December 9, 2022

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Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried on the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Latvia and Sweden

18 min read

Karen Donfried, Assistant SecretaryBureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Via Teleconference

MR ICE:  Thank you very much, operator, and thanks, everyone, for joining us.  Good morning and welcome to this call previewing Secretary Blinken’s upcoming trip to Latvia and Sweden, which we announced officially just this morning.

A quick reminder here at the top.  This briefing is on the record, but the contents are embargoed until the call is completed.  And I’d also let everyone know that the focus of today’s call is on the Secretary’s upcoming trip.  A transcript of this call will be posted on state.gov later this morning.

At this point, it is my pleasure to welcome the Assistant Secretary for the Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Dr. Karen Donfried, who will be your briefer today.  To start us off, the assistant secretary is going to give an overview of the trip and then we will take a few of your questions.

And with that, I’d now like to turn it over to Assistant Secretary Donfried to kick us off.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Thanks so much, J.T.  And welcome to everyone on the call.  I’m impressed that you’re all joining us on this day after Thanksgiving, and I hope you had a wonderful celebration yesterday.

As you all know, on Monday the Secretary will first travel to Riga, Latvia, and he will meet there with Latvia’s president, Latvia’s prime minister, as well as the foreign minister.  This will give the Secretary the chance to strengthen our bilateral ties and also discuss our commitment to European and Baltic security.  A key focus will be how we can work together in responding to challenges like Belarus and Russia, and other topics such as economic cooperation and Holocaust issues.

While in Riga, the Secretary will participate in the NATO foreign ministerial, where he will reiterate the United States’s steadfast commitment to NATO and to our solemn Article 5 commitment.  I expect ministers will discuss the important opportunities and challenges the alliance faces, in particular, Russia’s large and unusual troop movements near Ukraine.  We’ll also work to update NATO’s Strategic Concept by next summer’s summit, review the lessons learned from Afghanistan, consult on effective arms control, and other regional security matters.

Secretary Blinken will engage with Secretary-General Stoltenberg to underscore the importance of strengthening transatlantic unity and working together with allies to address the range of challenges in today’s threat environment – from support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression to strategic competition to transnational threats like malicious cyber activities and the security impact of climate change.

On December 1, the Secretary will continue on to Stockholm to attend the OSCE Ministerial Council and meet with Swedish officials there.  He will reaffirm his support for a strong bilateral relationship with Sweden and explore ways to achieve shared objectives on climate change, human rights, and the transatlantic security relationship.  The meeting will be an opportunity for the United States to underscore our support for Sweden in its role as OSCE chairperson-in-office.

We will also reiterate our support for OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity among states and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states – concepts that are fundamental for regional prosperity and peace.

At the OSCE meeting, the ministers will discuss concerns about the Europe Eurasia region security environment and the need to strengthen all three dimensions of security – political/military, economic/environmental, and human.

The Secretary will raise specific concerns once again highlighting Russia’s ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine and occupation of both Ukrainian and Georgian sovereign territory, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and events both in and emanating from Belarus.

He will call on participating states to rebuild military transparency through focused negotiations in 2022 to update the OSCE’s Vienna document – an initiative that has the support of all NATO Allies and many other OSCE participating states.

The Secretary will emphasize and defend the role of civil society and independent media in helping assure respect for democratic principles, of government, human rights, and rule of law in the region.  He will also reiterate the importance of holding the 2022 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – the largest human rights conference in Europe – which Russia blocked from taking place earlier this year.

With that, let me now hand it back over to J.T. to facilitate your questions.  Thanks so much.

MR ICE:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary Donfried.  Operator, would you please go ahead and give the instructions again for getting into the question queue?

OPERATOR:  Certainly.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you have not yet done so, press 1-0 on the phone’s keypad to enter the queue.  Pressing 1-0 a second time will remove you from the queue.

MR ICE:  Okay, and let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams to kick us off.

