MR. PETER CHEREMUSHKIN (Interfax News Agency): Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you. I've been waiting for a long time, and I know there is a big competition among Russian journalists to interview you. So it's a rare opportunity and thank you very much for that.
My first question would be, how do you -- why do you see this visit of Minister Serdyukov as important? And what documents do you plan to sign with him at the visit?
SEC. GATES: As I have watched the minister undertake his reform efforts in Russia, I've been impressed by their breadth and the degree to which some of the efforts he's undertaking parallel those that I'm trying to undertake here in the United States in terms of dealing with more stringent economic circumstances and the likelihood of at least no significant increases in money in the years -- in the years ahead. And so, how to make better use of the resources that we've been given. And I think that there's a robust agenda that we can talk about in terms of they're relevant to both of our efforts. I know that he has an interest in professional military education, in figuring out how to recruit and keep high quality soldiers and how to administer these programs in ways that advance our respective national security, but at the same time take into account the economic challenges that both of our countries face.
We will -- we will sign two documents. One will be a memorandum of understanding that updates an earlier agreement signed in 1993 that basically is an umbrella in terms of ways in which we can cooperate, interact with one another. The other is a defense relations working group that is actually a -- called for under the bilateral presidential commission that Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed. And that really is more concrete in terms of specific areas where we can see if we can increase our cooperation, but also exchanges of information dealing with global and regional threats and future cooperation.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: For a long time, U.S. and Russia were rivals. Does United States view Russia as a continuing threat to its national security? And are you concerned about Russian new build up of more powerful ICBMs?
SEC. GATES: No. I think that we are -- we have -- I don't see Russia as a threat. I see Russia -- Russian-U.S. relations being those of normal states now. We're partners in some areas and competitors in others. But on important things, we are cooperating. The effort to deal with terrorists, we are cooperating, the effort to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. We're cooperating as evident in the U.N. Security Council resolution. We're working together on issues such as counter-piracy.
So there are a number of areas where we are cooperating. And as far as modernization programs, this is one of the great benefits, it seems to me, of the new START agreement, as with the agreements that have preceded it. And that is that they establish ground rules for both sides that provide both transparency and predictability. And so modernization programs that take place within the framework of new START are completely legitimate. We will have our own modernization programs.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: What areas of military cooperating -- can you be more specific about the areas of cooperation with Russia that you view as potentially successful or successful? What chances do you see for the future of joint military exercises between U.S. and Russia?
SEC. GATES: Well, we've done some of those. We've just completed a very important joint exercise in which the problem for the exercise was a hijacked airliner by terrorists, and our air forces cooperated in that realm. I think that there are -- we're already getting good cooperation out of Russia in terms of supporting our effort in Afghanistan by allowing equipment to transit Russia.
I know that the narcotics coming out of Afghanistan are of very real concern for Russia. And so clearly in the counternarcotics arena there can be greater cooperation. But I think there's -- I think there's a much greater opportunity for military exercises, for greater interaction with one another. I think there are a number of areas that are -- opportunity.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: Can you be more specific about what extent Russia helped to work on Northern Distribution Network in Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: Well, we have negotiated contracts, and at this point, I think, we have -- we have sent something like 20,000 containers across the Northern Distribution Network, and a very high percentage of those have come across Russia. It's enormously helpful to us. It's financially beneficial to Russia because these are commercial contracts. But there's no question that this network has become important for us. About 50 percent of the sustainment supplies for us in Afghanistan now go across the Northern Distribution Network, and I think it's an example of cooperation. We're obviously interested in buying MI-17 helicopters. They're well-suited for Afghanistan. Afghans are familiar with them, know how to fly them, comfortable with them, and we'd like to pursue that. We're getting, frankly, some pushback here in the United States by American helicopter manufacturers wondering why we're interested in buying Russian ones. The buy that we have in mind is pretty limited, but we'll have to work our way through the politics of that.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: When do you think the decision about that could be taken?
SEC. GATES: I honestly don't know. It really depends on being able to get the money from the Congress.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: I see. You mentioned START -- new START treaty. How do you view the perspectives of the ratification of new START treaty? And do you think U.S. and Russia can agree to make next steps for further reductions of nuclear arsenals?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote this week on the treaty. I'm pretty confident that the treaty will get out of committee, if you will. The prospects in terms of the full Senate, I think, there is still a lot of dialogue going on between the administration and members of the Senate, particularly Republican members of the Senate.
I would just say that I first started in the strategic arms negotiations business with Russia, with the Soviet Union almost 40 years ago, 1971, and every single strategic arms agreement that we have signed with Russia, the Soviet Union, was passed by large bipartisan majorities. So I'm hopeful.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: So you don't expect it could be a victim of political dis-balance in the Senate?
