Kamala Harris photo

Background Press Call Previewing the Vice President's Trip to Munich, Germany

February 16, 2022

Via Teleconference

6:18 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Hey, thanks. And thank you, everyone, for joining us today. As mentioned, today's call is to preview the Vice President's trip to Munich. This call will be on background, attributed to "senior administration officials." And the contents are embargoed until the end of the call. And by joining the call you are agreeing to those ground rules.

For your awareness, our speakers today are [senior administration official] and [senior administration official]. Hereinafter they'll be referred to as "senior administration officials."

But before we get to the Vice President's program in Munich, I wanted to turn over to another speaker, [senior administration official], who will offer some brief opening remarks.

So, over to you, [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks. I just wanted to give everybody an update on the latest situation in Russia and Ukraine.

So, yesterday, the Russian government said it was withdrawing troops from the border with Ukraine. They received a lot of attention for that claim both here and around the world, but we now know it was false.

In fact, we have now confirmed that in the last several days, Russia has increased its troop presence along the Ukrainian border by as many as 7,000 troops, with some arriving as recently as today.

The Russians have also said in recent days that they are prepared to engage in diplomacy as we and our Allies have repeatedly offered. But every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk and make claims about de-escalation while privately mobilizing for war.

We continue to receive indications that they could launch a false pretext at any moment to justify an invasion of Ukraine. That false pretext could take a number of different forms: a provocation in the Donbas; a claim about NATO activity by land, at sea, or in the air; an incursion into Russian territory.

We have already seen an increase in false claims by the Russians in the past few days, including reports of an unmarked grave of civilians allegedly killed by the Ukrainian armed forces, statements that the U.S. and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and that the West is funneling in guerrillas to kill locals. Each of these allegations is categorically false, and we should expect more false reports from Russian state media over the coming days. We've seen this playbook before: their previous military incursions into Ukraine and in Georgia.

We don't know what form the false pretext will take, but we hope the world is ready. Just as Russia's claims about withdrawing troops were false, so will be whatever false pretext they invent to justify this war of choice. No one should take these claims at face value.

Nevertheless, we will continue to pursue diplomacy over the coming days while being prepared to respond swiftly and decisively if Russia chooses to launch a new attack on Ukraine.

Russia keeps saying it wants to pursue a diplomatic solution; their actions indicate otherwise. We hope they will change course before starting a war that will bring catastrophic death and destruction.

Thanks. And I will now turn it over to the other senior administration officials.

MODERATOR: And just before we get there -- just to confirm, all the speakers that are speaking today are on background to be referred to as "senior administration officials." So, all the remarks here are as "senior administration officials."

With that, thank you to our first speaker. We'll now turn it over to preview the Vice President's trip to Munich.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much. It's a pleasure to have this opportunity to talk with everybody. As you all have just heard, we are in a very decisive moment. And the Vice President is leading the U.S. delegation to the Munich Security Conference this year as a resounding signal that engagement with our Allies and partners is an absolutely critical part of our overall diplomacy and our approach to this situation.

Throughout the course of her trip, you can expect that she will be discussing the full range of issues:

First, the unity that we have achieved with our European allies and that we are determined to maintain.

Second, the economic measures that we have prepared and may need to deploy depending on how things play out.

Third, U.S. and NATO force posture.

Fourth, support for Ukraine.

And five, the diplomatic path to de-escalation that we have offered, that we hope the Russians will take us up on. And we'll just have to wait and see.

Now, as you know, we have already undertaken very intensive engagements with our Allies and partners over the course of the last several months, and the Vice President's trip will be a high-level continuation of those efforts.

At Munich, there will be several dozen world leaders present, and all of them are going to be focused on this very pressing challenge that is at the top of mind for us. So, we expect that the conference, but particularly the Vice President's schedule, is going to be very intense and it will include a series of high-stakes, high-level diplomatic talks.

She will be engaging with a number of leaders, and I'm going to mention just a few.

On Friday, she is going to meet with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. She will also have a multilateral meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

In both of these meetings, she will discuss the latest developments related to Russia's build-up on Ukraine's border, our work together on deterrence and diplomacy, our force posture and our readiness to further reinforce NATO Allies on the eastern flank. And, of course, she will, as she always does, reaffirm our sacred commitment to NATO's Article 5 commitment.

In addition to those international meetings, the Vice President will also hold a separate engagement with the congressional members who are attending the Munich Security Conference. There will be a very large contingent of congressional members -- two large bipartisan, bicameral codels are attending. And their intention is to use their participation to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to our Allies and our partners, and to show that it is both bipartisan and very, very strongly held.

