Background Briefing to Preview Secretary Kerry's Travel to Russia and Turkey

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En Route Sochi, Russia
May 11, 2015


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. Welcome, everybody. We are en route with the Secretary to Sochi, Russia, and then onto Antalya, Turkey.

In Sochi, the Secretary anticipates seeing Foreign Minister Lavrov and then having a meeting with President Putin later this – tomorrow afternoon. In Antalya, as you know, there is a meeting of NATO foreign ministers that begins on the 13th. Secretary will have a chance to see all of the NATO foreign ministers on Wednesday morning, give them a debrief from his meetings in Sochi, talk about Iran, give his views on the NATO agenda. He’ll also have a number of bilateral meetings in Antalya. He’ll see Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin to share views on Sochi. He will see NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg. He will see Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu. He will then depart Antalya so that he can make it back to Washington in time for the President’s dinner with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Key subjects that we anticipate discussing in Sochi with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov include next steps in the P5+1 negotiations on Iran – we’re coming into the final six weeks, it’s important to stay tightly aligned; the regional issues that are hot, including Yemen, Libya. We’ll also anticipate talking about the threat from ISIL, and particularly events in Syria. And then, of course, we’ll discuss Ukraine and the vital importance of full and fast and complete implementation of the Minsk agreements.

With that, why don’t we go to what’s on your minds.

MODERATOR: Matt, do you want to start

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Michael.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], Secretary Kerry met with Putin two years ago on the Syria situation which led to a Geneva II meeting that was not productive, and in which the Russians did not play, according to Robert Ford, much of a constructive role.

And on Ukraine, the State Department just a few weeks ago asserted that Russia’s persistently violated the Minsk II accords by moving air defense – more air defenses into eastern Ukraine, training troops, and not removing their forces. Why did you decide this is an auspicious time to meet with Putin and revisit these issues?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think, as I said at the beginning, there are a number of issues where we are involved with Russia now that are quite hot. So the first one, obviously, as I said, six weeks from finishing, we hope, the Iran negotiations; important to stay aligned. The Secretary, as you know, has been talking individually to P5+1 partners. He just saw Zarif in New York. He wants to ensure that President Putin has a good sense of President Obama’s requirements as we head into the endgame here, and that we stay tightly aligned as we have because that’s been the most effective way.

With regard to ISIS, I don’t have to tell this crew what we’re seeing out there. It’s – we are involved in a global coalition. The Russians, while formally not members of that coalition, are important players. ISIS threatens them, ISIS threatens us. And particularly, as we begin to make progress in Iraq, we have to talk about what’s happening in Syria and to see, again, whether there’s more we can do together. We have, when the U.S. and Russia have worked together, made progress on Syria. We made progress in the chemical weapons. There’s more to do, obviously; we can talk about that. But there’s also quite a serious ISIL threat there that’s imperiling other countries in the region and both of us.

As I said, Yemen is at a critical moment. We’ve had intensive conversations with the players; compare notes with Russia on that. Libya – there may be UN Security Council action required in near days and weeks. It’ll be important to have Russia aligned with us and on side supporting the UN talks.

And on Ukraine, for all the reasons that you cited, Michael, it is a critical moment to begin to see the next steps in concrete implementation of Minsk, whether it is finally getting a ceasefire in these hotspots, using these working groups that have now been established to begin to address the real situation on the ground. As you know, Chancellor Merkel just had a chance to discuss these issues in some detail with President Putin. The U.S. is not one of the Normandy parties for a number of reasons that make a lot of sense, but it’s important for the main decision maker on Ukraine, President Putin, to hear directly from the United States that we are firmly committed to Minsk implementation and we want to support those steps that need to be taken now to make it work.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], on both Syria and on Ukraine, do you see any reason to believe that the Russians may be any more cooperative than they have been in the past? On Syria in particular, do you think that the losses that the Syrian Government has suffered in recent weeks might make the Russians more willing to work with you on this? And on Ukraine, are you going not just to explore but also perhaps to threaten again additional sanctions if there is not full implementation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Arshad, I think among the reasons to make this trip is to see how the Russians are thinking about Syria, see whether they see opportunity to do more together, but we won’t know until we have these meetings.

