MODERATOR: Thanks very much and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining this call as we preview the diplomatic efforts in advance of Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman’s upcoming engagements in Europe next week. As a reminder, this call is on background. You can attribute what you hear to senior State Department officials.
For your knowledge only and not for reporting purposes, we have two senior State Department officials on the line with us today. We have [Senior State Department Official One]. We also have [Senior State Department Official Two]. Again, you can refer to what they say and attribute it to senior State Department officials.
So with that, and as a final reminder, the call will be embargoed until its conclusion. But with that, I will turn it over to our first senior official. Please go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator], and thanks to all of you for joining us prior to what will be our whirlwind of diplomacy next week with Russia. Our hope and intent is that it will also be a constructive week.
I wanted to provide some context for the first meeting of the week, which will be an extraordinary session of the bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue on Monday, January 10th.
President Biden and President Putin agreed last June to initiate a robust and deliberate dialogue to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction.
Our first step in that process was to convene a Strategic Stability Dialogue on July 28th last year, and we held a second plenary on September 30th. Deputy Secretary Sherman led the interagency U.S. delegation to both meetings, and she will do so this coming Monday.
At the second plenary, the two sides agreed to establish two expert working groups, one on “Principles and Objectives for Future Arms Control” and the other on “Capabilities and Actions with Strategic Effects.”
The United States found both plenaries to be useful and sought to hold another plenary and convene the working group prior to the end of 2021. Russia, however, would not schedule a meeting before the end of the year despite our expressed interest.
Because Monday’s plenary is being convened without the working groups, as previously planned, and with a more focused agenda on bilateral elements of Russia’s recent treaty proposals, we are calling it an “extraordinary” session.
On Monday we will listen to Russia explain its proposals and the underlying concerns motivating them. We will respond and share our own concerns. Hopefully it will result in identifying a few bilateral issues where there is enough common ground to continue discussions and ultimately address together through the SSD.
I want to underscore that discussions within the SSD will be focused on bilateral matters, and that we are not going to talk above the heads of our European allies and partners. We have said many times, and I want to say again, that we are committed to the principle of “nothing about you without you” when it comes to our allies and partners, including Ukraine. It will be no different at this extraordinary session of the SSD. Any issues affecting allies and partners will need to be discussed in the appropriate multilateral fora, such as NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE being held later this week. We will also keep our allies and partners informed about the SSD discussions.
Our hope is that we can follow up this meeting relatively quickly with meetings of the working groups and/or another plenary session.
Now, with that, I will turn it over to my colleague to say a few words about other diplomatic engagements planned this week. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks so much, [Senior State Department Official One], for that excellent overview of our engagement at the SSD, and I appreciate having a chance to brief all of you who are on the line today.
Following the SSD, the Deputy Secretary will travel to Brussels on January 11, where she will brief NATO allies and EU officials on these discussions. On January 12, Deputy Secretary Sherman will lead the U.S. delegation at the NATO-Russia Council meeting. This will be the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council that Russia has accepted since July 2019. NATO is committed to reciprocal and productive dialogue with Russia, while standing united to deter further aggression against Ukraine.
Then, on January 13th, the United States will participate in the OSCE Permanent Council meeting. The meeting will take place in Vienna with Michael Carpenter, U.S. Ambassador to the USOSCE, leading the U.S. delegation. This will be the first Permanent Council meeting of 2022 and will provide an opportunity for a broader discussion of European security that has all stakeholders around the table. The OSCE is an important venue for multilateral dialogue on European security issues, and we are looking forward to working with Poland as it serves as the OSCE chair-in-office this year.
Let me now be clear about the history. Over the past two decades, it is Russia that has invaded two neighboring countries, interfered in many others’ elections, used chemical weapons to attempt to assassinate opponents of the government, including on NATO Ally territory, violated international arms control agreements, and pulled back from confidence-building and transparency measures long agreed, and supported dictators that willingly oppress their citizens.
