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. Today we are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Michael Carpenter, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Carpenter, thank you very much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Ambassador Carpenter: Great, and thanks, everyone, for joining us. I’m just going to dive right in and make some opening comments here before we open it up.
As I noted earlier today at the OSCE Permanent Council meeting, we have information that Russia’s planning for its further invasion of Ukraine includes a forced capitulation of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, including dissolving local municipal governments across Ukraine. New governance structures were to be set up in, quote/unquote, “liberated” territories under Russian control.
Plans for a new government and new constitution are being developed by Russian officials and so-called “separatists.” This planning includes a moratorium disallowing legitimate Ukrainian leaders and those supporting Ukraine’s legitimate government from any leadership positions.
As I noted earlier, this is straight out of Russia’s playbook, which has repeatedly exploited phony “electoral” processes, including holding of sham referenda in an attempt to lend a semblance of legitimacy to its campaign of subjugation using puppets and proxies. We saw this repeatedly in 2014, as the Kremlin orchestrated so-called referenda in the Ukrainian regions of Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk – each time with faked high percentages of public support. The reality, of course, is that Russia installed puppet regimes who are dependent on Russian bribes, and orchestrated nebulous “people’s councils,” in quotes, to create phony constitutions.
Now we have evidence that the Kremlin may be preparing to stage sham referenda in Ukraine’s south and east – in the areas that it illegally seized since February 24th – and on Tuesday, Russian forces claimed they had, quote/unquote, “liberated” the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, and they have now decreed that they’re going to start using the Russian ruble as their currency. The Ukrainian Government has, of course, been warning for some time that Russia may soon stage a sham referendum in Kherson, asking residents if they approve of the, quote/unquote, “independence” of an entity called “the Kherson People’s Republic.” Of course, this is pure fantasy and fabrication. No such entity exists outside of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
So, as we underscored at the OSCE today, the international community must make clear that any such referendum will never be recognized as legitimate, just as the Ukrainian people have already made clear that they will never support this Russian invasion. So, no one should be fooled by these theatrics.
The other piece I wanted to underscore here at the top is that, unfortunately and tragically, we should be prepared that Russia is going to intensify its ongoing forced transfers of local populations in the areas it controls in Ukraine’s south and east to Russia or to Russia-controlled parts of the Donbas via so-called “filtration camps.” We’re seeing credible reporting that Russia’s forces are rounding up the local civilian populations in these areas, detaining them in these camps, and then brutally interrogating them for any supposed links to the Ukrainian Government or to independent media. There are reports that those suspected of having any connections of this sort are being beaten or tortured before they’re transferred to the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” where many are reportedly disappeared or murdered. Reporting also indicates that many civilians in these filtration camps who, quote/unquote, “pass” the interrogation are then transferred to Russia or Russia-controlled Donbas. Our information indicates that Russia is abducting, torturing, and/or murdering locally elected leaders, journalists, and civil society activists, as well as religious leaders. So, this should give us all pause.
I’m going to stop right there and turn this over for Q&A.
Moderator: Great. Well, thank you very much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.
So, we have here a question from – sorry, let me check here. We have Alex Raufoglu from the Turan News Agency on the line. Please go ahead, Alex.
Question: Yes, thank you so much for doing this and, Ambassador, thank you so much for making yourself available to us this morning. I listened to you, your statements earlier in the morning and also now. The obvious question that comes to mind is, how can an OSCE member be allowed to do what it is doing? Can Russia be suspended from the OSCE if these actions continue? Thank you.
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah, good question, Alex. There is a provision in the OSCE whereby a participating state can be suspended, but it requires consensus minus one. So, the OSCE is one of these organizations, like the UN, which is inclusive and it is very difficult procedurally to suspend a member. But let me just walk you through just really quickly how we see the OSCE as a tool.
So, it is both a forum in which we engage in dialogue, it’s an organization that has field missions, and it’s got independent institutions such as ODIHR, the elections monitoring and Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. So, as a forum, we’re using the OSCE to isolate Russia and Belarus diplomatically, and they are isolated. They have got nobody else supporting them, and we’ve got about 45 participating states that regularly condemn their actions.
As an organization, we’re trying to ensure that the OSCE can actually serve a purpose on the ground. And so, we do have, as I mentioned, 15 field missions, including one in Ukraine, which may be lesser known, but the program coordinator’s office in Ukraine is physically present in Ukraine and it is helping to distribute humanitarian assistance. And then finally, as I mentioned, we’ve got the independent institutions like the Representative on Freedom of the Media and ODIHR, who are busy doing media monitoring and documenting – excuse me, documenting human rights violations and possible war crimes.
