Joe Biden

On-the-Record Press Call by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

February 21, 2023

Via Teleconference

10:23 A.M. CET

MR. SAVETT: Good morning, everyone. This is Sean Savett from the National Security Council. Thank you, everyone, for joining this on-the-record press call today with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, to preview the day and the President's speech tonight.

Jake, I'll turn it over to you for some opening remarks. After that, we'll do some moderated Q&A. And we'll just ask everyone when you do have a question to please raise your hand, and we'll use -- we'll call you using the "raise hand" on the Zoom function.

Jake, over to you.

MR. SULLIVAN: Good morning, everyone, here in Warsaw. This is an important trip at an important moment as we approach the one-year anniversary of the invasion by Russia of Ukraine.

And it's important, of course, for Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people, but it's also important for the American people and for the wider world because what is at stake here is more than just the success and survival of the nation of Ukraine, but the rules-based international order, fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the fundamental values of independence, democracy, freedom that matters so much to everyday American people.

So, from the President's perspective, it was really important for him to come to Europe at this time to be able to stand and speak to these values, to speak to the stakes, to speak to the moment. And that's what he's going to do in his speech at the Warsaw Royal Palace later this evening.

He, of course, was in Kyiv yesterday. And his fundamental purpose for going to Kyiv was to be able to stand side by side with President Zelenskyy and send a powerful and unmistakable message that the United States will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes and also to show the world that Ukraine is succeeding in defending itself against Russian aggression and that Russia is failing in an effort to conquer and destroy Ukraine.

He had the opportunity yesterday, as I said on the press call, to have an in-depth, detailed conversation with President Zelenskyy on every facet of the conflict. And there will be a lot of follow-up work coming out of that, also in close consultation with our allies and partners.

And speaking of our allies, the other thing that President Biden will have the opportunity to do today is meet with President Duda and his team to talk about the continuing work of this larger coalition of nations that are seeking to support Ukraine with military assistance, economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, and other forms of support.

And Poland, of course, has been a critical player in that. It has been critical to hosting very large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, it has been a critical logistics hub for military assistance going into Ukraine, and it has been a strong voice as part of a unified Western effort to try to ensure that there are no cracks -- that the West and the larger coalition of nations holds together strongly, again, for as long as it takes.

So, the President and President Duda will have the opportunity to discuss, as he did with President Zelenskyy, every facet of the war in Ukraine.

There are other issues, of course, that he will have the opportunity to talk to his Polish counterpart about. There is the larger question of NATO force posture and the continuing commitment of the United States to play a critical role in the defense of the eastern flank allies, including Poland.

And we have taken a number of steps over the course of the past year to bolster our defense posture here in Poland and along the eastern flank as part of a larger effort by NATO coming out of the Madrid Summit last year to strengthen defense and deterrence all along the eastern flank.

So, the President will have the opportunity to reinforce his fundamental message from last year that he intends to defend every inch of NATO territory and that he will do so not just with rhetoric but with the kinds of actions where we put in place necessary capabilities.

He will also talk about energy issues, including civil nuclear cooperation. And, of course, he will speak to issues he speaks to everywhere he goes: core democratic values, including independent media and an independent judiciary.

So, that's his intent with respect to the engagement with President Duda.

As for the speech tonight, the speech is something he has wanted to do now for some time, building on the remarks that he gave here in Poland nearly one year ago.

What he wants to have the opportunity to do is set this -- Russia's war on Ukraine into a larger context -- a context that reminds people where we were on the eve of this war a year ago, when there were fundamental questions being asked -- being asked of the international order, being asked of the United States, being asked of the NATO Alliance. And one year later, he believes that we have answered those questions about our unity and resolve, about our commitment to fundamental principles, and about our willingness to step up -- (audio disruption) --

(Addressing the participants on the call.) If everyone can just go on mute, that would be great.

So, his remarks will speak specifically to the conflict in Ukraine. But, of course, they will also speak to the larger contest at stake between those aggressors who are trying to destroy fundamental principles and those democracies who are pulling together to try to uphold it.

And I think you will hear in this speech a vintage Joe Biden. The President has believed passionately in the themes he will discuss tonight for decades. And he is applying them at what you have all heard him described as "an inflection point" today, where the next few years are going to determine the course of the next few decades. And those are the stakes that he's going to set out in the remarks tonight.

