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Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Ukrainian Minister of Defense Colonel-General Stepan Poltorak September 24, 2015

Joint Press Briefing by Secretary Carter and Ukrainian Defense Minister Colonel-General Poltorak in the Pentagon Briefing Room


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Well, good afternoon, everyone.

It's a real privilege for me today to welcome here at the Pentagon Minister of Defense Colonel-General Poltorak for his first trip to the Pentagon, not his first visit with me.

Let me first and foremost, therefore, thank him for his leadership, his fortitude at a critical time for the security of his country, the region and the world. He described to me today the many very admirable steps he has been taking to strengthen Ukrainian armed forces, and I was very impressed by it. And the United States, for its part, has been steadfast in our support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

When the minister and I met at the NATO ministerial, defense ministerial a few months ago, we discussed our strong defense relationship and the commitment of the United States and the Department of Defense to continue developing that longstanding relationship which I myself had the privilege to participate in at its beginning more than 20 years ago.

Today, we had a productive meeting and built on that discussion in Brussels, finding ways to sustain and strengthen those commitments, including ongoing security assistance to Ukraine's armed forces and border guard service.

The recent reports of a general reduction of violence in Ukraine are encouraging, but we're still seeing a failure to fully uphold the Minsk commitments by Russia and the separatists. That's why we're committed to helping Ukraine safely and effectively operate, secure and defend its border and preserve and enforce its territorial integrity.

Our commitment to Ukraine is clear. So far, we've provided more than $244 million in equipment and training, including Humvees, counter-mortar radar, night vision, body armor, medical equipment and so on. And by strengthening Ukraine's training capacity, we can strengthen it's defense capability. That's why we remain committed to current training of Ukrainian national guard forces, which is ongoing at Yavoriv, and by the end of November, we will have trained 900 Ukrainian national guard personnel. And we're commencing training the Ukrainian regular armed forces thereafter also.

Ukraine has made a genuine effort to live up to its Minsk commitments and has shown considerable restraint in the face of provocations and attacks. Minister, I commend your leadership on those fronts. But make no mistake, the United States stands behind the Ukrainian military's right to defend itself when Russian separatist forces attack its positions.

And we continue to make this clear to Russia. It is consistent with the strong and balanced strategic approach to the Russia I described during that same visit to Europe. Strong in that the United States is adjusting its posture and investments to deter Russian aggression and working with NATO and other security partners to do the same, and balanced because we ill continue to work with Russia on issues where our interests overlap.

It is possible but not yet clear that such an overlap might exist in Syria.

There, it would seem that the U.S. and Russia share two interests: the lasting defeat of ISIL and a political transition from the Assad regime that preserves and begins to restore the country.

However, the United States believes that these two interests must be pursued in parallel. A Russian effort to fight ISIL will only end up fueling the Syrian civil war and the ISIL extremism it spawned in which Russia, with its history and large number of Russians who are foreign fighters in Syria, rightly fears. Thus, we believe the political and military tracks need to proceed in parallel and we're willing to work with Russia on that basis.

These ongoing discussions on Syria will not in any way take away from our strong condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine or change our sanctions and security support in response to those destabilizing actions. The bottom line is this: Russia must end its aggression in eastern Ukraine, end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and uphold its commitments under the Minsk agreements.

And on a personal note, I've been to Ukraine in years past and I've seen the spirit and resilience of the Ukrainian people. Driven by our nations' shared values -- freedom and democracy -- and an understanding of Ukraine's importance to the region, I've been committed throughout my career to helping Ukraine security.

Minister Poltorak, allow me to reaffirm that continued commitment to the security of the Ukrainian people -- a commitment to your country's right to define its own course as a sovereign democratic nation. It's my pleasure to welcome you here to the Pentagon and to invite you to make a few comments before we take questions.

MINISTER OF DEFENSE COLONEL-GENERAL STEPAN POLTORAK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Thank you very much to all of you for the possibility to stand in front of you. I would like to use this possibility to express the words of gratitude to all the countries of the world who, in this very difficult time for Ukraine, started to help our country and support it. We're talking about the United States, of course, because this is the country that is always staying for its commitments. It always stands for good and provides assistance to many countries, and Ukraine in particular, fighting for the democracy in our country.

I would like to say that today, the level of relationship between our country and United States is good as ever before. We feel the support and assistance rendered to our country. And I would like to say that today, we highly estimate (sic) our cooperation. Today, I invited a great friend of Ukraine, the secretary of defense, to visit Ukraine and to see with his own eyes what changes are there in Ukraine for him to become persuaded the fact that Ukraine is an absolutely different country.

We reform our economy. We reform our armed forces. We're building a Ukraine that would be a European country with democratic values, a modern country where human (sic) would be treated as a first priority.

