The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Barack Obama
Press Briefing by National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken on the Vice President's Upcoming Trip to Ukraine and Georgia
July 17, 2009
Via Conference Call

3:04 P.M. EDT

MR. BLINKEN: Good afternoon, this is Tony Blinken. Thank you all very much for joining the call. I know it's a busy day, so I appreciate it. Let me just note at the outset that as evidence of the importance we attach to our relations with Ukraine and Georgia, the Vice President is bringing with him a very, very strong interagency team, with senior members from the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council staff, and the National Economic Council staff.

I thought what I'd do is I'll give you a brief overview of the actual schedule of the trip, some of the high points, and then talk about some of the overarching themes, and then, of course, take any questions you have. So let me start with the schedule.

We depart Washington Sunday night, and arrive in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday evening. We spend Tuesday in Kyiv, and the Vice President, among other things, will do the following: He will start the day by meeting and greeting the staff of our embassy in Kyiv. He will meet with President Yushchenko, and the two of them together, after the meeting, will make a statement to the press. Following the meeting, he and President Yushchenko will go to the Holodomor Memorial, a memorial to the victims of the Ukrainian famine. The Vice President will pay his respects at the memorial. He will then have a series of meetings with Prime Minister Tymoshenko, with Speaker Lipton; with Party of Regions Leader, Victor Yanukovych; and with Opposition Leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. And that will complete a busy first day in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, we start the day again in Kyiv. The Vice President delivers a speech about U.S.-Ukraine relations hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce. And then he will meet with Civil Society Leaders before departing Ukraine and being wheels up for Tbilisi, Georgia. We get to Tbilisi in the early evening on Wednesday. That night, President Saakashvili will host an official dinner for the Vice President. And I'm told the dinner will conclude with an outdoor concert.

That then brings us to Thursday. And the Vice President, on Thursday, will begin the day again meeting with our embassy team in Tbilisi. He will have an official working meeting with President Saakashvili. After lunch, the Vice President will sit down with representatives from some of the leading NGOs working in Georgia, as well as with a number of opposition leaders, including Irakli Alasania, Nino Burjanadze, and Levan Gachechiladze -- excuse my bad pronunciations. He then goes to Parliament. He will meet at Parliament with the Speaker, David Bakradze, and with some of the opposition leaders in Parliament. And then, after those meetings, he will deliver a speech to the Parliament in Georgia.

After the speech, the Vice President will meet with schoolchildren who are participating in a program that's funded by USAID. It's a summer camp that's focused on developing math and English language skills. And then we are that night wheels up back to Washington, D.C.

Let me, if I can, go through some of the broad themes of the trip, and then, as I said, take any questions you may have. To start with, of course, Ukraine and Georgia are very different countries facing very different challenges, and also very different opportunities. But we see some overarching themes to the trip that apply to both countries. And let me just say three of them.

First, the United States strongly values our partnership with Ukraine and Georgia. And the main purpose of the trip is to strengthen each partnership in very concrete ways. This week, I think, you heard the Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton, talking about the multi-partner world that we want to build. For the United States, we're not seeking to build spheres of influence or to dominate a particular region. Rather, we are looking for strong partners to help us meet common challenges. And Ukraine and Georgia are perfect examples of exactly that. Each has been a partner for progress with us and with other countries in places like the Balkans, in Iraq, and Afghanistan.

So we see it as being profoundly in our interest to help Ukraine and Georgia become the most effective partners possible with transparent democratic and economic institutions, with a vibrant civil society, with modern militaries. And so the Vice President is going to be talking to leaders in both countries about some of the concrete steps we propose to take in the months ahead to deepen our partnerships.

And let me just emphasize, these partnerships, again, to pick up on the theme of the Secretary of State speech, they're not going to come at anyone's expense, but they can be to everyone's advantage.

