Interview With David Gregory of NBC's Meet the Press

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
July 20, 2014

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m glad to be with you, David. Thank you.

QUESTION: The President demanded absolute cooperation from Russia, from the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and now the whole world is watching, and the startling developments that the rebels are removing bodies from the crash site, putting them on refrigerated trains, even talk of removing the black box. What do you say about that this morning?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, what’s happening is really grotesque and it is contrary to everything that President Putin and Russia said that they would do. There are reports of drunken separatist soldiers unceremoniously piling bodies into trucks, removing both bodies as well as evidence from the site.

They promised unfettered access, David, and the fact is that right now – they had 75 minutes on Friday, yesterday three hours. There were shots fired in the area. The separatists are in control. And it is clear that Russia supports the separatists, supplies the separatists, encourages the separatists, trains the separatists, and Russia needs to step up and make a difference here.

QUESTION: How might the investigation be compromised the government’s ability to determine with certainty who fired this missile based on what’s happening now? And specifically, I speak here about these reports of the black box being removed.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me tell you what we know at this point, David, because it tells you a lot about what is going on. In the last month, we have observed major supplies moving in. Several weeks ago, about 150-vehicle convoy, including armored personnel carriers, tanks, rocket launches, artillery all going in and being transferred to the separatists. We know that they had an SA-11 system in the vicinity literally hours before the shoot-down took place. There are social media records of that. They were talking, and we have the intercepts of their conversations talking about the transfer and movement and repositioning of the SA-11 system.

The social media showed them with this system moving through the very area where we believe the shoot-down took place hours before it took place. Social media – which is an extraordinary tool, obviously, in all of this – has posted recordings of a separatist bragging about the shoot-down of a plane at the time, right after it took place. The defense minister, so-called self-appointed of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, Mr. Igor Strelkov, actually posted a bragging statement on the social media about having shot down a transport. And then when it became apparent it was civilian, they quickly removed that particular posting. We --

QUESTION: Are you bottom-lining here that Russia provided the weapon?

SECRETARY KERRY: There’s a story today confirming that, but we have not within the Administration made a determination. But it’s pretty clear when – there’s a build-up of extraordinary circumstantial evidence. I’m a former prosecutor. I’ve tried cases on circumstantial evidence; it’s powerful here. But even more importantly, we picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing, and it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar. We also know from voice identification that the separatists were bragging about shooting it down afterwards.


SECRETARY KERRY: So there’s a stacking-up of evidence here which Russia needs to help account for. We are not drawing the final conclusion here, but there is a lot that points at the need for Russia to be responsible. And what President Obama believes and we, the international community, join in believing, all, everybody is convinced we must have unfettered access. And the lack of access – the lack of access, David, makes its own statement about culpability and responsibility.

QUESTION: Given that – given that and what comes next, The Washington Post has editorialized this weekend what was missing from the President’s comments when he spoke out on Friday was a clear moral conclusion about the regime of Vladimir Putin or an articulation of how the United States will respond. What about it?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re in discussions about that right now. I had a conversation yesterday with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and made it very, very clear that we need this cooperation. We’re going to try to find a way immediately to determine whether or not that’s going to be forthcoming. As you know, President Obama only the day before this incident took place unilaterally moved in order to impose tougher sanctions. And he imposed sanctions on Gazprom, sanctions on energy companies, sanctions on military companies. We’ve taken tough sanctions. We hope this is a profound wakeup call for those countries in Europe that have wanted to kind of go slow and soft-pedal this. And --

QUESTION: But call Vladimir Putin what he is. What is the threat that he and Russia present to the United States and to the West?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s not a question of the threat that they present to the West, David. It’s a question of whether or not you’re going to get the cooperation necessary in a way that they have said that they would. And we’re trying for the last time to see if that will be forthcoming at this moment or not. But obviously, the additional sanctions are reflections of the President’s exhaustion of patience with words that are not accompanied by actions.

Going back to the meetings that I had with Mr. Lavrov in Geneva several – what, a couple months ago now, the fact is they agreed to do certain things and the Ukrainians agreed to do certain things. Ukraine declared a ceasefire. Twenty-six soldiers of Ukraine were killed during the course of the ceasefire.

We need Russia to publicly, publicly start to call for responsible action and itself take actions that they can take with the separatists that they have encouraged, they have inflamed, they have supplied, they have trained, and that are still engaged in a contest for the sovereignty of Ukraine itself. Russia said they would respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, but that is not respectful to be transferring those weapons across. That’s why the toughest --

QUESTION: But I detect in your words, Mr. Secretary, some reluctance to make this a one-on-one battle. You want to give Russia a little bit more room here. But the question is still about consequences. How can anyone view this as anything other than the lowest moment between the United States and Russia in the post-Cold War environment?

