Background Briefing on Secretary's Travel to Geneva
MODERATOR: Well, yes, just – Senior State Department Official previewing the Secretary’s trip to Geneva for the quad meeting. We’ll start off by just giving an overview of the visit.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So as you know, this is a quadrilateral meeting among Secretary Kerry, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Deshchytsya, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and EU High Representative Ashton. The idea here is that it has been difficult to get real dialogue going between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has a lot to say about the situation inside Ukraine at the same time that its own behavior has been extremely destabilizing in the east, and therefore Ukraine has a lot to say about what Russia has been up to.
So the idea here is to try to provide a space where the U.S. and the EU can sit with Russia and Ukraine and can look, first and foremost, for ways to de-escalate the security situation which has gotten significantly more perilous over the last 10 days thanks to the separatist and destabilizing activity in the east of Ukraine and the seizure of buildings and equipment, we believe aided and abetted by Russian organization, Russian support, Russian money. So first and foremost, to see whether there are steps that can be taken to de-escalate the situation primarily in these hotspot locations, but also to address the intimidational factor of some 40,000 Russian troops sitting just on the eastern borders of Ukraine.
The second topic will be the question of constitutional reform. As you know, the Russians have been quite insistent that power inside Ukraine needs to be more decentralized to the regions, that the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers need better protection. The Ukrainian Rada has formed a constitutional reform commission and they are looking at a broad package of constitutional reforms which address, among other things, decentralization, allowing the regions to keep more of their money, to elect their leaders, to have more of a say in federal affairs than they’ve had in the past. Just to remind that Ukraine has in recent history been a highly centralized state, and in part, that also, in the past, served Moscow’s interest when it had a friend in Bankova, the presidency in Kyiv.
So there is a constitutional reform process underway. The Ukrainian view is that they have worked very hard in this process to open space for legitimate concerns, legitimate grievances, including those of people in the east to be addressed, and they want to see this process used for that rather than have citizens of Ukraine or external actors try to change facts on the ground through force. So we expect that the Ukrainians will brief on what they are up to, will provide an opportunity for Russia, for the U.S., for the EU to ask questions, to provide advice, to provide support to that process.
But the goal here is to make the case that grievances and concerns about decentralization, about minority rights, about power-sharing can be addressed constitutionally, can be addressed through democratic processes, and that violence is therefore unnecessary. And there is clearly an intersection between agenda item one, de-escalation, and constitutional reform.
Third, there’s going to be a presidential election in Ukraine on May 25th. The Ukrainians are intensively involved in preparing for that. There are some 23 candidates declared. There will also be one of the largest per capita monitoring missions, both OSCE and national, that the transatlantic space has ever seen – the Euro-Atlantic space has ever seen for these elections. So the Ukrainians will also brief on that and there’ll be an opportunity to offer support, ask questions, et cetera. And again, the 23 candidates represent every single color of the Ukrainian political spectrum, so no matter what your political view, there’s somebody to vote for.
The last agenda item that is agreed is to talk about economics. As you know, Ukraine is on its way to an IMF program, but it has enormous other needs to implement that program and to implement other reforms, particularly in the anticorruption space and in energy efficiency, et cetera. And it’s also in a dispute with Russia about what it owes in terms of gas debt, what the price of gas is going to be going forward, and this is also connected to the EU’s relationship with Russia. As you saw, because it was made public, President Putin sent a relatively threatening letter to 18 European leaders regarding Russia and Ukraine’s energy relationship and the potential for that to affect gas flows to Europe. So there’s a lot to talk about.
Why don’t I pause there?
QUESTION: Given that things have gotten much worse, even in the five days since you announced this meeting on Friday with the events over the weekend, what makes you think that – in eastern Ukraine – what makes you think that the Russians have any genuine interest in finding a de-escalatory path here?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, that’s the proposition that we have to test in this meeting. We will come into this meeting, the Ukrainians will come into this meeting with concrete ideas about how the security situation could be de-escalated, about how legitimate issues can be addressed through constitutional reform, through Ukrainians having the right to choose their next leader, and we’ll see if there is interest in that.
As you know, we have been – the United States and European countries have been asking Russia to distance itself from this separatism and violence that’s been going on in the last two weeks. We have yet to see a Russian decision to do that, but that’s obviously one thing that they could do. And there are any number of other things, so we’ll see.
QUESTION: Can you say --
QUESTION: It sounds like the EU, the U.S., and Ukraine are prepared to kind of bend over backwards to show Russia that it wants to come to some kind of settlement. You mentioned that – the constitutional reform and the other very pertinent thing, that --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Actions.
QUESTION: Yes, right. So, I mean, is that a fair characterization, that this is kind of Ukraine’s last kind of, hey, we are willing to really bend over backwards to work with you all to try and get this done?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What the Ukrainians tell us is that they have wanted to have this conversation intensively with Russia for weeks, if not months. They have wanted to have fora where they could work through any of these issues that the Russians are talking about publicly but have not been willing to engage privately with them on. So from their perspective, having the U.S. and the EU part of those conversations can only help test, again, whether Russia is willing to do this diplomatically.
QUESTION: Can you say specifically what are the sort of de-escalatory steps you would like to be taken within Ukraine and on the part of the Russian forces near Ukraine? And the Administration’s been considering additional sanctions. Do you – if no progress is made at this meeting, do you think decisions will be made forthwith on those additional sanctions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of some of the --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So with regard --
QUESTION: Specific steps.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: With regard to de-escalation, the Ukrainians have offered amnesty to anybody who will lay down their weapons and come out and negotiate. They’ve offered to set up negotiating fora. There are many ideas. I would expect there’ll be more put on the table in these talks.
With regard to sanctions --
QUESTION: What about the Russians today?
QUESTION: And waiting on them to --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the idea here is that they would stop aiding and abetting and supporting these separatists and that they would pull their troops back from the border.
QUESTION: And what about sanctions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: With regard to sanctions, the President’s been very clear that if Russia does not take this opportunity to de-escalate, the costs are going to go up.
QUESTION: Individuals or sectoral sanctions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Watch this space.
MODERATOR: All right.