Now, we have heard Russia publicly claiming that the United States and NATO seek conflict. This is utterly false. Russia is trying to blame others for Russia’s own aggression. It is Russia’s own actions and coercion that have brought us to this point. The United States and our allies and partners are fully committed to the role of multilateral engagement in resolving this crisis as we watch Russia’s continued military buildup on Ukraine’s border.
These continuing diplomatic efforts build on extensive diplomacy already conducted with allies and partners. President Biden has spoken to President Putin and President Zelenskyy and to other leaders across Europe, including our eastern flank allies. Officials from across the U.S. Government have also been speaking frequently with their counterparts. Secretary Blinken spoke with NATO foreign ministers today, met with his counterparts at the G7 and OSCE ministerial meetings last month, and has also been in close contact with European Union leaders. Our newly confirmed ambassadors to NATO, the EU, and the OSCE will also actively work with their counterparts to pursue constructive discussions of European security and ensure close consultation with our allies and partners.
Our approach to the discussions will be pragmatic and results-oriented. We believe there are areas where we can make progress if Moscow is realistic in its approach. We can’t be sure until the talks take place. That’s the nature of diplomacy.
President Biden has made clear that we can make progress on some issues while others are not viable. Russia knows well our positions, which are grounded in fundamental principles of European security they once agreed to, including the principle that borders cannot be redrawn by force and countries have the sovereign right to determine their foreign and security policy. We are watching closely Russia’s alarming military activities along Ukraine’s border as well as the disinformation campaign. Genuine progress can only take place in a climate of de-escalation, not escalation, and in all things, we will stay tightly lashed up with our allies and partners on the principle of nothing about you without you.
Before I conclude, I would echo my colleague and what the Secretary emphasized in his remarks earlier today. We fully expect that the Russian side will make public comments following the meeting on Monday that will not reflect the true nature of the discussions that took place. We would urge our allies and partners to view those comments with extreme skepticism and to continue their ongoing discussions and coordination with the United States.
And now I’ll hand it back over to our moderator to facilitate questions.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much to both of you. Operator, would you mind repeating the instructions to ask a question?
OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question on today’s call, you may press 1 and then 0. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. And once again, if you do have a question on today’s call, you may press 1 and then 0.
MODERATOR: We’ll start with the line of Andrea Mitchell, please, of NBC.
OPERATOR: One moment, please.
MODERATOR: It looks like her name was incorrectly entered as Wendy Mitchell.
OPERATOR: One – thank you; I appreciate that. And your line is open.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) I’ll change my name if that helps. It’s Andrea. Hi. Thank you very much. A question about the conversations today with Finland and Sweden, and whether you think that the secretary general speaking – that the door is open to them creates more incentive for Russia to feel nervous about becoming encircled by NATO expansion. And also, whether U.S. commitment to arm Ukraine and what I’ve been told, what we’ve been told would also be willingness to arm Ukrainian positions is something that you think would be one bargaining chip with Russia.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m happy to hop in on this. First, in terms of Finland and Sweden, Finland and Sweden are valued NATO partners. And the way membership in the alliance works is that is always a decision between NATO and countries that aspire to belong. And so the question would be at some point, if Finland and Sweden were interested in pursuing membership in the alliance. But the relationship today is Finland and Sweden having a strong partnership with NATO, and we value that very much.
On the question about security assistance to Ukraine, as you know, we continually assess additional military assistance packages and are continuing to provide equipment and supplies to Ukraine. Now, this is defensive equipment, and over the past seven years we’ve committed about 2.5 billion in military assistance to Ukraine to help Ukraine defend itself. And as President Biden has told President Putin, should Russia further invade Ukraine, we will provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians above and beyond that which we already are in the process of providing.
But I just want to make clear that the assistance we are giving to Ukraine is to help Ukraine defend itself. Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Matt Lee.