SECRETARY KERRY: David, you can get into these grand sort of proclamations about where things are and where they aren’t. The fact is we live in an extremely complicated world right now where everybody is working on ten different things simultaneously. Russia is working with us in a cooperative way on the P5+1. We just had important meetings in Vienna where we’re trying --

QUESTION: This is about Iran’s nuclear program.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- in order to try to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Russia was constructive and helpful and worked at that effort. Russia has been constructive in helping to remove 100 percent of the declared chemical weapons from Syria. In fact, that was an agreement we made months ago and it never faltered, even during these moments of conflict. So this is more complicated than just throwing names at each other and making declarations. There has to be a continued effort to find a way forward, and that’s what we’re trying to do. But we’ve made it clear even as we do that.

There is no naivete in what President Obama has done with respect to these very tough sanctions. And the United States has been working diligently with Europe trying to bring Europe along. They’ve included additional sanctions. We think, frankly, that they may need to be tougher. And it may well be that the Dutch and others will help lead that effort because this has to be a wakeup call to Europe that this has to change. We cannot continue with a dual-track policy where diplomacy is winding up with nice words and well-constructed communiques and agreements, but then there’s a separate track where the same policy continues.

QUESTION: Let me ask you --

SECRETARY KERRY: This is a moment of truth for Mr. Putin and for Russia. Russia needs to step up and prove its bona fides, if there are any left, with respect to its willingness to put actions behind the words.

QUESTION: The war in Gaza also is occupying your time. What is it that you think Israel stands to gain from its invasion into Gaza and the bombardment of Gaza?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, this is a very, very difficult moment also and a very difficult situation. Israel has been under attack by rockets. I don’t think any nation in the world would sit there while rockets are bombarding it, and you know that there are tunnels from which terrorists have come jumping up in the dead of night, some with handcuffs and with tranquilizer drugs on them, in an obvious effort to try to kidnap people then hold them for ransom. The fact is that is unacceptable by any standard anywhere in the world. And Israel has every right in the world to defend itself.

But we’re hopeful, very hopeful, that we could quickly try to find a way forward to put a ceasefire in place so that the underlying issues – so that we can get to the questions. But you cannot reward terrorism. There can’t be a set of preconditioned demands that are going to be met. So we support the Egyptian initiative joined in by Israel and others to have an immediate ceasefire, and we’re working that ceasefire very, very hard. I have been in touch all yesterday, the day before, many days now, with my counterparts. The President has been in touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I think day before yesterday. They will talk again today. I talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday. And I believe the President wants me to go very, very shortly to the region in order to try to see if we can get a ceasefire in place.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, before I let you go, I want you to answer critics who accuse this President of an uncertain course in his foreign policy. And it harkens back to something the President wrote in his own book, Audacity of Hope. He wrote this critical of the Bush years: “Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy and ultimately the power it needs to make the world safer than it is today.”

SECRETARY KERRY: David, let me --

QUESTION: Is that the problem President Obama faces?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. Let me tell you what he faces maybe is a problem with a bunch of critics who want to jump to conclusions without looking at the facts. But the facts could not be more clear: The United States of America has never been more engaged in helping to lead in more places than we are now.

I just came back from China where we are engaged with the Chinese in dealing with North Korea. And you will notice, since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter. We haven’t done what we want to do yet with respect to the denuclearization, but we are working on that and moving forward.

With respect to Syria, we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out. With respect to Iraq, we are deeply involved now in the process of government formation, helping the Iraqis to be able to choose a government of unity that can reunite it. They’ve elected a speaker. They’re about to elect a president. We believe that’s moving forward.

On Afghanistan, we helped strike a deal recently to help warring parties in contest of the election to be able to come together and hold Afghanistan together.

With respect to Iran, we – this President has taken the risk of putting together a negotiation. For the first time in 10 years, the Iranian nuclear program is actually being rolled backwards, and Israel and the region are safer than they were.

We’ve negotiated a ceasefire in an effort to try to bring troops into South Sudan. We’ve negotiated a disarming of the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’re negotiating a major economic treaty, a package trade agreement --


SECRETARY KERRY: -- with Europe, 40 percent of the world’s GDP. Same thing in Asia.

I would tell you something, David. One thing I’ve seen for certain: People aren’t worried around the United States and sitting there saying, “We want the United States to leave.” People are worried that the United States might leave. And the fact is that every fundamental issue of conflict today, the United States is in the center leading and trying to find an effort to make peace where peace is very difficult. And I think the American people ought to be proud of what this President has done in terms of peaceful, diplomatic engagement rather than quick trigger, deploying troops, starting or engaging in a war of choice. I think the President’s on the right track and I think we have the facts to prove it.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, as always, thank you for your time.