Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Vice President's Trip to Morocco, Ukraine and Turkey
Aboard Air Force Two En Route Kyiv, Ukraine
6:10 P.M. (Local)
MR. SPECTOR: Just so we have this on record, it will be a background briefing from senior administration officials on Air Force Two.-
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m actually happy to talk about whatever you want to talk about either on the trip so far, or what’s coming up. Whatever will be most useful to you. I don't really have any opening. You know what we did yesterday. He had a good meeting with the King of Morocco, His Majesty Mohamed IV, pretty straightforward meeting. The Vice President was mainly in Morocco to give the keynote to the summit. So this was a courtesy call to the King. They talked about a range of regional issues. We have a great relationship with Morocco. They're in a region that's full of a lot of tumult. Morocco is a pretty stable, peaceful place. They’ve been pretty forward-leaning on reforms. So they’ve been helpful on the anti-ISIL coalition so it was largely to thank the King for those steps and figure out where we might be able to work more closely together.
Q What are they doing in the coalition?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So they're doing a lot of -- I can give you the actual facts and figures, but they're doing a lot of the kind of counter-radicalization vein, in terms of educating and facilitating dialogue among moderate imams and other things. I can get you a fact sheet if you're interested in all of that.
As you know they also have -- the Moroccans have very close ties with some of the Gulf states who are also active participants in the coalition. In any case.
And so there wasn’t a lot of -- I would say there was not a lot of business being done in that meeting, and then you all heard the speech today at the summit, or maybe you did. And then he had a good roundtable with about a dozen young entrepreneurs from across the region. So the Morocco trip is under our belt now. We're off to Ukraine and Turkey. I suspect you really have more questions on those.
Q On Ukraine, the consensus, listening to Merkel and looking at some of the coverage -- (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Now, see the tables have turned. (Laughter.)
Q It seems to be that Minsk is just about dead, if not dead. Do you see it that way? The administration has held off on heavy weapons to the Ukrainians and they’ve held off on giving a lot of funding. The Ukrainians are now saying, look, now we're dying here. We say we want political reforms. We want economic reforms. But at the same time, facts on the ground seem to be moving really quickly. And I’m giving you --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. No, I understand.
Q I’m not feeding you lines. But tell me what your analysis is and what the Vice President -- what his message is.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think there is no question -- nobody is going to declare Minsk at this point dead. But there are significant concerns about repeated violations, especially on the side of the Russians and their proxies to the Minsk agreements. We feel like the Ukrainian side has held up their end of the bargain, but the Russians continue to send tanks and armored vehicles and artillery pieces across the border. The separatists have been very active in fighting in certain parts, to includes areas like the Donetsk airport, that are technically in this buffer zone along the line of contact. Very troublesome. The separatists continue to hold hundreds of Ukrainian hostages. Kind of an exchange of the detainees is supposed to be part of the deal; that's not moving forward.
With Russian backing, the separatists held this kind of sham election very recently. So, yes, we have a lot of concerns about the Minsk process. And so we're looking at all the options that we have to help the Ukrainians on this.
But it goes beyond Minsk. Ukraine -- they face a significant challenge this winter on the energy front, which is why the Europeans with our help negotiated a very important gas deal between the Ukrainians and the Russians to help keep the lights on this winter. But they have significant macroeconomic challenges. Merkel and others brought this up. We're very concerned about it.
All of us, we, the Europeans recognize the importance of finding a way to provide more economic assistance to Ukraine, given the macroeconomic challenges.
It is also true, though, that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk and other Ukrainian politicians recognize this, that continued political and economic reforms are going to be necessary to I think help us mobilize the international community, whether it be the Europeans, whether it be the IMF to kind of bring to bear the types of resources that are really going to allow the Ukrainians to dig out of this hole. So those are all the types of -- those are all issues the Vice President will discuss.
