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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on President Biden's Upcoming Call with President Putin of the Russian Federation

December 06, 2021

Via Teleconference

11:56 A.M. EST

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. And thanks for joining today. A friendly reminder that today's call is going to be on background, attributed to a "senior administration official." And contents will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

With that, we'll turn it over to our speaker, and then we'll be happy to take some questions.

Over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. And thanks, everybody, for joining.

As you all know, President Biden and President Putin will hold a secure video call tomorrow. In advance of that call, the President will be speaking later today with key European allies to coordinate his message and ensure that he goes into that conversation with President Putin with allied unity and strong transatlantic solidarity on the way forward. And this follows days and weeks of intense diplomacy with European allies and partners, as well as discussions with the Russians and the Ukrainians at multiple levels.

Secretary Blinken will also be speaking with President Zelenskyy in advance of the secure video call. And President Biden will talk to President Zelenskyy in the days following the call to be sure that he's able to read it out and also consult closely with the President of Ukraine.

President Biden will obviously raise our concerns with Russia's military buildup and plans, with respect to Ukraine. The agenda will also cover a number of other critical issues including strategic stability, cyber, and Iran's nuclear program.

And, you know, we have believed from the beginning of this administration that there is no substitute for direct dialogue for leaders, and that is true in spades when it comes to the U.S.-Russia relationship. So, President Biden welcomes the opportunity to engage clearly and directly with President Putin.

Indeed, as President Biden said after their meeting in Geneva in June, "Where we have differences, I wanted President Putin to understand why I say what I say and why I do what I do, and how we'll respond to specific kinds of actions that harm America's interests." That statement then remains true today. And that's going to be the spirit with which President Biden conducts this discussion.

Fundamentally, President Biden has been consistent all along in his basic message to the Russian President and the Russian Federation: The United States does not seek conflict. We can work together on issues like strategic stability and arms control. But whenever necessary, the United States has and will continue to impose meaningful consequences for harmful and destabilizing actions.

When it comes to Ukraine, we have made clear our deep concern by evidence that Russia is stepping up its planning for significant military action against Ukraine. Secretary Blinken discussed this in detail. He talked about what the United States has learned of Russia's plans with our NATO Allies at this week's - last week's NATO foreign ministerial.

To be clear, we do not know whether President Putin has made a decision about further military escalation in Ukraine, but we do know that he is putting in place the capacity to engage in such escalation should he decide to do so.

We've seen this Russian playbook before, in 2014, when Russia last invaded Ukraine. Then, as now, they intensified disinformation in an effort to portray Ukraine as the aggressor and use that in an effort to justify what was a preplanned military offensive.

Obviously, President Biden will raise these concerns. He will make clear that there will be very real costs should Russia choose to proceed, but he will also make clear that there is an effective way forward with respect to diplomacy.

We have had extensive interactions with our European allies and partners in recent weeks, including with Ukraine, about the need to respond together and resolutely to any further aggression in Ukraine, and fundamentally have also aligned with them around diplomacy being the responsible way to resolve this potential crisis.

We're encouraging Russia to return to dialogue through diplomatic avenues, including the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreement.

As I said, the call will not be confined to this subject matter because there are other topics that are critical to America's national security, including the continuing challenge in cyberspace, including the need to make progress on fundamental questions of strategic stability in the nuclear and space domains, and our concerns about the advances that Iran is making with its nuclear program and the threat that those pose to regional peace and security, as well as international peace and security. So, all of this will be on the agenda in the conversation.

The President will conduct this discussion the same way he has with past discussions with Putin, in a professional, candid, straightforward manner, where he will make clear - without any kind of rhetorical flourish or finger-wagging - what the United States is prepared to do, both in respect to deterrence and in respect to diplomacy.

And that is his intention, and he's looking forward to the opportunity to engage.

And I'll stop there and would be happy to take some questions.

