Remarks With EU High Representative Catherine Ashton After Their Meeting

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Geneva, Switzerland
April 17, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon, everybody. Or good evening, actually, I guess. I’m very, very grateful to be joined here today by the High Representative Cathy Ashton, my friend and colleague, and a terrific partner in this and in other efforts. And I thank her for her leadership throughout this particular initiative.

Diplomacy requires willing partners, and I also want to thank Minister Deshchytsia and also Minister Lavrov for their willing work in the course of today, their readiness to engage in a constructive dialogue. We worked hard, and we worked in good faith, in order to try to narrow what are real differences, some of them significant, and to find a way forward for the people of Ukraine that helps them in achieving their aspiration to live in a stable, peaceful, and unified democracy.

As recent events in eastern Ukraine make clear, they need our support now, and they need it more than ever. Ukraine has shown admirable – sometimes, I think, even remarkable – restraint in the face of considerable challenge. But no one should expect the leaders of a sovereign state to always stand by passively while public order is threatened. And the public order of Ukraine has been threatened in recent days.

Our most urgent task is to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. So let me just outline where we are and some initial concrete steps that we have agreed to take in the course of the discussions today in order to de-escalate the tensions and restore security for all Ukrainians.

The parties agreed today that all sides must refrain from the use of violence, intimidation, or provocative actions. And we strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism, and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.

Let me say a quick word about that. Just in the last couple of days, notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews. And obviously, the accompanying threat implied is – or threatened – or suffer the consequences, one way or the other.

In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it’s grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that. And unanimously, every party today joined in this condemnation of that kind of behavior.

In addition, recently, the Ukrainian – the Russian Orthodox Church members in Ukraine were threatened that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was somehow going to attack them in the course of the next days. That kind of behavior, that kind of threat, has no place. And all parties agreed that that kind of behavior is not just grotesque and unacceptable, but it will not stand the test of the direction that Ukraine wants to move in.

We agreed today that all illegal armed groups must be disarmed, that all illegally seized buildings must be returned to their legitimate owners, and all illegally occupied streets, squares, and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

The Government of Ukraine itself affirmed, and again today, that it will grant amnesty to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrender weapons, with the exception of those people who are found guilty of capital offenses.

We also agreed – and I think this is a key part of what was focused on today – we wanted to find concrete steps, not just words, but concrete steps that could be acted on immediately in order to defuse the situation. And so we agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, which is already on the ground, whose mission has already been defined and granted, that they undertake a special role in assisting Ukrainian authorities in local communities in the immediate implementation of the de-escalation measures, that they will do so wherever they are needed the most in the coming days. That means beginning immediately. The United States, the EU, and Russia committed to support this mission, including by providing monitors directly.

Now I want to emphasize that Ukraine’s leaders indicated that they are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to address regional demands for more autonomy, for local self-government, for the protection of minority rights. And I talked this afternoon with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, and he indicated and reaffirmed his and the government’s strong commitment to a genuine, comprehensive, and inclusive process by which they will engage in the constitutional reform process of Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Deshchytsia briefed us on the extensive and inclusive constitutional reform process already underway, which is geared to address all of the legitimate grievances, but importantly, he and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk committed themselves to going as far as they can to reach out to opponents, to people with different ideas, from people from different constituencies, from different geography, and bring them together over the course of these next days in order to have a comprehensive, inclusive process.

Today, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Minister Deshchytsia, affirmed all of us repeatedly that they will have an inclusive, transparent, and accountable constitutional reform process, and it will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and it will allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments that will be considered. The parties also agreed on the importance of the economic-financial stability of Ukraine, and the importance of all of us being engaged in that effort going forward.

Now, all of this, we believe, represents – excuse me – all of this, we are convinced, represents a good day’s work. But on the other hand, this day’s work has produced principles, and it has produced commitments, and it has produced words on paper. And we are the first to understand and to agree that words on paper will only mean what the actions that are taken as a result of those words produce. So it is absolutely clear now that what is important is that these words are translated immediately into actions, and none of us leave here with the sense that the job is done because the words are on the paper.

