Daily Press Briefing - February 26, 2014

Index for Today's Briefing:

    • Visit of Press Counselors and Spokespeople from EU Member State Embassies
    • Russia / U.S. Supports Unified Ukraine / Risk of Military Intervention / U.S. Engagement
    • U.S. Encourages De-escalation of Violence / Steps Forward / Technical, Inclusive Government / Financial Assistance
    • Relations between Neighbors in the Region / U.S. Encourages Positive Dialogue
    • UN Security Council Resolution / Humanitarian Assistance / Geneva Talks
    • Possibility of Withdrawal / Interest in Suppressing Terrorist Groups / BSA / Contingency Planning
    • U.S. Condemns Violent Confrontations / Call for Restraint
    • Arrest of Ilham Tohti
    • Human Rights Concerns
Jen Psaki
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 26, 2014


12:53 p.m. EST

MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Well, first let me welcome 25 of my counterparts sitting in the back from EU member state embassies who are here for the briefing today.

QUESTION: Well, I guess everything (inaudible). It’s okay. You’ve made up.


QUESTION: You’ve made up?

MS. PSAKI: This is Matt Lee. You may have heard about him. He’s infamous. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: They – did you make up from the Toria comments?

MS. PSAKI: Yes, exactly.

QUESTION: Okay. That’s good (inaudible).

MS. PSAKI: As fellow press counselors and spokespeople for their respective embassies here in Washington, they regularly get together to coordinate messaging, share best practices, and talk about media trends and emerging technology, and they have graciously invited State Department officials to participate in their discussions in the past. So this time, I’m, of course, very happy to have the group here, and we’ll look forward to continuing the discussion afterward.

As many of you know, there’s a lot going on here at the State Department today, so I’m going to have a short briefing today. So let’s try to get to the topics most of interest.

QUESTION: Okay. I am curious about the juxtaposition of the Georgia meeting and the Secretary’s comments just now on Ukraine in the interview.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Everyone insists that this is a – not a zero-sum game, and yet the Secretary goes out of his way to push the Georgians not just to say that it might be a good idea, but to say we think you should sign a European partnership agreement, an EU partnership agreement, by the end of the year; reminds them that the U.S. supports their territorial integrity and the Russians should get their troops out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; then goes on TV and says the Russians should think very carefully about what they do in Ukraine, another one of its – another former Soviet republic. How do you expect the Russians to believe you when you say that you are not trying to one-up them or not trying to steal away or at least reduce some of their influence on territories that used to be theirs?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, what the Secretary was conveying is what the United States Government feels strongly about, which is that Ukraine should be unified. That is the best way for Ukraine to be prosperous, to succeed in the future. And obviously, any efforts that would put that at risk are of concern to us.

In terms of the military exercises and rumors of military intervention, it’s not just the Secretary who feels that would be a detrimental step to Ukraine, and that would be a mistake, but it is also – you probably have seen, or let me point out to you, the statement by the NATO defense ministers today that was very strong about the risk of military intervention in a political case like this. And so it’s a pretty strong universal feeling by many, many countries that we want to see a unified, sovereign Ukraine in the future and that these discussions of division are detrimental to their future.

QUESTION: Okay, but it’s – I’m not sure that you can say pretty strong universal when you’re only talking about NATO. I mean, you say the Secretary is not alone. Well, he’s been joined by every country in NATO, the defense ministers of every country in NATO, right? Which is precisely what used to be the biggest threat to the Soviet Union, so it’s one side here.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, what I’m referring to is there’s a – there is – there should be, maybe I should say, a universal feeling supporting the future prosperity of Ukraine, whether that’s Russia or NATO member countries or any country in the region.

QUESTION: Right. But do you not – can you – I don’t understand how it’s beyond your conception that people in Russia – Russian officials, the president on down – don’t see this as – don’t see what you are doing in both Ukraine and Georgia as being provocative. How – why is it that you can’t – you just reject that out of hand and you’re unwilling or unable to even accept that that is a --

MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s this --

QUESTION: -- potentially legitimate concern?

MS. PSAKI: Matt, there’s a significant difference between engaging with Ukraine as we have, as many countries have, as they’ve gone through this transition period over the last couple days and even months. We’ve long said and consistently said it’s up to the people of Ukraine to determine their future. There’s a difference between that and the possibility of intervention on a military level.

