Moderator: Good afternoon. I’m going to be brief as I know I’m not the one you want to hear from today. My name is Mark Toner and I’m the Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, but for today’s purposes I’ll be your moderator.
Just a few mechanics I’d like to review before we get started.
First, please identify yourself on the screen. It looks like most of you have. That’s good. That way I can call on you by name. It’s also helpful if you give your affiliation before asking any questions.
Second, please let me know if you have a question by using the “raise hand” option which you should see in the zoom bar under reaction. If for some reason you cannot find it, then simply let us know in the comment section you want to ask a question and I’ll call on you.
We have participants from five European countries today – France, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain. So to ensure that we get to as many of your questions as possible I will move to each country, identify a questioner, then move to the next country for the next question, and so on. We’re going to unmute you to ask your question, but otherwise keep you on mute in order to mitigate any background noise.
And just a reminder of the ground rules, today’s discussion is on the record.
Also, the topic of today’s event is to discuss Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border and diplomatic efforts to deescalate the situation. I’d kindly ask that we not stray too far afield as time is limited. Also, I’ll keep an eye on the clock and notify all of you when we’re nearing the end of the allotted time.
Without any further ado, it’s my very great pleasure to introduce to you the U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. Toria, over to you.
U/S Nuland: Thank you, Counselor Toner and thanks to Embassy Paris for putting this together with everybody here, and thanks to all of you for making the time.
Look, it is no secret to any of you leading journalists and opinion-makers around our key European allies and partners that all of our governments have been gravely concerned by the Russian buildup around Ukraine’s borders. The current buildup as well as what we are seeing in terms of Russian intentions. That’s why during the G7 meeting over the weekend, in which all of the governments of your countries participated over the weekend, we sent a very, very strong message in keeping with President Biden’s direct message to President Putin in their phone call on December 7th, that we are calling on Russia to deescalate immediately, to pursue any concerns that it has – whether it’s with Ukraine or whether it’s with NATO or any of the rest of us – through diplomatic channels, to abide by its international commitments on transparency of military activity, to come back to the table in the Normandy Format on the Donbas conflict led by France and Germany in a serious way, and we are also reminding Russia that any use of force to change borders is strictly prohibited under international law and Russia should have no doubt that any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs.
Look, friends, the stakes here are enormous. This is obviously about the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent nation, Ukraine, to make its own choices about its own security future without aggression and without pressure. It is about NATO’s right to make its own decisions. But it’s about the broader European security architecture and all of the undertakings that we have all made together in the OSCE, in the Helsinki Final Act, in the UN Charter. But even more broadly, it’s about the basic rules of the road of the international system that makes clear that one country cannot change the borders of another by force, that one country cannot dictate to another country its choices and its decisions with regard to foreign policy.
So we’re looking for Russia to deescalate. We are open to appropriate consultations in the NATO/Russia format, in the OSCE format. The U.S. and Russia also have a strategic dialogue on arms control in which we coordinate closely with our European allies. But we are also making the point very, very clearly as we did in the G7 that if Russia does not choose the path of de-escalation and chooses the path of further aggression that there will be severe consequences and we are working together to ensure that we are united in that message and that we are united in being ready should that unhappy day come.
Lastly just to say, as you saw, that Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Karen Donfried made a round of consultations to Kyiv on Monday, to Moscow yesterday, and she is at NATO today to talk about all of these things and to press for de-escalation and diplomacy.
I think I’ll pause there and go to what’s on your mind.
Moderator: Thank you, Toria.
Just to get started I think we’ll go first to Germany. Mathieu von Rohr from Der Spiegel. Do you want to go ahead, Mathieu?
Question: Thank you, Under Secretary.
I was wondering if there is anything at all that can be done to appease Russia. I know appeasement is a terrible word, but the proposal that’s been made by some people was that the U.S. could put some pressure on Ukraine to fulfill some of its obligations under the Minsk Agreements such as passing constitutional amendments in a way to, well, ease the situation. What do you think about that?
