THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s in-person briefing on U.S. policy on Russia and Ukraine. My name is Bill Martin, and I’ll be the moderator.
I’m pleased to introduce our distinguished speaker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Robinson. DAS Robinson will provide an overview of current U.S. policy on President Putin’s premeditated and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. This briefing is on the record.
After we hear from DAS Robinson, I will open the floor up for questions. This briefing will end promptly at 2:50 p.m. We will post the transcript afterwards on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. With that, I’d like to turn the briefing over to DAS Robinson for an opening statement. DAS Robinson.
MR ROBINSON: Great. And I will be very brief, because I know you want to get to questions, and I want to make sure we have a chance to ask those.
So let me just give a quick overview. As Secretary Blinken noted this week, Russian air strikes are hitting schools, hospitals, residences. They’re destroying critical infrastructure which supplies drinking water, electricity, and gas to keep innocents from freezing to death. Buses, cars, and ambulances are being shelled and are being destroyed. And this is in direct contrast to what President Putin has said, that only military targets are being hit.
Already the human cost of the Kremlin’s unwarranted, unprovoked, and unjustified war on Ukraine are staggering. Hundreds, if not thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded. The response to Russia’s war has been unity among world leaders in Europe and around the world, and people are gathering around the world to protest President Putin’s war of choice, including thousands of people in Russia and in Belarus coming out to protest peacefully.
We have spent this past several months raising alarm about Russian aggression, declassifying and sharing information, and exposing President Putin’s lies.
Last week, President Biden approved $350 million in additional military assistance. We recently announced $54 million on top of more than 300 million in humanitarian assistance, and we’re working with Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, who have welcomed the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for safety.
The United States and more than 30 allies and partners, representing more than half of the world’s economy, have made good on our commitment to impose massive consequences on Russia if it invaded. We’ve sanctioned, as you well know, most of Russia’s largest financial institutions and its sovereign wealth fund. The EU has already removed Russian banks from SWIFT. Thirteen critical state-owned enterprises, including Gazprom, are now limited in their ability to raise money. We’ve imposed sanctions on President Putin and individuals. And with our allies and partners, we’re launching a task force to identify, track down, and freeze the assets of sanctioned Russian companies and oligarchs.
I understand talks between Russia and the Ukrainian Federation have just concluded for today. We hope these will result eventually in Russia’s immediate halt of its invasion and withdrawal of forces from Ukraine. But we have seen – and I have been part of these discussions – we have seen Putin extend the false hand of diplomacy before.
Let me just conclude with two final thoughts. This is not a war of the Russian people’s choice. This is Putin’s war. We know the Russian people don’t want it; we have seen them stand up against it, and we support the voice of the Russian people in calling for an end to this war and a return to peace and prosperity.
Again, the Secretary warned in December that we would impose costs; I have touched upon those. Putin is now responsible for the Russian – the costs that the Russian people are now bearing.
Finally, we are, of course, open to diplomacy. Russia has repeatedly rejected that, but we hope that Russia will respond to our offers for diplomacy, withdraw its forces, impose an immediate ceasefire, and end its aggression against the Ukrainian people.
So let me stop with that, and we will turn to questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, DAS Robinson, for those remarks. And now I’d like to open it up for questions. Please, Yuliya Olkhovskaia, Channel One. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much. You told that you were open, still open, for diplomacy. When you look (inaudible) [at the situation], how do you see (inaudible) development of relations between Moscow and United States? What should be done? Is – are there still any channels which are open? Are there any discussions between diplomats? Could you tell us more? How do you communicate now this? I think in this tough time still communication does matter.
MR ROBINSON: Sure. Look, I’ve devoted my diplomatic career to working on Russia. Moscow was my first assignment in 1995, and I have been working on – in this position for more than three and a half years. We want a better relationship with the Russian people. There has been a long history of cultural ties, economic ties, academic ties between our two peoples.
We want diplomacy to continue and to succeed. We have kept our ambassador and our embassy in Moscow, and we think it’s important to maintain and strengthen diplomatic relations between our two ties [countries].
But diplomacy also has to be based on truth. It has to be based on implementing our commitments, and we call on Russia to return to the path of diplomacy. Our door’s open; we have been clear about the pathway for that. It starts with Russia ceasing its attacks on Ukraine and returning to constructive dialogue. Our embassy is there. We have engaged with the Russian Government at multiple channels and multiple levels, and we are prepared to continue to do so, but it requires Russia to respond and to first take steps to end its war against Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Next question. Yes, Dmitry Kirsanov from TASS.
QUESTION: Nice to meet you.
MODERATOR: Nice to meet you, Dmitry.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this, sir. I hate to put you on the spot —
MR ROBINSON: It’s what I’m here for.
