Briefing with Senior State Department Officials With Traveling Press May 6, 2021 En Route to Joint Base Andrews

MODERATOR: We’ll do this part on background, senior State Department officials. So I thought, [Senior State Department Official One], if you wanted to offer some thoughts on today and some of the broader dynamics, and we’ll take some questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. It was a great day for the Secretary and extremely valuable (inaudible) meetings (inaudible) greetings from President Biden and (inaudible) corruption, strengthening reforms, and (inaudible) strong desire to do more together. Obviously, for the Secretary this was a return to Ukraine, he’d been numerous times in his previous capacities. He met, of course, with Foreign Minister Kuleba, who was – it was their fourth real encounter in these first 100 days. They had a phone call early on and they met at NATO on the margins of the NATO-Ukraine (inaudible) and had a good meeting today. He then went and met President Zelenskyy for the first time, again to pass the President’s greetings after the very warm phone call that the President and President Zelenskyy had just a few weeks ago.

The Secretary underscored, again, that he was focused on renewing the relationship, the partnership between our countries, and underscored the two challenges that Ukraine faces – that is, an external challenge, an external aggression from Russia, which, as you know, has had the largest buildup since 2014 along Ukraine’s borders; and then the internal challenge that remains – that is, reforms to really make Ukraine competitive and to perform and to deliver on behalf of the Ukrainian citizens that elected Zelenskyy, of course, two years ago with record-high ratings. And of course that remains a challenge. We remain committed to partnering with Ukraine on that.

Our mission, which the Secretary was able to engage with through a town hall led by our Charge, Kristina Kvien. Some of you met her. It is still one of our largest platforms in Europe. It is active in just about every sector in supporting Ukrainian efforts, obviously in our interest to see Ukraine thrive. About $750 million a year in U.S. assistance is there, and underscored that we want to continue to do more. But it really is, as he reflected to the president and then to the Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, it’s these reforms more than anything else that will guarantee Ukraine’s success and security, and that is in the eyes of the IMF, the international financial institutions.

Coming from London just, as you know, earlier this week, the G7 also expressed strong support for Ukraine, but we are all quite united as the G7 on the ground, also in Kyiv, in pressing for continuing reforms, particularly in the areas of corporate governance, which, as you know, was brought to the fore by this issue with the Naftogaz board. It drew our concern and the concerns of others, including the IMF, concerns about justice reform, another area that needs to continue to be worked on as one of the more challenging areas that (inaudible) corruption of independent – corruption of institutions, another area where we’ve worked quite hard over the years to help them develop a structure.

So those were the topics that he focused on in those meetings. Earlier in the morning, one of his first meetings was to drop by with other members of the Rada, a selection of opposition parties as well as governing parties, including the speaker, including former President Poroshenko, former Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Who else was there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Mr. Boyko.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Boyko.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible) Holos and then (inaudible), a couple of people, Arakhamia, who is the whip for Servant of the People.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think there were six of them altogether. Arakhamia, Razumkov, you mentioned Boyko, Poroshenko, (inaudible).

Then he had an afternoon session that underscored this focus on corporate governance and anticorruption with some strong proponents of those themes, independent voices that are involved in this effort. And the Secretary heard from them their experiences and what they’re focused on. The church he was able to stop by and see His Beatitude and tour St. Michael’s church and lay a floral (inaudible) at the very moving (inaudible) wall.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The Heavenly Hundred.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, which just underscores how many Ukrainians have been lost since those events of 2014.

MODERATOR: We don’t normally talk about media engagements, but he did – it was important for him to engage with the Ukrainian TV station, just one of a few independent TV stations in Ukraine, and with —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: RFE/RL.

MODERATOR: — RFE/RL, which obviously has come under a lot of pressure. A show of solidarity with RFE/RL.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And it was a Ukrainian RFE/RL reporter.

MODERATOR: Yes, yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Let’s just say there’s a lot of independent media in Ukraine, it’s just (inaudible) reform side and then there’s the Russian (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I think the visit was certainly well received by all of them. President Zelenskyy was quite excited, and so was the prime minister. Everybody was very pleased to (inaudible) this was essentially his first bilateral (inaudible). Obviously COVID was a theme that emerged in each of the meetings (inaudible) continues to struggle, as we all have, but we’re glad we could make this work (inaudible) appropriate COVID protocols.

QUESTION: On the security assistance, was there any indication that the U.S. is going to be expanding its security assistance, either by the kind of weapons that you supply or their request for more offensive weaponry, and is that part —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It came up and it’s something we’re still looking at. We very much – as you know, we’ve provided it and Congress has funded it. There’ll be more, and we’re just looking at —

QUESTION: More on top of the 400? (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t have —

QUESTION: You dropped it the other day.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, when we did the backgrounder. I can’t remember.

QUESTION: But, like, extra or —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The annual amount is significant but we don’t have the figure in front of us, but the question is whether to augment, and there’s clear interest on the Ukrainian side and we have to take it home and look at it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And that’s what the Secretary said. We’ve got to take – we’re going to be following up (inaudible) days.