So, that’s sort of where the OSCE right now is placed. It’s an institution, as I mentioned, that is inclusive and so we are working within those ramifications to try to support Ukraine as best we can.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. We have a question that was submitted in the chat from Jennifer Hansler with CNN. It’s a two-part question. “When did the U.S. receive this evidence that Russia is seeking to dissolve all local municipal governments in Ukraine, and how quickly does the U.S. assess this could happen in both the south and east overall?” And then her second part is: “How concerned is the U.S. about Putin’s warning that any countries interfering in Ukraine could be met with a lightning-fast response from Moscow?”
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah. So, Jennifer, thanks for the question. I’m not going to get too detailed on the sources and methods for reasons that I’m sure you can appreciate. But we have seen that Russia has been determined to try to dissolve or neutralize local governing bodies in all the regions of Ukraine that it has invaded and tried to occupy. Now, as you know, the Ukrainian forces bravely beat back the Russian advance in the northern reaches of Kyiv and in the Sumy region. They’re doing so successfully around Kharkiv as well. But we are worried that especially in the south and east, where Russian forces have made some marginal advances in recent days, that they will try to do the same. And we specifically focused on Kherson because we see this as an area where the Russians are going to try to – as I just said, where they’re going to try to emplace their own proxy governing structures and displace, potentially, the local population, which is obviously of grave concern and, if true, would be a war crime.
Now, with regards to the second aspect of your question about President Putin’s warning, look, I would just say this: Obviously, Russia is trying to deflect blame here. Nobody is threatening Russia’s strategic interests. Russia has invaded its peaceful neighbor with tens of thousands of combat troops. So, who is the aggressor here? Who is the one that is perpetrating these war crimes and atrocities? It’s pretty obvious. And so, when President Putin and other Russian officials talk about Russia’s strategic interests somehow being threatened and repercussions, look, I think it’s pretty obvious that there is an attempt here to shift blame.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from Gauquelin Blaise with AFP. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, do you hear me?
Ambassador Carpenter: Yes.
Moderator: Yes, we can.
Question: Okay. Hi. Thank you for the opportunity. I work for Agence France-Presse, as you said. I have two questions, if you don’t mind. I have one question regarding the mission SMM, as the OSCE just said today that it’s finally closed. Maybe you have a comment on that. Why needed OSCE one month to close the mission after the decision of the council? Is it because of archive secure or something like that, or is it because of the mission member which is still detained in Donbas? If you have any information about that, because we don’t have any information coming from the OSCE. We only have the press releases. They don’t take our questions really seriously.
Second question is regarding Moldova. There is a delegation from the president of council tomorrow starting. What do you expect from this visit?
Ambassador Carpenter: Okay, great. Thanks, Gauquelin, for the two questions. So, on the Special Monitoring Mission, I would refer you to the OSCE for more information on that. But what I will say briefly is that I don’t believe it has anything to do with the reasons that you cited. My understanding is that the chairperson-in-office had wanted to preserve some flexibility with regards to the Special Monitoring Mission. And it’s – it was initially temporarily evacuated. We were hoping that if circumstances changed that the SMM might be able to redeploy. At this point, a decision was made by the chairman-in-office to close the mission. And so, I think for further information, you should talk to them, but I think I’ve helped to explain at least partially what the thinking was behind the slight lag in the decision to close the mission.
With regards to the visit to Moldova, look, we’re monitoring the situation very carefully, especially in Transnistria and on the left bank of the Dniester River, where we’ve had some unexplained explosions and where we fear that tensions are running high. So, we certainly support the Government of Moldova in calling for calm at this moment. We had a report just today, in fact, in the OSCE Permanent Council by the head of the OSCE head of mission in Moldova, Dr. Claus Neukirch, and we understand that the situation is – bears close watching. As you probably know, Russia maintains an operational group of forces in Transnistria, and so we’re obviously watching that grouping very closely and we’re pressing for stability and a lowering of tensions. In the meantime, at least I can speak from the United States perspective: We’re going to continue to support the Government of Moldova. I think we’ve already provided something on the order of $30 million in humanitarian assistance to deal with the massive influx of refugees that Moldova has received since this war began, and also with development assistance, where we’ve given something like $100 million I think over the course of the last year to help Moldova strengthen its democratic institutions. So, we’re going to continue to do that, and we’re grateful that our EU partners are focused on the same things.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have a question that was put into the chat by Klaus Proempers, a freelancer writing in from Germany. “What is actually the role of the OSCE when Russia has been neglecting all efforts coming out of Vienna during this crisis?”
