December 4, 2021

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a Joint Press Availability

31 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Kyiv, Ukraine

Office of the President of Ukraine

MODERATOR:  (Via interpreter) Dear representatives of the media, you have your opportunity to put questions to president of Ukraine and State Secretary of the U.S.

PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY:  (Via interpreter) I would like to apologize for infringing upon your rule procedure, but a couple opening remarks from myself and Secretary of State.  I would like to talk essentially and without emotions – unlikely emotions.

The United States of America is represented at this level for the first time in my life.  I have State Secretary here and Victoria Nuland and all the team.  This is the first meeting, but I have this feeling of familiarity because the team has been well-versed in our developments.  You’re well posted on all the details.  Sometimes, this is a disadvantage, but – to have such well-informed interlocutors, but your – the awareness of the U.S. team on the developments in the Ukrainian Donbas is striking.  And they’re supporting us not just in words but in deeds – our sovereignty, our territorial integrity.

And quite frankly, I’d like to say that we’ve made many steps to stop the buildup and escalation, the recent buildup along the Ukrainian borders.  And so we prevented some developments, especially coming from this side of the temporarily occupied areas in the Donbas and the Crimean peninsula that belongs to Ukraine.  And we discussed the issues not just of our occupied territories and the illegal annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation, but also Nord Stream 2.  This is of utmost importance and a very sensitive issue for Ukraine.

There are different positions imaginable in Europe.  Unfortunately, there is not always coinciding with the Ukraine’s stance, but we have a full understanding with the United States, and their sanction policy is very well present and appreciated by us.  Some things we have achieved, some where we have covered part of the distance, but the meeting has been very essential and significant.

We hope that this is going to be a fundamental year of our bilateral relations.  This is fundamental for Ukraine because this is the 30th anniversary of our regained independence, and under the auspices of this, we will open the Crimean Platform, the first venue to support Ukrainian Crimea and de-occupy the peninsula.  I invited President Biden and Vice President of the U.S.  We believe that this year, the year of such symbolic developments for Ukraine, the United States by all means will be with us and play – pay us a visit officially and not so officially.

Thank you very much.  The floor is yours.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Mr. President, thank you very, very much.  Thank you for your hospitality, thank you for already some very, very good and detailed meetings.  I’m particularly delighted to be back in Kyiv in Ukraine.  And I really came, as I told you, on one of my first trips as Secretary of State to convey personally on behalf of President Biden how deeply we value our friendship, our partnership with Ukraine.  And I think we are in the process of really reinvigorating that partnership.  We are proud to stand by your side to secure a prosperous and democratic future for all the people of this country.

And as the president told you when you spoke, and as I reiterated today, we are committed to Ukraine’s independence, to its sovereignty, to its territorial integrity.  And by the way, I’m pleased to note that that sentiment was very much shared by all of our colleagues at the G7 meeting that I just came from in London.  To some extent, what we’re doing today here reflects the breadth and depth of the relationship we have because even in the short amount of time that we’re here today, I was able to see leaders of the Rada this morning.  Had a very good meeting with my good friend, the foreign minister.  We’ve been working very closely together for – since I came to office.

I managed to visit the majestic St. Michael’s Monastery and was very grateful that his beatitude gave me a tour.  We were able to pay tribute to those who’ve lost their lives defending Ukraine’s democracy, and it’s very, very moving to be at the wall, to see the pictures of these individuals.  Monuments are powerful things, but I think this is especially powerful because you see in those pictures each life, and you think of the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the children who have lost their loved ones because they were defending Ukraine.  And it’s very, very, very powerful.

I’ll have an opportunity to see the prime minister as well.  We’ll be meeting with representatives of your very strong civil society.  And in all of this, I think it just shows the breadth of what we’re doing together.