Q President Poroshenko was talking recently, and he said that the United States should participate in that Minsk dialogue that it was the three, plus Ukraine. But now, is the United States ready to participate in dialogue with Russia and Ukraine to negotiate the new --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that in general we believe that there’s no purely military way out of this crisis, right, that there has to be a political, diplomatic settlement.
Now, I should say while we don't think there’s a military solution to this crisis, the Russians and the proxies seem to believe that there is a military solution, which is why they keep pushing on that score. So I think we're very engaged on all the diplomatic avenues that -- we’re certainly not ruling out participation in this type of dialogue. Although I think we’d have to be convinced that we could really move the Russians, in particular, to get the separatists to agree to the Minsk agreement. And one of the big challenges we have is that the Russians have been insisting that the separatists be directly involved in these talks. And that's really not something that we see as -- nor the Ukrainian government, at least based on the statements that I’ve seen -- see as particularly helpful. So that since it would I think have the effect of legitimizing a group of folks that we don't think have any legitimacy.
Q So if Ukrainians -- asking the United States to participate in some kind of dialogue, new dialogue, would you say yes?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ll see how the conversations go. If that's something that President Poroshenko raises with the Vice President, sure, we’ll have a back and forth about that. I think we’ll have to decide. There’s no disagreement about the need to have dialogue, and to have continued dialogue as a way to de-escalate the situation. The question is really about format and timing, right? And we're going to continue to have a conversation about that.
Q Can I go on? About the legislation in the Congress -- Congress sees the fact that White House is not doing enough -- specifically when Ukraine asked about the lethal defense weapons. Is the White House ready to support effort that is Congress which passed the legislation Freedom Support Act?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think as Tony Blinken talked about the other day in his confirmation hearing, for a while, we looked at the conflict and saw that no matter how many weapons we provided to Ukraine, they were going to get outgunned by the Russians. And you have to calibrate assistance versus your judgment about does it help escalate or de-escalate the crisis. But I think what we’ve seen in recent weeks, since the Minsk agreement and these continued violations, is that the Russians and their proxies continue to beyond the boundaries.
And so we haven’t taken any options off the table as it relates to assistance. And we certainly believe that the Ukrainians have every right to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. And so we’ve already provided more than $100 million of nonlethal assistance to help the Ukrainians defend themselves -- night-vision goggles, protective vests, started to deliver the counter-mortar radars to help detect basically incoming artillery, blankets, meals, vehicles, things like that. And we continue to look at other options to continue to support the Ukrainians because we believe they have the right to defend themselves.
Q One more time about this legislation for Ukraine, Freedom Support Act, is the White House or is the President ready to sign that law if that will be passed in Congress?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I’m not going to get ahead of the process. I don't know that a final decision has been reached.
You know now they have on the ESPN show, your stat checker. I don't know if you ever saw that. But he’s my stat checker. (Laughter.) Anything you want to correct yet?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no. (Laughter.)
Q I just wonder whether you see this situation, it seems to be reaching -- it seems to be in a crescendo, reaching a point where something else is going to happen. Do you see it that way, militarily? You’ve got Poroshenko saying we’re prepared for war. You’ve got Putin saying this week, we will never allow the eastern Ukraine to be defeated. Where do you go from there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the Russian statements are a little strange, given that it’s the separatists who are going on the offense everywhere. If you look at a map about the line of contact from Minsk. In almost all the places where troops have moved past the line of contact, it’s on the separatist’ side. It’s not on the Ukrainian side. So it’s hard to argue that Russian actions are somehow justified by some massive offensive campaign by the Ukrainian military. That's just not what’s happening.
Q But that wasn’t the question. If everybody is pushing themselves to a kind of -- what seems to be sort of point of no return --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, I guess my point would be different people could debate about whether we're at an inflection point. So I’m not going to say what is -- whether I think we are or we aren’t.
