Background Briefing En Route Kyiv, Ukraine

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Officials
En Route Kyiv, Ukraine
February 4, 2015

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right. We are now on background en route to Kyiv, Senior State Department Official.

To tell you the schedule briefly for tomorrow, the Secretary will meet first with President Poroshenko, then he will have a working lunch with Foreign Minister Klimkin, then he will have an afternoon meeting with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, and then we’ll do the press conference. And then we’ll go on to Munich in the evening. At the Munich Security Conference, in addition to speaking at the conference on Sunday with – alongside Foreign Minister Steinmeier of Germany, he will also participate in some of the Vice President’s meetings and have bilateral meetings of his own.

With the Vice President, he will meet with Chancellor Merkel and President Poroshenko together. He will also probably attend the Vice President’s meeting with NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg. With regard to his own meetings, he will meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry. He will meet with foreign ministers and representatives from the Gulf Cooperation countries. He will meet with ROK Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. There will be a P3+1 meeting on Syria. That’s UK, France, Germany, and the U.S.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think we can expect that’s also going to deal with (inaudible) Ukraine.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On Syria. That probably will also touch on Ukraine, says my colleague. And there will be a Quartet principals meeting on Middle East peace on Sunday.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And he will meet on Saturday – much to your chagrin, Matt – and he will meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov on Saturday as well.

In Ukraine, obviously, the Secretary’s objectives are threefold: to continue our strong support for Ukraine’s democratic reform path. As you know, we are working with Ukraine to provide budget support as they complete their negotiations with the IMF.

We are also providing – we’ve also provided almost $350 million since the conflict began in economic and reform support and security support, et cetera. We’ll talk about how that’s going. The Secretary will want an update from the Ukrainian leadership on implementation of reform. As you know, our economic support is tied to the Ukrainians keeping their commitments, particularly in the areas of energy security, reform of the justice sector, fighting corruption, reform of the agricultural sector and various other parts of the economy, cleaning up oligarchical finance, et cetera. So he’ll want an update on all of those things.

And obviously, we’ll be talking about the dire security situation in the east of Ukraine and the grave acceleration of the fighting over the Minsk lines by the separatists enabled by Russian weapons, Russian expertise, Russian command and control. He will be endeavoring to support efforts by the Ukrainians to get to a ceasefire, to get back to serious negotiations in the Trilateral Contact Group where the Minsk signatories – Russia, Ukraine, and the separatists – sit. And he will be offering U.S. support to any diplomatic framework that can be successful in this context.

That’s what I have on the Ukraine stop. Anything on the rest of it? Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, I think I’d just say generally, there will be other meetings that have not been discussed here, and we’ll have more to say about those over the next probably 24 hours or so.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think given the nature of both the Ukraine diplomacy, which is very alive from a large number of countries, there’ll be some mix-and-match meetings over the course of the next three days. And as you can see from the Secretary’s schedule, there are a huge number of players from around the world which give you opportunities to discuss virtually every subject on the Secretary’s plate.

QUESTION: Are you talking about in Munich or in Kyiv?



MODERATOR: Questions?

QUESTION: Since we’re on a background basis, two related questions. You mentioned that he’s been offering U.S. support for a diplomatic framework with regard to Ukraine. From a U.S. perspective, would you countenance changes to the Minsk agreement if it could lead to a peaceful outcome, or at least the prospect or a chance for a peaceful outcome? And then you noted that he would be looking for Ukrainian commitments on economic reform as a – in order to – in return for the economic support. I recognize that no decisions have been made on lethal assistance, but will he be asking for Ukrainian commitments on security sector reform and steps in that area if the U.S. was to make the decision to provide lethal assistance?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, like the Government of Ukraine, like our European partners, the United States strongly supports full implementation of the Minsk agreement. I think the concern has been that the separatists have been unwilling to come to the table to have a serious discussion about how that could be implemented; first and foremost, to get a ceasefire so the killing stops, and then to get heavy weapons rolled back, and then to implement the rest of it.

Obviously, in the context of any negotiation, the Ukrainians have said that they are prepared for appropriate land swaps if that comes up in the context of the discussions. But we have – are so – they are so far from that at the moment because not only are we not talking about Minsk implementation, but the fighting continues. So that’s the first priority is to get the fighting stopped.

With regard to security assistance for the Ukrainians, we have, in the context of the last year, I think you know, have begun a soup-to-nuts train and advise program with the Ukrainians that began with a full audit of their defense and security sector done by our – done by European Command. And that led to considerable recommendations with regard to reform of the military in virtually every sector from procurement to communications to logistics to intelligence, et cetera. So we – in the context of our train and advise program, we are working with them on reform of virtually every aspect of their military and security structure.