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah, Klaus. Well, I think I got to some of the aspects of this question earlier when I noted that the OSCE is – like the UN, it’s an inclusive organization, but it fulfills a number of different missions. It’s both a forum where we have dialogue and diplomacy – and at times that works better; in the current moment, obviously, that works less well – but where we can use that forum to isolate Russia and Belarus diplomatically and where we have done so very successfully. It’s also an organization. Besides being a forum, it has field missions in Central Asia, in the Western Balkans, in Ukraine, in Moldova which we just discussed. And those field institutions do incredibly valuable work in Ukraine; they deliver – help deliver humanitarian assistance in Moldova, they monitor the security situation on both sides of the Dniester River; and in the Western Balkans they promote regional reconciliation; among many other things.
So, that is incredibly valuable in and of itself. And then finally, we’ve got the independent institutions like ODIHR, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media, which all have very important mandates and they continue to execute on their missions.
So, I know it’s sometimes frustrating to see that the OSCE is a consensus-based organization. At the current moment, obviously, we can’t find consensus on anything with Russia and Belarus at the table. But we can isolate them diplomatically, and that’s what we’re doing.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that. We have Julian Barnes on the line from The New York Times. Please go ahead, Julian.
Question: Thank you very much. Ambassador, one clarifying question and then one new question. Just to clarify, the concern here is toppling local governments and not necessarily the central government due to the fact that the attack on Kyiv failed. And then, I wondered if you had any estimates of how many people have been subject to so-called filtration, how many Ukrainians have been forcibly moved by Russian occupying forces, and if that is concentrated in certain areas. Is that more in the south or in the east? Is there any geographic distribution to that kind of forcible relocation?
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah, thanks. Good questions, Julian. So, on the first one, I think we’re fairly certain that Russia’s initial aims were indeed to topple the central government in Kyiv, to effectively decapitate the Ukrainian leadership. They failed in that effort. Ukraine won the battle of Kyiv. It pushed Russian forces back across the border. Those forces have regrouped and refitted and are now engaged in a full-on assault in the Donbas, in Russia’s [Ukraine’s] south and east. Of course, Russia in those areas where they have exerted effective control, they have tried to topple local government structures as well. We saw this, for example, in the town of Melitopol. I personally met with the mayor of Melitopol, who, as you may know, was kidnapped sort of in broad daylight. There was a CCTV cam that caught him as he was – had a sack over his head and was marched away by armed men. And unfortunately, we see those sorts of activities happening across the south and east. So yes, this activity is focused on the areas where the Russians are present in large numbers and where they have effective control, and indeed, the filtration camps that I referred to earlier, the reports that we’re getting are preponderantly from the south and east, from those areas where Russian forces have control.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much for that. Let’s see. We have – I guess sort of broadening the aperture a little bit, we have a question here from Levan Akhalaia with Georgian Public Broadcast. His question is: “We hear from officials in Ukraine statements about the possibility of opening a second front of the war against Russia in Georgia or Moldova. What would be the reaction to those types of statements?”
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah, thanks for the question, Levan. So, look, Russia has – Russia’s aggression has upended the entire post-war rules-based international order. And I think given the scale and the scope of Russia’s barbaric attack on Ukraine and the atrocities that we’ve all witnessed on our TV screens over the course of these last seven weeks or so, including the horrible, monstrous images from places like Bucha and Borodyanka, I think we can’t remain sanguine about Russian aims anywhere in Russia’s immediate periphery.
That said, we do see the vast preponderance of Russia’s military might, to include its forces but also its equipment, deployed right now into Ukraine. And so, that’s obviously where the chief battle is taking place. It’s a battle for liberty. It’s a battle for sovereignty and for – in fact, it’s a battle for the future of the international order that’s happening in Ukraine.
Second fronts? They could happen in other places, but right now, obviously, they’re – this is concentrated in Ukraine. So, I think I’ll leave it at that for now.
Moderator: Thank you very much, Ambassador. Our next question comes to us from Paul Adams with the BBC, who’s on the line. Please go ahead, Paul.
Question: Thank you very much. And can you hear me?
Ambassador Carpenter: Yes.
Question: Thank you for doing this, Ambassador. Much appreciated. Can I just press you a little bit on a question you’ve already been asked about your sources. Obviously, I understand this is not something you can go into in any detail, but are we talking about a kind of – an assessment or a collection of the abundant open-source material that has come out over the course of the last couple of months, or are you talking about something substantially different, something that you are seeing that tells you what the plan is? And if you are, are you seeing references to specific other places outside of the areas currently under Russian control where they – where these plans are being hatched and mooted?
And just one tiny thing. Apologies – I missed the very beginning. I don’t know if your opening comments are sort of in print and whether they could be posted in the chat, because I – there were some key details in the beginning there which, I apologize, I missed.