The job will not be done until these principles are implemented, until they are followed up on. And what is vital is that the OSCE needs to get to work immediately to de-escalate the security situation in Luhansk, in Donetsk, in Sloviansk, and all the other towns that have been destabilized. And people need to provide them the immediate access in order to be able to do that job, and we intend to be watching extremely carefully to make certain that our monitors and our embassies and our eyes on the ground are able to verify what is taking place.

We fully expect the Russians, as they said they would here today, to demonstrate their seriousness by insisting that pro-Russian separatists, who they’ve been supporting, lay down their arms, leave the buildings, and pursue their political objectives through the constitutional processes that the agreement guarantees. No more incidents of this kind should occur, and if they do, it will be clear that it will elicit a response.

I made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov today that if we’re not able to see progress on the immediate efforts to be able to implement the principles of this agreement this weekend, then we will have no choice but to impose further costs on Russia.

The Ukrainian Government has exhibited extraordinary patience and fortitude in the face of enormous challenges and pressure. They have asked their people to restrain themselves. They have purposefully assumed a nonviolent posture in the face of challenges that might have invited others to engage in violence. And the Ukrainian people now deserve a right to choose their own future. The international community remains firmly by their side as they travel the difficult, democratic path to prosperity and to peace.

Lady Ashton.

HIGH REPRESENTATIVE ASHTON: Thank you, Secretary Kerry. Thank you, John, very much. I just want to add a few comments. You’ve set out very clearly the discussions on the agreement that’s been reached today. As you’ve said, these have been very frank, but I think constructive discussions that are looking to find the concrete steps, real, practical things that can de-escalate the tensions in Ukraine.

I think it was extremely important to bring us all together here to have that process of dialogue begin. It has to be the first priority that we focus on, to see a de-escalation of the situation, and collectively, as you’ve indicated, we agreed a number of concrete steps that we can see implemented immediately. The word “immediately” is extremely important in this context. We want to see these happen so that we can see things achieved.

The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, as you’ve indicated, will play a leading role in this. It will assist the Ukrainian authorities and local communities to take the necessary measures that they need to take. And we absolutely welcome the Ukrainian commitment to conduct an inclusive and transparent constitutional process. We know that free and fair presidential elections on the 25th of May are the best way to express the will of the people of Ukraine, as is this process of constitutional reform, and we want to see all candidates behaving well and being treated with great respect in that process.

We remain committed to the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine. In the meantime, the European Union will continue to support efforts to stabilize the situation in Ukraine economically, financially and politically.

Today, President Barroso of the European Commission wrote to President Putin on behalf of the European Union, accepting President Putin’s proposal for consultations with Russia and Ukraine, trilateral consultations on the security of gas supply and transit.

I end by saying that I believe that by discussing constructively the solutions and actions, that this is the best way to find a way out of the current crisis. Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, did you discuss or did you receive any Russian commitment for the withdrawal of Russian troops along the border of Ukraine? And did the United States and Europe make any commitments regarding the removal of existing sanctions against Russian individuals? Just to follow up on something you said, you mentioned that Russia had committed to call on those it is supporting inside eastern Ukraine to lay down their weapons. What happens if they don’t respond to that? And finally, did Russia make any commitment on Ukraine’s debt and the gas payments it says are overdue?

SECRETARY KERRY: The answers are no, no commitments with respect to the debt, no commitments with respect to the gas payments overdue, but a commitment to engage in a dialogue that Lady Ashton just described, which will begin to tackle the whole question of energy. And with respect to the withdrawal of troops, they – excuse me – they’ve made it clear that over a period of time, assuming this can de-escalate and it does de-escalate, as the rights of the people they are concerned about are represented, as the constitutional process unfolds and the future government of Ukraine takes place, they are absolutely prepared to begin to respond with respect to troops and larger numbers.

They indicated and reiterated that they have withdrawn one battalion in response to the efforts we’ve made to insist on some movement, and I raised the question of whether more couldn’t now also become part of the equation. And our hope is that as these steps are taken, that that can happen. That would be part of a managed de-escalation.