QUESTION: Okay. And then just the last thing on this. You regard – do you regard the military exercise that President – exercises that President Putin has ordered today as a potential provocation – as a provocation or a potential threat?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t think we’re there yet, Matt, but obviously, we’re watching it closely. We have seen comments that have been made. We’re familiar with the views of Russia on these issues. And our message to Russia and to Ukraine continues to be that we believe we have a shared interest in a stable, peaceful, and unified Ukraine, and we shouldn’t – no one should take steps that would threaten that.

QUESTION: Well, do you regard this as a step that would or a step that raises tensions unnecessarily?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve certainly noted the increased Russian military alert levels, we’re monitoring it closely, but we’re not quite at that point.

QUESTION: You’re not quite at the point where you would begin to agree with the North Koreans when they object to U.S.-South Korean military exercises as being provocative and antagonistic, that you’re not at that point in saying that the Russians --

MS. PSAKI: Well, there’s little we agree with the North Koreans on.

QUESTION: Okay, but so you do – just to be clear, you do not, at least at this stage, regard the heightened military alert and the exercises to be provocative or a threat.

MS. PSAKI: We are watching it closely. We will monitor it hour by hour, day by day.


QUESTION: I’m just curious, well, how do you read those – the movements? I mean, it stoked a lot of unnecessary tension and fear today on what’s going to happen, specifically with talk about separation in Ukraine. So what is your reading of those? Are they really exercises?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, as you know, this is just happening today. Clearly, we’re monitoring it and looking at this closely. As you know, Deputy Secretary Burns was just on the ground, and you’re familiar with how engaged we’ve been at very senior levels in what’s happening on the ground. And as we’ve said for several days now, any attempt to have any military intervention would be a mistake. But again, we’re monitoring it, we’re watching what’s happening, and we’ll continue talking about this and looking at it in the hours and days ahead.

QUESTION: Have there been any efforts today to reach out to either to Lavrov or to Putin to ask them about this?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware. The Secretary has not spoken with Foreign Minister Lavrov today. I’m not aware of other calls. Of course, we’re in touch on the ground in Russia, but I’d have to check on that for you.

QUESTION: And then just a clarification on Georgia assistance – that’s what the Secretary called it, assistance – to help with visa-free travel in Europe. What kind of assistance is he talking about? Are you talking about money here? Is he talking about technical assistance?

MS. PSAKI: Let me check on that and see what details we have more on that. I know he talked about that this morning, but I’ll see if we have more of a factsheet or outline for all of you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Jen, is there a read --

MS. PSAKI: Let’s just do one – go ahead, Roz.

QUESTION: Is there a read on the tensions that seemingly erupted in Crimea in the past 24 hours?

MS. PSAKI: Obviously, Roz, just like the reports of the military exercises – but they’re different, of course – we’re watching it very closely. And our message continues to be that we need to continue to deescalate violence. We’ve seen some peaceful days on the ground. The officials on the ground need to take steps to form a new government. They’ve indicated plans to do that. And obviously, we’re watching all of these pieces closely and it’s incredibly fluid situation on the ground as well.

QUESTION: Is there a sense that this interim government is capable of compelling all sides back to their corners, as it were?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, obviously the interim government hasn’t been formed yet. That’s the process that would be the next step here. And certainly we’ll be in close touch with those officials when it is formed, as will the IMF and other officials who are looking to see how we can help Ukraine continue to take steps toward a prosperous future.

But I can’t make an evaluation at this point before knowing who will be in it and what steps they will take and – but we’re certainly encouraging them to take unity steps moving forward.

QUESTION: Given Ukraine’s economic problems, how quickly does there need to be some sort of consensus on providing financial aid to the country? Is the U.S. waiting to see what the IMF and the World Bank do or is it prepared right now to make money available in order to stabilize the situation? Because recall all of this came out of Ukraine’s desire to stabilize its economy.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, obviously, as I mentioned, the next step is forming a multiparty technical government that represents all regions of Ukraine. Once that government is formed, we and our international partners can begin to take immediate steps to help support Ukraine economically and implement the reforms necessary to restore Ukraine’s political and economic health. As I mentioned, Deputy Secretary Burns has been on the ground. There were officials from the Treasury Department and the White House National Economic Council who traveled with him there, who will remain on the ground and be – continue those consultations with officials. We’re obviously also in close touch with the EU and Deputy Secretary Burns met with Cathy Ashton on the ground. And again, there’s also the, of course, process that we’ve encouraged Ukraine to pursue with the IMF separately, once the new government is formed, as well.

