Background Briefing on the Secretary's Trip to Russia

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
May 6, 2013

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. This is [Moderator]. Thank you all for hopping on this morning. We wanted – the purpose of this call is to preview the Secretary’s trip to Russia. We’ll be leaving later this afternoon, as all of you know. On the phone with us here, we have [Senior State Department Officials One and Two]. From here forward, they will be known as Senior Administration Official Number One and Senior Administration Official Number Two. At the end of this call – and this call is, of course, on background – at the end of their remarks, we’ll be taking some questions.

With that, let me turn it over to [Senior State Department Official One].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator], and we’ll see you all soon. It’s raining here, so be prepared. Secretary Kerry’s visit is a very important one here. They have been anticipating this visit for a long time. There’s quite a bit of enthusiasm about the trip, and remarkably, I would say, compared to some other trips, they’ve been extremely accommodating. This is a trip that they want to go well.

For us and for our – the Administration, it’s part of a sequence of what we see as more intensified dialogue with the Russians at the highest levels in the year 2013, coming in the wake of a year in 2012 where, for a variety of reasons, including, first and foremost, elections here in Russia and then elections in the United States, we had less of that kind of intensity. And just to remind you all, it started with a trip that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon did out here last month, where he brought a letter from the President kind of outlining our expectations and aspirations for U.S.-Russian relations over the next several months and years.

Secretary Kerry’s visit now comes tomorrow, and then that will be followed, if all goes according to plan, with a meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in June, followed by a visit here by President Obama in September. And to remind you, that will be – the last time he was here was in July of 2009, so all of this activity is building up to what we think will be an important visit by the President in September.

It’s a short trip, or maybe it’s not. I mean, I don't know how your – maybe all your trips are this short, but it’ll be a two-day visit. The Secretary will begin, quite rightly in my view, by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You all are coming here the day before May 9th, which is, without question, Victory Day, and without question, the most important holiday in Russia. And so appropriately, we’re going to honor veterans, and I think we’ll even meet a few of them there. That will be followed by a meeting with President Putin scheduled in the afternoon, to be followed then by a full bilateral meeting with Minister Lavrov, followed by a dinner with Mr. Lavrov. So that’s day one.

The following day, Secretary Kerry will have a meeting with representatives from civil society at my home, at Spaso House, and then he’ll meet our tremendous staff out here in Russia, and you’ll be on your way to your next stop. We fully anticipate – in preparation for this meeting, we fully anticipate that we will cover the wide range of issues that are part of the portfolio of U.S.-Russian relations, and I want to remind you all of that, that this is one of the most complex and comprehensive bilateral relationships we have around the world, because Russia is involved in so many things that we – is of relevance to our security and economic interests. So we fully expect serious conversation on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and I think there, we will underscore what I think is sometimes forgotten, what – the kind of continuity of cooperation that we have had with Russia on those important issues, for us at least.

Likewise, I fully expect a serious dialogue on issues of trade and cooperation. Both President Putin and President Obama, both in their meetings and in other settings, have made clear that they want to see more activity in terms of our bilateral relationship in this dimension, and so this trip will give us an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas that we’ve outlined in that sphere. Without question, we will be discussing counterterrorism cooperation, and what I would say is a new era in U.S.-Russian cooperation on that front in the wake of the tragedy in Boston, and maybe in questions, we can talk more about that. But we are intensifying that dialogue, intensifying – looking for new ways of cooperating, both with regard to the current investigation, but also looking forward to ways that we can deal with what we consider to be a common set of interests that we have with Russia on that front.

And finally, without question, we’ll be discussing Syria. For obvious reason, we’ve been discussing Syria with the Russians for the last couple years. But that dialogue is intensifying, given the state of affairs within Syria, and for that, I think I’ll turn it over to my colleague, [Senior State Department Official Two], to take it from here.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And just a couple of points I’d add on Syria then, obviously, both our countries have interests in what’s happening in Syria, and both of our countries have called publicly for a political solution along the lines of the Geneva framework. So I’m sure we will be discussing that and seeing if there’s any room to move forward on that.

But at the same time, I’m sure we’re going to discuss the humanitarian situation. There was a discussion in Geneva at the end of last week. The Russians actually made some very positive statements which we appreciate, and so we want to look at what’s going on on the humanitarian assistance side and what more the international community, working together, can do. And we’re obviously going to talk about our countries’ desire to see stability in the Middle East and in Syria.

I think I’ll stop there.

MODERATOR: Great. With that, we will take some questions. Operator?

OPERATOR: Certainly. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, please press * then 1. If your question gets answered and you wish to remove yourself from the queue, please press the # key. And we do ask if you could limit yourself to one question, and if you do have any follow-ups, feel free to place yourself back in the queue.

First, we’ll go to Anne Gearan with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, and thanks for doing this, but one point of clarification at the beginning: Is this embargoed or not?

MODERATOR: This is not, Anne. You’re welcome to write about it at the conclusion of the call.