We said at the beginning, and the document says, “initial concrete steps.” We do not envision this as the full measure of de-escalation. So if this starts and starts effectively, and we can begin to see some progress, we intend to continue to have our meetings, and we discussed with Foreign Minister Lavrov at the end of the meeting the notion that we would continue to talk and to follow up on this. So this is just the beginning. It depends, obviously, as I said, on the good faith of parties and pursuing and following through. And we’re going to watch that very, very closely.

You had one other part to your question?

QUESTION: There were two, actually. One, did you discuss at all lifting any existing sanctions? And finally, if the separatists in eastern Ukraine decline to lay down their arms, who is responsible for making sure that they do?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, on the question of additional sanctions, the other sanctions, no. There was no discussion at this point in time of removal of any of the existing sanctions. I think everybody understands that would be premature at a moment where we’re putting to test the bona fides of the proffers made today in the course and context of this agreement. So if this agreement pans out and they do indeed produce some change on the ground, then obviously, as we go down the road, I’m sure that is going to become a topic of conversation, but it’s premature right now.

In addition to that, I would just say – thank you very much, thank you, thanks – on the subject of the laying down of weapons, the responsibility will lie with those who have organized their presence, equipped them with the weapons, put the uniforms on them, supported them, and been engaged in the process of guiding them over the course of this operation. And we’ll have to – before we start making judgments about exactly where that accountability will fall, we’ve made it very, very clear that Russia has huge impact on all of those forces. And we’ve made clear what the evidence is. It’s out in the public domain. I think almost everybody in the world has drawn their conclusions about what is happening, and so that’s why these next days will be very important to making judgments.

And I repeat what the White House policy is and what we have said: That if there is not progress over the course of these next days and we don’t see a movement in the right direction, then there will be additional sanctions, additional costs as a consequence.

MODERATOR: The next question is for Julian Borger in the front row. If you could raise your hand, Julian.

SECRETARY KERRY: Can I just say one other thing? Our goal is not to come here and be threatening or to be talking about the downsides. We’re just trying to express a reality about what has to happen. Our hope is that we’ve opened the door so that both of the entities that have an ability in Ukraine to make a difference, or all the entities, will respond. Russia clearly has an enormous ability to be able to impact that outcome, and the Government of Ukraine has an ability to affect it.

So to the degree that both of them can take steps here that will help to provide space for each of them to take further steps, that’s what we’re encouraging, and that’s what we hope will happen.

QUESTION: Did the talks today and the agreement make any progress to finding a compromise between Kyiv and Moscow on just how much autonomy the eastern Ukraine should have ultimately?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me say – and Cathy can obviously respond here too and I think would want to – we were both very impressed by Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s definition of what he is prepared to do, and he and the government – the interim government in Kyiv are prepared to do. It’s quite extensive. And they have laid down their own vision of autonomy which includes election of local officials; election of the governors; election and management of their budget to a large measure, to the largest measure; management of education; other functions of governance, really reserving to the federal government the principal initiatives of defense, justice, and foreign policy.

It’s frankly far more extensive an offer of autonomy than anything that exists in any oblast in Russia. And so I think we were impressed by it and they are committed to it and their constitutional process will now open up significantly in an effort to bring all of the political players in Ukraine together.

HIGH REPRESENTATIVE ASHTON: Just to echo and endorse that, but the whole process of constitutional reform, the capacity of people to have the kind of public meetings, opportunities to receive ideas from different parts of the country, for people to have a genuine debate about what kind of country they want to live in and how far they want centralization and decentralization – in some ways, this is actually a very exciting moment to be able to try and do that in a proper way. And we want to see that process happen in ways that will enable people to feel that they are engaging in serious discussion about the future of their nation and looking at how local and national governments work together. And that’s a really, really important part of going forward, and I think we want to support that in every possible way.

