Situation in Ukraine

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
February 21, 2014

MODERATOR: Thank you, and thank you, everyone, for joining us this afternoon on this call. Our speaker this afternoon will be [name withheld], but as a reminder to everyone, this call is on background. Again, this call is on background. And so for attribution purposes, you can refer to [Senior State Department Official] as Senior State Department Official.

So with that, I will turn it over to [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you very much. And thank you, everybody, for joining us. Sorry, once again, to be a little bit late. As you all know, as the day turns past midnight in Ukraine, it was a very, very busy day there, with the agreement between the government and opposition leaders on a path forward that was brokered by German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, and French Foreign Minister Fabius, and witnessed by Russian delegate Lukin; and then the beginning of implementation of that agreement and other very important steps taken in the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada. The United States was also very active diplomatically over the last two days.

So I thought I would just quickly walk you through what is in the agreement if you have not had a chance to review it, what happened after the signing, the situation currently, and some of the diplomacy that we have been engaged in. And then we’ll go to your questions.

First, the agreement brokered over some 22 hours of negotiations does all of the – proposes all of the following steps: First of all, to address the issue of balance of power within the Ukrainian system. There was agreement to restore the 2004 constitution, including amendments since then, and the proposal was to do that within two days of the agreement’s signing. In fact, that was implemented within hours of the agreement being signed later in the Rada by an overwhelming vote. So as of this moment, Ukraine is working under the 2004 constitution. I believe that has to still be signed by the president, but we expect that it will be. I don’t know for sure if it was signed or not today, but it will be.

Next step in the agreement is the formation of a national unity government. That is to happen within ten days of the agreement being signed. The agreement also calls for further constitutional reform and a new constitution to be negotiated and completed by September, and a new electoral law and electoral commission which restores proportionality among the political parties. It calls for a number of steps to de-escalate tensions on the security side, on the human rights side – first of all, a commitment that the government will not impose a state of emergency, a commitment to nonviolence on the part of the opposition and all parties, a commitment to pass a third amnesty for those involved in protests to date, and an agreement to various steps to normalize the security situation, including release of buildings that are not covered by amnesty and a turn-in of all weapons.

So that’s the – that is the complete agreement. As I said, within hours of the agreement being signed, we began to see not only the first step of implementation, the constitutional reform pass – and pass much more quickly than envisioned in the agreement – but also two other steps in the Rada: an overwhelming vote to sack the interior minister, Mr. Zakharchenko, who is broadly considered responsible for ordering the violence in December and the violence – and the security forces’ moves on civilians since then, and also a move to decriminalize those acts for which former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko had been imprisoned in a hospital. That last vote on Yulia Tymoshenko passed by a vote of 310 to 54 in the Rada, which speaks to the alignment of forces in the Ukrainian parliament having shifted radically over the last 24 hours.

And just one data point on that: More than one third of the members of the Party of Regions – that’s President Yanukovych’s party – have formally resigned from the party over the last two days. That means that they have formally submitted papers saying that they no longer consider themselves members of the party. And you can see that movement reflected in these, both on Mrs. Tymoshenko and on Zakharchenko, which were not part of the deal that was brokered by the European ministers, but that happened very quickly because the votes are now there in the Rada for this kind of change.

Let me just review for you some of the things that the United States has been up to. As you know, yesterday the Vice President had more than an hour-long conversation with prime minister – with President Yanukovych. This was, in fact, his ninth call with President Yanukovych since November. He had two calls in November, one call in December, three calls in January, and then calls on February 4th, 18th, and 20th. I can speak more about that relationship and how those calls have gone in the Q&A if that is of interest.

But the Vice President and President Yanukovych have a relationship from the time of the President – of the Vice President’s visit to Kyiv. And that has been a very important diplomatic channel for us. If you look at the dates of those calls, you’ll notice that almost every time the Vice President was calling, it was a moment of decisive choice for President Yanukovych. Either he was standing on the brink of being urged to declare a state of emergency, put the military on the street and chose not to, or moments when he had made a choice to surge his security forces or to take aggressive action in the Rada, and we were encouraging – the Vice President was encouraging a course correction.

