Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
5:57 P.M. EDT
MR. STEINBERG: Good afternoon. We have today a BACKGROUND BRIEFING. The officials here are to be referred to as SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS. We have [names deleted]
Q: Did you get all that on one business card?
MR. STEINBERG: We do, yes. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good evening. My colleague and I thought we would divide this up as follows: I'll give you a little bit of the conversation between the Foreign Minister and the President on the subject of the Russian internal situation, and then [name deleted] will deal with the regional conflict issues as they came up, and also a couple of bilateral issues.
Let me first say that just before the President went into his meeting with Foreign Minister Kozyrev, we received from our embassy in Moscow a report on the situation there, which is based on our embassy's contacts, which have been continuing, by the way, with very senior levels of the Russia government with an official very close to President Yeltsin and obviously very familiar with President Yeltsin's thinking.
I might say that the report that we got from our embassy dovetails very well with what Minister Kozyrev had to say to you. My colleague has briefed us on that, we weren't actually present, but we've heard what Foreign Minister Kozyrev said; and it dovetails with what Foreign Minister Kozyrev said to the President, but we'll -- thought we'd share it with you.
First of all, this report from our embassy in Moscow underscores very strongly that President Yeltsin wants to avoid violence and that he has no plans to employ force and will use force only if provoked.
Contrary to rumors and speculation that's been in the air for several days, the Russian authorities are not relying on ultimata or deadlines of any kind. Their intention is to try to talk the people who are in the Russian parliament building out of the Russian parliament building and not to use force to get them out. And they are, by the way, engaged also in discussions on possible political compromise aimed at assuring a peaceful resolution of the political situation there.
It's also the impression of our embassy, which, as you know, is right next door practically to the Russian parliament building, that the Russian authorities and their troops deployed in the area have shown total discipline throughout this whole affair.
Now I will go to what transpired between the President and the Foreign Minister. By the way, other participants in the meeting on the Russian side were the Russian ambassador here in Washington, Vladimir Lukin, and also the Russian permanent representative to the United Nations, Yuli Vorontsov. Of course, you know that Minister Kozyrev is in the United States for the United Nations General Assembly. On the American side, the Vice President took part, as did the National Security Advisor, Tony Lake.
Very early in the conversation, immediately after President Clinton asked Minister Kozyrev for his evaluation of the situation in Moscow, the Foreign Minister conveyed a message which President Yeltsin had asked him to bring to President Clinton personally. And this was a -- pretty much everything I'm going to say is a paraphrase, except for quotes, when I will specifically identify them as quotes. And this is an exact quote: President Yeltsin thanked President Clinton for his "immediate and resolute support." And he reiterated his "firm intention to stick to the schedule of parliamentary elections, and then presidential elections," which Foreign Minister Kozyrev went on to say he felt was a timetable that was necessary to guarantee political stability in Russia.
The Foreign Minister then also said that President Yeltsin wanted to "reiterate his firm decision to avoid any bloodshed or any use of force as much as possible unless attacked." He also said that there would be "no storming" -- I'm sorry -- that no storming of the Russian parliament building is planned.
Q: That's not a quote?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: "No storming of the White House is planned." We're all clear what that means in this context. (Laughter.)
The President -- our President -- then in responding, said that he felt that his initial support for President Yeltsin last Tuesday, within hours, of course, of President Yeltsin's public statement, had been vindicated by what had transpired over the past week. He said that he felt that the restraint that the Russian authorities have shown in this affair had helped galvanize international support for the Russian government. He said that he thought that the events of the past week had confirmed the widespread impression that many of the people inside the Russian parliament building represent forces of reaction and that the Russian -- that the Yeltsin government is "on the right side of history." That is a quote, "on the right side of history."
Minister Kozyrev then said, once again, that he personally, having studied the situation very closely, having kept in close touch with Moscow, did not see any necessity to use force. And at that point in the conversation, Minister Kozyrev referred to the speech that he had given to the United Nations General Assembly. And that's a segue into my colleague's half of our report.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. Let me just briefly summarize the rest of the conversation and take up where my colleague left off. Minister Kozyrev complimented the President on his Monday speech to the UNGA. He said that contrary to certain reports in the press, he thought that there were similarities, strong similarities, between the approach of the United States and the approach of Russia on the issue of peacekeeping in general. And he specifically said, this is again Minister Kozyrev, that he agreed with the President that peacekeeping operations in the U.N. context needed to be streamlined, more efficient and more focused.