QUESTION: Jen Psaki was just talking about this. And I – unfortunately I wasn’t completely satisfied, so sorry about that. Any chances for the leader-level engagement now while Russia is still conducting its operation in Ukraine? Point one. And point two, if I may: Is the beef – is the idea of arranging a P5 summit still on the table? Could this be just the ticket to get out of this pickle, by getting key players together to discuss what to do next about international security architecture and the way forward?
MR ROBINSON: Sure. Thank you, Dmitry. Good questions. So I think you’ve seen the White House answer that question, that there are no plans for any talks at that level at this time. We have not seen that – the grounds for that to change. Again, the door for diplomacy is open, but we expect Russia to act. That action starts with ceasefire, withdrawing its forces, and ending its attacks on the Ukrainian people.
We are open to dialogue; we are open to considering formats. But it must first start with a good-faith effort that Russia is serious about choosing the diplomatic path. What we’ve seen, in fact, is the opposite over the past several months. While we have approached Russia, we have engaged in Strategic Stability dialogues; we engaged in the NATO-Russia Council; we have engaged at the OSCE; we’ve had multiple senior-leader contacts, from the President to the Secretary; yet Russia has not responded. In fact, what our diplomacy is met with – been met with is lies. It is time for Russia to demonstrate that it wants to return to a peaceful constructive path, and that starts with a ceasefire and withdrawal of its forces.
MODERATOR: Denis Davydov of RTR TV. Denis.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you so much, Mr. Robinson, for hearing us. May I ask two questions? Is this possible?
MR ROBINSON: Sure, sure.
QUESTION: So my first question: You have already said that the United States is going to send $54 million humanitarian aid to Ukraine and the additional $350 million military aid to Ukraine. Why do you supply seven times more weapons to Ukraine than food? And there is no doubt that under current circumstances these weapon may fall into the hands of neo-Nazi battalions as – such as Azov, for example. And as we know in 2018, Congress passed a bill that banned arms shipments to neo-Nazi battalions, such as Azov again. Has the United States changed your legislature – your legislation or you just change your attitude toward neo-Nazi?
MR ROBINSON: So let me answer your first question. First, as I made clear, we’ve announced an additional $54 million on top of already a $300 million. And we will look for providing additional assistance. USAID Administrator Samantha Power was just in Warsaw, in Poland to engage on this issue. We are working with UN relief agencies and with our European partners. And so there’s a very strong commitment by our government, by the European Union, by our partners and allies to both support Ukraine with its humanitarian needs as well as those who have been forced to flee, again, by Russia’s actions. The UN announced yesterday that that number is close to or up to a million people have sought refuge and fled – have been displaced or fled the country all because of Russian actions.
And so your second question, though, is fundamentally based on the wrong point. There are no – this is not about neo-Nazis. Let’s go through the logic that President Putin has used. First, it was about NATO being in Ukraine – false. Second, it was about security guarantees, also apparently false. It was about Ukraine was about to attack the Donbas – false. Ukraine was about to attack Crimea – false. The new flavor of the month from the Kremlin is neo-Nazis. With a diverse, democratically elected Ukrainian Government, a Russian-speaking – native Russian-speaking president, these are just false accusations to begin with.
We have great confidence in our partnership with the Ukrainian Government, the Ukrainian military in the use of our military assistance. And you’ve seen the resounding response of NATO and allies and partners around the world to provide that assistance for Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression. This is not about neo-Nazis. This is simply a question of Russian aggression against a democratic, free country on its borders.
QUESTION: But again, if this weapon fall into the hands of neo-Nazi, how would you consider it?
MR ROBINSON: I’m not even going to engage in the hypothetical because the premise is false. These are – this is our security partnership with the Ukrainian Government, and our allies are engaged in that same partnership. This is a pretext that Moscow has engaged in to justify its actions.
QUESTION: So you don’t change your attitudes toward neo-Nazi?
MODERATOR: Okay, I think —
MR ROBINSON: I am not answering that question. It’s a false premise.
MODERATOR: Okay. Next question, let me go to Mykhailo Khomadovsky of VOA.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this. A few questions, if I may. So you were saying that the door for diplomacy is still open. But at the same time, so far, we can see that diplomacy doesn’t really work because Vladimir Putin refuses, like, to hear the voice of diplomacy coming from, like, the United States and, like, the European partners.
So, if diplomacy fails here, what is your plan? We know that President Biden said that he wouldn’t send, like, American troops to the Ukrainian soil to fight with the Ukrainian allies, but at the same time he is sending additional troops to the European NATO Allies to strengthen the border should Vladimir Putin decide to continue this invasion.
My second question is today, Jen Psaki, press secretary of the White House, said the following, quote/unquote, “The Kremlin right now is engaged in a full assault on media freedom and the truth.” She gave some examples like – media outlets like Radio Echo of Moscow, TV channel TV Rain, and VOA Russian is under the attack. The websites are being blocked, and we see that the journalists are being silenced right now by the Russian authorities.
