Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on Russia
(The White House – whitehouse.gov – Via Teleconference – 1:11 P.M. EST – Jan. 8, 2022)
MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. And thanks for joining us on a Saturday.
Today’s call will be on background, attributed to a “senior administration official,” and the contents will be embargoed upon [until] conclusion.
For your information only, the speaker today is going to be [senior administration official]. Over to you for some opening comments.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, [senior administration official]. And thanks, everybody, for taking some time on a weekend. So, I’ll say a few things and then I’m happy to take some questions.
I want to start off by directing everyone’s attention to Secretary Blinken’s public remarks yesterday, which I think are sort of the fullest articulation we’ve made of where things stand at the minute.
Because there seems to be some confusion, as well as at least some inaccurate reporting about what the plan is for the Strategic Stability Dialogue, I wanted to try to explain how we think that is likely to proceed when it gets underway tomorrow.
We’ve said three things from the moment Russia first published its two so-called “draft treaties”:
First, that we would have our own concerns to raise. This is critical, since, as anyone who is familiar with the history understands, the main threats to European security over the past two decades have come from Russia and the forces with which it is aligned. Russia has twice invaded and occupied its neighbors. It’s interfered in a myriad of elections, including our own. It’s used chemical weapons to conduct assassinations and violated foundational arms control treaties, like the INF. So, any serious conversation with Russia about European security is going to have to address those issues, which, of course, are not referenced in Russia’s draft documents.
Second, there are some things in Russia’s drafts on which we are never going to agree. It is not up to Russia, for example, to decide for other countries who they can to be allies with. Those are decisions only for those countries and the alliance itself. In the context of NATO, we refer to that as the “open door,” and neither Russia nor any other country is going to slam it shut.
But we have also said that there are some areas captured or alluded to in Russia’s documents where we think it might be possible to make progress either bilaterally, through the Strategic Stability Dialogue, or multilaterally, through the NATO-Russia Council or the OSCE, or both. And all of those meetings will get underway next week.
Third, and perhaps most important: Any discussion of those overlapping areas where we might be able to make progress would have to be reciprocal. And by that, we don’t just mean that Russia would have to do something in return for any steps the U.S. or our allies took, but that both sides would need to make, essentially, the same commitment.
And these discussions would also have to be conducted in full consultation with our partners and allies. We would not make any commitments to Russia that address security assistance — sorry — security interests of our allies without that. Period.
I also want to say a word or two about what those potentially overlapping areas are since there has been some erroneous reports on this. In our view — and all of this will be tested in the room, starting tomorrow — they include:
Missiles. Starting in Ukraine, Russia has said it feels threatened by the prospect of offensive missile systems being placed in Ukraine. As President Biden told President Putin, the United States has no intention of doing that. So, this is one area where we may be able to reach an understanding if Russia is willing to make a reciprocal commitment.
Russia has also expressed an interest in discussing the future of certain missile systems in Europe along the lines of the INF Treaty, which Russia violated and the previous U.S. administration withdrew from. We are open to discussing this possibility as well, again, with the full involvement of our allies.
Exercises. In recent years, Russia has conducted a series of ever larger and more coercive military exercises along its border with NATO Allies. Russia says its security is threatened by U.S. and NATO exercises as well. So, we are willing to explore the possibility of reciprocal restrictions on the size and scope of such exercises, including both strategic bombers close to each other’s territory and ground-based exercises as well.
This, by the way, is something we are already doing — or at least that we already should be doing when Russia does what it has committed to under an agreement called “The Vienna Document.”
We have also seen reports of other things the U.S. is open to discussing, like troop numbers or elements of force posture in NATO countries. I want to be clear that this is not on the table.
We won’t know until we get into these conversations, starting tomorrow night, whether Russia is prepared to negotiate seriously and in good faith — as we know our teams will be — or whether they will simply use this as a pretext to claim that diplomacy couldn’t address their interests, so they have to turn to other means.
As we have also said, while we would much prefer to de-escalate diplomatically, if Russia does choose this other path, we are more than ready and totally in line with our partners and allies on the need to impose severe costs on Russia through financial sanctions, export controls that target key industries, enhancements of NATO force posture on Allied territory, and increased security assistance to Ukraine. We will know a lot more in a week or so about which path we may be on.
One last note of caution in advance of the SSD: We’ve all now been through this enough times that we know how Russia is likely to handle messaging around these conversations. I would not at all be surprised if Russian media begins to report, perhaps even while the talks are still underway, that the U.S. has made all manner of concessions to Russia. This is a deliberate attempt to create division among allies, in part by manipulating all of you.
I really urge you not to fall for this — to come to us and we will immediately clarify any Russian claims. But I can assure you in advance that there will be no firm commitments made in these talks, which will be serious and concrete but exploratory in nature. Everything discussed will need to both come back to Washington for consideration and also to be taken up with partners and allies later in the week.
And I’ll leave it there. And happy to take any other questions.
Q Thank you. And thank you, [senior administration officials], for doing this. [Senior administration official], you just touched on something. What exactly is happening tomorrow night? I mean, obviously, we know that the main meeting gets underway on Monday.
And then, what you just touched on, in terms of the messaging during and after that meeting — I mean, doesn’t that just imply that you are going into this knowing that the Russians are not going to be negotiating in good faith?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the first point, the delegations arrive tomorrow and they’re likely to have an initial conversation on Sunday night. But they’re — you’re right that the main meeting is taking place on Monday.