As the president said, we had very wide-ranging discussions.  We talked about Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.  I emphasized the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to supporting the vital work that Ukraine is undertaking to advance reforms, to tackle corruption, to implement a strong reform agenda based on the shared democratic values we have.  We know from our own experiences we talked about, that the work of reforming institutions is hard.  There are powerful interests lined up against reform and against anticorruption efforts.  Those include external forces like Russia but also internal forces like oligarchs and other powerful individuals who are pursuing their own narrow interests through illegitimate means at the expense of the interests of the Ukrainian people.  And we know that effectively combating corruption is one of the most important issues to the Ukrainian people and it’s crucial to improving their lives, from the services they rely upon to the opportunities they are able to pursue.

So we talked about a number of areas where this work is so important: corporate governance, transparency, the integrity and independence of the anticorruption bodies, the judiciary, and we had a very good – a very good exchange on all of that.

Let me just say also that we spent some time talking about the threat that Russia continues to pose to Ukraine.  We’ve been watching this very, very closely and very, very carefully.  We’re proud to have supported Ukraine in the face of years of Russian aggression and pressure, from the invasion of Crimea to hostilities in the Donbas.  And of course, Ukraine was tested again just weeks ago this spring as Russia pushed more forces to Ukraine’s border than at any time since 2014 when it invaded.  And I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you.  Partners do as well.  I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago.  And we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions.

We’ll continue to strengthen our security partnership in close collaboration with you to make sure that Ukraine can defend itself against aggression.  We’re aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there, significant equipment remains there.  We’re monitoring the situation very, very closely.  As I said, regardless of the movement that Russia is making back and forth, one thing is tragically constant, and that is that there are casualties every day along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine, and cyber attacks, abuses of its place in the seas, all of this is a daily occurrence.

And ultimately, let me just say in conclusion that we oppose Russia’s destabilizing actions toward Ukraine for the same reason we believe these anticorruption and rule of law reforms are so important, because corrupt interests and Russian aggression both seek in different ways to do the same thing, and that is to take away from the Ukrainian people what is rightfully theirs: their right to make their own decisions, to use their resources as they see fit, and whether that be resources, territory, justice, or simply the ability to chart the country’s future, those are decisions for a sovereign Ukraine and the Ukrainian people to make, and no one else.

So Mr. President, again, it’s so good to be here, but also so good to have an opportunity to work with you and to really reinvigorate the partnership between our countries.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  (Via interpreter) We have time for two questions from the Ukrainian media, Ukraine TV network.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  (Via interpreter) So I have two.  My questions to President Zelenskyy and Secretary Blinken:  Mr. President, can you tell us how we will deepen the military cooperation with the United States?  Have you discussed this with the Secretary of State here?  And the second question:  Have you discussed the opportunity to meet Joe Biden?  Because it’s such – Ukraine has insisted upon such opportunity.

(In English.) Mr. State Secretary, the same questions I have to you.  Have you discussed with the Ukrainian president strengthening and deepening of military support of Ukraine?  Because we’re faced with ongoing Russian aggression.  And the second – my question is about how do you estimate the oaths of our president to meet with the President of the United States Joe Biden?  Because as you know, our country is willing to have this meeting.  Thank you.  We would highly appreciate this possibility.  Thank you.

PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY:  (Via interpreter) Well, thank you for the question, and two in one.  Let me start with the latter part.  I have discussed this already.  I mentioned it at the very beginning in my talking points.  Yes, I invited President Joe Biden to officially visit Ukraine.  This year, this is our 30th anniversary of the regained independence.  I don’t know what will the format of this meeting exactly.  It depends on our both countries.  But the invitation is accepted, I understand, and I believe that the meeting will happen.  It is very important for both our countries.

Now, speaking of the military support and financial support and technical assistance coming from the U.S. for Ukraine, yes, it is happening.  It is unfolding.  I would like to thank for the bipartisan and bicameral support coming from the U.S.  We increased the military, the financial support.  Indeed, we discussed separately the format of support of – as – which is fundamental, the alliance issue, and possible bilateral very serious agreement.  But this is for the future to tell; it is too early to discuss any detail.