OPERATOR:  Mr. Wadhams, your line is open.  Go ahead, sir.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks very much.  Assistant Secretary Donfried, can you tell us whether Secretary Blinken has plans to have any bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov while in Sweden?

And then second, can you give us a bit more of an indication about what it is this time that you’re seeing in terms of the Russian troop movements?  You described them as unusual.  We understand the U.S. concern this time around is much greater than it had been previously when there were similar troop movements and buildups in past months, so what is it about this time that’s so much more concerning than it has been in the past?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Thanks so much for those questions.  On the first question about whether the Secretary will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, I don’t have anything to announce for you on that now, so stay tuned on those bilateral meetings that will happen in Riga and Stockholm.

On the question about Ukraine, you’re absolutely right that we have expressed our concern about what is happening on Russia’s border with Ukraine because of these unusual military maneuvers that we have been seeing.  This has been a year where in the spring, in March and April, we also saw a buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border; then, of course, you had the Zapad military exercise, and now again we’re seeing these unusual military maneuvers.  We are always very concerned when we see any unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine.

I can’t speak to Russia’s intentions here, and that is why we are monitoring the region as closely as we are.  And for that reason, we are also continuing to consult closely with Ukraine and also with other partners as well as our allies on this issue, and if we see any escalatory or aggressive action – and this has been true in the past as well – it is of great concern to us.  So we are watching with care what is happening there.  We see the Secretary’s travel next week as a very good opportunity for him to assess this together with our Allies at NATO and many of our partners at the OSCE.

MR ICE:  Let’s go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi.

OPERATOR:  Francesco, your line’s open.  Go ahead, please.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  Thank you, J.T. and Assistant Secretary Donfried.  I think I noticed a small nuance.  You said that the troop movements near Ukraine were large and unusual.  Is the large a new determination?  And does that mean that you’re even more worried today than you were in the past days about those movements, you have had new reports or information to signal that?  And also what is it that can be decided at the NATO meeting to – I mean, you talk about assessing and monitoring, but what can NATO do if those – this escalation happen?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Thanks so much, Francesco.  So when I say large and unusual, I mean, this is what we’ve been tracking over recent weeks.  And the reason we take those kinds of unusual maneuvers seriously is because I certainly remember – I’m sure we all remember – what happened in 2014.  We saw Russia illegally annex part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory when it occupied Crimea, and since that, we have seen ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine.  So whenever we see something out of the ordinary, we are concerned, and this is why we’ve been talking with allies and partners over recent weeks and why we want to continue this conversation at NATO.

And to your question about NATO could do, this will be the topic of conversation when the Secretary is together with his NATO Allies next week.  And I don’t want to prejudge what’ll come out of those conversations, but I know that we see this as an important opportunity for the alliance to show its cohesion and unity at this particular moment.

MR ICE:  Very well, and at this point, let’s go to the line of Kylie Atwood.

QUESTION:  Assistant Secretary Donfried, I have two questions for you.  The first is:  Will Secretary Blinken be providing any new U.S. intelligence with NATO Allies about Russia’s military buildup and activity during next week’s meeting?

And then my second question is:  This morning, President Zelenskyy said that a group of Russians and Ukrainians are planning a coup in Ukraine next week, early December.  Does the United States agree with that assessment based on the intelligence you guys have seen that that planning is underway?

Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Hey, Kylie, thanks for both those questions.  On your question about sharing intelligence, of course, we on a regular basis share intelligence with our NATO Allies, but I don’t have any specific announcements about intelligence we’re sharing at this time, and as you know, we don’t normally tend to talk about things like intelligence-sharing.

Your comment on what we heard this morning from President Zelenskyy – I mean, I can assure you we’re aware of the statements that were made this morning.  We are in touch with the Ukrainian Government to discuss this further, and we’re working to obtain additional information.  So that’s where we are right now.  We are just engaging with our Ukrainian partners on this.  And I think you’re aware that there will be a meeting on both Ukraine and Georgia next week during the NATO foreign ministerial, and that will give us another opportunity also to engage with our Ukrainian partners on this.