On the Minsk side, we’ve been very, very clear publicly that if Minsk is fully implemented, when it’s fully implemented, including restoration of the sovereign border, there’ll be an opportunity to roll back sanctions. We’ve also made clear that if there is – are more serious violations that the pressure will increase. So what we want to do is get down to some of the efforts now on the ground to implement Minsk, make it absolutely clear that that’s what we want to see and we’re willing to be helpful and to see where – how the Russians perceive the situation now.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official], Felicia from the Journal. I wanted to see if you could give any more of a tick-tock of how the visit came together and the timing in terms of when were we talking to the Russians about coming to visit and why now. And then also, we’re not a Normandy partner, but is there any possibility or desire that we would be in the future?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think it’s no secret to this crew that the Secretary has believed for some time that we need to have these kinds of direct conversations. For quite some time, it’s been difficult to do it, particularly with regard to Ukraine, because the violence was raging quite intensely in January and February. There is a question now whether this might not be a better moment. I think we’ll see how things – how things go. But I spoke a little bit earlier to why we’re going now. The Secretary and Lavrov have been talking for some time about when the conditions might be ripe, and we obviously wanted to make sure that if he was going to make the trip, he’d get a chance to talk to the main decision maker.

MODERATOR: Anyone else? Michele?

QUESTION: I asked also – you said that we weren’t a part of the Normandy discussions. Is there any chance that we would be in the future or want to be?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the United States made clear throughout this that we were prepared to be helpful in any way the folks thought would be useful, including participating directly if that’s helpful. I think that offer is still open, but right now there’s a pretty good structure in place. What we see as most important now is that these four concrete working groups that consist of Ukraine, the OSCE, and Russia, and provide an opportunity for the separatists to also participate actually get going so that we can see whether that kind of direct dialogue on the details produces a better life on the ground for the people and more implementation of Minsk.

Michele.

QUESTION: Hi. Yeah, I don’t know if you saw the foreign ministry statement announcing this trip, but it was quite a lengthy one blasting the U.S. for responsibility for the downturn in relations with Russia and including blaming the U.S. for the conflict in Ukraine. I wonder if that’s – what your response to that is.

And secondly, on the question of Ukraine, whatever happened to the idea of helping the Ukrainians with defensive weapons? Is that still just sitting in the White House?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve been very, very clear what our views are of how things – how and why things began in Ukraine. They began on the Maidan when former President of Ukraine Yanukovych turned his back on a promise he’d made to the Ukrainian people to go forward with Europe. We have tried, as you know, for more than a year to try to help facilitate peace and security, sovereignty, territorial integrity in Ukraine. I’m not going to have an argument with the Russian narrative here.

With regard to U.S. security support for Ukraine, I don’t have anything new to announce. I think you know that we are providing nonlethal security support at the – to the amount of almost $130 million, and we are also now training the Ukrainian National Guard in western Ukraine.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Can I try again perhaps on the purpose of why we’re going? You have not got anywhere with Russia for the past two years. Why is it now, and to quote your words back at you, that there is a feeling this might be a better moment? Why now? The conflict in Ukraine still remains unresolved, and if that’s the case, should we foresee that there could be some actual deliverables out of this meeting? Are you hoping for something concrete? Have you been in touch with – your people with their people? Do you think something might come out of the meeting?

And just one logistical question: Is this the highest-level visit since Secretary Kerry’s last visit in May 2013? Thank you.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) higher level (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the last question, it’s the highest-level visit to Russia certainly since – since then, for obvious – for obvious reasons. I was last there in December of ’13.

MODERATOR: We had an Olympics delegation.