And we also discussed the issue of security in the Black Sea and Azov Sea regions, and we can see some joint action there.  One of the fundamental ideas, I think – well, I cannot discuss it publicly yet.  We have to reconcile this idea, finalize it, and then we will come to the public with it.  But we can see support in a very important point of development of our history for our nation, for our people.  It is very important for our people to feel support of our partners.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And thank you very much.  So two things.  Yes, we – as the president said, we discussed in some detail the support that we’re providing, we’ll continue to provide to Ukraine to continue to strengthen its security, its defenses.  And that’s something that we are working on very, very actively, and, by the way, other strong supporters of Ukraine are looking at the same thing.

And I very much appreciated the invitation that the president extended to President Biden, which of course I’ll share with the President as soon as we get back to Washington.  I know that he looks very much forward to the opportunity to meet, especially after the very good conversation that you had.  I know he will welcome the opportunity at the right time to come back to Ukraine, where he spent much time in the past.

As you all know, we continue to face challenges with COVID-19 and – that make travel challenging.  We’ll be testing the proposition soon when the President makes his first trip.  We’ve been – he’s been in office for more than four months and we, of course, have not yet had the opportunity to travel, so – but we’ll be doing that soon.  And I know that at some point, he will very much want to, of course, see you and return to Ukraine.

MR PRICE:  We’ll turn to Barbara Usher of the BBC.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Here we are.  Just a few follow-up questions on that.  On security, you mentioned that the Russians had not withdrawn all their forces; in fact, left a sizable force there.  What – both of you – what is your assessment of the threat level, especially as NATO is beginning a series of military exercises in the region?

On U.S. support, you both talked, I think generally, about strengthening military assistance, a possible NATO agreement, but nothing concrete at the moment.  So if you could confirm that there’s no new steps on the military and NATO side, but is there anything new to announce about an expanded diplomatic role for the United States when it comes to the Minsk peace talks?  I know that’s something that you’ve been looking for.

And then finally, about reform, Rudy Giuliani is back in the news.  Was his involvement here, President, a setback for the anticorruption reform?  And can you respond to U.S. criticism of the firing of the Naftogaz board, which the State Department has said is a setback for the anticorruption reform?

And Mr. Blinken, will that move – will that affect in any way assistance tied to reforms?  Thank you very much.

PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY:  (Via interpreter) Thank you.  Where are you?  (Laughter.)  I see you put the question.  Face the answer.

Well, thank you very much for your question or questions, in plural.  First of all, about the number of the force and the contingent of the Russian military presence along the borders, you put this question to us both or Secretary Blinken alone?  Well, both of us, all right.

What we see is so far, despite the buildup and the contingent and the equipment and the weapons in the Crimean Peninsula and the temporarily occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions and also along the borders between Ukraine and Russia, the military strength and equipment, we have tens of thousands of units and members of the personnel.  That’s what we have, and our intelligence and our professional military can see 3,000 to 3,500-strong force, which is being withdrawn now from the territory of the temporarily occupied annex Crimea.  This is it, so we can imagine a threat.  We do not want any surprises there.

At the same time, I would like to tell you the truth.  We have fewer sniper shots fired, and glory be to all our supporters, and thank God for that because sniper fire is responsible for the majority of our casualties and dead.

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.)

PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY:  (Via interpreter) You don’t hear?

QUESTION:  There was an interruption in the translation, but it’s okay.  Continue.

PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY:  Russian translators, they’re here.  (Laughter.)  They’re everywhere.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  An interruption – a Russian interruption in the translation (inaudible).

PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY:  Okay.

(Via interpreter) So this is – this is – well, I have answered that, and you can see fewer sniper shots fired.  And unfortunately, we have more UAVs coming from the separatist side in temporarily occupied Donbas.  Now, speaking of – you asked me about Rudy Giuliani being back and his hand in – and I’m not sure what – Naftogaz?  Because I didn’t know —

QUESTION:  Those were two separate questions.  So the question was:  Was his involvement here at the time, was that a setback for anticorruption reform?

PRESIDENT ZELENSKYY:  Yeah, ah, okay.