A second I think common denominator of the trip is that Ukraine and Georgia share the fact that each inspired people around the world, and in fact here in the United States, with the peaceful revolutions they went through not so long ago. But each revolution remains a work in progress. And in different ways, each country faces the challenge of fulfilling the promise of those revolutions. The Vice President is going to be talking to leaders and people of each country about those challenges, including in Ukraine, the hard work and tough choices that have to be made to advance economic and energy sector reform; and in Georgia, the need to deepen its democratic institutions.

Third, and finally, the President and Vice President thought it was important for the Vice President to go to Ukraine and Georgia to restate what the Vice President said at the very start of this administration in Munich, and what the President strongly affirmed in Moscow just this month. And that's the following: Our efforts to reset relations with Russia will not come at the expense of any other country. This is not, for us, a zero-sum game. We will continue to reject the notion of spheres of influence, and we will continue to stand by the principle that sovereign democracies have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own partnerships and alliances.

As I noted at the start of course, Ukraine and Georgia are very different countries with different challenges. And so in each country, the Vice President will engage the leaders on specific issues in the bilateral relationship; and as to those issues, everything from economic and security cooperation, trade and investment, domestic reform, integration into the Euro-Atlantic community and institutions and so forth. I'll let the trip and the Vice President speak for themselves next week.

So let me end with that. And now I'm happy to try and take any questions. Thank you very much.

Q: Yes, Advisor Blinken, thank you so much for taking your time with us today. One of the big issues of course, is the Partnership for Peace, or the NATO arrangements that are in -- right now that are going on. Are Ukraine and Georgia in that mix? Are they going to be involved in any joint ventures with us, militarily?

MR. BLINKEN: Thanks, Ron, for your question. And thanks for being on the call. What we've made clear and will continue to make clear is, first of all, the broad principle that NATO's door is open to both countries, to Georgia and Ukraine. The decision about whether they want to pursue membership and join is of course up to them. But we believe firmly in their right to be members of the alliance if that's what they choose to do.

But of course, with the membership in the alliance come responsibilities to be able to meet its requirements. And so where we are now and where the alliance is, is saying the door is open, and we want to help you and work with you to get you to the point where you can meet the requirements of membership. And that's where we are with both our -- both are engaged, both countries have commissions with NATO to work on bringing them up to NATO standards, and we're going to be encouraging them to pursue their work with NATO in the months and years ahead.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. My understanding is that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went to South Ossetia since Obama was just in Moscow, and that it seemed as somewhat a tweak, if not provocative, given U.S. concerns that Russian not seem entitled to try to absorb South Ossetia. Can you talk at all about Biden's concerns about that?

MR. BLINKEN: Yes, sure. As I noted a little while ago -- and one of the messages of this trip in both countries is to reaffirm and restate what both the Vice President and President have been very clear on -- the Vice President starting in Munich, and the President as recently as his trip to Moscow, which is that, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, first of all, the United States is not, will not, recognize them as independent states, and we stand firmly for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia.

More specifically, we've urged Russia and continue to urge Russia to implement the cease-fire agreements of last summer, which obligate Russia to withdraw its military forces to their pre-war deployments. We've called on Russian forces that occupy these Georgian regions to fulfill their obligations to uphold the rule of law and respect for human rights. We've urged Russia and continue to urge Russia to fulfill its obligations under the August 2 cease-fire agreement and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1866 to ensure unhindered humanitarian access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

So those have been our concerns, they remain our concerns, and hopefully we'll see progress on all those fronts.

Q: Thank you. Thank you for taking my question. It has to do with the Ukrainian -- with the Ukrainian elections. I'm just wondering if the White House has any position about the elections. Are they just standing by to see the results, or do they feel that this is an opportunity for some real change for some of the obstacles towards economic and political reform to be removed and for Ukraine to move forward? Thank you.

MR. BLINKEN: Thanks very much for your question. As to the elections, obviously we don't have -- we don't have a candidate, we don't have favorites. What we have is a strong desire for the elections to move forward in a fair and free process. And in fact, I think one of the highlights of recent Ukrainian history is having a very open, competitive political environment, as well as a very free and very vibrant press. And that's been a tremendously positive development in Ukraine.

