Background Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Vice President Joe Biden's Trip to Ukraine
9:47 A.M. EST
MS. BEDINGFIELD: Hi, good morning. Thanks, everybody, for taking the time to join us.
Just as a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to senior administration officials. So with that, I will turn it over to my colleague to get started.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. Thanks for being on the call with us. Look, I’m just going to give you kind of the wave tops of the trip and leave as much time for question and answer as we can.
So we depart on Sunday. We’ll travel all day Sunday. We arrive in Kyiv late in the evening on Sunday, and we’ll overnight to start our meetings on Monday.
There are basically three major meetings on Monday. One will be a roundtable with reformers, which will be kind of a group of civil society activists and some other officials and others who have been very involved in the reform. We will then have two major bilateral meetings. We’ll have a long working lunch and bilateral session between the Vice President and President Poroshenko. And in the evening, the Vice President will sit down for a long bilateral with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk.
My understanding is Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is traveling earlier in the day, but he’ll be back later on Monday and have an opportunity to have a lengthy conversation with the Vice President in the evening on Monday.
We’ll then stay overnight on Monday night, and on Tuesday, the Vice President will give remarks to the Rada. He’ll give an address to the Rada. The Rada is the Ukrainian legislature. At least as far as our research could turn up, we don't know if there’s any other historical precedent for a foreign official giving a speech like this. So we believe this is a historic opportunity for the Vice President to really lay out our policy on Ukraine. And as many of you on the call undoubtedly know, we're now about two years past the beginning of the Maidan uprising, which really set -- the events that frame this trip.
Speaking of which, let me just go over a few of basically the topline themes and messages for our visit. I think in the first instance, the Vice President aims to provide a strong signal of our support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s continued military intervention and support for separatism in the Donbass. While violence has decreased somewhat in recent months, compared to what it’s been like over the last couple of years, it’s still fairly violent along the line of contact. And the separatists and their Russian backers are not -- the obligation under the Minks Agreements to calm that conflict down. And we can go into that in more detail if you're interested.
The Vice President will also underscore that we categorically opposed and continue to oppose Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea. The Vice President will discuss what additional economic, governance, and rule of law reforms are necessary with Ukraine -- the Prime Minister and the President. He’ll discuss Ukraine’s economic and humanitarian needs. This is something that we're very focused on, especially as we head into the winter, where some Ukrainians will be increasingly vulnerable to bad weather.
The Vice President will emphasize the need to implement recently passed anti-corruption reforms. Ukraine has made significant strides in this regard, but there is a long history of corruption and of basically Ukraine oligarchs getting their way in the Ukrainian system. And while the Ukrainians have made good strides, there is still much more that needs to be done. So we’ll -- undoubtedly that will be a major focus of conversation. The Vice President will discuss more broadly the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which are meant to de-escalate hostilities between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. And in particular, the Vice President will emphasize the need for Russia and the separatists to live up to their obligations under the Minsk Agreements where they have fallen short.
The Vice President will discuss the broader diplomatic strategy to keep sanctions on Russia until Minsk is fully implemented, including the conversations we continue to have with our European allies on that support. And last but not least, the Vice President will discuss continued U.S.-led training efforts to train the Ukrainian armed forces and our overall security assistance to Ukraine to make sure that they can continue to defend themselves in the face of aggression in the east.
So with that kind of overview of the trip, maybe I’ll turn it over to you all.
Q Hi, I’m a Russian reporter here in Washington, D.C. Thank you for doing the call, sir.
And my question is about the Ukrainian debt to Russia. As you certainly know the Russians have offered a solution that requires an American or a European or an IMF guarantee of repayment in installments. So how do you view that? Does it look feasible to you? If not, why not? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So this is a bilateral matter between Russia and Ukraine. And we have very much supported the Ukrainian debt restructuring agreement that was reached through five months of negotiations by Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko. We think that is a very successful outcome for Ukraine, which will delay its debt burden and allow it to continue with its IMF program. But with regards to the Russian bond, that is a matter for Ukraine and Russia to work out bilaterally.
Q So, to make sure, the U.S. does not contemplate giving any guarantees to support the payment, and would not encourage a private bank to do the same?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think I’m going to leave my comments to let them stand as they are. This is a bilateral issue for Russia and Ukraine.
Q Hey, I wanted you to talk a little bit more -- I missed the very top of the call, so if you addressed this, I have to apologize. But if we could talk a little bit more about how this fits in with what’s going on with Syria. This strategy of isolating Putin and Russia over Ukraine is obviously complicated by this. President Obama avoided meeting with Putin for more than a year because of Ukraine, and now he’s met with him three times in the last couple months. How do we square this circle? And what’s the message to Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk going to be about any understandable concerns they might have about their situation being complicated because of the Syria situation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s a good question. Look, I think over the last several years, frankly, as our relationship with Russia has gone through very different phases, one thing has remained constant, which is we’re going to stick up for our national interests. And in this context, we’ve continued to cooperate or have discussions with the Russians in areas where our two countries have convergent interests.