Q Thanks so much for doing this. I wanted you to - I was hoping you could respond to Russia's demands for legal agreement regarding expanding NATO. Is there anything even near that that is on the table? And, you know, does the United States see that as an opening negotiating tactic or a pretext to invasion?

And, if I could, I wanted to ask: In regards to financial sanctions, how do you impose enough financial sanctions to hurt Russia enough to change its behavior or encourage a change of behavior but not, in the process, hurt Western democracies who are intertwined with Russia oil, gas and need Russia for their own economic benefits? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The United States has consistently expressed support for the principle that every country has the sovereign right to make its own decisions with respect to its security. That is written into the founding documents of the Alliance, and that remains U.S. policy today and will remain U.S. policy in the future. So, that much is straightforward and clear.

We will, of course, support discussions between NATO and Russia to address larger issues of concern on both sides - Russia's concerns with NATO activities, and NATO and American concerns with Russian activities. We did this in the Cold War and developed a mechanism to help reduce instability and increase transparency. We've done this in the post-Cold War era through the NATO-Russia Council, the OSCE, and other mechanisms. There's no reason we can't do that going forward.

But we don't think talk of red lines is helpful. And, as the President has said, we're not going to operate according to that logic of accepting other - anyone's red lines.

With respect to financial sanctions, we have had intensive discussions with our European partners about what we would do collectively in the event of a major Russian military escalation in Ukraine. And we believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both the Europeans and the United States that would impose significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy, should they choose to proceed.

I'm not going to get into the specific details of that, but we believe that there is a way forward here that will allow us to send a clear message to Russia that there will be genuine and meaningful and enduring costs to choosing to go forward, should they choose to go forward, with a military escalation in Ukraine.

Q Thanks very much for doing this. I apologize for the background noise. Can you tell us what you have seen in terms of how the troops are positioned around Ukraine and what you have seen in terms of - more detail of what you've seen in terms of both disinformation and potential cyber action? It's entirely possible, I could imagine, given the past record, that Putin could decide not to send in (inaudible) but just try to destabilize the country on a much larger scale than we've seen so far.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, first, I should start by saying, as I did at the outset, that we do not know or have a clear indication that President Putin has actually made an affirm- - given an affirmative order here. It is more about planning intentions and then the kinds of movements that we have seen.

And, in this regard, there - the planning, from our

perspective, is clear. The troop movements have involved the addition of battalion tactical groups around Ukraine in multiple, different geographies around those borders - to the south, the west, and to the northeast as well.

And we have also seen, as Secretary Blinken said last week, a significant spike in social media activity pushing anti-Ukrainian propaganda, which is approaching levels that we last saw in the leadup to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

In terms of more specific details on what exactly the nature of those deployments are, I'm going to defer to my military intelligence colleagues to talk through, in part because, you know, I don't want to tread on sensitive information. But what we can share in an unclassified format is that we have seen the movement of additional capabilities and forces to the vicinity of Ukraine in multiple different areas. And these movements are consistent with the planning that we see underway for a military escalation in Ukraine.

But again, to the end of your question, could this - could the Russian government choose a different course here - one in which they rely more heavily on information operation, cyber, and destabilization activities inside Ukraine? Yes, they certainly could do that. That also has historically been part of the Russian playbook and could be part of the playbook going forward.

And part of the engagement we will have with the Russian government at multiple levels, including the presidential level, will be to talk through those elements, as well as the direct application of Russian military forces across the sovereign frontier of Ukraine.

Q Hi, thank you. I'm wondering, just very clearly, will President Biden tell Vladimir Putin that if the Russian military moves into Ukraine, the U.S. military could be used in response?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: President Biden is not going to - in the - well, let me say this: I don't want to use a public press call to talk about the particular sensitive challenges that President Biden will lay out for President Putin.

But I would say that the United States is not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force, as opposed to a combination of support for the Ukrainian military, strong economic countermeasures, and the substantial increase in support and capability to our NATO Allies to ensure that they remain safe.