QUESTION: This one is actually a plea to [Moderator]. Can – because I don’t want to bog this down with logistics, but is there any way that we could get like a tick-tock beforehand, just on like the timings of certain things – arrivals in Geneva, the start of the meeting, the end of the meeting? What do you guys have in mind for briefings afterwards? I noticed the idea that the Russians – that you guys have put out that the Russians are going to basically lie about what happened. Are you guys planning anything to counter that on that day before you go into the consultations with others?
And then for the principals on the policy side, can I just ask what this – you guys have been making the case, making the point over and over again that we’re not going to talk about anything related to European security or Ukrainian security without them at the table. Well, we all know that the Russians are going to bring that up. So what are you guys going to do when Ryabkov starts listing his – the Russian grievances? Are you just going to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all this before, and we’ll take it to our partners,” and not respond at all to whatever they say about – say about that? Or is there actually going to be the potential for some kind of interaction? Because they’re clearly trying to draw you into it. Thanks.
MODERATOR: I’ll start on your first question, Matt. We believe that the best way to counter misinformation and disinformation is with information. And so you’re going to be hearing a lot of information from us over the course of the next week. We will make sure that you have the relevant details for all of the meetings. We will also make sure that you have an opportunity to hear from senior officials after each substantive engagement, to hear the context and the details of what transpired in those sessions. So stay tuned. We will have a lot more information for you in the coming days.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And if I can jump in just briefly. I’m confident in what [Moderator] has said. I mean, for – in terms of, for example, the SSD, the – we have been very open in terms of engaging our allies and partners both during and after a lot of these discussions. And so that will continue. And you’ll see even more of that, as [Moderator] has mentioned in this respect.
And in terms of Ukraine, I think, and as the Secretary said earlier today, I mean, obviously, Ukraine is a big part of a lot of this. And it’s been a catalyst for why we’re having this extraordinary session on Monday, as well as why there will be continued discussions in Brussels following. So we know that Ukraine will be a part of all of this. However, we also want to hear what the Russians have to say, so we won’t necessarily say we’re not going to listen to you or whatever, because we are wanting to have a dialogue with them. And part of a dialogue is to hear what they have to say and to express our own concerns.
But also out of the Monday conversation, we are looking at issues that are bilateral in nature. We will continue to discuss issues of Ukraine throughout the week, whether in Geneva or in Brussels. So it will continue to come up. But we’re hoping, particularly in this Monday discussion, to find areas where we can continue to have bilateral discussions, particularly those areas where – that can complement the work that’s already been done in the prior SSD discussions.
So I hope that answers some of your questions.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to David Sanger.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Can I just —
MODERATOR: Please, go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry, it’s that I just wanted to share that in the NATO foreign ministerial this morning, one of the things that I know really struck the Secretary was the deep appreciation that Allies shared throughout that meeting about the level of engagement there has been between the administration and the Allies over the past couple of months about the situation in Ukraine and European security more generally. And you no doubt know as well that right after that foreign ministerial today, the Secretary reached out to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba. And again, that was in the spirit of coordinating, consulting, communicating.
So I think there’s the press component of it, and then also there’s that component of the U.S. continuing to gauge – engage with its Allies and partners in making sure that everyone is understanding what the nature of this diplomatic engagement is. Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: Go to the line of David Sanger, please.
QUESTION: Thanks very much. Are you able to hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes. Go ahead, David.
QUESTION: Oh, great. Thanks, [Moderator]. Thank you both for doing this. So in the proposed treaty language that the Russians churned out a few weeks ago, there was a statement in it that the United States had to withdraw all of its nuclear weapons from Europe. And I’m wondering if that has come up at all in the previous two strategic dialogues that took place or if you expect it to come up here again, and what the U.S. position is on that.
