Ambassador Melville Interview in Eesti Päevaleht

Photo: Tiit Blaat
Tiit Blaat

New ambassador of the United States in Estonia: Let’s keep cooperation with Russia in Syria strictly apart from the issue of Ukraine

Raimo Poom, Head of Foreign News

James D. Melville confirms that Estonia shares the values held by the United States. “We do not accept racism or xenophobia; we respect people and diversity – and the same can also be observed here,” he says.

James D. Melville, the new ambassador of the United States, who just arrived in Tallinn, has given his first interview to Eesti Päevaleht. The ambassador assures that the intervention of Russia in Syria has not brought along reassessment of the danger affecting this region. Concerning the alleged incidents involving US soldiers: isolated statements or incidents are regrettable; the views of the leaders of Estonia are correct.

After Russian aggression against Ukraine, the NATO and USA have implemented measures to increase the security in the region. We are waiting for the last long-discussed elements, primarily the prepositioning of war machinery. The equipment has been stored in Lithuania. When will it happen in Estonia?

The support of the USA to all members of the NATO is unwavering. This naturally also includes Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which was also confirmed by the statements of President Barack Obama during his visit: the Alliance is committed to the defense of Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga just like to the defense of Paris, London and Berlin. There is no need to doubt the clearly expressed opinions of the USA of what is the meaning of the NATO Article 5 and what consequences it would have to anyone who would attempt to interfere with the sovereignty and entirety of any member of the NATO.

In my opinion, the US has absolutely fulfilled the promises and guarantees given to Estonia.

Regarding the prepositioning of equipment, we are working with our partners from the Estonian Defence Forces to build the infrastructure. But as the Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, said when he visited Estonia last June, we should not delve into discussions over who is receiving what and when. The aim of the prepositioning of equipment is to support organizing of exercises in the region and the equipment will be moved based on the requirements of the exercises. Thus, the fact that it may currently be located in Lithuania does not mean that it will not be in Estonia when the time is right to organize the respective exercises.

I am very optimistic, because our soldiers are always here. There are A-10 war planes stationed at Ämari. I think that the USA has absolutely fulfilled the promises and guarantees given to Estonia.

Are these measures sufficient, in your opinion, to discourage anyone who might harbour any intentions against the NATO members in this region?

I would like to think so. Therefore, the answer to this question is affirmative. But as you know, the processes of NATO consist of continuous discussions and assessment of challenges, threats and opportunities in order to be better prepared. With the NATO Warsaw Summit of next July approaching, the more intensive the ongoing discussion gets on which steps or measures we should be considering. I believe that we are moving in a very correct direction.

Russia moved from active operations in Ukraine to a new battlefield in Syria. What do you think about the effect of this move on the region here?

I would not connect the issues of Ukraine and Syria. I think that these are two completely separate matters.

Kerry said in Moscow that the world would become a better place if the USA and Russia were able to move in the same direction.

The Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow on Tuesday and held an almost four-hour meeting with President Vladimir Putin. The discussion largely concerned the role of the USA and Russia as the joint chairmen of the Syrian Support Group. Some decisions were made, among other things, concerning the negotiations held at the UN today. They are concerned with the political process for ending the crisis in Syria. This means, among other issues, identification of the terrorism threat, i.e. agreeing who exactly are the terrorist organizations operating there. We have agreed with Russia that these include ISIS, al-Nusra. Hopefully, we will be able to achieve success at the UN, which would enable to initiate a political process. For this purpose, we need to identify who represent the opposition in Syria and take the steps necessary for the elections, which can hopefully occur within a year and a half.

Thus, in your opinion, the threat posed by Russia to Ukraine as well as the members of the eastern wing of the NATO has not decreased or changed after the intervention in Syria?

I think not. With respect to Ukraine, this was also a topic of the conversations between Kerry and the heads of Russia. Our perspective is clear: we are calling all parties out to follow the Minsk Protocol and the implementation plans of the agreements. The Secretary of State Kerry said that only if and when it happens can we talk about relaxing some of the diplomatic consequences applied to Russia due to Ukraine.

Our goal is to promote movement towards diplomatic solutions, categorically deem unacceptable annexation and occupation of Crimea and to punish the people who have taken steps towards decreasing the sovereignty and entirety of Ukraine.

As you mentioned, Kerry visited Moscow and spoke about Syria as well as Ukraine. There is a fear gaining ground in Estonia that the issue of Syria has again turned Russia into a serious partner and this could allure the US into a trap – into reaching some compromises with them in the case of Ukraine.

I don’t believe there is any reason for being concerned about this. If you look at the facts, the evidence show that there is no connection [between these issues].

The Paris climate accord would not have been born had we not been able to cooperate with Russia in spite of other issues.

