May 20, 2022

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A Senior State Department Official on the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Ukraine and Germany

16 min read

Office of the Spokesperson

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Operator.  And I’d like to welcome everyone to this morning’s on-background briefing coming to you from the U.S. Department of State.  Just as a reminder here at the top, this briefing today is on background with a senior State Department official who will discuss Secretary Blinken’s upcoming trip to Kyiv, Berlin, and an additional stop that has just been added to the itinerary.  To reiterate, the content of this briefing this morning are on background, and they are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.  I just want to stress that we are on background and the contents are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

For your information this morning but not for reporting purposes, I am going to let you know who our briefer is today.  We’re very glad to have with us on the line .  In your reporting, you can refer to our briefer as a senior State Department official.  We’ll start off with some opening remarks from and then we can take just a few of your questions.

And with that, it’s over to .  .

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks so much.  It’s a real pleasure to do this, and I am grateful to everyone who has joined us today.  There’s been a great deal of diplomatic activity in the past few weeks on this in response to Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.  And I know that you are all familiar with the U.S. position, but let me just highlight and reiterate a few things.

We’ve been clear meaningful progress on the diplomatic track can only happen in an environment of de-escalation.  But we’ve seen the exact opposite from Russia, including during and after our diplomatic engagements in Europe earlier this month.  President Putin created this crisis by amassing 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders.  This includes moving Russian forces into Belarus over the weekend.  This is neither an exercise nor normal troop movement.  It is a show of strength designed to cause or give false pretext for a crisis as Russia plans for a possible invasion.  And let’s be clear:  This is extremely dangerous.  We are now at a stage where Russia could, at any point, launch an attack on Ukraine.

Since this unprovoked and hostile troop movement, there has been nonstop diplomatic engagement with Ukraine and our transatlantic allies and partners.  There has been a constant stream of meetings, virtual and in-person, calls, and diplomatic notes on this issue.  The United States has been in lockstep with our European allies and partners.  We’ve also engaged with the Russians, including through the three meetings last week – the SSD, NRC, and OSCE.

Just this morning, Secretary Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and they agreed to meet in Geneva following the Secretary’s engagements in Kyiv and Berlin.  We remain in constant communication with our allies and partners, because our north star is nothing about Europe without Europe, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, and nothing about NATO without NATO.

So far, Russia has continued its troop buildup and its harsh rhetoric.  Our message and that of our allies and partners has been clear:  Russia has two choices – diplomacy and de-escalation or escalation and massive consequences.  The United States remains committed to diplomacy and believes it is the best and most responsible way forward.

Secretary Blinken will leave this afternoon, Tuesday afternoon, and will spend Wednesday in Kyiv, where he will consult with President Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Kuleba and other Ukrainian leaders.  He will review last week’s diplomatic engagements and discuss the way forward.  He will emphasize U.S. support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The Secretary will then travel to Berlin on Thursday for consultations with the German Government and the transatlantic Quad.  His meetings in Germany are a continuation of the intensive consultations the United States is conducting with European allies and partners as part of our unified response to Russia’s actions.  The Secretary will also work closely with allies and partners to prepare for his discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

Finally, the Secretary will travel to Geneva, where he will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to continue diplomatic discussions and urge Russia to take immediate steps to de-escalate.  As we did following the diplomatic engagements last week, following the meeting the Department of State will brief President Biden, as well as our allies and partners, to ensure that we are fully synced before taking next steps.

Again, nothing about Europe without Europe, nothing about NATO without NATO, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.  The United States does not want conflict.  We want peace.  President Putin has it in his power to take steps to de-escalate this crisis so the United States and Russia can pursue a relationship that is not based on hostility or crisis.

Thanks so much, and I look forward to your questions.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, .

At this time, let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  Thanks for doing this call.  Could I ask you a little bit more about the meeting with Lavrov?  First you said after – can you confirm it’s Friday?  And can you say what you want?  You’ve talked about President Putin can take steps to de-escalate this crisis.  What are you looking for diplomatically?  Is there anything that you can negotiate with the Russians at this point, other than them pulling back their troops?  What do you hope to get out of this?  Is there some deal, if you’d call it that, that’s possible in this?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks so much for that question.