At the same time, we can see, like, I mean, Russian journalists sitting here working for the government-run media outlets, and no one, as far as I can tell, are not being silenced here and right now. So what is your response to this? Because like, the journalism – I would say the leftovers of journalism in Russia are under the immediate threat, under the attack.
And a third question, if I may.
MR ROBINSON: You will overwhelm my brain to hold all these questions. No, no, I’m writing it down.
QUESTION: So – and the third question is regarding the list of Russian banks that were cut off the SWIFT system. So, so far, Ukrainian officials are saying that the list is not really complete and not full in order to stop the Russian war on the Ukrainian territory. So are you planning on expanding that list so far?
MR ROBINSON: Sure, great questions. Okay, so let me take them in order.
Let’s first start with our plan. I agree with you diplomacy has not worked. We engaged. We engaged earnestly and sincerely. We made every effort. We have, including in writing, conveyed that while we disagreed with Russia’s claims regarding its security guarantees and demands, that we took those requests seriously and we were prepared to engage in a fulsome, complete, diplomatic process to discuss this. Russia rejected that course of action and I think demonstrated that that was a – they never had a serious intention in the first place.
So our course of action is threefold. One, it’s to support Ukraine. That includes the lethal and military assistance that we have talked about. It includes the humanitarian assistance. It includes diplomatic support that we are engaged in to bolster and strengthen Ukraine, to strengthen its resolve, and to strengthen its ability to defend itself and its interests.
Second, as we’ve already demonstrated and we’ve talked about, is to – we will continue to impose costs on Moscow. It is not our intent to impose these costs on the Russian people. It is our endeavor to make the Kremlin pay for this, for its aggression against the Ukrainian people. And frankly, it’s an aggression against the Russian people, because they are bearing the consequences. And we will continue to impose costs.
Third is that we will continue to work with our allies and partners to strengthen allied resolve. You saw the resounding vote at the United Nations of 141 countries rejecting what Russia has done. Just today at the OSCE, 44 countries voted in a span of a two-day process to invoke the Moscow Mechanism to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate Russia’s abuses on Ukrainian territory. This is significant. This speaks about the success that the global community has in rallying together to reject what Russia has done. And so we will continue on that while – again, I go back to repeat – that the diplomatic door is open.
On media freedom, I agree with you. And in fact, I would encourage all of you as journalists to stand up for your brothers and sisters in the Russian journalistic community who are suffering right now and being persecuted for the job that you all get to enjoy and do here, which is to report, to interview, and to share the facts and truth about what is happening. We think the Russian people have a right to know about the thousands and thousands of casualties that Russia is experiencing right now. There are thousands of Russian mothers who will never see their sons again, and they are – the Russian media is not allowed to share that information with the Russian people so that they know what the real costs are.
We will stand with Russian voices as they seek to exercise their rights and to organize themselves. We will hold those accountable who engage in human rights abuses. And – but I will also say Russian society is amazingly vibrant, and I know that Russians will exercise their voice and get that out there.
And the third on banks, look, I think everything remains on the table. As I said, we will continue to impose costs. I will not preview next sanctions steps, but we are always ready, and we are working very closely with our allies and partners to impose additional costs, to ensure full enforcement of those sanctions. And I think you’ve seen the consequence. Moscow has closed the Moscow exchange for the entire week to hide from the consequences of what the Russian people will be experiencing because the costs are imposed. We will continue to do and pursue that. We hope Russia will choose an alternative course that that becomes not necessary.
MODERATOR: And Dmitry, I believe you had a question.
QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on the weapons question. I’m sorry. It might be just my misunderstanding of something, but you are saying, as far as I understood, that the premise itself is wrong. But why is the premise wrong if those are, you know, things like Azov Battalion?
MR ROBINSON: Our weapons are provided to the Russian Government. Our lethal assistance is provided to the Russian Government.
MR ROBINSON: To the Ukrainian Government, excuse me. Thank you. To the Ukrainian Government in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. And that is – that partnership will continue. We stand with the people of Ukraine, with the Government of Ukraine in standing up to protect itself. And so the premise that this is based on a neo-Nazi plot, or the new one today that there are nuclear weapons somehow in Ukraine – those are false premises. This is a democratically elected government that has chosen its path, and Moscow, the Kremlin, is refusing to let the Ukrainian people have that voice.
QUESTION: Hi, I have two questions. The first one, I want to follow up on his question about Azov and other battalions. Do you even confirm that these battalions are exist? Because basing on what we are hearing, it looks like you do not see this kind of issue in Ukraine even though even American journalists such as New York Times reporters and others published videos of these battalions in Ukraine. And don’t you think that supplying additional weapons won’t help to stop this conflict but make it even worse?
