MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by Ambassador Michael Carpenter, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or the OSCE.
Finally, a reminder that today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, let’s get started. Ambassador Carpenter, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Great, thanks so much, and thanks to all of you for joining us today. I’d like to open with a few comments on the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism Report on Russia, which was released just last week, and then speak a little about the propaganda stunt that Russia has been engaged in over the last few days with its sham referenda in Ukraine. I think you’ll see there’s actually a direct link between the Kremlin’s systematic hollowing out of democratic institutions and its, frankly, ridiculous effort to mimic a democratic process at the barrel of a gun in Ukraine.
So, as the Moscow Mechanism report that was issued last week notes, the hollowing out of Russia’s democratic institutions has impacted all three branches of power as well as media and civil society. Over the course of several decades now, we’ve seen that genuine opposition parties and candidates have been denied the ability to campaign freely for seats in the legislature while a so-called systemic opposition, who have been thoroughly coopted by the regime, try to endow the legislature with the appearance of pluralism. Similarly, the judiciary, which, according to Russia’s constitution, is supposed to be independent, has been suggested – subjected, excuse me, as the report says, quote, to “direct interference by the head of the executive in the exercise of constitutional jurisdiction,” end quote.
When it comes to the media, the Moscow Mechanism report notes that “restrictions reducing freedom of expression to zero … lead to a huge chilling effect.” And finally, when it comes to civil society, “disproportionate and arbitrary restriction of the right to peaceful assembly” as well as restrictive laws on “foreign agents” – these are in quotes, “foreign agents” – “State secrets,” “extremism,” “terrorism,” quote, “homosexual propaganda” and “war speech” have all essentially criminalized many aspects of civic activism and dramatically limited the space for civil society.
So, in a nutshell, nominally democratic institutions have been stripped of the key elements of democracy, leaving us with an increasingly repressive dictatorship in Russia. The arrests over the last few days of protesters who were opposed to the recent mobilization orders are a good example of how the Putin regime brooks no dissent.
The fact that decision-making in Russia is so restricted to the very top of the so-called power vertical is one of the enabling reasons for Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Importantly, the systematic efforts by the Russian state to hollow out or coopt democratic institutions like civil society, the judiciary, and the media helps contextualize what is happening today in Ukraine with Russia’s sham referenda.
I hesitate to even call them referenda because, of course, they’re not. These are merely propaganda stunts that are used to try to legitimize Russia’s violent seizure of Ukrainian territory. Reports indicate that armed forces are compelling individuals to vote in their own homes and that many workers are being threatened with the loss of their jobs if they don’t vote. This is not a real vote.
All of this is, of course, happening after Russia’s forces have decimated Ukrainian cities like Mariupol and forced much of the population of these parts of Ukraine to flee. Many of those that have remained after Russia’s relentless bombing campaigns were then subjected to the so-called filtration process, resulting in the forced deportation of millions of Ukrainians.
So, to recap, after reducing so many Ukrainian towns and cities to rubble and forcing the population to flee or be deported across the border to Russia, now Russia’s forces are compelling – often at gunpoint – the remaining Ukrainian citizens in these depopulated areas to vote for annexation with Russia. These are the very same war-impacted citizens who have been subjected to the brutal filtration process, sometimes involving torture, and are now forced in a complete travesty of an electoral process to give their assent to Russia’s neocolonial claims. If it were not such a tragedy, it might well qualify as a parody.
Finally, I want to underscore that the reason the Kremlin has had to postpone its plans for these sham votes for so long – and some of you on this call may remember that I spoke about the Kremlin’s plans from the State Department podium back in May – is because it has suffered so many defeats on the battlefield and has been unable to consolidate control over Ukraine’s territories in the south and east. Russia’s hasty attempt to carry out these propaganda stunts now is a sign of desperation and a patent effort to create legal facts on the ground even as its forces retreat and Ukraine continues to liberate its land.
Needless to say, these propaganda stunts have no legal value whatsoever and the United States will never recognize Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory. We will stand with Ukraine until it restores its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Thanks so much. Looking forward to your questions.
MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Ambassador. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. We do have a couple of questions that were asked initially, and I’ll start with one of those from Marika Chubinidze from the Georgian news agency Accent: “Pro-Russian propagandists in Georgia are constantly trying to spread the idea that given the war in Ukraine, the U.S. and the West have lost interest in the Caucasus region, and in this situation, Georgia should take a course of rapprochement with Russia to protect its own security. What would you say to these propagandists?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, thanks, Marika, for the question. You’re absolutely right that pro-Russian disinformation and propaganda is extremely active in the South Caucasus and particularly in Georgia. It’s been that way for years. Russian television is, of course, available to many of the citizens of Georgia, but they use a variety of different conduits to try to influence the population. And one of their favorite messaging themes is that the United States and our allies and partners are far away, that we’re less engaged, that Russia is there, that Georgia essentially has to cut a deal with Russia in order to be able to develop and move forward.
