Background Briefing on the Situation in Ukraine

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
February 19, 2014

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today on this call and for your patience with the change in time. Again, a reminder that this call is going to be on background. Our speaker today is [name and title withheld], but for the purpose of this call we will refer to [Senior State Department Official] as Senior State Department Official number one. If we could just remind folks, Operator, the process for queuing up for questions, please.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in the queue. You may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. And if you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. And once again, if you have a question or a comment, that is * 1.

MODERATOR: Okay. So we’ll get right to it. Senior State Department Official number one will start with a few comments at the top, and then we’ll open it for your questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. Thank you, colleagues. I apologize for the delay. We were in some senior meetings here that needed to conclude. I thought I would just start by reminding those of you who haven’t followed the diplomacy that the U.S. and the EU and member-states have been conducting over the last few weeks with the Ukrainians, give you a sense of where we were in that diplomacy before the events of last night, and then move on to steps that we have taken since and steps that we’re thinking about moving forward with our European allies and partners.

But let me start by just encouraging those of you who have not had time to do it to please look at the President’s on-the-record comments in Mexico today on Ukraine. He was quite strong with regard to condemning violence, holding the Ukrainian Government primarily responsible for making sure that they are dealing with the situation peacefully, and particularly making clear that the military needs to stay out of this. And also to call your attention to comments made by Secretary Kerry when he was with Foreign Minister Fabius in Paris today making clear how disturbed we are by the scenes of violence, the level of abuse that citizens on the street felt, and that we – that President Yanukovych has a choice to make between protecting his people or allowing the country – and getting back to compromise and dialogue, or allowing the country to descend into violence and mayhem, and making clear that we were working with our European colleagues and partners.

So those are on-the-record comments that you can use. There are also gaggle comments from Ben Rhodes on the way to Mexico with the President earlier today.

So just to say that we’ve obviously been working throughout the fall and the winter on Ukraine with the European Union and with the member-states. You all know that story. You particularly know how it went in November when Yanukovych stepped back from signing the association agreement, which led to the Maidan protests, the moves against the opposition on the streets in December, and then the very negative move to implement to pass – to rush through the Rada some 16 – some eight pieces of legislation on January 16th which would have had the effect of essentially closing space for civil society and closing the opportunity for the opposition to participate in politics at all, which led to a convulsion of the country, led to violence, led to Molotov cocktails, more seizing of buildings, et cetera.

So in the period after that, we began working – we intensified our diplomacy with the EU, with member-states, to try to support a process of dialogue between Yanukovych and leading opposition figures. Bringing in, in addition, members of civil society, the church, the business community, the folks on the Maidan, to try to achieve first and foremost a de-escalation of tensions, an amnesty for protestors, an end to the human rights abuses, in exchange for the protestors being able to maintain their peaceful posture on the Maidan and on – and at key sites, but to give up some of the buildings that had been seized.

The idea then was to try to move on to a power-sharing arrangement, a technical government that could take the country forward. But in order for that to be possible, in order for the opposition or, frankly, any forces but those in Yanukovych’s party to be willing to participate in a political healing of the country, they were insisting that the balance of power be adjusted because particularly since 2010 and the changing of the constitution as currently aligned, all of the power of the Ukrainian state, the vast majority, is in the hands of the president. So anybody who was willing to go into a technical government wasn’t going to have the power to implement real change.

So there was a discussion that was to happen after amnesty and de-escalation on either changes to the Ukrainian constitution or a small package of technical rules of the road and power sharing among the president, the government, and the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, that would give anybody coming into the technical government confidence that they’d be able to take the country forward and ensure free, fair elections. After this, the idea would be – was to have had U.S. and Western and EU support for a robust conversation with the IMF, leading back to an IMF program, stabilizing the economy, then taking Ukraine forward to elections, where the chosen representatives of the Ukrainian people could come back to making their choice for the direction they wanted to take the country. So that’s what we were working on.