QUESTION: But does that rule out any U.S. direct aid to Ukraine right now?

MS. PSAKI: It hasn’t – we haven’t – I certainly didn’t rule it out. I think what I just conveyed is obviously the next step is the formation of a new technical government. And once that happens, we are – we’ll be prepared to continue discussions with Ukraine, with the EU, on how we can financially assist on the ground and how we can do that in a way that complements any efforts with the IMF.

QUESTION: Jen, I have a quick question on the military exercises. Barring any overtly aggressive intention, I mean, Russia does have the right to conduct military exercises, correct?

MS. PSAKI: Of course, Said. But I’m referring to a specific situation. So I don’t think I’m going to speculate further.

QUESTION: Is Russia doing these exercises in somebody else’s territory or sovereign territory?

MS. PSAKI: I think I’ve answered the question. Do we have any more on Ukraine?

QUESTION: Okay. Then very quickly, on the fate of the former president, do you have anything about this whereabouts?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new to tell you about his whereabouts.

QUESTION: On Ukraine, is there talk – well, I’ve seen reports that there’s a discussion about a donor conference for Ukraine. Do you know anything about that?

MS. PSAKI: There have been reports of that out there. I’ve seen the same reports, but I’m not aware of any substantive planning at this point. But certainly, I’ve seen the same reports you’ve seen.

QUESTION: But is it not your opinion that a donor – at least at this point before a technocratic government is setup, that that would be premature? Isn’t --

MS. PSAKI: Again, I mean, I haven’t --

QUESTION: -- a conference --

MS. PSAKI: -- had discussions about the right timing. Obviously, we do donors’ conferences frequently, as you all know, and you attend them frequently. But I don’t have any details on any planning. Obviously, as I stated before and to your point, the formation of a new government and a new technical, inclusive government is the next step.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up very quickly. There’s been a lot of talk about the eastern part of the country.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is the United States involved in any kind of talks or diplomacy or reaching out to, let’s say, political groups or groups of influence in the eastern part of the country?

MS. PSAKI: We’re in – our embassy – we’re in touch with a broad range of officials. And we’ve certainly encouraged, as I just stated a few minutes ago, that the creation of a technical government needs to be representative of all parts of the country.

Do we have any more on Ukraine? Okay.


MS. PSAKI: In the back. China?

QUESTION: China now is considering two new national holidays to mark the war against Japan between 1930s and ’40s. First of all, what’s your reaction to this proposal?

MS. PSAKI: I did see those reports. As we have indicated many times, we encourage the counties in northeast Asia to continue to work with their neighbors to resolve concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue. We believe that good relations among these countries are in their interests and those of the United States. And when Secretary Kerry was on the ground just 10 days ago or two weeks ago, that certainly is a message he conveyed when he was in China, when he was in South Korea, and even when he met, of course, the week before that with the Japanese foreign minister.

QUESTION: And given the timing of this proposal amid rising anti-Japanese sentiment in China, now Japan is questioning China’s intention of this proposal and accusing China for ratcheting up the tension. Do you agree?

MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s not for us to weigh in on that particularly. Again, our role here and what we continue to convey to both China and to Japan is that it’s important to continue to work with your neighbors to resolve concerns over history and concerns over heightened rhetoric recently through dialogue.

QUESTION: So do you think this step is necessary, to have these two national holidays?

MS. PSAKI: Again, I think – I don’t think I have any further – anything further for you on the question.



QUESTION: Well, wait a second.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I have to say, I’m unaware of these proposed two holidays, but I am interested in knowing whether you – I mean, is it – do you believe that it – the U.S. should weigh in on whether another country has --

MS. PSAKI: I don’t think I weighed in.

QUESTION: No, I know. But do you believe that the U.S. should weigh in on whether – on what holidays another country celebrates or --

MS. PSAKI: That is not typically something we would do, but again --

QUESTION: Okay. Well, it’s just --

MS. PSAKI: -- Matt, I don’t --

QUESTION: -- if – I mean, if --

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to make a sweeping statement.

QUESTION: If some country wanted to have a holiday that commemorates and celebrates something like Kristallnacht or something, surely you would find that objectionable.

MS. PSAKI: We may.

QUESTION: So you do not or you haven’t decided yet on whether – I mean, you may? I would think that it would be you would, but whatever. I mean, have you not decided on whether either of these two holidays that the Chinese are proposing would be objectionable in a similar way?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re keeping our focus on encouraging positive dialogue between the countries, Matt.

