Update on the Situation in the Ukraine

Special Briefing
Geoffrey R. Pyatt
   U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine
Daniel Brooks Baer
   U.S. Representative to the OSCE 
via teleconference hosted by The Brussels Hub
July 29, 2016


 

Moderator: Thank you so much and greetings to everybody from the U.S. Department of State. I would like to welcome all of you who have dialed in on this Friday morning from across Europe and I’d like to thank you for joining in today’s discussion.

 

We are pleased this morning to be joined from Vienna by two distinguished diplomats. We have U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt; and U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE, Ambassador Daniel Baer. And of course wearing their respective hats they will provide you an update on the situation in the Ukraine.

 

We are going to begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Baer and then Ambassador Pyatt, and then we will turn to your questions. And of course we’re going to try to get to as many as we can in the time that we have.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and with that I will turn it over to you, Ambassador Baer.

 

Ambassador Baer: Thanks so much Mireille, and thank you very much to all of you who have joined us across several time zones. I know for some it’s mid-morning, for others it’s your morning cup of coffee and we appreciate your joining us this morning.

 

Just real quick at the top, yesterday we had a meeting in the Permanent Council where Ambassador Martin Sajdik who has been leading the Tri-Level Contact Group that is made up of OSCE as a mediator and Russia and Ukraine and that has these working groups that have been operating in Minsk over many months now, as well as from Ambassador Apakan who is the leader of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. Both of them gave a united message about the importance of achieving a reinstatement of the ceasefire as a first step towards any further progress in reaching a diplomatic or political situation.

 

The sense in the room I think from the other 56 Permanent Representatives as well as our delegation was that the situation has gotten dramatically worse in the last weeks. We’re seeing casualties at a rate that we haven’t seen for a year now. And the first step has been this talk about a disengagement plan that would be disengagement at several hot spots along the Line of Contact.

 

Unfortunately, there was an effort to reach an agreement on the disengagement plan this week in Minsk. Ambassador Sajdik reported that they will, and Ambassador Apakan, reported that they will make another attempt next week in Minsk to get that disengagement plan engaged.

 

But I think one of the things that becomes ever clearer is that we need to see words matched with actions. The Russian Federation yesterday again claimed that they wanted disengagement. They even asked that the SMM, the monitoring mission, spend more time monitoring on both sides of the Line of Contact. But on the ground we see a very different picture. We see continued resupply of weapons and fighters. We see continued provocations to keep the conflict going. We see continued restrictions of the SMM and its monitors. We see continued shoot-downs of SMM UAV’s after they’ve seen Russian weaponry, heavy weapons in areas where it shouldn’t be.

 

And so the message that was delivered to the Russian Federation yesterday by many, many participating states in the Permanent Council was it’s time to match your words with action and to get that disengagement on the ground. The disengagement is only a first step that has to be consolidated and built into a real ceasefire. There has to be monitoring on the border, and all of those things are a necessary precondition in order to enable the diplomatic and political process to move forward.

 

I will stop there and turn it over to Ambassador Pyatt.

 

Ambassador Pyatt: Great. Thank you, Dan.

 

First of all let me say what a pleasure it is to be here in Vienna. Ambassador Baer has been asking me to do this visit for about two years now and I finally got around to it.

 

For me, in part it was a chance to express deep appreciation for the partnership I’ve enjoyed with Ambassadors Apakan and Sajdik. I think the OSCE does not get all the public credit it deserves for the essential, courageous role that it has played in Ukraine. OSCE actions have saved lives over the past two and a half years.

 

It was also a chance for me to see one of the Permanent Councils and sort of take the temperature of a discussion with the daily reality that I live with. I will say I was particularly encouraged by the very strong statement from the European Union and the message from our many European partners about the importance of Russia’s actions, and a very clear message that the relaxation of sanctions will be linked to the full implementation by the Russian Federation of the Minsk agreements.