So as I mentioned, Secretary Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning, and it was in the context of that conversation that the two decided it would be useful for them to meet in person.  And given the Secretary’s travel plans to Kyiv and Berlin, the decision then was let us add a stop in Geneva and allow for this in-person diplomacy between the key diplomats of the United States and Russia.

So it’s really an opportunity for the United States to share our major concerns with Russia and to see where there might be an opportunity for Russia and the United States to find common ground.  As you know, that was the intent of the diplomacy last week, both the bilateral diplomacy at NATO and at the OSCE.

NATO Allies have offered their views on areas where NATO and Russia could make progress together in a way that strengthens security for all of us.  In the NATO context it was suggesting reciprocal actions around risk reduction and transparency, improved communications, and arms control.  As you saw at the OSCE, we welcomed the Polish chair-in-office’s call for a revitalized European security dialogue.

So there’s an opportunity here for Secretary Blinken to sit down with Foreign Minister Lavrov and see where those opportunities might be for common ground.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  And let’s go to the line of Andrea Mitchell.

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Thank you very much for doing this.  Foreign Minister Lavrov said – or he didn’t say, excuse me.  The Russians have been saying – Ryabkov said that diplomacy was at a dead end.  What indication did the Secretary get from the foreign minister today that a meeting in Geneva would be fruitful?

And to follow up on Shaun’s question about what do you expect to get, what other kind of de-escalation do you want to see?  Do you want to see more of a commitment on cyber and on some of the hybrid aggressions that might also be a threat?  Thank you very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks so much for your question.  And I note you’re quoting the comment about diplomacy being dead, and I think the fact that Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed to meet on Friday in Geneva suggests that perhaps diplomacy is not dead.

As you know, the U.S. side believes the only way to solve this conflict successfully is through diplomacy.  So Secretary Blinken is 150 percent committed to seeing if there is a diplomatic off-ramp here, and that really is the impetus behind this engagement with Foreign Minister Lavrov on Friday.  We will be testing that hypothesis.

And I want to be clear that even as we say we want to test whether there is an opportunity for a diplomatic off-ramp here, we continue to prepare for a different outcome, which means that if Russia does decide to pursue further military aggression against Ukraine, if it chooses to further escalate, we have been working very closely and effectively with our allies and partners to ensure that there would be massive consequence if that is the path that Russia chooses.

But the Secretary’s commitment this week is very much to see and try to further opportunities for a diplomatic solution.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  And let’s next go to the line of John Hudson.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks.  I just wanted to check in.  Is the United States going to provide a written response to the Russians, as they’ve requested?  Can you give an update on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So what I would share with you is to reiterate what Deputy Secretary Sherman said in Brussels, which is we are prepared to continue to engage with Russia on security issues in meaningful, reciprocal dialogue.  We will see this Friday if Russia is prepared to do the same, so really the focus right now – the next engagement with the Russians – will be this in-person meeting between Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov on Friday.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line now of Simon Lewis.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you.  Thanks for doing this, .  I wanted to ask when you’re in – when the Secretary is in Kyiv talking to the Ukrainians, are there any – obviously there’s an opportunity to talk to them after the diplomatic engagements last week, but are there any things that you are asking the Ukrainians to do or wanting to see from them?  Specifically in the past few weeks, the – U.S. officials have been – were asking Ukraine as well as Russia to return to the Minsk agreements.  Is that still something that’s being talked about?  Is there a future for coming back into the Minsk kind of framework, or is that – have we kind of gone past that point now?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks so much.  I very much appreciate the question, because as we think about this conflict between Russia and Ukraine, at the core of it is the conflict in the Donbas, and the United States is committed to trying to facilitate the implementation of the Minsk agreements in support of the Normandy format.  And I personally have been quite engaged, actually, with Ukrainian counterparts, with French and German counterparts – France and Germany being the other two members of the Normandy format together with Ukraine and Russia – and also with the OSCE.

