Moderator: Good afternoon or good morning from the Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. Today, we are very honored to be joined by Ambassador John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Sullivan, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, thank you, Justin, and thanks to everyone joining this video conference today. It’s been a pretty hectic few weeks here in Moscow, as you all know, and I thought I’d start by offering my thoughts and observations from Embassy Moscow and then I’d welcome the opportunity to take questions from you.
As you know, and as Secretary Blinken announced on Wednesday, I delivered the U.S. written response to the Russian foreign ministry Wednesday night here in Moscow. And for those of you who saw the picture of me entering the foreign ministry, if you’re wondering what’s going through the mind of an American diplomat in these tense moments and about to engage in complex diplomacy, it is, geez, I hope I don’t fall on my butt given the snow and ice here on the steps.
So, it was a privilege, though, on behalf of the United States to convey those written responses, which, as our Secretary said, has said, sets out a serious diplomatic path forward. The document that I delivered includes the concerns of the United States and our allies and partners about Russia’s actions that undermine security. It also presents a principled and pragmatic evaluation of the concerns that Russia has raised with us when they presented their two draft treaties to me and to our Assistant Secretary Karen Donfried last December here in Moscow. It also included our proposals for areas where we may be able to find common ground to improve security in Europe.
There aren’t a lot of surprises in the document. As we have said publicly and privately, there are some core principles that we’re committed to uphold and defend – Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, for example, and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances.
We’ve addressed the possibility of reciprocal transparency measures with the Russian Government, including on offensive weapons systems in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe, potential arms control measures related to missiles in Europe, our interest in a follow-up agreement to New START. I was – last year I was privileged as Ambassador to execute the documents that extended the New START treaty for five years back in February of last year, almost exactly a year ago. And finally, other ways in which we can increase transparency and stability between the United States and Russia and in Europe.
These ideas, we believe, have the potential to enhance our security and that of our allies and partners, but also addressing Russia’s stated concerns, and doing so through reciprocal commitments.
Our responses were fully coordinated with our NATO Allies, our European partners, and with Ukraine, all of whom we have been consulting with, as you all know very well, for – extensively for a long time, for many, many, many weeks.
Bottom line is we prefer diplomacy and are prepared to move forward where there is the possibility for cooperation if Russia de-escalates its aggression towards Ukraine, stops inflammatory rhetoric and approaches the negotiations in a spirit of reciprocity. But if it chooses a different path, the United States and our allies and partners are prepared to impose severe consequences should Russia choose further aggression. As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said, Russia will have to decide now how they will respond.
A couple of further observations from me on context. It’s important that we remember how we got here. The United States and our allies and partners are concerned by Russia’s massive military buildup on the borders of Ukraine, its increasingly harsh rhetoric and dissemination of false narratives that Ukraine seeks to provoke a conflict. But as President Biden and Secretary Blinken have made clear, even as we build up deterrence and defense for Ukraine and for our NATO Allies, the United States is actively engaged in diplomacy and dialogue and we’ve made clear, as I said, that diplomacy and dialogue is clearly the preferable path forward for everyone. It’s the responsible thing to do, as Secretary Blinken has said, and we’ll pursue that path as long as we can. But we will also continue to prepare for the alternative with defense and deterrence.
In addition to the immediate issue with the situation on the border with Ukraine, again, providing context: My experience here as Ambassador over the last two-plus years, and then extending back three years before that over the last five years total – first three years or so as deputy secretary of state and the last two-plus years as Ambassador – I think it’s fair to say our bilateral diplomatic relationship is facing many challenges. I remember five years ago, when then-Secretary Tillerson came here to Moscow, I believe it was in March of 2017, and said in a press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov that we had reached a low point in our relations with Russia in the post-Cold War era – we had dug a deep hole and we needed to stop digging. It was five years ago that the secretary of state said that.
It’s also just as – I believe, as a matter of fact, the last time a secretary of state came to Moscow, which is extraordinary in and of itself and a sign of the diminished relationship between – diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia, which is regrettable. And I’m happy to talk about issues beyond Ukraine and the security guarantees that Russia has sought and
our response, and to cover the broader relationship between the United States, diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia.