Similarly, I’m wondering if there is any discussion underway about reviving any part of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that President Trump left, and whether you think that some of these nuclear issues, if you could resolve them, could actually get to what the Russians really want here, or whether you think what they really want here is Ukrainian territory.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I can start. I’ll take a stab at that. The issue of nuclear forces and nuclear weapons in Europe – Russia has repeatedly publicly called for the U.S. to remove its forward-deployed lethal weapons from allied territory, so the calling for that isn’t anything new that we haven’t heard before. But we’ve made clear to Russia in the past that those are going to be problematic for the United States. And we’ve affirmed that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. And so that is something that we’ve had conversations with them about in the past.
However, what I will say is one of the things that – you talk about the INF treaty. In a previous SSD conversation, one of the things that we have said is we are willing to put anything on the table. And we wanted to feel free that both sides have their issues – whether it’s INF, whether it’s something else – and we wanted to open up the dialogue to have a dialogue that eventually we hope will lead to something in the end. And so INF was something that was always a possibility to be discussed, and as you see, it’s a possibility for Monday, but I don’t really want to get into exactly what we’re going to be talking about in that venue.
Whether it’s a pretext for something else, possibly, but as I said, the issue of INF, the potential moratorium, has been around for a while. And so it’s an issue that we have discussed in the SSD. Hopefully it’s something that we will – it’s one of those things (inaudible) that we think, depending on what happens with discussions, if we have a discussion on that, can be – we can wrap it up in something in the SSD in the future.
MODERATOR: Kylie – excuse me, Kylie Atwood, please.
QUESTION: We appreciate you guys doing this call. Earlier today, Secretary Blinken referenced potential progress if – excuse me, if Russia reciprocates and is willing to de-escalate. So I’m wondering: If Russia does de-escalate aggression towards Ukraine, would the U.S. be willing to alter its force posture in Western Europe, specifically in Poland? And is this something that U.S. officials will clearly state to Russia over the course of the talks next week? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So I’m happy to respond to that, Kylie. First, I want to say that I have seen your report today that is suggesting that the administration is developing options for pulling back U.S. forces in Eastern Europe in preparation for these discussions with Russia. I want to be crystal-clear that that is not accurate. And in fact, what we have been clear with Russia about, both publicly and privately, is that should Russia further invade Ukraine, we would reinforce our NATO Allies on the eastern flank to whom we have a sacred obligation.
We are tightly lashed up with our NATO Allies as we are addressing this crisis together, and I’m just going to reiterate that the principle here is nothing about you without you, and that is 150 percent true when we are talking about our force structure in Europe. Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to Francesco Fontemaggi.
QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead. We have you.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Just a quick thing about schedule. Is there any chance that the two delegations meet on Sunday night before the formal talks on Monday? And then on the policy, you have said several times that there were many nonstarters in the treaty proposals by Moscow. Can you just tell us which are the starters, the things that can be discussed in those proposals, those where you think that there could be some kind of agreement? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I’ll answer the second question, and just to say that at this point there are a number of topics, and one of them came up recently in the question I was just asked by David Sanger about nuclear forces and those issues. There are some – there are a number of issues. I don’t want to go into specifics going through the treaty article by article, but I will say that there are some issues that were brought up with some questions or some areas that there have been back and forth with Russia in the past. So – and there are areas that were raised that could be areas of discussion.
Like I said, one of the things we want to do at this dialogue on Monday and continue to do is to hear their concerns and for them to hear our concerns. But there are certainly things that we’ve hashed with them in the past that they know are problematic for us. And so we will have an opportunity to discuss those again on Monday, and – which is really the purpose is to have this dialogue and to have an exchange of views and understand where we are and what our concerns are. So without going into more detail than that, I’ll just say that there are issues that have been raised and we’ve discussed with them before in the past.
MODERATOR: And on the schedule, Francesco, as you know, the formal SSD is on Monday. If we have any updates to the deputy secretary’s schedule, we will pass those along.