MR ICE:  Let’s please go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk.

OPERATOR:  Humeyra, your line is open.  Go ahead, please.

QUESTION:  Hell, thank you.  Happy Thanksgiving.  Dr. Donfried, I have two questions.  One of them is:  We interviewed the Lithuanian foreign minister the other day, and he said at next week’s NATO summit the alliance should find answers to two key questions that I thought that I would put to you.  One is how to deter Russia, and the other one is how to bolster NATO’s borders.  What concrete proposals does the United States have to achieve those two points, for example?

And then my second one is – and I hope you don’t refer me to Pentagon to this because I’m actually asking about wider U.S. policy – I’m wondering if this recent escalation with Russia is prompting the U.S. to more seriously consider deploying permanent troops in NATO’s eastern flank.  One might think the easier would be Poland.  There has already – there has already been an agreement between Poland and the previous administration about this.  Is the U.S. thinking more seriously to do that given the recent escalation?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Sure, thanks so much.  And I think I actually heard three questions there.  One is about how does NATO deter Russia, one is how might NATO bolster its eastern borders, and then this question about deploying permanent troops to NATO’s eastern flank.

So I think that there are various ways to deter Russia, but in a NATO context, the ability of NATO to show allied cohesion when we perceive threats in the European and Euro-Atlantic neighborhood is a fundamental strength the United States has.  The fact that we have countries that are allies that share fundamental values with us, share a similar threat perception and come together to meet those threats is something that we all know President Biden and the administration value deeply.  So I think the alliance coming together and talking about these security threats and challenges is a key part of any deterrence strategy.

The second question about how do we bolster NATO’s borders – as you know, we have been doing this for seven years now.  Enhanced forward presence is a key part of that.  There are many other elements of it as well.  And I do think this is a conversation we continually have at NATO, which is:  Does our – is our force posture aligned with the threats that we perceive?  And I’m going to put a plug in here for NATO’s Strategic Concept, which is a slightly longer-term project.  But we will be having a serious conversation about that strategic concept when foreign ministers meet next week in the run-up to NATO’s summit next June in Madrid.  And it’s really about posturing the alliance for the 21st century and making sure that we are deployed in a way that meets today’s challenges.

And this relates directly to your last question about permanent troops on NATO’s eastern flank.  As you know, the way we talk about our force posture on NATO’s eastern flank is we talk about a persistent presence, and that is where we are today.  There is a global force posture review underway, and I will refer you to the Pentagon for that.  But to my knowledge, there are no announcements that we are poised to make about a permanent U.S. presence on NATO’s eastern flank.

And I will say I had the opportunity to participate in the Bucharest Nine ministerial a few weeks ago, and that was a really wonderful opportunity for me representing the Secretary and the administration to hear directly from our eastern flank allies about their perception of the threat.  And I will say I think those eastern flank allies very much appreciate enhanced forward presence that NATO has deployed, and I do think we will continue to revisit and evaluate how we are postured on NATO’s eastern borders.  So thanks.

MR ICE:  And let’s go to the line of Vivian Salama.

OPERATOR:  Vivian, your line is open.  Go ahead, please.  One moment, it didn’t open; a little technical glitch.  One second, please.  Okay, thank you for your patience.  You are open now.  Go ahead, please.

