russia is ready to take any further steps to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program?
Peskov: Well, actually we are standing on the same ground as our American partners in terms of Iran, so actually strategically we share the same values. We do not want to jeopardize the non-proliferation regime, but at the same time we will accept the rights of the Iranians for peaceful nuclear energy. In this sense, we seem to have a very wide arch now of diplomatic means, diplomatic and political means, in our dialogue with the Iranians in order to ensure that the non-proliferation regime is kept properly and to assure the international community that all relevant proofs are taken and that there shouldn’t be any concern. So in this sense we have to continue our dialogue with the Iranian side. We still have room for diplomatic activity and then we still have to use our common influence, our joint influence, to continue the dialogue with Iran.