So yes, we do think an important part of the diplomatic offramp is trying to resolve the conflict in Donbas.  So to your specific question about the Minsk agreements, we are committed to facilitating implementation of those agreements, and we hope all parties will continue to try to fulfill what they’ve agreed to.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Now let’s go to the line of Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing this call.  Given a lot of your descriptors of this engagement sound a lot like what the State Department was saying ahead of last week’s diplomacy, I’m wondering what you expect will be different about this meeting versus the series of engagements that multiple U.S. diplomats had with Russian officials just last week.

And then my second question is:  Who asked for the meeting?  Was it Russia’s request or was it the United States request?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So thanks so much for that question, and I have to tell you I have not yet had a readout of the Secretary’s call with Foreign Minister Lavrov.  You really are getting breaking news here, so I don’t know how this evolved in the conversation between the two, but I do know that, again, we — and the Secretary personally really is committed to seeing if there is a possible diplomatic offramp to this crisis.  And I think it was Andrea Mitchell who had the quote about the Russian side saying diplomacy is dead, so what I take from the conversation this morning is the fact that Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Secretary meeting on Friday says to me diplomacy is not dead.

I think it is still too early to tell if the Russian Government is genuinely interested in diplomacy, if it is prepared to negotiate seriously in good faith, or whether it will use discussions as a pretext to claim that diplomacy didn’t address Moscow’s interests.  I just can’t judge that now, but I do understand the desire on our side to test that hypothesis, and if there is an opportunity to craft a diplomatic solution here, we certainly will put all of our energy into trying to realize that.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Will Mauldin.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  We can hear you, Will.

QUESTION:  Okay, thank you.  Yes, I just wanted to ask what – about what Secretary Blinken was bringing to the meetings in Kyiv, if there’s any further support for the country to be announced, military support or other support, or ways to deter Russian aggression in that country as a part of that meeting.

And then also curious if Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov will be discussing other topics besides the Ukraine crisis, and what those topics would be.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So I do think – apologies, there was an echo there.  So on the Ukraine piece, the Secretary decided that given the centrality of Ukraine to everything we’re doing, it was important for him to make an in-person trip to Ukraine to meet with President Zelenskyy in person following last week’s diplomacy, so that the Secretary himself could share with President Zelenskyy and then, of course, also Foreign Minister Kuleba what the nature of that conversation is, where we think there are opportunities to have meaningful conversations with the Russians, and together with Ukraine to think through the way forward.

So it’s really making true the statement “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”  So the Secretary believes there’s really no replacement for that kind of in-person diplomacy.

In terms of our security assistance for Ukraine, we’ve been providing defensive assistance to Ukraine continuously.  And that will remain the case.  As you know, we’ve given more security assistance to Ukraine in the last year than at any point since 2014, and I can assure you those deliveries are ongoing, and more are scheduled in the coming weeks.

Should Russia further invade Ukraine, we will provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians above and beyond that which we are already in the process of providing.  And I want to add here that along with that support for Ukraine, we are also in the NATO context very actively engaged in planning for the need, the possible need if there were a further military incursion by Russia into Ukraine, to buttress NATO’s eastern flank.

So there are several dimensions that we are moving out on simultaneously.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Let’s go to the line of Barbara Usher.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  You spoke quite categorically in your opening remarks about how the movement of troops into Belarus was considered an increase in the escalation rather than part of – rather than Russia moving to de-escalation.  And you tied it together in comments about a pretext.  Can you just elaborate on that, why you are so convinced that this is part – has to do with Ukraine?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  We are very alert to everything that Russia is doing.  The fact that we’re seeing this movement of forces into Belarus clearly gives the Russians another approach should they decide to take further military action against Ukraine.  We are concerned across several dimensions about Russia creating a pretext for a possible invasion.  And you probably followed the news last week where we shared our concern about a possible false flag operation that the Russians might be undertaking, again, to prepare for an invasion into Ukraine.

So this idea that Russia could be laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion – whether it’s through sabotage activities, information operations, or troop movements – this is something we are paying very close attention to.

