Senior State Department Official on Secretary Kerry's Travel to Brussels, Pristina, Belgrade, Nicosia, and Athens

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
December 1, 2015


MODERATOR: Okay. So folks, you know [Senior State Department Official]. [Senior State Department Official] will be today on background as a senior State Department official. Our senior State Department official will have a few opening comments to preview some of the events for the next couple of days, and then we’ll get to your questions. We’ve got about 15 minutes for this. And with that, over to our briefer.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks everybody for joining us. As you know, after he is with the President at the Paris COP meetings, the Secretary on Tuesday begins – or continues with five other European stops.

Can you hear me? [Moderator], is the sound okay?

OPERATOR: You’re coming through clear on the phone lines, [Senior State Department Official]..

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: [Moderator], can you hear me? Doesn’t sound like they can hear me on the road. [Moderator], can you hear me?

STAFF: We’ll just get – this is [Staff]. I think we’ll get it figured out. Just one second.

All right, I think we’ll try this again. Can you hear us, [Senior State Department Official]?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can hear you. Can you hear me?

STAFF: Yes. Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, starting again. So beginning midday Tuesday, the Secretary will do five more stops in Europe: Brussels, Belgium for the NATO ministerial; Pristina, Kosovo for a bilateral visit; Belgrade, Serbia for the annual OSCE ministerial and a call on the Serbian prime minister; Nicosia, Cyprus to support the ongoing UN-facilitated process of talks; and Athens, Greece for a bilateral visit.

I thought I’d walk quickly through the schedule and we’ll talk a little about the (inaudible). The Secretary arrives in Brussels at about midday on – tomorrow, on Tuesday. He will start with the usual signals check with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. Then the first NATO ministerial session is on Afghanistan. It’s the session on the Resolute Support Mission. This follows the President’s decisions and NATO’s own decisions to continue the mission. They’ll be talking about that.

Just to remind that at NATO we are at the midway point between the Wales NATO summit which was in September of ’14 and the next NATO summit – the last for President Obama – which is Warsaw in July of 2016. As you know, NATO has been intensely involved in strengthening and providing reassurance and persistent presence along its eastern edge in the context of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and as a deterrent. A lot of this NATO meeting will be checking up on that work but will also be focused on strengthening NATO’s role and allies’ individual roles to the south of the alliance, where there are obviously threats from ISIL and other challenges. So this is an important meeting to ensure that on the way to the Warsaw summit NATO has strong policy, has strong defenses and capabilities for challenges both to its east and to its south.

So that – on Tuesday we will do the checkup on Afghanistan. The Secretary will also have a number of bilateral meetings with allies while he is in Brussels. We expect him to see, among others, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu; he’ll meet his new Canadian counterpart; he will see EU High Rep Mogherini; and I would expect him to do a couple of other bilaterals tomorrow afternoon, so watch this space.

Tuesday evening is the NATO ministerial dinner. It is a chance for allies (inaudible) confidential session about some of the most important challenges. We’ll have a little bit more for you on the dinner subject as we get closer to that, and obviously, after the dinner.

Wednesday morning the NATO ministerial meetings continue. We expect the first session to be on NATO’s open door and an assessment of the four candidates who aspire to NATO membership; that is, Bosnia, Macedonia, Georgia, and Montenegro. And then at 10:15, the NATO-Ukraine meeting with Foreign Minister Klimkin, where we will have a chance to look not only at Ukraine’s own work on – particularly on the security side, but also NATO’s partnership with Ukraine and the trust funds and training that all allies are committed to.

Then the Secretary will have a presser and we’ll be off in the early afternoon for Pristina, Kosovo. That will be a relatively compact stop. He’ll have a chance to meet jointly with the Kosovo leadership, with Prime Minister Mustafa, with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thaci, and with Deputy Prime Minister Stojanovic. He’ll then give a press statement with Prime Minister Mustafa and also have a chance to greet some of the young Kosovars who have been beneficiaries of U.S. exchange programs and who have returned to Kosovo to work both in the government, in journalism, and in the NGO sector to strengthen their country.