QUESTION: Thank you. You and Secretary Kerry and others described a time just a few weeks ago when you thought things were moving in a better direction. Of course, we had the deterioration since then. Didn’t we – didn’t the U.S. misread Putin yet again? And what does that say about prospects for whatever potential agreement – Minsk, Minsk II, or whatever it is – that you come to through your greatest efforts, your best efforts, in coming weeks? What confidence can you have, even if you bring him back to the table and you get something down on paper?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s incumbent on all of us to be optimists that an agreement that has been signed by the Russian Federation, by the separatists, by the Government of Ukraine in September was signed with the intention of honoring it. So that’s what we’ve been seeking to test. Unfortunately, both Russia and the separatists have been failing that test miserably. And as we’ve said all along, if Minsk is implemented, then sanctions can be rolled back. We continue to say that. The Secretary has said that. Relations can improve. Obviously, the sanctions that we have in place for Crimea would stay in place, but other things can happen.

But if, as we are finding now, not only are we not seeing progress on Minsk, but we’re seeing a worsening of the situation, we’re seeing a fueling of the fire by Moscow with new weapons, new advice, new lethality, new encouragement of the separatists to go over the Minsk lines, then the pressure’s going to have to increase. And that’s why we’re talking again with our European allies and partners about the potential need to increase sanctions.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that remains to be seen. I mean, we’ve all seen the damage that this policy of the Kremlin’s is inflicting on the Russian economy, is inflicting on the Russian people. They are paying now for this imperial adventure at the expense of their own livelihood: 10 to 15 percent inflation across Russia, 150 billion-plus in capital flight out of the country just this year, 140 billion in their sovereign wealth funds spent defending the ruble.

Now just to remind that the toughest sanctions we have in place, the – particularly the banking sanctions, the energy sanctions, those that are having the biggest impact on the economy, have only been in place since the end of September. So in just three months, we’ve already seen significant impact. So the longer this goes on, the longer he imperils his own people.

QUESTION: You mentioned earlier we were also delivering humanitarian aid, 16 million. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? And am I – that’s in addition to the 350 million. This is a new humanitarian package; is that correct?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Of the $355 million the U.S. has committed to Ukraine, we’ve committed 22 million already in humanitarian assistance. The Secretary will announce another 16 million in humanitarian assistance tomorrow. I believe you have a fact sheet on that now. That assistance will go to UNHCR, to Ukrainian humanitarian organizations, and to other international humanitarian organizations targeted especially for relief efforts in the east of Ukraine, where the fighting is most severe, and for IDPs coming out of eastern Ukraine. And specifically, we’re helping with shelter, with blankets, with housing, with repairs in cities that have been – that were liberated previously and other kinds of things. And the need is very, very severe now.

MODERATOR: And we’re printing the fact sheet for you so you’ll have it (inaudible).

QUESTION: Given the collapse in talks last week aimed at a ceasefire, what makes you think that Ukraine can get back to the table with the separatists and that Russia is even interested in this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, again, we’ve got to test that. We’ve got to test that now as the talk of pressure increases in the United States, in Europe. As the humanitarian catastrophe that the separatists have wrought in places like Debaltseve and Shchastya and other parts of Donetsk becomes apparent, as they become more and more and more irresponsible in the way they use their weapons in civilian areas – you’ve seen some of the tragedies of recent days and weeks, the firing on Mariupol killing 30 and wounding almost a hundred from 25 kilometers over the ceasefire lines, the bus attack on civilians, the fact that it’s very difficult to get transport in to get people out now.

So we have a Russian Government that is talking the talk of ceasefire, talking the talk of peace, even as it fuels this conflict. So the question is: If the governments of Ukraine, of the United States, of Europe are appealing now for a new sit-down, will the Kremlin spurn that or will they sit down? And will they push their proxies to do the same?

QUESTION: I’m sorry, just one more follow-up. How seriously are you going to be discussing the possibility – this new look, the fresh look by the United States at lethal – supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine? And do you think that by supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons that could fuel the war more?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think it’s helpful at this point for me to go beyond what Jen and others have said on the record on this subject. We continue to evaluate, as the situation on the ground changes, the security needs of the Ukrainians, particularly as they try to defend the Minsk ceasefire line against increasingly lethal weapons sent over the border from Russia. But no decisions have been made.

QUESTION: What’s the threshold for how bad does the violence have to get for the U.S. to consider lethal weapons? I mean, you keep on talking about irrational actor (inaudible). I mean, what’s – I mean, what’s the threshold here? And one can argue that sanctions – I mean, in the example of Iran it took 12 years. It’s a longer game. So what would you say is, like, the bar for U.S. in seeing the continued escalation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think I have anything further to add on the security support question. I would simply say that the toughest sanctions that we’ve put on Russia, that we have had to put on Russia because of the situation, have only been in place since the end of September, and as you can see, they have already had a devastating impact on the Russian economy. So we do think that Russia is feeling it and that the Russian leadership needs to make a decision between the needs of its own people and this imperial adventure.

