Moderator: Let’s get started. Ambassador Carpenter, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Ambassador Carpenter: Great. Thanks, Justin, and thank you all for being here. I wanted to spend a little bit of time today covering what we’re seeing as far as Russia’s playbook and planning is concerned in Ukraine, particularly in Kherson Oblast. And I’ll get to the strategic top lines in a minute, but I wanted to start with some of the human aspects of this war.
Yesterday we had Oleg Samoilenko, who is the democratically elected chairman of the Kherson Oblast Rada, speak to the OSCE Permanent Council here in Vienna as a special guest. He told us this moving story about how, as a father of young kids, he and his acquaintances in Kherson who are also parents of small children have all packed a special backpack for their kids to have at the ready. The backpack has a phone, some spare clothes and cash, and also a written set of instructions to be given to an adult in case their parents are killed and they find themselves alone on the street. So I just wanted to share that because it’s a pretty graphic reminder of what Ukrainians are facing in this brutal war.
But now, maybe a few words on the strategic context before we get to the Q&A. So while much of the fighting, as you all know, is now concentrated around Sieverodonetsk and more broadly in the Donbas region, Kherson in particular has become part of what I’ve called the Kremlin’s laboratory of horrors. This is where we’re seeing the Kremlin executing on their playbook of trying to absorb Ukraine into Russia. And we’ve seen elements of this playbook before, so some of this is sadly quite familiar. And I’ve spoken to this in the past, but we still believe that the Kremlin is waiting for an opportunity to try to annex the Kherson region to Russia. We believe a sham referendum is one possibility; another is to have one of the Kremlin’s proxies in the region petition Moscow for annexation.
So, to be perfectly clear, the population of Kherson wants absolutely nothing to do with the brutal occupation regime that Russia is trying to impose. So for now, Russia is still in the process of trying to create the conditions on the ground for a future move towards annexation.
As I spoke about yesterday in the Permanent Council, we’ve seen reports of some 600 people detained in the Kherson region in specially equipped basements that basically serve as torture chambers. We’ve even got reports on their precise locations – for example, at the Kherson Oblast Administration Building or at School Number 17 in Henichesk. The types of people Russia is detaining in these facilities includes democratically elected local officials, journalists, civil society activists, and those whom the Russian forces have identified as having participated in some way in rallies against Russian occupation.
In the place of the local officials that Russian forces have rounded up, Russia is installing its own puppets and proxies much as it did in 2014 and 2015 in Donetsk and Luhansk. So, for example, the mayor of the city of Kherson was recently replaced by Russian forces with a Russian sympathizer from Zaporizhzhia, which shows you how far they have to go to find someone willing to serve as their puppet. And as Chairman Samoilenko told the Permanent Council yesterday, this particular individual also had multiple previous run-ins with the law. So they’re scraping at the bottom of the barrel to try to find collaborators.
We assess that Russian intelligence has been trying to recruit local political figures and activists using coercion and blackmail, using tactics like detention, forced detention, threats of kidnapping of relatives, and bribery. Meanwhile, in terms of the information warfare, the Russian Government is seeking to sabotage internet access in the Russian-controlled territories to deny people the ability to acquire reliable information, to conduct financial transactions, or to communicate openly. And of course, they’re broadcasting Russian state-controlled TV and cutting off Ukrainian TV.
In the schools, they’re forcing school principals to shift to the Russian curriculum, though, as Chairman Samoilenko told us yesterday, most of these principals are refusing to go along, at least thus far, even at great cost to their own physical safety.
Economically, Russia is trying to set the stage for future annexation as well. Locals are forced to use the Russian ruble and to register their commercial properties with the new puppet administrations.
And we also know that residents of Kherson and elsewhere in Ukraine are reportedly subjected to, quote/unquote, “filtration” by Russian forces. I’ve spoken about this before. The filtration process can involve several days of detention and interrogation by Russian military and security forces before Russian forces ultimately determine who to kill, torture, detain indefinitely, or forcibly deport to Russia.