The President then took the opportunity to raise three important regional issues that we have been working on very intensively with the Russian government. The first, of course, was the question of the presence of Russian troops in Estonia and in Latvia. And the President described for Kozyrev his excellent meeting with the three Baltic presidents on Monday in New York. He, of course, reaffirmed the support of the United States for an early withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic states. And he suggested, as did others on the American side, that the Russians, Estonians and Latvians focus in their current negotiations on an early agreement for an early date for withdrawal, and that they focus on those two issues really to the exclusion of the others for the time being.
The President also acknowledged that he had spoken to the Baltic presidents on the need for Estonia and Latvia to assure the political rights of the ethnic Russian and other minorities in Estonia and Latvia, and spoke generally about the need to be inclusive in the political process in both countries.
The President and Vice President then led a discussion of the problem in Nagorno-Karabakh, and they requested that Russia work very closely with the United States inside the CSCE to try to bring about a cease-fire and negotiations for peace in NagornoKarabakh. They said that we're particularly interested in focusing on a November 2nd Minsk meeting of the CSCE to bring this about. The United States, as you know, has been closely and intensively involved in this process over the last couple of months.
Finally, the President also raised the situation in Georgia. He sought Minister Kozyrev's views on how that situation might be stabilized; and he, of course, reaffirmed our support for Chairman Shevardnadze and for the territorial integrity of Georgia.
That's a very brief summary of those three issues. We'll be glad to take questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I might add just one thing. The Vice President did join in the conversation at several points, including to stress to Minister Kozyrev how successful he thought the Gore-Chernomyrdin meetings several weeks ago here had gone. And the Foreign Minister replied by underscoring the extraordinary importance of the role that Prime Minister Chernomyrdin has played in the Russian political developments over the last year.
Q: What do you take to be the meaning of his phrase that Yeltsin would only use force if provoked -- only if provoked? What kind of a provocation? Do you mean force on the part of those in the Russian white house?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. Or those who are sympathetic to -- now, there are obviously all different kinds of folks who are both outside and inside the Russian parliament building. But -- and the estimates vary on how many people are there and how many people inside are armed. But there is no question that there are people inside the parliament building who are carrying weapons. And in some cases we have reason to believe not just hand guns or rifles. So obviously there is a concern about -- as it were the other side, initiating violence. And the Russian authorities clearly have contingency plans to deal with that if that should arise, but they're doing -- what they're stressing to us and what we're stressing to you is that they are trying through a negotiation process and also through discipline and restraint to avoid anything like that happening.
Minister Kozyrev pointed out, for example, that three Russian policemen have already been killed. They are victims of violence perpetrated by the supporters of the more hardline elements in the parliament.
Q: What did he tell you about the negotiations that were going on? Are they talking on the phone like hostage negotiators?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He did not get into the modalities of it, no.
Q: Did you get any indication of President Yeltsin's -- the limits of his patience? Is he willing for these people to stay here as long as the want to, as long as there is no violence, no provocation? They say there are no deadlines, but certainly there's got to be something that he's looking for.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The operative consideration in President Yeltsin's mind is finding a way out of this crisis that avoids bloodshed. So, yes, he is clearly being patient. And, as I say, as his people are telling us, they are not imposing deadlines and threatening to go in if a certain hour passes.
Q: Are they contradicting the Interfax report of the October 4th deadline that was changed from the 1st to the 4th?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They are contradicting any reports that there are deadlines or any kind of ultimatum that's been laid down.
Q: The Foreign Minister, as you reported, said that Yeltsin was willing to compromise. Compromise on what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What he said to us and what we have heard from our own people in Moscow as well is that they are prepared to enter into discussions with the Rutskoy-Khasbulatov forces about exactly how the next stage of this scenario plays out.
President Yeltsin and people around him have indicated at several points that they're prepared to talk on any peaceful basis. And Minister Kozyrev confirmed that again today.
Q: Didn't the embassy report say they're engaged in talks on a political compromise? And, if so, at what level or with whom?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't have any details on at what level or with whom. But one thing that's been happening here is that people who have been closely associated with the Rutskoy-Khasbulatov forces have been leaving the parliament building physically and drawing away politically, as it were, from Rutskoy and Khasbulatov, and having discussions with the Russian government authority. So it's presumably in that context that these discussions are taking place.
Q: Were you given any outlines of what this possible political compromise is?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Certainly not in the meeting between the President and the Foreign Minister.
Q: Do you have any knowledge that you can share with us about what --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I don't.