We – Secretary Kerry and Lady Ashton and a number of European leaders worked on that at the Munich Security Conference in late January, early February, after which High Representative Ashton went to Ukraine to urge this course of action and to work with all stakeholders. And then U.S. Assistant Secretary for Europe Victoria Nuland went in. And then, after that, EU Commissioner Fule went in, all with the same goal.

We were finally starting to get some positive momentum on step one, de-escalation and amnesty, witnessed and supported by the OSCE over the weekend. We had the government release a large number of protestors from jail and commit to doing more, and we had opposition leaders able to convince protestors to withdraw from key buildings and areas that they had seized beyond the space that was allowed for peaceful protest under the amnesty law. So we were cautiously optimistic then on Sunday, Monday, that the president would then move on to the next step, which would have been dialogue with the opposition on political and electoral reforms, such that a technical government could be formed.

But rather than engaging seriously on that, there was no invitation to continue dialogue. Instead, the president’s party, the Party of Regions blocked any effort in the parliament to have a conversation about that, blocked all legislation from coming to the floor, which led to tensions on the streets.

And as you know, yesterday there was a trading of fire back and forth and there was a sacking of the Regions – Party of Regions’ headquarters building. And after that, the government unleashed riot police on the Maidan. And you saw the very, very bloody scenes last night with tens of protestors dead, police dead, some thousand injured. And then today, an explosion of further violence across Ukraine, some eight oblasts, largely in the west but also some violence in the east, where buildings have been taken over and where there’s a standoff now between the opposition and the government.

So the question is: Where is this going to lead? Has the – President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian Government made a decision decisively against dialogue, against compromise, and in favor of martial means to clear the streets?

Just before starting this call we had a little glimmer of hope. There are announcements coming out of both the opposition and the government that as a result of the president’s meeting tonight with the three opposition leaders – Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok – that there is now a truce been called to allow for negotiations to restart, aimed at ending the bloodshed and stabilizing the situation.

In the meantime, as you probably saw from the Hollande-Merkel press conference today, the European Union has decided to dispatch three EU foreign ministers to Ukraine tomorrow. That’s German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Fabius, and Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski. They are to see Yanukovych tomorrow morning. And as you know, as the violence was starting to be unleashed last night, the Vice President, Vice President Biden, was on the phone to Yanukovych, making clear to him that this was not the way to go, that there were other options, that we would support a Ukraine that was moving away from violence and back to dialogue. But you saw the events of last night.

So in response, I think you know that we had been quite clear throughout December, January, and into February with Ukraine’s leaders and with all stakeholders that if there was another unleashing of security forces against peaceful protesters that we would take sanctions measures. So today, we moved to restrict visas, to deny – to ban visa issuance to some 20 senior members of the Ukrainian Government and other individuals who we considered responsible for, complicit in, or responsible for ordering or otherwise directing human rights abuses related to political repression in Ukraine. We did this under section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration Act, which allows the Secretary of State to take visa action for foreign policy reasons.

We will continue our close and intensive collaboration with the European Union and with the international community. We will watch very closely what happens in – on the ground between the government and the opposition tomorrow. We will watch whether this truce holds and whether they are able to move on to political compromise and a transition government that can take Ukraine forward. In the event that things go well, these visa sanctions that we’ve put in place are reversible, but in the event that they do not go well, there are other steps that we can take in close coordination with the EU in coming days.

So I’m going to pause there and go to your questions.

MODERATOR: Operator, if you could please remind us how folks can queue up for questions, and we will take the first question when you’re ready.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you’d like to ask a question or if you have a comment, please press * then 1 at this time. That is *1. And the first question does come from Andrea Mitchell with NBC. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the briefing. Tell me whether you think that the Russian Government is encouraging what we saw in the streets and whether some of this is a retaliation against what they see as meddling by some U.S. officials in Ukraine and your response to charges by the Russians that the U.S. has been meddling in what they consider their backyard. Should they have that kind of territorial or geographic hold on what happens in Ukraine?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: First of all, Andrea, let me underscore that for 22 years, since Ukraine became independent, it has been the policy of the United States across – let me count – one, two, three, four presidents now to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity and independence and freedom of choice of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. We consider this idea of spheres of influence to be a wildly outmoded notion.