And so we worked very closely with Moscow in pursuing the Iran nuclear agreement, for example. Before that agreement, we coordinated with Moscow on the Syrian chemical weapons agreement. Before that, we obviously had cooperation with them on Afghanistan -- resupply to Afghanistan; on the New START agreement, et cetera.
So I think what we’ve shown is that we’re open to cooperating with the Russians where their behavior comports with international norms and where their interests converge with ours.
The situation in Syria is obviously extraordinarily complex and has increased in complexity as a consequence of the Russian intervention. I think that we are not cooperating with the Russians on Syria so much as continue to have a conversation about whether cooperation on a path forward, especially on a political transition, is even possible.
But one of the things we’ve made clear to the Russians from the get-go, and we’ve made this equally clear to all of our friends in Europe and to the Ukrainians, is that our dialogue with Russia on Syria and Assad is completely compartmented from the Ukraine experience. Nothing in our conversations with Syria impact our assessment that Russia continues to be the aggressor in Ukraine; that they continue to violate their obligations under the Minsk Agreement; that they continue to encourage the separatists, or at least not prevent the separatists from also violating their obligations under the Minsk Agreement.
And so, actually, one of the major goals of the trip is to remind the Ukrainian people and the world, frankly, that even as so much of the international attention has shifted towards Russia’s involvement with Syria, and our interactions with Russia as it relates to Syria, that we, the United States, haven’t forgotten about Ukraine; that Ukraine remains central to our national interests; and that the Vice President and President continue to believe that progress in Ukraine is essential for the ultimate aspiration we have for Europe of being whole, at peace, and free. So I think that’s going to be a major theme of the trip -- that nothing that’s going on in the Middle East has changed one iota of our commitment to the Ukrainian people and to their security.
Q Hi, just kind of a follow-up to Peter’s question. I was wondering if you think the events in Syria have made the Europeans slightly squishy with regards to linkage between Minsk and lifting sanctions. And also I was wondering if you think that that linkage between Minsk and the sanctions risks sending a message to Moscow that Crimea -- the annexation of Crimea is okay?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS: Well, first of all, we’ve been very clear that under no circumstances is the annexation of Crimea okay. We’ve been consistent on that from the get-go. As it relates to the issue of -- and by the way, I should say there are certain sanctions that are attached specifically to Crimea that would not come off unless Russia ends its annexation of Crimea. So they’re not linked in the sense that once Minsk gets complied with, every single sanction that’s been put on Russia would automatically fall away. We’ve been clear with the Russians on that and clear with the Europeans.
As it relates to the first part of your question, which is whether the Russian actions in Syria have at all kind of put a wedge or undermined the unity of the transatlantic community as it relates to sanctions, the answer is no -- although I suspect that Putin hoped that they would.
In other words, I think part of our assessment is that Putin intervened in Syria for a whole host of reasons but among them was to increase Russia’s leverage over a conflict that obviously has enormous implications for Europe, given the refugee issues, given the terrorism concern, et cetera. So it’s conceivable that the Kremlin believes that in intervening in Syria they actually could generate chits that they could trade off between Syria and Ukraine -- the Europeans.
But if that was the goal, there’s no evidence that it’s having any of that effect. The President and the Vice President have met repeatedly with top heads of state in Europe, whether it be Hollande or Merkel or, most recently, in Rome, the Vice President sat down with the Italian Prime Minister, Renzi. And in all of these conversations, our European allies who are so central to the sanctions have made clear that until Russia complies with its obligations under Minsk and gets the separatists to do the same, that these sanctions are not going to come off.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS: Well, I’d just add to that that we have this in writing, as well. The last time that EU foreign ministers met, the Foreign Affairs Council’s met on Ukraine, they specifically and explicitly stated that sanctions will be tied to full-on implementation of the Minsk Agreement. So I think that our European allies and partners are in the same place on this that we are, and we’ve got that -- as I said -- explicitly in writing, so we’re in a good place.
Q Two questions. There was some discussion about the recent National Defense Authorization Act, which earmarked $300 million for aid to Ukraine and $50 million for lethal weaponry and the like. The White House has made clear that there is still no change, that lethal weaponry is not on the cards, is not in the offing. So I’m wondering, is that the message that the Vice President will be giving to President Poroshenko and others?
And the second question concerns the somewhat blunt statement by the U.S. ambassador in September about the Prosecutor General’s Office and their ability or unwillingness to reform their anti-corruption bureau. And how hard is the Vice President going to be I guess hammering his Ukrainian colleagues on this matter? Are there concerns that the Prosecutor General’s Office or the President’s Office are not up to the task to really putting through bona fide anti-corruption statutes and reforms?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks for that. Let me take those questions in reverse order and then ask my colleague to chime in a little bit on the NDAA thing.