MR ROBINSON: So again, our partnership is with the Ukrainian Government, and we have been providing our humanitarian and lethal assistance, as our allies and partners are doing as well, to the Ukrainian Government to defend and support the Ukrainian people against Russian aggression. So I understand your question, but our partnership is with Ukraine, with the Ukrainian Government, and we will continue that partnership so that Ukraine can defend itself.
QUESTION: And if I may, the second question about sanctions. U.S. officials on different levels repeatedly said that the main aim of sanctions is to change Russian behavior. But now after this special operation started, it’s obvious that Russia won’t change its behavior. So you still believe that sanctions in some way’s effective?
MR ROBINSON: So look, we signaled very clearly and we have worked very closely with our European partners in particular, but frankly the whole transatlantic, the G7 community, for months has been signaling our intent to impose costs on Moscow should it pursue the course of aggression. We had hoped that we would be able to help Moscow understand the true consequences for its people and the interests of the Russian people if it pursued the course of action. Regrettably, Moscow has chosen the worst possible course of action – a full-scale, premeditated war against the Ukrainian people.
And so we will continue to use tools — sanctions tools to impose costs. We hope that it will serve as a deterrent to future aggressive behavior by Moscow, and we are ready to use them also, frankly, to hold those who engage in human rights abuses and other abuses accountable for their actions. So we will use sanctions as part of our tools to respond to what Russia has done.
MODERATOR: All right, Denis.
QUESTION: Thank you. There is video evidence that in Kharkiv, in Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers are hiding their military weapon among houses, on school grounds, and I can show you this footages if you want. People are used as human shields, not letting them out. And how do you consider this action of Ukrainian military?
MR ROBINSON: And we could show you videos of Russians, troops shelling Kharkiv, university buildings, killing students – foreign students, Ukrainian students, Russian-speaking students. The very people that Putin claims he is going into Ukraine to defend are the ones that he is slaughtering. And so Russia bears the responsibility, all the responsibility; the Kremlin bears the responsibility for the loss of lives in Ukraine. That’s why it needs to cease fire and it needs to withdraw those forces immediately.
QUESTION: But how do you consider this action of troops of – for Ukraine?
MR ROBINSON: I have no information on that. What I do have information is —
QUESTION: I can show you.
MR ROBINSON: — is the Russian Government is shelling civilian targets, buses, hospitals, the TV tower. These are non-military targets. These are civilians being targeted by the Russian Government. We will hold the Russian Government accountable for those actions.
QUESTION: Okay. You are not going to watch this video?
MR ROBINSON: I am not going to watch your video.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. We have time, I think, for one more question. Mykhailo.
QUESTION: Thank you once again. Sir, is the United States ready to lift those sanctions imposed on the Russian Government and Russian oligarchs should Russia stop the war on the Ukrainian soil?
And today President Zelenskyy of Ukraine actually expressed his readiness to sit down at the table with Vladimir Putin and to talk. We know his previous calls for any negotiations with Vladimir Putin were rejected, so what is your assessment? What is your expectation from that?
MR ROBINSON: Sure. So in terms of lifting sanctions, let’s go back even to 2014 when Russia occupied and attempted to annex Crimea and then invaded the Donbas. We have always signaled that when Russia fulfills its commitments, that we are prepared to lift sanctions. So I do not exclude that in this case, but that will be a process that we are ready to engage in when Russia demonstrates that it is ready to engage in a process.
In terms of President Zelenskyy’s – he has signaled repeatedly his readiness to solve this diplomatically and to engage in dialogue. That dialogue, whether by us or by President Zelenskyy, has been rejected repeatedly by Moscow. We support Ukraine in its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to this. That is a path for the Ukrainians to choose and we will support them in that process.
QUESTION: And like, the last one, if I may. I mean, we can hear, like, numerous statements from President Biden, from Jen Psaki, from Secretary Blinken addressed to the Ukrainian people, to the Ukrainian officials, to the Russian officials. What is your message to the Ukrainian people right now, I mean, who are scared, scared to death, who have to, like, hide in the bomb shelters, and including my very own family? And it’s very hard, like, to keep our heads cold while the people of Ukraine are under the immediate threat, so what is your message to the Ukrainians?
MR ROBINSON: You know the destruction that is going on in Ukraine, the loss of civilian lives, it’s very hard to watch. It is very, very hard. We, our allies, are working around the clock to support the Ukrainian people. I know those sound like words when you’re hunkered down in a basement, but we do stand with the Ukrainian people. From the President to the NATO Alliance to the transatlantic partnership with the EU, we stand with the Ukrainian people, ready to support them as they stand up for their rights, for their future. It is President Putin who has denied that they are people. We stand with them, with Ukraine as a people.
MODERATOR: All right. This ends the Q&A session. I’d like to give special thanks to our briefer, DAS Robinson, and to all the FPC members who participated. Thank you. This concludes today’s briefing.