So, I apologize for going on so long. I think it's a big moment, coming off the trip to Kyiv, speaking to the people of Europe and speaking to the people of the world about America's commitments, about America's staying power, and about America's follow-through on the values and principles that we hold so dear and that we are prepared to act upon in the ways that we have over the course of the past year and that we are committed to doing in the months and years ahead.

So, let me stop there. And I'd be happy to take your questions.

MR. SAVETT: Thank you so much, Jake. And, again, we'd ask everyone, if you have question, please use the "raise your hand" feature on the Zoom.

First, we'll go to Michael Shear of the New York Times.

Q: Great. Hey, Jake. Thank you very much for doing this. Obviously, the President's comments today and the messages that you just laid out are not going to be delivered in a vacuum.

In fact, as we're speaking, President Putin is delivering his own speech today. You know, among the things he's described is this this sort of typical rant that he has done in the past about how those to blame in the war in Ukraine are actually the West, not Russia, et cetera, et cetera.

I wonder if you could give an early reaction to what you guys have heard him say so far and let us know how much of the speech that the President will give later this afternoon is going to be, kind of, directly taking -- taking aim at President Putin. I mean, how much will he describe this as a contest between the West and -- the U.S. and Putin? Or will it be broader than that in -- in tone and in detail?

MR. SULLIVAN: It will be broader in tone and in detail. We did not set the speech up as some kind of head-to-head. This is not a rhetorical contest with anyone else. This is an affirmative statement of values, a vision for what the world we're both trying to build and defend should look like. And I think that's what you will hear in the remarks tonight.

I'm not going to react to the speech before it finishes. You know, I'll wait until we have the opportunity to hear the whole thing and digest it.

I will say that President Putin has been making the argument for some time that it is the West and not Russia to blame for the war in Ukraine.

Well, there's a simple way to test that proposition. If Russia stops fighting the war in Ukraine and goes home, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting and the United States and the coalition stops helping them fight, Ukraine disappears from the map. So, I think that kind of tells you everything you need to know about who's responsible for this war.

This was a war of choice. Putin chose to fight it. He could have chosen not to. And he can choose even now to end it, to go home. And nobody is attacking Russia. There's a kind of absurdity in the notion that Russia was under some form of military threat from Ukraine or anyone else.

And that's an argument the President has made for some time. And he will very directly make that point in the speech tonight not as a rebuttal to Putin's speech today, but rather to lay to rest an argument that Russia has been making for some time. And the President will take that argument on quite directly and emphatically in the way that I just laid out.

And so, we'll see, you know, obviously, what Putin says today and, you know, as he as he continues his remarks. But the President's remarks today are not -- you know, are about something larger.

And the -- we selected this time, we selected this date not because President Putin was speaking today -- in fact, he moved up the date of his normal state of the union to put it in this timeframe -- but rather because of the fact that we're approaching the one-year anniversary of the conflict and the President wanted to use this opportunity to set a larger frame.

MR. SAVETT: Thank you. Next, we'll go to Peter Nicholas from NBC News.

Q: Hi, can you hear me?

MR. SAVETT: Got you, Peter.

Q: Oh, thanks very much. Thank you, Jake, for doing this. I just wanted to follow up by mentioning Kamala Harris's speech at the Munich Security Conference where she said that Russia has committed crimes against humanity and Putin will be held to account. Do you expect the President will elaborate on those ideas in his speech today? Thank you.

MR. SULLIVAN: That was the finding of the U.S. government through a process. That was not just a rhetorical flourish. It was an actual substantive determination about the actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine and the ways in which they have conducted this war: brutally, with attacks on civilians, with efforts to destroy incidents of the Ukrainian culture, and with wanton effort to harm women, children, noncombatants.

So, the State Department ran a process. The U.S. government reached the determination that the Russian Federation has committed crimes against humanity. Vice President Harris laid that out in the speech in Munich. And President Biden will, of course, reiterate the ways in which Russia has brutally transgressed the basic principles and norms that govern fundamental -- fundamentally decent international behavior.

It will not be a major focus of the speech -- the question of crimes against humanity -- but the brutality of Russia's war effort and the need for accountability will be a part of it.

MR. SAVETT: Next, we'll go to Asma Khalid from NPR.