Let me also say that yesterday, as you saw, the President talked to Chancellor Merkel of Germany. That was in the middle of the – her foreign minister and the other foreign ministers’ diplomacy to get an update and to coordinate our positions. Yesterday, Ambassador Pyatt was in contact with the Ukrainian opposition throughout the day. Today, Secretary Kerry had a conversation with three senior members of the opposition to congratulate them on the courage and the leadership that they displayed, and to make clear that the U.S. is committed to support them as they try to work to implement a nonviolent, peaceful, political course forward. Assistant Secretary Nuland also spoke separately to opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier today and to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kozhara.

And then President Obama, as you know, spoke for more than an hour with President Putin at midday today. There’ll be a formal readout from the White House on that shortly, but let me report that it was a constructive phone call. My understanding is that the bulk of it was on Ukraine, although other issues were raised – Syria, Iran, the Sochi Olympics. They agreed that the agreement reached today needed to be implemented quickly, that it was very important to encourage all sides to refrain from violence, that there was a real opportunity here for a peaceful outcome. President Putin affirmed that Russia wants to remain part of the implementation process. They also talked about the need to stabilize the Ukrainian economy and to get Ukraine back on a peaceful path. And on both sides, there was a pledge to stay engaged along with the Europeans.

Let me just say, before we go to your questions, that as you will have seen from the street, this is a very, very fragile agreement despite the progress in the Rada today. You will have seen considerable upheaval and emotion on the Maidan today, a lot of difficulty on the part of the opposition, persuading those on the Maidan that if they are to get the change that they want in Ukraine, that this negotiated solution is the best way forward; it may not give them everything that they want immediately, but that it would prevent further bloodshed. This has been a very tough sell and it will continue to be a tough sell for the opposition to make to those on the streets. This is not least because of the horrible, horrible violence of the last 36 – the last two days. Some 75 Ukrainians shot in the events of yesterday, many of them by snipers. It was extremely emotional on the Maidan today, including a display of the coffins of the dead. And we continue to have radicals on the opposition side declaring that they will not honor the agreement, that they will not give up their weapons, and that they intend to keep some of the buildings that they’ve occupied. So this will be a very, very difficult, complex process going forward. It will require a lot of support from the international community. Aspects of this deal are already designed to be supported by international or European organizations. For example, the amnesty and the human rights cases and the settlement of judicial cases is to be overseen by the Council of Europe. We expect that the Venice Commission will have a role to play in the drafting of the new constitution. And there is likely to need to be some kind of good offices in the de-escalation piece.

Secretary Kerry informed the Ukrainian Government that we expect that Deputy Secretary Bill Burns will come visit Kyiv early next week, and Assistant Secretary Nuland will probably be there as well early in March. And we anticipate being part of the group of countries that support the implementation going forward.

Why don’t I go ahead and pause there, and we’ll move to questions.

MODERATOR: Operator, can you please remind us how folks can queue up for questions? And then after that, we will take the first question.

OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed into the queue. You can withdraw your question at any time by pressing the # key. And if you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Again, if you have a question, press * then 1 at this time.

And our first question, from the line of Anne Gearan. I’m sorry, the first question from Andrea Mitchell, NBC News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Thanks for the briefing. And I’m wondering if you could elaborate a bit on the relationship between the U.S. and Russia on this, Russia’s role in supporting the agreement and the commitments from Putin to the President going forward. How – from your interpretation, how Putin sees Russia’s role in supporting the economy of – his feelings about the economy, stabilizing the economy of Ukraine, and whether he acknowledges the role of Europe as well. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks for that, Andrea. First, I neglected to mention one other piece of American diplomacy today. Secretary Hagel was able to reach the defense minister today, and my understanding is that they had a very positive conversation as well, and that the defense minister made clear that the armed forces of Ukraine will not – will stay in barracks and participate – and will not participate in any movement against the civilian population.

With regard to the conversations with President Putin, as I said, it was constructive today. As you likely saw, Chancellor Merkel talked to President Putin yesterday and talked to him again today while the diplomacy was ongoing on the ground. He had been invited by the European ministers and the European governments to send an observer, a witness to the talks. The Russians did avail themselves of that. Vladimir Lukin, a Duma deputy, was part of the negotiations, so they had a chance to see and witness and be part of the dynamics and part of the process of bringing the sides together. This clearly helped to create an environment where Russia could be part of ensuring that the bloodshed ended, and part of understanding what needs to be done to ensure that things don’t flare up again.