QUESTION: That was the last time --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Obviously, we had an – yeah, we had a delegation to the Sochi Olympics, which was --

MODERATOR: That was a little different.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, the President last had a conversation with Putin during the Asia events, Asia summits in November of ’14 in Beijing and in – I want to say Bali. I’m proving now that I’m not an Asianist. But --

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], (inaudible) was Kerry’s last meeting (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Secretary Kerry was last in Moscow on that trip that we made in the winter or spring of – spring of ’13, right? Yeah. May of ’13.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question about why now (inaudible). There’s a lot of skepticism amongst us about what this will actually achieve.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, I think it’s important for us to keep these lines of communication open. It’s important to try to talk to the senior decision maker. We have an opportunity to do that. We have a lot of business that we could do together if there is interest. We are doing some very significant business together already with regard to Iran. So we’ll see. I’m not going to foreshadow what’s going to happen in the meeting before we have the meeting, but we’ll see what we get – what happens.

QUESTION: A couple things, [Senior State Department Official]. One on Iran: Will the Secretary be bringing up the S-300 issue? And on – I’ll start with that, and then I – one other one which I can’t remember at the moment, but I’ll remember it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would guess that he would, yes.

QUESTION: I guess you’re still opposed to it, right? You’re still opposed to it?

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], just to clarify something I think you said, when you referred to the Syrian CW, I think you said there might be more that could be done there. There’s been concern, obviously, in recent months that the regime is using chlorine and perhaps more than chlorine in its attacks on whoever it’s attacking these days. Is that something that you foresee – because the U.S. and Russia jointly worked to get the agreement to eliminate the CW, is there something to be done there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m confident that the Secretary will make clear that our view is that the job is not done and raise concerns about chlorine, among other things.

QUESTION: Just on that, have you seen the latest reports – it was in the last couple of days. We had one about traces of other chemical weapons that the OPCW has – believes it has found in Syria. I think it included sarin. Is that part of what you might talk about on the chemical weapons side?

And then just lastly – well, no. I give up. That’s it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think I – beyond saying that there’s more work to do, I don’t have anything further on concrete things.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: On energy, you guys are a European diversification – you guys are basically neck and neck, back and forth. The latest was the Greeks; Gazprom goes in, makes an offer, then the Greek foreign minister comes here and the Secretary tells him, well, let’s see if we can do – we’ll see if we can make you a better offer. Yeah, exactly. So are you going to tell the Russians to back off, back down, especially as it relates to Greece and that spur that we were talking about when we were in Bulgaria last year, I guess?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think our view is pretty well known that European countries need to diversify the sources and the types of supply. We haven’t made any secret of that.

QUESTION: Last one on the – on the S-300, you are going to restate your opposition to it? And are you going to ask them to not sell it or to suspend?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we – it’ll certainly come up, and we’ll talk to you about the conversation afterwards.

MODERATOR: Anyone else?

QUESTION: You can’t even say (inaudible)?

QUESTION: You can’t say you’re opposed to it?

MODERATOR: So for the transcript, we’ve been clear that we oppose the sale of it, we’ve long opposed it, and our position on that hasn’t changed.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Terry.

QUESTION: On Iran, do you expect the Secretary to specifically discuss the formulation of the snapback sanctions and how that could actually be worked through with the Security Council?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve already had extensive conversations about that. We’ll see. Obviously, with Foreign Minister Lavrov, they’ll align positions at whatever level of detail they need to to go into the next phase. I don’t know whether President Putin will want to go into those kinds of details. Obviously, the Secretary will be prepared to if he needs to.

Anyone else?

MODERATOR: Thanks, guys.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks.

QUESTION: Real quick, [Senior State Department Official]. Putin’s spokesperson said that the meeting wasn’t confirmed, but you have all the guarantees that the meeting is confirmed, right? You don’t expect him to stand you up?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We usually don’t go to Sochi to see Foreign Minister Lavrov.