I can tell you that that is false, that the United States is deeply engaged in the region. We are currently very heavily involved in the discussions between Armenia and Azerbaijan to Georgia’s south regarding normalization of their relations. We are supportive of the process between Armenia and Turkey. And we’re very engaged in Georgia itself, and Phil Reeker, our new Caucasus envoy, has been to Tbilisi and we’re going to continue to have high-level engagement with Georgia.
Look, Georgia is one of the few democracies in the region. It’s a country with which the United States has had deep and abiding ties for a long time. When I was deputy assistant secretary of defense, I helped institute the Georgia Readiness and Defense Program, which has helped Georgia with developing its own territorial defense capacity and capability. So I know the country well and I know that we’ve been heavily engaged for many, many years. Georgia was also with us in Afghanistan at great personal cost to a lot of Georgian soldiers.
But the truth is that Georgia’s trajectory, as repeatedly confirmed by its political leadership as well as by its population, is to join Western structures – NATO and the EU – and we support those aspirations and we will do everything we can to make good on them. And now that Georgia is an EU candidate country, there are also – or will be – there are also opportunities to help spur that accession path. And so it is not true what Russian propagandists are saying, and in fact, as Russia’s both soft power and hard power are shown to be weaker based on what’s happening in Ukraine, I think a lot of countries in the region are going to realize that their future is not tied to the Eurasian Economic Union but rather in other directions. And many governments have already spoken out about this.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. For our next question we’d like to go live, I think to Alex Raufoglu. Alex.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. Thank you so very much for doing this. And Ambassador, thank you so much – so very much for making yourself available for us today. On the report, could you speak to the possible steps that OSCE could take given that the report is coming out right ahead of HDIM? Could Russia be stripped away from HDIM, or its voting rights at HDIM? First of all because of this report, and secondly, as you know, last year OSCE did not even commit the annual HDIM due to Russia’s objections.
Secondly, about Putin’s partial mobilization, could you speak to the human rights aspect of that? We have seen reports about anti-war protests erupted in cities all over the country, and hundreds of people are being arrested. Some officials suggest that the protesters are to be sent to the front line. Just as far as the human rights of the – aspect of this decision and its implications.
And lastly, since I have you here and since also you mentioned Armenia and Azerbaijan, a quick question on Nagorno-Karabakh process: Is it time to kick Russia out of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship? And if not, then when is it the best time to do that? Thank you so much for this.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Great. Thanks, Alex, for those questions. Three-part series of questions, so let me start with the first.
Regarding Russia’s participation in the Warsaw Conference on the Human Dimension, it certainly looks to me – and we’re just getting underway today here in Warsaw – as if the Russians will be voting with their feet and will not be participating in this conference. So I don’t know that they necessarily need to be expelled. But listen, the whole point of having a review conference like this one – the HDIM, as you mentioned, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – is to focus on where participating states of the OSCE fall short in meeting their commitments and obligations to the principles that we all freely subscribed to when we signed the Helsinki Final Act and in subsequent years when we agreed to documents like the Charter of Paris or the Charter on European Security.
So the fact that Russia is absenting themselves from this meeting is yet another indication that they do not want to be held to account by these principles, because we know that they’re violating them. But nevertheless, we will have NGOs here from across the OSCE region, including Russian NGOs by the way, and we will stand with civil society even as bleak as the picture is for the nongovernmental organizations that are still remaining in Russia. They have been, as I noted in the – in my introductory comments, they have been subjected to legislated attacks on them, on their very existence, by the Russian state, and the space, consequently, for Russian civil society has shrunk dramatically.
But we will engage them here. We will continue to speak about Russia’s abuses of human rights and the ways in which Russia’s restricting civil society space. That’s what this forum is for. And by the way, that’s why we invoked the Moscow Mechanism back in July: to produce that comprehensive report on all the ways in which Russia is restricting fundamental freedoms.