And one thing I will say from my own perspective, and Secretary Blinken said this, I believe, during his press conference with Foreign Minister Lavrov in – last week, at the end of last week. I, in particular, as many of you know, have paid close attention to the treatment of Americans who are detained here in Russia, in particular, especially Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, both of whom traveled here to Russia as tourists, were arrested, and then convicted without credible evidence. And I will continue to be as strong an advocate as I can be for them so that they are – to work toward their release and so that they can return to their families in the United States.
One final thought, and then I’ll turn it over – back over to Justin and for your questions. Again, focused on the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia, as you all know, the U.S. embassy here is greatly diminished from what it was five or six years ago. In particular, the Russian Government’s decision last year to prohibit us from retaining, hiring, or contracting Russian or any third-country national to work at the embassy caused us to have to separate 180 colleagues from our mission here. Now, it’s important to remember that these individuals, although not U.S. citizens, were treated not only by the United States but by the Russian Government as diplomats; they counted against the cap on our diplomatic personnel here in Moscow, and the Russian Government caused us to separate 180 diplomats, locally employed staff but treated as diplomats both by us and by the Russian Government. That was an extraordinary act that has really brought our relationship to a – bilateral diplomatic relationship to a new low, at least in my experience, and severely impaired the functioning of our embassy. So much so that we’ve had to terminate all routine consular services, which, in particular, affects Russian citizens, Russians who seek to travel to the United States for work, for study, for tourism, which is, in my opinion, tragic.
The broader relationship between the United States and Russia, between the Russian people and Americans, is extremely important to me, and protecting those relationships, I’ve tried in my two-plus years as Ambassador to do all I can to enhance those relations between our peoples despite the impediments that have arisen in our diplomatic relationship.
One point that I can raise today that I’d like to emphasize is that the State Department has, in light of the restrictions that have been imposed on us, our mission here in Russia, the State Department has made the visa application process for students and exchange visitors easier. Now Russians seeking student visas, F or/and M visas, and Russian academic exchange visitors – that is, seeking J visas – all of those will now have – there have been designated countries, embassies, U.S. missions, posts, embassies and consulates that have been specifically designated where Russians can apply for seek to – seek visas for students and foreign exchange programs.
They’re also free, as I’ve said many times, to apply at any particular – any embassy, U.S. embassy or consulate worldwide, but those embassies in particular in those countries, this was all detailed in a in a press release a few days ago by my colleagues in Washington at the Department of State to – those embassies have been tasked with trying to address the backlog of visa applications for those really important people-to-people exchanges that the United States wants to continue.
Finally, given all that’s gone on in the last month or so with Ukraine, there continue to be topics where the United States and Russia, just as we have over decades, going back to the Soviet Union, have continued to engage. I mentioned the extension of the New START treaty. We’ve continued to have a Strategic Stability Dialogue with Russia, our cyber dialogue, cyber engagement between experts and discussions on the JCPOA, climate issues. We did have a former secretary of state here in Moscow last summer; Secretary Kerry was here to engage with the Russian Government on climate issues in the run-up to COP 26.
So there are – there are many issues that we need to engage with the Russian Government on. We’d be in a much better position to do so if we had a stronger diplomatic platform here, but we’re continuing to work on those issues with the Russian Government.
So with that, Justin, I’ll turn it back over to you and happy to take questions from those participating.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the Q&A portion of today’s briefing.
Our first question comes to us from Alina Matis with Panorama in Romania. The question is: “Given the flurry of talks among allies about sanctions in the case of another Russian invasion of Ukraine, could you give us your assessment on why economic international sanctions are needed and efficient? Would you say all the sanctions in place after the annexation of Crimea worked, and if so, how?”
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, thank you for the question. It’s – the topic of sanctions or the response by the United States to the threat that the military buildup on the border of Ukraine poses has, of course, been an extended – there’s been an extensive coverage of that in the media, I know.