U/S Nuland: We’ve made clear, as France and Germany also have, that it is Russia right now that is blocking a serious conversation about the obligations that they have, that Ukraine has under the Minsk Agreements, and it is the Minsk Agreements that speaks to how we can get military forces, including Russian forces, out of Ukraine; how Ukraine can grant a special status for the Donbas region within the Ukrainian constitution; and how having a set of elections and then a return of sovereignty over its own border to Ukraine. So that’s what the Minsk Agreements call for. That’s what the Normandy Format is designed to develop. And Russia [sic] and France, as you know, are the leads.
What we have said is that if a U.S. parallel effort in support of the Normandy Format might be helpful in getting Russia to live up to its obligations in creating a sequence that makes it possible for Ukraine to do some of the things on its side of the Minsk ledger. We would be delighted to support that. I worked on that in 2016 during the Obama administration. We did it in very tight coordination with France and Germany. And that is one of the reasons why Karen Donfried was in Kyiv and was in Moscow, to test the seriousness there.
So it’s not about appeasement of one side or another, it’s about creating a sequence for getting this agreement, which both Russia and Ukraine committed to implement it in a manner that is safe, that is reasonable, that is fair, that is balanced, and fundamentally that returns sovereignty over Donbas to Ukraine and gets rid of foreign military forces.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question goes to Italy, Paola Mastrolilli. Go ahead.
U/S Nuland: Paolo, before you start, I should have mentioned in response to the last question, France and Germany have been proposing having a summit meeting on the Minsk Agreements to Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine has been willing. Russia has blocked. They’ve also proposed having a ministerial meeting to prepare a summit. Ukraine has been willing and Russia has blocked. So I think there’s a question here about seriousness.
Moderator: Thank you. Paolo, do you want to go ahead and pose your question?
Question: Thank you very much for the briefing.
The Biden administration is asking the allies for unity should sanction or other measures be needed. What do you expect from allies like Italy that depends on Russian gas in large part for the winter?
U/S Nuland: We are working together now on a profound response should Russia choose the path of aggression. It will be primarily in the economic and financial realm and we are building that package now together. We understand that there are energies in Europe, but energy is also Russia’s largest source of revenue and so there are calculations on both sides but we are working through all of those together.
Moderator: Thank you.
We’ll go to London next, Gideon Rachman.
Question: Thank you very much. Two questions, related, if I may.
One just very bluntly, how likely is the threat of a Russian invasion? What’s your current assessment right now?
And also there’s been some kind of discussion in Europe that the Biden administration has talked about having a discussion with Russia about a new security arrangement for Europe. What are we to make of that?
U/S Nuland: Gideon, I think with regard to intent, we continue to believe that President Putin has not made a final decision. I think our concern is that he is putting in place all of the tools that he would need to move aggressively against Ukraine. It is an enormously expensive military endeavor that he has already authorized and that we already see around three sides of Ukraine. And with regard to internal destabilization, with regard to huge amounts of resources being put into disinformation, attempting to blame Ukraine, assert that either Ukraine or NATO is a threat to Russia which they are not. So the question is why hemorrhage so much of the richness of Russia that could be spent on COVID relief, that could be spent on roads and schools and hospitals if he doesn’t want to keep the option open?
So that is why it’s important for us to be absolutely united in calling for a diplomatic solution to any concerns. And by the way, if we get into diplomacy in a serious way we have significant concerns of our own not simply about Ukraine but about other destabilizing activity of Russia that we would bring to the table in any such discussion as does Europe. And to make absolutely clear that if he does not take the diplomatic route that we will be united in imposing severe costs.
Look, the Russians are eager for a renegotiation of the rules of the road of European security. We have to decide together as allies and partners across the European space whether there are concerns of Russia’s that we can make them feel more comfortable about, as well as issues that are non-negotiable including, as I said, the right of veto over any other nation’s sovereign choices. But we also, if we get into diplomacy, as I said, will have issues of our own. But the United States has no intention of pursuing negotiations with Russia without our European allies fully engaged and part of the process. And as I said at the top, we see aspects of these discussions that could happen in the NATO-Russia context where we have all NATO allies engaged including all the countries represented on this screen and we see aspects that would need to be discussed in the OSCE because they affect the entire EuroAtlantic area including all of the countries that are not members of NATO.
So rest assured that we have no intention to do this on our own. It’s not in our interest, and it will not solve any of the problems. That’s why Karen is at NATO today and why we are making absolutely clear that we believe that the OSCE will also have to be engaged.
