SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. President Obama, as you know, asked me to come to London in an effort to try to deescalate the situation in Ukraine. Today, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I engaged in a very in-depth, constructive dialogue on how to address legitimate concerns in the context of a unified, sovereign Ukraine. The United States strongly supports the interim government of Ukraine, and we continue to favor a direct dialogue between Ukraine and Russia as the very best way to try to resolve the crisis.
I came here in good faith with constructive ideas – which we did put forward, on behalf of President Obama – in order to try to restore and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, while addressing at the same time Russia’s legitimate concerns. Foreign Minister Lavrov and I talked for a good six hours, and the conversation was very direct, very candid, frank, and I say constructive because we really dug into all of Russia’s perceptions, their narrative, our narrative, our perceptions, and the differences between us.
I presented a number of ideas on behalf of the President, which we believe absolutely could provide a path forward for all the parties. However, after much discussion, the Foreign Minister made it clear that President Putin is not prepared to make any decision regarding Ukraine until after the referendum on Sunday. The United States position on that referendum, I must say, is clear and it’s clear today: We believe the referendum is contrary to the constitution of Ukraine, is contrary to international law, is in violation of that law, and we believe it is illegitimate, and as the President put it, illegal under the Ukrainian constitution. Neither we nor the international community will recognize the results of this referendum.
And we also remain deeply concerned about the large deployments of Russian forces in Crimea and along the eastern border with Russia, as well as the continuing provocations and some of the hooliganism of young people who’ve been attracted to cross the border and come into the east, as well as some of those who’ve lived there.
I was clear with Foreign Minister Lavrov that the President has made it clear there will be consequences if Russia does not find a way to change course. And we don’t say that as a threat, we say that as a direct consequence of the choices that Russia may or may not choose to make here. If Russia does establish facts on the ground that increase tensions or that threaten the Ukrainian people, then obviously that will beg an even greater response, and there will be costs.
President Obama and I could not be more convinced that there is a better way for Russia to pursue legitimate interests in Ukraine. We believe it is not insignificant that we acknowledge there are legitimate interests – historical, cultural, current strategic. These are real interests, and I think all of us who are joined together in the EU and extended contact group understand those interests and are prepared to respect them. But that requires also that Russia would respect the multilateral structure that has guided our actions since World War II and the need for all of us to try to resolve this challenge and to meet those interests through the international, multilateral legal norms, which should guide all of our behavior.
Foreign Minister Lavrov and I talked about that, and we talked about the other options that are available – options of dialogue, options of various contact meetings that could take place, options of international legal remedy, options of joint, multilateral efforts that would protect minorities, UN options, international human rights organization options, many options for the ways in which any challenges to the safety or security or rights of people could be addressed. We are certainly prepared to join in an effort to protect those rights, whether they be the rights of a Ukrainian living in the west, a Ukrainian living in the east, somebody of Russian language and Russian descent who might feel threatened. All minorities, all people should be protected.
Foreign Minister Lavrov and I agreed that we are going to stay in touch in the next days on Ukraine, as well as on the other issues of concern, which we are working on – Syria, Iran, and other challenges of mutual concern.
Before I close, I just want to reiterate what President Obama said in the Oval Office on Wednesday when he visited with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The United States stands with the people of Ukraine in their desire to make their own choices about their future, and to be able to live their lives in a unified, peaceful, stable, and democratic Ukraine. The President said clearly that is our only interest. That is what drives us. Not a larger strategy, nothing with respect to Russia directly. We are interested in the people of Ukraine having the opportunity to have their country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity respected, as we would ask that to happen for any country.
So I will be briefing Prime Minister Yatsenyuk shortly, as well as all of our colleagues and counterparts in the EU and the members of the contact group. As soon as I leave here, I will engage in those briefings, and I look forward to taking a couple of questions.
MS. PSAKI: The first question is from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, as you noted, Russian troops are carrying out an extensive military exercise near Ukraine, and at the same time, the Russian Foreign Ministry said just today that the Kremlin reserves the right to protect what it calls compatriots’ lives in Ukraine. Did you obtain a clear assurance from Mr. Lavrov that Russia would not use these forces to intervene in eastern Ukraine? What – as they have in Crimea. What did they say is the purpose of this exercise? And has Russia abided by its obligations to provide OSCE nations with timely and accurate information about the size of the exercise, the types of forces involved, the purpose of the exercise? Have they done that for this current exercise and have they done that for the one immediate prior?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me answer the second part of the question first. I don’t know whether or not they’ve made that notification. I’ve been wrapped up in these talks and I’ve been wrapped up in other talks, so I’m not aware of whether or not that notification was made.
But I can tell you, indeed, we talked about these exercises and we talked about the level of troops that are deployed, where they’re deployed, what the purpose is, and I raised very clearly the increased anxiety that is created within Ukraine as a consequence of this. And we talked about one of the proposals that we made – I’m not going to go into all of them, but one of the proposals we made discussed the possibility of drawing all forces back, reducing these tensions, returning to barracks, having a freeze on those kinds of deployments while the diplomacy is working.
I think, in fairness, that Foreign Minister Lavrov is going to report that proposal back to President Putin, as he did all – as he will all of the proposals that we put on the table this afternoon. He’s going to fly back, have that discussion with him, so the president will be well aware – President Putin – of all of the options that we’ve offered. But that was certainly one of the principal areas of discussion is this increased tension created by these additional deployments in Crimea as well as along the border of the east, and the need to try to reduce that kind of tension. And it’s our hope that they will take those necessary steps.
