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Russia Rejects Much Engagement Sought by US, Ambassador Tefft Says

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 15, 2015.

The United States is seeking to engage and involve Russia on a range of international issues — including the most sensitive to their relations — but is often given the cold shoulder, according to U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft.

In an hour-long and exclusive joint interview Monday with VOA Russian Service's Danila Galperovich and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Irina Lagunina, Tefft described U.S. efforts to reach out to Russia despite ups and downs in political dialogue on Ukraine, Syria and NATO.

Military tensions

"You can ask the Russian side about that. I can tell you that we are determined," responded Tefft when it was suggested that dialogue did not appear to be working to calm military tensions between Russia and the NATO defense alliance.

Tefft described working at the U.S. Embassy in 1997 and taking part in the U.S.-Russia talks on the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

"My own personal view on this is that that document which was completed was never given much of a chance, particularly on the Russian side," he said.

"NATO is a defensive alliance, and I say that everywhere I can here in Russia. It's not an offensive organization. What NATO has done is prepare itself to protect its members."

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, center, with VOA Russian Service's Danila Galperovich and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Irina Lagunina, left, June 27, 2016. (U.S. Embassy photo)
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, center, with VOA Russian Service's Danila Galperovich and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Irina Lagunina, left, June 27, 2016. (U.S. Embassy photo)

NATO says Russian military jets have dramatically increased fly-bys and probing of neighboring country defenses, turning off their transponders and too often coming close to other planes in international air space.

"It may be legal, but if it's provocative or trying to, you know, buzz a ship as they were doing up in the Baltic Sea, that's just dangerous," said Tefft, referring to Russian jets flying within meters of a U.S. Navy ship in April. "And, it really ... there's no place for that, I think, in the modern world."

Despite Russia's sabre rattling, Tefft said he expects a prudent and a modest response from NATO, but accompanied by a continued engagement or offer to engage with Russia.

"Because our preference is really a peaceful, cooperative relationship with Russia. That's why the NATO-Russia Council was first created," Tefft said. "We had a meeting of it a few weeks ago. We're ready to do more of those kinds of meetings."

As more former Soviet states and allies join the group, the Kremlin describes NATO expansion as an attempt to encircle and squeeze Russia out of its historic sphere of influence.

Russia has heavily criticized as a provocation a U.S.-led NATO missile defense system being installed in Poland and Romania. Tefft noted that talks with Russia on ballistic missile defense date back to 2010.

"We have talked to the Russian side. They have walked out of talks," he said. "We have offered to set up NATO-Russia facilities to show how these things would work to be, in effect, a confidence-building measure. Russia has not accepted any of those. We'll continue to try to do this."

A NATO summit July 8-9 in Poland is expected to focus much attention on defending against Russian aggression, following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and ongoing military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine conflict

Russia's actions, and Western sanctions that followed, plunged relations between Moscow and Washington to levels not seen since the Cold War.

Nonetheless, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds almost daily talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on stalled efforts to implement a Minsk peace deal on Ukraine.

When asked how he responds to Russia's claim that it is not a direct party to the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. ambassador said Russia, along with France, Germany and Ukraine, is part of the Normandy Four. "We all know that Russia moved into Crimea. We know that Russian forces and Russian weapons are still in the Donbas. Russia is a part of this," Tefft said.

IS in Syria

When asked about the potential for U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria against the Islamic State terrorist group, Tefft noted there is limited coordination because the U.S. wants to see Russia stop supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We want to see a peaceful ... we'd like to see a cessation of hostilities, and we'd like to see the Geneva agreement implemented. And that calls very clearly — and Russia signed on to this — for a transition to a new political system after Mr. Assad," Tefft said. "But, so far we haven't even really been able to get that far, because Assad has been attacking people and Russian forces have been supporting him and, in some cases, doing their own bombing of some of the opposition."

Russia denies targeting moderate groups, while labeling as terrorists nearly everyone fighting against Assad's government in Damascus.

"We have also offered to the Russian side, for some time now, holding what we call strategic stability talks. They have not taken that up yet," Tefft said about the potential for broader U.S.-Russia discussions.

He lamented Russia's ending of some bilateral educational programs and exchanges with the U.S. over the tensions, as well as its ongoing crackdown against foreign and foreign-funded charities.