Moderator: Thank you.
The next question goes to Sylvie Kauffmann of Le Monde.
Question: Thank you very much.
I have a question, if those negotiations on the rules of the road as you say, of European security start, do you see the possibility where the Normandy Format would be dropped? I mean for the Russians that would be superseding and, you know, they wouldn’t see the need for conducting those negotiations on Ukraine anymore. And since they don’t want to have the negotiations with Europeans, obviously, that looks pretty obvious now, what kind of parallel track do you envisage if this, to try to keep the Normandy Format alive, what would the U.S. exactly do? Is it a [Volka] style envoy or any other possibility that you envisage? Thank you very much.
U/S Nuland: Thank you, Sylvie. As we say in the G7 statements, all of us consider that the Normandy Format is and remains and will remain the central negotiating format for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, and part of our message to both Kyiv and Moscow is that we want to see the Normandy Format work.
What we were doing in ’15 and ’16, I was personally engaged in this, was working tightly with France and Germany on their agenda within Normandy and reinforcing those messages and that drive bilaterally from the U.S. side in both Kyiv and in Moscow and being completely transparent and on the same page in the way that we do that. There are things that the Normandy Format allows for that wouldn’t be possible in U.S. diplomacy, but the point here is not to allow the replacement of the Normandy format, it is to reinforce those efforts if we can be helpful, and that remains to be seen. And it remains to be seen whether there’s a will particularly in Moscow to implement their obligations.
Moderator: Thank you.
Next we’re going to go to Madrid, [Lucia Abien].
Question: I’d like to ask you to elaborate a little bit on the idea of massive consequences for the vehicles that you mentioned as European Union is today conveying exactly the same messages. But actually that too was already applied after Crimea and its effectiveness is really proving poor. I would like to ask you what else do you think you can do this time? Thank you.
U/S Nuland: Thanks. First of all to say that in 2014 the way we approached this was with an increasingly intense series of sanctions and some of the harshest sanctions, the sectoral ones, didn’t come into play until 2016 when Russia renewed its attacks in the Debaltseve area, et cetera. It’s an unknowable whether they would have gone even further or whether the situation would have been worse without the resolving [any of these issues] together.
But I think we have already been clear and the President was absolutely clear with President Putin and it’s why we are working so hard to demonstrate our unity on this both in the G7, in the NATO context and with other allies and partners, that we are prepared this time to use economic and financial tools that we refrained from using in the past and we are working on building that package and that the consequences therefore will not be slow and incremental on Russia. They will be swift and profound.
Moderator: Thank you.
We’re going back to Germany and Paul Kruger.
Question: Thank you for doing this. I have a two-fold question.
One would be Russia, to the extent that they have handed over paperwork to Karen Donfried with their proposal for what they call the International Treaty. Could you go a little bit into that, beyond what is publicly known by now? What the content of this is.
And a Germany-related question, sources in the Congress have quoted you saying that the U.S. government obtains assurances from Germany regarding Nord Stream 2, the pipeline. Could you go into this, what kind of assurances you get from the new German government?
U/S Nuland: Unlike our Russian counterparts, we do not think it’s going to be productive to have any negotiations that we might have in the NATO-Russia context or in the OSCE context in public. We don’t think that’s going to get us to where we need to go. I can confirm that there were a number of ideas passed by the Russians to Assistant Secretary Donfried when she was there. She is sharing those at NATO and at the EU today so that we can have a conversation among ourselves about an appropriate way to respond. But that response will include, on our side or we will propose to our allies that it include that any work we do be tightly coordinated among us. There may be work done, as I said, in the NATO-Russia context, there may be work done in the OSCE context, and if there are any issues that are more appropriate for U.S.-Russian arms control, as we always do even in our existing security dialogue with Russia, we will coordinate closely with NATO on those issues. But equally importantly, if Russia has a list of demands from us, we also have a long list of demands of them. They are the destabilizing power at the moment and that needs to end and we will have plenty to say if we get into these discussions.
With regard to Nord Stream 2, as you know, the U.S. and Germany had completed a bilateral understanding on the risks of Nord Stream 2 to Ukraine and to European energy security. That document was public. It included a number of steps designed to support Ukraine in the context of the potential that Nord Stream 2 would be certified and come online. And it was very clear in that document that if there was aggression against Ukraine it would have an impact on whether the pipeline was certified and/or became operational.