We’ll go to Patsy Widakuswara from VOA.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for doing this briefing, and I apologize in advance if this was mentioned in the beginning of the briefing. I joined a few minutes late. I wanted to know about the format of the three different talks, of the Geneva talks, Brussels, and then Vienna. Could you maybe elaborate a little bit whether there’s going to be different focus on each meeting? Is the idea that there will be a buildup from one meeting to another?
And then just another one to clarify on what Secretary Blinken said earlier today in his briefing. On Kazakhstan he said once the Russians are in your house, it’s hard to get them out. Can you clarify what he meant by that? Is there a concern that – from the U.S. that Russian troops coming in to help quell these protests will become something more permanent or a pretext for something else? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think I’ll start it and then I’ll turn it over to colleagues. I think one way to look at the meetings next week is – and as we’ve said many times that there are things that are raised in the treaty document and documents that Russia provided that clearly we need to engage our partners and allies. There are areas that we think can be discussed between us and Russia, but clearly we need to talk to NATO, we need to talk to other forums – OSCE, others that we need to engage – to have these discussions, because as we’ve been saying over and over again, we cannot have these conversations without all of our partners and allies engaged where they have to be.
And so one way to look at these meetings next week is to have those discussions, starting with the bilateral areas where we think we can have conversations with Russia in a bilateral forum similar to the SSD that we’ve had in the past, but also to have discussions where we need to have our allies and partners. And also, as we’ve said in response to an earlier question, we want to engage our partners and allies and let them know what’s going on and make sure they are informed and up to date on the discussions that we are having. So part of it is to have discussions with them that we need to have based on the papers that Russia has provided us, and another part is for communication and openness about what we’re doing. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And I’m happy to jump in on the other two formats. So then the next engagement is the NATO-Russia Council, and that is something that I mentioned earlier has not met since July 2019. So it is significant that the NATO-Russia Council is meeting again, and that’ll be all 30 NATO members chaired by the secretary general plus Russia.
And so in those – in that forum, there are a whole host of issues that could be discussed, and we’ll have to see what seems to be a fruitful set of conversations. But it’s things like risk reduction, greater transparency, confidence-building measures, lines of communication, arms control – so there are various issues that in the past have been discussed in the NATO-Russia Council, and some of those are referenced in the draft documents that the Russians passed to us.
And that meeting of the NATO-Russia Council is what we call reinforced, because instead of happening at the permanent representative level, the United States will be represented by Deputy Secretary Sherman. And it was important to us to be clear that there’s parity between our bilateral engagement and that engagement at NATO.
And then the OSCE meeting is actually a regularly scheduled meeting of the Permanent Council of the OSCE. So we’re taking advantage of that meeting, which happened at the permanent representative level, to begin a conversation about these broader issues of European security. And that could include things like military transparency, de-confliction, conflict resolution, non-military aspects of security, so we’ll draw from that basket of issues that the OSCE is so expert on.
So I hope that’s helpful.
MODERATOR: We have time for a couple of final questions. John Hudson, please.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Great. I just wanted to follow up on the response to Kylie’s question. You said the U.S. has not developed options for pulling back U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Isn’t that a kind of diplomatic malpractice to not have options on scaling back exercises available ahead of talks of this nature? I mean, without predetermining what the U.S. will ultimately agree to, don’t you want to be prepared for a number of scenarios that might produce a diplomatic breakthrough, given the gravity of the crisis?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So our view here is that our force posture in Europe fundamentally, of course, is about U.S. policy and how we think we can best defend our interests. But the United States in this case is a member of the NATO Alliance, and part of that membership includes an Article 5 guarantee that all NATO members share with each other, and the U.S. has been clear that any conversations about NATO force posture are conversations that we would have together with our Allies.
So I just want to be very clear that it is not accurate that the U.S. administration is developing options for pulling back U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. This is a bond that is critically important to the United States and in particular to President Biden. And I want to be clear that we are firmly connected to our NATO Allies on this. So I appreciate your asking about that again so that I could be clear, thanks.
