THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing. My name is Zina Wolfington, and I will be the moderator. It is my pleasure to welcome our distinguished briefer today, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried. Assistant Secretary Donfried will discuss Russia’s illegal attempts to annex Ukrainian territory, U.S. joining European allies and partners in rejecting the notions of redrawing Ukrainian borders by force, and what that means for Europe historically, currently, and for its future.
This briefing is on the record; it is being livestreamed. After we hear from the EUR assistant secretary, we will begin the question-and-answer session. This briefing will end no later than 10:30. The FPC will post the transcript of this briefing and the video afterwards on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. And with that, I’m going to turn the floor over to the Assistant Secretary Karen Donfried.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: Thank you so much, Zina, and good morning to all of you. I’m really delighted to have this opportunity to be back at the Foreign Press Center, and appreciate the opportunity to focus on U.S. policy toward Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine. I want to start off with a few prepared comments, and then very much looking forward to your questions.
Our nation’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity remains steadfast and resolute. Last week’s United Nations General Assembly vote demonstrated clearly that Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is not acceptable to the world: 143 nations voted against Russia and condemned Russia’s illegal attempt to annex Ukrainian territory by force. With that vote, the vast majority of the world stood at the side of freedom, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
We have said it before and we will say it again: Russia cannot erase a sovereign state from the map, change borders by force, or seize another country’s territory as its own. The Kremlin sham referenda are propaganda stunts to try to mask this futile attempt at a land grab in Ukraine. The results were orchestrated in Moscow and do not reflect the will of the people in Ukraine. The United States will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of any territory it illegally seized from Ukraine. Any such territory remains part of Ukraine.
We all want this war to end. The Kremlin’s recent strikes against Ukraine can break neither Ukraine’s spirit nor our resolve to support Ukraine. One man chose this war; one man can end it. As Secretary Blinken has said, if Russia stops fighting and withdraws from all of Ukraine, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends. Vladimir Putin could and should stop this war immediately. He alone chose to start it and he alone chooses to continue it, even callously disregarding the mounting costs for his own people. Putin’s actions make clear Russian lives, like Ukrainian lives, mean nothing to him.
Meanwhile, the United States will continue to stand with our partners around the world in defending the core tenets of the UN Charter, the underpinning of peace, stability, and prosperity since the destruction and devastation of World War II. And we will continue to assist the people of Ukraine and provide them with support to help them defend themselves and their territory against Russia’s illegal invasion. We will do this for as long as it takes. Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. It is the just, moral, ethical, and simply the right thing to do. Good will prevail.
In closing, I want to thank you for the chance to speak with all of you today. I’m happy to answer your questions on annexation and U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Russia. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Donfried, for your remarks. Now I would like to open this program up for questions. I will take a few questions first from journalists in the briefing room, and then a few questions from those on Zoom. Please raise your hand, or your virtual hand if you are on Zoom, if you would like to ask a question. If I call on you, please give your name and your outlet. First question is Dmytro.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you very much for doing this. Dmytro Anopchenko, Ukrainian television, D.C. correspondent. Ma’am, every morning I am starting my day checking the messages from my colleagues, friends, and family members who are in Ukraine. And the most terrifying things right now is the Russian drone attacks, because people consider Ukrainian capital as a safe place. People have returned, even from abroad, and right now we got the strikes. My question to you is: is it any way to stop Russia, both militarily or politically increasing the price for Russia from striking Ukrainian capital and Ukraine cities? And secondly, is it any way to stop Iran to providing drones and even ballistical missiles to Russia? There were in – there were publications about possible sanctions against Iran. Could you give a little bit more information, please? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: Sure. Thank you so much for those questions. And I can only imagine how difficult it is every morning to wonder what are the latest civilian targets that Russia has hit. And we’ve been seeing this Russian escalation for weeks now, whether it was the sham referenda and illegal annexation, the partial mobilization, the loose talk about use of nuclear weapons, and this increasing focus on Russian strikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. And it really is heartbreaking to see innocent Ukrainians be killed every day. So first, my heart goes out to everybody in Ukraine, and we, like you, would like to see this war end as soon as possible, and we want to see Ukraine prevail in this war, which is unjust and unprovoked. And last week again we saw how the vast majority of world opinion is with Ukraine in this fight.
