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Background Briefing on the Secretary's Trip to London

Background Briefing on the Secretary's Trip to London

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
London, United Kingdom
March 14, 2014

MODERATOR: This is a background briefing with a senior State Department official about the Secretary’s trip to London. Welcome.

QUESTION: What concrete proposals do you --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you so – (laughter) – as you heard the Secretary say, we met with the Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Lavrov for some six, seven hours today.

MODERATOR: About six hours.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We met in delegation. There were also some one-on-one walks around the grounds between the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov. And as you heard him say, we did not find common ground today on the way ahead. The U.S. did put a number of concrete proposals on the table in order to try to deescalate the situation, in order to try to address those concerns that are – that may be legitimate with regard to security, with regard to the rights of minorities inside a unified, sovereign Ukraine. But as you heard the Secretary say, Foreign Minister Lavrov did not have the authority to negotiate on that basis.

Why don’t we go to your questions?

QUESTION: You said that – could you flesh out a little with the proposals? And then he also said that President Putin wasn’t going to make a decision until after the referendum, and he left the door open a little bit by saying that consequence – there would be consequences, but those consequences could be calibrated if there was more diplomacy in the coming days that would stop Russia from annexing the territory. So where do you – do you think that the diplomacy is still live in terms of getting Russia not to formally annex the territory?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: In terms of concrete proposals, you’ll recall that we had Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk in Washington on Wednesday. We sat down with him before coming here to prepare, to get a better sense of how he and his government would flesh out some of these public statements that you’ve heard them make about greater autonomy for Crimea, about deescalating and demobilizing irregulars on the street that Russia’s complained about, that they also have concerns about. So we fleshed out a number of those ideas, and we’re prepared to float them on Ukraine’s behalf – test-market them, if you will – with the Russians. And we started down that path today, but it very quickly became clear that Foreign Minister Lavrov was not empowered to discuss any aspect of any proposal that might have an impact in Crimea before the referendum takes place, and that they would reserve their position.

But specifically, we talked – we shared ideas about greater autonomy in the areas of language used, in the areas of taxation, in the areas of electing local officials, in the areas of budgeting, education, health, far higher level of autonomy than Crimea has now with the understanding that it would remain a piece of Ukraine. But Lavrov did not pick up on any of those because he was not empowered to talk about the future of Crimea at all.

QUESTION: Can I just --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me just also say that we had some specific ideas that the Ukrainians have been developing about how this contact group and the OSCE and potentially UN monitors could launch a program to demobilize some of these irregulars who had provided security in Kyiv, in western Ukrainian cities, could also address the irregulars and the rent-a-thugs that we’ve seen in eastern Ukraine, perhaps even a weapons buyback program, these kinds of things. Because as you know, the Russians have complained loudly and bitterly about riotous forces and the arms on the street. So there were very concrete ideas that the Ukrainian Government was prepared to implement immediately. But again, the number one problem with all of this is in Crimea and Lavrov was not empowered to engage on any of that.

So that gives you a flavor of the kinds of things we were trying to do.

QUESTION: Can I just pick up on that one point very quickly? When you went there and you said this – and officials have said this in backgrounders and at the briefing that Secretary Kerry said, “If I’m going to come and I’m going to meet with you, you’d better be empowered to be able to discuss these issues.” And the fact that he went again and was not empowered, after not being empowered in Russia --
MODERATOR: I don’t think that’s how we’ve ever characterized it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What we said from the beginning was – well, you’ll recall --
QUESTION: You said on the record many times from the podium that Foreign Minister Lavrov needed to be empowered in these discussions.

MODERATOR: The time has to be right to go.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can I just say, that in fairness to the process, we had – what’s the right word – we were not aligned in terms of what the guys were empowered to do. Our guy was empowered to talk about the future of a unified, whole, integritous Ukraine. Lavrov was empowered to talk about a Ukraine without Crimea, and so we did not line up in the conversation that we were having.

QUESTION: Can you explain the security piece that Secretary Kerry addressed where he said – talked about troops pulling back in the context of this current exercise?

QUESTION: It looked like there was a very specific proposal for disengagement.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So this has to do with Crimea itself, where, again, we did not get into detail today, but we had presented these – some of these ideas on paper in the exercise last week, but because Lavrov couldn’t talk about Crimea, we didn’t go through it in any detail again today. But the idea was, essentially, you now have Black Sea Fleet forces and other additional forces out of bases spread throughout Crimea, which is not the normal civilian security posture in Crimea.

So the proposal has been for some time – and this is a broad OSCE proposal as well – to mandate an OSCE observer mission, a relatively large one, some 200 who could go into Crimea and start to execute an observer mission from the top down while the Russians pull back to bases.

QUESTION: But in the previous backgrounder, you said that one of the questions Kerry would ask is what’s going on with this current exercise, which involves forces not in Crimea, but which are approximate to eastern Ukraine.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And the Secretary certainly raised our serious concerns about the large number of forces --
QUESTION: But did they explain it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- massing on the eastern borders of Ukraine. He did not engage particularly, except to say that they wouldn’t go in, as he has said before, but he’s made similar – he had made similar comments about Crimea right before they did.

I would also say that if you were in a world where the OSCE was playing either a civilian or a military observer role in the context of a broadly mandated mission, those observers could also help along the Ukrainian-Russian – Ukrainian eastern border with Russia. They could help in some of the hotspot cities. We do have military monitors now in some of the hot cities.

QUESTION: But you had no proposal on that aspect per se?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We were prepared to talk about it, but again, we didn’t get to that level of granularity, because we didn’t get to that level of engagement.