QUESTION: Recognizing that the U.S. position is that Crimea remains part of Ukraine, we hear very little talk about where Crimea figures in all of this. Is this something you’re going to be discussing as any part of negotiations to try and get Minsk II, or whatever you would like to call it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Crimea comes up in every conversation we have with the Ukrainian Government. I expect it’ll come up tomorrow. I expect you’ll hear the Secretary speak about it. I think you’ve seen the sanctions that both the U.S. and Europe have put on Crimea, a virtual blockade on investment by any of us. The fundamental message here is if you bite off a piece of another country, it’ll dry up like sand in your mouth. So those sanctions will stay in place unless and until Crimea is returned to Ukraine.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Our position on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine has not changed and it very much includes Crimea.

QUESTION: One more just quick question about the defensive weapons, and that is: What kind of feedback have you been getting from other European countries? Are there any others that are willing to do that?

And secondly, on the question of Russian aggressive behavior in the skies, testing European air defenses, is there anything that you and the Europeans are going to do about that at the Munich conference?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Just to remind, there is a NATO defense ministerial going on tomorrow in Brussels concurrently with our being in Kyiv. I think you’ll hear quite a bit out of defense ministers about NATO’s reassurance mission on land, sea, and air all along the eastern edge of the alliance. We are – the United States, as you know, is – along with our allies are flying aircraft. We have ground forces deployed. We have had ships in the Black Sea, and that’s all designed to make it absolutely clear that our Article 5 commitment is rock solid that – and to deter any adventurism in NATO territory. And that will obviously continue.

We are concerned about the dangerous behavior that Russian aircraft in particular have been displaying in recent weeks and months, including flying in NATO and international airspace with their transponders turned off and other things. This has been a subject of demarche to the Russian Federation, and it is basically at least one accident waiting to happen and very, very, very dangerous.

So in the NATO context we’re obviously talking about sharing information about that, about working together to ensure that we are sending a strong message with regard to our commitment to defend our space.

Michele, I can’t remember what your first was.

QUESTION: About the defensive weapons and other European countries (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So we have – all 28 allies are providing some form of security assistance to Ukraine now either bilaterally or through the four NATO trust funds that we talked about in December when we were at the NATO ministerial – everything from cyber security to logistics and other things. A number of allies – and I’ll let them name themselves – are providing defensive security support and weapons and are providing the kinds of things that we have provided. We also think that there are some who are ready to do more and are in consultation with the Ukrainians about that as well.

QUESTION: And if Russia doesn’t retreat to more acceptable lines and levels, what then?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: As I said, the kit bag of potential future sanctions is broad and deep. We don’t want to have to go there, but we are having that conversation with our allies and partners because we might have to.

QUESTION: Based on this fact sheet, this says that Kerry is going to announce that the U.S. Government “intends to provide.” Is there some question about this money? Does it still have to be approved by Congress or something like that? So it should say “will provide,” yes? It’s a definite amount? All right.

And then given the fact that you’ve seen these – the report from Flournoy, et al, saying you should do – you should move to the weapons – the defensive weapons. All – the former secretaries of state who testified before SASC last week, the same thing. I understand that McCain and others tomorrow are going to be having a press conference to demand that the Administration move ahead with this.

Are you not concerned that quite apart from the Ukrainians not getting the kind of assistance that they appear that they need in the face of this new Russian offensive, but are you not at all concerned that 16.4 million in humanitarian aid is going to be just laughed at back in D.C.?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, first to remind that of the 355 that we’ve already provided to Ukraine over the last year-plus, 120 million of that is security sector support and some of the systems that we’ve already been able to give them – the train and advise. We also have from the Congress another – I don’t have the number in front of me – I think it’s another 120-plus in the existing budget, plus the European Reassurance Initiative. So we are in consultations with the Ukrainians about how to use that money. That’s separate and apart from whether we change up the mix of what we give them.

QUESTION: Just one last question. I understand you haven’t made the decision to provide lethal assistance, but are you confident that the Ukrainians are capable of using the weapons appropriately; in other words, that they can use them effectively without collateral damage and that their military is not penetrated by Russian intelligence such that it would pose a problem for the kind of weapons that might be provided?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Obviously, all those factors go into deliberations, have gone into past deliberations in advance of giving the Ukrainians what we have provided and would go into deliberations on any future provision of weaponry. We are not going to be giving them anything that they couldn’t use or wouldn’t use properly.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, everyone. Thanks, everybody.