The specific weapon that we have seen used to such effect have been these UAVs. And the United States will impose sanctions on anyone who is helping Iran provide this sort of military support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. We will continue to vigorously enforce U.S. sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trade, we’ll make it harder for Iran to sell these weapons to Russia, and we will stand with our partners throughout the region against this Iranian threat. That’s one part of the equation – stop those weapons from getting to Ukraine.
The other part of the equation is continuing to help Ukraine defend itself. And what you saw at the most recent Ukraine Defense Contact Group is this focus on trying to get as much, in terms of air defense systems, to Ukraine as possible to help you defend this critical civilian infrastructure.
And my last point on this would be that what we’re seeing is also a reminder of the extent to which the Russian military is suffering from major supply shortages in Ukraine. And I think this is also an impact of the unprecedented sanctions and export control regime that the U.S., together with so many allies and partners, has put in place.
So I’ll stop with that. Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: Alex, please.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. And Assistant Secretary, great to see you this morning. What is your assessment on – I know you had a meeting with Ukrainian’s infrastructure minister today. What is your assessment on why is that Russians are particularly targeting civilian infrastructure? What’s the bigger picture there, in terms of its – Putin’s annexation policy?
And secondly, if I may, that was an easy ball, but there’s a difficult question about neighboring countries, South Caucasus. You have three countries – Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia – and three different voices, different votes that we have seen at the UN. What lessons do you want them to learn from Russia’s annexation policy that it’s conducting in Ukraine? Thanks so much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: I’m always wary of saying why President Putin is doing something. So really we would need to ask him why we’ve seen this targeting of civilian infrastructure across Ukraine.
But it would seem that this focus on hitting the energy infrastructure is, in a sense, trying to weaponize winter and trying to create a situation where Ukrainians suffer this winter in cold and in darkness. But it is clear that the inhumanity and brutality that we have seen in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine we see mirrored in these strikes against civilian infrastructure.
And that is why we will focus so strongly not only on helping Ukraine repair what is being damaged but also put in place air defense systems that will help Ukraine have the ability to shoot down as many of these drones and missiles that are being fired against civilians in Ukraine.
The other part of your question about the different votes we saw at UNGA last week – for me, the overwhelming takeaway from that vote was this high watermark of 143 countries around the world voting to condemn Russia’s illegal annexation. We all remember that in March we had 141 countries voting to condemn Russia’s invasion as such. So we actually have even two additional countries speaking out against this.
And I think it makes clear to us that Russia’s war against Ukraine isn’t only about Ukraine. It is, of course, existential for Ukraine. But what we see is that countries around the world don’t want to live in a world where might makes right and your bigger, stronger neighbor can just make a decision to try to swallow up your sovereign territory.
So this belief in the foundation of territorial integrity as something the UN Charter defends I think is what we saw countries speaking to last week. And we see that shared belief in an international system that stands up for the territorial integrity of every single UN member state. And I think it has reminded us of the power of those principles that undergird the UN charter. So that’s my biggest takeaway from last week’s vote. Thank you.
QUESTION: Good morning. My name’s Magda Sakowska. I am with Polish TV, Polsat News. I have a question about export of Ukrainian grain. Russia can refuse to extend the agreement. If it happened, then what would be the effect? What is your comment on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: So we are working very hard for an extension of the grain agreement. I think there is palpable evidence that that agreement has been good for Russia in terms of Russia’s own ability to export grain, and it’s also been good for the world. We have seen many of those shipments going to the Global South.
And we’re aware, again, that in the first instance Russia’s war against Ukraine is a tragedy for Ukraine. We see innocent Ukrainians dying every day. We’ve seen how the grain harvest in Ukraine has been impacted. But the knock-on effect of that has been creating food insecurity for so many parts of the world, and in particular countries that are extremely vulnerable and are suffering anew from food insecurity. We already were in an insecure situation with regard to food because of COVID and because of climate, and now we’ve added conflict to that.
So what we’ve seen in recent months is that a grain agreement was so important for unlocking those grain shipments from Russia and from Ukraine. So we think just on the facts we can see that this has also benefitted Russia. As you know, there are active negotiations going on now. We have been very positive about the role the United Nations and the role Turkey has played in this. So we are hopeful that Russia, too, will agree an extension of that grain agreement is good for all parties concerned. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for this opportunity. Thank you for doing this. My name is Iaroslav Dovgopol, I’m working with Ukrainian news agency, UkrInform. So my question is about SST for Russia. Russia has been using war crimes and terror instruments, including missiles, UAVs, and artillery strikes, as you said. And Russia also took thousand of convicts from prisons into the war zone, including those guilty of murder, and promised them freedom if they kill again. So these are just recent examples of the Russian terror.
