MODERATOR: This is a background briefing previewing our trip to London, where Secretary Kerry will be meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. Senior State Department Official Number One will give some brief opening remarks and then we’ll take questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So as you know, Secretary Kerry has been engaging, as have Europeans, with Foreign Minister Lavrov for more than a week to see if we could support a de-escalation of the situation in Ukraine, a political solution, a negotiated way out, an off-ramp. A number of you were on the trip in Paris and in Rome, where Secretary Kerry was joined by some 10 other foreign ministers and international representatives who could conceivably form a contact group of countries who could support direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, if that’s possible.
You’ll recall that last week the Russians were not willing to sit down directly with the Ukrainians, saying that they didn’t recognize this government. So instead, the contact group ministers met with the Russians, then they met with the Ukrainians, but no progress was made there. And the Russians did not have – Foreign Minister Lavrov didn’t – wasn’t really empowered, didn’t really have much room to negotiate.
Then over the course of this past week, as you know, we thought we would try again by sending the Russians a list of questions, first with regard to whether they would set the environment for talks, whether they would stop the facts on the ground that they are creating both by supporting the Crimean referendum and by the military pressure and the pressure from security irregulars that they’re bringing to bear on Ukraine, and then secondarily to explore whether some of these ideas for de-escalation might be something that they would engage on, ideas like withdrawing Russian troops back to barracks and in their place putting in OSCE or UN monitors, support for a demobilization initiative on the ground in Kyiv and other cities where there are still irregulars and too many weapons, supported by the OSCE, the UN. So we had a whole list of things and we asked the Russians specifically whether they would engage.
The answer that we got back in written form was basically a restatement of all of the positions that we had heard in London and Paris, with some pretty specious legal argumentation about how Crimea and Kosovo are the same thing. So --
QUESTION: When did you get that response?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that was probably --
QUESTION: Monday night.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- on Monday. Monday night. Right.
QUESTION: And then they spoke on Tuesday morning?
QUESTION: That was in the --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So they spoke on Tuesday morning and Secretary Kerry said, “Look, we haven’t made any progress here, but I’m willing to keep trying.” You’ll recall that the previous week – I guess it was over the previous weekend – the President spoke to Putin. They agreed that Lavrov and Kerry would keep trying. Then when Lavrov called him, he said, “Hey, why don’t you go to Sochi and see Putin?” We got back and said that Secretary Kerry could not – would not do that if there wasn’t any – some traction between them.
So Secretary Kerry called him again on Tuesday and said, “Look, we haven’t made any progress here, but I am still willing to come and try and talk with you, but you need to get some flexibility. And by the way, we have Prime Minister Yatsenyuk of Ukraine coming for the President’s invitation on Wednesday. They’ve been saying the right things about being willing to offer a lot of autonomy, being willing to offer a lot of international support to protect minorities and human rights, et cetera. We’re going to explore that with Yansenyuk and we’ll see how that might be articulated and detailed. So why don’t we think about trying to meet at the end of the week?” Kerry offered yesterday; Lavrov had to be on Sochi to see Putin today. So they ended up at Friday, and so we will meet him tomorrow.
We were quite gratified by the positions that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk took. You heard him publicly. He made clear that they want to negotiate, that they want a political solution, that they believe that with international support this could be de-escalated; that if there are legitimate concerns about minority rights, about security of the bases, they’d be delighted to have international observers in and international support in; that they are prepared to work with Russia on any outstanding issues either directly bilaterally or with the support of a contact group. He said again in the meeting with the President, publicly afterwards, at the Atlantic Council, that they’re prepared to consider highest possible degree of autonomy for Crimea inside of Ukraine, but what they will not do is sacrifice the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
So with all of that in hand and a lot of good consultations, Secretary Kerry will give this a try again tomorrow. You’ll recall that the referendum on Crimea’s status that we and the G7 and most of the international community consider illegal and invalid is set to take place on Sunday. Again, this is another step that does not improve the environment for discussion, so the first that Secretary Kerry will say is use your influence to buy space for a time and space for negotiations to take place.
That said, Crimeans seem bound and determined to go forward with this. It will not have force of law in Ukraine. It will not have force of law in Russia or anywhere in the international community in and of itself. But we will be interested also to hear from Foreign Minister Lavrov how Russia sees this as it bears down.
I want to call your attention also to a very, very strong statement issued by the G7 countries yesterday – it’s their second statement in two weeks – making clear that any annexation of Crimea would be unrecognized, illegal, invalid, in their eyes, as would the results of this referendum, which I’ll remind you the President called slap-dash and illegal yesterday.
