MODERATOR:  Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub.  I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing.  We are very honored to be joined by the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Ambassador James O’Brien.

A quick reminder that this is on the record, and with that, I’ll turn it over to the ambassador for his opening remarks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Thanks very much.  Happy New Year, everyone.  What I’m going to do is offer an overview of what we will be trying to do in Europe this next year, and then we’ll have some time for questions.

2024 is the year of elections.  I think as many of you have noted, there’s going to be more than 4 billion people going to the polls globally, and between the U.S., European states, and the European-level elections, there’ll be a substantial amount of public participation and public debate over the months to come.  I view this as a test of governance.  The question is whether responsible parties – center-right, center-left, of whatever ideological bent – can deliver results that citizens will recognize as material to their well-being.

So what we’re trying to do across the continent and in our transatlantic relations is demonstrate that we can provide results that will matter to citizens.  I expect Jake Sullivan to address this in a speech a bit next week, but as well, it’s a theme that runs through all of what I’ll discuss today as I look at a few of the major issues around Europe.

One theme that is always current in our transatlantic relations is that we work to provide basic commodities around the globe and to protect the trading relationships that make it possible for people to receive the goods they need.  So when Russia invaded Ukraine almost two years ago, it reduced Ukraine’s exports, cutting off almost between 10 and 20 percent of global wheat supplies, including the country that had been half of the WFP’s provision of food to the world’s neediest.  Last summer, Russia tried again to blockade Ukraine’s food exports and in an effort to increase its control over global food supplies.  We have worked with our European colleagues and especially with Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria, Türkiye, to make sure that Ukraine is able to continue exporting, and so we see global food prices much lower than they have been for quite a while.  That’s the kind of activity that we’ll work together on over the course of the year.

There’s a similar threat now in the Red Sea, where the Houthis are threatening shipping that carries as much as 15 percent of all global trade, including food and basic commodities important not only in the Middle East, but around the world.  And so the actions we’re taking there are in order to preserve the trading relationships that are critical to global prosperity.  And so again, we’re trying to show people that responsible governance delivers things that they need for their daily lives.

Now what I want to do is address some issues that are more specific to the continent.  I’ll begin with Ukraine and then talk a bit about the Western Balkans and some global challenges, as well as the South Caucasus.

On Russia and Ukraine, President Biden said it best.  He said we have to make sure Ukraine wins the war.  That’s our goal, and we are committed to standing by Ukraine and working with it as it achieves that goal.  And I think this is a fundamental issue about respecting the choice people make.

So in Ukraine, a country of 35 to 40 million people chose democracy, the rule of law, and a path toward Europe, and Russia has decided to interfere with that path by violating the UN Charter and violating the individual rights of many Ukrainians.  So when we think about providing people the kind of governance that they have chosen, that is fundamentally what’s at issue in Ukraine now.

So the question is how do we view 2024 after 2023 that saw Ukraine finish the year having won back half the territory or more that Russia had taken, and having defeated Russia in its effort to block off the Black Sea for Ukraine’s exports.  Those are pretty remarkable accomplishments for a country a quarter the size of the invading country.  And we want to make sure that we build on those in 2024 so that Ukraine is in a position to win at the point when it looks like this war will end.

I know the major question in this is the next amount of U.S. assistance.  We’re confident that we will have that supplemental passed.  It’s tied up with other issues at the moment.  But what I hear from Congress is overwhelming support for Ukraine in both the Senate and the House, and the – there’s a question of timing but we’re working through with the Ukrainians on that and we will, I believe, be able to deliver the assistance that Ukraine needs.  We do this with our European partners.  So through the end of 2023, the U.S. had provided a total amount of about 74 billion dollars U.S. in assistance.  I mean, a little of this depends on exchange rates.  Our partners have delivered more than a hundred billion in assistance.  Even in security assistance, the U.S. had provided around 45 billion – may have been a little higher, but the last tranche in the end of December – and our partners were getting close to 40 billion in security assistance-focused alone.