PACE in Europe has already declared the Russian regime as a terrorist. A similar resolution is under consideration in the U.S. Congress. So the U.S. Government’s position on this issue is currently known; however, does the administration consider the possibility of designation Russia as state sponsor of terrorism in the future, or this option on the table at all? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: Well, thanks so much for that question, and as you could imagine, every time we engage with Ukrainian interlocuters, we hear the very compelling Ukrainian case on why one should consider designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. As you noted, there’s legislation being considered in Congress right now. The administration is working very closely with the U.S. Congress on that legislation. As you noted, the position of the administration is well known. We have concerns about whether SST is the best way to respond to the concerns that have been voiced.
We completely agree that Russia is guilty of having committed war crimes in Ukraine, and every time we see Ukrainian forces liberate another city we see the wake of war crimes that are left behind Russia’s occupation. So we care deeply about that and we want to hold Russia accountable for that. It’s really a question of what is the best tool to do that, and that’s right now the conversation we’re having with Congress. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Ivan from ITAR-TASS.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for taking my question. Ivan Pilschchikov with TASS News Agency. So I’d like to follow up on the question regarding the grain deal. U.S. administration says that U.S. sanctions do not target Russian food and fertilizer exports, yet these sanctions, these restrictions do in fact had at least some Russian food and fertilizer exports indirectly. And a number of U.S. officials have admitted it, namely James O’Brien, sanction coordinator. So may I ask if U.S. is planning anything specific to resolve this issue? And could you elaborate on some specific steps in this regard. And if I could ask another short question, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said today that there is no space to talk – for talks with Russian President Putin. Would you agree with this assessment? Thank you so much?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: So on the grain deal, we have been very clear that U.S. sanctions do not apply to Russian grain and to Russian fertilizer. And we will continue to make that clear. We have no concerns about Russia exporting either grain or fertilizer, and actually I think part of the renewal of the grain deal would specifically speak to this. But I just want to be very clear: that is not something our sanctions prohibit. To make clear, the number of ships, which I believe now is close to 300, that have left as a result of that Black Sea Grain Initiative have carried, I think, close to 7 million metric tons of grains and food stuffs. So it has been very important to have that agreement, and we do want to see it go forward. Beyond the grain deal, the U.S. has taken many other steps to enhance food security around the globe, and we will continue to do that.
The second part of your question about negotiations – it’s quite interesting because actually in recent weeks we’ve seen several Russian officials, including President Putin himself, suggest that there might be Russian interest in negotiations. And I have to say, in this case, actions speak more powerfully than words.
And what we are seeing Russia do – the level of escalation in terms of Russian actions, which includes, again, the sham referenda and illegal annexations, the partial mobilization, this loose talk of use of nukes, the increased attacks, renewed attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure – and we see also civilian apartment buildings being hit, collateral damage – is that intended or not – there is nothing in Russian actions to suggest a desire to engage in good-faith negotiations. We believe that this war will end at the negotiating table, but Russia needs to indicate that it is ready to sit down and engage in good faith. So I would leave it there. Thank you.
MODERATOR: With this, I will turn onto Zoom participants and call on some journalists from Zoom. If I call on you, please unmute yourself and turn on the camera. Bastian Brauns, TOnline Germany.
QUESTION: Hello. Good morning. Thank you for the possibility to ask questions. Is it possible to comment on the comments from Elon Musk, according to Ukraine and Starlink? What is the opinion from the State Department about his – yeah – intervening in the conflict? Thank you very much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: So if I heard the question right, it was about the provision of Starlink to Ukraine. It was —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: Yeah, so we have seen Starlink play an important difference for Ukraine in providing that internet access, and we certainly welcome Elon Musk’s comments that SpaceX is willing to continue to fund the provision of Starlink to Ukraine. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Do we have – yes, please.
