Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Travel to Moscow, Russia

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
March 23, 2016


MODERATOR: Our briefer this evening – this will be on background as a senior State Department official. I think our briefer will go through a little bit of the schedule for the trip to Moscow and then we’ll have a little bit of time for Q&A. Over to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. Thank you, [Moderator]. We are headed to Moscow overnight. We arrive in the late afternoon. The Secretary’s first thing will be an interview with Rossiya-24 TV host Mikhail Gusman. This will be similar to what we did in December, a short interview ahead of the trip talking about the goals of the trip.

At around 6:00, we will have a roundtable with young Russian professionals. These are folks under --

QUESTION: Wait, [Senior State Department Official], I’m sorry, has that been moved from --

MODERATOR: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

MODERATOR: It got moved up.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Sorry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the young professionals roundtable will be an opportunity for the Secretary to meet with eight or ten Russians from age 30, under 35, under 40, who are involved in different walks of life – entrepreneurship, academia, blogger, to some folks from civil society. We haven’t had a chance to do this with the Secretary before for him to get a feel for what that generation is thinking.

Then he will have dinner with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who will have just completed his own working day in Moscow, so a chance to hear how Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s day went and a pre-brief with him on what the Secretary intends to do. As you know, on all the major subjects that we are working with the Russians, we also work incredibly closely with the Germans.

Thursday morning, NASA Administrator Bolden is in town with some American astronauts to have his own program, so the Secretary will have a chance to say hello to him in the hotel. Then we will have a meeting followed by a lunch with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the MFA team. Then the Secretary will see – will have a little photo with astronaut Scott Kelly, who will be in town with NASA Administrator Bolden. They will have had a really fun day out with some young Russian astronauts out at Star City and seeing school kids, but we will not get to do those things.

And then the meeting with President Putin is in the early evening, and that will be followed by a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov summing up the day.

Just to say that as with our last trip in December, the Secretary has two main subjects for this visit: Ukraine and Syria. This follows on the President’s recent phone call with President Putin about two weeks ago, [Staff], something like that --

STAFF: March 14th – March 15th --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- where they compared notes and where the President asked President Putin to see Secretary Kerry and go deeper on some of these subjects.

On Syria, as you know, with the cessation of hostilities going better than a lot of people expected – albeit with significant violations every day – it’ll be a chance to evaluate where we are there. As you know, we’ve also had a week of UN-led talks. And the Secretary, I think, would like to now really hear where President Putin is in his thinking, and Foreign Minister Lavrov on a political transition. They’ve had quite a bit of contact with Assad in recent weeks, and obviously, if this cessationp of hostilities is going to transform into a true transition for Syria, it’s going to have to involve getting down to brass tacks on what that political transition looks like. So that’ll be the main focus for the Secretary as well as trying to get on the same page in terms of ending the violations that are happening, getting more humanitarian in, et cetera.

On the Ukraine side, as you know, we are not parties to the Normandy format, which is France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia working to implement the Minsk agreements. But we have worked for a long time now to try to support that process. So the Secretary will look forward to also touching base with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov on how they see Minsk. Of particular concern to us, as you know, is the sharp increase in violations of the ceasefire and firing on the contact line that we’ve seen since the new year, but accelerated quite a bit in the last few weeks. Unless and until we can get true quiet on the line and get full OSCE access, it’s going to be hard to move on to the other aspects of Minsk.

Meanwhile, there have been quite extensive negotiations at various levels between the Ukrainians, Russians, the Donbass representatives facilitated by the French and Germans and with us doing what we can to support on the political aspects of a transition, particularly modalities for an election in Donbass and other aspects. So we look forward to hearing how the Russians see those things going. As you know, the President very much wants to see Minsk fully implemented and fully implemented this year, so we want to do our part to encourage the parties in that regard. I’m sure with Foreign Minister Lavrov, other issues will likely come up – Yemen, Libya, DPRK, strategic stability and arms control issues, but we’ll let you know how that goes after we do it.

QUESTION: Can I ask you, before we get into substance, just a couple logistical things? One is: What time is the interview with the Gusman guy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: 6:00 p.m. local.

QUESTION: 6:00, and that’s --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don't know when it’ll air.

QUESTION: -- at the hotel or that’s at the Spaso House?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It looks like it’s at the embassy.

MODERATOR: Yeah, it’s at the embassy.

QUESTION: Okay. And then the Scott Kelly meeting, is there a reason that that can’t be open? And is that at the embassy and what time? Is that replacing Gusman on Thursday at 2:30?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Kelly is at 3:15 at the hotel, and I will defer to those running the show on whether that opens --

QUESTION: Well, no, I mean, at least for a photo op.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It would have been for just official photo.

MODERATOR: It’s just a quick meet and greet.

QUESTION: Yeah, but I mean, the guy – just seems to me that you would want the Secretary of State to have a photograph with a guy who just spent a year in space.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, there is a plan for a photo.

MODERATOR: We do want him – we do want him to have a photograph.

QUESTION: It’s an official photo, you said, not for – not for --

MODERATOR: We can talk about it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think Matt wants to meet Scott Kelly. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I would want to meet Scott Kelly.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s what this is sounding like to me. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And then --

QUESTION: He’s really tall now. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And then the – yeah, (inaudible) – and then the last one is Brussels.

MODERATOR: There’s nothing additional on the schedule right now.

QUESTION: Well, that’s obvious.

MODERATOR: That’s right. That is obvious.