So this is very much a coalition effort of more than 50 countries working together in support of Ukraine and its people choice for democracy, and that will continue.  I know the European Union is also looking at its long-term support for Ukraine, and that comes in two forms.  They are – they’ve announced an intention to have an additional financial support facility for Ukraine that will extend over four years at an amount initially announced at 50 billion, and you all are reporting on the progress that they are making.  We expect them to have a high-level discussion and hopefully decision on February 1st.  That – the second and, perhaps for the long term, more important European contribution is to open the accession talks for European Union membership with Ukraine.  That’s what Ukraine’s people have chosen, and that is the path that they are now on.  It will require that in this year we try to do several things simultaneously.  Ukraine’s going to have to fight; it’s going to have to build; it’s going to have to have its economy recover – you’re seeing more than 5 percent growth in 2023, anticipate something along those lines in 2024 – that will allow Ukraine to pay for more and more of its activities and will allow its people to see the society recovering.

And the fourth thing Ukraine will have to do is reform.  There’s – Ukraine’s people overwhelmingly signal support for the rule of law, for equal justice, and for a robust democracy.  There are polls coming out now that show 85, 90 percent of Ukrainians backing reforms that deliver those measures to them.  This is a difficult thing for any government to do, but we’re partners with the Ukrainian Government and we will work closely with them.  We appreciate the significant reform measures they have taken in recent months, including strong support for independent anti-corruption measures.  And so we’re – we believe that that pattern of build, fight, recover, and reform will carry us through 2024 and leave Ukraine in a strong position to win this war.

I’m going to come back to that.  I’m happy to come back to talk about Russia-Ukraine in the questions session, but in the interests of having a questions session, I should probably move on.

The next topic I want to discuss is the Western Balkans.  It’s very significant that at the end of the year, the European Council talked about offering a strong European perspective to the six countries of the Western Balkans as well as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.  This provides an opportunity for these states.  So what is it we’re looking to do in the Western Balkans over the next year?  And this is a very lengthy and detailed agenda, so I’ll try to distill it to a few points.

One of them is the Western Balkans need to be European and stable and secure, and this means above everything else they need economic integration.  The issue in these countries is that much of their population is leaving, moving to Europe and elsewhere, and this means that the people left have even a harder time of creating the kind of economic opportunity that membership in Europe should bring to them.  So we’re very encouraged by the EU’s renewed commitment to engaging these countries.  We’re strongly supportive of President von der Leyen’s economic growth plan.  And I want to highlight what that means.

So the accession process to join the European Union is a process of preparing not just for integration into the economic union, but also preparation to be making political decisions alongside the other member-states.  The growth plan focuses on that first component.  It offers participation in significant parts of the single market if countries make reforms that allow them to basically allow their people to have the four freedoms of the EU: freedom of movement, freedom of capital, freedom of services, freedom of goods.  And that is a critical step that opens up each of these countries and, frankly, opens up each of these societies to cooperation across borders within the Western Balkans, but also to the – to engagement with the European single market.  This goes well beyond what any assistance package might provide.  It is a fundamental change in the way these countries engage with their neighbors and with Europe, and it is available as soon as each government undertakes reforms.  So we’ll be supporting the efforts of the European Union to move on this reform path and to deliver those single market access benefits as soon as possible.

Now, there are three places that need a little special attention right now.

So first, on Kosovo and Serbia, our position here is unchanged.  We strongly support the dialogue efforts that are led by Minister Miroslav Lajčák of the European Union.  We call on both Kosovo and Serbia to meet their responsibilities under the dialogue.  Now, I’ll note there’s been some progress in this regard in recent months.  There have been steps forward with regard to dealing with some very practical daily issues like the license plates that are driven and the way that customs documents are issued which allows for movement of goods between the two countries.  So these steps, I think, show that delivering for people is sort of what we’re about here.

But I’d note as well with Kosovo-Serbia it’s very important that both avoid any provocative actions in the north.  You will have noticed in recent months the NATO presence has been reinforced.  We’re pleased with the communication and cooperation.  Obviously, the Kosovo police, with support from the European law enforcement mission, EULEX, lead in law enforcement in northern Kosovo.  The cooperation with the NATO troops has been very good recently; when there are issues, they get worked through quickly.  And also communication and cooperation with Belgrade has also allowed for some quieting of the situation.  I anticipate – well, we will expect that to continue.  We’ll expect even more transparency and more discussion over the next months.

And this is very important particularly after the events of late September, which showed a group trying to import a number of weapons and that would have caused enormous violence had they been able to carry out their plans, and that is something that I think both sides understand is not going to be allowed and neither wants to return to.  So in this context some of the changes in the Serbian governance and administration related to some of this issue is something that we welcome and we take as a step towards the kind of ongoing cooperation that we expect in the north.