But on the specific question you ask, I am not prepared to say in a public format like this, even on background, exactly what the President is going to say to Putin on the question of under what circumstances the U.S. military could get involved. I think that would be precipitous public saber-rattling, and we'd prefer to keep those communications with the Russians private.

Q Thanks for doing this. You spoke a little bit about economic countermeasures, but can you talk a little bit about sort of what has been, if anything - have you had discussions with NATO Allies about what defense would look like if this were to go forward? You know, Vladimir Putin has been pretty clear on not wanting - not wanting some of the military exercises that NATO Allies have been doing with Ukraine.

And, you know, would this - would a renewed invasion of Ukraine, in fact, have the opposite effect, where some of the hardware that the Russians are talking about - been talking about that they don't want in Europe would end up in Europe, there would be an increased defense posture in NATO that would - that might sort of serve opposite ends?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: After 2014, in the invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the United States helped lead what we call the "European Reassurance Initiative" through NATO, which involved the increasing deployment of U.S. forces and capabilities on NATO territory, including in the Eastern Flank allies' territory.

And it would certainly be the case that if Putin moved in, there would be an increasing request from Eastern Flank allies and a positive response from the United States for additional forces and capabilities and exercises to take place there to ensure the safety and security of our Eastern Flank allies in the face of that kind of aggression in Ukraine.

That - so, the consequence of the 2014 invasion was increased activity and capability, and that would be the consequence for further military action (inaudible).

Q Hi, thanks very much for doing this call. Two questions; one is a quick factual question. I believe Presidents Putin and Biden had a call in July, the month after the Geneva Summit, to discuss other cyber issues. Could you clarify that or confirm that? Just - it's a fact-check question.

My second question is a follow-up to what you just were saying about a positive response for additional U.S. forces and capabilities for NATO Allies if Putin does go in. Are you saying that the U.S. will deploy additional forces to NATO Allies in Eastern Europe if there is an invasion or some sort of military incursion?

And also, there's a report out in the Financial Times today that talks about how many European allies were - have come around to the U.S. position because of unusual intelligence that was shared by the United States with them, particularly in Germany. Can you talk about that? Has the U.S. shared unusual intelligence or unusually candid intelligence with European allies in the buildup of these forces? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The U.S. has shared intelligence. We've had senior-level intelligence officials of the U.S. government brief partners at NATO and in capitals that characterize the nature of the intelligence only to say that that has been a substantial and sustained effort over the course of the past few weeks.

On your factual question: To be completely honest with you, I'm not sure if it was the month of July. I've got to go look. The months all tend to bleed together. So we'll try to get you an answer on that.

And then, on the capabilities question, I guess I'd just go back to what I said because I don't - I don't, you know, want people overstating or overhyping it: After 2014, we had the European Reassurance Initiative, which did involve increased rotational deployments, for example, to NATO Allies on the Eastern Flank.

Obviously, they would be seeking, you know, a further increase in that if they were dealing with a circumstance in which Russian forces occupied a greater portion of Ukraine.

So, my saying that we'd respond positively would be I think you could anticipate that in the event of an invasion, the need to reinforce the confidence and reassurance of our NATO Allies and our Eastern Flank allies would be real, and the United States would be prepared to provide that kind of reassurance.

That's just sort of applying the lessons of 2014 to 2021. I'm not suggesting that today we have a particular, you know, tick-tock on that - only to say that we are working through the prudent planning of what we would have to do in the event of such an escalation and how we would have to ensure the security of our NATO Allies in that context. I would not go - I'm not saying anything further than that.

I have just had handed to me - yes, it was July 9th that they spoke by phone.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks, everyone. That is all the questions that we have time for.

Friendly reminder that this call is on background, attributed to a "senior administration official." And with that, the embargo is lifted.

Thanks all.

12:16 P.M. EST



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