The economic consequences that not just the United States, but our allies and partners, whether it’s NATO, the EU, the G7 – the massive consequences that would follow from a further Russian incursion, invasion into Ukraine is just one aspect of the response by the world community to a violation of fundamental norms of behavior between states: respecting state sovereignty, territorial integrity of another country – principles that are enshrined in the founding documents of global and European security, whether it’s the UN Charter, the North Atlantic Treaty, the Helsinki Final Act, et cetera.
Economic sanctions is one aspect of the response that has been foreshadowed by the – by President Biden, by Secretary Blinken. It’s not the only aspect of what the – what the response would be. There are export controls, further beefing up the defense of our allies and partners in Europe.
Sanctions are an important element of it. It is a tool that, as you note, the United States has used in the past. We implemented significant sanctions against Russia for its illegal occupation of Crimea and incursion into the Donbas. But as the President, President Biden, has said, if there is a further – a further invasion, further incursion into Ukraine, violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the economic consequences would be massive, and the President made – President Biden has made that clear.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. Our next question comes to us from David Herszenhorn with Politico in Brussels. Please go ahead, David. I’ve open your mic.
Question: Thanks very much, Justin, and thank you, Ambassador, for being with us. I wonder, Ambassador, we’ve heard in some briefings from various Russian diplomats and officials that there’s no intention to invade Ukraine; there’s no intention of an attack. I wonder if any of your counterparts have looked you in the eye and said that directly to you, and if in fact then there is Russian aggression against Ukraine, an attack of some kind, what would that mean for the relationship? I mean, has there ever been – I don’t recall that anybody before Crimea was assuring that there would be no invasion of Crimea. What would that mean for diplomatic relations? Have you ever seen a situation where folks have looked you in the eye and lied to you flat-out about their intentions?
Ambassador Sullivan: Sure. Well, great, great questions. Thank you. First, on my own interaction with the Russian Government, I don’t comment on my exchanges with my counterparts in the Russian Government. I’ve said many times since I arrived here as Ambassador that all of my interactions with my Russian counterparts have been professional, and I have no complaints about the access that I’ve been given. We’ve disagreed on the substance many times, but they’ve always been professional exchanges.
What I will say, however, is that with respect to Ukraine and the situation we confront now is – and as President Biden has said, the Russian Government has positioned its military to be able to invade, further invade Ukraine with no notice, with no forewarning. The massive buildup – over 100,000 troops on the border – is extraordinary. It can’t be explained as an ordinary military exercise, or exercises. And it is destabilizing, it is extremely threatening to Ukraine, and it is why the United States Government and our allies and partners have responded as we have, starting last fall with the trip – I was able to join him – that Director Burns, former Ambassador to Russia Bill Burns, made at the very beginning of November to convey on behalf of the United States and our allies and partners our extreme concern about facts on the ground that we know pose an extreme threat to Ukraine.
So I take – I understand what the Russian Government has said publicly, that it has no intention to invade Ukraine, but the facts on the ground tell a much different story. And President Biden himself has said that the facts show that Russia is in a position to unleash a further invasion of Ukraine, which, as our President has said, would be extraordinary, and as you note in your question, really an extraordinary escalation in the context of all the work that has been done – not just by the United States, our allies, and partners, but by Russia and before it the Soviet Union in creating the security architecture that we now have for peace and security in Europe and around the globe, starting with the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, et cetera. The Soviet Union, and now Russia, are signatories to these documents, and it would really be an incredibly destructive act to peace and security in Europe if there were to be a further incursion, invasion, military intervention in Ukraine.
Where that would lead to in our bilateral diplomatic relations: they’re at a low point now, but I feel pretty confident in saying that they would be taken – that would be a further significant blow to what is already a pretty bleak diplomatic situation in the relations between the United States and Russia.