I think you know that the U.S. has been a strong supporter of Kosovo, particularly since independence. We’ve also played a strong role in supporting the EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo that is led by High Rep Mogherini. We had considerable progress in the dialogue over the course of the summer, but we’ve also had some internal turbulence in Kosovo. We’ve had the parliament blocked by the opposition. There were some arrests over the weekend which were pursuant to some of the criminal activity in the parliament. So this is a chance for the Secretary to stand strong with Kosovo and tell those who are seeking a strong, democratic, prosperous country that we support them.

He then goes on to Belgrade. Belgrade is the current chairman-in-office of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the 57-member organization that stretches all the way from – that includes the U.S. and Canada, all the states of Europe, and the Central Asian countries. He’ll start on Wednesday evening with a bilateral meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Vucic that will also be about our efforts to strengthen democracy, rule of law, integration into Europe of Serbia, and I would expect they’ll also talk about the Serb-Kosovo dialogue in that meeting.

Thursday begins the OSCE ministerial. Per tradition, the Secretary will start with a meeting with civil society leaders from across the OSCE region. These are generally human rights activists supporting free media, supporting political pluralism, supporting the rights of minority populations across the region. They gather in parallel to the ministers’ meeting, and the Secretary will have a chance to exchange views with them.

We then go on to the formal ministerial, and the Secretary will give our statement. As you know, the OSCE has had a renaissance of sorts in responding to the crisis in Ukraine. It is supplying the main monitors working to implement the Minsk agreements, particularly the pullback of heavy weapons. It also played a strong role in Ukraine through three rounds of elections at the presidential, parliamentary, and most recently at the local level, and will have to play a strong role as we continue to try to implement Minsk, including if and when we can – the Ukraine and its – and the parties to Minsk can get to Donbass elections. So that will be a chance to review that work and also the very important work that OSCE does across the space, particularly supporting free media, pluralism, and human rights. And the Secretary will also see some of the Central Asians there. He’ll have bilateral meetings for sure in Belgrade on the side of this meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin and separately with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.

We then take off that late afternoon for Cyprus. As you probably have been watching, the parties to the Cyprus conflict have been engaged in a very intensive effort facilitated by UN Special Representative Espen Barth Eide to come to a lasting settlement. This is something that we have strongly supported, seeking to reunify the island as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. The parties have been meeting at the level of Greek Cypriot President Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Akinci, both virtually and (inaudible) throughout the fall, and they have made considerable progress. There are issues still ahead of them. The Secretary has been supportive of this process. He saw both President Anastasiades and Leader Akinci in New York.

We have also been – I flew out there in the fall. The Vice President’s been involved. So we’ve been strong supporters of this process. It’s a chance for the Secretary to hear from the leaders separately and then together. He will have a joint dinner with President Anastasiades and with Leader Akinci, and with UN negotiator/facilitator Espen Barth Eide that evening – how it is going, how the U.S. can be helpful, and to be supportive of their efforts to come to an agreement on this bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.

We also hope that he’ll have a chance to meet some young Cypriots from both sides of the island who are supportive of this process.

So that is Thursday. So separate meetings with the foreign minister and president of Cyprus, Leader Akinci, and then (inaudible) with Espen Barth Eide, President Anastasiades, and Leader Akinci.

The next morning, we will take off for Athens. This is the Secretary’s first opportunity to have a bilateral visit in Athens, although he did see Prime Minister Tsipras at the UN and they had a long bilateral meeting. This is an opportunity for us to continue our strong support for Cyprus’s economic recovery, to – and also to see how they’re doing in light of the enormous numbers of migrants and refugees who have been landing on Greece’s shores. We also work with Greece on everything from counter-ISIL to Cyprus to the Macedonia name issue. So it’s a big plate of things that we’ll be discussing. We expect the Secretary to make a stop at an Athens-based refugee center before he starts his day, and to make some announcements about U.S. support for efforts to manage the problem in Europe in cooperation with UN agencies. He’ll then meet with Foreign Minister Kotzias and have a press avail with him, and then he’ll have lunch with Prime Minister Tsipras on all of the issues that we discussed.

I am going to pause there.

MODERATOR: Go ahead, guys.

