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12 Apr, 2010 14:45

Obama is a great guy to deal with – Medvedev

President Medvedev's full interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulus ahead of a two-day summit in Washington D.C. focusing on global nuclear security.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr President,

Thank you very much for having us in St Petersburg. This is going to be an interview played to a very broad American audience, and I just want to get your view – what’s the single most important thing that an average American needs to know about Russia today?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: That Russia is a normal and modern country, like America.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: What does that mean?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: It means exactly what I said. It means that we share similar values, that ordinary Russians and Americans share similar aspirations, and that we are doing everything we can to ensure a safe and comfortable life in our country, although, unfortunately, we do not always succeed. It means that we are fighting common threats, and we are working towards common economic and social development goals. It means too, that we have already built up some experience in our development as the independent democratic state that was established almost twenty years ago now.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: And we’ve seen now a landmark agreement between the United States and Russia on nuclear weapons signed in Prague. And it was a hard fought agreement, and the issue of missile defence still seems to divide the United States and Russia. I just have a very simple question: if the United States continues to develop missile defence in Europe, will Russia withdraw from the START treaty?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I will try to explain how I view the situation today.

We spent quite some time and effort explaining to our American partners the link between strategic offensive weapons and missile defence. This issue concerns the configuration of nuclear forces, or, more precisely, the differences in configuration of nuclear forces in Russia and the USA. It also concerns our plans and those of our American partners.

The complex negotiations that took place resulted in the wording that has been included in the treaty’s preamble. This wording reflects a well-known legal principle. As far as the specifics go, this wording states the link between strategic offensive weapons and missile defence systems.

It also states that the obligations forming the basis for the treaty’s signature are deemed to have been formulated and approved by the parties to the treaty. If these obligations change this could be seen as jeopardising the treaty as a whole. This does not mean that if the USA starts developing missile defence the treaty would automatically be invalidated, but it does create an additional argument that binds us and that makes it possible for us to raise the question of whether quantitative change to missile defence systems would affect the fundamental circumstances underlying the treaty. If we see that developments do indeed represent a fundamental change in the circumstances, we would have to raise this issue with our American partners.

But I would not want to create the impression that any change would be construed as grounds for suspending a treaty that we have only just signed. Moreover, we agreed – I discussed this with President Obama, and our respective administrations discussed it – that we should cooperate on building a global missile defence system. But if events develop in such a way as to ultimately change the fundamental situation Russia would be able to raise this issue with the USA. This is the sense of the interpretation and the verbal statement made yesterday.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: So, if Russia feels this system, if it’s built up, is a threat, then you withdraw. That’s the qualitative change.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Then we could raise the issue of suspending the treaty, but I hope that this will not happen and that we will work on these matters, work on enhancing our forces and work on missile defence in consultation with each other, and in some areas, it would be good to work together.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: You mentioned that this language is in the preamble. Based on my reporting, I’ve heard that in one of your final conversations negotiating with President Obama you tried to get this language in the body of the text. And he actually pushed back quite forcefully. What kind of a negotiator is President Obama?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I think that Mr Obama, as president of the United States of America, is trying to protect the United States’ interests, and I, as president of the Russian Federation, am trying to protect our interests. We have no big missile defence plans such as those in America, but we realise that anti-missile defences, if increased to a certain level, could jeopardise parity.

After all, what is this new treaty on strategic offensive weapons based on? It is based on a series of concessions and compromises, obtained through negotiations between experts, establishing parity in terms of the main warheads and delivery vehicles to the satisfaction of each party. We will reduce the numbers of these warheads and delivery vehicles, or, to be more precise, we have set lower ceilings than those stated in the 1991 treaty. The treaty sets ceilings of 700 deployed delivery vehicles, 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers, and 1,550 warheads, but if one of the parties simultaneously builds up its anti-missile defences these defences would essentially become a part of its strategic nuclear forces given that they are able to block the other party’s actions, and this would create an imbalance. This is what would create the grounds for revising the treaty. You are also a lawyer by training, and I remind you of the well-known Latin phrase – clausula rebus sic stantibus – a legal doctrine by which a treaty remains applicable so long as the circumstances that produced it continue to apply. A change in these circumstances is a reason to revise the treaty. This principle applies to all treaties, the START treaty included. In this particular case, these circumstances concern development of missile defence.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: You have now met with President Obama many times, at least 15 meetings and phone calls…

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Sixteen times.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Sixteen? Ok. I was not sure about the sixteen. What do you make of Barack Obama the man?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: You know, he’s a comfortable partner and interesting to be with. Perhaps what most distinguishes him from many other people, I won’t give any names, is that he thinks when he speaks. This is a good thing. He formulates his words.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: You have somebody in your mind, I think!