Moderator: Thank you for that. We have a question from Konstantin Eggert with Deutsche Welle. I’ve opened your mic, Konstantin. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Good morning, rather good afternoon, Ambassador Sullivan. Konstantin Eggert from Deutsche Welle. Do you see any signs that the Russian leadership is taking the U.S. threat of sanctions seriously, especially if these signs are manifested themselves in the last 48 hours? And after the statement by the German MFA, Baerbock, about Nord Stream 2, can we say now that in case Russia reinvades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 will be dead? Thanks a million.
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Yes, it is a snowy afternoon here in in Moscow. What I’d say is the we have seen, I have seen in my engagement with the Russian Government that Russia to date has engaged with us seriously in professional discussions. You’ve heard my colleagues, Secretary Blinken, Deputy Secretary Sherman, others who have engaged with the Russian Government that both sides – Russia on the one side, NATO, OSCE members, the United States on the other – are taking this situation very seriously, given the facts, as I say, on the ground.
Our position, the United States position with respect to Nord Stream 2 is well-known. It’s an issue that I’ve been working on for over five years, since I started as deputy secretary of state back in 2017. You know what the U.S. Government’s position is, has been, and what Secretary Blinken has said concerning the fact that the pipeline exists, but has no gas flowing through it, which means no income coming to Russia from the sale of its gas to Europe is a point of leverage for Europe in this context with Russia.
Should Russia further engage – further invade Ukraine, I would expect that that would be – Nord Stream 2 would be part of a significant – there have been several adjectives used – massive economic consequences that would flow to Russia in the event that they take that action.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. We have a question from Polina Ivanova with the Financial Times. Please go ahead. I’ve opened your mic.
Question: Hi, thank you very much. You’ve spoken a lot about the facts on the ground and made clear that the buildup poses an extreme threat to Ukraine. How has that situation changed since April 2021? What are you seeing? And could you list the other points on the basis of which you are making the warning of invasion risk? There have also been intelligence reports. Could you comment on those? Some of them have talked about the domestic situation in Ukraine and Russia’s attempts to affect that. Do you – are they intelligence reports that you also share, the conclusions that you also share? And some partners in Europe and Ukraine have actually played down those reports in recent days, and how would you comment on that?
Ambassador Sullivan: Sure. Well, of course, I was here in Moscow last year, last spring, when we saw a large military buildup by the Russian Government in southwestern Russia and Crimea that was also targeting Ukraine. What I would say is what we have seen in the months since then, starting last fall, is a much larger-scale undertaking by the Russian Government to ratchet up its military presence, its capability to launch a military invasion of Ukraine, not just from Russian territory, but now because of the deployment of Russian troops into Belarus, through Belarus from the north if the government in Minsk were to permit that.
So there’s been a significant increase in the military threat, the risk, and the evidence of – further evidence of that is the fact that at the end of October, I believe we met with Russian Government officials – Director Burns was sent here. I believe we met on November 1st; it may have been November 2nd. So months ago. That in and of itself is a significant indication of the concern of the United States with the difference in the buildup and the threat that the Russian Government, the Russian military now poses to Ukraine.
I can’t comment on – publicly on intelligence, including recent intelligence that we and our allies and partners have, but I’ll say two things. First, as I’ve said and I want to emphasize again, the threat is very real and it’s imminent. As President Biden has said, it could happen, given the buildup that we have seen, with very little notice. And second, that we have worked very closely with allies and partners to share as much information as we can about the situation as we see it.
So this is not to say that the Russian Government is going to further invade Ukraine or has decided to further invade Ukraine, but the military presence that it’s aggregated in the region on the border with Ukraine and Crimea, and now in Belarus, gives it the ability to undertake that large-scale military further incursion into Ukraine. It’s the equivalent of if you and I were having a discussion or a negotiation, if I put a gun on the table and say that I come in peace, that’s threatening. And that’s what we see now.
We hope that the Russian Government is true to its word and does not plan to and will not further invade Ukraine, but the facts suggest that it has the present ability to do that in spite of the fact that Ukraine poses no threat to Russia.