MODERATOR: I spoke this morning to Igor Novikov, who makes – who’s been – at least in his transcripts made these claims about his really strong feelings that the work with Giuliani slowed down reforms. That was part of the question Barbara asked. And there’s buzz that he’s trying to do that now in the press, and he speaks great English. He’s, like, releasing transcripts to Time and he was on with Andrea Mitchell too. That he’s trying to kind of embarrass people that are still close to Zelenskyy that they looked too eager to potentially work with Giuliani.

I mean, what’s your take on all this right now? Is it still something that they’re dealing with? Are they still doing a lot of finger pointing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think only because you guys come and ask about it. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, I mean, really? Because he’s calling – releasing transcripts, releasing tapes. I mean, trying to —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t feel it resonating in Ukraine. This is something that Ukraine got drawn into, into our domestic politics, (inaudible). And I didn’t find that (inaudible) at all when we (inaudible) kick off those —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It’s irrelevant. It’s irrelevant. Nobody raised it with us. They’re —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: — not thinking about that. They wanted what the Secretary was proposing, which is to rejuvenate the relationship and get back to doing the things together that make them stronger and more democratic.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: As you saw in some of the press remarks by the foreign minister and others, it was a difficult couple of years for Ukraine, for many of them. And they’re very focused on moving ahead and that was definitely the spirit of it and that falls right within the Secretary’s prime mandate, which is to repair, rejuvenate, look for new ways of doing more in our bilateral relationships and partnerships (inaudible).

QUESTION: Can I ask, the Secretary’s response about Russian troops (inaudible) saw a significant number, and Zelenskyy said the same thing. What’s your assessment of Russian intentions? Were they lying when they said that they’d withdrawn the troops or pulled back troops? Is it a matter – what’s the – what’s the threat level right now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, intentions are obviously what you can’t know. What you can see, and in many ways the Russians have made it pretty obvious to see for some time, is this tremendous buildup. They announced and indeed undertook some return to barracks, but it’s not large. There are still tremendous numbers of troops, the highest levels still since 2014, as well as equipment. And so we continue to call on Russia to de-escalate. The Secretary was clear with all of his Ukrainian interlocutors in crediting them for not taking the bait, as he’s said before, for their restraint in their responses. But de-escalating is what we’ve called on Russia to do and we’re clear-eyed about this I think, and we’ll keep a close eye on it, as the Secretary said.

QUESTION: Let me just pursue that. Is there a sense that you have about what the Russians are actually trying to do? Is this a way to psych out the Ukraine or the relatively new administration in the U.S. or is it something more?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That becomes sort of speculation and analysis of what are Putin’s intentions. In any situation, there’s some that will (inaudible) to the Russians a broad exercise (inaudible) to that, response to our DEFENDER 21, lots of different (inaudible). But clearly it’s a threat. Clearly it’s real. And clearly the Ukrainians and (inaudible) feel that as they face these twin threats, the external and the internal challenges, (inaudible) agenda. But we’re determined to stick with them as partners and work on this.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: If I could just add, I think intentions or non-intentions, what’s significant here is there has been some withdrawal but there’s still enough there that if the Russians chose to ramp it up any day of the week, they could (inaudible), and therefore the threat remains (inaudible) and the intimidation (inaudible).

QUESTION: Could you speak of the message (inaudible) anticorruption (inaudible)? Was there a noticeable reflection on (inaudible) that he’d obviously just made about (inaudible) right before you guys came? And were there any sort of markers laid out as far as security assistance or looking to membership in NATO? Was there a clear path laid out (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The message was one of underscoring (inaudible) as an example of an area of concern. There (inaudible) something as a step back from an area where they’ve had some real progress. It’s not about personalities. It’s about procedures. It’s about transparency and the kind of oversight structures that they’ve created and for which there was credit given over time. Those were things that have been pointed to as positive steps in Ukraine by us, by others in the international community, by the international financial institutions. And the Secretary reminded them that this is what reflects on their reputation, on their investment grades, how the foreign direct investors will look at Ukraine. And I think Zelenskyy, all of them, took that very much on board. They’re going to make their own decisions, obviously. They’re sovereign leaders (inaudible) sovereignty. But this is part of the lesson about how you deal with democracy and the successful (inaudible) for attracting investment, stability, and most importantly, delivering for your people who voted (inaudible).

QUESTION: (Inaudible) want to follow up on that. When you were speaking with (inaudible), was there – I mean, talk a little bit about that conversation as far as was there a feeling of frustration that things were moving in a poor direction, or was there – regarding what just happened?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would say that I was actually struck, given how they come from very, very different places, the folks who were in the room, there was a lot of unity in —

QUESTION: What do you mean exactly? Different places, like —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Different politically. Politically.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Different politically as far as places on the political spectrum. Everybody from the folks who are asserting a more reformist (inaudible), to Poroshenko, the predecessor, to Boyko, who is (inaudible), to Tymoshenko, who has been in opposition for a long time. There was a lot of emphasis on the amount of legislation that they have been pumping out together. And we didn’t have infinite time, and they were also with each other, but they were talking about the fact that they have gotten their land reform bill done, that they have gotten their banking done, their e-declaration done.