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Of course, but I do not want to offend anyone. (Laughs). He tries to listen to his partner. This is an important quality for a politician, because every politician is a mentor in a sense, making declarations. The ability to listen to what your partner is saying is very important for a politician. He is quite familiar with all the different subjects. I cannot recall a single instance in my contacts with President Obama when he was not prepared for a question. This is good. Finally, he is quite simply a pleasant person with whom it is a pleasure to work.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: He said very kind things about you as well. I spoke with him in Prague. And one of the most important things he said about you is that – it was when I asked him who is really in charge in Russia, the question you get all the time, you or Prime Minister Putin, and he emphasised, President Obama emphasised that every time he dealt with you, you followed through on your commitments and you’ve kept your word.

On that subject, I’m wondering how tired you are getting asked the question of who’s in charge in Russia.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Yes, to tell the truth, I have become a bit sick and tired of this. Do you want me to answer this question again now, or are you already clear on the situation?

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I know what President Obama said and I’ve watched both you and Prime Minister Putin closely, and it seems like you work fairly close together, but sometimes you speak in different ways about a similar issue. What I really just want to get an answer to is how does it work between the two of you? How does the relationship work?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: We really have established a smooth-running working relationship and good personal relations. How do the relations work between Mr Obama and Mr Biden? They also sometimes express different views. They come from different backgrounds, different lives, and in some respects no doubt have different visions of the world and its events, but it all works, and the same goes here, it all works in the same way.

As for the question of who makes the decisions here, I have been asked this question on many occasions…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: I think you just answered it.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I have answered it, essentially, but I can add one more thing on this matter. It is just a small detail, but it is the absolute truth of the situation. The decisions are taken by whoever is responsible under the law for taking them. Foreign and domestic policy, defence and security, for example, are the sole responsibility of the president. I’d be happy perhaps to share the load with someone, especially during the most dramatic moments, such as in August 2008, during the brief conflict in the Caucasus. But I cannot say that I did not take this decision, or that I share responsibility for this decision with my colleagues, with Mr Putin, or whoever else. I bear personal responsibility for this decision. I am not ashamed of this decision. I am simply saying that, unfortunately, I have to take the most important and difficult decisions on my own. We also have the Government Cabinet, of course, and it has its particular responsibilities. America does not have this cabinet system of government. We do. The Cabinet issues regulations. It is responsible for the economy, and this is a huge task. I spent several years working in the Cabinet and was First Deputy Prime Minister. This was a huge amount of work, a very complex job. This work is separate from the presidential powers. This is the second dimension to our relations.

I think that we have succeeded over this time in establishing a system that functions quite well. I would go even further and say that things work better now than they did before. I say this because the Cabinet, in my opinion, was more of a technical body than it really should be, but now that it is headed by as experienced and influential a politician as Mr Putin it has become a lot more active and is putting a lot more real substance into its work. This is good, especially during a crisis period. People worry during a crisis, they are unhappy with developments, and in this situation they often lay a lot of the blame (and with justification, no doubt) on the authorities. If the authorities start to sink and collapse under this weight, as in some countries, this only makes things worse. But if the government has influence, listens to what ordinary people are saying, and makes balanced decisions, this is good for the country.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: You faced one of those crises recently with a spate of bombings, the terrorism, here in Moscow, and one especially hit column in the United States – the suicide bombings in the Moscow subway. I was in New York that day – all New York subways on high alert. And this picture on the front page of papers all across the United States…How does this happen? And what do you do about it?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I think this is a very sad story. If we take a look at who this photo depicts, this woman, she is practically…


Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Yes, she is practically just a child still, only 17. And yet she took a decision that lead to the deaths of a large number of people. Why did she do this? This is the biggest question. She grew up in the Caucasus, and as far as I know, if I’m right about the photo you are showing me, this woman was married to one of the bandits, a foreign mercenary. These mercenaries came to Russia to fight for their highly dubious cause, and this one was killed. According to the investigators’ findings so far, as far as I know, this woman was one of those who detonated the explosives. Why did she do this? Why did she take such action with regard to completely innocent people? Obviously, there are several reasons for this. First, there is the resolutely fundamentalist and extremist radicalism characteristic of some of those who arrive here from abroad to carry out their fight against our country and against many other countries too. Essentially, these people operate as a kind of big terrorist international. These are the same people sitting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are constantly catching these types of people, or eliminating them in operations. But this woman, she is from Russia, she was married to one of these bandits. After he was killed it seems that she took the decision to seek revenge, but she sought her revenge against ordinary people.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: So, how do you fight it?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: As for how to fight this, we can fight it only if we understand how to eradicate the causes of this situation. Fighting terrorism is an exceptionally difficult task, as you know, whether in Russia or in America. Fighting this kind of phenomenon requires changing the way people think, creating normal conditions for life in the Caucasus, and eliminating all those who come to our country with terrorist intent, and such people do find their way in from abroad.

There needs to be a force component in this work…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: People come in from Afghanistan, Pakistan.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Yes, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, a few other countries too.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: The same threat the United States is facing.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I think this is indeed one and the same threat and one and the same force standing behind it. Here, it perhaps has its specific national colour added. I therefore think the force component is very important. This is a real combat that is going on. But work with ordinary people is no less important. The diehards among the bandits must be eliminated, but the others, those who made mistakes and ended up with the bandits through chance circumstances, or were brainwashed into it, we can work with them and we need to return them to normal life. This is the most difficult task.

As for what happened in the metro, this is an extremely difficult subject, all the more so as we know what the metro is, we know what huge numbers of people are going through it all the time. There is no technology in the world yet that can detect at a distance the presence of explosives strapped to a suicide bomber’s body.

George STEPHANOPOULOS:We’re lucky it hasn’t happened in the States yet.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: You know, that’s exactly what I said yesterday to Barack Obama. I said, “Barack, keep in mind that you have subways in many different places, and it is important to deal with transportation. This really is a big, serious problem for our nations, and it is not just an issue of technology. I am prepared to fully cooperate with our American partners. As far as I understand, our American colleagues and the President of the United States are also prepared to work with our colleagues, and myself personally. But this is a battle that we will need to fight for quite a bit longer.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: It seems that you are also convinced now, to an outsider, that Iran’s nuclear programme is a threat to the security in the world.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Iran’s nuclear programme is not transparent, and this is the main problem. We understand that Iran, like any state, has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. But we need to understand what its ultimate goal is, why it has not responded to suggestions made by the global community, including Russia, and why it is beginning…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think Iran wants the bomb?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I don’t know what Iran wants – it’s best to ask the Iranian leadership that. However, I do not doubt that the issue of nuclear development is one of the consolidating topics in the Iranian community. The Iranian government actively exploits this issue in order to consolidate the elite and society as a whole. I do not know whether they aim to create nuclear arms or not. But we need to monitor this matter closely. Their actions – such as the decision to enrich uranium up to 20 percent at their own facilities, even though there have been offers to do this from the Russian, French, and Turkish sides – demonstrate, at the very least, a desire to enter into a conflict with the global community with regard to this issue.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Iran is unveiling new centrifuges now.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: In any case, all our attempts so far to nudge Iran in this direction have been unsuccessful. This is unfortunate, especially because there have been many chances.

We have our own fairly close relations with Iran. We have relatively significant volume of trade between us. We work with Iran on energy, and we deliver equipment to this country. But we cannot remain indifferent about the way a nuclear programme is being developed there. And that is why I have joined in on the work we are doing today with the United States and other nations on this issue. The question is, what’s next? Can the sanctions currently being suggested push Iran toward proper behaviour?

George STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s what I want to ask you about, because, you know, strong majorities in the United States Congress look at the three sanctions regimes passed by the UN Security Council. They haven't worked. And the majority say it is time now to crack down on the petroleum trade. On refined – petroleum products and gasoline. Why is that a bad idea?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I am not saying that this is a good idea or a bad idea. I am talking about something else. In general, sanctions very rarely work. You yourself have worked in politics, so you know that they are not an unconditional influence. But sometimes, that is what you have to resort to.

What should the sanctions be like? Yesterday, President Obama and I discussed this issue quite extensively. Sanctions need to be effective and they need to be smart.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: But what does that mean?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: They should not result in a humanitarian catastrophe, such that all of Iranian society ends up hating the entire world. And we know that there are a significant number of people in Iran with radical attitudes. Do we really want that radicalism to be directed toward the world at large? So, sanctions need to be smart. But they need to make Iran’s leadership think about what to do next. What could these sanctions be? They could be sanctions on trade – arms trade – or other sanctions. Our experts are discussing this matter now.

And if we are to talk about energy sanctions, I can give you my opinion. I think it is unlikely that the global community will be able to form a consolidated position on this matter. And since this is the case…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Because of China.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: This could be due to different nations.

Incidentally, we have our own energy cooperation with Iran, but in this case, this is not about us. Simply, the sanctions should let the government know that everyone imposing them holds the same position. But if half the countries support the sanctions while the other half opposes them, we understand that the sanctions will be ineffective.

Thus, I want to repeat again that sanctions need to be smart and effective. Sanctions cannot be paralysing, and yet, there are voices calling for precisely that.

The sanctions should not be painful. After all, we live in the 21st century. Thus, if we develop cooperation in this direction, we will have a chance at success, but it would be even better to unite without sanctions and reach some kind of resolution through political and diplomatic means. But a lot of time has gone by already.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I think you bring up an important point at the end there. There are so many signs in Israel of invasions. And – that at some point, perhaps soon, some former ministers have suggested by the end of the year Israel be – feel forced to take military action. What would that mean?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: That would be the worst-case scenario, because first of all, any war means that lives will be lost. And second, what would it mean to have a war in the Middle East? Everything there is so close that everyone will be affected. And if this kind of conflict occurs, if there is a strike, anything could happen, including the use of nuclear weapons. And if nuclear weapons are used in the Middle East, this will be a global catastrophe, with an enormous number of victims.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you as confident as you used to be that Israel would show forbearance and not strike?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: You know, I can be certain only in the decisions under my authority. The Israelis follow their own policy. Overall, I have good relations with the President and the Prime Minister of Israel, but they are independent individuals. I would say that they hold very tough, stubborn positions on many issues. By the way, the United States has recently seen proof of this in a number of instances.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: On the settlements.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Yes, Israel’s position on settlements and other issues has not changed, even after open and honest talks with the US. We have also spoken with them about this issue on many occasions. Why am I bringing this up? Because it is possible to envision any scenario. But it would be a colossal tragedy for the Middle East – an enormous humanitarian catastrophe. And not just for the Middle East. If something happens in Iran, how would this affect the entire region? People will start to leave. There are many ethnicities living in Iran. Where would these people go? They would head toward our borders, and they would head toward Azerbaijan. There are many people in Iran who have Azerbaijani roots.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: You've been very forthright about the problems that Russia has to overcome in order to become a modern, as you say, normal country. Corruption. Life expectancy has been going down in Russia. Your population is going down. Alcoholism is still plaguing so much of the country. What do you say to outside observers who look at Russia, even with the growth you've had in recent years, and see a nation in decline?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: It is true that the situation is not ideal – otherwise I would not be talking about it. Still, I would like to make a few corrections to what you said. Fortunately, live expectancy is going up, not down. Recently, since we have launched our social programmes – and I began working on them four years ago – overall life expectancy in our nation has risen by some four years. Unfortunately, these figures are still not that high, but this nevertheless demonstrates growth. It shows that we have found the right measures for our work. But we are still unsatisfied.

What we need to do is to invest in modernising our economy and developing social programmes in public health, education, and promoting normal, modern lifestyles, encouraging sports and encouraging people to take care of their health, to exercise every day. These are simple things, but first, we need to create the right conditions. These conditions include money in peoples’ pockets and normal…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: You had a rough Olympics.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Yes, I will talk about that.