We have had good conversations with the new German government and it is our understanding that they stand by the agreement made with us by the previous government and their commitments to Ukraine therein.
Moderator: Thank you.
We’re going to Rome next, Nona Mikhelidze.
Question: My question again on Normandy Format. You partially answered on it, but still does the U.S. intend to jump in if [inaudible] in the Normandy Format? Because all that it intends to create a format of cooperation because Zelenskiy is [crippled]. Will be some kind of [inaudible] format at the trilateral level meaning Ukraine, U.S. and Russia? Thank you.
U/S Nuland: I missed a little bit of that, what Zelenskiy’s chief of staff is saying to you. Can you repeat that please?
Question: The format, to the Normandy Format, eventually at the trilateral level, U.S., Russia and Ukraine?
U/S Nuland: As I said, our intention or our offer to both Germany-France, but also to Ukraine and Russia is that if we can be supportive through our bilateral diplomacy with Ukraine and with Russia to the process that Normandy has ongoing, we’re prepared to do that. We have made no commitment to a trilateral format.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question goes to Dominic from Sky News, UK.
Question: Thanks very much. Can you say a little bit more about the process of drawing up this package of profound, potential profound consequences? These are conversations with our allies, with the EU? How do you, as opposed to just drawing them up, and are you going to sort of unveil what the potential sanctions will be ahead of time? Or would we have to wait and see what happens to the Russians should they invade Ukraine?
U/S Nuland: Thanks for that.
We have been working bilaterally with the major transatlantic economies, all of the G7 countries. We’ve been working with the G7 collectively. We’ve been working with the EU, the Commission and the Council. We’ve been working with the OECD. We have been working with other allies and partners around the world including some who are not in Europe to share the ideas that we have, to hear their ideas, and to try to build a common response.
We have also been very clear and more specific than I’m prepared to be here with the Russian Federation about the kinds of consequences that they can envision. And as you know, they have a good intelligence service and we think that they are well aware of what we’re working on and what we would bring to the table, as I said, which would be considerably – which would include measures that we have refrained from using before.
But here again, we don’t see advantage to negotiating in public or to planning in public, but we are very confident that Moscow is well aware of the risks and consequences for them.
Moderator: Thank you.
Back to France, Francois Heisbourg.
Question: I’ve been wondering why Putin is doing what he’s doing now? Their interest is in [inaudible]. Is it the price of energy? Is it the weather? Is it domestic considerations? Is it the weakness they sense in the West, in Europe and in the U.S.?
And a companion question, why is this happening so soon after the summit in Geneva? Is there a connection here between the summit and what is happening now?
U/S Nuland: Francois, I don’t think it’s particularly productive in this on the record session for me to speculate on Mr. Putin’s thought process. I would simply say that at the summit in Geneva and before, President Biden has been signaling and making clear that we would like a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia. We sought to put in place a number of initiatives to do that. There are places where we work well together, for example on the Iran file. There are places where we think we can do more together with typically strategic stability talks and arms control. There are places where we have difficulty as in the cyber and ransomware realm where we set up some bilateral structures to deal with those problems.
But we also in that context made clear then that if we could be helpful in supporting the Normandy Format we would be ready to do that.
So why Mr. Putin chooses this moment to put all of that at risk does not make a lot of sense to us, including with regard to his responsibilities to his own people. As we’ve said, Russia has one of the highest COVID rates in the world. Russians do not want, we are convinced, a war with Ukraine. It’s not going to help them strengthen their future either in health terms or economic terms or in terms of daily life. You know, good schools, good roads, good hospitals. All the things that we are trying to do at home, that you are trying to do at home to build back better after this period of health and economic stress.
So why they want to get into risking the use of Russia coming home in body bags, because you know, Ukrainians are tough. They will fight for their country and for their sovereignty if Russia moves in this direction. Maybe he’s getting bad information about that. Maybe he’s getting bad information about our resolve. Maybe he is over-confident based on oil revenues.