On your second question on mobilization in Russia and whether the so-called partial mobilization is in violation of human rights, look, I think it’s pretty clear that human rights are routinely disrespected across Russia by the authorities. And in this case what you’re finding is a very murky, opaque set of rules governing who gets mobilized and who doesn’t. We’ve already seen anecdotal reports that in some of the ethnic minority regions of Russia, the overwhelming percentage of the population is being mobilized, but in other parts of Russia like in Moscow or St. Petersburg, that is not the case. So it clearly appears to be uneven in terms of who is being mobilized, and of course the whole endeavor of mobilization to throw additional human beings as cannon fodder into this illegal war of aggression in Ukraine is premised on what I just said: on the fact that this is a war that is in violation of every single principle of the Helsinki Final Act and of the UN Charter. So already the premise of the mobilization is to deploy additional people to, unfortunately, go and attack the innocent, peaceful country of Ukraine.
Okay. I think the third part of your question was on Nagorno-Karabakh and the Minsk Group. So the United States has just appointed a new Minsk Group co-chair, Phil Reeker. I think it’s no secret that the Minsk Group right now is not – is not meeting amongst the co-chairs, and that has to do both because of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine but also – but that does not mean – but also for other reasons. There is currently a peace process that EU Council President Charles Michel is leading with the two sides, and the U.S. very much supports that process. We are also very strongly engaged bilaterally with both Armenia and Azerbaijan to facilitate wherever and whenever possible, in very close consultation with our EU colleagues.
And so our overriding preference when it comes to Armenia and Azerbaijan is to support the normalization between – of relations between the two countries; the opening of transportation and communication corridors in the region; good neighborly relations; and of course, fundamental is the protection of the human rights of all the populations living in the region, including in Nagorno-Karabakh.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Switching gears a little bit, we have a question from Llazar Semini from the Associated Press, a question on Kosovo-Serbia negotiations and the situation in the Western Balkans. “Is there any threat of a new conflict flare-up between the Kosovo and – between Kosovo and Serbia? Do you see any development in their bilateral talks? And also, is the Western Balkans endangered from any impact from Russia – in danger from any impact from Russia, taking into consideration not only Moscow’s interest in the region but also its close ties with Serbia?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Okay. Thank you for the question. I’ll say this: The situation in the Western Balkans is delicate. Certainly, there is always the potential for things to take a dangerous turn. I think right now, however, the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, between Kosovo and Serbia, is making slow but steady advances and we very much support the EU-led dialogue where the U.S. is present and has a seat at the table. Our special envoy and deputy assistant secretary for the region, Gabe Escobar, is very closely lashed up with his EU colleague, envoy – Special Envoy Miroslav Lajčák. And – but we do see that there are issues in the bilateral relationship as we try to, again, move towards mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia. There are issues that can cause friction. We saw it with the ID cards, we see it with the issue of license plates, and there are a number of other issues that are contentious on both sides.
So we, of course, support a diplomatic way forward through talks and compromise, which isn’t always easy but, as we saw with the issue of the ID cards, is possible. And we want to – we want to drive this process forward to the point of mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia – again, reconciliation, good neighborly relations. It’s really in the best interests of the entire Western Balkans to see borders respected, mutually recognized, stabilized, so we can focus on bringing peace and prosperity to the entire region.
So I think I spoke to your second – the second part of your question on violence. I mean, we always have to be very careful. We do have OSCE missions in both Kosovo and Serbia that are tracking and providing data on early warning, but right now I think the situation is relatively stable but it is, of course, a fragile situation as well.
With regards to Russia, we see Russian malign influence across the region. It has manifested in many different countries. In fact, I would say across the entire Western Balkans. And often it is involved in – Russia’s influence is felt through support for both nationalist/populist politicians and to advance Russia’s own agenda, which is not necessarily the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region and what we see as our strategic interest, which is a Europe whole, free, and at peace, to include the Western Balkans. That does not appear to be what is motivating Russia, and so we are very wary of their influence in the region and continue to track it.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll turn again to a questioner on the line, Salo – Salo Abulashvili. Over to you, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thank you, Ambassador, for your time and for your interest on these questions. So my question is the Russians who fled the mobilization order released by the Putin are heading to Georgia. The numbers are terrifying. What can you suggest to Georgian Government in this situation to take into the consideration the fact that not a long time ago, Russia itself waged the war against our country? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Yeah, thanks so much for the question. Of course Russia continues today to occupy 20 percent of sovereign Georgian territory, and that is a huge concern. Russia never implemented the terms of the six-point ceasefire from August 2008, and has continued to maintain military forces in Tskhinvali region and in Abkhazia in contravention of that agreement and in contravention of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
So I appreciate the concern that many Georgians have over this massive influx of Russian citizens, and all I can say is that this is a sovereign decision for the Government of Georgia on who to admit and in what types of numbers. But certainly, this is an unprecedented situation that your country faces right now where not only are two regions of your country occupied illegally by Russia, but you have a huge influx of primarily young men coming from Russia as a result of this mobilization order. And so each country is going to be different in terms of how it responds to the desire by Russian citizens to escape their country and to seek refuge elsewhere, and each country has to decide based on what it feels is best to protect its national security.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We’ll go back to the submitted questions, from Mike Brest asking if you, Ambassador, could elaborate on the commonalities Ukrainians have uncovered in recently liberated cities and villages. “Do these commonalities give you the impression that they were following orders from the Russian leaders?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Yeah, thanks for the question, Mike. Unfortunately, I would say that we are seeing many commonalities in terms of the horrors being discovered in the wake of the Russian retreat from the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, and the previous Russian withdrawal from the municipalities north of Kyiv as well as the Sumy region and the Chernihiv region. And I am – all of you are familiar with the atrocities that were uncovered in Bucha, of men often – well, some women as well – with their hands tied behind their backs, shot point-blank in the head, and civilians – all civilians.