(Interrupted by telephone call.)

Sorry, that was my other phone there. Anyway, it’s clearly an important signal that the President and President Putin were able to talk positively about implementing this agreement, and that it’s not simply about implementing this agreement and ending violence, and that that is in both the interest of Ukraine, the interest of Russia, the interest of Europe, and the interest of the United States, that we clearly share interests there, but that we have to move on from there and ensure that this very, very fragile Ukrainian economy is stabilized. Russia has an interest in that, given its deep trade and investment ties in Ukraine – we’ve talked about this before, some $40 billion in Russian bank exposure in Ukraine – so a default, a crash, is not in Russia’s interest either.

So we consider it constructive that Putin has been engaged, not just with us but also with European leaders as this has gone forward, and that he chose to avail himself of the opportunity to participate, which gives us an opportunity to kind of – to work together to implement going forward.

QUESTION: And can you say whether there was any suggestion at all by Putin that the U.S. was meddling or was not – I don’t know – had an inappropriate role in his neighborhood? Was there any of that overlay?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: My understanding is that there was not, that it was completely constructive and workmanlike on the way forward.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: We have a question from Anne Gearan, Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. If I could just get one quick little bit of housekeeping out of the way: Can you list the names of the opposition leaders with whom Secretary Kerry spoke today? And could you also address a rumor, I guess it’s best described, that Yanukovych may have fled Kyiv? I mean, I take it from the context of your earlier remarks that you would have said something like that if you thought it, but it is out there, so if you could address that. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Secretary spoke today to three of the four opposition leaders who he had met with in Munich. He talked to Petro Poroshenko, to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and to Oleh Tyahnybok. My understanding is that Vitali Klitschko was invited to join the call but that he was on the Maidan at the time.

The – our information – and I talked to the foreign minister about half an hour ago – is that President Yanukovych has gone out to Kharkiv in the east to some kind of a meeting that is taking place out there, and that he has now arrived there. As you know, it is not unusual after he makes large political moves for him to visit the east, where his base is.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There are reports, however, that the interior minister, Zakharchenko, has fled to Belarus. Those are all over Ukraine. I’m not able to verify.

QUESTION: Okay. But – and he’s the one who would come in for some harsh treatment under the – as you described earlier, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: He’s the one who got no-confidenced or impeached. I don’t know how you get rid of an interior minister in the Ukrainian context, but he’s the one who the Ukrainian parliament said needed to go today.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

OPERATOR: And we have a question from Margaret Warner with the PBS NewsHour. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Just one quick follow-up on the Russian element. Lukin, though, did not sign this agreement. Did the EU foreign ministers consider that significant or at all troubling? And also, as we know, initially Putin essentially trumped the EU and came up with this $15 billion late last year. Is it your view now that Russia is ready to see Ukraine sign this accession agreement with the EU and has essentially folded its tent when it comes to competing with the EU in that way?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: First of all, with regard to Lukin’s posture, I think you need to ask the Russians about that. Our understanding was that in the end they chose to be recorded as a witness rather than a signator. That’s a decision that they made. But again, as I said, the President and President Putin had a constructive conversation about it, about the deal going forward and the need to continue to implement it.

With regard to the association agreement, you’ll note that the work that was done over the last 24 hours is silent with regard to Ukraine’s future orientation – customs union, association agreement, any of those things. The sense here is that both the government and the opposition understand that job one is to end the violence, restore stability, restore political balance, get a government of unity that can take the country back to economic stabilization, ideally through the IMF, and then have new elections, new elections that will allow Ukraine to make a democratically elected choice about its future going forward.

So with regard – hello? Hello? Are you still there?

OPERATOR: Yes, this is the conference operator. We can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay, something went funny on my phone. So I would say rather that the question of a European future has been set on a longer-term path.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Jackson Diehl with the Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, if I could just – if we could just make it absolutely clear, did Putin tell the President that he, in fact, supports this agreement that was made, including all of the various elements, whether it’s constitutional reform and new elections and so forth. And did he give any indication of whether Russia’s going to go ahead with the plan that it had previously announced to purchase Ukrainian bonds?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: With regard to bonds and future Russian-Ukrainian economic arrangements, I don’t have any information to indicate that that was discussed. And again, the conversation here was about the opportunity that this agreement gave to stabilize Ukraine, to end the violence, to get a peaceful outcome, that Russia wants to be part of implementing the deal.