We covered the whole Ukrainian crisis with Russia in order to neutralize the chemical weapons of Syria. Even a better example of our ability to differentiate these issues is the work done by the USA, the UK, France, the EU and China with Russia to reach the Iranian nuclear deal, which ensures that they will not be able to obtain nuclear weapons. The Secretary of State Kerry said in Moscow that the world will be a better place if the USA and Russia are able to move in the same direction. I would also like to mention the Paris climate accord, which would not have been born if we had not been able to cooperate in spite of other issues. Such is the nature of diplomacy.

Let’s conclude this with a clear example: if you are saying that the participants in the Ukrainian crisis must follow the Minsk Protocol, does this mean that if it is not followed, the USA will not be revoking the sanctions applied to Russia?


What is your opinion on the issue of Bashar al-Assad staying in office or leaving office? Many members of the Syrian Coalition lead by the USA are against him staying in office and the USA used to be as well. But now the Secretary of State Kerry is saying that the leaving of Assad is not necessarily a prerequisite for a political solution to the war. This was the reason why Russia got involved in the war there: to support Assad in every way.

Our opinion of Assad has not changed. He is a brutal dictator, the cause of the domestic war in Syria, and he created the prerequisites for coming to power of ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq. Bashar al-Assad is on the wrong side of history and means a catastrophe for his country. There is no consensus between the USA and Russia regarding whether or not the leaving of Assad should be a prerequisite. But leaving aside this difference of opinions, there is no doubt that the best way for overcoming the crisis is a political solution. And I hope that they will be able to initiate this in New York today.

Over one million refugees have entered Europe this year. The USA is obviously doing a lot to achieve a political solution for the crisis, bombing ISIS, etc. However, in the case of the refugee crisis it can be observed that the preparedness of the US to accept refugees is lower than this of the EU, we can probably talk about tens of thousands. Why is that so?

Historically and even now, the USA is contributing more than anyone to the alleviation of the humanitarian catastrophes caused by migration of refugees. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, we have been by far the largest international donor, having spent approximately 4.5 billion dollars. President Obama has decided to accept 85,000 refugees to the USA in the course of this financial year and a further 100,000 in the course of the financial year of 2017. The USA is doing a lot for the refugees.

The governors of some of the U.S. states declared that they refuse to accept refugees. Do they have a right to so-to-speak overrule the President in this issue?

The governors have no say in the issue of refugees. The federal government is responsible for permitting refugees to enter the country as well as for their relocation. If a refugee has been accepted to the USA, nothing will stop them from moving anywhere in the United States.

The issue of refugees has stirred up a lot of noise in Estonia as well. This had led to racist attacks and incidents, with US soldiers also targeted. One member of the parliament even resorted to advising the soldiers to wear their uniforms in their free time to avoid problems. What is your attitude towards all this?

It is important to consider the issue from a wider perspective. The people of Estonia and the Defence Forces have been fantastic hosts for our soldiers. What the government has done to offer host country support has been exceptionally good. Some unfortunate statements and actions, especially from people who are not holding leading positions, are regrettable. But if you take a look at what has been said by the heads of Estonia as well as the leaders of the Defence Forces, it has been very appropriate.

Some unfortunate statement and actions, especially from people who are not holding leading positions, are regrettable.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves called the political leaders of Estonia out to categorically repel expressions of racism and xenophobia, which pose a threat to the good reputation of Estonia. The people could do more and I would encourage them to do just that.

In the end, though, it is the question of values. I believe that Estonia shares the same values that are held by the United States. We do not accept racism or xenophobia, and we respect people and diversity – and the same can also be observed here.

You are not concerned then that these incidents have damaged the reputation of Estonia? Or would you advise to pay more attention to them?

I would pay close attention to the words of President Ilves: if the people of the world or in the US should witness racist or xenophobic situations, which are directed against US soldiers, it would be extremely damaging. But I do not think that it can happen as the heads of Estonia deem this unacceptable.

Through Berlin and Moscow to Tallinn

The US ambassador James D. Melville, who handed over his credentials to President Toomas Hendrik Ilves last week, has spent most of his 30-year career in diplomacy in European capitals and in Russia. He is aware of the regional security policy issues important to Estonia based on his earlier experience.

“My first place of work was at the US Embassy in the German Democratic Republic, where I arrived in 1986. East Germany was just celebrating the 25th anniversary of erection of the so-called antifascist defence barrier (The Berlin Wall – R. P.) at the time. A year later, I was the press officer in charge at the Brandenburg Gate, when the President Ronald Reagan, standing directly in front of me, said in his speech: “Mister Gorbachev, tear down the wall, open the gate!”” told Melville.

A few years later, he was employed at the Consulate General of the US in Leningrad when the Soviet Union collapsed. “I was in Leningrad when it became St Petersburg again and when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The area of the jurisdiction of the Consulate General of the US there also included the Baltic countries at the time.”

Melville comes from the US state of New Jersey. He is married to Joanna Melville. They have two adult sons.

Four facts

The USA will be accepting 85,000 refugees in the course of this financial year.

“Estonia has been a fantastic host for our soldiers.”

“We are working with our partners from the Estonian Defence Forces to create the infrastructure.”

“I am very optimistic, because our soldiers are always here.”