Today, we have discussed a lot of issues related to our cooperation. We have an understanding, and thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for the assistance and support that is rendered to Ukraine by the United States. I'm sure that we have to stand together in order to overcome all the challenges we're facing right now.

We have a challenge and a threat to Ukraine. There is only one threat and challenge, and I'm very happy that United States, as well as other countries of the world, are supporting us. Together, we will win.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

STAFF: Our first question, Bob Burrs of the AP.

Q: Thanks.

Mr. Secretary, first, if I may ask you a question -- and the minister as well. You mentioned a minute ago the prospect of Russia fighting ISIL in Syria. Recently, they've, of course, assembled quite a number of military assets in Syria -- combat aircraft, some tanks, troops and so forth -- and you've had a conversation with your Russian counterpart recently.

What is your assessment, at this point, of their intentions? Does it appear that they are preparing for offensive -- unilateral offensive military operations against ISIL? And what are the broader implications of this Russian show of strength in Syria for the U.S.?

SEC. CARTER: I did speak to Minister Shoygu, actually, at his request, last week, but I was happy to do it. I -- I actually have known him for a number of years, and -- and for that matter, known his predecessors going back many years.

And what he and I discussed was, first of all, the need, which he said Russia shares -- and I -- seems, as I said in my statement, logical that Russia would share -- the desire to defeat ISIL, and secondly -- and this was the important second part -- the need for a political transition in Syria.

We believe those need to be pursued simultaneously. To pursue the defeat of ISIL without, at the same time, pursuing a political transition, is to fuel the very kind of extremism that underlies ISIL, and if that's the Russian view, that's a logical contradiction.

And the way out of that contradiction is to pursue both of those in parallel, and on that basis, I think we're prepared to discuss a way ahead with Russia where the political and the military move in parallel.

But that's only possible on a course that is going to have an accompanying political transition, because to do otherwise -- in a phrase I've used before -- is to pour gasoline on the ISIL phenomenon rather than to lead to the defeat of ISIL.

Q: So do you see them moving ahead with offensive military operations on their own, in -- in theory?

SEC. CARTER: We're going to be talking to them about their intentions, both on the political track and the military track. And, again, the point, I think, that's critical is that those two tracks have to move in parallel and simultaneously.

Q: I have a follow-up for the minister. Is it your view that the -- the Russians' involvement in Syria has been intended in part to divert attention from their intervention in Ukraine?

GEN. POLTORAK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): You see, the actions that are planned and conducted in the eastern part of Ukraine, they show that Ukraine -- that Russian Federation is not open enough in terms of their intentions.

They have established a large formation of the troops of Russian Federation together with separatists on -- east of our country. This is an evidence of the fact that Russian Federation did not decided fully against conquering Ukraine.

What is happening in Syria, we currently estimate one of the factors to divert the attention of international community from the problems in Ukraine.

STAFF: From the Ukrainian press, Irina?

Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Mr. Secretary, President Obama and Vladimir Putin will meet in New York City on Monday, and according to White House officials, Ukraine will be one of the topics they will discuss. I understand you don't comment on administration politics, but on the strategic point of view, why this high-level cooperation is needed now, and where is Ukraine in this cooperation?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I think that I can well -- I well expect President Obama to discuss Ukraine with President Putin, as he's done on previous occasions. The question was asked earlier whether the situation in Syria would distract at all from our attention to Ukraine, and that will not occur for the United States.

The situation in Ukraine remains a very serious concern to us. I was discussing with the minister and very much admiring the strengthening of the Ukrainian military that has occurred over the last year, and one thing I said to him is that I think Russia may have been expecting that Ukraine would get weaker over the last year, and on the contrary, Ukraine has gotten stronger and harder over the last year. And that's good for the defense and sovereignty of Ukraine.

And so I have no knowledge of what President Putin will say to President Obama next week about Ukraine, but I hope that Russia sees what's happening in Ukraine, sees the price that Russia has paid due to sanctions and isolation as a consequence of the aggression in Ukraine, and we'll re-think it. But I have no particular reason or expectation to know what he'll say to President Obama.

And so I imagine they'll talk about this subject as well as Syria and other issues of common concern.

Q: (off mic) idea to make this happen?

SEC. CARTER: For them to talk, of course. Yes, I do. And as I said, I was pleased to talk to the Russian minister of defense, I've done it for a long time. And obviously, you don't agree, perhaps you can reach some practical action you can take together, at least understand one another, make your own position clear. But I think that kind of conversation is good And by the way, I expect the president's going to have conversations with lots of people around the world next week.

Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Minister Poltorak, tell me, please, have you mentioned the perspectives of the U.S. joining the Normandy Format, if you have mentioned this aspect during your conversation?

And have you mentioned the possibility of sending -- of providing lethal equipment to Ukraine?

