Tomas Dapkus interviews Deputy Assistant Secretary Ziff about geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe, about Russia's provocations above the Baltic Sea, the EU's refugee crisis and prospects for peace in Syria

Tomas Dapkus: Russian aggression against Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements are one of the hottest topics in the region. What is your position on the implementation of the Minsk agreements and what should be done first – state border control restored or should local elections be held?

Benjamin Ziff: Our position on Minsk Agreements is very clear: they have to be fully implemented before any sanction relief on Russia can be contemplated. It is impossible to have meaningful reforms inside Ukraine when the borders are unstable. We have seen increasing violence since the Easter ceasefire mostly from the separatist areas. These are areas that Russia controls and can certainly make the violence cease if it so chooses and that would be a precondition for any further movement.

Do you think the European Union will follow this line?

Well, I think it’s a question for the EU. We obviously are very keen to have sanctions rolled over by the EU in June. We are confident they will be rolled over. And, again, sanctions need to remain in place until such time that Russia changes its behavior.

And state border control is one of the main issues?

Border control certainly is one of the main issues. Violence in general is one of the main issues. And of course, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea is one of the main issues.

Even if Russia implements the Minsk Agreements, Crimea stays occupied.

Our sanctions on Russia for its temporary occupation of Crimea will stay in place. We obviously call on Russia to end the occupation and restore Crimea to Ukraine.

Do you think Russia will implement the Minsk Agreements?

We would hope so. We all want Russia to be a responsible member of international community that observes international law, observes human rights. We think that Russia can play productive role but it certainly needs to change its behavior to do so.

There have been a number of provocations by Russia in the Baltic Sea aimed also at US military forces. Why do they do this? How can we deter them?

That, I think, is a question for the Russians. We have made it very clear both publicly and privately to the Russians that we believe their actions are unprofessional, as they have approached our aircraft and our ships in an unprofessional way, and that they should cease immediately. This is not constructive, not productive and certainly raises the risk for an accident that nobody wants to see happen.

Do they want an accident to happen?

I think you should ask them.

What is their message?

I think you need to ask the Russians what the message is. I think it’s very clear to us that countries need to be able to determine their own future and their own alliances without pressure, without provocations. As I said before, Russian needs to understand that there is international law, there are rules and they should be obeyed.

Will we see more US and NATO forces deployed in Lithuania after the Warsaw Summit?

You saw recently that the President announced the Enhanced Readiness Initiative of over USD 3 billion aimed at increasing NATO presence in the Baltics and sort of North-Eastern Europe. I believe that you’ll begin to see an increased presence, an increased readiness on the part of NATO in this part of the World. Even now we are seeing it and we’ll see it certainly in the end of summer.

What can the Baltic States expect from the NATO summit in Warsaw?

The end of the Summit has several key outcomes that we are looking for. Number one is, obviously, readiness to make sure that the Alliance functions as one, and has a common approach to security in Europe. Number two, I think, we need to have a common position vis-a-vis Russia, its aggression and it’s behavior in international sphere. Also we need to implement the Wales commitments: 2% of GDP across NATO to pay for defense. Increased reliability and increased resilience on the part of host nations.

I think, all in all, Lithuania in particular has been outstanding in terms of its commitment to the ISIL mission, to Iraq, to Ukraine missions, in general showing its responsibility and it’s ability to be even more active in international sphere than one would expect from the country of this size.

Russia is sponsoring a nuclear power plant in Astravyets, Belarus, very close to our borders. Lithuania sees it as a huge threat, because of safety concerns and because it is run by a secretive regime that doesn’t respect democratic principles. What do you think about this nuclear project?

Benjamin Ziff: Our position is that any nuclear project needs to be run transparently, with an eye to safety and security above all. In this case this is something that the European Community can take up and certainly something that Lithuania does need to discuss with Belarus. We of course consistently see the need for security and safety at nuclear installations and of course the threat of another Chernobyl is something that we can’t ignore.

What other challenges do you see for the energy security in the Baltic region?

Lithuania and the Baltics have come a long way for energy independence. We see the dependence on Russian gas is going down tremendously in Lithuania, the Klaipėda terminal is actually allowing Lithuania to export gas to Estonia, so you are seeing the diversification of electricity and gas in a very positive way that we think is in line with European energy plans and allows for a better service, lower prices, and increased reliability of entire system.

European Union is very divided on how to manage the refugee crisis. Eastern Europe in particular sees it as a huge challenge and is very skeptical about the EU quotas.

Obviously, it’s important to realize that migration crisis is a global crisis - it’s not just in Europe, it’s in Africa, it’s in the Americas. We’ve had our experience from Central America with migrants crossing from Mexico to our southern border, and it’s important to make sure that the refugees are treated humanely and according to international law.

I believe that the Europeans also are doing their best to deal with what is an unprecedented crisis. The EU-Turkey Agreement is one that we think is something that advances humane treatment of refugees and ensures that people don’t undertake very dangerous sea voyages and that can actually have their situation improved without putting themselves and their families in danger.

I think it’s very important that the Europeans undertake their responsibilities in the redistribution plan. The United States is a country that was founded by migrants and immigrants and that has prospered because of immigrants and migrants. Let’s face it, Steve Jobs was a son of a Syrian refugee, and we think that migrants are a source of strength, not a threat and not a problem.

Some see that the migration crisis can become a permanent one, with political turbulences in Africa, the Middle East, the climate change and other factors.

Well this puts more of a burden on the developed world to work in those parts of the world that are suffering crises. I don’t think anyone really wants to put his or her family in a boat in the Mediterranean or walk across a desert, no one wants to see their children exposed to this, no one does it easily or by choice, or because it’s a fun thing to do. They are doing it because they are facing dire circumstances at home.

And what we can do to help alleviate those dire circumstances is upon us to do. The Obama administration has contributed more than USD 5 billion to the refugee crisis and has committed to taking in 85,000 refugees in need.

Has the violence abated now in Syria? Does it have an impact on the flow of refugees?

Benjamin Ziff: Well, it depends on a day. I think you can see that we’ve had very intense efforts by Secretary John Kerry in the ISSG elements to broker ceasefires in Syria, to try and lower the violence, but the violence ebs and flows, sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. Our goal obviously is to end the violence permanently and restore Syria at least to some sense of calm, so those people don’t feel the need to have to undertake dangerous journeys to safety.

There was a debate on establishing ‘safe zones’ in Syria that could protect civilians and they would not need to flee Syria. It is still on the table?

I think ‘safe zones’ are something that have been discussed for a long time. The real question is modalities and implementation. For ‘safe zones’ you need actual troops on the ground to defend the ‘safe zones’. It is not enough just to establish a zone and declare it. Because it automatically becomes a target. And it becomes a complicated implementation challenge to actually install it. I think it’s being discussed. Only how to do it is the question.

How long will Bashar al-Assad stay in power?

That’s an excellent question! If you could answer that, I would buy a lottery ticket…

Did the Russian involvement in Syria help fight terrorism, decrease violence or on the contrary?

Given the fact that the majority of Russian attacks were against the non-regime fighters, I would say that it definitely hurt the cause of a stable and secure future for Syria and I think it also drove more migrants into the sea.

Russia uses propaganda as a tool against the Baltic States, against Europe, against the West, against Ukraine. To counter it, Lithuania and other countries in the region have restricted some Russian state television channels.

In the United States, we have the First Amendment; our view is that bad ideas are combated by good ideas. Therefore our view is to have ideas battle in the zone of information. The positions of freedom, the positions on Human Rights, the positions of liberty win out easily. And so I think what we need to do is engage in that battle.