And while it, quote/unquote, “filters” the local population, Russia simultaneously blocks escape routes to government-controlled areas, leaving residents a tough choice between either to remain in siege-like conditions where they are or to be forcibly relocated to Russia. So, for example, in Kherson, Russian forces have deliberately destroyed key bridges linking Kherson with the rest of Ukraine to prevent Ukrainians from being able to retreat to other parts of their own country. And of course Russian President Putin has also issued a decree establishing a process for Kherson residents to apply for and receive Russian citizenship, which will no doubt confer extra privileges on those who choose to accept that.
So essentially, whenever Ukrainian identity is perceived as a threat to Russia’s tyranny, it’s being ruthlessly quashed. Russia’s control over Kherson also has a strategic importance since the oblast is an economically vital region for Ukraine. It connects Crimea to the Donbas, gives the Kremlin a launch pad for further attacks on Ukraine’s interior and/or its Black Sea littoral, and it puts Russia in a position to slowly strangulate Russia’s1 economy since so much of Ukrainian food exports have traditionally been shipped from ports on either the Sea of Azov or the Black Sea.
Finally, shifting gears a little bit and on a slightly separate note, I just wanted to point out that on June 3rd at the OSCE, we had 45 participating states once again invoke the Moscow Mechanism. This is something that will allow for a fact-finding – it’s a mechanism that will allow for a fact-finding team to deploy to Ukraine to investigate clear, gross, and uncorrected human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The OSCE fact-finding mission will have about three weeks to complete their investigation, and at the end of that they’re going to produce a public report on their findings, and as soon as that is available I’m happy to come back here and brief you on it.
So that’s what I’ve got at the top. Now I’m happy to go to Q&A.
Moderator: Great. Thanks very much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.
Our first question is sort of a big-picture question that was submitted to us by Steve Erlanger from the New York Times, and his question is: “With Russia so isolated, can the OSCE last as an institution or is it now out-of-date?”
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah, so that’s a great question. Now, I think it’s important to back up and remember that the OSCE sort of comes with three pieces attached to it. The first is the OSCE is a forum where we have 57 countries sitting around the table having a discussion and, in the best of times, agreeing on common declarations about how to advance their common interests. The OSCE is also, however, a set of field missions in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, to include Ukraine, and in the Western Balkans. And then finally, the OSCE is also a set of autonomous institutions like the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is based in Warsaw, which is sort of the premier election observation organization in this region. It’s the Representative on the Freedom of the Media who pronounces on issues pertaining to that topic, and it’s the High Commissioner on National Minorities. So let’s take each of these three pieces at a time.
If you look at the forum, the forum right now is essentially a forum where we have isolated Russia completely. There is literally no other country in the OSCE who defends Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. We have on any given day as many as 45 states that – the 45 that I just referred to that invoked Moscow Mechanism who have condemned Russia’s actions and are looking for accountability. Then you have a number of states that prefer to stay silent, but Russia is isolated. So for that purpose the OSCE is a useful tool for us to be able to conduct diplomacy and to reassure our allies and partners and maintain unity.
The field missions obviously provide value on everything from supporting initiatives against trafficking in persons, promoting political-military confidence-building, removing small arms and light weapons from some of these countries that are post-conflict countries, engaging in combatting gender-based violence, any range of issues that we care about and that advance our national interest. So that we want to keep.
And then the autonomous institutions we want to keep as well because they obviously advance our interests as well.
So for all of these reasons, I think the – this is a bit of a long-winded answer, but I think the OSCE serves a useful purpose. Of course, Russia is problematic as a participating state, but we have successfully, for the time being, isolated it within the OSCE.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much. And I see we do have one hand raised from Paul Shinkman with U.S. News and World Report. Please go ahead, Paul.
Question: Yeah, hi, Mr. Ambassador. Thanks for doing this. I’d like to ask you further about some of the claims you’ve already talked about to do with Russia forcing the use of rubles, and Russian teachers forcing Russian curriculum in schools. The Ukrainian Government this week claimed that Russia is also specifically targeting with artillery attacks Ukrainian cultural sites, to include monasteries, in a concerted effort to, quote, “destroy our identity.”
So my question for you: given all of these things, do you believe that Russia is employing a systematic campaign to wipe out Ukrainian culture and identity? If so, what do you think is the likelihood of that success? And at what point does that rise to genocide? Thank you.
