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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

US Department of State

Senior Administration Official on U.S. Diplomatic Engagement Regarding Our Ongoing Commitment to Ukraine's Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity, and Independence

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Via Teleconference
December 17, 2021

MODERATOR: Thank you, Operator, and I'd like to welcome everyone to this morning's on-background briefing. It's good to have you with us.

Just as a reminder here at the top, this briefing today is on background with a senior administration official who will discuss U.S. diplomatic engagement regarding our ongoing commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence. To reiterate, the contents of this briefing this morning are on background and they are embargoed until the end of the call.

For your information but not for reporting purposes, I'm going to let you know who our briefer is today. We have on the line with us [Senior Administration Official]. In your reporting, you can refer to our briefer as a senior administration official. We will start off with some opening remarks from [Senior Administration Official], and then we can take just a few of your questions.

And with that, I'd like to go ahead and turn it over to [Senior Administration Official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, [Moderator], and thanks, colleagues, for being with us this morning.

As you know, we remain gravely concerned with the large and unprovoked Russian buildup on Ukraine's borders. We are working intensively with our allies and partners on this issue. We are also concerned about Russia's increasingly harsh rhetoric and pushing a false narrative that Ukraine is somehow seeking to provoke a conflict with Russia. I'd like to be clear: This situation is the responsibility of the Russian Federation. There is no aggressive action on the part of the Ukrainians.

We have been clear with Russia and with our allies and partners that we support diplomacy as a way to de-escalate, ease tensions, and end this aggression against Ukraine. That said, if diplomacy fails, as the G7 said on December 12, as the North Atlantic Council said yesterday in its statement, there will be - if there is any further aggression against Ukraine, that will have massive consequences and will carry a high price.

With regard to the diplomacy, in addition to the stops in Kyiv and Moscow that Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Karen Donfried made earlier in this week, she was also in Brussels yesterday talking to both the EU and our NATO Allies, and that resulted in the statement that you saw yesterday.

National Security Advisor Sullivan spoke with Russian Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Ushakov yesterday as well and has spoken to Ukrainian National Security Advisor Yermak.

We are focused on, as I said, seeing how the United States might be able to support implementation of the Minsk agreements and support Normandy allies France and Germany in their efforts there. Just to underscore, the Normandy Format remains the essential format for the Minsk negotiations, but the U.S. is prepared to use our bilateral channels to Moscow and to Kyiv to support if we can.

We are particularly interested as the Normandy powers are in seeing a Christmas ceasefire and a prisoner exchange. That's something that's under discussion. And we are also - as you know, we received some concrete proposals from the Russians when Assistant Secretary Donfried was in Moscow. We have shared those with our allies.

As we have said, we are prepared to discuss them. That said, there are some things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable, and they know that. But there are other things that we are prepared to work with and that merit some discussion. That said, we will do this with our allies and partners. Nothing about European security without Europeans in the room.

So let me pause there and take any questions that you have.

MODERATOR: Operator, would you please repeat the instructions for getting into the question queue?

OPERATOR: Once again, press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad if you have a question. And please do not speak until your line is open.

MODERATOR: With that, let's go to our first question. We'll go the line of Nick Wadhams.

OPERATOR: Nick, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. Thanks very much. Can you give us a sense for what in the Russian proposals are unacceptable? Is it essentially the reversion of NATO back to 1997?

And then can you also tell us whether the U.S. is considering kicking Russia out of SWIFT and also would expect Germany to cut or delay the opening of Nord Stream 2 if Russia goes ahead with an invasion? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, well, thanks for that. Let me start by saying that we don't see - unlike the Russian Federation, we don't see any advantage to conducting these negotiations in public, neither the conversations that we're having with our allies and partners nor the conversations we will collectively have with Russia. We believe that if there is a chance for diplomacy to work that it has to be done in a confidential manner.

As we have said with our allies and partners, we are in the process of preparing the severe consequences that would result if Russia decides to take the path of further aggression. I would say that these largely are composed of economic and financial measures, and we are prepared to consider a number of things that we have not considered in the past, and the results will be very profound on the Russian Federation, but I'm not going to go into details.

With regard to Nord Stream 2, you have seen the agreement that the U.S. and Germany concluded with regard to the security impacts on Ukraine and on European security as Nord Stream 2 goes forward and agreements and understandings that we have between us with regard to support for Ukraine and the future of that pipeline, including the reference to suspending it if there is further aggression. We have had good conversations with the new German Government and they have made some very strong statements of their own with regard to Nord Stream 2 and with regard to their ongoing support for the agreement that we have with them.

With regard to the Russian proposal, again, I'm not going to negotiate it here in public, but I will say a couple of foundational things here, which you'll see reflected also in the North Atlantic Council statements, in the EU statements, in the statements of our individual allies. Any dialogue with Russia has got to proceed on the basis of reciprocity. We and our allies have plenty of concerns about Russia's dangerous and threatening behavior, and those will have to be raised in any conversation that we have.

Also, any negotiation/discussion that we have will have to be based on the core principles and foundational documents of European security and be done together with the Europeans. There will be no talks on European security without our European allies and partners participating, and we will not compromise on key principles on which European security is built, including, as the President has said repeatedly and as he said directly to President Putin, that all countries have the right to decide their own future and their own foreign policy free from outside interference. And that goes for Ukraine and it also goes for NATO Allies and the alliance itself with regard to how it provides a collective defense for its members.

MODERATOR: Let's go to the line of Christina Ruffini.