QUESTION: Well, right. But as you know, holidays can sometimes be used to foment tension and strife and that kind of thing. So I would be curious to know if there is some kind of looking – a review or someone looking at this to see whether or not the U.S. would weigh in on whether the Chinese should celebrate these holidays.

MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any plans to, but I’m happy to check with our team --

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MS. PSAKI: -- and see if there is anything to report.


QUESTION: Can we go to Syria?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah. Could you tell us the status of the UN resolution? Is it being implemented, considering that three days have passed or four days have passed since the adoption? And Secretary Hague said that if it’s not implemented immediately, then more stronger measures will be taken. Could you just update us on --

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, it was just passed this weekend. I would point you to the UN for an update on the status of implementation. Certainly that’s something that we’re also watching closely, and we share the focus on the importance of moving this humanitarian access and aid forward as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Okay. Considering how urgent the situation is – I mean, you have the regime surrounding and besieging hundreds of thousands and the rebels are doing the same, basically – what are you doing in terms of seeing that these passages or – I don’t know what you want to call them – humanitarian passages are opened? What is going on?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I think, since you just referenced it, you’re very aware of the UN Security Council Resolution --


MS. PSAKI: -- that we strongly pressed for, we worked with a number of our EU partners on from around the world as well. And that is an important step, because it has specific steps about what needs to happen, and the implementation of that is incredibly important.

Now, at the same time, the United States remains the largest donor of humanitarian assistance. We continue to raise this issue whenever we are engaged or in touch with the Russians or any other party that has close contacts with the Syrian regime, and we will continue to press every single day, because you’ve heard the Secretary himself say time and time again what a devastating situation it is when you literally have thousands of people – innocent men, women, and children – starving around the world.

QUESTION: Now, if you were to describe the Geneva process or the status of the Geneva process now, how would you describe it?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I know you asked me this question yesterday.


MS. PSAKI: And I would point you to the answer I gave, which is that it’s not uncommon to take a break. Peace talks and peace negotiations can take a very long time --

QUESTION: It was the day before yesterday --

MS. PSAKI: -- let me finish my answer – can take a very long time. Obviously, there are many multiple paths we’re working on through the UN, through engagement with countries in the region, engagement with the Russians, continuing to press the Syrian regime publicly to take more steps. So we’re not resting on one step, and we’ll see where it goes moving forward.

But the most important piece here is that this is also kind of reinvigorated a unity among the international community about the path that is necessary moving forward, which is the implementation of the Geneva communique and the creation of a transitional governing body.

QUESTION: Okay. And finally, just – I have just one last one. On --

MS. PSAKI: Okay. And then I’m going to go to someone else, because we just have a few more minutes here.

QUESTION: Sort of – it’s a – very quickly, on the military aspect.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: There has been reports the U.S. military is involved in training and equipping and so on the Syrian rebels in Jordan. Is – are you aware of those reports?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything on that for you.

Lalit. Oh, go ahead – or, can we do Lalit, and then we’ll do you? Okay. Go ahead, Lalit.

QUESTION: Thank you. On Afghanistan, as Secretary and President both have said, the ultimate goal in Afghanistan is to defeat the al-Qaida and the Taliban. Do you think you can achieve that goal with zero-option in Afghanistan?

MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously there’s a lot going on right now, which is why you’re asking about this. And I know we talked a bit about – yesterday about the President’s call with President Karzai, and I won’t rehash that for all of you unless you want to discuss it again. But as the possibility of a full withdrawal has grown in the sense that we have begun the planning process for it, we have been undertaking a methodical review of any U.S. capabilities that may be affected and developing strategies to mitigate impacts on the issue you just mentioned.

So regardless of the outcome of the BSA, we and our partners have a strong shared interest, of course, in suppressing the terrorist groups that seek to undermine our security as well as – in the region as well as worldwide. And we will take the steps necessary to combat terrorism and protect our interests. So that is a conversation that’s ongoing, while still, our hope remains that the BSA is signed, and we have that ongoing partnership.

QUESTION: But why do you plan for an option which you think is – will put U.S. and your allies at risk, the security of those people in the countries at risk? Why do you plan for even that option?

MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s – we have a responsibility to contingency plan for all options. And this wasn’t our preferred approach, as you know. Our preferred option would’ve been for President Karzai to sign the BSA last year. He didn’t do that; he’s not indicated a plan to do that. So we’re – we’ve taken steps to plan for a variety of options.