 

I was also encouraged by the very clear focus on the issue of access for the OSCE monitors in Eastern Ukraine. It’s become increasingly apparent just from reading the SMM reports that this is a problem almost entirely on the separatist, Russian- controlled side of the Contact Line. About 90 percent of access denials happen on that side of the line. And a very clear message from both Ambassadors Apakan and Sajdik about the need to address this issue, including OSCE access to the internationally recognized border which it virtually does not have at this point, outside two isolated points. And that access to the border as preparation for restoration of full Ukrainian control of the international border which is an essential requirement for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

 

The other point that I conveyed, aside from reaffirming the messages that came from Ambassadors Apakan and Sajdik about the deteriorating military situation, was also our concern about the continued presence of Russian origin troops and equipment on Ukrainian territory. And the introduction of some new weapon systems which we believe is at least partially the explanation for the alarming spike in violence and casualties that we’ve seen in recent weeks.

So again, I’ll be happy to take questions in whatever direction is useful to people.

 

Moderator: Thank you very much. Thanks to both of you for setting the stage for us.

 

We are now going to go to the question and answer portion of today’s call. I believe Anna Korbut is the first in the queue with the Ukrainian Weekly.

 

Question: This is Anna Korbut from the Ukrainian Week. I have a question for both Ambassadors.

In your opinion, what is the possibility of placing the armed OSCE, the armed mission police in the occupied parts of the Donbas along the border and along the Contact Line and is that option being discussed? Thank you.

 

Ambassador Baer: As I said, the focus right now is on restoring the ceasefire and getting a stable, sustained ceasefire because that is a precondition for everything else.

 

One of the conversations that’s happening here and in other places as well, is obviously one of the parts of the Minsk Agreements that many of us have been focused on is the commitment to have free and fair elections according to international standards and observed by the OSCE, by ODIHR, and to have those local elections in the areas of the Donbas that are currently controlled by Russian separatists.

 

I think once there’s a ceasefire on the Line of Contact, once there’s a sustained ceasefire on the Line of Contact, it will be necessary to assess what further enhancement to security is necessary in order to have free and fair elections. But the first step, no matter what, is a ceasefire. And to be crystal clear, the SMM, the current monitoring mission, has a mandate. It is a civilian monitoring mission with unarmed monitors. And the SMM has a mission; it should continue to do what it’s doing. It should do its mission. We’ll take a look, we’ll have to do an assessment once there is a sustained ceasefire about what additional tools may be necessary and may be possible, and obviously one of the things that has been talked about by some people is a police mission or security presence of some sort. That may be necessary. But the SMM will continue to be a civilian, unarmed mission. I think that’s the important point for today.

 

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is coming to us from Germany’s ARD. We have Thomas Nehls on the line. Thomas, go ahead.

 

Question: Both Ambassadors mentioned the gap between speaking and acting on the Russian side, but I wonder whether there could be also something missed on the Ukraine side. What is the situation, what is the status in the field of the autonomy talks? I mean is another condition, the people in the occupied territories also mention. What are we up to right now?

 

And the second question, if I may, is there any burden to you who negotiate very hard and tough through what Mr. Trump said. I mean it’s not a nobody, and he was going to, as far as I know, to accept the annexing of Crimea.

 

Ambassador Pyatt: This is Geoff Pyatt.

 

I think, Thomas, on your important question, and you’re right, there are obligations which Ukraine undertook as part of the Minsk Agreement. But the simple fact is Ukraine has executed the vast majority of its obligations. And President Poroshenko has reaffirmed those commitments publicly and privately just over the past few days.

 

Ukraine has passed an amnesty law. Ukraine has had the first reading of a constitutional amendment. Ukraine has passed a special status law. But it’s very clear that Russia has not discharged its obligations. The troops and equipment have not been withdrawn. A ceasefire has not been implemented. All hostages have not been released. And the Ukrainian position which the United States supports, is that the first task now, as Ambassador Baer said, is the restoration of the ceasefire. Once that’s accomplished, we hope that there can be a step by step process of implementation of the further steps required under Minsk. That is an approach that we have heard from Chancellor Merkel, from President Hollande, and I should add the United States is putting maximum effort into reinforcing and supporting the efforts of our allies in the Normandy Group. In fact this was a topic of conversation just this week between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel, and it’s not a coincidence that that phone call with the White House followed almost immediately on a phone call between Chancellor Merkel and President Poroshenko.

 

So we are very closely lashed up in Kyiv with our allies and I know that’s the case here in Vienna as well.

 

Ambassador Baer: This is Dan Baer.