Less positive, quite honestly, has been some of the political paralysis we've seen in recent times, and hopefully in the months ahead, before the election, irrespective of the election, leaders in Ukraine will find a way to work closely together on the challenges that the country faces, that start with the economy and the very difficult situation Ukraine is in, the hard choices that have to be made.

We have tremendous empathy for the difficult times that people are facing in Ukraine, but we also believe strongly that the IMF program that's been proposed is a very positive development, that if Ukraine will continue to make the hard choices necessary to secure and continue to secure that IMF support, that is the path to a more prosperous future, and that requires political leaders to come together to support some of these difficult decisions on economic reform and energy sector reform that need to be made.

So our hope is -- and certainly the Vice President will be talking to all of the leaders he meets with about this. Our hope is that these leaders who really, many of whom were part of inspiring not only their own people, but the entire region -- the entire world -- not so very long ago, will, in their day-in and day-out action, live up to the promise of the revolution and make the hard choices and work together. And in many ways, people in Ukraine, with this incredibly open and free and vibrant society, seem to be a little bit ahead of some of the political leadership right now, and we hope that the leadership will do just that -- lead.

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time today. Earlier this month we saw a potential gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with Ukraine's seeming inability to pay for its monthly gas -- (inaudible) -- and I understand that transfer of the funds were being arranged from EBRD and the EU, and the standby loan from the IMF, of course. But I was wondering your thoughts on whether the United States needs to get more involved with energy security in the region with regards to Ukraine and Russia, or whether we're taking a more laissez-faire approach.

MR. BLINKEN: Thanks for your question, Julie. I think you'll hear -- and I don't want to get ahead of the Vice President -- but I can safely predict that both in his meetings in Ukraine and in his speech he will, among other things, focus hard on the energy sector, because this is really critical. For Ukraine's future, it's not only an economic issue; in many ways it's a national security issue. And we I think are going to be very engaged in encouraging Ukraine, and to the extent we can, helping Ukraine pursue some of the reforms of the energy sector in particular that are necessary in order to get the investment they need to upgrade their pipeline system, to purchase gas to store for use in the winter, and so forth.

So I think it's safe to say that we don't have a laissez-faire approach, that we're going to be engaged on this issue because we think it's critically important to Ukraine and obviously it's important to Europe.

Q: Thank you for your time. Two quick yes or no things on Ukraine and Georgia, to follow up on what you just said, basically. Are you willing to help the Ukrainians with money to pay for their energy needs? And are you willing to refrain from bringing weapons to Georgia, to make the situation there less tense?

And if I may, I also have a very brief question about the opposition in Georgia.

MR. BLINKEN: Why don't you go ahead and ask that.

Q: The opposition question is, I went to listen to (inaudible) when she was speaking yesterday at the (inaudible) and she said they face a choice, the opposition, between stability -- a call for stability, and democracy. And she said at one point we chose stability, and we have failed because we got nothing -- no stability and no democracy. In the West there is no democracy. Now, so she says now we face that same choice again. We want to have both, but can we? So my question to you is, what is your advice to them in this situation? Is it stability or democracy?

MR. BLINKEN: Thanks for the very good question and let me try to answer them in reverse order. There is no zero-sum choice between democracy and stability. To the contrary. Democracy to us is the very foundation of stability and a prerequisite. And so what we hope to see in Georgia is a pursuit of the kinds of things that we're beginning to see happen, and that is a deepening of Georgia's democracy. That would be good for Georgia, good for Georgia's aspirations to join various Euro-Atlantic institutions.

There's been an incredibly vigorous political debate and people have behaved in a largely peaceful and orderly fashion in the midst of that debate, both the protestors and the government. So that's been encouraging. And now I think to move forward, the government, the opposition, civil society need to cooperate on constitutional reform, on electoral reform, and to prepare Georgia for the first end-of-term electoral transfer of power in its history when the President is eventually up for reelection.

So I think there's a program there that can deepen Georgia's democracy and, in a sense, give a lie to this false choice between democracy and stability. To the contrary. Democracy is vital to genuine sustained stability.