That brings me to a discussion of Serbia, as there’s been a lot of coverage of the Serbian elections.  And I just want to talk about this in a slightly different context than has come to – come out thus far.  Again, our focus across the region is how we can work with governments on delivering good results for the people of the country involved.  And so in that context it’s important that the new Serbian Government and the institutions, including the parliament, include a representative grouping of the opposition and of the next government.  So in that context we welcome peaceful protest by the population – people who feel that the elections were unfair, people who feel that the result is not what they want.  That’s their right to protest peacefully.  But we also want to see the legal process used to address any specific concerns and provide a sort of clear report on the outcome of the election.

Now, as we go forward, we will work with the Serbian Government to address the concerns raised by ODIHR.  There were some clear indications of ways in which the election campaign season in particular can be made more fair, and that’s something that we’ll expect.  But I want to call attention to these – the election results at the parliamentary level, and that’s the only level that the international observers were engaged in, so I’m going to focus on that.

What we see is a significant change in the composition of the parliament that will be seated after these elections results.  The parties that offered nothing but nationalism really suffered a great loss.  A couple of the major parties did not make the threshold to be in the next parliament.  At the same time, the so-called opposition groups, right, that may end up in opposition depending on the composition of the next government, they saw a great boost in their support – another couple hundred thousand votes and substantial more seats.  What those two things mean to me is that now we have a potential governing coalition that is pretty clear and that is accountable for delivering results to its people.  That’s the greatest charge you can have as a public servant.  And I think we’ll expect that these groups will work together to deliver what’s needed for the people of Serbia and, frankly, for regional stability as well, and that’s the focus we’ll have as we go forward.

Now, obviously if there’s some legal challenge that gets endorsed and something has to change, we’ll respect that.  But I don’t think we want to miss out on how the constellation of political forces does provide a very clear way to see how Serbia makes its way forward and who’s responsible for that.  And I think that’s a welcome thing for the people of Serbia and for all of us.

Finally, I’ll talk about Bosnia.  Our overall goal here is for Bosnia to be more European, to be stable, and to function well.  And this is vital for Bosnia.  So a few points on this.  Bosnia in particular suffers from a brain drain.  Nearly half its population does not live in the country.  This is a crisis.  This is what politicians need to be addressing.  And I think instead, we see some politicians wanting to – lacking bread or ideas, they offer a circus.  And in particular Mr. Dodik with his January 9th Republika Srpska Day is trying to distract from the issues that I hope governance can address over the next year if we pay attention to what really matters.

So just to further comment on January 9th, I was at Dayton; I was the person responsible for working with the Bosnian parties to draft their constitution.  So I know what the original Dayton was.  It came out of my pen.  His talk of secession was explicitly rejected and agreed to as rejected at the original Dayton.  It’s nonsense and it’s unconstitutional.  There should be no benefit to him for dropping the demand, nor should there be any respect for any argument he makes that it is a particular right.  What we want to do is focus on having the governing institutions function as they were designed to function and for having the political leaders be clearly accountable for delivering results or failing.  And frankly, I think that is an issue between him and the voters of Bosnia, including in Republika Srpska, but I think this effort to distract with a nationalist circus is not in the interests of the country.

I’m going to talk briefly about both the South Caucasus and transatlantic relations.  I’m going to give this a little less detailed attention than the previous subjects just because based on the incoming questions, it seemed there was more interest in those others.

So a couple words on the South Caucasus:  We support a peace agreement, a durable and dignified peace, between Azerbaijan and Armenia.  And on this, a couple points.  We’re very encouraged that they continue to have a robust agenda bilaterally and address the issues that remain between them.  There are more to work through, and to the extent we can be helpful as they do, we’re happy to support.  We have very full relationships with both countries that range across economic, security, and political ties and we would like to see them both benefit from a peace arrangement, and we’ll be working to that end in whatever way is most acceptable.

I think this is another great opportunity for both governments to deliver more for their people.  The reform agenda in Armenia is very impressive.  Azerbaijan has elections coming up and I know can talk about the role that it wants to play in regional economic development, and I think a peace arrangement would only contribute to those plans.  Now, we would like to be able to discuss all the issues we have on the agenda with both countries, from our concerns about some people in detention to bilateral issues, and we’ll have a very full agenda as we go forward.  But it’s all under the umbrella of encouraging a lasting, durable, dignified peace between the two countries.