QUESTION: Great, okay. Thanks very much. On the Syria question, and I guess I would put this to both of you, do you see any sign that the Russians are any closer to either cutting Assad loose or to, in some way, really working for that political solution you talked about earlier? I mean, there have been talks going on for months and months and months that haven’t produced anything like it, and now we’ve got Lakhdar Brahimi quitting in apparent frustration over it.

What is your current assessment of the Russians’ kind of state of mind and willingness to do something different on Syria? And then just specifically, [Senior State Department Official Two], can you address these reports of rebel use, potential rebel use of sarin? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On the potential armed opposition use of sarin, I would simply say that we obviously take any reports of the use of chemical weapons in Syria very seriously, and we’re trying to get as many facts as possible to understand when and how such things were used. But our understanding has been that the armed opposition does not have such weapons, and so we’ll have to recheck our facts, but our initial take on that was that they do not have such things in their arsenal.

With respect to the Russian position, I would prefer to let the Russians speak for themselves. But we do have both countries on record as supporting a framework for a transition in Syria and the establishment of a transition governing body that would have full executive authority, and that would be formed out of a negotiation process and formed by mutual consent. The Syrian opposition in Istanbul reiterated its commitment to a political solution if possible in Syria. That meeting in Istanbul was the 20th of April. And countries who have worked with the Syrian opposition issued a joint declaration at the same time, and they too reiterated their support for a political solution along the lines of the Geneva framework.

And in the meantime, events have moved forward on the ground, and so this is a time to talk to the Russians, to understand that from our side, we remain committed, and if they are as well, then we need to think about how to work operationally to make that happen. And that may require some discussion in detail about that.

I don’t know if we will get an agreement or not, but we certainly think it is worth testing and trying to find some ways forward.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: And that’s from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Just to return to what you just said – you said we are certainly committed and that you are going to try to see if they are as well to pursuing a political solution here. Just from your use of the word “if,” it seems clear that you are not at all certain that they are committed to a political solution. Is that a fair reading?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We have their formal commitment with their agreement to the Geneva communique of June 30th, 2012. But now we need to go beyond formal commitments like that to figure out if there are ways to actually build off of it. And it has been no secret that so far we have not been able to do that. But we certainly want to try to make another stab at it, to make another effort at it, because events on the ground have become steadily worse – the casualty figures are mounting, the rate of killing has gone up, and as the Israeli strikes show, the situation is adding to instability in the region.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: And that’s from Jill Dougherty with CNN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wanted to talk about Boston if I could. You mentioned increased cooperation. Could we get more details? How are Russia and the United States specifically cooperating? And is – we have not heard anything, it appears, from the FSB. And also, can you address – I guess this would go to [Senior State Department Official One] – the lack of trust that is continually referred to? Is that a factor? Is that impeding cooperation? Thank you.

MODERATOR: Jill, let me just, before we turn it over to [Senior State Department Official One] – jump in here just to reiterate --

QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry, I mentioned – yes – Senior Administration Official Number One.

MODERATOR: No, that’s fine. I just wanted to reiterate that, again, the events in Boston are an FBI-led investigation. Certainly, there is broad cooperation on counterterrorism that [Senior State Department Official One] can speak to, but we don’t have any plans to delve further into that. And as we’ve discussed before, that’s not the purpose of this trip.

QUESTION: Yes, but he did mention the cooperation, and I’m interested specifically in that lack of trust that has been referred to quite a lot about the relationship between the services. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Absolutely, I just wanted to clarify that point. I’m sorry, go ahead, [Senior State Department Official One].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, and Jill, I apologize. I got kind of a line that was breaking in and out on the first part of your question.

But I would just say this: First of all, yes, refer your questions to the FBI, and they’re leading the investigation, and I wouldn’t want to say anything that would get in the way of what’s going on there. All I can say from our perspective here at the Embassy is, on the logistics and communications to facilitate what the FBI is doing, we have seen a very cooperative Russian Government and – because they understand that we have a common interest here in getting the full details in this investigation.

With respect to your broader question about trust and mistrust, that’s a bigger historical question. I would just say for us, we have learned that we don’t always agree on all issues in our relationship with Russia. I’ve found that – we’ve found that over time with our – the Obama Administration, I mean. But that doesn’t mean that if we’re having a disagreement in one area, that that necessarily means that we can’t cooperate on a different area. And we’ve been very clear about that, that we seek to cooperate when we can and not allow disagreements in other issues to stop that cooperation. That’s been our policy from the beginning and we think it’s led to results and we see that in this domain as well.

MODERATOR: Thank you, we’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: And that’s from Brad Klapper with the AP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. This is a question for both of you, depending on the answer. Could you tell us – [Senior State Department Official Two], you just mentioned the Israeli strikes. And it’s not at all clear how the U.S. has learned about these strikes. Was it from Israel itself? Was it in advance? Was it afterward? Was it from Russia, as some reports indicate, or was it purely from U.S. intelligence regardless of any information from any outside party? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I can’t speak to how other people learned about the strikes. I can only tell you that I learned about them from press reports. So I am not aware that there was any pre-coordination, although as a general policy rule, we view the Israelis as having a justifiable need to defend themselves against transfers of advanced weaponry to terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and we do coordinate with them on strategy. But I am not aware that we were given some kind of pre-notification of their actions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I have nothing to add to that.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: And that’s from Jo Biddle with AFP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh, hello, good morning. Thank you very much for taking the question.