 

You’ll forgive me for not being able to go on at length on your second question, but I do think it’s important. Obviously we know people are following closely the campaign at home, and American campaigns are always colorful and fun to watch. But I think it’s important for people to remember that American foreign policy with respect to European security has actually been remarkably consistent over many decades through Democratic and Republican administrations, including our steadfast commitment to NATO as a bedrock of security in the European space; our commitment to international law, and I think the enduring interest of not only American citizens but citizens of all other countries in having a rules-based system that includes the respect for territorial integrity and not changing borders by force will continue through the next president and the president after that. So I think it’s important for people to keep an eye on both the long history that we have in our commitment to European security as well as the long game going forward.

 

Moderator: Thank you.

 

For our next question we’re going to jump over to Greece and we have Kostas Mavraganis from Huffington Post Greece on the line.

 

Question: Hello from Greece.

 

Some questions for Ambassador Pyatt. In light of you becoming the new U.S. Ambassador in Greece, I would ask you to comment on the possible repercussions of the coup attempt Turkey on Greco-Turkish relations. Are tensions to be expected?

 

And also what about U.S.-Turkish relations and Russia-Turkish relations? In addition to these, what is the U.S. position on the matter of Turkish officers seeking political asylum in Greece?

 

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you for the questions. I very much look forward to meeting you when I’m on the ground in Athens and take over as U.S. Ambassador to Greece.

 

For now, I’m still Ambassador to Ukraine though, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I pass on your questions, defer to my friend and colleague Ambassador Pearce on those things for now.

 

I will say though on the sort of move that I will be making in the next couple of weeks, it is striking to me as I get to move to the country that is the birthplace of democracy, to come from a country, Ukraine, where people have struggled so valiantly over the past two years to both affirm their democracy but also be part of a larger European community. And I think the one piece that I want to spend some time thinking about as I manage this transition myself is the really remarkable story that I’ve lived through and seen over the past three years which is Ukrainians making extraordinary sacrifices in pursuit of a vision of European values and European institutions that is quite powerful and enormously attractive. And I think it’s worth thinking about in the context of this larger debate over European institutions. It’s worth bearing in mind that for a very large country at the heart of Europe, a country of 45 million people, how very compelling the European package still is.

 

So let me leave it on that. And again, I apologize. I will be very happy to engage with you on the Greece-specific questions but I’m going to wait until I’m actually doing that job.

 

Moderator: Thanks.

 

Now we’re going to move over to Romania, and we have Dragos Cosic from Digi24 on the line.

Question: Thank you very much. I have two questions for both of the Ambassadors.

 

Romania is very concerned about the security in the Black Sea. I would like to know your assessments about this issue.

And also, I would like to ask you about the security in other parts of Ukraine. We saw different news about some movements for example in the Western part, and also Romania’s interest in the southern part, cities like Odessa. Thank you very much.

 

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you very much, Dragos. First of all, I should say Romania has been a good partner. I was in Odessa just last weekend for a large maritime exercise that Ukraine was hosting along with the United States, but Romania was also very prominent there. You had a ship in port. There were a couple of Romanian officers at a reception I hosted on Sunday night.

 

We too are very interested and very engaged on these questions of Black Sea security. That was part of the message of the very large Sea Breeze exercise which we all participated in. Designed to both build interoperability and there were some very complex aspects, unusually complex aspects to this year’s exercise including a beach landing very close to what used to be Romania, down in Bessarabia. But also to raise Ukrainian capacity, especially in light of the illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea and everything that flowed from that.

 

So that will continue to be our approach. We are going to continue, I’m speaking for the United States, continue to have a very forthright and clear view on the illegal status of Russia’s actions in Crimea.

 

On the rest of Ukraine, I know it’s hard to believe sometimes following the headlines which are understandably focused on what’s happening in Donbas. The point I would make about the rest of Ukraine is it’s actually quite remarkable how normal and successful the rest of Ukraine is being. The economy is growing. Businesses are reopening. There is a quite profound sense of resolve among Ukrainians, and I speak to a lot of them whether in Odessa or Kharkiv or Kyiv or Lviv. Their commitment, their desire to move towards European institutions, European standards, their interest in getting on with the overdue task of reforming the Ukrainian state, including grappling with some of the same kinds of corruption issues that you’ve made progress on there in Romania, building an attractive investment climate, moving the country forward. And what’s very clear after two and a half years is that whatever Russia does or is able to do in the Donbas, it is not able to hold back Ukraine from its European choice.