QUESTION:  Hi, everyone.  Hi, Assistant Secretary; thank you for doing this.  So I understand that you may be reluctant to speak about contingency plans and options, but we hear a lot about this just diplomatic side of things, and it’s beneficial to us to kind of hear from you even just what the options are for the United States as far as taking action, whether as a deterrent or sort of forward-leaning against Russian aggression.  And so if you could talk about – are sanctions an option?  I’m not saying – we’re not asking today, like, you’re going to impose sanctions.  Obviously, you can’t go that far, but can you tell us:  Are you sanctions on the table?  Is providing military support or stepping up diplomatic efforts, which you have talked about, those kinds of things?  I mean, if you could just sort of kind of kick through some of the options that you do have, that would be helpful, and whether or not we might see any deliverables as far as Riga in terms of collective action against Russian aggression or in support of Ukraine.  Either of those things would be very helpful.  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Thanks so much.  And I do understand where the question is coming from, and I know people want to know, “All right, what are you going to do?”  We —

QUESTION:  Not so much what you want to do, Assistant Secretary – sorry to interrupt you – but even just what are your options.  That’s really what we want to know.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  And beyond that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Well, as you can appreciate, all options are on the table.  And there’s a toolkit that includes a whole range of options.  What we’re doing now is monitoring the region closely, consult with our allies and partners on how do we deter Russian action.  I mean, ideally that is what we want to be doing right now, is we would not want to see any Russian military incursion into Ukraine.  And this is also why we continue to repeat a mantra that I will repeat right now – I haven’t done it in response to the previous question, but I think it’s really important that the United States continue to say that we support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters.  That commitment is unwavering, and that is a commitment that I believe every NATO Ally shares.

So it’s making clear there is ally cohesion around this support for Ukraine, that it is not acceptable for Russia to continue to potentially use military action against Ukraine.  And again, I just would remind us that we experienced this in 2014.  We saw Russia illegally annex Crimea.  We have ongoing violence and disruption in Ukraine’s east.  This is why we are taking this unusual military maneuvering on Russia’s border with Ukraine so seriously.  When we sit down with NATO Allies next week, we will talk about our assessment of what’s happening on Russia’s border with Ukraine, and we will begin that conversation of:  What are the options that are on the table, and what is it that NATO as an alliance would like to do together?

So do stay tuned as to what comes out of those conversations next week.  But at this point I think I would simply say we have the toolkit of those options available to us.  And we will make a decision about what is the appropriate decision to make at this time.  Thanks.

MR ICE:  We’ve got time for just a couple more questions.  Let’s please go to the line of Missy Ryan.

OPERATOR:  Missy, your line is open.  Go ahead, please.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  It sounds from the discussion today that it’s going to be very much a Europe and Russia-focused trip.  But I’m just wondering if there will also be discussion at either gathering of people from Afghanistan who are seeking to emigrate to Europe or the United States, and whether Secretary Blinken or anyone from the State Department is going to be raising that with European countries who might take some of the people trying to get out of Afghanistan.  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Thanks so much for that.  Afghanistan will be a topic actually both at the NATO foreign ministerial and at the OSCE ministerial.  And let me start broadly just to set the stage and then come to your specific question, just so I can put it in context.  I would say that the deteriorating humanitarian, security, and political situation in Afghanistan and the regional impacts of that are something that the Biden administration is highly concerned about.  And we are going to continue to support, in the OSCE context, engagement on Afghanistan through its field presence in Central Asia and through its programs on everything from counterterrorism to democratization to human rights.

In terms of evacuees, as you know, in August the United States mobilized an unprecedented global effort through our diplomatic channels to evacuate U.S. citizens, personnel from partner nations, and at-risk Afghans from Kabul.  And that work, which was around the clock to maximize evacuations and help relocate at-risk Afghans, has not ended.  We are still very committed to trying to get at-risk Afghans out of Afghanistan, and we are working very closely with partner countries on the ground in Kabul while we’re also putting together a global network that includes locations in other places to assist with those ongoing relocation efforts.

As you know, thousands of people have passed through the temporary transit locations that we’ve established at U.S. and joint bases in Europe – that included Germany, Italy, Kosovo, and Spain – as we were helping those individuals to make that – their way to safety.  We will continue to make good on that pledge to U.S. citizens, to lawful permanent residents, and to our Afghan allies to whom we have a special commitment with a legal pathway to entry into the United States.  So we will continue to help them depart Afghanistan if and when they choose to do that.

