Telephonic Press Briefing with Dr. Karen Donfried, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Moderator:  Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub.  I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing.  Today we are very honored to be joined by Dr. Karen Donfried, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.  We will begin today’s call with opening remarks by Assistant Secretary Donfried, and then we will turn to your questions.  We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.   

 As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  And with that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Donfried for her opening remarks.  Please go ahead, ma’am.   

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Thanks so much, Justin, and thanks to all of you who are joining the call today.  We are deeply concerned with the large Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border, as you all know.  We share that concern with our partners and allies about Russia’s military buildup and Russia’s increasingly harsh rhetoric, pushing a false narrative that Ukraine seeks to provoke a conflict with Russia.  Our allies and partners share these concerns with us. 

We welcome the statements issued by the G7 on December 12, the conclusions from the European Council on December 16, and the North Atlantic Council that same day, noting their grave concerns about Russia’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine and noting that, “Any further aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and would carry a high price,” and that’s a quote.   

At the same time, we’ve been clear that a diplomatic path working in conjunction with our allies and partners remains our preferred way forward.  In that regard, I visited Kyiv, Moscow, and Brussels last week.  The trip was productive and an important opportunity to reaffirm our commitments to Ukraine, encourage Russia to de-escalate and pursue the diplomatic path, and finally, to closely coordinate with our NATO allies and EU partners.   

The President and his national security team’s numerous consultations with allies and partners in recent days and over the past several weeks show the importance we place on transatlantic relationships and our firm commitment to remaining lockstep with Europe.  European solidarity is equally critical at this time as we stand together to show a united front across the Atlantic to any Russian aggression.  We agree that diplomacy, especially through the Normandy format, is the only responsible way forward to resolve the conflict in Donbas by implementing the Minsk agreements.   

While we pursue diplomacy, we must also pursue deterrence, and we’re working on a coordinated and comprehensive approach, including sanctions options, with our allies and EU partners.  We’ve seen Russia’s proposals and comments on their security demands.  The United States is prepared to engage diplomatically through multiple channels, including bilateral engagement, the NATO-Russia Council, and the OSCE.  We have made clear that any dialogue must be based on reciprocity, address our concerns about Russia’s actions, and take place in full coordination with our European allies and partners.   

Let me be clear:  There will be no talks on European security without Europe.  Any dialogue with Russia must address NATO’s and others’ concerns about Russia’s continued threatening behavior and be based on the core principles and foundational documents of European security.   

We will not compromise the key principles on which European security is built, including that all countries have the right to decide their own foreign and security policy course free from outside interference.  We believe talks will be more productive if they happen in an environment of de-escalation instead of escalation.  As President Biden said last week to many of the world’s leaders when he opened the Summit for Democracy, preserving and strengthening the world’s democracies is, quote, “the defining challenge of our time.”  We must all push back against the rise of authoritarianism and those who seek to undermine the international rules-based order that we have all worked so hard to build and to protect.   

Thanks so much.  I’m very happy to take your questions.  

Moderator:  Thank you very much for those remarks.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. 

Our first question was emailed to us in advance, and it comes to us from Yaroslava Frolova with Interfax in Russia.  And the question is:  “Do you see any steps from Ukraine that may show a willingness to de-escalate tension surrounding Ukraine?”  I’m sorry, let me restate that:  “Do you see any steps from Russia that may show a willingness to de-escalate tensions around Ukraine?  And how close is the Biden administration to imposing new sanctions against Russia?” 

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Well, thanks so much for those two questions.  On the first question, about de-escalation, you heard me in my opening remarks. but more importantly in the readout of the conversation that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had yesterday with Yuri Ushakov, the foreign policy advisor to Russian President Putin; we’ve been focused on our concern about Russia’s escalation on its border with the Ukraine, and therefore we have consistently said that we believe diplomacy can only succeed, there can only be substantive progress on the diplomatic front in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation.  So we are calling on Russia to de-escalate.   

And then on the second point, about sanctions, the United States has been working very closely with our European counterparts on specific packages of severe consequences for Russia should it move forward with military escalation in Ukraine.  Together with our allies, we have been clear that we would respond with strong economic measures that we have not considered in the past and that would inflict significant costs on the Russian economy and financial system.   