QUESTION: Hi. Hey, [Senior State Department Official], it’s Arshad. Three quick things. One, can you give us tangible examples of the kinds of things that NATO will be discussing on strengthening its defensive capabilities both to the east and to the south? Second, what’s he going to talk to Lavrov about? And third, although you say that U.S. support for Kosovo has been strong, I looked at the numbers on the website and U.S. assistance to Kosovo appears to have been declining over the last three years. The numbers for FY ’13, ’14, and ’15 show they went down from 60-some million to 50-some million to 40-some million. Why is that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good. So in terms of NATO support to the east, I think, though, that we (inaudible) all 28 allies supporting persistent rotations on land, sea, and air in the three Baltic states, in Poland, in Romania, in Bulgaria – also some presence in Slovakia, in Hungary. We will ensure that those rotations stay filled throughout ’16. We will also check up on the efforts that NATO has now underway with all of those nations to establish headquarters, elements, so that in the event of a contingency NATO would have an operational command center in each of these countries, the prepositioning of equipment, et cetera. So that’s what we’ll be working on with regard to the eastern strategy as well through the NATO-Ukraine Commission, our strong support for security in Ukraine.

To the south, NATO – all NATO nations have made a contribution and are members of the counter-ISIL coalition. They are largely supporting operations in Iraq, including the provision of weapons to the Iraqis and to the Peshmerga. We’ll be looking at how NATO, as an institution, can do more to support the counter-ISIL operations. The Secretary, I expect, will also continue the press that he’s been making on individual allies to do more to join the fight against ISIL in Syria and also to help defend our Turkish allies. So we have a number of allies who are considering increasing their effort to support Turkish sovereignty and security, but also looking at operations in Syria, adding to what the French have been doing over recent weeks. The Secretary will make the case that we need even more, and he’ll obviously update folks on what the U.S. is doing militarily and on his strong efforts through the Vienna process to bring together a political process and a political settlement. So that’ll be very much the focus of the conversations on the south.

NATO also has training programs with Jordan, with Iraq. It has an offer out to Libya when Libya is ready to take up that offer. So – and as well as to Georgia and to Moldova. So we’ll be looking at what NATO is currently accomplishing in those training efforts to strengthen regional partners, which is very much one of the tools for export of NATO these days – capability building with our partner ally – partner countries. And we’ll be looking at how that is going and what more we can do on the way to the Warsaw summit.

With regard to the bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, as you know, they’ve been having an intensive dialogue in support of the Vienna process – political process on Syria. I think the Secretary will want to update Foreign Minister Lavrov in person on the conversations he had with Gulf allies and partners on his most recent trip, the plans for the work with the Syrian opposition over the next week or two, and when and how we should have a follow-on meeting at ministers’ level in the Vienna process. As you know, they will likely talk about the aftermath of the shootdown of the Russian airliner and our continued efforts to try to de-escalate tensions between Russia and Turkey (inaudible) get everybody focused on fighting ISIL. So I think that’ll be a big subject.

As we always do, the Secretary will bring up Ukraine and talk about our concerns that we need to accelerate the Minsk implementation process. We’re particularly concerned now that after a long period of relatively successful ceasefire, we now have separatists with Russian support increasing tensions on the line of contact. That makes it much more difficult to implement other aspects of Minsk that need to move forward, including the political process. So he’ll be seeking to support European efforts to reinvigorate Minsk implementation as well, and we’ll see what other issues come up.

You’re right: Budgets on Kosovo have been going down. In part, that speaks to Kosovo’s growing strength as an independent country. It is eager to increasingly be able to support itself. The support that we give now is primarily in the areas of rule of law, support for countering violent extremism, foreign fighters, and for the (inaudible) dialogue. So those are the kinds of things that we’re supporting. I think one of the messages that the Secretary will bring to Kosovo is that the more they do on improving the climate for investment, the more we can interest U.S. and European companies in investing in Kosovo, and that’s obviously the direction to move from aid to trade.