GEN. POLTORAK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We did not mention the issue of Normadic Format in the course of our negotiations. We have considered the possibility of further development of cooperation between Ukraine and the United States. First of all, this is about training, exchange of information, and many other aspects.

The issue of lethal equipment was not on the table. Still, we have a lot of achievements. We have a lot of plans. We have to fulfill first what we have planned already, and after that try to plan other projects. We'll see.

Q: I have a question for both of you gentlemen, if I may.

Mr. Secretary, first, I'm just wondering how -- your view -- how can the U.S. at this point trust anything that the Russians may have told you in the phone call, that they may tell the president? Given Russia's track record in Crimea, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, how can you possibly trust the Russians at this point? What would even make you trust them and what they say?

SEC. CARTER: Well, in an earlier era, Barbara, the answer to that question was trust, but verify. And that always seems reasonable. And so it's not a matter of trust. It's a matter of seeing what the Russians do. If it is possible for us to come to see things in a way where our interests overlap, we can pursue that area of overlap. That's not going to occur everywhere, but it may occur in some instances, as it already does around the world.

And their intentions, to get back to a question asked earlier, will be revealed in the actions they're prepared to take. And it's the actions we try to influence.

Q: Is there not -- if I could just follow up and then, sir, for you. Is there not, Mr. Secretary, a third track here beyond the two that you've laid out? Which is should the Russians take action to attack moderate rebels and the U.S. sees that happen, would you, you know, your view about that?

And I ask this because many of your own commanders say there's a real opportunity in northern Syria right now to take advantage of some of the successes there to arm the Syrian Arab coalition, to do some -- make some decisions about training and equipping, and doing the -- doing the moderate Syrian rebel program in a different way. So I'm wondering about whether there is this third track.

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, there is a -- a -- I don't know quite what you mean by a third track, but to get to your point about the -- the -- about train and equip.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER: Well, let me do one thing at a time.

We are looking at additional opportunities in -- to train and equip Syrian forces that will combat ISIL. So I -- if that's your question, that is accurate. And we'll continue to do so.

And the -- one of the ways that Russia would, as I said it earlier, contribute to exacerbating the problems and the violence in Syria -- the very violence they fear the consequences of for Russia -- would be to indiscriminately attack all the foes of -- of Assad, and that's precisely what I mean when I say that they need to be -- pursue both a political track as well as a counter-ISIL track simultaneously.

That is the logical course, and on a course like that, it is possible that we could find areas of -- of -- of cooperation. But if it's a matter of pouring gasoline on the civil war in -- in Syria, that is certainly not productive from our point of view, and it's hard to see how it could be productive from anybody's point of view who is thinking clearly about this -- this situation. Mr. Minister.

Q: May I just follow up with -- sir, with you? Your opinion as well. You have a lot of experience with what the Russians say. What is your advice, perhaps, to the United States? Just -- to the administration? Can they believe what the Russians say? Would you advise them to be cautious about Vladimir Putin? How cautious should they be?

GEN. POLTORAK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): You see, I would like to say a few words about Ukraine. I know a lot of examples when Russian Federation, in the course of the conflict, did not -- was not providing a true information.

We conducted a lot of negotiations on ceasefire. Still, we didn't manage to achieve a success. You've heard a lot about Russian Federation not controlling the forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, but then a time came when we're not seeing any fires placed on our soldiers nowadays, and that is an evidence of the fact that Russian Federation is in control of these forces.

Still, we are looking with a great concern in terms of any words spoken by the Russian federation, but that is related to Ukraine only.

STAFF: Final questions. (inaudible), Ukraine, to you?

Q: (off mic) I have actually the question to both of you gentlemen.

Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Vice speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Mr. Parubiy, mentioned his conversation with Senator Richard Burr, and in this conversation, senator mentioned that if United States will send weapons to Syria, they will have simultaneously send weapons to Ukraine, so as not to have any double standards in terms of those two countries.

And I have a question to both ministers: how real is for Ukraine to receive a lethal weapons for Ukraine? I'm talking about anti-missile complexes, and is there any negotiations in that area?

SEC. CARTER: I -- if I understood the question right, anti-missile meaning anti-ballistic missile, we've had no discussions of that -- on that topic today with the -- with the Ukrainians, if I understood you properly. Mr. Minister?

GEN. POLTORAK (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I would like to say that indeed we're talking about the anti-tank weapons, and the -- this was not an issue on our -- on our table.

Ukraine is currently developing our own military-industrial complex. We're trying to use our own capabilities and assets that we have, and we have already received a lot of achievements.

Of course, we would accept the assistance to Ukraine not only from the United States, but from any other countries in the world in order to be able to protect our own country from an occupation of the Russian Federation.

And this is true information for all the countries of the world. Of course, we would expect this kind of -- (inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER: Look forward to seeing you in Ukraine.

Q: Thank you. I appreciate it.

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