 So I think we will continue with that close coordination with our European partners and allies, and all of you will have seen in the conclusions of the European Council meeting last week on December 16 that the language there said any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response, including restrictive measures coordinated with partners, and we very much welcome those conclusions.   

Thanks so much.  

 Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Our next question comes to us from Michael Gordon with The Wall Street Journal.  Please go ahead.  

Question:  — and the large presence of —  

Moderator:  Michael, do we have you?  

Question:  Can you —  

Moderator:  There we go.  

Question:  Can you hear me?  

Moderator:  Yes, we do.  

Question:  You mentioned – you mentioned the large presence of Russian troops near Ukraine.  Is that buildup continuing?  Are there more Russian troops near Ukraine today than there were a week ago?  And is the trajectory increasing?  And also you said that the U.S. is prepared to engage with its allies with the Russians on these sets of issues.  No date and time or place has been set for such meetings.  When do you actually expect to hold these meetings?  Where, how, and who – with whom?   

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Okay.  Well, on your first question, about whether we’re continuing to see a larger buildup, I don’t have any new information to share with you today, but we continue to be deeply concerned about the Russian military presence on Ukraine’s borders.   

On the second question, about how we’re moving forward on engaging with Russia diplomatically, specifically on the European security proposals that they’ve put on the table, what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan shared in his call with Russian President Foreign Policy Advisor Ushakov yesterday is that we are ready to move out on these multiple channels, which I mentioned: bilateral engagement, NATO-Russia Council, and the OSCE.   

On the bilateral engagement, we will decide on a date together with Russia, and we believe that that will take place in January.  In the NATO context, there is a meeting of the North Atlantic Council today, and our understanding is that in the NATO context – and of course we will be at that table – the conversation will be specifically about this issue of NATO inviting Russia to a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council.  And then the OSCE will also be moving forward on deciding the modalities that would work best for such a conversation on the OS – in the OSCE.   

So don’t have any specific dates to share with you today, but my sense is that we will be seeing movement in these channels in the month of January. 

Moderator:  Thank you so much for that.  Our next question comes to us from Yaroslav Dovgopol with Ukraine Forum in Ukraine.  Please go ahead.   

Question:  Hello, do you hear me?   

Moderator:  Yes, we do.   

Question:  Thank you for the opportunity.  So my question is for – about military assistance for Ukraine.  So regarding the White House and the State Department, military assistance for Ukraine, including an additional one, was one of the instruments for the U.S. to react to the Russian aggression.  Could you give us more details – for example, when the first tranche can be expected to Ukraine?  What funds will be allocated?  And what additional assistance is going to be provided in the case of aggression?  Thank you.   

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Sure, thanks so much for that question.  As you know, we continuously assess additional military assistance packages, and we will continue to deliver equipment and supplies to Ukraine in the weeks and months ahead through a range of mechanisms, including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and other means as needed.  In his call with President Zelenskyy, President Biden reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ukraine’s independence, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

As part of our efforts, we’re continuing to deliver defensive military assistance to Ukraine, and in fact there was a delivery that took place this past week.  If we look at this year alone, the United States has committed 450 million in security assistance to Ukraine, and the U.S. has committed 2.5 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since 2014.  As President Biden has told President Putin, should Russia further invade Ukraine, we will provide additional defensive materials to the Ukrainians above and beyond that which we are already in the process of providing.   


Moderator:  Great, thank you very much for that.  Our next question comes to us from Dan Sagalyn with PBS News.  Please go ahead, Dan.  

Question:  Thank you very much.  Can you tell me:  Is the United States willing to join the Normandy process?  And do you think the Ukrainians have lived up to their pledges or obligations in the Minsk Agreement?   

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  So, as you know, I was in Kyiv, Moscow, and Brussels last week, and the main purpose of that visit was for me to share that the United States is open to helping facilitate implementation of the Minsk agreements in support of the Normandy process.  So this is not about the U.S. joining the Normandy process; it’s about the U.S. supporting the diplomacy that is already underway.  And we will continue to engage not only with Ukrainians and Russians on this, but also with the French and the Germans and the OSCE.   

