The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Executive Order on Ukraine -- Via Conference Call
Via Conference Call
8:38 A.M. EST
MS. HAYDEN: Thank you very much. Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for joining. This conference call is to discuss the visa restrictions and executive order that were released today in relation to Ukraine. We have several speakers today, all of whom are senior administration officials. The call is on background so they should be referred to and this attributed to senior administration officials. There is no embargo on this call.
With that, I will turn it over to our first senior administration official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, everybody, for joining the call. I just want to give you a bit of an overview of where things stand and the actions we've taken today.
To begin with, since the Russian intervention in Ukraine you have seen us work on several lines of effort to mobilize international unity, to condemn the Russian intervention, to impose costs on Russia for that intervention so that they are isolated politically and economically, to provide additional support for the government in Kyiv. And you’ve seen both the United States and the European Union make important announcements about our support for the Ukrainian people over the last several days while also, again, indicating that there is an opportunity for Russia to deescalate going forward.
In terms of how that's manifested, you have seen broad international unity in the condemnations out of the North Atlantic Council, out of our European allies, and out of the G7 countries. We suspended preparatory meetings for the G8 in Sochi. The United States has pulled down and cancelled discussions associated with keeping trade and commercial ties to Russia. We've also cancelled military exercises and joint consultations with Russia on those specific issues, while providing additional reassurance to our European allies about our commitment to their security.
With today’s actions we have taken additional steps to impose costs on Russia and those who are responsible for the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. That includes an executive order that gives us a great deal of flexibility to target individuals and entities who are responsible for this violation of international law and of Georgian -- sorry -- Ukrainian sovereignty. And we are also imposing visa restrictions, which further imposes a cost on individuals responsible for the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
So this should send a strong message that we intend to impose costs on Russia for this intervention. It also gives us flexibility, however, to respond in the coming days based on Russia’s continued actions. So, again, we already have grave concerns over the intervention in Crimea. The situation, of course, could escalate further if we see actions into Eastern Ukraine, and we have the flexibility, therefore, to calibrate and escalate our own response if we see further Russian destabilizing actions, just as we are going to impose a cost for what has already taken place in Crimea.
At the same time, there continues to be a way to deescalate the situation, to allow international monitors into not just Eastern Ukraine but also Crimea to assure the protection of all Ukrainian citizens including ethnic Russians; to have immediate discussions between the Russian government and the government in Kyiv with the support of the international community; and to work towards the elections that the Ukrainian people will have in May to determine their next democratically elected government.
With that, I'll turn it over to my Treasury colleague to discuss the EO.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Today the EO issued by the President allows the Secretary of the Treasury to impose powerful financial sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for an array of activities related to the situation developing in Ukraine.
There’s four main criteria for designation: First, it allows us to target those undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine; second, those threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine; third, those misappropriating state assets of Ukraine; and fourth, those purporting to assert governmental authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the Ukrainian government in Kyiv.
In addition, we also are afforded in this executive order the authority to target derivatives -- in other words, those who are acting on behalf of, or providing material support to, or those who are under control by anyone listed.
This is a powerful and flexible tool that will allow us to target those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea. It does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate.
Finally, we have not listed specific individuals or entities today, but this authority is now in place and we will be looking to use it as appropriate in response to developments on the ground.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The State Department is putting in place visa restrictions on a number of officials and individuals, which reflects a policy decision to deny visas to officials or other persons who have been complicit in or responsible for supporting actions which threaten the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, including the Russian troop movements not authorized to or consented to by the government of Ukraine, and potentially, any other unauthorized actions by regional authorities in Ukraine.
So we have put this -- we have this authority, are implementing it, and we will be restricting visas as well as pulling a number of visas where people already have them.