Q: Did the President ask for any particular action on Georgia? And as a more general question, what's the United States view of the Russian Monroe Doctrine that Kozyrev laid out at the U.N., saying that no one can replace Russia in the special role in the conflicts along its borders?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President simply asked for Minister Kozyrev's views in the situation and specifically what might now happen given the chaos inside Georgia. We're, of course, interested in the role of other political leaders in Georgia. But the very clear implication of all this from the U.S. side is that we support Shevardnadze, because he's a reform leader. And we obviously support the territorial integrity of the country. That's important.
On the second question about a Monroe Doctrine, we didn't get into that discussion today in the meeting with the President, and really didn't get into in the meeting with the Secretary this morning in New York. I think our approach in general, since we -- all of these issues are high on our agenda with Russia is take them on case by case basis. I don't believe it's possible to generalize about Russian actions on the periphery or to generalize about possible solutions or western responses to those actions.
The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is quite different from the situation in Georgia. And they are both different than the situation Tajikistan. And we talked with the Russians every day about these. So we're taking them on a case by case basis.
Q: But does the United States believe that Russia could do something on the Abkhazia issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's fair to say that the Russians believe that they tried very hard to prevent the fall of Sukhumi. They believe that they instituted economic sanctions against the Abkhaz. And they also thought that they were in a position militarily to try to do something, but the city fell. And so now the burden upon Russia and upon the United States and other friends of Georgia is to try to figure out how to stabilize the situation and how to help Shevardnadze.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just emphasize one thing. The Foreign Minister used his conversation with the President to make clear that he does not see himself as promulgating or advocating a Monroe Doctrine-like approach to the other new independent states of the former Soviet Union. And I might add that we don't characterize his position as being in the spirit of the Monroe -- the Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine either.
When President Clinton was talking about the whole issue of peacekeeping and talking about criteria that will have to be used with peacekeeping operations in the former Soviet Union and everywhere else around the world, he listed as the number one criterion that any such operation, any such mission, be carried out in a way that is completely respectful of the sovereignty and the territorial integrity and the independence of the state involved.
Q: Was there any discussion of President Shevardnadze's charge that the Russians were responsible for the fall of Sukhumi as opposed to --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There wasn't, no I think the discussion was really focused on the future, not the past. There was no discussion of that, whatsoever.
Q: Does the U.S. and Russia agree on what should be done? I mean, you sort of put the two in the same category as supporters of Shevardnadze. Is that correct?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's fairly clear that both the United States and, if I can characterize the Russian position, Russia, want a unitary state to remain together in Georgia. We want the borders of Georgia to be respected. We want the sovereignty of the country to be respected. And I think that both President Clinton and President Yeltsin support Chairman Shevardnadze.
Q: President Clinton and Minister Kozyrev discussed the compromise which has been put forward by the opposition and endorsed by President Gorbachev -- that is, to have the presidential election at the same time as the legislative --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely not. We've said many times that we don't see it as our role to enter into discussions that are going on among Russians on this subject.
Q: Was the Foreign Minister, did he press President Clinton to somehow do even more with congress and with international bodies to show the Russian people that Yeltsin was getting the support from the West, in terms of a --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, in fact the comments that the Minister made in a letter that he handed over from President Yeltsin to the President were in the vein of thank you very much for the fact that you got your aid package passed and that you've done so much for Russia and economic reform this year.
Q: You presented what the Russians said their view was of the events in Georgia -- that they had tried everything they could. Does that coincide with your assessment?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Our assessment is that it was a terribly complicated situation on the ground. And you know that Shevardnadze is really fighting a couple of civil wars in Georgia; that the Russian government tried to use their political influence, and they tried very hard over the last couple of weeks to prevent what occurred, and that was the fall of Sakhumi. And we believe that the Russians are with us now in trying to look for ways in the coming weeks and months to help stabilize the situation and to help shore up Shevardnadze. I know there have been a lot of allegations about what the Russians did, what they didn't do, whether they aided the Abkhaz separatists. It's most important what the political leadership of Russia thinks; and I think it's very clear that they think that Shevardnadze ought to be supported.
Q: Well, if you want to support Shevardnadze and the territorial integrity of Georgia, the logical consequence of that should be that you are considering some kind of force to take back the territory that has been lost. Is that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that the next step for the international community is to try to look through the options that are available for observers. As you know, there are observers, U.N.-sanctioned observers in Georgia -- may be beefing up those observers. But we didn't get into a really detailed conversation of that today in this particular meeting. We are talking intensively to the Russians about that, though, and other countries about that.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END6:15 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269118