I don’t think, Jackson, that they went through it point by point, “Do you like this one, do you like that one?” It was more a commitment that Ukraine has now been pulled back from the brink and everybody needs to be supportive of getting stabilization, getting political unity, getting the economy back together, and getting the violence ended, obviously.

MODERATOR: Okay. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Steven Erlanger with New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official].


QUESTION: Just a quick question here: Can you tell us any more about the shape of any unity government, whether that’s really been discussed? Would it have the power you were hoping before it would have? And would you mind if Klitschko is part of it this time?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m glad you raised that, Steve, because this is going to be the next big hurdle in addition to maintaining calm and nonviolence on the streets while the deal is implemented. As I said, the arrangements indicate a ten-day period for the formation of the government. There have been a lot of conversations over the last six weeks or so among the government and the opposition about what a technical national unity government that has broad political support might look like – folks who would be willing to serve from the various political parties. But now that they have committed themselves to actually do it, those negotiations will start in earnest, and they did not start today.

So that’ll be a place where the good offices of the international community will likely also be needed to keep a positive open dialogue going on a group of Ukrainians who can take the country forward and do so in a way that has broad-based support across the political parties and civil society. So that’s a – it’s a watch-this-space type thing, and we will obviously support the choice of the Ukrainian people on this one.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question from the line of Laure Mandeville with French Daily Le Figaro. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much for doing this brief. I had a question about the negotiations that went on between the European ministers and the – and President Yanukovych. Do you know what the minister had to give up in the list of things they were negotiating, let’s say, on the president having to leave his post or --


QUESTION: -- what was – I mean, what did they have to give up, and what did the Yanukovych didn’t want to give up? I mean, how did it go?

And then I had a question again about Putin. I wanted to know, what is, according to your – I understand what you say about the conversation with President Obama, but we know that in the last few days, the Russian Government was extremely pushing for a very strong position on the part of Yanukovych, the French TV – the Russian TV, sorry – very anti-Western, the Prime Minister Medvedev having very, very, very, strong words against the terrorists in the street, et cetera.

So what was, according to you, the calculation of Putin? Did he realize your position of the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I think you’re asking – I’m going break in here because we’ve had a long question.

Let me just say that with regard to what went on in the room between Yanukovych and the European ministers, I think you need to ask the European ministers, because as you know, they were in the room and we were not. And with regard to the calculation of Putin, I think you should ask Mr. Putin. But one can only imagine that Russian TV screens were as filled with the brutality and violence as our TV screens were filled with, and there were – there was real risk in terms of the country devolving into very, very serious violence. But again, in terms of the calculations that they made, perhaps having had a witness in the talks gave more depth to the perspective with which they came to the – to Kyiv. I don’t know. You’d have to talk to the Russians. But it certainly seemed to help to invest them in the deal to have had them be part of it.

MODERATOR: Can we have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. I was wondering when you spoke about that President Obama and Putin agreed on the need to stabilize the economy, how – there is a discussion now about whether the Russians would be prepared to stump up the remaining money that they have promised the Ukrainians. On the other hand, if they don’t, that would make the EU and the U.S. – you’d have to come up with some of that support. How far is the U.S. prepared to go when it comes to financially backing Ukrainians, considering this is a big issue for them? Or – and would you have to go through the IMF or could you do it bilaterally?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Our view, the United States view – and I believe this view is shared by our European allies and partners – is that the only viable route back to sustainable economic health for Ukraine goes through the IMF. So what we are hoping to see when this national unity government is established is a group of people who are empowered and prepared to roll up their sleeves extremely quickly with the IMF to take stock of what needs to be done in terms of reform, so that Ukraine can very quickly be eligible for IMF support, and of course, the nation-states represented in the – at the negotiations and the United States and Russia have a role to play in support that would come through the IMF. But then, as you know, an IMF agreement unlocks all kinds of other vehicles – EU vehicles, U.S. vehicles, EBRD, other kinds of international support – that could help the Ukrainians make the structural adjustments and transition their economy back to good health.