And we are seeing now in Izyum the number keeps rising on the number of bodies exhumed from this mass grave. It’s now close to 450, if I’m not mistaken. And again we see men, women, and children among the victims, and we see, at least among some, signs of torture and abuse – digits that have been cut off; other forms of mutilation; again, point-blank shots to the head, the side of the head or the back of the head. And all of this testifies to a series of war crimes which are completely in contravention, naturally, of international humanitarian law, but which investigators will have to look carefully at to determine whether these qualify as systematic endeavors to attack Ukrainian civilians, and if they are systematic – and at first glance there certainly appears to be a common pattern here, as you’ve identified in your question – then these would also qualify as crimes against humanity.
Now, I am not a lawyer, so it’s not for me to make that determination, but what we are seeing is truly revolting and testifies or underscores, rather, the fact that there needs to be accountability for these crimes. And so we at the OSCE have twice invoked the Moscow Mechanism to be able to document war crimes in Ukraine committed by Russia’s forces, to gather evidence on those war crimes, and then to make that information available to prosecutors – either to Ukraine’s prosecutor general or to the ICC lead prosecutor or to any other jurisdiction that is going to seek accountability for these crimes. And currently, the UN Commission of Inquiry has picked up the baton from the OSCE and is now engaged in further work to document additional war crimes using some of the information that the Moscow Mechanism has produced as well as the ODIHR report, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and now the Commission of Inquiry will lead the effort to identify war crimes together with the ICC prosecutor, which is trying to bring cases so that individuals at all levels of the chain of command can be held accountable for these horrific, really just brutal, disgusting crimes.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. And we have one more question from Vasco Cotovio from CNN. There’s a couple of questions in here. “Given Russia’s partial mobilization, are the OSCE or the U.S. State Department tracking the exodus of Russians across the border? Do you have an estimate of how many people may have fled the country at this stage?” Vasco also asks what your current assessment is of Russian losses in Ukraine.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: So, thank you. We are tracking the exodus of Russians trying to leave. Of course, what I would say in this regard is that the vast majority of Russians who fear conscription or, as it’s called – I mean, it’s really – again, it’s this euphemistic term that the Russians use to call it partial mobilization. Let’s be clear, I am not – it doesn’t appear to be partial in some places; perhaps in other localities it may be partial. But clearly, a lot of Russians are not able, they don’t have the means apparently – this is just based on reports coming in from Russia. Airlines are no longer selling tickets to males between certain ages; 18 and 65 is the most common report. But then a lot of – a lot of routes out of Russia are also sold out.
So whatever numbers of people have come out of Russia so far, it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of people who either would like to leave or fear that they will be conscripted against their will and forced to fight in Ukraine, which I think an increasing number of Russians now views as an illegitimate war which Russia is waging on its peaceful neighbor for absolutely no reason other than pure, naked colonial conquest.
And so yes, we are tracking this. I can’t give you, however, any fidelity on the numbers.
And then the second part of the question – I’m now forgetting the second part of the question. You can remind me, Moderator.
MODERATOR: What is your current assessment of the Russian losses in Ukraine?
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Current assessment of Russian losses – again, this is difficult given that the United States does not have anyone on the ground other than our small mission, our small embassy in Kyiv. So it’s difficult to know. The Ukrainian side has put forward a figure of 55,000 killed in action, so that’s their number. But I would defer to the Pentagon and to our Intelligence Community in terms of their estimates. I can’t give you a better – a better number than what the Ukrainian side has put forward.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We have another hand raised. Can we go to Shelia Rusa, please?