 

Moderator: Thank you. We’re going to go back over to Ukraine and we’ve got Marina Semenenko on the line from the outlet UNN.

 

Question: We can see now that Russia doesn’t [meet] its commitments. So maybe you should sanction harder for Russia.

 

Ambassador Baer: Hi Marina. I think your point is that Russia hasn’t followed through on what it’s committed to and so the question has to be what more can we do. I think first of all, it’s important to look back and see over the last two years how coordinated and unified not only the United States and the EU, but other partners have been in terms of sending the message to Russia that we want to create incentives for Russia to do what it says it will do. That is to say, Russia says it will implement Minsk, that it will implement the Minsk Agreements, and all the incentives, and frankly, the interest of the Russian people is in Russia doing what it has said it will do. Not --obviously the interest of the people of Ukraine as well.

 

So I think right now we’re very focused on trying to find support, the disengagement and the reestablishment of the ceasefire, and obviously the European Union and the United States have just renewed sanctions recently. The sanctions are not anything that anyone wants, but they are necessary in order to create the incentives for the Kremlin to make the right decisions to lead to de-escalation, to lead to establishment of the ceasefire and sustained ceasefire, and to make possible the rest of the steps that are laid out in Minsk.

 

Moderator: Thank you. I don’t see any other questions in the queue at the moment, so I will turn back to you, Ambassadors Pyatt and Baer, if there are any closing remarks that you would like to make.

 

Ambassador Baer: Thanks Mireille, and thanks again to folks on the line. I hope folks have been able to get through. Sorry for some of the technical problems this morning. And thanks to our friends who are organizing this. I know it’s always difficult to have people in three different cities trying to make one of these things happen.

 

I think one of the things that’s just really important as we go into August, August has historically not always been a good month. I think it’s really important that the eyes of the international community remain focused on the situation on the ground. There can’t be this disjunct between repeating, between the conversations that are being had, sometimes with frustrating repetition about the need to get this disengagement plan, to get the ceasefire restarted, and the situation on the ground where people are dying. And one of the points we made yesterday, the U.S. delegation made yesterday in the Permanent Council was, every time the group that is working on disengagement in Minsk, every time they decide that they’ll kick it another week, then that extra week costs lives because people are dying every day on the ground, and not only military but civilians. And one of the things that has been enduringly true throughout the last 2.5 years, when either Ambassador Pyatt or I have had the chance to go out east and talk to people who have come from both sides of the Line of Contact, the thing that is, the first thing that everyone says is they just want peace. People on both sides of the line just want peace. And I think it’s really incumbent on all of us to continue to put the pressure on to get the reinstatement of the ceasefire and to deliver the peace that people want on the ground.

 

Moderator: Thank you. I may have spoken too soon. We did have two more questions just pop into the queue. If you’re willing to take it, we’ll see if we can get to those.

 

Ambassador Baer: Sure. That’s fine.

 

Ambassador Pyatt: Dan will have to come up with his conclusion again. [Laughter].

 

Moderator: The first question is coming from Frederic Eger who is a freelance reporter based in Latvia.

Question: Hello, Ambassador Baer. I’ve been connecting just recently so I didn’t her the beginning of the entire talk.

I just wanted to know if besides the Minsk Agreement you had your own maybe plan to find, and your own ideas and solutions to find a quick resolution of this conflict. As you mentioned just right now, civilians and collateral damages are often the result of these kind of regional conflicts. So would you, when do you think this conflict can be ended? And what will be the road map, the maybe ten points that you think are priority to establish to have a ceasefire that stays in place and have this overall conflict resolved as soon as possible?

 

Ambassador Baer: Frankly, if I had a quick fix, I would be in a different job by now.

 

I think one of the things that has been most heartbreaking for many of us who have been working on trying to support a diplomatic and a political resolution over the last two and a half years, has been not only the fact that this entire conflict was a chosen conflict, was a chosen tragedy, a tragedy that wasn’t necessary in a world that is filled with so many tragedies that we can’t prevent, this is one that was chosen.