Finally, I want to discuss transatlantic relations.  As I mentioned at the start, we’re heading into an important electoral period on both sides of the Atlantic.  I think it’s important we use this period to show that we are addressing some of the major themes that shape the transatlantic relationship and that shape daily life for many of our people.  So one of the issues we’ll work on is just kind of setting some rules of the road on the emerging technologies that are going to drive global prosperity.  So this is artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biomedical advances, the green transition – there’s an enormous amount of work that is taking place in a variety of venues.  The Italian Government has announced that artificial intelligence will be one of its main priorities for the G7 – so that’s a global leadership role – and we know that the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council is also looking at issues of artificial intelligence and other issues ancillary to that.

And what we would like is to have a path forward so that around the world people understand that this prosperous community of more than a billion people – particularly if you start to include our other natural partners in Asia – that more than a billion people are intent on abiding by certain rules in the way that they develop and use new technologies.  And that is a market, and that’s a vitally important way of shaping what will happen over the next generation.

We are also addressing challenges such as the rise of climate.  I think the investments in the U.S. and in the EU have been dramatic over the last year.  For whatever markets do on a daily basis, it is pretty remarkable that Europe has largely weaned itself from underpriced Russian energy assets and is now intent on moving toward the next generation of energy engagements that are much more market-driven and technology-adopting.  So it’s – to me, just to see a random headline this week that Austria now gets half its electricity or more from wind farms is a real statement about how far this transition is going, and we’ll continue to work with our European colleagues on climate.

And I’ll close where I started with talking about basic security.  So this summer in July, Washington will host the 75th NATO Summit.  It’ll be an opportunity to reflect on what NATO has done since its establishment, but more importantly, to talk about how NATO will be prepared to defend our future.  We’re looking at real changes in the ways that wars are fought and the role of states in those wars.  NATO will be prepared for that.  We’re very pleased that Finland will join us as a full member.  We expect that Sweden will join us as a full member, and that will be a strong alliance of 32 countries with a number of partners globally prepared to face the challenges of the next decades.  So that will be a major feature of showing people how governments create the conditions so that they can live prosperous and peaceful lives.

With that, I’m open to taking some questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  That’s a very comprehensive overview.  We’d love to keep you on the line for two or three questions, although I know your time is tight.  I’ll go to Dmitry Anopchenko from Inter TV in Ukraine first.  Dmitry, please go ahead.  Dmitry, you’re muted.  Can you hear us?  We’ll try to get back to Dmitry in a little.

QUESTION:  Oh, wait.  Do you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Oh, yes, please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Oh, thanks very much for taking my question.  Ambassador, have you possibly seen the breaking news that the administration is backing legislation that would allow it to seize frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine?  According to Bloomberg, the NSC has already sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Can you comment on this?  How significant is this step?  And do you believe that such a decision can be made by the U.S. administration individually or it must be a collective decision made together with the Europeans?

AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN:  Want to take a couple questions?

MODERATOR:  Certainly, sir.  The next one would be from Miklos Mosolygo from Hungary:  “What is Washington’s angle or view that Hungary’s government is not willing to provide support for Ukraine and is still failing to give a green light to Sweden’s NATO accession?”

And then after that, sir, from Reuters in Romania:  “When do you expect Romania’s capacity to transit Ukraine grain (inaudible) stated goal of 4 million metric tons per month?  And how do you see Romania as an alternative route for Ukrainian grain going forward?”

AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN:  Okay.  Thanks.  These are great questions.  So first on the frozen assets, so this legislation would allow the U.S. to seize and use the designated assets that are found in our jurisdiction.  So it’s providing some domestic legal authority.  The decision on whether to do so and how to use them has not been made, and it is one that will be made by the – in concert with our G7 partners.

At the last G7 meeting, the leaders noted several things: that Russia must pay for the damage it has done in Ukraine – the World Bank has already estimated that at more than $400 billion, and that was before the dam, the Kakhovka dam burst and before the last devastating rounds of attacks in recent months.  So it’s an enormous amount of damage.  So Russia must pay.  G7 leaders have said that Russia’s immobilized assets abroad will not be returned until Russia does pay.  Those assets add up to around $300 billion.  Obviously, over time that number changes with exchange rates and interest.  And then they directed the G7 to begin working on the practical issues around how those immobilized assets might be used to, say, advance Russia’s payments for Ukraine.