What I will say is we are very troubled by a number of trends, right? We're troubled by these elections, which were illegal but went ahead anyway and were a violation of Minsk agreement. We're troubled by the fact that the Russians are completely stonewalling efforts to help us make sure that the international border between Ukraine and Russia isn’t a transit point for heavy weapons and military support going from the Russian side into Ukraine. The Russians haven’t been very helpful in keeping the separatists on their line -- their side of the line of contact, or living up on commitments on hostages. And these things have been ongoing for weeks, so it’s hard to say there’s one event that was a tipping point.
I think the most recent event were these elections. It’s just this kind of accumulation of things that brings us to the point that obviously all sides need to do more, but particularly the Russian side, the separatist side to make sure that behavior is brought in line in compliance with Minsk.
Q That's what you’ve been saying for quite some time now -- accumulation of events. What happens? Are there going to be more sanctions? Europeans don't seem to be that interested in it. Are we prepared to do it by ourselves?
Q Yes, do we have strategy basically in this situation? It feels like we are very proactive -- the Russians are doing something, and we are just reacting -- or reactive. I’m sorry. Do we have proactive plans?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think we have a strategy, right? The strategy is to support the Ukrainians economically and in terms of security assistance and to push the Russians to comply with their side of the deal. It’s our belief -- and I think the economic figures bear this out -- that the sanctions that we and the Europeans have put in place have hurt the Russians pretty badly, that if you look at the devaluation of their currency, if you look at the capital flight, they're --
Q But did it change their political calculations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let me put it this way, sometimes -- it hasn’t changed it yet. Clearly, we are looking at options to turn the pressure up in light of what’s happening. I think our experience is that works best when we and the Europeans act together. So we have been working with the Europeans to identify ways in the face of these Russian violations to generate more pressure.
But in the meantime, we think that the pressure we have on there is having a real effect. Now has it had the political effect yet of getting them to reverse course? Not yet. But it doesn’t mean that it won’t.
But the way, there is an exit ramp here. If the Russians bring their behavior and their proxy behavior into compliance with Minsk, there are exit ramps here. They just haven’t shown a willingness yet. So we're looking at a whole range of options to support the current strategy in light of recent behavior.
Q Let me ask another question -- (inaudible) the United States are leading the efforts to support Ukraine, specifically on sanctions. What is the situation with the Europeans? How do they see the crisis and what they are willing to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think everybody is worried about it. I think obviously the Europeans have a set of particular economic relationships with Russia. We all understand that, and that complicates some of their calculations.
But that said, they’ve been willing to do a lot. And I think you saw coming out of the G20 meetings in Australia, the Europeans also recognizing that more probably has to be done. And I would say more on both sides of the equation. Part of the equation is the sanctions front. But the other part, frankly, is the economic assistance to Ukraine front because that's also a huge concern.
And this is actually where I think we -- our continuing conversations with Ukraine, it can help us help them in the sense that as we try to bring more resources to bear, we're not going to be -- the United States is not going to be able to do this alone. We're going to need the Europeans to go along with us. We're going to need the IMF to go along with us. And everybody is watching very closely at this moment.
The Ukrainians had a very successful election. Given the circumstances, extraordinarily successful. We also saw that overwhelming support for the political parties who are Western oriented. But the government hasn’t been formed yet. And I think that the international community, financial markets, international institutions, everybody is going to be looking at the government being formed and the reform package that they're willing to move forward on so that people understand that as they move forward with additional financial assistance, they’re making a good investment.
We believe that President Poroshenko wants to do this. We know he wants to do this. And we believe that the current Prime Minister, Yatesnyuk -- and seeing the next government that they're committed to this. But we need to be able to make the case to the international community that the government is committed to a reform trajectory such that its financial aid will go in a direction to actually make things better.
Q So is it fair --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Maybe I’ll do one more.
Q We didn't ask about Turkey yet.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure.