I had calls with all of those parties before the trip, and actually this morning I am engaging again with the French and the Germans and the OSCE to share what I heard last week and continue the conversation of how the U.S. can be supportive of facilitating implementation of the Minsk agreements.  And on this, I want to underscore that President Biden has been clear that he thinks the only successful solution to the conflict in the Donbas is a diplomatic one, and that is why he empowered me to go last week and have those conversations and why the United States will continue to support that diplomacy.  Thanks so much. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  And we now have a question from Poland.  This is from Marcin Wrona with TVN Discovery.  Please go ahead.  

Question:  Hi, good afternoon.  Now, you said – and I will try to quote what you said – that there will be no talks about Europe without Europe.  So in what form are you willing to work with the NATO eastern flank?  Because there are some divisions.  Eastern flank was not happy that the President made consultations with Western countries before and after the Putin summit.  So in what shape and form do you want to engage the NATO eastern flank in those talks?  

 Assistant Secretary Donfried:  So I think an enormous asset the United States has is our allies and partners.  And you have heard President Biden, whether it was on the campaign trail, whether it was as he stepped into the White House, and everything he has said this year is about how do we revitalize our alliances and partnerships.   

The key here is Alliance unity and Alliance cohesion.  So there are times when we will engage with the Bucharest Nine or other groupings within the Alliance, but in terms of the Russian security proposals that they have put on the table, we have been clear we will do this with the Alliance at 30.  That certainly was the message of my making that stop in Brussels on Friday and engaging with the North Atlantic Council.  And we will make sure that throughout we are consulting NATO at 30.  And yes, we appreciate the specific geographic position that the eastern flank allies are on, and one of the conversations at NATO is about how do we make sure that we have the right force posture in the eastern and southern part of the Alliance given the concerns we have about Russia’s military buildup, but the key here is Alliance unity and Alliance cohesion. 

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Our next question comes to us from Daria Ryazhskikh with the TASS News Agency.  Please go ahead, Daria. 

Question:  Hello.  Actually, it’s Ivan Pilshchikov; I’m filling in for my colleague Daria.  Well, thank you so much for taking my question.  Dr. Donfried, you mentioned that American-Russian bilateral engagements on security matters might start in January.  Are there any additional details regarding the format of the discussions you could share with us?  I mean, are there any preliminary agreements with the Russian side on the participants?  Thank you so much. 

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  I appreciate the question, and unfortunately I do not have more details on this to share with you at this time.   

Moderator:  Very good.  Our next question comes to us from Kaarel Kressa with Delfi in Estonia.   

Question:  Yes, I have a question about force posture in – on eastern flank, if there is anything concrete about the last – could we expect any additional forces on the eastern flank? 

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  So that will be a conversation that we will have in the NATO context about whether the force posture that we have currently is appropriate for the challenges we are facing.  It’s something that will happen both in the NATO context, something that SACEUR is also looking at.  But I have no announcements today about a changing force posture.   

Moderator:  Okay, and our next question comes to us from Kylie Atwood with CNN.  Please go ahead.   

Question:  Hi.  Thank you, Dr. Donfried, for doing this.  Two questions.  If Russia becomes more aggressive towards Ukraine today or tomorrow or next week, is the U.S. alongside its European allies ready to impose sanctions immediately on Russia?  And then my second question is:  Biden administration officials have discussed being open to multiple channels of diplomacy with Russia, and I’m wondering if a face-to-face meeting between President Putin and President Biden could possibly be part of that diplomacy.  Thank you.    

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  So on your first question about if there were to be further Russian aggression tomorrow against Ukraine, are we poised to act immediately – that is the reason the United States has been working so closely with our European allies for several weeks now to make sure that we are in a position where there is agreement between us, there is clarity about what we will do in the face of Russian aggression, and that we are prepared to move immediately.  And I would again point you to the statement from the G7, from the European Council, from NATO, being explicit – and this is particularly important in the G7 context and the European Council context – that any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response.  I think that is a very clear signal that we are poised to move in a dramatic way if Russia does undertake further military aggression against Ukraine.   