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Thank you, Ambassador, for organizing this meeting and thank you for having me. So I want to ask about Georgia, of course, and while Georgia formally supports Ukraine on the world stage and provides humanitarian aid, a number of Georgian opposition parties have openly questioned Georgian Government’s allegiance and motivations. I want to ask you, Ambassador, do you think these accusations are fair? And also, as you know, Georgian domestic policy (inaudible). So do you think that Georgian parties, and I mean Georgian opposition parties, today are expressing generally Georgian peoples and the Georgian interests in my country? What can you comment? What do you comment on this? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Thanks for the question. This is the beauty of the democratic process, is that it is up to Georgian citizens to determine which political parties, which elected representatives or those campaigning for office best represent their interests. It is clear to me from my many visits to Georgia, and as I said earlier, that the overwhelming majority of the Georgian population favors integration with the EU and NATO. Those aspirations have been made public time and again by various different Georgian leaders from different political parties, and those remain the states aspirations of the Georgian Government.
It is up to Georgia’s citizens to determine whether the parties in power are pursuing those aspirations with all the energy and dedication that they would like to see. Certainly, we have worked with – we meaning the United States have worked closely with this Georgian Government, as we have with previous Georgian governments, and I mentioned my own service in the Pentagon with a previous Georgian government, but one that was also – had the ruling Georgian Dream party as part of – the main part of the ruling coalition, on territorial defense reforms, and we I think made a lot of substantial progress. Also, in the NATO context, the government has been able to use the substantial NATO-Georgia package to advance defense reforms.
Again, with each government that’s in power, it’s for the citizens of that country to determine whether they are meeting the goals that they have set out with such clarity and progress and demonstrable progress that the citizens feel like returning them to office. And so this is a question more for Georgia’s citizens than it is for me.
What I can say about the United States is that we value our strong partnership with Georgia under this government and with future governments, because this is about a state-to-state partnership between democracies that share similar values.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. We have time for one more question, and we have one more within the Q&A box from Nino Tsabolovi from Europetime.eu: “During the meeting with media on April 28th, you mentioned that the U.S. had evidence that the Kremlin may be preparing to stage sham referenda in Ukraine’s south and east. Such a scenario has come to pass: areas of Russian-occupied Ukraine have started to hold referendums. How do you – what do you think? What should be the international community’s response to Russia’s actions, so that Russia can no longer take similar steps?”
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: Well, thank you for the question. Indeed, I have been warning in the OSCE’s Permanent Council, in various media engagements, including from the State Department’s press podium in early May, that Russia was planning to engage in sham referenda in those territories that its forces controlled in the south and east of Ukraine. And now we are seeing those clear predictions based on facts and information available to the United States, we’re seeing that those plans are playing out.
Frankly, as I said earlier, I hesitate to even call these referenda because they’re not. These are propaganda stunts and not much more than that. The legality or the integrity of the vote – I mean, it’s just – it’s too ridiculous to even address thoroughly. Obviously, this is a sham. It is – there is a predetermined outcome to this, quote/unquote, “vote.” It’s not even really a vote. And it’s happening at the barrel of a gun. It’s happening in territories where the vast majority of the population has been driven from their homes, many of them sent through this horrific so-called filtration process where they’ve been mistreated, abused, and some have been tortured, and then deported against their will to Russia.
So there is absolutely not an iota of legitimacy to these propaganda stunts that Russia is carrying out in Ukraine’s south and east. From the perspective of the United States, what I can say is that we will never, never recognize the legitimacy of these stunts, and this will not change the fact that Ukraine is Ukraine and that we recognize its sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, as do the vast majority of the other states in the international community.
So what I would say to you is this is a desperate measure by Russia to try to change facts on the ground, but in fact it’s not going to change anything. We, the United States, are determined to help Ukraine continue to defend itself and to liberate its territories from Russian control and Russian temporary occupation. And if I’m not mistaken, in the last few weeks the Ukrainians have liberated something on the order of 8,500, approaching 9,000 square kilometers of land. That’s a very significant amount of territory, and we’re determined to see this effort through so that Ukraine regains – excuse me – control over all of its territory. This was a war that Russia waged based on pure desire for imperial conquest. There was absolutely no rationale, no justification for this aggression, and our goal is to see it reversed and for Ukraine to regain its full – and I repeat, full – sovereignty and territorial integrity within its international recognized borders, to include, of course, all of Donbas and Crimea. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this briefing today. Thank you for all of your questions, and thank you, Ambassador Carpenter, for joining us. Before we close the call, I’d like to see if you, Ambassador Carpenter, have any final remarks for the group.
AMBASSADOR CARPENTER: No, thank you. I think we covered it all in the opening and in the questions. Thanks very much for having me.