With respect to assurances, it’s my understanding this afternoon that Foreign Minister Lavrov gave assurances publicly with respect to their intent, but I think all of us would like to see actions, not words, that support the notion that people are moving in the opposite direction and, in fact, diminishing their presence. And I think right now, in this particular climate, given what has been happening, we really need to hear a more declarative policy in order to make clear where Russia is proceeding with respect to these troops and these exercises.
MS. PSAKI: Lara Jakes from AP.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, you said last week that Crimea is Ukraine. Foreign Minister Lavrov just told reporters that Crimea is more important to Russia than Falklands is to Britain. Given that, did you get any indication from Mr. Lavrov that Russia would not annex Crimea in the event of a vote to secede? And if not, or even if so, why wouldn’t even greater autonomy for Crimea, as Kyiv said it will allow, why would it not set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the region in terms of appeasing Russia?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the issue of additional autonomy for Crimea has been one that has constantly been on the table – been on the table. It’s been on the table prior to Russia making these moves. So that’s really a decision for the Ukrainian Government to make, number one. Number two, in his visit to Washington, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk made it very clear they are prepared to provide additional autonomy, and they see that as no threat to the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. They in fact, I think, see it as strengthening it. But we don’t know definitively what President Putin is going to decide.
What was made clear today in the context of President Putin being unwilling to make any decisions regarding the next steps until the vote has been taken – what was made clear is that he has said that once that referendum vote is taken, he will make a decision with respect to what will happen. And I would say to him today, as I said to Foreign Minister Lavrov, that is a decision of enormous consequence with respect to the global community. We believe that a decision to move forward by Russia to ratify that vote officially within the Duma would in fact be a backdoor annexation of Crimea, and that it would be against international law, and frankly, fly in the face of every legitimate effort to try to reach out to Russia and others to say there is a different way to proceed, to protect the interests of Crimeans, to protect Russia’s interests, and to respect the integrity of Ukraine and the sovereignty of Ukraine.
We hope President Putin will recognize that none of what we’re saying is meant as a threat. It’s not meant as a – in a personal way. It is meant as a matter of respect for the international multilateral structure that we have lived by since World War II and for the standards of behavior about annexation, about secession, about independence and how countries come about it.
Here in Great Britain, the Parliament voted to legitimize a vote in Scotland about where Scotland would want to proceed. Under the constitution of Ukraine, the Ukrainian legislature in Kyiv would have to vote to legitimize a secession effort by any state or oblast or province or entity or autonomy – autonomous region of Ukraine. That hasn’t happened here. That’s why this runs against the constitution of Ukraine.
So we very much hope that President Putin will hear that we are not trying to challenge Russia’s rights or interests, it’s interest in protecting its people, its interests in its strategic position, its port agreement. None of those things are being threatened here. They can all be respected even as the integrity of Ukraine is respected, and we would hope that President Putin would see that there is a better way to address those concerns that he has that are legitimate, and we hope he will make that decision. He has decided not to make any other decision until that vote takes place on Sunday.
MS. PSAKI: The final question is from Jo Biddle of AFP.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, Foreign Minister Lavrov just told reporters in London after your talks that there’s no common vision between the West and Russia on Ukraine, that international mediators are not needed in this situation, and that Russia will respect the results of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea. Despite your message just now to President Putin that this is not meant as a threat, do you believe that in fact that diplomacy is failing here and that they are just going to go ahead with what you just termed as a possible backdoor annexation of Crimea?
And is it now a fait accompli that on Monday we will see sanctions from the European Union and the United States? And what gives you confidence that even those sanctions will in any way change President Putin’s mind, given that this week we’ve seen the ruble falling and today again the Moscow stocks have been falling to a four-year low? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I suspect the market in Russia, in Moscow, can be significantly affected by these choices. It already is being affected. And obviously, if there are going to be more sanctions, I think that’ll have an impact. But the reality is that President Putin’s statement that he will respect the vote offers him many options as to how he chooses to respect the vote. If the people of Crimea vote overwhelmingly, as one suspects they will, to affiliate or be associated with Russia, you can respect the vote by making sure that their autonomy is increased, that their needs that have prompted that vote are properly respected, without necessarily having to make a decision to annex.
So until that decision is made, I’m not going to interpret what it may or may not mean. I think it’s more important for the president – for President Putin to understand that we are prepared to respect his interests and rights, and that they can be fully respected, and that he can actually have a claim to have served his purpose of protecting the people that he is interested in protecting by augmenting their rights and by asserting his prerogatives at the end of this effort. So there are other options, and that’s what we’re continually trying to say. And until he has made his decision, those options are still on the table and alive, and we hope he will make a different set of choices.
With respect to – what was the other part of your question about the –
QUESTION: Whether there’ll be sanctions automatically –
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, with respect to the President and the European Community and everybody have said if the referendum takes place, there will be some sanctions. There’ll be some response, put it that way. If there’s greater diplomatic opportunity that could be pursued, and that is in fact on the table, then I’m confident whatever the response is would be calibrated accordingly. But if, on the other hand, a decision is made that’s negative and/or flies in the face of all of the rationale that the EU and others have put on the table for illegality, that will obviously demand some further response, which I’m confident both the EU and the United States will produce.
It is not our preference. It is not where we want to go. It is not what we are choosing as a first choice. But if the wrong choices are made, then there will be no choice but to respond appropriately because of the gravity of this breach of international standard, breach of international law, and challenge, frankly, to the global standard by which nations have been called on to try to behave.
And we believe that the consequences are consequences that could be felt in many other parts of the world. There are many places where people might take the wrong lesson from that, and I think many people are concerned about that.
Thank you all very, very much. Thank you.
- Cross posted from State.gov