I wanted to ask, given the situation that’s happened over the weekend with the strikes by the Israelis, and also now, today’s report from the UN that it appears the rebels might have used chemical weapons, how complicated – how this has complicated the meetings that are going to take place? And also, I wanted to ask, just briefly, how important is it that Secretary Kerry will actually be getting a meeting with President Putin given how much the Russians stand by protocol, and this would not – is not the same level meeting as would usually happen? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, with respect to the second part and related to the first part, it is quite important, I believe, that Secretary Kerry will have a substantial, full meeting with President Putin. We don’t have the opportunity to speak directly to President Putin that often. The last time the President met with him face to face was in Los Cabos, of last summer. They’ve spoken on the phone a couple of times recently. But this will be, I think, a very substantive conversation on the – I want to emphasize it’ll be on the entire bilateral relationship, not just on Syria. And our counterparts here have made that clear, that they are ready to engage on Syria, but they have many issues that they want to talk about. This is a fantastic opportunity to have that conversation with President Putin.

On the protocol question, I should remind you all that when Secretary Lavrov came to Washington – now I’m not going to – I can dig up the dates if you want – but President Obama has met with Secretary – Foreign Minister Lavrov in the Oval Office, and Secretary Clinton also met with President Putin when he was Prime Minister the last time she was here, and she met with President Medvedev at the time as well. So in terms of protocol, it’s – I don’t know how it works for other foreign ministers, but in terms of protocol, it’s a rare occasion, it doesn’t happen on all of the visits, but it’s not an unprecedented meeting.

QUESTION: And on the issue of whether it’s been more complicated by the events over the weekend?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I would say of course it’s been complicated, but all the more reason that it comes at an opportune time to have Secretary Kerry here to have a face-to-face discussion with President Putin and then with Secretary Lavrov. There’s nothing that substitutes for that and interaction with senior Russian Government officials. And that we have substantial amounts of time allotted for these meetings gives us an opportunity to do the kinds of diplomacy that we look forward to doing.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: And that’s from Andrea Mitchell with NBC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wanted to follow up on something raised by the previous questioner about Carla Del Ponte’s accusation that chemical weapons were used allegedly by rebel groups rather than by the regime, get your response to that. And also, more broadly, how does Israel’s actions complicate discussions with Putin? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: [Senior State Department Official One], why don’t I take the first part --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: -- and then I can’t speak to Putin. With respect to what Ms. Del Ponte said, as I said before, we take all allegations and reports about chemical weapons use extremely seriously. And so we take what she said very seriously, and the Commission of Inquiry has been something which the United States – its work we have strongly supported; we have voted consistently for it in Geneva.

That said – that said – we have no information to suggest that they have either the capability or the intent to deploy or use such weapons. Let me say that again. We have no information that they have either the capability or the intent to deploy or use such weapons. So – but we are – facts are not complete, as the President himself has said, and we need to continue to gather facts and to get facts that are corroborated, and so we are doing that both through our own means and working with partners.

And frankly, we would like to see the United Nations investigative team under the OPCW office of the United Nations at the Hague – we would like to see them get access into Syria, into the different places which they have asked to go to, and we would like the Syrian Government to stop blocking the access of that United Nations team. I think it is important to note here that Ms. Del Ponte does not work on the same expert team which the United Nations has assembled to go into Syria, that they are two different parts of the United Nations organization.

QUESTION: I was going to ask that point. And also, wouldn’t the Russians have a big role, the obvious role, in whether or not that inspections team could get in?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I go back to what I said. We strongly hope that the Syrian Government will provide the access which the United Nations has requested. And so I think all of us in the international community should try to make that possible by convincing the Syrian Government to change its position and allow that access.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Andrea, I didn’t hear your second question about Israel. I’m sorry, I have a line that keeps breaking out.

QUESTION: No, I apologize. I’ve got a bad cold, so it’s my fault.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, no, it’s our cheap connection length, believe me. It’s not just you, it’s every call on this line. Saving taxpayers’ money.

QUESTION: But just how complicating is Israel’s actions for the Secretary’s mission in trying to persuade the Russians on the Syrian issue?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that Russia takes very seriously its – the relationship it has developed with Israel over the last several years. I think that’s something people don’t fully appreciate, that they’ve invested a lot of time into that relationship. They don’t always agree, obviously, but it’s in a very different place than it was 10, let alone 20 or 30 years ago. Secondly, they take seriously their role in the Middle East more generally about all issues related to stability in the region, including the Middle East peace process, which, again, I think will also most likely come up during the Secretary’s visit here.

As to how they react to this specific, let’s talk after the Putin meeting.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everybody, for joining this morning, and thank you [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. Let me just clarify one thing I said at the beginning. I said for attribution to Senior Administration; you can attribute to Senior State Department Officials. Old practice on that; my apologies. And again, there’s no embargo. You’re welcome to report moving forward. We will see you all on the plane.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Thank you all. See you in Moscow soon.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Great. Thanks, [Moderator]. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

PRN: 2013/0522