QUESTION: You just said a few minutes ago that Lavrov was empowered to talk about Ukraine without Crimea. Is it fair for us to assume that that is Putin laying groundwork to annex Crimea?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to draw any assumptions about what’s inside President Putin’s head. I think that would be a fool’s errand for anybody, but certainly for us. All I can tell you was that the position was absolutely firm that they will not discuss anything that touches on the future of Crimea before the referendum.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official]?


QUESTION: Sorry I was a little late coming in. Can I ask you, given that we’re in this situation – basically the same question I asked the Secretary, which he didn’t really answer, which is: On Monday, what could we expect to see from your side? I don’t want you to talk for the EU, because you can’t, but what can we expect to see from your side sanctions wise?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to prejudge decisions that are being made at home, but the Secretary made clear, the President’s made clear that if the referendum goes forward, there will be costs. If further steps by Russia either to pressure Ukraine or to act legally with respect to Crimea go forward, there will be further costs.

QUESTION: But he did --
QUESTION: But then how do you – sorry.

QUESTION: Sorry, go ahead. No, no, no.

QUESTION: I mean, the question I asked him was how can you be confident that this is going to have any impact on Putin’s thinking, given that he seems to be already moving towards some kind of backdoor annexation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Jo, I’ve already said that I am not now nor ever going to crystal-ball what happens inside the head of President Putin. I would simply say that there have already been significant costs. Just take a look at what’s happening to the Russian stock market. Look at what’s happening to the Russian ruble. So as both – as the United States, Canada, the European Union, others exact further costs, we’ll just have to see what cost-benefit analysis President Putin makes.

QUESTION: Well, so you think he’s going to try to ride out this economic pain? Exactly, because of the --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, he has choices to make. We’ve made clear from the beginning, the President’s made clear from the beginning, our European allies have made clear from the beginning, he has another choice to make. There is an off-ramp here. That door is still open as long as he’s willing to work within a sovereign and integritous Ukraine, and we will continue to make that case. But if he does – if he chooses a different path, there will be costs.

QUESTION: But is it safe to assume then, though, that nothing that happened here today gave you an off-ramp? I mean, that you’re saying costs – we’ve been equating costs with the sanctions that are ready to go on Monday. And the only thing that seemed to be a possible way to avert those was if something happened here today to give your side confidence that Russia was ready to negotiate. That didn’t sound like that happened.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, our door is open. They know our address. They know the Ukrainians’ address. And if they choose not to avail themselves of the opportunities to do this another way, to deescalate, and they go another route, then there will be costs, and we’ll see how – whether that changes the calculation.

QUESTION: What was the plan going --
QUESTION: But what was the Secretary saying when he said that they would be – he definitely left the door open to say that – he said sanctions and then he stopped himself. He said, “Wait a minute, not sanctions, costs, and they could be calibrated if the diplomacy continues.” So it doesn’t look like it’s a foregone conclusion that you’re slapping some serious sanctions on them on Monday.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, the referendum has not happened yet. The Russians have not given their response to a referendum that has not happened. We obviously are planning in all directions. But as the Secretary made clear, he was not successful in changing the calculation at his level. We will see whether between now and the referendum there is any change of course on the Russian side.

QUESTION: But is diplomacy totally stalled at this point? Because it seems like you’re still holding out hope here. But is there any reason to believe that there will be forward movement? What are you waiting on?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, we’ve got – what do we have, 36 hours before this referendum?

QUESTION: So we’re waiting on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have heard loudly and clearly that at Foreign Minister Lavrov’s level he doesn’t think that he will be able to make any decisions with regard to this larger package before Sunday. Whether at a higher level decisions might be made, it seems unlikely based on what we heard today, but who knows.

QUESTION: So are there --
QUESTION: What else can we expect in plans to try to take it to a higher level, or should there be an expectation of attempts?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think everybody in this community of concern about Ukraine has been in regular contact with President Putin. We’ll see what the reaction of states are. As the Secretary said, he’s now going to be debriefing European colleagues. Many of them have been in – many of their – his counterparts, leaders have been in regular contact with Putin. We’ll just have to see.

QUESTION: Can you also give us some color of what the room was, where they were talking, how many other staffers were there, how many walks they took --
QUESTION: Yeah, how many walks.


QUESTION: I couldn’t keep track of them all. (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the talks took place at the residence of the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom – that’s Winfield House, very, very beautiful home with spectacular grounds. I don’t know, some 40 acres of beautiful lawn, perfectly planted. We met in the dining room. There were, what, seven on seven, something like that?

MODERATOR: About that, yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, about seven on seven. And his side included the North America’s chief, it included his Ambassador to the UK, it included [Moderator]’s counterpart, some other staff. Our side you know well. They started almost immediately with a little tete-a-tete in the garden, which lasted for about 10 minutes. The sun was spectacular. I think both guys enjoy the sunshine, and the hope was that that would set a good tone. Then we came in and we worked at the table for probably three hours and --
MODERATOR: Yeah. There was a walk in there I think.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, there was maybe one walk in the middle, once around the grounds, the two of them.

QUESTION: So it’s one walk?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it was one walk before, about 1:00. And then at about 1:30 they took another long walk around the grounds. Then we came back to the table and it was very clear that we were at the end of his instructions, that the shape of what he could do was clear, but it didn’t take us where we needed to go. Then he, I believe, made a call to Moscow – I don’t – one tries not to pry – and then came – then took another walk with the Secretary, but the results didn’t particularly change.

And then it became a conversation about how to characterize what had or hadn’t happened and whether one could keep the door open going further, going forward. And as you heard, both guys wanted to keep the door open, although we don’t know what will be on the other side.

So why don’t we stop there? Thank you very much.



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