Q Is it fair to say then that part of the Vice President’s -- part of the purpose of his visit here is to give them that message, which clearly they’ve already gotten; saying winter is coming, you guys need to move?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You're talking about Ukraine?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think the number one message is: We’ve got your back. The number one message is: We’ve got your back. Because we know that it’s a trying -- we know that it’s a hard time. It’s a hard time because of the military, economic and other activities. So that's number one message.
And by the way, the United States has had their back since the very beginning, and the Vice President has played a prominent role in doing that. So that's number one message.
But the other message is we're coming in to help, but we can’t do it alone. And so you have to have to help us help you. And it’s a message we’ve made consistently. And I think that we’ll reinforce it during the visit, but it’s not going to be surprising to anybody that we're (inaudible).
Q I think all of us have some questions about Turkey.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Want to do it tomorrow?
Q Yes, if you're going to be available to us.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The answer is I will definitely be made available to you. So why don't we find time tomorrow? Does that work for you all if I do it tomorrow?
Q It works for me.
Q I just have one more question about Turkey-Ukraine because Turkey is the basically only NATO member in the Black Sea situation. Are you planning to talk with Turkey about the situation in the east, in Ukraine? And are you relying on Turkey to -- its support for Ukraine?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ll talk about this more tomorrow. But I think our major agenda items with the Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will be the anti-ISIL coalition, and also some other regional issues like Cyprus. But no doubt that coming straight from Ukraine, I’m sure the Vice President will share his reflections about the situation there.
And he has been -- he has had conversations with Erdoğan before about the Black Sea and other things. But why don't you ask me the question again tomorrow and I’ll see I might have a better answer.
Q Turkey (inaudible) --
Q Just on Ukraine, what is exactly you want them to do in terms of economic things?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the Rada, the parliament passed an anti-corruption law. So moving forward on implementing anti-corruption legislation. But I think they're also going to have to commit to some reforms in the energy sector, for example. I think they feel like the gas deal that was struck between Ukraine and Russia with European assistance, and we were also involved in providing advice can get them through the winter. But this energy challenge is going to be a lingering challenge. This isn’t a three-month or a four-month issue. This is a perpetual. So there’s going to be some things where I think we can actually be helpful in terms of technical assistance and other types of assistance on increasing energy efficiency and power generation and all sorts of things.
So that's just an example. I don't know if there are some other macroeconomic things.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the four priorities that we are looking in the first instance for them to do are, as my colleague mentioned, energy sector, anti-corruption, and also judicial reform, reform of the police, the banking sector. There’s a long list of things they need to do. But in the first instance, those are sort of key reforms that they need to undertake to both reassure financial markets, but also because it’s the right thing for them to be doing at this point in time.
Q They can do that fast enough? They haven’t even formed a government yet -- to get that kind of confidence that you --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, there has to be a government, and the government has to have a platform. And they have to start moving forward on the platform. I don't think anybody is expecting that everything is done, and then all the effects of those things will be realized before there’s more assistance. That's not what we're talking about.
I think what financial markets are looking for, what we're looking for, the Europeans are looking for is a sense of momentum in the right direction. And that's really the message that we’ll convey.
And by the way, I think we have full confidence that the political leadership in Ukraine agrees and is committed to that. So I think it’s not us going to be pointing and telling them things they don't know or believe. They believe it. They know.
Q There’s a lot of disagreement between the Prime Minister and the President. And it looks like Prime Minister wants to move faster than the President. And are you -- how do you see the new government?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll leave -- you can ask. Why don't you ask the Prime Minister and the President those questions? (Laughter.) I will say that from our vantage point, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk have been able to work pretty well together, and I would expect that the same will be true in the next government if they're working together.
Q One follow-up to what you said about the number one message is we’ve got your back. Do you think the Ukrainians believe the U.S. has their back?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think they do. And by the way, I think they see the Vice President’s trip very much as an important symbol of that. You all talked about how troubled the situation is. Well, it’s a troubled situation, but the Vice President of the United States is coming to not only tell the leaders what they already know, which is we have their back, but demonstrate it publicly for the world.
6:31 P.M. (Local)