MODERATOR: Nick Wadhams, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) be willing to give its approval to the provision of Stinger missiles to Ukraine, presumably by Baltic states such as Estonia?
And then second, are you seeing any daylight with Germany and other European Union nations on how severe any economic measures such as sanctions would be in the event of a Russian invasion? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So this is [Senior State Department Official Two]. I have to say I don’t have anything for you on the Stinger missiles.
On the question about sanctions, what I can say there is we have been in very close consultation with both allies and partners about the deterrent piece of our policy. For now, crafting a common package of sanctions is intended as deterrence, but we also want to be prepared if the Russians do further invade Ukraine to be ready on day one to put that sanctions package into effect.
And what you saw both in the EU context, in the NATO context, in the G7 context, was very strong language. It wasn’t exactly the same, but the message was that if Russia engages in further military aggression against Ukraine, we – that will have massive consequences and severe cost.
So we haven’t been explicit about what the nature of those sanctions is, though we have said these are sanctions we have not considered before and did not put in place after 2014. So these are an order of magnitude more serious than anything we’ve done before but that we are unified with our allies and partners in moving out on that sort of a serious sanctions package should Russia engage in further military aggression.
QUESTION: And Will Mauldin, please. Sorry, did I interrupt someone?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, I mean, I didn’t hear the whole Stinger question. I’m not sure if I have a response to it, but I just hadn’t heard the whole question, so it might have been helpful just to hear the whole question.
MODERATOR: Okay, we will see if we can get that back. We will go to Will Mauldin first.
QUESTION: Oh, thanks so much and thank you so much for having this. Just to follow up on the sanctions issue, because if there’s not room for meeting any of the Russians’ main demands, the concern is that President Putin is going to return to military options, and that what would stop him from doing that potentially in Ukraine is this massive sanctions threat. I’m wondering, has the package been agreed upon that would be implemented? Because it sounds like the U.S. and its partners have discussed details of possible sanctions, but we don’t know if there’s been an agreement.
And would it be something that – talking about an order of magnitude, to me that means cutting off Russian energy exports, something that the Biden administration has been and European partners been wary about, or cutting Russia out of the dollar-based financial system, which also has broad repercussions. So we’re just wondering if that’s a correct understanding of order of magnitude and whether the package has been finally sealed and agreed upon. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thanks for that follow-on question. And what I will say is that these conversations with our allies and partners are ongoing, and I think it is highly significant that you saw in December in these three different venues – the European Council, the North Atlantic Council, and at the G7. These very strong statements that if Russia pursues further military aggression against Ukraine it would have – it would face massive consequences and pay a severe cost.
I think that gives you a very good sense of the unity among these countries in moving out together in putting in place a very significant sanctions package should Russia engage in further aggressive behavior. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much. Because the issue of disposition of U.S. forces has come up a couple times, let me just underscore what you’ve heard from one of our senior State Department officials. We are not weighing cuts to troops in Europe, as the erroneous report that is circulating suggests. The administration is not discussing with Russia the number of troops stationed in the Baltics and Poland. And contrary to an unnamed official quoted in this erroneous report, the administration is not compiling a list of force posture changes to discuss in the upcoming talks. There are three key assertions in the report that has been circulating; those three assertions are false.
And it does look like we have Nick Wadhams. Nick, if you want to come back on your first question.
QUESTION: The first question is just whether the U.S. would be willing to consent to the provision of Stinger missiles, presumably not its own because of technology issues but through a third country like Estonia, for example, to Ukraine. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I don’t really have a specific response to that question. I know that the issue of Stingers has been floated around, but I don’t really have a specific response to that particular question. Sorry.
MODERATOR: Okay, we will leave that there. As a reminder, this call was on background. You can attribute everything you’ve heard to senior State Department officials. And with that, the embargo is lifted. Thanks very much.