THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s background briefing on Russia’s attempted annexation of parts of Ukraine. This briefing will be on background, attributable to a senior administration official, and embargoed until the call’s conclusion. Please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and media outlet.
Joining us today, just for your knowledge but not for attribution or reporting, is [Senior Administration Official].
We’ll have time for questions at the end, but I will now turn it over to [Senior Administration Official]. Over to you, sir.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks to everyone for joining today on a Friday. Last month NSC Senior Coordinator John Kirby went to the White House podium to discuss Russia’s plans to attempt to annex Ukrainian territory under Russian control.
Today we wanted to talk a little bit more about this topic and to contextualize some of the media reporting that we’re seeing, particularly on the Russian side. For example, today you probably saw that former President Medvedev was in Luhansk, and you’re also seeing an increasing number of articles in the Russian media about plans for Russia to take this step of annexation. And the context that we want to provide is that in our intelligence collection, we’re seeing confirmation of this, that Russia plans to hold sham referenda on joining Russia in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” as well. Russian leadership has instructed officials to begin preparing to hold these referenda in parts of Kharkiv as well.
As Russia prepares for the referenda, we have information that officials are vetting candidates to serve as administrators of these territories, and that this – these moves could take place as soon as in the coming weeks.
Our information indicates that Russian officials are concerned that there will be low voter turnout in these referenda, likely because of the damage that Russia has caused to Ukraine and the widespread local opposition to Russian occupation. In other words, in our intelligence we’re seeing that Russian officials themselves know that what they are doing will lack legitimacy and will not reflect the will of the people. These Russian officials are absolutely correct. We expect that Russia will manipulate the results of these referenda in order to falsely claim that the Ukrainian people want to join Russia. It’ll be critical to call out and counter this disinformation as it’s happening.
Any claim by the Kremlin that the Ukrainian people somehow want to join Russia is simply not true, and we have ample data to reflect this. There is a consensus in Ukraine among the Ukrainian people that they oppose these moves by Russia and they oppose Russian aggression.
Let me just read some polls that have come out in recent months. According to a June ’22 – a June poll from this year conducted by the University of Chicago, 97 percent of Ukrainians say Ukraine’s – Russia’s invasion is a major threat to Ukraine’s security, and 97 percent want Russia to compensate Ukraine for the destruction it has caused by this conflict. Another poll, conducted by the International Republican Institute in April, shows that more than 90 percent of Ukrainians say their opinion of Russia has worsened since the February 24th invasion. And the National Democratic Institute in a May Poll found that just 3 percent of Ukrainians say that they would like Ukraine to be a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union, and 90 percent want – want Ukraine to become a member state of the EU.
The data are straightforward. The Ukrainian people in any free and fair referendum would vote overwhelmingly against joining Russia, and I would point out that surveys in the particular regions that we’re talking about, such as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, reflect the broader trends of these – of these polls.
Any Russia-orchestrated referenda will not be free and fair. It will – Russia will distort and manipulate the results, and we know the truth. Any purported annexation is illegal, illegitimate, and, frankly, ridiculous. It would be a gross violation of the UN Charter and we will not allow it to go unchallenged. The United States will never recognize any purported annexed territory as belonging to Russia. And just to recall, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, only 4 of the 192 members of the UN took Moscow’s side. The international community will continue to stand up for the core principles of territorial integrity and state sovereignty, and any sham efforts to legitimize the illegal land grab will only make things worse for Russia.
So briefly, what I’ve tried to do is put into context that we’re seeing Russian planning verified by intelligence that we have picked up. Secondly, the facts on the ground and the facts from public opinion surveys clearly show that any free and fair election vote in these areas would not result in votes favoring annexation. And then I talked just briefly about some of the implications in terms of international law and how illegitimate this would be in the eyes of the United States and of the world.
So let me pause there, and [Moderator], if you want to open it up for questions, I’m happy to have a discussion.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for your opening remarks. I do have a few advance questions that were submitted, so we’ll go to those first and then we’ll go ahead and go to the others. If you do have a question, please go to the participant field and virtually raise your hand and we’ll call on you and you can unmute yourself and ask your question, and you can also submit questions in the chat box.
So the first questions that were submitted in advance – first one is: “What is the U.S. going to do in response to Russia’s annexation plans in Ukraine?”