…And normal conditions for training in sports.

The Olympics weren’t rough for me, I didn’t participate in them. But they were fairly difficult for our nation, because for the first time, we had a steep decline in our medal count. Overall, this is not a national catastrophe or a tragedy, but this is the kind of event from which we should learn. We just need to prepare well for the Sochi Olympics, because when you are hosting the Olympic Games, you are counting on a large number of medals, and that the Olympics can be life-changing…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: You will get these medals back.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Yes.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you, the American public doesn't know all that much about you personally. But I was fascinated to be – in reading your biography to learn many of the details. You were brought up in Soviet Russia, without religion. Yet, at the age of 23, you walk into a church to be baptized. Why?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I felt that I needed it. I felt a desire to do it. Why do people come to church? They come because they feel a need to do so – unless they are sightseeing. And when I was 23, I felt that I needed that. I believe that it’s good for me, because since then, my life has changed. People do not generally talk about this, because religious feelings are something very personal, very intimate. People who display those feelings openly are not acting in an entirely honest way – it’s a sort of personal PR, self-promotion. I think that religion is important for every person. Don’t you think so?

George STEPHANOPOULOS: I do. I was also impressed by the fact that you are a heavy metal fan. Where did that come from – Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: It comes from my childhood and my adolescence. I don’t know which music you were listening to when you were 15 or 20 years old, but I was listening to this kind of music. And even though I was living behind the Iron Curtain…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: My wife makes fun of me, it was soft rock.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Soft rock, I see.

Even though I was living behind the Iron Curtain during Soviet times, this music nevertheless seeped through. And we were listening to what the rest of the planet was listening to, which included Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: And you’re still a fan?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Yes. Although now, my taste in music is more diverse. Today, I enjoy listening to classical music, and what you call soft rock, and jazz, which I never listened to when I was 15, but now I like it. The older we get, the more open-minded we are, don’t you think?

George STEPHANOPOULOS: We’re just about out of time. I have to ask you about a case that has shocked people both in the United States and here in Russia. The case of the seven-year-old boy, a Siberian boy, Artyem Savelyev, who was adopted in the United States, returned back alone with a note pinned to his chest saying, I can't keep him anymore. You're shaking your head. You know about this.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Of course I know. It’s terrible, and this boy – Artyem Savelyev – just ended up in a very bad family. You know, I would prefer not to end our interview with such a difficult topic, but I would like to say a few things on this matter.

First of all, this was a horrible act on the part of his adoptive parents – to take in a child and then virtually throw him on a plane going the other way; to say, sorry, I can’t handle him, take him back. It is not just immoral, but illegal as well.

And second – and this especially worries me – we have seen an increase in similar cases in the United States. Recently, several Russian children adopted by American parents have died. And now, we have this case, although thankfully, it was not fatal and did not involve any bodily injuries. Our Children Rights Commissioner has already reacted to this incident, as has our Minister…

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Your foreign minister has suggested freezing adoptions. Is that a good idea?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: You know, tough decisions are never entirely bad or entirely good. I think, given the negative experience that has accumulated in this area, we should have thought about signing some kind of intergovernmental agreement with our American colleagues to firmly establish responsibilities for parents adopting children from Russia and to create the possibility to monitor these families. We need to understand what is happening to our children. Otherwise, we really will have to completely stop the adoption of Russian children by American families. I am concerned by this trend. It is sad, and I also hope that after our conversation, the American authorities will give this matter some attention.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: One final question. Are the days of the Cold War that both you and I grew up in, are they gone for good?

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: I would like to hope that yes. You know why? The Cold War is a boring thing, and it benefits nobody. A great deal of money is wasted, and life is becoming increasingly strained. We look at each other as enemies. Is it good?

In any case, I will do everything in my power to prevent another Cold War that would dampen relations with the United States of America or any other nation in the world.

George STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr President, thank you very much, you’ve been very gracious.

Dmitry MEDVEDEV: Thank you. Thank you very much indeed.

April 9, 2010
Saint Petersburg