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Background Press Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the Vice President's Trip to Poland and Lithuania

March 17, 2014

Aboard Air Force Two

En Route Warsaw, Poland

11:24 P.M. EST

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is on background as a senior administration official, and given the late hour, I'm going to beg your forgiveness for keeping it short.

So the Vice President is making stops in Warsaw and Vilnius first and foremost to reassure our allies who are deeply concerned about Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine and what the broader implications of those actions might be.

Connected to that, to reassure our allies and reaffirm our Article 5 commitments, to highlight some of the tangible steps that we've taken in recent days to make that commitment even more real, to discuss further steps that we'll be taking in the days and weeks ahead, and also to talk about how to strengthen the alliance so that NATO emerges from this crisis even stronger than it went into it.

He'll also look for the opportunity to consult on how to deal with the evolving situation in Ukraine, especially as these leaders head into the EU leaders meeting on Thursday.

If Russia continues to flout international law, how to continue to impose costs, building on what the EU and the United States did today in terms of sanctions to deepen Russia's political and economic isolation and sharpen the choice for Russia's leaders, including Putin; how to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people as they try to stabilize their economy and move towards elections and choose their own future, including the institutions that they seek to join; and how to pursue diplomacy that could potentially deescalate the situation if Russia were to choose to pull back and take a different course. So he'll have the chance to consult with leaders who have deep experience with both Ukraine and Russia and a perspective on both what is happening in Crimea and in Ukraine, and what's happening Brussels, so that they can compare notes and make sure that we remain as coordinated in the days ahead as we've been up until now.

And he'll also have the opportunity to talk about longer term issues, including energy security in Europe that includes diversification of supply and the creation of conditions where energy can't be a tool or a lever for any kind of political gain or political cost by another country.

Q: (Inaudible) energy sanctions, no?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I was saying that they'll discuss energy security and included in that over the medium and long term, diversification in energy supply so that energy can't be used as a political tool to impose costs.

Q: Not sanctions?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not sanctions, no. No, no, that -- obviously, they'll discuss the issue of ongoing sanctions, but that's not what I'm referring to with energy diversification.

And transatlantic trade. Obviously, we have negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership underway, and they'll have a chance to compare notes on that.

And then finally, there's a series of bilateral issues with each of these countries.

Now, I realize that I just walked through all the issues without doing the basic laydown, so returning to that before opening it up for a few questions: Tomorrow in Warsaw, he'll meet with Prime Minister Tusk first, and then President Komorowski, and have statements after each of those meetings.

And then he'll meet with President Ilves of Estonia, who is in Poland on a state visit. And then the following day, he'll meet with the Presidents of Lithuania and Latvia in Vilnius and also have the opportunity to confer with them in a trilateral format as well, and then he'll do a statement with both of those leaders together in Vilnius.

So with that I'm happy to take a few questions.

Q: We're going to Poland, is there any reconsideration of the U.S. position on missile defense as it pertains to increased antagonism from Russia?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question is, is there any consideration of a change to U.S. missile defense connected to this crisis I guess would be the synopsis of the question. And the answer is that we've made clear from the beginning that the European-phased, adaptive approach to ballistic missile defense has never been about Russia. It's been about emerging ballistic missile threats from elsewhere. And so the Vice President's intention tomorrow is to reaffirm that everything about our missile defense plans for Europe remain on track. That's true for Romania and it's true for Poland.

And he'll be able to underscore that it's on schedule and on track by -- he won't be discussing changes in the missile defense approach tomorrow.

Q: Are there some additional steps that NATO is looking at taking or that the Vice President will discuss with these countries separate from missile defense that involve movements towards borders, toward Ukraine that address what's going on?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I'll leave it to the Vice President to discuss some of this tomorrow. He will be talking about further steps that the United States can take and that NATO can take as an alliance to further shore up the security of Poland and the Baltics and other NATO allies, to increase training exercises and other things like that. But I won't go into further detail at this point.

I would highlight that one of the things he'll be able to underscore are steps that we've just taken in the past few days including augmenting the Baltic air policing mission by adding additional fighter jets in Estonia, and by augmenting the aviation detachment in Poland by adding a complement of fighters there as well.

Q: A complement of what?


Q: Fighters, thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And he'll also discuss both of those moves, which have now been completed just in the past few days.

And at the same time that he's in the region, General Breedlove, in his capacity as EUCOM commander, will be meeting with the chiefs of defense of Central and Eastern Europe in Croatia to discuss a range of security issues.

Q: (Inaudible)?


Q: Even as Poland -- even as we're helping Poland with increased air assets, Tusk has still been very aggressive with his rhetoric in terms of what Poland wants to do unilaterally, so what aspect of this trip will be the Vice President going to talk to Tusk about talking him off the ledge on perhaps some unilateral actions that the Poles or any of the other Baltic nations that he's speaking with might want to do on their own?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: When you say unilateral actions, what do you mean?

Q: Tusk has been talking about bolstering their own missile defense system within the country of Poland, as well as their own military assets, so in terms of what these individual countries might do by themselves is what I mean.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think the Vice President is going to focus on both what the specific U.S. commitments have been and will continue to be to Poland's defense, but chiefly in the context of NATO as a whole because his view -- and I think it's shared by the Prime Minister and the President -- is that NATO is at its strongest when all 28 allies are pulling together. So the Vice President will want to discuss with both the Prime Minister and the President in Poland how we can strengthen the alliance commitments to Poland, not just the United States, but all the other allies, as well, including Western European allies, and how we can look forward to the summit in Wales later this year to think about strengthening Article 5 commitments, as well as the host of other security issues that the NATO alliance faces.

So I think the Vice President is really going to look at this set of security questions very much in an alliance context.

Q: One more thing about natural gas shipments. That's sort of become a bit of a talking point. Will the Vice President have a specific message related to U.S. efforts to accelerate the ability for us to engage in LNG trade with Europe? And how relevant is it to these leaders that we're going to be meeting? Would that be something that they would welcome and ask for?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So for tonight's purposes I would just say that he'll be talking about the range of issues related to energy diversification, which includes alternative forms of energy -- nuclear, shale, alternative sources of supply. And as respects the question of what the United States can do, we're obviously looking at what the United States can do domestically that serves both U.S. interests and European interests.

But in terms of more specifics, we'll have an opportunity to talk further in the next couple days.

Q: Can you talk a little bit, what will be their assessment of the threat these countries are under for retaliation for sanctions that have already been applied? Like we keep reading that they're nervous -- what's your assessment of how much risk they face?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it will be interesting to hear from them how they assess the issue of sanctions. Each of these leaders in the Baltics and in Poland have been strong supporters of ensuring that there are costs for flagrant violations of international law, and they'll be continued advocates for that we expect at the Europe leaders meeting on Thursday.

But of course, they're close neighbors with Russia, and they have economic relationships with them, so that will obviously be part of the discussion. But we can also talk more about that after we've had the chance to consult with them tomorrow.

END 11:36 P.M. EST

Barack Obama, Background Press Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the Vice President's Trip to Poland and Lithuania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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