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah. Well, great question, Paul. So we have seen that there have been strikes against churches, against cultural sites, even against a prominent museum – a museum to a Ukrainian poet which, I might note, was not located near any other possible target. And so either it was hit erroneously or it was consciously targeted.
But I will say that, as I said in the Permanent Council yesterday, it does appear that whenever Ukrainian identity threatens Russia’s regime of tyranny and occupation, that it is attacked. And look, I’m not a lawyer, but to me it looks systematic. But that’s precisely why we have invoked the Moscow Mechanism – to take a look at this question of whether Russia is conducting crimes against humanity. This would be a determination that would apply to Russia as a country, as opposed to war crimes, which are where individuals are held accountable in a court of law, right.
So the fact-finding team that was deployed by the Moscow Mechanism is going to look at this question. And the bar or the threshold that they’re going to have to determine whether it’s been met or not is whether in fact the atrocities that we’ve seen committed are systematic in nature. Looking at this as a layman, I see a certain degree of systematicity to these crimes, but it will be for the experts – we’ll let them pronounce. They’re going to be independent. They’ll make their own determinations.
As for genocide, again, I would note that the Convention on Genocide does have a legal process whereby that determination can be made. I’m not a lawyer. I know the President has pronounced on this, but these are findings that can and should be made because this is part of the process of accountability, of not just holding individuals accountable but of holding states accountable for what is really a horrific set of atrocities, really a barbarous set of circumstances that we see in Ukraine.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that, Ambassador. We have a question that was emailed to us from Mike Brest from The Washington Examiner. The question is: “Ambassador Carpenter, you have spent a lot of time discussing the situation ongoing in Kherson, and you’ve compared it to Crimea earlier this week. But are there other cities that are going through similar situations? And if so, where and what can you tell us about their situation?”
Ambassador Carpenter: Yeah. Well, unfortunately, there’s a wide range of cities in Ukraine that have suffered horribly at the hands of Russian forces. I mean, obviously we’ve seen the reports of atrocities from places like Bucha and Borodianka and Irpin and Hostomel to the north of Kyiv. Kharkiv has been destroyed to a large extent by Russian bombing, and that has included facilities such as schools and kindergartens and hospitals as well.
And then Mariupol, which was a city of some 430,000 people on the Sea of Azov prior to the onset of this war on February 24th, has been decimated to such a degree that it’s hard to speak about a city even remaining in place in the aftermath of this brutal war. And so the international community at this point in time does not have access to Mariupol, but we have received anecdotal reports of mobile crematoria being deployed by Russian forces to Mariupol. We’ve heard reports of chlorine being used to eliminate evidence of atrocities. So I think what we’re going to find is really pretty horrible once the international community gains access there. But then there is other cities. There is cities like Melitopol and Berdiansk, Berdiansk also on the – a port city on the Sea of Azov that have been occupied at least temporarily by Russian forces and where we see a similar playbook being enacted to the one that I’ve described in Kherson.
And of course it’s worth also mentioning that a lot of this playbook was pioneered in Crimea, as you mentioned in your question, but also in Donetsk and Luhansk in the 2014-2015 timeframe where locals were bussed in. In fact, I believe it was in Kharkiv where locals were bussed in from either Russia or from some other part of Ukraine. But they were so lost that they occupied the local opera because they thought that was the local administration building. So they were not locals. They were brought in to try to create some semblance of pro‑Russian sentiment.
But clearly, Russia is failing with its efforts at occupation, and Ukrainian resistance is very strong. And if you look at the actions of Ukrainians demonstrating bravely in places like Kherson or Melitopol, that continues to this day even with the grave consequences that are associated with it. So, unfortunately, what we see in Kherson is not isolated there. It’s actually being replicated in many different parts of southeastern Ukraine.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much. I see a hand up here from Denis Dubrovin with the TASS News Agency. Please go ahead, Denis.
Question: Thank you very much. Thank you, Ambassador, for this briefing. I have a question about yesterday’s sentencing of two British fighters by the court in “Donetsk people’s republic.” What would be your reaction to this, and what would be your message to U.S. citizens fighting on the Ukrainian side in view of these events? And my second question: how could you explain the thousands of people lining up for the Russian passports in Kherson and Melitopol if their conditions are so bad? Thank you very much.