So we’ve been talking about the opportunities that are available through the IMF for months and months and months with the Ukrainians. But we have particularly accelerated those those discussions in very concrete terms with the government and with the opposition over the last month or so, including, as I said, through these many calls between Vice President Biden and President Yanukovych, making clear to him that if he were prepared to adopt constitutional reform, if he were prepared to have a broad-based national unity government that knew what needed to be done with the IMF and was empowered to do it, that he would have strong support from the United States during that process and after that process, and we expected we – from our European partners as well, and that that was a far more sustainable path to stabilizing the Ukrainian economy than any other path on offer.

QUESTION: Just one other thing. Do you believe that elections in such a short time – I mean credible elections that could be free and fair can be organized in such a short time?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As you know, there is an enormous demand for new elections, and it’s very deep and broad across the political spectrum in Ukraine. We certainly share the view of the opposition that there needs to be a new electoral law and there needs to be a new electoral commission which is more proportional to the balance of power inside Ukraine before elections happen. So we were gratified to see that that was an agreed tenet of the agreement that was made, but we think that once those things are in place, assuming goodwill on all sides and international observation as is the norm in OSCE space, that there can be free and fair elections, yes, before the end of the year, if not sooner.

MODERATOR: Okay, and this will be our final question. Operator, please open up the line for our final question.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to Peter Baker with The New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing the call. I appreciate it. Hey, just – you may have said this – and if you did, I apologize I missed it – but who initiated the call between the two presidents today, President Putin and President Bush? And --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: President Putin and President Obama?

QUESTION: Sorry. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Are you the guy who wrote a book about (inaudible)?

QUESTION: On the brain. Sorry. Yes, stuck in the past. (Laughter.) President Obama and President Putin.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It was our initiative today.

QUESTION: Okay. And then you mentioned that Vice President Biden had an hour on the phone with Yanukovych. Is there any more you can say about how that conversation played out? That’s an awfully long time, obviously, at a time when Yanukovych obviously had a lot of things going on.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The – yeah. I mean, this conversation took place in the late afternoon yesterday, so they were really in the middle of negotiating this deal and the Vice President was extremely firm that particularly and in light of the horrific violence and the actions of Ukrainian security forces over the preceding hours, that the space for a democratic peaceful outcome here was closing extremely fast, that as leader of his nation it was in Yanukovych’s power to make wise choices to de-escalate, and that the first thing that had to happen was to end the violence, call his forces off the streets, call for them to stand down, and that only if that first step was made would there be the space for the kind of political compromise that they were negotiating, and then assuming that that could happen, to work as quickly as possible to conclude an agreement that allowed for real political reform, a real government of national technical unity, a road back to the IMF, and elections.

So very much in lockstep with what the EU was working on in the room with him, but the first emphasis was on the fact that there would be no space for the opposition to make a deal if the killing of innocent Ukrainians did not stop. And it is because these guys have this longstanding relationship, because the Vice President has been so involved at every key twist and turn in this, that he has some trust and credibility in the bank with President Yanukovych at these key moments, and to make it clear that if Yanukovych made wise decisions, the United States would be with him, but if he did not, he would be increasingly isolated, was an important point to make. Yanukovych very much took it on board, he listened, he pledged to make wise decisions. But I think the timing of the call was particularly important.

More broadly, I think we’ve been able to be – to have an impact at key moments throughout this. As I said, nine calls at key moments by the Vice President to Yanukovych, but also very strong intersections at key moments by Secretary Kerry, including, you’ll remember, the night that Yanukovych moved his forces the first time against the Maidan, which was the night of December 10th, and Secretary Kerry was the first to come out and call it a disgusting move. It sort of shocked the system in Ukraine, brought people into the Maidan, and helped end – avoid further bloodshed that night.

Then you remember when the black laws were passed, which closed – on January 16th, which closed the space for political opposition. Kerry again came out the next day and made clear that these were absolutely unacceptable and had to be repealed – one of the first public statements to say that this had to end – even before the street turned to violence. And then again, his work with the opposition throughout this period in Munich since then and again today.

QUESTION: Thanks very much.

MODERATOR: Okay, so that concludes our call for this evening. I want to thank everybody for joining us. A reminder that this call has been on background, attributed to a senior State Department official. The call was recorded. There will be a transcript that will be released later on this evening. And if we were not able to get to your question this evening, please give us a call at the State Department Press Office and we will get an answer for you. Thank you.