SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, Russian troops are still in Georgia. Moscow has recognized the independence of the Georgian provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia and promised them military assistance if necessary. Are we at the beginning of a new Cold War?
Albright: Well, we can't be at the beginning of a new Cold War. That would be a huge step backwards. On the other hand, we can't afford to stay on the sidelines in this complicated situation. With the invasion of a sovereign country, the Russians have crossed the red line. What is troubling is that Russia is behaving in a way that reminds us of the Russian empire in the 19th century -- that is unacceptable in the 21st century.
SPIEGEL: If you were still US Secretary of State, what would you tell the Russians?
Albright: First of all, I would have gone to Moscow, unlike the current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It is very important to be direct. I would tell them: That is not acceptable behavior -- but also reassure them not to worry about security threats at their borders. I would tell them that they simply misjudged the situation. That has to be corrected.
SPIEGEL: Who would you have delivered your message to? Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or Russian President Dmitry Medvedev?
Albright: Putin, whatever he calls himself, is in charge. There were many questions about the fact that he had given up the presidency. It is now very clear that he is still calling the shots and has created a Russia that in many ways is not compatible with the 21st century. We want to be able to have a cooperative relationship but the Russians currently make it much more complicated.
SPIEGEL: Moscow compares the situation in Georgia with the recognition of Kosovo's independence by the US and some European countries this year. Is this a valid analogy?
Albright: The comparison is completely mistaken. The Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had ordered along with his henchmen the ethnic cleansing of Serbia and Kosovo. We worked through a variety of UN resolutions to end this situation, trying to figure out a way to cooperate with the Russians. The situation was simply very different. Plus, there is no comparison between what Milosevic was doing and what the Georgians were trying to do to hold their country together
SPIEGEL: Would the Western reaction have been different if Georgia had already been a NATO member?
Albright: That is a hypothetical question because it was decided at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April they would not be. But the necessity is clear now to move forward with the NATO membership plan for Georgia. We can't afford to show any hesitation on that matter.
SPIEGEL: NATO enlargement was one of the success stories of the Clinton administration for which you were partly responsible as Secretary of State. In retrospect, was it a mistake? Did it maybe provoke the Russians to invade Georgia?
Albright: I am still very proud of the fact that we enlarged NATO. It was an accident as a result of World War II that Europe was divided. When we began to enlarge NATO -- the first new member states were Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary -- we made very clear to the Russians that independent states are not a security threat to them. I had a talk with President Boris Yeltsin on this, President Bill Clinton spoke with Yeltsin. We created all sorts of mechanisms that NATO and Russia could cooperate. No, I am absolutely sure: There is nothing about NATO that could be seen as a threat to Russia.
SPIEGEL: Is that also true for the plans of the Bush administration to install a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic?
Albright: The missile defense technology is not proven -- it is not clear whether it would really work. I personally believe that the missile defense system is not yet ready for use.
SPIEGEL: So, a new US administration should stop the missile defense project altogether?
Albright: This whole debate has been much more complicated by the Russian actions in Georgia. But I think the real problems in the US-Russia relationship has nothing to do with the missile defense plans. It really started when President Putin began doing ridiculous things -- comparing the US with the Third Reich or threatening its neighbors that considered joining NATO and other Western institutions. That is when we had to push back.
SPIEGEL: Many European leaders are reluctant to embark on a strong anti-Russia course -- partly because of the European dependence on Russian oil and gas. What do you expect from the Europeans?
Albright: The Soviet Union has not been able to divide Europe and the alliance. And we should not allow Russia to divide the US and Europe. I think we should do more trans-Atlantic consulting on this. It is too bad that we are both held hostage to energy -- energy which is often provided from very dangerous countries. That is why it is so essential to look into other sources of energy.
SPIEGEL: Any new US administration will inherit the complicated relationship with Russia. You are a supporter of Barack Obama. How would his reaction differ from one taken by a President John McCain?
Albright: On Georgia, John McCain has been very bellicose and sounded like a cold warrior. Barack Obama has recognized the seriousness of the situation and issued a very strong statement when the independence of the Georgian provinces was recognized. He called for actions within the United Nations. I think he is right: If Putin does not change his behavior, we have to look at ways to isolate Russia internationally.
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz and Gabor Steingart