So as it relates to the Prosecutor General’s Office, I think the Vice President’s message will be that it’s not enough to set up this special prosecutor for fighting corruption -- that the Office of the Prosecutor General itself is in desperate need of reform. And so he has made this very clear to President Poroshenko in previous conversations and -- reiterate that during this trip. So I think we are largely in line with Ambassador Pyatt’s sense that much more needs to be done to reform the Prosecutor General’s Office so that it actually enables anti-corruption efforts as opposed to standing in the way of those efforts. So that will be I think something that is talked about.
As it relates to security assistance, let me just remind people on the call that separate from the NDAA, we have provided $450 million in direct assistance to the Ukrainians. More than half of that has been security assistance. And body armor, uniforms, Humvees and other vehicles, communication equipment, and also a great deal of training of the Ukrainian national guard and other forces in Ukraine -- that continues. So I don’t think anybody should have the misimpression that we haven’t provided substantial amounts of security assistance for Ukraine. We’ve also taken other actions alongside NATO in and around Ukraine to signal to Moscow that their aggression in the east is not something that will bully us away from our relationship with Ukraine or bully NATO and our partners elsewhere in Europe.
As it relates specifically to the NDAA earmarks, maybe I can ask my colleague to chime in a little bit -- on lethal side of this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, well, as my colleague mentioned, we provided over $265 million in security assistance to Ukraine -- that has included everything from counter-artillery radars to night-vision goggles to Humvees, both armored and unarmored, all sorts of equipment. I don’t know how we’ll end up spending the that it is in the NDAA. That’s going to be a decision that will be made in the future.
But our view of the conflict overall has been that this is not one that will be solved militarily on the ground, and therefore we’ve pursued a diplomatic solution to the Minsk process. And our pressure on Russia has primarily been in the form of economic sanctions. That is what we see as the most fruitful avenue for finding a resolution to the conflict.
Now, that said, obviously we recognize Ukraine’s need and our need, frankly, to help Ukraine defend itself against aggression in the Donbass. And that’s why we have provided the security assistance that we have. And as my colleague mentioned, we’ve engaged in a very robust training program for the Ukrainian national guard, which has now transitioned into a training program for Ukraine’s conventional armed forces, as well as their special forces.
So we have taken things to a new level in terms of our security pursuits. And we’ll have to take a good look at how we spend the $300 million that has been authorized in the NDAA to provide comprehensive security assistance, but also defense reform for the Ukrainian armed forces, which, unfortunately, over the last two and a half decades have really been hollowed out through mismanagement and a lack of appropriate defense investments.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think this last point is actually quite important for people to understand, which is that -- obviously, good people can disagree about any particular piece of equipment or the merits of it, but frankly, debating whether a particular piece of equipment that may or may not have been provided to Ukraine would be a game-changer in the current environment, I think that’s a hard argument to make.
I think what would make -- be a game-changer is a fundamental reform of Ukraine’s security sector and improving the institutional quality and capabilities of their armed forces, which is something that we’re aiming at. Because frankly, that’s what’s going to allow Ukraine, over time, to resist the type of coercion Moscow has tried to impose upon it over the last two years.
Q Hi. Quickly, I just wanted to clear up what you were saying is unprecedented about his speech to the legislature. Is that unprecedented from a U.S. figurehead, from a Vice President? I just wondered if you could clear that up.
And then second, if you could talk about just the kind of softer side, the relationship between the Vice President and Poroshenko. That is that a lot of the calls that are coming from the White House are coming from the Vice President rather than the President and it seems that they’ve built kind of rapport through this. And I wondered why Biden is used rather than President Obama in a lot of these talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Look, our research on this has not shown up any previous examples of a head of state addressing the Rada, certainly not a U.S. President or a Vice President. So that’s -- when I said unprecedented, that was my -- I can’t rule out the possibility that our Google search was incomplete, but we don’t have any evidence that there’s been a certainly a leader of the Vice President’s stature -- the Rada.
And I think that this is really an opportunity, this speech on Tuesday, is really an opportunity for the Vice President to share some of his experiences. Remember, he spent more than three decades -- almost four decades -- in the U.S. Senate, which he sees as the best example of a legislature on planet Earth, and he’s got a lot of his own experiences he wants to share with the Rada. And I think he will make the argument that even though he’s on the phone all the time with President Poroshenko and with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, that the legislators in the Rada also have a special obligation to keep Ukraine moving forward as it relates to their (inaudible). We’re really looking forward to that speech, I think it’s going to be great.
As it relates to the Vice President’s personal relationship with both President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, I think a couple things are worth getting (inaudible).
