Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Russia
11:20 A.M. EST
MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and thank you all for joining for today's press call on Russia. As a reminder of the ground rules, this call will be on background, attributable to a senior administration official. The contents of the call are embargoed until its conclusion.
Not for attribution but for everyone's awareness, our speaker today is [senior administration official], who will provide remarks, and then we'll open it up for Q&A.
With that, I'll turn it over to our senior administration official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks. And thanks, everybody, for being on the call.
We are continuing to watch closely Russia's alarming movement of forces and deployments along the border with Ukraine.
Since observing these developments in recent weeks, our approach has been, first, to align with our allies on a common assessment of Russian actions and plans, sharing as much information with them as is feasible; second, coordinate with them on steps that we will take in the aftermath of a Russian incursion, including massive sanctions support for Ukraine's ability to defend its territory and force posture adjustments in frontline NATO-Allied states.
From this work and from statements by NATO, by the EU, by the G7, it's clear to us that if Russia goes ahead with what may be underway, we and our allies are prepared to impose severe costs that would damage Russia's economy and bring about exactly what it says it does not want: more NATO capabilities, not less; closer to Russia, not further away.
We've conveyed all this directly to Russia, including from President Biden to President Putin. But we've also been clear that there is a different path available should Russia choose to take it.
The U.S. is ready to engage in diplomacy as soon as early January through multiple channels: bilaterally, through the Strategic Stability Dialogue we have with Russia, and, multilaterally, through the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE.
We've taken note of the concerns that Russia has raised both privately and in public, and want to reiterate that any dialogue must be based on reciprocity, meaning that we have our own concerns to put on the table, and any dialogue must also take place in full coordination with our partners and allies under the principle of "nothing about you without you."
Our view is that negotiations should start from the baseline of foundational principles and documents on European security, which underscore territorial integrity, borders not being changed by force, and respect for the sovereignty and sovereign decision-making of countries.
We've also told Russia that it's clear to us that substantive progress in these talks can only be made in an environment of de-escalation, not escalation.
We welcomed what was a small step just in the last couple of days, when the OSCE announced that Ukraine and Russia have recommitted to a July 2020 ceasefire. But our concern is with actions, not just words, so we will continue to monitor events on and around the border very closely.
However Russia has chosen to handle things, we don't plan to negotiate in public. It does not strike us as constructive or way that progress has been made in such diplomatic conversations in the past. We are not going to respond to every proposal or comment that is made, including from the Russian President.
And I think, you know, our approach is understood to the Russians in this regard, at least according to some comments that were made earlier today by the Russian Foreign Minister, who acknowledged what we said -- is that there are some issues that Russia has raised that we believe we can discuss and others that they know very well we will never agree to, as well as that we have our own concerns to raise.
That is what diplomacy is, that's what a negotiation is, and that's what we plan to undertake.
And with that, I'm happy to turn it back over.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. We're ready to open it up for Q&A.
Q: Hey. (Inaudible) a little bit. (Audio drop.) I guess, the last two months, the administration has been really intensifying its efforts to negotiate, to deter Russian aggression, but it doesn't seem at this point to be sufficient, as it (inaudible) by some comments that President Putin made today and Shoigu as well. And so that failure -- and especially the failure to detail sanctions that will be imposed on Russia if it attacks Ukraine -- has been seen as an indication that maybe there's not an agreement yet in place with allies despite efforts to talk and to find a package that works.
And so I was hoping that, A, you could talk about why your deterrence actions haven't worked yet and sort of what's the plan B if it continues to happen, short of an attack. I mean, do you think that you can prevent an attack if Russia is not willing to do so?
And also, if you could give the status of the talks with allies on developing the sanctions package since, you know, the administration has emphasized its intention to immediately slap sanctions on Russia should it attack. And so are you in a position to do so if there's not an agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Vivian. So, just to reiterate, I mean, we have been clear that there will be significant consequences if Russia chooses to go ahead with a further military invasion of Ukraine. We've been clear about that to the Russians, we've been clear about that in public. We've been very clear and very detailed about that in conversations in private with our partners and allies, and we think we've got a very clear understanding with them about what is being contemplated.