So I think what struck me was it is a more professional Rada than it was in early years in terms of knowing how to do things. I think where we all were, where they were and where we were, was there’s a whole lot left to do. Some of what they have done needs better implementation, and then some things will be (inaudible) as we saw with Naftogaz. So —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The Secretary reminded them of that, that hey, passing these laws is great, important; being able to legislate – and that’s something this Rada has shown it is – it can actually produce and find the ability to build coalitions and pass legislation; but then implementation is what’s key. Implementation and maintaining kind of the appropriate transparency, of actually living up to the (inaudible). It was a good give and take, I think. And I (inaudible) where these six opposition (inaudible) six mixed – they weren’t all – some were from a different party, but there were far more – we had (inaudible) and they were focused on getting a (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: In the early days of this round of reforms, so after Maidan and all of that, the Rada really looked to the government to set the agenda and do the initiative, and sometimes they went along and sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes they had these (inaudible). You got the feeling with this crew that they were not that interested in waiting for the government. You can draw your own conclusions from that, but it was interesting, I thought.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It was an interesting session, and the Secretary was very pleased that we could do that. And then you (inaudible) and have a single day, a full schedule, as you know, and obviously it’s (inaudible) speak to the press. (Laughter.) He met the obvious interlocutors from the government side of the table to do this and then talk to the experts from essentially civil society focused on anticorruption and oversight, corporate oversight, and the importance of that. It was a good meeting.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So just one example of this where there has been concern that the national anticorruption bureau, the NABU, which was established in the early days to be an independent measure of corruption that there – the head of it might be fired, that its powers stripped by the constitutional court. And they were quite proud of the fact in the Rada that they have done a refresh of the legislation that empowers the NABU, and they did that across party lines, which is interesting.

QUESTION: We’ve heard as much about Donbas and the situation in the east with the separatists, the Kremlin-backed separatists. I wonder if you could talk about trying to change the dynamic there. I mean, that’s been – looks like it’s been stalemated for many years now. My sense of the Minsk process is it’s not in great shape. You tell me.

Is the administration bringing new ideas on that – pushing the government to make any concessions, or hoping to talk this through with Putin? Can you just give us a sense of your strategy on it right now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, you’ll remember that the Normandy format works to try to implement the Minsk agreement – the German-French initiative – and it came up in the discussions with German and French counterparts in London and earlier, and the challenges they’re having. The Russians are not playing ball, as it were. They’ve been trying to have a ministerial-level meeting, and it’s not something that the Russians have responded to in any way.

QUESTION: The Europeans are trying to have a —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: They have pushed to have a ministerial-level meeting.

QUESTION: And the Russians don’t want to do it?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And they haven’t gotten a response. There – it was December of 2019 when Zelenskyy participated along with Putin and Merkel and Macron in a Normandy format summit. But they’re frustrated. They see that. The Germans and the French are frustrated as well.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think I would just add there that I think part of our intention was just to hear —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: — what the Ukrainians had to say about whether the process is bearing fruit. They clearly would like us more involved. They have some ideas. We have to, I think, look at and get – go a little bit deeper with them on what’s working, what hasn’t worked —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: — in this period where we really haven’t been involved before we come back and decide how to invest in it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And as the Secretary pointed out, the new team is still forming, getting into place. Obviously, he pointed out he brought back – how did he put it? (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)

QUESTION: But it’s not as – it doesn’t sound like there is a new strategy?

MODERATOR: I will say the refueling is finished, so a very quick last one.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: What did you guys think of Kurt Volker’s piece a few days ago about the troop buildup and how essentially this – I mean, if I remember correctly, kind of a great success for Putin and showed that nobody else was really willing to stand up to him or knows what they want to do to counter him.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, if I started commenting on every commentary —

QUESTION: Not every. Just this one. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I think we’ve made very clear our view of the Russian buildup (inaudible) make sure the reckless and aggressive nature of that and called upon them along with so many others in the international community to de-escalate. As the Secretary said, we will watch this very closely. We remain concerned about the level of troops and equipment that is there.

And that’s what we discussed with Ukrainian interlocutors today. It’s what we discussed certainly when we were in NATO three weeks ago. And we continue to be in touch with partners and obviously what the Ukrainians are concerned about, at the same time reminding them that they have this internal challenge as well, and they’ve got to keep eyes on both of those, because the long term – and this is what the Secretary reminded them of – their reputation, their credibility, is going to be based largely on what they’re doing internally. And it helps us to be able to promote and show the positive developments in Ukraine when they stick with these reform efforts, recognizing how challenging many of them are.

We reminded them, as the Secretary did, that they have strong bipartisan support in Congress, and our Congress too. The Rada is very aware of that. And so that’s really what we focus on, just not the lots of commentators out there.

MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official Two]. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official One].

QUESTION: Thank you both.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you.

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