 

So that initial deep sadness from that fact is followed by the fact that as early as September of 2014 the Minsk Protocol -- and before that, frankly, in May of 2014, President Poroshenko’s peace plan which was the precursor to the Minsk Protocol -- the Minsk Protocol that was signed by both Russia and Ukraine in September of 2014 has all of the ingredients of a sustainable peace. It has all of the steps that are necessary. So we’ve known what needs to be done for two years now.

 

The problem is not in solving some difficult puzzle, it’s not, this is not a puzzle. The problem is political will. And you know, my Ukrainian colleague, Ambassador Prokopchuk here in Vienna, closed his statement yesterday by repeating the words of President Poroshenko, which is that if Moscow wanted peace as much as Ukraine did, this conflict would have ended long ago. And I think that remains true today.

 

So we have to remember that the formula isn’t a mystery. The formula is in front of us and has been in front of us for two years. The challenge is to get that formula engaged, and obviously to make sure that the Kremlin is engaged on actually making peace rather than fomenting conflict.

 

Ambassador Pyatt: Again, this is Geoff. I would just, to reinforce the point Ambassador Baer just made, if you look at actions on the ground in terms of the signals that are sent by Russia’s continued supply of equipment, fuel, weapons, that is what is driving this conflict. And that is the process that the Minsk Agreement was meant to halt.

 

President Poroshenko, as I said earlier, has made very clear that he stands by the commitments he made under the Minsk Agreements. In fact there has been quite a bit of progress in that aspects of the negotiations in the trilateral contact group in Minsk.

 

Where there sadly has not been as much progress is on the security track. And indeed, the message which Ambassadors Apakan and Sajdik delivered very clearly to everybody here in Vienna before they went off on their summer break yesterday, is that the military situation on the ground is as bad as it has been since the summer of 2015.

 

There is I think on the part of many of us, deep concern about these signals that rather than terminating this conflict, Russia’s actions are having the effect of escalating it once again.

 

Moderator: Our last question today is coming to us from Kristina Butko who is with Ukrainian News.

 

Question: My greetings for both Ambassadors.

 

So yesterday President Putin said [inaudible] Crimean federal district and does it mean that the sanctions will be prolonged to the south and federal district which it was added to?

 

Ambassador Pyatt: Christina, this is Geoff. Let me answer the first half of that question, then I’ll ask Ambassador Baer to pick up some of it.

 

I think as regards the United States of America, this decision by the Russian government has no impact whatsoever. We do not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea. That will not change based on who the governor is in Sevastopol. It will not change on the basis of where the boundaries of a particular Oblast or territory is drawn. Crimea, quite simply, is part, legally part of Ukraine. That is U.S. policy. And as Vice President Biden made clear in the Rada last fall, it’s likely to remain U.S. policy.

 

Ambassador Baer: I think it’s important also, this isn’t just a matter of U.S. policy as Ambassador Pyatt said. You know, the UNGA resolution that was taken after Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea made clear that as a matter of international law, Crimea is Ukraine. And that was true before Russia’s attempt to annex it and it’s true afterward, and it’s true no matter what kinds of gymnastics the Kremlin goes through in order to redraw spaces on a map.

 

I think it’s important that, you know, a point that we’ve made here when Russian representatives say they want to have a conversation about the future of European security, is that any conversation about the future of European security will have to start with Crimea. It will have to start with Russia’s attempt to redraw borders by force in the 21st century.

 

So I think, I don’t know what’s behind the move to incorporate, in their view, into some other district of the Russian Federation. Perhaps they’re trying to hide the enormous cost that this illegal action has had for the Russian taxpayer. Perhaps they’re trying to do something else. But in any case, their redrawing maps doesn’t make a difference in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of the vast majority of the international community that’s condemned this action.

 

Moderator: That concludes today’s conversation, and I would like to extend sincere thanks to both of you, Ambassadors Pyatt and Baer. Ambassador Pyatt, I know you didn’t get a chance to make closing remarks earlier. Were there any other last words you wanted to give?

 

Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll leave it where Dan did, and I again, I think the important message that I would take from conversations here in Vienna these two days is we cannot be complacent. And because the success of our diplomacy is the vehicle through which we hope to end the terrible, terrible human suffering that has happened in eastern Ukraine, we can’t take August off.

 

Moderator: Thank you. And thank you to all of our participants who have dialed in today. We really appreciate you joining us.