(Via interpreter) Well, quite frankly, I think that – well, I – I’m sorry.  I’d like to be as correct as I can, but I’m no – I don’t know how aware are you of the reforms made before our team came to office and while we are in office.  The anticorruption court had to be introduced and become operational.  That was done in – during my presidency.  National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, NABU, is now independent.  Any case should be finalized.  If it is not adjudicated, there is no sentence and there is no outcome.  So it should – it is 50/50.  One hundred percent success is putting all the corruption – the corrupt people behind bars, but this can only be done by the specialized anticorruption court.

The land reforms, for 30 years it was discussed under the previous presidency.  And this is not just a law voted for.  This is 11 new bills and the 12th is in making, and this is the land reform for you, a big reform in Ukraine.  Now we have this special competition for the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office.  And the Constitutional Court should be reset.  It used to work against the people of Ukraine.  And I’m very open that the superpowers for the Constitutional Court judges were provided by the previous president, the previous administration.

But let’s not talk about the past.  Let bygones be bygones and let’s discuss the future.  We have many developments in the parliamentary pipeline: the bill on the water transport which is fundamental, the banking law and fundamental reforms.  A lot has been done.  So I don’t understand where the setback is because I’m – I think we are quite on schedule.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  In terms of the threat, it remains.  Russia has pulled back some forces, but significant forces remain at Ukraine’s border.  It has pulled back some equipment, but significant equipment remains near Ukraine’s border.  And so Russia has the capacity on fairly short notice to take aggressive action if it so chooses, and so we are watching this very, very carefully.  We’re in close contact.  I must tell you that I admire the restraint that Ukraine has shown in the face of these provocative actions, in the face of this aggression.  And as we were discussing a few minutes ago, Ukrainians continue to lose their lives on a regular basis, and yet the restraint is very, very real and very much appreciated.  Ukraine has not taken to the provocations by Russia.  So we’re very focused on this, as are many allies and partners.  This is the subject of extensive discussion at the most recent NATO meetings, and as well at the meetings of the G7 just in the last two days.

In turn, we are, as I said, actively looking at strengthening even further our security cooperation and our security assistance to Ukraine.  Nothing to announce today, but it’s something that we’re very actively looking at.

We’ve – we also discussed the diplomacy, the Minsk process and commitments that were made, and we’ll always continue to explore ways to see if there are opportunities to help advance the diplomacy.  But there again, Russia continues to be the recalcitrant party in not engaging in good faith in trying to resolve the – both Crimea, of course, and the Donbas, and restoring what is rightfully Ukraine’s, which is its border and its territorial integrity and sovereignty over its – over all of Ukraine.

Finally, we talked extensively about reform efforts and how important those are.  As I said, when you look at it, really, Ukraine faces twin challenges: aggression from outside coming from Russia, and in effect, aggression from within coming from corruption, oligarchs, and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people.  And these two things are linked because Russia also plays on that internal aggression, using corruption and using individuals to try to advance its interests as opposed to those of the Ukrainian people.  And in that context, we talked about the importance of continuing to move forward with corporate governance.  That’s tremendously important, including with regard to Naftogaz, we – but beyond Naftogaz, other major institutions.

We talked about the importance of a strong, independent anticorruption board.  We talked about the importance of moving forward with reforms of the judiciary and the way judges are selected. We talked about the important work that’s being done in the Rada right now on reform of the security services.  The bill on reform got its first reading.  That’s a very positive development.  As the president said, it’s also important to note that there’s been – just as there are significant remaining challenges, there’s been real progress as well.  The land reform the president talked about, I think, is very significant, new laws focused on dealing with illicit gains, new laws focused on reforming parliamentary immunities.  These are very, very significant as well.

The last thing I’d say is that the laws are very important, but so is their implementation.  And I think from what we hear, the Ukrainian people are looking to see that the laws, once passed, are actually implemented, including against corrupt actors.  Thank you very much.

MODERATOR:  (Via interpreter)  Thank you very much.  This concludes our meeting, ladies and gentlemen.

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