You’ll recall that when the current Administration came into office, Vice President Biden, very soon after President Obama’s Inauguration, went to Munich and spoke at the same security conference about it being a founding principle of Administration policy that we would – we rejected spheres of influence and that we supported the free choice of all sovereign nations to take their country where their people chose for it to go. So we’ve been clear about that with the people of Ukraine, we’ve been clear about that with Russia, arguably for 22 years but unquestionably very clearly over all of this period.

So let me also say that United States policy towards Ukraine, European Union and European Union member-state policy towards Ukraine has been completely transparent. We have, at every step of the way, been public and clear about what we support. We support Ukraine’s right of free choice. We were concerned that that was denied to the Ukrainian people. We support the right of peaceful protest. We are concerned about any moves to violate that basic Helsinki principle that we all aspire to. We have been concerned about the perilous state of the Ukrainian economy.

And so throughout this process, we have been very public and clear that we support a peaceful de-escalation, we support political dialogue leading to a technical government that could restore unity, choice, economic health to Ukraine, and get them to free, fair elections – basic underlying principles.

What we don’t know, Andrea, is what the Russian policy has been. They have not been transparent about what they’ve been doing in Ukraine, and we would completely reject their notion that it is we who have been interfering, particularly given the fact that we’ve been completely transparent about supporting the aspirations of the Ukrainian people for dialogue, for peace, for a political solution.

So I would put the question back to the Kremlin. I would put the question back to Russia: What do they support? Don’t we today have a shared interest in restoring Ukraine to stability, restoring Ukraine to political unity, to protecting the integrity of the state, to deescalating on the street, and to – the Ukrainian government is currently in caretaker fashion – to having a technical government that can have broad-based support across Ukraine, restore unity, and take the country forward to economic health and free, fair elections?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’ll take the next question, please.

OPERATOR: And the next question comes from Elise Labott with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for much for doing this call. A couple of things. Can you just clarify on these 20 visa – these visa bans, is this in addition to the ones that you revoked in January, or what’s going on with that?

And then secondly, could you talk a little bit more about Yanukovych’s kind of change in position? It seems as if this was following his trip to Sochi and it seemed as if he was moving on a positive track until he visited, and then he sacked the head of the military, and the Russians started buying up these Ukrainian bonds. So could you say if you see any causality between Russian influence and pressure?

And then also I know you said that the truce is a glimmer of hope, but are you concerned that if things don’t improve dramatically soon that Yanukovych, under Russian pressure, could impose a state of emergency?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the last point, let me say that we have been warning against a state of emergency for months and months. The Vice President has repeatedly warned against that, against violence against peaceful protestors, in his calls to Yanukovych, of which there have been many, many, many, and against using the military against peaceful protestors.

We are particularly concerned this evening by the changing of the guard in the military. We are concerned about some of the public statements by the interior ministry and the intelligence service with regard to their intentions. We have been – we have in the past been able to make direct contact with senior security force leaders in the Ukrainian Government. It is worrying to us that that has been difficult over the last 24 hours. So yes, we are very concerned.

Let me just clarify on the visa situation. So in January, in response to the violence in December, we proceeded – our Embassy in Kyiv proceeded to revoke existing visas of Ukrainians who we considered complicit in that violence, with the understanding that if they wanted to travel to the United States, they would have to come back into the Embassy and be re-adjudicated, which would give us a chance to have another look at their record.

What we did today was a different thing. What we did today was to enact a visa ban status, inability – inadmissibility to the United States under visa law for about 20 individual Ukrainians who we consider responsible for the actions of last night. So this would mean that were they to apply for visas, they would be denied.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, one more time? How many officials were banned in January – or revoked?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t speak about the revocations. Under the law, I cannot give you a number on revocations. But individual Ukrainians have been notified.