SEC. GATES: Well, I mean, it would be a sad thing if that were -- if that were to be the case because I don't think it would be on the merits of the treaty. I think that we all believe this treaty is in both countries' interests and certainly should be approved.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: There was a letter leaked to the media from you to John Kerry on July 30th, that you expressed the assumption that if Russia violates START III, the United States will alert its submarines and bombers with nuclear warheads and deploy additional warheads. Does it mean that U.S. will take the same measures if Russia pulls out of the new START?
And Russian leaders claim that the development of U.S. ABM systems is a threat to the Russian strategic nuclear forces and may damage all the achievements of the new START.
What would be your response to that?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, the -- I think our reaction to -- I think what Senator Kerry was asking what would be our response if we caught Russia cheating on the treaty, and that obviously would have large political implications and we would have to determine the motives for the cheating and what the strategic consequences were before deciding what to do. If Russia withdrew from the treaty, again, it would depend on the motives and what actions Russia was taking, but I would not say that if Russia withdrew from the treaty, we automatically would raise our alert levels.
I've been in conversations with Russia's leaders now for almost four years on missile defense, on several occasions with now-Prime Minister Putin, then-President Putin and subsequently with President Medvedev. And I think one of the things that is absolutely clear about the new approach this administration has taken with the phased, adaptive approach in Europe is that neither in terms of physics nor geography can the missiles that we are putting in as part of the phased adaptive approach be considered a threat to Russia's missiles. They don't have the speed. They don't have the orientation, the radar's orientation.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: You mean U.S. missiles?
SEC. GATES: U.S. defensive missiles, anti-missiles. And these -- as we've pointed out all along, this is all intended as a defense against Iran. And we would be, as I have said from the very beginning, we would like to have Russia as partners in this, and not just in terms of enhancing our capabilities but enhancing Russia's defenses as well. And, you know, one of your senior leaders several years ago told me, you know, the Iranians don't need a missile to get a nuclear weapon into Russia. But the reality is Iranian missiles with nuclear warheads are as big a danger, are actually a bigger danger to Russia than they are to the United States because they don't have intercontinental ballistic missiles yet. And we are prepared to work with Russia. We think that there are opportunities, not only to partner, but where the Russians could make a contribution to their own security, as well as being a partner with us.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: Is there a chance for -- to create mutual ABM with Russia? And are there any technical abilities of Russia that are of interest to the United States, for interest, Qabala station? Can it be used?
SEC. GATES: We have been very interested in the Qabala radar. We've had conversations about it. I think we've sent technical experts there to examine the radar. We've talked about a data center, a data exchange center in Moscow where all of this information on missile launches could be shared.
So I think that there are a number of areas where we could work together.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: At this time, what is your assessment of Iran nuclear capabilities? And how far Iran has gone in to build up nuclear weapons, do you think?
SEC. GATES: Well, they have -- they have -- they seem to be implacably determined to develop nuclear weapons. I mean, here we have multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning their efforts, imposing sanctions on them. They are isolated in the international community and still they move ahead.
We have always said, even under the Bush administration, that a -- that we were prepared to agree to a peaceful nuclear program for Iran and we are prepared -- we supported with the proposal on the Tehran research reactor, we supported the idea of them providing -- giving the enriched uranium they've already created to Russia to hold and for Russia to have kind of a bank, if you will.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: Yes.
SEC. GATES: And we're very supportive of that. If the -- if it can be arranged in verifiable ways that we all can know that they've stopped their nuclear program, their nuclear weapons program -- but nothing has deterred them to this point. We will keep all of our options open as any country must, but we continue to believe that the pressure track, both diplomatic and economic sanctions, still have the potential to persuade the Iranians to come to terms and end their efforts to get nuclear weapons.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: Is there a possibility for military strike over Iran if Tehran won't stop its nuclear program?
SEC. GATES: Well, as I say, every country will keep its options open, and clearly, the military option is one of them. By the same token, war brings with it enormous unpredictability and uncertainty. And I think it would have to be -- a military option would have to be considered a last resort.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: May I ask about Georgia? The United States is supplying Georgia with weapons and it's a matter of big concern for Russian Federation. What do you think about the future of weapons supplies to Georgia? Will the United States continue to provide weapons, or how do you -- what's your expectation?
SEC. GATES: Well, what I would say is, first of all, every sovereign country has the -- has the right to provide for its own defense. We have been, I think, careful in what we have provided to Georgia. We also are interested in providing Georgia with the means by which they can help us in Afghanistan, and so a good part of the training and other things that we're doing with the Georgians are because they have been so willing to make a contribution of considerable importance to our efforts in Afghanistan.
MR. GEOFF MORRELL (Pentagon Press Secretary): Great.
MR. CHEREMUSHKIN: Thank you very much.