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah. Well, I’m not going to go back over it right now, but I did start out by talking about the information that we have on forcing the capitulation of Ukraine’s democratically elected government, including the dissolution of local municipal governments, that this was – we have – again, I’m not going to get into the specifics on our sources and methods for obvious reasons. I will say that we have very credible information from a variety of different sources that point to Russia’s plans, as I said, to both try to decapitate Ukraine’s democratically elected government in Kyiv – obviously, that effort failed – but then also to dissolve local governments across Ukraine.
Now, as we know, Russia’s military control in Ukraine is mostly in the south and east, in the Donbas region and in Kherson Oblast, which is why I spent some time talking about Russia’s attempts to create sham referenda in different areas that Russian forces have controlled in the past and how they are doing something similar now, or we see that they have at least the plans to do something similar now in Kherson Oblast. And so that’s why we are talking about this and making sure that our international partners and our allies understand that this is a plan that Russia has. I think nobody buys it; it’s patently a fantasy that anyone in Kherson would possibly vote in favor of Russian occupation. Just the opposite. But nevertheless, this is something from Russia’s playbook that we’ve seen in the past and that we believe they would like to orchestrate yet again.
Moderator: Great, thank you very much. We have Pearl Matibe on the line from Power FM 98.7 in South Africa. Please go ahead, Pearl.
Question: Thank you so much, Ambassador Carpenter. I really appreciate the opportunity and the time that you are spending here. I’d like if you could respond with the lens or your window looking out towards Africa and towards people of African descent from all across the world. So in your efforts, in this [counter-]disinformation campaign that you will be entering into, I do understand you cannot be specific about the exact tactics or strategy you might be employing, but talk to me a little bit about what intentions or what angle of approach you may or may not have towards Africa and people of African descent, considering there is some long history between Russia and the continent that dates way back into the Cold War and even in recent times.
So, I’d like to hear a little bit more about what it is, if anything, you might be doing towards this specific audience. Thanks.
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Pearl. I mean, I think it’s a very good question, and we do see that Russia is accelerating its disinformation and propaganda campaign around the world, to include Latin America, to include the African continent, and to include the Indo-Pacific subcontinent. And so, it’s – what we’re seeing is very much in line with what we’re hearing from Russia’s representatives in fact here in the OSCE Permanent Council, which is just fantastical and ludicrous. The claims that after invading Ukraine with over 100,000 combat forces, that it’s in fact Ukrainians who are bombing their own cities, it’s Ukrainians who are detaining their own people, it’s Ukrainians that are running filtration camps. I mean, it’s just – it’s absolutely beyond belief, but that is the narrative that the Russians are putting forward: that this is not them, that this is somehow that they are engaged in some plan to de-Nazify Ukraine when, of course, everybody knows that Ukraine has a very brave, courageous Jewish Ukrainian president.
It’s just – it’s so ludicrous that I think most people don’t buy these propaganda lines, but nevertheless they’re disseminating them far and wide. And so, I think it’s incumbent on everybody in the international community to shine a light on what Russia is saying and to reveal the truth. Fortunately, we have all of you on this call, the world’s international media, who are bravely shining a light on exactly what we’re seeing in Ukraine and how Russia is perpetrating atrocities there.
Moderator: Thank you. We have time for one final question, and that will go to Alex Znatkevich with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He submitted a question in the chat: “How do you view the statements by the official representatives of Belarus, who have accused NATO countries of preparing an attack on Belarus? And how do you see Belarus in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine – as a Russian ally or as a country de facto occupied by Russia?”
Ambassador Carpenter: Right. Well, good question, Alex. I think it’s largely a semantic distinction at this point. I mean, in terms of Belarus’s claims that it faces some sort of threat from NATO, I mean, this is pure projection. I would remind you and the other listeners here today that in the lead-up – in fact, in the week before Russia’s invasion on February 24th – here at the OSCE, in the Forum for Security Co-operation, we invoked something called the Vienna Document, which is a military transparency measure. And we invoked it vis-à-vis Russia and we also invoked it vis-à-vis Belarus separately, and we demanded of Belarus explanations for why Russian troops were staying on in the country after the exercise that they were purportedly engaging in had finished. And we asked specific, pointed questions about whether they might be used for an invasion of Ukraine, and of course, the Belarussian representatives here at the OSCE just completely lied and dissembled and did not have any explanation for why those Russian troops were there. And then indeed, we saw that Belarus was used as a launching pad for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and to this day we see missile strikes taking place from the territory of Belarus.
So, Belarus is a co-aggressor in this war, and it has to be held to account just as Russia and Russian forces will be one day held to account. So that’s really what I have to say about Belarus, and again, these claims that, somehow, they are under threat are just fantastical and a classic case of projection.
Moderator: Great. Well, unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today. Thank you very much to the reporters for your questions, and thank you, Ambassador Carpenter, for joining us.