Moderator: Thank you for that. We have time for about two more questions. The first question will go to Elena Chernenko with Kommersant. I’ve opened your mic. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you very much, Ambassador, for doing this. I have two questions. One of them: Is it the U.S. administration’s assessment, as some Western media report, that Russia might attack Ukraine once the ground freezes in Ukraine? So that’s the first question. And the second one is: Sergey Lavrov indicated the Russian ministry of foreign affairs would send the U.S. another letter today asking for your clarification on why you don’t abide by the OSCE principles of the indivisibility of security. What do you think will the U.S. answer? Thank you.
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, thanks, Elena. Good to hear from you. Always a pleasure speaking with you. First, well, let me – let me discuss the second part, second question first.
The Secretary, our Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov have had a number of both telephone conversations and, of course, an in-person meeting last week. Our hope – my hope and expectation is that those discussions will continue after the Russian Government has digested the paper that I presented on Wednesday. I have not received or seen a letter from the foreign ministry, from the foreign minister, but I have seen public commentary by, if not the foreign minister himself, by senior Russian Government officials asking for our assessment, our understanding of what indivisible security in Europe means.
I’ll just say on behalf – speaking on behalf of myself as someone who has undertaken the exercise recently to go back and reread all of the relevant documents, the overriding principle that comes out of those documents is the protection of national sovereignty, the right of a country to determine its own security, its own security alliances, and that to use some broader, opaque concept of indivisible security in Europe, that that should trump – should prevail over the right of another country to determine its own path for national security is not consistent with any of the documents that I have read.
Imagine if Ukraine said Russia needs to withdraw from the CSTO because it, Ukraine, feels threatened by what Russia has done. That’s just not the way nations conduct business together, particularly under the agreements that the United States and our allies and partners and Russia – Russia, and before it the Soviet Union, agreed to over decades with the fundamental principle of respect for national sovereignty.
Moderator: Great. Thank you very much for that. Our final question was emailed to us from Nino Tsabolovi with Europetime, and her question is: “What are the next steps diplomatically? Secretary Blinken said he expects to speak to Foreign Minister Lavrov in the coming days and is ready to discuss new steps. What should be these steps?”
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, we will await the Russian Government’s response to the written document that I delivered on Wednesday. The Russian Government also received from NATO a written response from NATO to the draft treaty that Russia presented in mid-December through us, through the United States when Assistant Secretary Donfried and I met with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov.
So we will await what the Russian Government’s reaction and assessment is to our written responses, and then as Secretary Blinken noted, I would expect that there would be a discussion, a phone conversation, or perhaps a meeting – I don’t know; that hasn’t been agreed to. The Secretary, Secretary Blinken, has used both formats to communicate with the foreign minister, many phone calls and a number of meetings over the last year. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened in relatively short order, but that depends on the Russian Government, its response to the documents that the United States and NATO submitted and when they would like to resume discussions.
We certainly hope that they will do so. As I said at the outset, our preferred path is diplomacy and we believe the document that we submitted on Wednesday lays out a path to diplomacy and a de-escalation of this situation.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that, Mr. Ambassador. Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for questions for today. Before we close, Ambassador, do you have any final remarks you’d like to offer?
Ambassador Sullivan: Well, thank you, Justin. It’s been great to speak with all of you today, offer my perspective from Moscow. As I said earlier, I’ve seen over the last five years the deterioration in the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia, and please know that I and my colleagues at the embassy, U.S. embassy here are doing all we can to try to stabilize that relationship, stop the descent which we’ve been on with Russia. It’s – it is not good for the United States; it’s not good for Russia; it’s not good for European or global security. But as Secretary Blinken has said, we are committed to further diplomatic engagement with the Russian Government, whether it is on our bilateral diplomatic relationship, Ukraine, security in Europe; or broader issues, whether it’s arms control, cybersecurity, et cetera.
But the path forward is really now up to the Russian Government and we’ll stand ready here at Embassy Moscow to continue our work to try to stabilize and improve the relationship between the United States and Russia, which, as I say, is in the interests of the American people and of the Russian people.
But thanks again, Justin. Appreciate your time and everyone who’s on the call.
Moderator: Ambassador, thank you so much for taking the time with journalists from across Europe today.
This concludes the call.