Q: Hey. Thanks, Jake, for doing this. You mentioned earlier that the President intends to build on the remarks from last year. He believes that, one year later, many of those questions have been answered. Will there be an appeal to the future and looking ahead, or is this largely going to be a speech that talks about questions that were raised last year being answered?

And if there are appeals to the future, can you help us just get some guidance on what those might be?

MR. SULLIVAN: The speech, as I said before, sets out an affirmative vision of a world in which the fundamental principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence, democracy are upheld. And the speech will fundamentally make the case that democracies, as he said in the State of the Union, are growing stronger and more capable of helping shape a world in which freedom has a greater chance to breathe.

And so, you will definitely hear that in the speech. He is not going to -- I'm not sure if this is what you were getting at with your question. He is not going to sketch out in any kind of specifics a vision of a diplomatic end to the war, not because we don't believe that the war should end on just terms according to the principles of the U.N. Charter, but rather because, as he said many times, "nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine," and the United States is not going to dictate those terms.

So you won't hear from him some kind of specific set of proposals or roadmap or blueprint. But you will hear him appeal to the -- those basic principles as being the way in which things should proceed from here and how we should, you know, not just continue to support Ukraine at this moment in this time, but also how we should try to build a more sustainable, durable order in which the values and principles that, you know, we are trying to defend are ultimately upheld.

So, I think you will hear larger themes in the speech, not just narrow descriptions of, you know, the actions and activities around our support for Ukraine or the conduct of this war.

MR. SAVETT: Thank you. Next, we'll go to Kevin Liptak from CNN.

Q: Hey, thanks. First, just quickly, do you know if President Biden is watching Putin's speech?

And then secondly, do you have any update on the warnings that you've been giving lately about China potentially providing lethal aid to Russia? And do you expect President Biden to mention China at all in this speech in the context of the Ukraine war?

MR. SULLIVAN: I don't have any updates this morning. Obviously, Secretary Blinken and others have spoken to it. And, you know, we've had the opportunity to engage directly with the PRC and to consult with our allies and partners on that issue, and we'll continue to do so day by day. It's an important issue and one that we're focused on, but I don't have anything to add this morning.

It will not be a major feature of the speech tonight. I don't think the question of PRC support is actually in the remarks at this point, though I'm hesitant to say whether it will be there or won't be there because, as you all know, you know, until the President delivers his remarks, they can always be subject to his edits and amendments.

And then, on whether or not he's watching Putin's speech right now, I actually am not with him, so I don't know. I don't believe he is, but I can't say for sure.

MR. SAVETT: Thank you. And for our final question, we'll do Patsy from Voice of America.

Q: Hi, thank you for doing this. I have a really quick question, Jake. When you said yesterday that you called Ru- -- well, not you, but the U.S. called Russia about the Kyiv trip for deconfliction purposes, can you just clarify what that means? Because obviously, the Russians are spinning it as them providing a security guarantee for the President's visit. So, if you can clarify that. Thank you.

MR. SULLIVAN: I'm sorry, I didn't see that, Patsy. The Russians are saying they provided a security guarantee for the President's visit?

Q: That's correct. Yes.

MR. SULLIVAN: Yeah, they -- they did not respond, other than to acknowledge receipt of the notification. So, there was no exchange. It was mere notification and acknowledgement of receipt.

Q: Okay, and when you say "deconfliction" --

MR. SULLIVAN: No guarantees given and cer- --

Q: I'm sorry, Jake. I didn't mean to cut you off. When you -- when you say "deconfliction purposes," if you can just clarify that from the U.S. side?

MR. SULLIVAN: When we have a significant movement like this that also involves a security package, you know, we take the normal steps to indicate what we are doing, why we are doing it, with what parameters, on what timeta- -- what general timetable.

And we chose to do that with the Russians so that they would understand what they would be seeing and what President Biden would be doing. Simple as that. Just to let them know he would be there in this time period and the means by which he was traveling and that he would be out on this timetable, the means by which he was traveling out.

We conveyed that information. They acknowledged receipt. End of story.

Q: Thank you.

MR. SAVETT: Great. Thank you so much, Jake. And that's all the questions we have time for. We really appreciate everyone joining us on short notice. And, Jake, thank you for taking the time. We'll talk to everyone soon.

10:42 A.M. CET

Joseph R. Biden, On-the-Record Press Call by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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