QUESTION: But why don’t you consider the SOFA option? SOFA has an unlimited – there’s no timeline on that, your presence in the – Afghanistan.

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve been pretty clear that without a BSA, we can’t have an ongoing presence. So that hasn’t changed. That remains the case. But we will look to what will happen over the next couple of months.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: You want to --

QUESTION: No, go first.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

QUESTION: No, China. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I want to talk about Thailand.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: Because there have been four months of nonstop antigovernment demonstrations and so on. There have been very little – the State Department has said very little over the last few days or weeks about this. How long can this continue and what is the U.S. engagement in trying to resolve this issue? I mean, analysts are calling this a low-level civil war. I mean, it seems pretty serious.

MS. PSAKI: Well, it is – just because we don’t say a lot publicly – and sometimes, not to put this on all of you, but it’s because the questions aren’t asked. But we condemn, of course, the continuing violent confrontations in Thailand, including the inexcusable attacks over the weekend that claimed the lives of innocent children. Violence is not an acceptable means of resolving political differences. We reiterate our call for all sides to exercise restraint and urge Thai authorities to investigate thoroughly and transparently all recent acts of violence. We remain concerned that political tensions in Thailand are posing challenges to both the democratic institutions and the democratic processes of our close friends and allies.

So we are very closely engaged on the ground. We’re watching it closely from here. We’re concerned about the violence on the ground and we’re encouraging to – them to take positive steps forward.

QUESTION: Is there any way this can be resolved through a mediator or a – some kind of diplomatic coordination with other countries?

MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously at this point, our view is that this is something that needs to be resolved on the ground. But certainly, everybody wants to see a stable Thailand and wants to see that moving forward. So I don’t have anything to report on that front, but I can check with our team and see if there’s anything in the thought process.


MS. PSAKI: Okay. I can do two more here. Go ahead, Jo.

QUESTION: Can I go to --

QUESTION: And then I have two very brief ones. They will be really brief. Go ahead.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead, Jo.

QUESTION: Can I go to China?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: There’s a prominent critic of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, Ilham Tohti, who’s being charged with separatism, and I just wondered if the United States had a reaction to that.

MS. PSAKI: We do. We are deeply concerned by reports that Chinese authorities have decided to formally arrest economics professor Ilham Tohti after detaining him for more than a month without access to his family or attorney. We call on Chinese authorities to release Mr. Tohti and to guarantee him the protections and freedoms to which he’s entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including the freedom of expression.

You want to do your two quick ones, Matt?

QUESTION: Sure. They’re both Mideast-related, but they don’t – they’re only – they’re very tangential to the peace process.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: They both have to do with meetings that apparently --

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: -- occurred within – recently between U.S. officials and people in Israel and the Palestinian territories. One, Ambassador Shapiro met yesterday with a group of MKs. Are you familiar with reports in Israel about this meeting?

MS. PSAKI: I’d have to check with Ambassador Shapiro on that.

QUESTION: All right. Okay. Can you check to --

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: There’s one report in Haaretz especially, which is – which you may find interesting, and I – and – in terms of what the MKs, what these members of the Israeli parliament had to say to Ambassador Shapiro.

The other question is about a meeting that Shaun Casey --

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- had or apparently had with members of the Palestinian Christian community. Are you familiar with this?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not, and – but I’ll check with Shaun as well.

QUESTION: All right. There is some concern being expressed among Israelis that the people that he met with are virulently anti-Israel. And I’m just wanting to know, one, if we can get some kind of a readout of the meeting, and even if not – if we’re not able to get a readout of the meeting, if we can get at why he would choose to meet with these – with this group of – with these groups.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Sure.

QUESTION: Those are my two.

MS. PSAKI: I’m happy to check on that for you.

Okay. Let’s do the last one in the back.

QUESTION: Change of --

MS. PSAKI: Said, you’ve had a few, so let me do her in the back.

QUESTION: Thanks, Jen. Recently, United Nations Human Rights Committee has been reported to bring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for serious human rights violation done by North Korea.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: What is the United States position on that matters?

MS. PSAKI: I believe we put a statement out or I spoke about this a week or so ago, so I would point you to those comments. Obviously we read those reports closely. We too have concerns about the dire human rights situation in North Korea, and it’s one that we raise frequently with our counterparts.

Thank you, everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 1:17 p.m.)