On your second question, I’m not sure I totally understand. What implies that we already know the outcome of the talks?
MODERATOR: Operator, can you please open the line again?
OPERATOR: Alex, your line is open.
Q Okay. Sorry, [senior administration official]. Yes, it seems like there’s obviously optimism that there’s some issues on which you can agree or at least work —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
Q — on down the line. But at the same time, it sounds like it’s a foregone conclusion that they’re going to come out and be disingenuous and lie about what’s actually happening. So, doesn’t that mean that you are going into these meetings, you know, with less optimism than perhaps you should have — I think — assuming that there’s going to be a negative outcome?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, Alex, I think what it means is we’re going into these meetings with a sense of realism, not a sense of optimism. We are willing to see whether or not Russia comes to these talks with a spirit of seriousness, willing to discuss these issues in a concrete, results-oriented way. That’s what the two presidents agreed on their last phone call. And so, we’ll test the proposition in the room.
But what I want to convey by my comments about how they’re likely to message this is that there is not always 100 percent symmetry between how they talk about these things in public and what the nature of the discussion is behind closed doors.
That’s why, you know, I think, our preference all along has been not to put out all of our negotiating positions in the public domain, but to save that for the diplomatic conversations — we think those are likely to go better in that context — and why we are not drawing firm conclusions about what Russia’s positions are going to be, based on the public messaging that they have done up until now.
What they say is important; I’m not trying to dismiss what they say. But what they do and what they say behind closed doors is going to be much more important in determining whether there is a constructive path forward here.
Q Hey, [senior administration official]. Thanks for doing the call. Our friends at the New York Times have a nice story about the sanctions being planned in the event that Putin does launch an invasion. I just want to see if you could confirm some of these things: that the new sanctions will be directed at cutting off the largest Russian financial institutions that depend on global financial transfers, and that it would target some of aerospace and arms — Russian-built fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft systems, and satellite system –space systems. Any help on this? I appreciate it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, Steve, I’m not going to go beyond what I’ve just said in my opening, which is that we’ve been very clear publicly and privately with the Russians that they will face severe costs if they go down the path of military incursion. You know, they will face financial and economic sanctions. They will put — face diplomatic consequences. They will face enhanced NATO force posture on Allied territory. They will face increased security assistance to Ukraine to help Ukraine in its ability to defend its own territory.
You know, they — all of these things are on the table, and we’re not trying to hide from them. But we are also not trying to lay them out in public in detail, because our view is that the path toward the most constructive negotiations is to do that behind closed doors.
But whatever they choose to do, we are prepared for either eventuality.
Q Hey, [senior administration official]. Can you tell us: Does the U.S. see Kazakhstan — the situation in Kazakhstan diverting Putin’s attention away from Ukraine at all?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think that’s really a question for the Kremlin and for the government of Russia, not a question for the United States. What is happening in Kazakhstan is not in any meaningful way about us.
And so, you know, we have been focused on that issue from a few perspectives. We — you’ve seen our public comments expressing concern about the possibility of violence being used against peaceful demonstrators. We are, obviously, also concerned about any U.S. personnel presence in Kazakhstan and are making plans accordingly.
But beyond that, we don’t have a lot to say about the situation. And I think your question is a good one and one very appropriately directed to the Kremlin.
Q Hi, thank you for doing this. I wanted to touch on what you said — what is the (inaudible) that you are willing to negotiate with Russia — as you mentioned, missiles and exercises. So, I’ve heard from my sources that there was some talk about some sort of CFE-type deal. So, you’re saying this is not on the table, just the missiles — like INF — and the exercise parts, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I’m saying is that those are the areas that we think, bilaterally — although they will also have multilateral dimensions and will need to be discussed in those fora as well — bilaterally, we think we can — we have to explore the possibility of making progress with the Russians.
What you’ve just described, you know, something that implicates CFE or these other multinational, international agreements would need to be discussed in a different context, in a broader context. That is not part of our package of discussion topics for the SSP.
Q Thanks, [senior administration official], for doing this. I know you won’t want to give too many details, but if I could try and get a little bit more on both missiles and exercises: How far are you willing to go on your promise not to deploy missiles to Ukraine, whether nuclear or what Russia would call “conventionally strategic implication”? And does that apply at all? Or are you willing that — to apply that to the larger Eastern European theater?
And on exercises, has the administration and its European allies come to some kind of plan for how far you’re willing to go to pull those exercises back? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so, again, I mean, you’re asking a question that really goes to the core of, you know, negotiating strategy. And I think, as any negotiator would tell you, laying out those kinds of things — what is your bottom-line position — in public, the day before the talks are slated to get underway, would not be the best tactic, in terms of trying to achieve the results that you want to achieve.
So, I understand why you’re asking the question. If I were in your shoes, I would ask as well. But from my perspective, from our perspective — with the priority being to have these talks go as well as possible and to try to achieve the outcomes that we’re trying to get to — it would not be in our interests to lay that out here.
But what I can say about it is that we have had significant discussions — intensive discussions, both internally and with our partners and allies — on these questions. And again, nothing will be committed to or agreed to that is not done in, sort of, full consultation and with full participation of any country, any of our allies whose security interests are implicated.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone. That concludes our call.
Friendly reminder that we are on background, attributed to a “senior administration official.” And with that, the embargo is lifted. Thanks.
1:28 P.M. EST