OPERATOR: Christina, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR: We can hear you, Christina.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. My colleague stole a bunch of my questions; however, I'd like to follow up on something you said, [Senior Administration Official]. You said, "We're prepared to consider a number of things we've not considered in the past, and the results will be very profound on the Russian Federation." I know you're not going to go into details, but can you give us some sort of category of what you mean? Is that a kinetic response, is that an economic response, a combination of both, or is it something that I'm not mentioning and thinking of?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that we've been pretty clear that the package of measures that we're working on - and the EU has said the same thing - would include severe economic and financial consequences, political consequences, et cetera.

MODERATOR: And let's go to the line of Michael Crowley.

OPERATOR: One moment here. Michael Crowley, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR: We can hear you, Michael.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We've got you now.

QUESTION: Great, thanks. Okay. Thank you. Thanks for doing this. You mentioned economic consequences and political consequences. Just on the question of military assistance to the Ukrainians, some members of Congress have been urging that the U.S. send more military assistance now as a deterrent to a possible invasion. I just wonder if you could address that. Is that something you're considering? What's your response to members of Congress (inaudible) get armed up a little better now as a deterrent?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So thanks, Michael. We have provided just this year alone more than $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, and a good amount of that package is continuing to flow. You know the kinds of things that we've provided in the defensive lethal category. We are also in intensive dialogue with the Ukrainians at all levels, including DOD and EUCOM, with regard to their needs. So we will continue to keep those lines open as necessary and as we see what the Ukrainian requirements are.

I would also say that a number of allies are also contributing and we're in conversation with our allies about needs as well and coordinating closely.

MODERATOR: Let's go to the line now of Barbara Usher.

OPERATOR: Barbara, your line is open. Please, go ahead.

MODERATOR: Barbara, are you on mute?

OPERATOR: Looks like Barbara must have pressed the wrong key to get out of queue.

MODERATOR: Okay. Let's go ahead and go to the line of Will Mauldin.

OPERATOR: Will, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. Just wanted to ask a follow-up on something you said about the format for any major talks with Russia as Moscow has requested. You referred to the Normandy partners, France and Germany. Are those the partners that would participate in such talks or would it be something broader at NATO or the OSCE?

And then also wanted to ask: In order to have such major talks, high-level talks with Moscow, would they need to de-escalate? Would they need to remove troops and materiel from the border, and would you expect them to do that? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. So we are - sorry. Is somebody - yeah, okay.

So we are consulting with allies and partners now, including at NATO, on the issue of formats and how to address the menu of issues of interest to Russia, as well as the menu of issues of interest to us. As you noted, what you see in these Russian documents includes a whole laundry list of things. Some of these issues in the past have been discussed in the NATO-Russia Council when they pertain to issues of transparency and deconfliction between Russia and NATO. Some of these issues that they are talking about are of larger concern to all 57 members of the OSCE, which notably includes Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Russia's neighbors. And some of them are in the category of straight arms - nuclear arms control, which we've traditionally done in U.S.-Russia format, including with tight coordination with NATO.

So we are looking at how to do this in a way that the right countries are at the table and that when we are talking about European security issues, that everybody whose interests are affected is part of that, and we will be getting back to the Russians sometime next week with a more concrete proposal on that after we've had a chance to consult with the allies.

But again, we will have also, I would guess, quite a list of our own concerns about Russia's posture and behavior that we will want to bring to the table as well. So this has got to be done on the basis of reciprocity, nothing about them without them with regard to our European allies and partners, and as I said, we've got a list here from the Russians that encompasses many of the formats that we've used in the past. So we have to figure out how we rack and stack that, and we will get that to them with a concrete proposal sometime next week.

MODERATOR: Let's go back to the line of Barbara Usher, please.

OPERATOR: Barbara, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. I dropped off the call by mistake, so you may have already answered this, and perhaps you have even with other questions. But I just wondered if you could say anything more about your assessment of what you think the Russians are up to. We've been hearing that you had - or the administration had not determined whether President Putin had decided yet to invade. From what you're saying, it sounds like now that you have a process going, perhaps you feel that that threat has decreased, but I don't know. What's your assessment about what the Russians are up to? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Barbara. First just to say that I managed to drop the question on de-escalation, so let me address that first.

Obviously, the Russians are in an increasingly threatening posture with regard to Ukraine and with regard to neighbors and the NATO Alliance itself. And obviously, if and as we get into diplomatic conversations, which we hope we will be able to do, they stand a far better chance of being successful if they are accompanied by de-escalation, and it's going to be very hard to get partners and allies to engage with the kind of intimidation that is going on now. So we're making clear to the Russians, as we have from the beginning and as we did in the President's conversation with President Putin and with - and National Security Advisor Sullivan's conversation with Ushakov and Secretary Blinken's conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov, that de-escalation is absolutely essential.

You asked what the Russians are up to. I will let the Russians speak for themselves with regard to what they're up to. We believe, the President believes, our allies believe that if there are concerns - and we have concerns on our side, they clearly have concerns on their side - they are best discussed diplomatically in the Normandy format, in these other formats that we have. And that is what we are proposing, and that is a far better path not only for Ukraine and all of us but for the Russian Federation itself.

I mean, let's remember that Russia has one of the highest COVID levels in the world. The Russian people don't need a war with Ukraine. They don't need their sons coming home in body bags. They don't need another foreign adventure. What they need is better health care, build back better, roads, schools, economic opportunity. And that's what the polling is showing in Russia. So we hope that President Putin will take this opportunity for diplomacy and will also listen to the needs of his own people.

I think on that note we've probably covered it. What do you think, [Moderator]?

MODERATOR: I think you've done very well, [Senior Administration Official]. I really appreciate it. And with that, folks, we are out of time this morning. I would like to thank everyone for dialing in and for your questions. I'd like to give special thanks to our briefer for being with us today. Thank you, [Senior Administration Official]. And just a reminder to everyone that this briefing this morning is on background with a senior administration official. And with that, this briefing is ended and the embargo is lifted. Have a good rest of your day.



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