QUESTION: Okay, and then if you could just speak to kind of Russian intentions and whether you think Yanukovych’s trip to Russia – to Sochi had anything to do with it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, obviously, we’ve seen a pattern of – beginning with the $15 billion in loans that Russia offered in December, which turned out to be actually little packet tranches of $3 billion, large amounts of which were going right back into the Russian treasury for debt service on existing loans. So we’ve seen that pattern with the Russians. But as I said, this – these have been non-transparent discussions. Unlike us, they don’t read out the conversations that they have. They don’t speak to the visitors that they have in country. So it’s very hard to have a good ability to analyze. And with regard to how it might have influenced President Yanukovych’s thinking, I personally have long since stopped trying to read his mind.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Okay, we’ll take the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Certainly. The next question comes from Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this call. Would you clarify how the U.S. views the degree of unrest right now beyond Kyiv? There was some mention of some unrest in the west and in the east, but if you could clarify that.

And also, just to go back to the statement in regard to the concern about not being able to make contact with Ukrainian military leaders, in what way is that being expressed by the U.S. Government right now, particularly in regard to perhaps sanctions or financial support?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the last question, we have in the past been able to get through on the phone. Somebody’s typing without being on mute.

We have in the past been able to get through to senior military and intelligence officials relatively quickly for our senior officials to make contact and to express our view with regard to allowing peaceful protest and allowing political compromise. We have been trying to reestablish those contacts over the last few days, I would say, and nobody’s picking up the phone on the Ukrainian side, which is worrying.

What was your second question, Margaret? Sorry.

QUESTION: I was asking about the degree of unrest beyond Kyiv right now.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. So as you know, we don’t have consulates across Ukraine, so we are dependent on information we get from Ukrainian sources. But my understanding as of about an hour ago was that we had in at least eight provinces in Ukraine, we had significant opposition activity to take over government headquarters; in some cases to take over Ministry of Interior buildings, that we also had clashes in three or four provinces across eastern Ukraine. We don’t at this stage have a lot of data about that.

In western Ukraine, where, as you know, they have been sympathetic historically to Europe – they live next to Europe, they can understand and see the benefits of integration with Europe – we have had information to indicate that in some cases when opposition parties marched either on riot police headquarters or on government headquarters, those inside were sympathetic enough to them to hand over the keys. And in fact, there’s at least one report of riot police officers in western Ukraine staging their own march to beg the forgiveness of the Ukrainian people for what happened in Kyiv yesterday.

MODERATOR: Okay. We will take the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay, and the next question comes from Anne Gearan of Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Just another couple quick points of clarification on the visa ban. Understanding that you can’t release names of the first group restricted in January, can you say whether those targeted today cover some of the same people or not? And will we get a list of those targeted today?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We cannot under U.S. visa law in this category of visa bans release the names. It is not permissible under the law. What I will say is that these individuals represent the full chain of command that we consider responsible for ordering security forces to move against the Maidan yesterday.

QUESTION: So in other words, both civilian and military officials?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There was no military involvement yesterday. There was police activity yesterday.

QUESTION: Riot police activity. But are – I’m sorry, I don’t know all the distinctions as they apply in Ukraine. Are those civilian forces then, or they are not military?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Ukrainian military is separate and apart, and heretofore, we have not seen them involved in these clashes. They have stayed in barracks. That is something that we have been encouraging should continue. However, we are concerned, as I said earlier, by the changing of the guard in the military tonight and hope that that does not presage a change in policy and a decision to use the military.

QUESTION: Okay, so then just to absolutely clarify, these are all civilians who were targeted today, even though you cannot release the names?


QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: Okay, thank you. And the next question is from the line of Lesley Wroughton of Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Could you maybe just say that the – is Yanukovych one of those members that have been banned – your visa ban? Not that he’s going to want to travel here, I’m sure.