Ambassador Carpenter: Well, your second question sounds a little bit like propaganda. I haven’t received any such reports of people lining up, and conditions are horrible. When you talk about a place like Mariupol where the stench of bodies that are being buried by the rubble is so palpable, there is a fear that cholera could spread throughout the city. Yeah, conditions are not just bad; conditions are absolutely barbaric in some of these places. I mean, you look at the images from Bucha of civilians with their hands tied behind their backs, sometimes blindfolded, shot point-blank in the head. I would venture to say that, yes, indeed, conditions are horrific. They are bad.
As for the sham trials, look, the Secretary, Secretary Blinken, has been – has pronounced on this, and I agree that we’re gravely concerned by reports of these sham trials and judgments against what are lawful combatants serving in Ukraine’s armed forces. And we call on Russia and its proxies to respect international humanitarian law, including the rights and protections afforded to prisoners of war. And we believe very strongly that the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law have to be observed.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that, Ambassador. We have two questions that were submitted in advance by Suleyman Hamidov. Let’s see. I’m not sure which agency he’s with. But the questions are: “Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the cultural and political boundaries have been blurred. How healthy is that to confuse culture and policy, and where is the separating line?” And then his follow-up is: “Erasure of any cultural heritage is a great tragedy. However, for more than 28 years, Azerbaijani heritage has also been vandalized, but we have not seen adequate reaction by the relevant organizations.”
Ambassador Carpenter: Well, anytime a country tries to destroy another country’s cultural heritage, that is a matter of grave concern. And what we’re seeing in Ukraine is a situation where a lot – as I have mentioned earlier in response to another question, where a lot of cultural objects, including churches, including museums, have been destroyed. And the initial fact-finding team that was deployed as a result of the first invocation of the Moscow Mechanism back in early March did look into this question of specific targeting of cultural properties. And they concluded that more needed to be investigated. More evidence needed to be gathered because if, indeed, this were true, it would be a violation of international humanitarian law.
And so I think that this question needs to be looked at as to whether these cultural objects – whether cultural heritage is being targeted specifically because, again, that would be a violation of international law.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that, Ambassador. It looks like we’ve got time for maybe one or two more questions. We have a question here that was emailed to us from Nino Tsabolovi with europetime.eu in Georgia. And the question is: “The response of the U.S. and Europe to Russia’s war is very united. But how do you think this unity is holding up under pressure? For example, President Macron said Russia must not be humiliated despite Putin’s historic mistake.”
Ambassador Carpenter: Well, look. I know the media is always looking for signs of cracks in Western unity. But the reality is that the U.S. and our allies and our democratic partners even beyond Europe are extremely united, more united, I think, than we’ve ever been in response to this aggression from Russia. And so you’ve had the EU adopt six different sanctions packages. You’ve had the U.S. come up with a similar number of sanctions announcements, perhaps even more, wide-ranging export controls that have been matched by our partners in the Indo-Pacific as well as in Europe, and unity of purpose in terms of supporting Ukraine with both humanitarian assistance but also, frankly, with weapons so that Ukrainians can defend themselves.
So when I look across the – certainly the NATO and U.S.-EU landscape but even further afield to some of our partners in East Asia like Japan and New Zealand and Australia, South Korea, Singapore, I see tremendous unity of purpose because, after all, what we’re confronting here is a situation not just of Russia attacking Ukraine, but Russia really violating all the basic principles of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. And so I think countries across the world see this not just as an act of aggression but as a upending of the rules of the international system that we have all subscribed to and which, if they are violated in this instance, they could be violated again.
So I think there is actually tremendous unity. Occasional differences on tactics, as would be expected, but I think tremendous unity of purpose in condemning this aggression.
Moderator: Well, thank you very much, Ambassador. I think that is all the time that we have for today. I’d like to thank all the reporters for your questions and thank you, Ambassador, for joining us. Before we close the call, I’d like to see if you have any closing remarks for the group, sir.
Ambassador Carpenter: No, thank you. I appreciate this.
Moderator: Great. Well, for the folks joining us as reporters, very shortly we will send the audio recording of this briefing to all the participating journalists and will also provide a transcript as soon as it becomes available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This concludes the call.