QUESTION: So what is success, given those bounds? I mean, what’s the best he can hope for, you can hope for, for Kerry and Lavrov tomorrow?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think what we would like to see is a commitment to stop putting new facts on the ground and a commitment to engage seriously on ways to de-escalate the conflict, to bring Russia forces back to barracks, to use international observers in place of force to achieve legitimate political and human rights objectives, but a commitment to respect and restore the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
QUESTION: But that’s been your position for two weeks now and they haven’t done it, and you’re two days out from the referendum.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Again, we need to give – we are going to give diplomacy every chance. We are going to present within the context of a unified, sovereign Ukraine the best offer for de-escalation that the Ukrainian people can accept and see if Russia is prepared to take that off-ramp. This is a matter of giving diplomacy every chance to succeed, and if the Russians choose not to take that course, if President Putin chooses not to avail himself of that opportunity, then, as the President has said, there will be costs. There have already been costs, but there will be more costs.
QUESTION: As a senior official on background, what is your assessment of the latest Russian military moves, the snap exercise that they’ve called in which they themselves have explained they’ve put thousands of troops in an area close to Ukraine? What, is this a political signal, is it preparations for an invasion? How do you read it?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think we’re very concerned. This is the second time inside of a month that Russia has chosen to mass large amounts of force on short notice without much transparency around the eastern borders of Ukraine. It certainly creates an environment of intimidation, it certainly is destabilizing, and that’ll be one question that we’ll be asked tomorrow – what is meant by this.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], can I – today, (inaudible).
QUESTION: Go ahead, (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: They’ll bleep you out.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Secretary Kerry today admitted that the referendum would go ahead, and that they should expect a series – a serious – a very serious response from the international community on this. At what stage – I mean, if you accept – if he’s accepting the referendum’s going to go ahead, at what stage does one implement the sanctions? What kind of response would you like to see from Russia that would prevent you from enforcing those sanctions? Or what response would happen that would make you go ahead with the sanctions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. I think there were 18 hypotheticals in that. Secretary Kerry’s made clear, the President’s made clear, senior European leaders have made clear that if this referendum goes forward, the costs for Russia in terms of its relationship with us and the international community will go up. That’s clear because it’s a violation and it’s illegitimate and it’s threatening to the unity and sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. So that’s clear.
We’ve also made clear that there is another way to do this. There is a preferred way to deal with this, which is to begin de-escalating, to use the good offices of the United States and all of these European countries and Canada and the international organizations to provide the reassurance that is necessary, to provide the observation, to give the support for normalizing the security situation if that is truly what Russia is concerned about. So there’s a choice here for Russia to make. There’s been a choice all the way through.
QUESTION: So you said that you’d be interested in how the Russians would perceive the vote of – the outcome of the referendum. What --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think that’s what I said.
QUESTION: You said something along these lines. You said – I don’t have the exact quote, but you said you’d be interested to see what – how Russia responds to the referendum.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think I would – I said we were interested in how Russia explains all the troop movements outside Ukraine.
QUESTION: Okay. What if Russia were to – if the referendum were to go forward and Russia were to not take moves to annex the territory? Is that something that would stave off sanctions? Is that something that would form the basis for further negotiations?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: As I said, if this referendum goes forward, there will be costs. If there is further military escalation, there will be more cost. If there is not serious diplomacy, there will be more cost. If there is not a de-escalation, there will be more cost. So the choice is Russia’s. We are opening a door here to handling any legitimate concerns diplomatically, through de-escalation, through international observation, through international support. But if Russia is bound and determined to assert its will militarily inside Ukrainian territory and does not avail itself of de-escalatory offers, then we’ll know what path they’ve chosen.
QUESTION: But Secretary Kerry did say at his testimony he left the door open to further talks after the referendum if the Russians do not actually take moves to annex the territory.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Again, I said that there would be costs if there’s a referendum. The question becomes: After the referendum, does Russia get serious about diplomacy? Is there a further opportunity? Why they would do it after the referendum and not do it tomorrow? Who knows? But we are prepared to leave the door open, but every step that they make forward will be met with costs.
QUESTION: Are sanctions on Monday a foregone conclusion if the referendum goes forward on Sunday?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.
QUESTION: Because Kerry --
QUESTION: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Maybe something about --
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official] said, “Yes,” (inaudible).
QUESTION: I didn’t hear your answer.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There will be costs if the referendum goes forward. Let’s leave it that way.
QUESTION: You said, “Yes.”
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let – there will be costs if the referendum goes forward. I don’t want to peg myself to a certain time.
QUESTION: But Kerry did say publicly today --
QUESTION: He said that today.
QUESTION: He said that.
QUESTION: He said that today publicly. He said Monday there will be announcements.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Did he say Monday?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay.
QUESTION: He said Monday. He said – and more cost (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What I didn’t want to do was peg myself to a precise date, but he’s already done it --
QUESTION: Yeah, he said that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- then he’s the Secretary of all State, yeah. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah, but then he did say later and (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Looks like they’re – we’re packing up to go.
QUESTION: Let me ask you this: Do you think Russia at this point can advise the Duma in Crimea to not go ahead with the referendum, or are we way too past that? I mean, would that be one part of the off-ramp?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Our analysis is that Russia has encouraged, aided, and abetted this referendum process from day one and financed it. Okay?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you.