QUESTION: Hi. [Senior State Department Official], it’s Brad. Can you hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Further on the talks with Lavrov, what are you looking at specifically to kind of bring down tensions between Russia and Turkey, and how can the U.S. mediate on this? And are you worried that Russia sending the S-400s and possibly further defensive or offensive equipment, however you want to call it, will make NATO’s job more difficult when it operates in Syria?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we want to – we want to see the Russians and the Turks talk directly with each other. There is some expectation that Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu will meet. There is a question as to whether President Putin and President Erdogan will see each other on the margins of the Paris talks. The Turks, as you know, have made clear that they regret the results. The Russians have been relatively hot in their rhetoric, which we would like to see calm down. We’d also like to see an end to this collateral action – trade embargos, et cetera. More importantly, the Russians and the Turks need to have a conversation about concerns about where the Russians are operating. As the President has said for weeks now, Russia needs to focus its attention on ISIL in its heartland in Syria, and the area where they were operating is not an ISIL heartland. So that would already be a start.

I’m not going to comment on purported plans to bring in more advanced surface-to-air missiles, but beyond saying that such systems would further complicate an already difficult situation that we have in the skies over Syria. So we also expect Russia, obviously, to abide by the memorandum of understanding that we have with regard to de-confliction and particularly with regard to coalition operations.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official], it’s Carol. Can you hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, I can.

QUESTION: I just – I wanted to ask about what you have in mind with talks about countering ISIL. You said you were interested in – the Secretary’s interested in talking to allies about having them do more in the counter-ISIL operations. Can you be a little bit more specific about what you have in mind?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, as you see, the French have stepped up recently. They’ve brought more strikes to the fight. They are operating with us more aggressively in Syria as well as Iraq. We have a number of allies, including the Germans, looking at helping to strengthen Turkish defenses. We will check up on those things and we will encourage other allies who have capability, whether it’s air capability or weapons that they can transfer, to do more to support the coalition. So we’ll take stock of what is being done. We’ll look at whether NATO as an institution can facilitate more of these weapons transfers, more of the training, and we’ll look at whether there are allies who have excess capacity that hasn’t been used yet.

QUESTION: Which allies have capacity that you think could be brought to bear in this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we’ll wait and see how the conversation goes and we’ll come back to you on any new contributions that we’re able to collect on this – at this ministerial.

QUESTION: Do you expect that after what happened in Paris there may be some countries that are more reluctant to get involved?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So far, what happened in Paris is helping crystallize minds in Europe that they have to be active both on the diplomatic side and on the military side if we’re going to beat this scourge that is ISIL.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], can you flesh out a little bit about what the Secretary’s conversation in Pristina about the Kosovar fighters that have been going to Syria will be? Does he want Kosovo to do more to try to prevent those kinds of flows? Does he want to talk to them about ways to make sure that those people, when they come back, don’t use their expertise to cause violence in Kosovo or elsewhere?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Kosovo has seen a large flow of folks to the fight per capita – not larger in numbers than a lot of other European countries, but per capita for sure. This is something that they have taken strongly in hand. They were one of the first to pass counter foreign fighter legislation through the parliament which allows them to lock folks up upon their return as well as break up foreign fighter finance networks. They’ve got a lot more work to do to ensure that there is not pro-ISIL proselytizing in their mosques, particularly in some of these outlying areas. As you know, as in other parts of the world, this is also linked to unemployment, underemployment, which gives folks time on their hands to be recruited. So we’ll have that conversation about countering violent extremism, including by increasing economic opportunity in Kosovo.

One thing I would say is that Kosovo saw a huge outflow in late ’14 and ’15 of internal migrants into the rest of Europe because the economy was in such bad shape, so Kosovars seeking jobs in Germany, Austria, France, because they couldn’t get work at home. With the marginal recovery of the Kosovo economy under this government, folks are starting to come home. That is good news in terms of Kosovo’s posturing in the larger conversation about migrants and refugees in Europe. And we’ll obviously want to get a sense of what’s encouraging those returns home and whether that model can be replicated elsewhere as well.

Okay, guys, I’ll see you tomorrow. Looking forward.

MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody. There’s no embargo on this, but we won’t be posting it till we get to Brussels. Thanks again, [Senior State Department Official]. Appreciate your help.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator.] Bye.