And then your second question was about the different formats that we’re using, but I’m now forgetting what the specific question was.  Is it – or, Justin, did you capture that second question?  Because I did not make a note of it.   

Moderator:  Sorry, I missed that part.  Maybe we can get it from Kylie in Washington.   

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Okay.   

Moderator:  Our next question comes to us from Jean Pierre Stroobants with Le Monde.  Please go ahead.   

Question:  Yes, can you hear me?   

Moderator:  Yes, we can.   

Question:  Okay, perfect.  Thank you.  Thank you for this briefing.  Dr. Donfried, you were – as you mentioned, you were in Russia last week when Moscow published a lot of very precise demands, a kind of bilateral treaty with the U.S. and a kind of security agreement with NATO.  What is your precise comment on that, and do you consider this proposal was conceived only to be rejected by NATO and by the U.S.? 

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Well, I’m not going to speculate about what Russia’s intentions were in presenting those proposals.  As we’ve said, we are prepared to discuss those proposals that Russia put on the table.  There are some things that we’re prepared to work on and that we do believe that there’s merit in having a discussion in these three formats that I outlined to you.  There are other things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable.   

I will say, we don’t see any advantage to conducting these negotiations in public, and that’s true both for the conversations that we’re having with our allies and partners; it’s also true for the conversations we will have collectively with Russia.  And I think there will also be a real connection between how public these conversations are and the progress we’ll be able to make through these diplomatic channels.  But we’ve been clear that we are ready to engage in diplomatic discussions with Russia about the proposals that they have put on the table.   

Moderator:  Great.  We have time for one last question, and that will come to us from Gro Holm with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.  Please go ahead.  

Question:  Yes, thank you so much, and thank you, Donfried.  A question concerning sanctions.  Is the possibility of excluding Russia from SWIFT still on the table as a part of a sanctions offensive?  And likewise, is boycotting – de facto boycotting Nord Stream 2 pipeline on the table still?   

 Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Okay.  Well, thank you for both of those, and in a way it ties in or follows very nicely from the last comment I just made about not sharing all of this publicly.  So what I’ll say about disconnecting Russian banks from SWIFT is that, again, we’re consulting very closely with our European counterparts on a variety of ways and specific packages of severe consequences for Russia should they go forward with military escalation in Ukraine.  In terms of the specifics of those conversations, we’re not going to negotiate in public or telegraph our actions.  But I will say that there’s no sanctions option that’s off the table here, and we are talking about things that would have severe consequences for Russia’s economy and financial system.   

And then your next question, about Nord Stream 2, there let me begin by making clear again our position on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline:  The United States sees the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a Russian geopolitical project that undermines the energy security and the national security of a significant part of the Euro-Atlantic community.  We are continuing to work closely with Germany – and, as you know, there is now a new German Government in place – to support Ukraine and to strengthen Europe’s energy security and our climate goals.  And I would point you to the language in the July agreement, the joint statement that the United States and Germany issued together, because that language is explicit.   

And I actually just pulled it so I could read it.  It says:  “Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, Germany will take action at the national level and press for effective measures at the European level, including sanctions, to limit Russian export capabilities to Europe in the energy sector, including gas, or in other economically relevant sectors. This commitment is designed to ensure that Russia will not misuse any pipeline, including Nord Stream 2, to achieve aggressive political ends by using energy as a weapon. 

So we will be continuing to work on this with Germany and mitigate any harm to Ukraine.  So thank you for both those questions.   

Moderator:  Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Donfried.  Unfortunately, that was in fact the last question that we have time for.  Assistant Secretary Donfried, do you have any closing words you’d like to offer? 

Assistant Secretary Donfried:  Well, let me just say that, again, I very much appreciate all of you on the line taking the time for this call, particularly as we near the holidays, and I wish you all happy holidays.  I hope you get a little break, and I certainly am hoping that the New Year will bring peace.  Thank you so much.   

Moderator:  I’d like to thank Assistant Secretary Donfried for joining us today and thank all the reporters on the line for your participation and for your questions.