So, with that, let me turn it over to my colleague, who will take us through Saturday and address a couple of other issues.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks. Thanks, everybody, for joining. I'll walk you through the second day, Saturday, of what is really a busy weekend of activities. And the main event on Saturday will be the Vice President's speech as a formal part of the Munich Security Conference. And in this speech, as throughout her public engagements over the weekend, she will be addressing the situation on Ukraine's border and the threat of Russian aggression and the latest state of play in what obviously has been -- remains a fluid situation.

I won't get into hugely specific details about her speech, but I can give you some of the themes I think you can expect her to address. And one would be stock-taking of the really remarkable unity that we've achieved across the transatlantic community.

The reality is we think that the West is more united and NATO is stronger than they have been in decades. And that applies to our diplomacy, where we have together put forward our diplomatic approach to Russia; militarily, where we've coordinated extremely closely on force posture adjustments that we've been making together with our NATO Allies; and then on the economic side as well, including the severe sanctions that we intend to impose on Russia if it further invades Ukraine.

The Vice President will underscore how that unity is a source of strength that will allow us to respond swiftly and severely to any further Russian aggression.

And I would just note on that, on these themes, you know, this is something that the Biden-Harris administration has emphasized from day one -- the importance of allies and partners across the board, not just in security issues and not just in Europe, but, in general, the importance of allies and alliances. And I think we're seeing that play out in this crisis in Europe today.

Her speech will also focus on reassuring our allies and partners of our commitments and how we're committed to bolstering NATO and reinforcing our allies in the face of Russian aggression. And she'll talk about how a further invasion of Ukraine, we believe, will leave Russia weaker and not stronger.

And then, lastly, she will also address the broader stakes here. Obviously, we're focused mostly on the very serious threat to the country of Ukraine. But it goes beyond that. Russia poses a threat, in what it's doing here, to the European and international order. And the Vice President will underscore that and make it clear.

After the speech, she'll have a number of other engagements with other world leaders on the margins of the conference, and we'll provide details as they happen. I suspect it'll be a large numbers -- large number. As you know, there are a lot of leaders at the conference, but I'll just flag two of particular importance here.

One is that she'll meet with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. And that'll be a real opportunity to underscore our commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to further coordinate the diplomatic efforts that have been underway to provide economic and defensive security assistance to Ukraine.

And then, secondly, we anticipate she'll have the opportunity to engage with Chancellor Scholz of Germany -- I should say "further opportunity" to engage. As you know, he was here at the White House just last week. And the Vice President looks forward to the opportunity to speak further with him about this crisis and more.

So that is a sense of the speech and what we have planned for the second day in Munich.

The last thing I would say before we look forward to your questions: Just to note that, in addition to Vice President Harris's engagement -- engagements with heads of state in Munich, some of which we've described, the State Department announced earlier today that Secretary Blinken is also traveling to Munich to engage with his foreign ministry counterparts. Our Ambassador to NATO, Julie Smith, will also be there. And this just further underscores the importance of this gathering at this particular critical time.

Thanks a lot. And with that, maybe over to my colleague to open it up for questions.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Moderator, could you please provide instructions to ask questions?

Q: Hi, thanks for taking my question. Can you hear me?


Q: I am just curious about, you know, a lot of the details that were laid out, obviously, at the top of the call. And how does sort of the calculus change if Russia does invade Ukraine when the Vice President is in Munich? If you can just talk a little bit about the contingencies that have been planned for a situation like that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, Nandita. Thanks very much for the question. As my colleague said at the start, we are in a fluid situation. This is something that we've talked about from the very beginning in terms of what we have seen in terms of the buildup and the fact that it is continuing.

And our determination to stand together with our Allies, to have very strong unity within NATO as well as across the European Union is unflagging.

Her reason for going to Munich is to meet with what we think is over three dozen heads of state who will be there. She will hold these highest-level meetings to consult with them on the latest developments and to ensure that the transatlantic community, the NATO Alliance, that we speak with one voice that is strong and resolute.

MODERATOR: Okay. I think we're ready for our next question.

Q: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. I was wondering if you could talk through a little bit of the engagement that the Vice President has had with President Biden, in particular as the situation remains fluid and as she gets ready to go to this conference that he has attended in the past. Any sort of guidance about how the two of them have been preparing for this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Molly. The Vice President and the President see each other often, multiple times a day. They are closely engaged on every aspect of the governing agenda. The Vice President attends the PDB in the Oval multiple times a week. There have been a range of other meetings that have been conducted on the situation in Russia -- with Russia and Ukraine.

And so she has been with him and engaging on this issue from the very beginning. You know, and I think your question implies, that then-Vice President Biden attended the Munich Conference on multiple occasions. And, of course, when he was a senator, he attended the Munich Security Conference multiple times.

He understands how important the conference itself is. And of course, the reason for that is because the opportunity that it provides for us to consult with, listen to, share ideas with our Allies, and make sure that the transatlantic community is united. And that is especially true in moments of challenge, which is one that we find ourselves in.