So this is something we will work on with our partners and obviously with Ukraine as we decide the way forward, and that – so that will go forward.  The administration views this legislation as helping the United States be able to move forward in a practical way.  So in essence, we’re just carrying through on the pledge that the G7 has already made and preparing to do our part in that discussion.

On the issue of Hungary, I think it’s clear we’re – look, we’re disappointed that a member of the EU and a NATO Ally – we’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of Hungary’s accession to the NATO Alliance.  That was a jubilant moment for many of us who had worked through the transition from socialism and for the Hungarians who participated in it.  And I think we’re disappointed that Prime Minister Orbán has chosen to stand alone in the European Union in questioning whether the fight to support Ukrainians who are asking for the very same freedom that he asked for when he was a young student.  And I think it’s a matter really for Europe to work within itself, but we would like to see Hungary be a constructive partner.  We all ask tough questions about how best to use our support for Ukraine, but we can do that in an environment where it’s clear that we do support Ukraine.  And I’d hope Hungary can speak in that spirit going forward.

The point on Sweden’s accession, Hungary has always told us it will not be the last country to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO, and we still expect that to be the case.  So we’ll see if it follows through on that promise as we move ever closer to Sweden joining the Alliance, which I hope will be soon.

And then in terms of Romania, I’d just say this is – Romania’s work to provide outlets for Ukrainian grain and other goods is a great sign of solidarity.  It is what neighbors and allies should do.  It is also a very good investment for the future.  The routes – so for Ukraine, it is – and for the global economy – it is much better if it can export through the south, through the deep seaports around Odessa, or through the land routes that take it into the EU and then down out into the – either the Black Sea or the Mediterranean.

Russia tried to interdict all that trade last July.  Pre-war, Ukraine averaged around 6 million tons of grain exports, sometimes as high at 10 in a month, but 6 over the course of a year.  Russia tried to cut that down.  It was around 2 in July and early August, because Russia had cut off all the maritime routes.  Romania stepped up at that point and provided an enormous amount of political and, frankly, human resource and financial support to open up land crossings, to expand capacity to come down the Danube, and to begin to shape Constanța Port, which is a great deep seaport, as an alternative for Ukraine.

What we now see is in December, I think Ukraine exported almost 7 and a half million tons of grain.  A little bit of that went by land to the north.  That’s a more expensive and limited route.  I realize that also has gotten a fair bit of attention.  And about half – and half of that amount went through the maritime and Romanian routes, and half through the deep sea – or maybe a little more than half through the deep seaports.

So I’d see going forward some kind of a balance like that.  And the reason I say it’s a good investment is that this isn’t just about grain; it’s also about the other industries of Ukraine.  Our strategy with Ukraine, again, it’s so that they fight, they build, and they recover.  And to recover, Ukraine needs to export.  And as its export industries come pick up steam, that will mean more tax revenue in Ukraine, more GDP for the Ukrainian people to benefit, and more trade so that Ukraine’s neighbors benefit from the transit of the trade.  And that will, I think –just holding the levels of export we have now, but 7 million tons of grain and another million or so tons of other items a month would mean more than $25 billion a year in GDP for the Ukrainian economy.  That’s $5-6 billion in tax revenue.  Ukraine’s total tax shortfall right now is around 40 billion.

So just what Romania has contributed to since the – since August is already about 15 percent of Ukraine’s total tax shortfall.  That’s a pretty remarkable contribution from one partner to another, so I applaud what Romania’s done.  And I think it’s a practical example of governments delivering practical solutions, which is the theme of what we’ll be doing over the year.

And with that, I know I’ve talked everyone into submission.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador.  (Laughter.)  Thanks very much, Ambassador.  Unfortunately, we’re already quite a bit over time, so that’ll have to be the last question.  Assistant Secretary O’Brien, thank you so much for joining us today.  We really appreciate it.  Shortly we’ll send–


MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Shortly we’ll send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available.  We’d love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at  Thanks, everyone, for your participation.  We hope, of course, you can join us for another press briefing in the future.  This ends today’s briefing.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future