We do not believe that it's advantageous for us to lay all of that out in the public domain. We think these things are better handled privately in diplomatic conversations, and that's how we intend to proceed.
Russia will make its own decisions about all of this, and I was very clear about that in my opening comments. It is not our sense that a decision is made at this point, but that's a better question for the Russians than for us.
What we can control is our own response, and I think we have done the work both to line up significant actions that we would take in the immediate aftermath of an invasion; to convey those to our partners and allies in a very clear and detailed way, including at the technical level with our experts; and to be prepared to act when the time and if the time comes.
And again, our actions will not just be limited to economic actions in that situation. We have said we will increase support for Ukraine's ability to defend its own territory and also to reassure our NATO partners and allies by changes in our force posture in frontline states. All that planning is well underway on our side, and we are ready to act if and when we need to.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for doing this. During his press conference and in previous statements, Mr. Putin has referred repeatedly to American missiles in Ukraine. We're trying to figure out what that means -- whether he was talking about the Javelins or whether there's something else there, or whether you think he's really just referring to the anti-missile defenses in Poland and Romania.
And second, I'm wondering if in addition to the troop action that you've talked about, you have seen any significant cyber action or other acts to destabi- -- apart from the disinformation campaign -- to destabilize the Zelenskyy government.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, David. So, again, not going to have a sort of colloquy with President Putin on this backgrounder.
And in terms of clarifying what he means by that -- really, that's a better question to pose to the Kremlin than to us. You know, on the substance of what could be discussed, it sort of gets at what could happen in talks that have not even yet been scheduled in terms of a specific date. And so I'm not going to get ahead of those conversations.
And again, you know, I'm not going to negotiate this in public; we'll negotiate it in private. But in terms of clarifying what's in his mind, that is definitely a better question for the Kremlin.
And, yes, I mean, I think we have seen -- to the last part of your question -- stepped-up efforts by the Russian government to do what it has often done in advance of these sorts of incursions in the past, which is increase disinformation, try to drive a narrative publicly that is Ukraine that is escalating as opposed to Russia. To be clear, we see no evidence of that escalation on the Ukrainian side. And we have tried to be very clear to partners and allies that this is a Russian disinformation effort that's underway. It's not unexpected; it fits a standard playbook.
Q: Thanks, everybody. Did you say that you have not set a date for discussions? You know that Putin said at the conference -- press conference today that there are plans to meet with the U.S. and have discussions in Geneva in January. If you could clarify that a little bit.
And then also, Putin has said that -- well, he said today -- that the U.S. has responded, quote, "positively" to the Kremlin's demand for these legally binding security guarantees. Can you respond to that a little bit, please?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so to be clear, we're -- we've said both publicly and to the Russian government we're prepared to meet in early January. We have not yet set a date or a location for those talks. So that's the state of play.
And then in terms of our response, I mean, I expect we will have our substantive response in those talks. We have not responded substantively to the proposals that have been made other than to say, you know, what I said at the end of my opening remarks, which is: Clearly, there are some things that have been proposed that we will never agree to, and I think the Russians probably know that on some level. We think there are other areas where we may be able to explore what's possible.
And then, again, you know, that is not the full agenda for the talks. The talks will also include, as they must, our own and our allies' concerns about Russian steps and actions that have destabilized European security. And so, you know, the agenda will be fuller than what is captured in the documents that Russia has made public.
Q: Thanks for doing this. One question. Just for more specificity -- I know you're not going to negotiate in public or on this call: You say there are some issues you're willing to discuss with the Russians. Given the scope of Russian demands here, some of which are straight-up revanchist -- a return to old times -- can you be any more specific about what those issues are without negotiating in public?
And then I have a quick follow which relates to military assistance to Ukraine.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I'm not going to be more specific than that at this point, Jim, in part because any response, by the way, and any dialogue that we undertake with the Russians is going to have to be done in close consultation and with full participation of our European partners and allies. And that consultation is, you know, still underway in real time.