QUESTION: Thank you for organizing this meeting. I’m a journalist from Georgia. My name is Rusudan Sheila from TV Imedi. So first of all, I want to ask about Ukraine. What information does U.S. pose as regarding Russia’s immediate future plans? And what in your opinion –what are the most effective leverages to restrain Putin? And I would like to ask about Georgia also. A couple days ago, the President of the United States released National Security Strategy, which also says that U.S. will support the European aspirations of Georgia and Moldova and their commitment to important institutional reforms. How will it work in practice? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: So your first question – I want to be clear that it was Vladimir Putin who choose this war, and what we saw on February 24 was an unprovoked and brutal attack against Ukraine. And what the United States, together with allies and partners around the world, has been doing since has been trying to help Ukraine defend itself. So you have seen the United States provide extraordinary assistance to Ukraine, whether that is security assistance, whether it is economic assistance, or whether it is humanitarian assistance. And we are committed to continuing to do that. What we are trying to do by providing that assistance is ensure that when we get to the negotiating table, Ukraine is in the strongest possible position.
And I want to give a shoutout here to our Ukrainian friends and partners, because what we are doing may be unprecedented in terms of the level of support and the commitment to this fight, but what the Ukrainians are doing inspires all of us. The bravery and resilience of the Ukrainians, the way they are pushing Russia back from their sovereign territory in this counter-offensive is quite remarkable. So that is the message that Vladimir Putin is hearing from the Ukrainians and their commitment to defending their own country.
And then what he’s hearing from the rest of the world in the sort of vote we had at the UN last week in that UNGA resolution was 143 countries saying, this is wrong, we do not respect your declaration that you have illegally annexed this Ukrainian territory; no, Zaporizhzhia is Ukraine, Kherson is Ukraine, the Donbas is Ukraine. That’s the message that is coming from the world. So we very much hope Vladimir Putin hears that message and ends this war.
That would be my answer to the first part of your question. The second part of your question is you mentioned Georgia and Moldova and their aspirations, their Euroatlantic aspirations. The United States strongly supports the desire of both countries to join the European Union. And we had had important signals to both countries from the EU about their futures in the European Union. So we continue to work with Georgia and Moldova to support them in putting in place the reforms that will hasten their EU membership. So if you look at U.S. assistance to both of those countries, we very much line that assistance with our partners in the EU to try to help Georgia and Moldova undertake those reforms – whether they’re anti-corruption or judicial reforms. And we will remain committed to that. That is very much a key part of the conversation we have and the support we provide to both countries.
And I think their path to EU membership is very clear. They know what they need to do, and they are committed to so doing. Thank you.
MODERATOR: We have time for one more question, and the last question from Boris Kamchev, North Macedonia, please.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this. I have question regarding the Russian influence on the Balkans, on the Western Balkans actually. What is the United States position regarding the – one of the Western Balkans countries like Serbia is not giving any support for the European Union sanctions against Russia, and it’s actually haven’t sanctioned Russia at all about it? And can you tell us more about the influence of Russia in the Kosovo-Serbia conflict? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: Well, thank you very much for that question about the Western Balkans. And I want to underscore that the Biden administration is very focused on the opportunity for real forward movement in the Western Balkans. I noted that you’re from North Macedonia, and I want to applaud the process North Macedonia is making in terms of its moving closer to EU membership. And when we think about the Western Balkans and the opportunities that are there, I really think we see interest throughout the region in moving forward on this Euroatlantic path.
The EU-facilitated dialogue that is seeking to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo is something the Biden administration very much supports. I will note that our special representative is in the region this week. And I would point out that Serbia – and we very much encourage Serbia to respect the sanctions that are in place on Russia – has taken an important stance in UN votes about Russia’s war against Ukraine. We saw in March Serbia vote to condemn Russia’s invasion, and again last week we saw Serbia stand on the right side of history and condemn Russia’s illegal annexations in Ukraine.
So Serbia was one of the 143 countries last week that stood up for the principle of territorial integrity, stood up in defense of the UN Charter, and with those other 142 countries said this is not the world we want to live in; we stand together with these other 142 countries in defense of the fundamental principles undergirding the UN Charter.
And I want to be very clear that there were four countries that chose to side with Russia last week – four. And they were Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Nicaragua, and Syria. That was it.
So I think whether you’re Serbia or the U.S. or any of the 141 countries that stood on the right side of history, there is power in that, and there is power in standing up for the values we believe in, that might does not make right, that we respect countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that we defend countries’ right to choose their own futures for themselves. Thank you.
MODERATOR: This ends the Q&A session. I would like to give my special thanks to our briefer, Assistant Secretary Donfried, and to all the FPC member journalists who participated in person and online. Thank you. This concludes today’s briefing.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY DONFRIED: Thank you so much, Zina, and thank you for the time and the attention. Much appreciated.