As you also know, over the past two decades the United States has consulted regularly and actively with our NATO Allies about developments in Afghanistan.  And we – at this NATO foreign ministerial, we’ll be having a conversation about the lessons learned from that mission in Afghanistan.  So we’ll both be trying to see what we can learn from those 20 years and also affirm our commitment to ensuring that Afghanistan does not ever again become a safe haven for terrorist operations aimed at NATO countries.

So all of those elements of the Afghanistan conversation will be part of the focus both at the NATO ministerial in Riga and at the OSCE ministerial in Stockholm.  Thank you.

MR ICE:  I think we have time for just one more question.  Let’s go to the line of David Herszenhorn.

OPERATOR:  David, your line is open.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.  Can you hear – thanks very much, and Happy Thanksgiving and hello from Brussels, where you can imagine we’ve been in briefings all day long at NATO headquarters.  Assistant Secretary, I wonder if you could tell us:  If the United States is so committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, how is it possible that nearly eight years after Crimea there is not a plan on the shelf ready to go in the event that Russia violates the territorial integrity of Ukraine again, as they had before?  And also, if you could tell us:  Does the U.S. support, will the Secretary support, the calls within the last day by the Polish president and the Ukrainian prime minister for immediately increased air policing by NATO, new ships in the Black Sea – return of ships to the Black Sea, and more troops deployed in the forward presence in the Baltics and Poland?  Thanks so much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Well, thanks, David.  And I don’t know why you think there aren’t contingency plans.  I think that NATO has, over the past seven years, done a lot to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.  And surely you’re familiar with U.S. efforts in support of Ukraine.  I mean, we have given military assistance to help Ukraine defend itself over the past seven years.  As you know, when President Zelenskyy visited the White House just a couple of months ago, there was an announcement about an additional 60 million in security assistance that the U.S. is giving to Ukraine.  And just this year alone, the United States has given Ukraine over 400 million to help Ukraine defend its territory and its sovereignty.

You’ve seen how NATO as an alliance has changed its deployments to help buttress NATO’s eastern flank.  You’ve seen training for Ukraine through NATO.  There’s – I won’t go through the whole list of things we have done, but I think Ukraine in 2021 looks very different than Ukraine in 2014.  And I’ve just now pointed to military assistance, to military deployments within NATO, but I think it’s also important to look at Ukraine’s reform efforts, because fundamentally this is also about the strength of Ukraine’s democracy.

So I think we need to look at the whole range of engagements with Ukraine and the way —

QUESTION:  Sure, but if I could just answer your question about – the basis of my question is that you and others telling us that the conversation that will happen among ministers in Latvia, in Riga, is about what the consequences will be, which indicates that there is not a clear, set agreement on what consequences Russia would face in the event that there is another invasion of Ukraine.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, but just to give you the basis of the question.  There’s no question the assistance has been there.  It’s a question of the response to Russia in the event that this military mobilization is not just posturing.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  And I think that’s why next week presents such a great opportunity for the alliance, because we will have the foreign ministers together for that conversation of what are we seeing happening on Ukraine’s border with Russia, how do we assess that, and how do we as the NATO alliance want to respond to that.  And that relates to my earlier comment that all options are on the table and it’s now for the alliance to decide what are the next moves that NATO wants to take.

MR ICE:  And with that, we are out of time for today’s briefing.  I would like to thank everyone for dialing in this day after the holiday to join us.  I’d especially like to thank Assistant Secretary Dr. Karen Donfried for joining us.  Thank you, Dr. Donfried.  Very much appreciated.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Everyone gets a gold star for the day-after-Thanksgiving briefing.  Much appreciated.

MR ICE:  (Laughter.)  That’s wonderful.  And with that, on that positive note, we are going to end the briefing, and with that, the embargo is listed.  Have a good rest of your day and have a good weekend.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED:  Thanks, J.T.

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