And the second thing is [Senior State Department Official One], you mentioned that you will look at – that the U.S. is prepared to look at other options in coordination with the EU if this doesn’t help. What are those options, and also what is your reading of how far the EU is prepared to go to stop this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think I said at the beginning that I could not speak to names, so I will not speak to names. I will repeat what I said, that the list today includes the full chain of command that we consider responsible for ordering the violence last night. I also said that this particular tool of foreign policy is easily reversible if the situation improves.

With regard to how far the EU’s going to go, I’m going to refer you to the EU. There were some strong statements by Merkel, by Hollande, by Barroso, by High Representative Ashton today, by Foreign Minister Bildt, Foreign Minister Sikorski. Our understanding is that there is a meeting of foreign ministers of the EU tomorrow in the afternoon following the diplomatic mission of Steinmeier, Fabius, and Sikorski. So watch that space.

With regard to what more we can do, again, I think you know our full toolkit. Today, we moved only in a visa ban category. We have in the past in many different situations around the world moved in lockstep with the EU against individuals in a much broader and deeper way. We are prepared to do that working with the EU in coming days if we do not see – if we see more violence and if we do not see an improvement.

Let’s take one more, and then I got to hop.

OPERATOR: Okay, thank you. And then the final question comes from the line of Ali Weinberg of ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you so much for doing the call. We really appreciate it. I have two quick questions. First of all, you mentioned the meeting between Yanukovych and the three opposition leaders today, so I’m wondering if you can shed any light on what was discussed, what did they say to him this time, and was there a sense that because of the violence, that this was a precipitating moment that brought Yanukovych to this agreement?

Also, do you – do any State Department officials plan on meeting with either Yanukovych or any of the opposition leaders tomorrow or in the coming days? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as you probably know, since the middle of January, at the urging of all of us in the international community, Yanukovych had been meeting on and off with the three key opposition leaders – with Yatsenyuk, Klitschko, and Tyahnybok. And it was that conversation that led to the initial progress we saw to repeal the January 16th package of laws, to dismiss the government and put it in caretaker status, and to work on an amnesty. But then as I said, those talks broke down and they have not occurred for some two and a half, three weeks, which was one of the things that we were urging. We, the EU, and the international community, Ban Ki-moon were urging Yanukovych to get back into that dialogue.

They did meet last night briefly, but it was not a good meeting. So we were pleased to see them meet again today. Frankly, Ali, we don’t have independent reporting from either the government side or the opposition as to how that meeting went tonight, other than the statements that we’ve seen from both sides, because the meeting just broke before I started this call.

With regard to contacts, the last senior-level visit to Kyiv by an American was when Assistant Secretary Nuland was there following the visit of High Representative Ashton. That was on February 5th through 7th. After that visit, Stefan Fule was in for the EU; and now as I said, we have three EU foreign ministers going in tomorrow. Depending upon how things go, we will consider whether it makes sense for further high-level visits into Ukraine by American officials in the coming days.

We have maintained extensive outreach at the level of our Ambassador Geoff Pyatt to all members of the – to senior members of the Ukrainian Government, obviously to the opposition leaders, to civil society on a daily basis. Assistant Secretary Nuland has also made some calls to the foreign minister, to key stakeholders in Ukraine. Secretary Kerry, as you know, spoke by phone to the opposition leaders on the 30th of January and met with them in Ukraine – in Munich during the security conference, and he will likely continue to maintain that contact as we go forward. And as I said, Vice President Biden had more than an hour-long conversation with Yanukovych yesterday. So the engagement is intense, now we need to see progress.

Thank you all for this opportunity. Thank you for following the Ukraine story and for ensuring that those Ukrainians who deserve a better future have their story told. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: And a reminder to call participants, this call has been on background. All comments should be referencing a senior State Department official. The call was transcribed and will be posted and distributed shortly. And if we didn’t get to your questions, please call the State Department Press Office with your question, and we will do our best to get an answer. Thank you very much. Good evening.


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