But I do want to come back to what I said, you know, in the opening, which is that everything that we do is going to be starting from this baseline of foundational principles of European security: territorial integrity of nations, borders not being changed by force, respect for each country's sovereign right to determine its own foreign policy and its own associations and partnerships.
We are fully committed to all that and fully committed to doing this in a consultative and inclusive way with our partners and allies as we must.
Q: Hi, [senior administration official], thanks for doing this. I guess one thing I wanted to clarify: Putin said today that it's the U.S. that has "come to our house with its missiles. They're on our doorstep already." Is that accurate? Are U.S. missiles on Russia's doorstep?
And then, secondly, you said that the U.S. would provide support for Ukraine's ability to defend its territory. Can you say a little bit what -- more about what that kind of support would look like? And is it really possible to give any sort of support that would allow the Ukraine to defend its territory, given the disbalance of power between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I mean, again, I don't intend to get into a sort of point-by-point with President Putin in terms of what he meant by "missiles," what he meant by on his "doorstep."
I could very easily go through a litany of provocative Russian deployments of troops, of offensive systems, you know, on the border of, you know, NATO-allied countries. I don't think that it's productive, again, to sort of get into that tit for tat.
You know, we've been clear that we will -- we have been providing, over the course of some time now, support for Ukraine's ability to defend its territory. We have committed, just this year alone, $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, and the U.S. has committed two and a half billion dollars in military assistance to Ukraine since 2014. That assistance is continuing to this day.
It's, you know, laid out in all manner of congressional testimony and filings exactly the nature of it, but it is defensive in nature, fundamentally. This is not -- these are not systems that would allow Ukraine to threaten Russia in any meaningful sense; they are -- it is support for Ukraine's ability to defend itself against the aggression that it faces in real time.
Q: (Inaudible) press you on this -– this position of being on the same page with partners and allies. That was asked in the first question as well.
There was a statement from G7 on Russia, but can I just ask: If there was a Russian invasion tomorrow, a week later, whenever, are we going to see simultaneous national sanctions action from all of the European countries all at the same time? Because you've said that you're on the same page. Can you just clarify that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I would point out that in addition to the statement from the G7, there is a very strong statement using very similar language from the European Union as well on this notion that Russia will face severe economic consequences if it chooses to go forward.
I'm not, as an American official, going to speak for steps that all of our partners and allies will take in the immediate aftermath of a Russian invasion. We are prepared to take serious actions. I wouldn't say exactly on what timeline. And I won't speak for our partners and allies, but we know that they're preparing their own serious actions because we've been discussing those with them and because they have said so publicly.
So, I'll let them speak for when and what specifically they might do, but I think we have been very clear with each other and are preparing, as I think it would only be prudent given what may be contemplated on the Russian side, to act swiftly and severely if the time comes.
Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I have two questions -- one is a very basic one. Is your assessment still that Vladimir Putin hasn't made the decision yet about invading Ukraine?
And my second question is also related to the discussions about sanctions with European allies. The prices of energy, of natural gas in particular, are spiking. Does it make those talks with allies in Europe more difficult?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, again, you know, on whether a decision has been made on the Russian side, better question for the Russians. I think our sense is they have not made a final decision yet, but, you know, in terms of what is in President Putin's mind in a political system in which one person holds all the decision-making power, it's really a better question for the Kremlin to answer than it is for me.
We're preparing for any contingency on the assumption that this could happen. So, you know, for our purposes, we will be prepared whichever way he chooses to take it.
On your second question -- sorry, can you remind me of the second question again?
OPERATOR: One moment while I get their line.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry about that.
Oh, I remember it now. Sorry. It's on energy prices. Look, all I can say on that is that it's a significant part of the consideration for both the United States and our European partners. This is a -- you know, the energy market is something that has consequences for our people, for European people, for people around the world, and it'll be factored into our analysis and in our response as it is in a number of areas of our foreign policy. But I don't have anything to say about it beyond that.
11:40 A.M. EST
Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Russia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/353953