MS. PSAKI: Margaret Brennan from CBS.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. Secretary, what is the specific timeframe and specific consequences if these steps are not followed through on? Do we understand you correctly in saying that any and all sanctions are put on pause here? And with the type of autonomy you just described Ukraine being willing to offer, aren’t you concerned that Russia has seemingly carved out a mechanism for influence in Ukraine without even having to launch an overt military invasion of east Ukraine? Vladimir Putin said today he hopes he doesn’t have to demonstrate his right to take military intervention there.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, we obviously would contest the notion of a right to do so, and we do. And we obviously differ over the exercise of that so-called right with respect to Crimea, which we believe was taken illegally, against the constitution of Ukraine as well as against the standards of international law. So we begin with a difference there.

But that said, let me make it clear that what has been promised by the government – the interim Government of Ukraine – what Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has promised was promised way before any of these exercises by Russia took place. Almost immediately, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk promised increased autonomy. And the reason he promised the increased autonomy is that he was sensitive to and aware of the fractures within the social fabric of Ukraine and the differences of representation and the complaints that have existed for some period of time, long preceding the events of the Maidan and the change of the government.

So I just – I don’t think that – I think the premise of the question is incorrect that this has happened because of Russia’s pressure. This has happened because this is something that the moment Crimea took place, they made clear they cared about, they thought was important, and they thought represented a better way to manage the differences of background, culture, history, language, and other things that have been reflected in the politics of Ukraine for some period of time.

So I think they’ve taken these steps because they believe it’s the best way to strengthen Ukraine. It’s the best way to have a Ukraine that can be united but still respect some of the passions and differences that exist in the constituencies of Ukraine. And I think it’s an act of – it’s a visionary act, I think it’s a courageous act, and I think it does offer the best prospect going forward for a strong and united, sovereign Ukraine in which all people feel proud to be Ukrainian, but at the same time feel like their day-to-day lives are reflected in the way that they want them to be.

QUESTION: And what about the timeframe for the steps?

SECRETARY KERRY: The timeframe for the steps taken right now? As I said earlier, we expect in the next few days, over the course of this weekend and the earliest part of next week, some of these steps need to begin to be seen and be evident. They don’t have to all be accomplished by then, and it would be hard to see how they would be, but if there’s a clear indication that this is moving in the right direction, then the President will – our President will make his decision and the leaders in Europe will make their decisions, obviously in consultation with each other.

MODERATOR: Final question. Gentleman in the third row.

QUESTION: Thank you. Steve Sedgwick, CNBC. I’m amazed, up until the last answer, Secretary of State and Baroness Ashton, that we haven’t heard the word “Crimea” at all today. Could I confirm now that the West and Ukraine have given up on Crimea and that the whole sanctions process and escalation of sanctions or de-escalation of sanctions has now got nothing to do with Crimea anymore; it’s all about the south and the east of remaining Ukrainian territory?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, you cannot confirm that. And I’m amazed that you asked that question after the answer I just gave. Maybe it was a question you really felt you had to ask, and despite my prior answer you asked it anyway. But I said very clearly that we differed on Crimea, and I said it was illegal, and I said we disagree with the basis, on the constitution of Ukraine as well as on international law. I just said it. In addition to that, the fact is that we just sanctioned them two days ago, I believe, on the issue of Crimea.

So the fact is that we have made it crystal clear that there is a significant difference over Crimea. We are not, quote, “given up,” but today we didn’t come here to talk about Crimea. Today we came here to get something done to reduce the violence, reduce the potential for a complete and total implosion, and to try to move away from what is a spiraling downwards confrontation that takes nobody to a great place. And our hope is that we’ve opened up the opportunity to be able to do that.

But no, nobody has left behind the issue of Crimea, which remains as differentiated today as it was on the day that we first raised the issue and put the sanctions in place.


HIGH REPRESENTATIVE ASHTON: When I said territorial integrity of Ukraine, I meant the territorial integrity of the whole country. I didn’t think I needed to spell out where the European Union stands on that. We’ve been absolutely crystal clear, and the measures we’ve taken equally remain for that reason.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much. Appreciate it. Thanks.