And so, we are delighted that the Vice President is able to lead the U.S. delegation to Munich now, and think that this is really a great opportunity.

Q: Thank you very much. Has the Vice President had any conversations previously or any contact with President Zelenskyy? And are you aware if he is going to follow up with what they have said is his intention to come?

And the New York Times is reporting tonight that a top figure in Zelenskyy's government is suggesting that Ukraine might tell Russia they will hit the pause button on any plan to join NATO. How would the U.S. respond to that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, Andrea. Thanks for your question. The Vice President has not yet engaged President Zelenskyy.

But as you know, other officials in our government, starting with the President and Secretary of State and many others, have engaged President Zelenskyy directly. And throughout our government, we've been in very close contact with Ukraine throughout this crisis. In terms of -- and we'll remain so, and that's one of the reasons the Vice President is looking forward to seeing President Zelenskyy in Munich.

In terms of the question about NATO and pauses, I think we've been pretty consistent on that issue and will remain consistent throughout, which is the absolute importance of the principle of the open door and the principle that countries -- it's up to sovereign countries themselves to choose their security alliances.

We've made clear to Russia we are open to diplomacy. We've engaged with Russia directly, bilaterally, through the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE. And we remain prepared to do that.

But we've also been very firm in our view that democratic countries get to choose their leaders, and leaders of those countries get to choose their security alliances.

This was, in fact, one of the things that Vice Pres- -- then-Vice President Biden emphasized in his very first, as Vice President, trip to the Munich Security Conference.

So, I think you see a real consistency there from the United States, and that's not going to change.

Obviously, we can't speak for the Ukrainian government, so they can address their own interests in their alliance orientations. But we can speak for our position on the question, which has been consistent and has not changed.

Q: Thank you. First, just on the top of the call: Is there any underlying evidence that you guys can broadly point to that -- and point to how you gleaned that intelligence about the additional Russian troops coming into the area?

And then secondly, on the Munich appearance, the President yesterday spoke plainly that a Russian invasion and subsequent sanctions could have a ripple effect on the American economy. I was wondering, to what extent does the Vice President plan on talking about the economic pain that could be felt in the weeks and months ahead? And if you could talk a little bit just about how complicated that's going to be to keeping the alliances together and keeping everyone on the same page.

And then finally, in that sense, is she coming with any deliverables on LNG or other aid to sort of dull some of the economic impact?

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Aamer. I appreciate all three of the questions. (Laughs.)

Q: Sorry.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that's quite all right. You did a good job.

First, I don't have anything to offer you in terms of underlying information on what was presented. I won't get into that, but I just think you can take it as fairly authoritative.

Second, as you noted, the President did say in his remarks that there was a potential for some impact of this crisis to be felt and that he was mindful of it and determined that he was going to do everything possible to address that.

He also said that the American people know that liberty does not come without a price. But that is something that he and the Vice President are very focused on.

And making sure that we are able to go forward in a very strong fashion that has addressed all of the various implications and follow-on consequences is something that the Vice President will do and will engage with other heads of state, other leaders in her various dialogues at Munich.

She is not going with any deliverables per se, because the key thing -- the key objective for her trip now is to focus on this fast-changing, evolving situation -- this tremendous challenge that we are facing now -- to make sure that we are fully aligned with our Allies and partners, and to make sure that we have sent a very clear message to Russia, which we have and will continue to do, which is that there are two paths.

Our preference is diplomacy and deterrence, but if Russia chooses aggression, we are ready. The U.S. is ready; our Allies are ready.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Maybe just a word on the LNG point which you raised. We have, from very early on, focused on that issue and coordinated with our European allies, and not just Europeans, to make sure that Europeans are not unduly vulnerable on that score.

The reality is they're, of course, more susceptible to disruptions in the natural gas market than the United States because of dependence on Russia and pipelines. But precisely for that reason, we early on started work around the world to make sure that if gas supplies to Europe are disrupted -- either because of a Russian cutoff or because military conflict interferes with delivery -- that Europeans will not suffer unduly and will have the energy that they need.

So it's something, you know, I think we said earlier in this call and we've said all along: We are prepared for every contingency -- and that's a lot of preparation -- including military, but it's also including economic and energy.

So, I think we're pretty confident that, even on that score, it's going to be one of Alliance unity and preparation rather than the opposite.

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you very much. Unfortunately, that has to be our last question. But thank you to our speakers. And thank you to all of you.

Again, as a reminder, this call -- all the speakers were on background as "senior administration officials." And the embargo is now lifted.

Thank you.

END 6:41 P.M. EST

Kamala Harris, Background Press Call Previewing the Vice President's Trip to Munich, Germany Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354499

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