But we are offering Russia, as are our allies and partners, a more stable, predictable future. A future where President Putin can invest in the health and security and prosperity of his own nation rather than going on another foreign adventure that is completely unprovoked by any of us. So that’s why we want to offer this chance for diplomacy. If there are concerns we can address and ameliorate, we will do that. But not at the expense of the sovereignty of Ukraine or of any other European nation.
Moderator: Thank you.
Next we’re going to go to Spain, Riccardo Alcaro.
Question: It’s actually Italy. I’m based in Rome.
Moderator: Apologies. Go ahead.
Question: Thank you. I have two quick questions. The first concerns the dimension of the U.S. response to an invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We’ve spoken about sanctions and diplomatic sanctions, diplomatic measures. What about the military dimension? To what extent would the U.S. be willing to support Ukraine’s military actions, military operations in defense of its territory?
The second question concerns if an invasion does take place and U.S. and Russia relations go even more south than they have so far, what kind of further actions by Russia is the U.S. government expecting? Not just in Ukraine but across the board? [Inaudible] action I mean.
U/S Nuland: With regard to your second question, I’m certainly not going to play Russia’s side of the board. I think we are making clear that the consequences for Russia will be severe. Economically, including with regard to isolation and it’s going to hurt the Russian people severely. So we hope that Putin chooses the path of diplomacy.
With regard to security support, many of the countries represented on this screen have been involved in supporting Ukraine’s ability to defend herself over almost a decade now, many, many years. The U.S. also provides defensive support to Ukraine in the form of training, et cetera. And we have also helped to ensure the professionalization of the Ukrainian military. And that support will continue as needed. But again, this is for defensive purposes. Ukraine poses no threat to Russia today and does not, you know, our support is purely in the context of her defense.
Moderator: Thank you.
We’re getting a little bit close on time so I’m going to try to get to as many of your questions, but we’re getting to the final few.
Back to Spain, Kike Andres Pretel.
Question: I was wondering, Putin is getting popularity down in recent years. We are also seeing that the country is facing a dire economic and [inaudible] situation. And I would like to know how are you assessing the internal situation of Russia and how can it affect this conflict? Do you think that perhaps if recent Putin popularity is down, he can escalate the conflict to try to be better at home.
U/S Nuland: Thanks Kike.
Obviously the Russian people will speak for themselves, but we’re seeing exactly what you are seeing, that in public opinion polls conducted in Russia, what the Russian people care most about is getting COVID under control, getting their country build back better schools, roads, infrastructure, health systems opportunity. And frankly, they care about openness to the outside world.
So why President Putin would want to instead focus all of his attention on another military adventure with Ukraine, which not only has extreme risks for the Russian military and for the young soldiers of Russia because, as I said, we would expect this will not be, the Ukrainians are not just going to turn over the keys. This could be very bloody. Rather than focusing on building back his own country which is what all of the rest of our leaders are trying to do, and taking President Biden’s offer for a more stable, predictable relationship, is very hard for us to understand.
The polling is showing that overwhelmingly Russians do not want a war with Ukraine. That’s not their priority right now. But I hope Mr. Putin is getting good information with regard to that.
Maybe one more and then I’ve got to hop.
Moderator: Understood. We’re going to end in France then. Pierre Haski.
Question: Thank you. Some Kremlin communicants have been using the word Finlandization about the future of Ukraine. Is that in the spirit of the proposals that were given to Assistant Secretary Donfried in Moscow? And what’s your view on Finlandization?
U/S Nuland: I’m not sure what Finlandization means in the context of those comments. I can guess. But as I said at the top, it’s not for Russia or for any other nation to dictate the future course or the friendships or alliances that Ukraine may pursue or aspire to. They’re not going to have a veto over any other country’s future.
That said, do we want to see Russia and Ukraine also have a stable and predictable future together? Of course we do. And we do not see a threat to Russia from Ukraine. On the contrary, it is Russia who has provoked this conflict. But if there are concerns, transparencies that are needed, et cetera, we can have those conversations. But Russia’s got to deescalate and they’ve got to come to the diplomatic table in good faith. But not in the spirit of dictating the direction of other sovereign nations.
Thanks to all of you and thanks for caring about this subject. Let us hope that we are on track for a diplomatic future rather than a different future on this set of issues and that we can all have a stable and predictable and happy Christmas and New Year.
Moderator: Thank you all.