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks. Our policy has sort of baked in our expectations on this for several months, because we’ve seen these signals for quite a while – since in the early days of the invasion. So our policy will be to continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance, which we’ve been doing at historic levels, to help Ukraine regain this territory and keep it out of Moscow’s hands. We will continue to expose Russia’s plans to ensure that any such attempt is seen as illegitimate and illegal, and we’ve also started to impose economic sanctions on some of the puppet officials that Russia has placed in positions in these regions.
And we will – if Russia actually proceeds with these plans, we will respond swiftly and severely with additional sanctions. And we also are investigating and supporting efforts to hold accountable those who are responsible for some of the human rights violations that we’ve already seen in these areas, including forced deportations, persecution of opposition officials. Looting, torture, and rape have also been well-documented in areas that Russia has occupied.
And again, I think Russia will be making a grave mistake both in the eyes of the world and in its own efforts to control Ukraine. We’ve already seen a lot of opposition within these regions, and I can imagine that would continue or even grow worse if Russia follows through on these plans to annex the territory.
MODERATOR: Thank you. The second advance question is from Julian Reichelt of Bild Germany. He asks: “Were the explosions in the Saki Air Base in occupied Crimea an accident as Russia claims or caused by an attack of any kind?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks. We’re tracking the events in – at that air base as well. If it was an accident, it was certainly quite a severe one, and there are also many reports that this was something other than an accident.
In terms of the U.S. position, we want to support Ukraine in its efforts to defend itself, and we continue to supply Ukraine with the ability to do so. But Ukraine makes all of its decisions regarding its operations in this war, and we don’t have any – any more information on this particular incident.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to a live question. The first question we’ll take will be from Dmytro Anopchenko from Inter News TV or from Inter TV Ukraine, if you would like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Oh yeah, good morning to you. Thank you very much for this briefing. As we are on the background, I’d like to check with you how do you see – what’s your vision or what aim Russia has trying to organize this so-called referendums? What I heard unofficially from the experts – the idea was that maybe they will try to use nukes to protect this territory. After that, because according to Russian constitution, they might use nukes theoretically to protect their territory. And if there – this territory in their eyes will be like Russian territory, they might – they might threat to use nukes. What’s your vision of this? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for that question. I’m not going to speculate on Russia’s motivations. But clearly this has been raised that somehow by claiming this Ukrainian territory as Russian, that would somehow change how Russia reacts to conflict taking place there. But the kind of point of our briefing is that we will not recognize any claims by Russia that this is Russian territory. And so we should put that – put that out of everyone’s minds that any such claim would be illegal and illegitimate and absolutely ridiculous given the conditions on the ground.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will be from Oskar Gorzynski from the Polish Press Agency. Oskar, if you’d like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. So you talked a bit about your expected response to these attempts, but are you going to also increase the security assistance? The administration so far has been rejecting the calls to give Ukraine longer-ranged weapons like the ATACMS missiles, and so will this change your calculus? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you and it’s good to hear from Poland. Our security assistance is conditions based and it’s done in close consultation with our Ukrainian partners. As President Biden has said, we are not encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders now. This is a conflict that Russia has started and is being fought on Ukrainian territory, and enabling the Ukrainians to continue to strike Russian targets in the south and east is how we believe they can best defend their country.
And as I said at the top, we’re providing weapons systems to the Ukrainians in close coordination. And as conditions change on the battlefield, we evolve the types of assistance that we’ve given them. So far, I would just remind folks that we’ve provided over $9 billion in assistance to help Ukraine defend itself.
MODERATOR: The next question will be – was submitted in the chat box, and it’s from CNN Portugal, Luis Costa Ribas. He says: “Can I ask: what to do you have on this – what do you have on the status of the nuclear power plant, risk of attack, any mitigation measures being taken?”
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, the United States – we continue to monitor very closely all the activity at Zaporizhzhia plant. Our Department of Energy and our National Nuclear Security Administration continue to report that the – their radiation sensors are continuing to provide data and thankfully the data don’t show any indication of increased or abnormal radiation levels.
We’re also aware of the reports of mistreatment of the staff at the powerplant, and we applaud the Ukrainian authorities and those operators for their commitment to nuclear safety under what are extremely trying circumstances for them.