QUESTION: Can we get to – more into substance? Is that – does the U.S. completely understand what the withdrawal announced by Putin – is that part of what this discussion is about? And then exactly – you saw de Mistura say today that he was looking at these – these talks were specifically important to give impetus to the talks, to the negotiations happening in Geneva. Is something likely to come – a decision or something likely to come out of it that would give those talks impetus?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: First, the – President Obama talked to President Putin right after President Putin made the announcement. So we’ve had, directly from President Putin, his explanation of what he was intending. And so far, it’s pretty much followed. He said that he would withdraw about half of his forces and that he would retain enough so that he could either draw down further or come back in as necessary. So it’ll be interesting to see how he evaluates Russia’s posture now. We’ve seen them active in Palmyra, but we’ve also asked them to use more of their influence with the regime because we’re still seeing violations on the regime side. So it’ll be an opportunity to see how they evaluate the ground situation.

And just to remind that we also have had ongoing contact at the expert level and at the senior official level, including today, so we’re continuing to look very closely at the ground situation with the Russians and raise issues that we have.

QUESTION: And then on de Mistura seeking some kind of impetus from these discussions between the Americans and the Russians tomorrow – I mean, is – would you expect something to come out of these talks that would give the negotiations in Geneva that extra push?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, if you’re asking whether talks tomorrow will immediately manifest themselves --

QUESTION: Yes, that’s --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- at de Mistura’s table, I would not be looking for a big headline in that regard. But obviously, what we’re looking for and what we’ve been looking for for a long time is how are we going to transition Syria away from Assad’s leadership. That’s going to be an essential component, particularly for the opposition, and they need to know if the regime is serious about that, if Russia is serious about that. So obviously, any work we’re able to do that clarifies and brings us closer on how a transition could happen will have a positive impact on the talks, and we’ll just have to see.

QUESTION: Because it seems that in – during the talks, one of the issues for the opposition and for the – well, many of the opposition, I guess, is Assad. That’s where it’s kind of reached now from what I can --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s where it’s been for quite a while.

QUESTION: It has, but yeah, especially – especially now when they’re looking at this.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: So would you be expected to seek from the Russians some kind of firm statement of what Assad is thinking as far as transition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, as I said, I think now that we have a cessation of hostilities that is effective to the level that it’s effective, now that the Russians have lightened their own footprint, now that de Mistura is back at the table with the parties, the question is whether we can get down to brass tacks with the Russians on how you go from here to there in terms of transitioning the government. We have not had very detailed conversations before. Whether the Russians weren’t ready, whether Assad wasn’t ready, I don't know. But I think the Secretary wants to test whether we can make more progress on this trip.

QUESTION: They indicated – I mean, when it comes to getting down to brass tacks and transition, I mean, are there any signals lately on – or you any – sense any movement on it or are you --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we’re making the trip so we can see.

QUESTION: That’s – so this is essentially an exploration now that this is --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve always said, as the Secretary has made these trips to Moscow, that on the Russian side, there’s really one decision-maker, and you need to be in the room with him to evaluate what’s possible, and that’s what the Secretary wants to do.

MODERATOR: You guys good?

QUESTION: Dave?

MODERATOR: Over there?

QUESTION: Dave looks like he’s going to --

QUESTION: I was going to ask, do you think Putin – sorry, Dave Clark from AFP – do you think that Putin’s calculus in both Syria and in Ukraine is essentially about building domestic legitimacy, or does he genuinely see strategic interests there that he needs to preserve?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ve never thought it was terribly productive to try to mirror what’s inside President Putin’s head.

QUESTION: But you must have some idea what he’s attempting to do when you decide how to handle it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, obviously, the reason to try to see him again is to get an update on how he sees the situation in both theaters.

QUESTION: And does the announcement of the withdrawal signal that he might have – be changing his political calculus?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it was very popular in Russia when he did his sort of mission accomplished and when he gave awards to the various Russian military who had participated. So that’s also one advantage to going to Moscow. We can see how – we can get a sense of the mood in the country.

QUESTION: And what’s – so what’s a win from this trip? Is it just fact-finding or is there something that you – we’ll be able to see that’ll make us feel like this trip went well?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think you know Secretary Kerry well enough to know that he believes in putting in air miles and putting in shoe leather to try to build common ground, and that’s what this is about.

QUESTION: How do you see the Brussels attacks affecting – or how do you see that coming into the discussions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we’ll have to see. I mean, I think it’s – we’ve all been watching the situation in Brussels, we’ve all been watching the crew that was responsible for the Paris attacks. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Russians have any particular insights, but from where we’re sitting, it’s all part of this larger ISIL threat that we’re trying to attack. So on our side, obviously, it gives a sense of urgency. We’ll see what – how it affected the Russians.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. standpoint on “Assad must go” still the same?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is.

QUESTION: That there will be a transition of six months – six months’ transition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m not going to get into the details, but we hold to the framework that we set in Geneva, and now we have to see that piece implemented.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Ukraine --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- Savchenko?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Secretary will certainly raise Savchenko. He has raised her before. President has raised her and did in the phone call. We are extremely concerned. We are, as we made clear today, this highly unjust – this 22-year sentence and her health is imperiled. So --

QUESTION: Yeah, but, I mean, is there anything other than demanding her release that you guys are prepared to do? Are you prepared to say, “Hey, listen to Poroshenko’s offer for a swap”?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, that – absolutely we will say that we understand that the Ukrainians are ready to have this be part of a hostage exchange if we can be helpful in that regard. But it’s very, very important that her situation be resolved and that she get home to Ukraine as soon as possible.