First, President Obama has also spoken to President Poroshenko on numerous occasions, both on the phone and in person. So we really -- this is a team effort. But this is one of those areas -- Ukraine -- where the President of the United States has asked the Vice President to play an especially prominent role. It's not the only place where that's the case. Iraq is another example of that, Central America -- there are a number of other instances. But from the very beginning of the Maidan uprising and its aftermath, as Ukraine struggled to form a new government and move forward on some very, very difficult reform efforts in the context of crippling economic challenges and military aggressions in the east, the President basically wanted his go-to guy, the Vice President, to keep tabs on this from the very beginning.
And the Vice President, for those of you who heard him speak before, for the Vice President, he really believes all politics, especially in international affairs, is personal. And so when he is tasked by the President to focus on an area, he goes out of way to make sure that he has a close personal relationship with the leaders involved. And I think this goes back to the Vice President’s experience in the Senate and just the kind of person he is.
So he has invested a lot in his relationships with both President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. And I think it's paid dividends in the sense that there is established open lines of communication, a degree of candor and trust that allows him to have conversations with them where there’s no illusions about where we stand, what our expectations are and also understanding that the other side can come to us when they need help.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I would just add to that, the Vice President has a long history in Ukraine. One of his first foreign trips, in fact, as Vice President was to Ukraine. And even before the Maidan revolution of Dignity, the Vice President had over a dozen phone calls with former President Yanukovych trying to get him to play a more inclusive role with civil society and walk back from some of the violent actions that unfortunately transpired on Maidan. So he was heavily engaged in trying to work with Yanukovych, to get Ukraine to play a role where it didn’t have to choose necessarily between Russia and the European Union, but could satisfy the will of the Ukrainian people.
So he has a long history in this region. And then, of course, after Yamukovych fled, he knew a lot of players in Ukraine, and so was very well poised to continue his relationships with the Prime Minister and President Poroshenko after his inauguration.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And just for the record books, this will be the Vice President’s fourth trip to Ukraine.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Fifth, fifth in the administration.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But fourth since the Maidan revolution.
Q Hi, guys. Thank you for doing the call. I was hoping that you could just take us back a little bit more to the planning of the visit. Can you talk about when the meeting was scheduled and kind of why? Did it have anything to do with a desire to assure Ukraine that it's not a chit in the Syria puzzle? Or is the visit completely independent of Syria stuff and was just sort of like planned six months ago?
And I’m wondering should we expect an announcement of any specific new U.S. commitment? And can you walk us through the rest of the itinerary? So Biden is going to do the meeting with the civil society, the meeting with the President, the meeting with the Prime Minister, the speech, and then is that it, and he leaves?
And then I got one more. Sorry. I know you addressed the U.S. position on the $3 billion debt, but I still don't really understand it other than the fact that it’s a bilateral issue. Does the U.S. think that Ukraine should have to pay this money? And is the U.S. privately discussing helping back Ukraine?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So just in terms of the schedule, he will also have a chance to meet with the Mayor of Kyiv, Klitschko, toward the end of the visit on Tuesday, and then he gets back on the plane and comes home. So it’s a very short out-and-back trip.
As it relates to the timing, frankly, part of this was what fits for the Vice President’s schedule. He had a very busy set of domestic commitments in the fall and we weren’t traveling much internationally. In fact, we haven’t traveled until last week when the Vice President was in the Balkans and Croatia and then in Rome. We hadn’t been on the road in six or eight months. And so we're getting back on the international -- circuit I guess. And so the timing just made sense from a scheduling perspective. But I also think substantively we wanted -- I think it was important for us to be on the back end of local elections in Ukraine, which had timing implications.
And I do think that -- while I don't think it drove the timing of the trip per se, it is a good time to do the trip because of the Syria issue; that -- the world, there was so much attention focused on Russia’s activities in Syria that we haven’t forgotten about Russia’s activities in Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. So I don't think that was the driving factor on the particular timing -- that had more to do with the Vice President’s schedule. But it was I think it’s a bonus of the trip.
As it relates to whether we're going to announce any more assistance, I’m not going to get ahead of our announcements. But I think there will the press statements on Monday, and then the speech on Tuesday. So stay tuned for that.
And frankly, as it relates to the $3 billion debt issue, I’ll let my colleague’s comments from earlier stand unless he wants to add.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I mean the only other thing I would say on the $3 billion debt from Russia is that Russia has apparently made some proposals via the media. Our understanding is that the Ukrainian government has not received any concrete proposals from the Russian side. And so until they do, it is hard to say what the Ukrainian government’s reaction would be, or how they should adjust to a Russian proposal in this area.
So this is something -- again, as I said, this is bilateral between Ukraine and Russia. But so far everything that we’ve seen has been floated via the press. And there has been no specific proposal put out, so this is for them to work out.
MS. BEDINGFIELD: Thanks, everyone. We appreciate you taking the time to dial in.
10:18 A.M. EST