Russian military plans to begin activities several weeks before a military invasion are something we’ve been watching closely, and our assessment has been that could happen anytime between mid-January and mid-February.  This is the playbook we saw in 2014 with Crimea, and we just want to have our eyes wide open about what Russia could be planning here. Thanks.

MODERATOR:  I think we have time for just a couple more questions.  Let’s go to the line of Nick Schifrin, please.

QUESTION:  , thank you for doing this.  To go back to your comment about Lavrov, you said it’s still too early to tell if the Russian Government is prepared to engage in serious diplomacy despite the fact that we had so many meetings last week.  So what are you looking to indicate, to actually show Russian seriousness?

And also, in the announcement today about the Secretary going to Kyiv, there was a mention of to plan for contingencies.  I assume you’re referring to the embassy there.  Are you willing to talk about – talk more about what those contingencies are?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks so much.  So in terms of what would indicate to us that Russia is interested in further diplomacy, certainly one positive signal would be if we saw a reduction of Russian forces that have been surging to Ukraine’s border in the last few months and seeing those Russian troops return to their barracks.  So this comment that I made also about de-escalation I think is an important element of what might signal that Russian interest.  But I will also say the fact that Foreign Minister Lavrov wanted to meet with Secretary Blinken on Friday is potentially an indication of that, but we certainly will know a lot more after that engagement on Friday.

To your question about contingencies, we are conducting normal contingency planning, as we always do, in terms of our embassy in Kyiv and U.S. citizens in Ukraine.  That is normal anytime we see a security situation severely deteriorating as we are seeing in Ukraine.  Certainly, I think all of us at the Department of State feel that we have no greater responsibility than the security and safety of U.S. citizens overseas.  So we provide security and safety information for every country around the world that help U.S. citizens assess the risks of travel.  Each country has a travel advisory.

I’m sure you’re following that our Travel Advisory for Ukraine is Level 4:  Do not travel due to COVID and increase — extreme caution due to crime and civil unrest.  The Travel Advisory also advises U.S. citizens not to travel to Crimea and eastern parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk due to increased risk.  And we’re going to continue to provide information to U.S. citizens in the area through alerts, through our embassy and consulate websites, and through the travel.state.gov website.  We’ve encouraged U.S. citizens to enroll their travel plans in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program so they can receive important messages about Ukraine, and that would include alerts and travel advisories.

So we are watching the situation very closely and will continue to put the safety of U.S. citizens overseas at the very top of our agenda.  Really appreciate the question.

MODERATOR:  Okay, and let’s go to the line of Anton La Guardia.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for doing this.  I have two questions.  First of all, in Germany, how worried are you that the coalition is less than solid on the question of imposing massive sanctions?  SPD members have been reluctant, to say the least, about, for example, cutting Russia off from the SWIFT system.  And the other thing is we started to hear calls from some people saying that the U.S. ought to give more defensive equipment – for example, air defense and anti-shipping equipment.  Is that something you would consider?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Hey, thanks so much for that question.  First on Germany, the stop in Berlin is a terrific opportunity for the Secretary to visit when – since the new German Government has taken office.  As you know, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, was here quite recently, which was a wonderful opportunity for the Secretary and the new foreign minister to meet in person.  And so I know he’s very much looking forward to that opportunity to have deeper conversations in Berlin with our counterparts.

I would say that we feel Germany has been a terrific partner for us as we have been putting together this deterrence package of financial sanctions, export controls.  And I would note that Germany, of course, was a member of, is a member of NATO, the G7, the European Union, and we saw those three organizations put out powerful statements before Christmas talking about the fact that if Russia pursues further military aggression against Ukraine, we would meet that aggression with – and the words differed across those three statements, but some combination of severe cost and massive consequences.  Germany was a party to all of those statements and I do believe is fully aligned with the United States in believing that we need to meet any further military aggression in Ukraine by Russia with those sorts of measures that we have not considered before.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  And I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today.  I would like to thank everyone again for dialing in and participating.  I would especially like to thank our briefer today, our senior State Department official, .  Thank you, .

Once again, everyone, this call is on background to a senior State Department official.  And with that, the briefing is ended and the embargo is lifted.  Thank you.

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