Let me be clear: Fighting anywhere near a nuclear power plant is dangerous. And we continue to call for this region to be demilitarized and for all military activity to stop. There was a discussion about this at the UN Security Council yesterday. We’ve also been in contact with officials within the Ukrainian Government about the situation at the power plant. And we support the UN’s efforts to call for and implement a demilitarization zone around the power plant.
MODERATOR: Sir, I know your time is getting short. Do you have time for a few more questions, or do we need to wrap it up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, absolutely, I’ve got time.
MODERATOR: Okay. All right, our next question will go to Alex Raufoglu of Turan News Agency, if – Alex, if you’d like to unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you so much for doing this. Speaking of implications for Russia’s international standing, I was wondering, will the United States be considering questioning Russia’s membership in UN Security Council and the OSCE give this action? And secondly, in terms of timing of this action, just was wondering whether – do you think this might also be designed to divert attention from the military front? There are reports the Russian defense minister plans to hold strategic military exercises from August 30th through September 5th. How alarming is that in terms of continuing state of rally on the part of Russia? Thank you so much again.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, on the military exercises, I think yeah, Russia is probably trying to project an image of normalcy, and they are entitled to conduct exercises on their territory whenever they please. But we don’t particularly see that as – particularly one planned for the far east as having an impact one way or the other on the Ukrainian conflict.
On the UN and other international organizations, I think it’s unlikely that Russia’s status in these organizations would change fundamentally. I think what we’ve seen is that Russia has become increasingly isolated diplomatically as a result of its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. And they’ve also been – they’ve also seen some implications, consequences, including in international organizations, such as their membership of the Human Rights Council, which was ended in the early days of the war because of the gross violations of human rights that this invasion has engendered.
MODERATOR: Okay, our next question will go to Pearl Matibe from DefenseWeb. Pearl, if you’d like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, [Moderator], and [Senior Administration Official], I appreciate your availability today. Actually, my primary question was answered, [Moderator], by one of the ones that was submitted online. I was interested in finding out what are the consequences that you might do, because last time when Russia annexed Crimea, the consequences were kicking Russia out of the G8 and NATO suspending cooperation with Moscow. So what might they be now? I know you spoke a little bit about that.
But from South Africa’s perspective, there was hoping that there would still be some prospects of dialogue for peace. So now with your intel and what you’re seeing at the moment, this would prevent any prospect of dialogue for peace. Could you comment on that? And also could you comment on what is the population of this geographic area of the proposed territory transfer by forceful acquisition by Russia? Thank you very much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Clearly, as you point out, the prospects for a diplomatic outcome are going to be much harder if Russia unilaterally is conquering and trying to annex territory. That’s another reason that I think Moscow should hesitate to do this. So yes, I mean, we – and President Zelenskyy has said himself that negotiations are going to be necessary to end this conflict, but they are going to be much harder if Russia is taking illegal and illegitimate actions regarding conquest.
Sorry, what was the second question?
QUESTION: Hi, sorry, yeah. So the consequences was the first part of my question. My second question was on dialogue. The last part of it was population, because we understand what the one – what it was with Crimea. I’m trying to make a comparison here, the geographic area that you see might be annexed. Do we know what – the numbers of people that are going to be affected here by, for example, this Article 47 of the Geneva Convention, the population in that area? I just want to understand; what are we looking at here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in terms of the consequences, this is an active war, unlike in 2014. So one of the consequences is that we are going to continue to provide Ukraine with the assistance that it needs to defend itself. We are also imposing really unprecedented sanctions and export controls on Russia to limit its ability to conduct military operations and to affect it – and to force it to make hard choices in its economic decisions.
In terms of the population numbers, I mean, I’m sure there is data available about the population of these oblasts before the war, but as you’ve seen, millions of Ukrainians have fled to western Ukraine. Many have fled to Europe as well. So I think it’s going to be difficult to assess the actual magnitude and the number of people that are living in these areas at the moment, but I think it’s really important that we fully support Ukraine’s objective, which is to regain these territories and allow these people to come home and live in peace. And I would also point out that the people who are still living in these areas do oppose Russia’s attempts to annex them by all indications that we can see.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I think we’ve come to the end of our time. We appreciate all of you that have participated. I know there are more people who have questions, but we do have a hard stop time on the half hour.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you, [Moderator], and thanks, everyone. Appreciate the time and the questions.
MODERATOR: So this concludes our briefing. Thank you to everyone for joining. As a reminder, this call is on background, attributable to a senior administration official. Thank you again and have a good day.