We are working with Georgia with defense reform and defense modernization, and I think it's important that, as Georgia has been an important partner for us in different places around the world, that it has the ability to be a strong partner. Our focus is on doctrine, on education and on training, and preparing for Georgia's future deployments to Afghanistan.

And finally, money for Ukraine -- we think the IMF program is a very strong program that will bring much of the needed support. We have various assistance programs with Ukraine that are ongoing and that we'll continue to support.

Q: Thanks, I'm joining you from Moscow today. I just had a couple of contextual questions. The first one I wanted to ask you was, I know that -- I believe that the last time Vice President Biden was in Georgia was right after the war. Can you confirm that, and can you confirm the last time he was in Ukraine? That's sort of for the context.

And the Obama administration is at great pains to differentiate itself from the Bush administration. We know that Dick Cheney liked to take trips to what we call "New Europe" and made often quite -- well, ruffled some feathers with the Russians. What can we expect in his speech that he'll be giving during this trip?

MR. BLINKEN: I can confirm first of all that yes, the last time the Vice President was in Georgia was right after -- actually, during the war in the sense that there was still military action going on. That was in August, almost exactly a year ago.

And as to Ukraine, I have to tell you I don't know, and I'd have to get back to you on that. He has not been to Ukraine in recent years, and I need to find out when he might have been there in the past. However, he did meet -- oh, I guess about five or six years ago in the Senate he met with President Yushchenko, before he was the President, and he's with various Ukrainian leaders, but I'd have to get back to you on when he was -- when he was last there. I just don't know.

Let me let his speech -- speeches, in both countries speak for themselves. I think I alluded to the different themes that he's likely to sound in both speeches, in particular -- and maybe I should just come back to this and emphasize this -- our vision for European security and for the kinds of relationships that we have with both Ukraine and Georgia and with other countries is not to create, as I said, spheres of influence or a multi-polar world of some kind. It's to create, as Secretary Clinton so aptly put it, a multi-partner world. And the partnerships that we're building are not aimed against anyone. They are aimed at building up the capacity of the partner countries and of the partnerships to deal with the many challenges our countries face around the world. And as I said earlier, Georgia and Ukraine are great examples because they've been our partners in far-flung places -- from the Balkans to Afghanistan to Iraq. And that's the purpose of the partnerships; it's not to get under anyone's skin. It is simply to build effective relationships with countries that share our basic outlook and values and that can be strong partners for us in meeting all of these challenges.

So that's the worldview that we're trying to bring to life, and we're doing it in a very practical way with Georgia and Ukraine -- with them, not against anyone else.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. Real quickly, with Moscow and Tbilisi right now, there's a lot of talk about the fear or possibility of renewed hostilities come this summer, especially in August. The Georgians are saying that President Obama, during his trip, stopped the next war by telling Medvedev not to do that. How serious are you all worried about the possibility that there could be renewed possibilities. And can you tell us why the USS Stout is there now beyond the obvious training mission that it's on? Is that meant to send any kind of signal?

MR. BLINKEN: Hey, Peter. No, no signal is being sent. But I think it's fair to say that I don't think anyone, anywhere, wants a repeat of a hot August. It's not in anyone's interest, and it is not something that I think any of us expect.

I mentioned earlier that we believe that Russia has certain commitments that it made after the war last summer that we'd like to see fulfilled. At the same time, we've been very clear with our friends in Georgia that their rightful aspirations to preserve and regain the territorial integrity of their country cannot be accomplished by force; that the best approach for Georgia going forward is to build the strongest possible democracy, the strongest possible economy, and to become what we believe Georgia can become, which is a very powerful role model and a very attractive country for all of its citizens.

So, in short, I don't see a repeat of the situation of last summer, of the -- we don't see the guns of August, and we'll continue to make it very clear to everyone that the best path forward is peace, restraint, and making good on commitments to protect the rights of people throughout Georgia.

Thank you all very, very much. Thanks for taking the time.

END 3:30 P.M. EDT

Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken on the Vice President's Upcoming Trip to Ukraine and Georgia", July 17, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86436.
 
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