Q A couple quick questions. I know you can’t give us the names of those on the visa ban. Can you give us a sense of the scope of it, rough numbers of some sort? And you mentioned that those who have visas will have them pulled. Are they notified of that? And then, secondly, why now, this morning, before the Lavrov talks, not after? Did the Crimea referendum thing that they talked about today play a part? And are we going to -- and are you saying you’re not going to do these other sanctions except in response to further actions by the Russians, or we’re going to take further actions even without further escalation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll go first and then turn it over to my colleague. First, on the why now, Peter, we’ve been preparing very quickly this executive order. We believe that there need to be costs and consequences for Russia for what they’ve already done in Crimea. That is a violation of international law, a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. So there will be individuals who are designated pursuant to what we’ve already seen in Crimea.
The point I was making is that we also have flexibility under this EO and any other additional sanctions we may impose should we see further escalatory behavior by the Russian Federation.
We’ve been working on this in close consultation and coordination with our European allies. They were aware that we are taking this step. They have taken some steps related to the events in Ukraine -- they’ll make their own decisions, of course, going forward. But it’s important to note that we have been closely coordinating with them in this effort.
Again, the Russian Federation continues to have the opportunity to deescalate the situation. I know Secretary Kerry is meeting with Prime Minister Lavrov this morning to continue those discussions. But we’re not going to put on hold our efforts to impose a cost for what has been a violation of international law already.
I’ll turn it over to my colleague for the visa question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, Peter, we would notify anyone who holds a U.S. visa that that visa had been revoked. And we will do so as occasion arises. The authority allows us to add people to the visa ban list, and we will be looking at additional names as more information unfolds.
Q Can you just give us sort of the U.S. reaction to the announcement of the referendum today? And secondly, you’ve talked a lot about watching for other movement into Eastern Ukraine. Is it still the U.S. assessment that you’re not seeing that kind of movement at this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure, thanks, Julie. First of all, with respect to the referendum that was announced, it is the belief of the United States that decisions about Crimea or any part of Ukraine needs to be made with the government in Kyiv. This is a country with clearly defined international borders, and ultimately only the people of Ukraine can make determinations about their political future. And the government in Kyiv has to be a part of any decisions that are made about the future of Crimea or any other region.
And I think you saw the Prime Minister make comments about their openness to discussions about various arrangements going forward. They have to be at the table. You can’t have a situation in which the legitimate government of the country is excluded from decision-making about different parts of that country. That is clearly a violation of international law and of how these things are done.
So we will continue to support the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine as a whole, and we will continue to insist that the government in Kyiv be engaged in any discussion about the future of any and all parts of Ukraine.
With respect to movements, what we have seen to date, of course, is a violation of Ukraine’s borders, its territorial integrity, and also the basing agreement that the Russians had with respect to their facility on the Black Sea. We have not seen movements into Eastern Ukraine. Were we to see that, we believe that would be a significant escalation of the situation, would further destabilize the situation, and would invite a further response from the United States and the international community. So it’s something that we’re watching closely.
We’ve also said that international monitors are the best way to assure that the rights of all Ukrainians are being protected, including ethnic Russians. And a monitoring team from the OSCE has arrived in Ukraine, has moved out to different parts of the country, has an important set of experiences and capabilities to ensure that basic rights are being protected. We believe that that monitoring mission should expand into Crimea and can be the basis for a way of deescalating the crisis.
Q For those of us who are here in Crimea, it’s very obvious kind of what’s going on -- law and order is increasingly being run by Russian soldiers and what is essentially their proxies, pro-Russian activists. Do you have any notion that the sanctions today or the actions today will actually impact the people who are delivering orders to these soldiers on the ground, to these people who are doing things like detaining Robert Serry yesterday? Do you have any sense of who the people are who are pulling strings in Crimea and whether there’s even a command structure that would allow you to target people who are making decisions here and who are increasingly targeting journalists and Westerners, not only including Serry but including OSCE members yesterday as well? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Nate. I’ll make a couple comments and then my colleague may want to comment as well.
We have seen, obviously in addition to the basic violation of Ukraine’s borders and the basing agreement in Crimea, we have seen those concerning reports that you mention. I think we do have an ability to establish individuals or entities that we believe are responsible for supporting those actions. Frankly, the very flexibility of this tool, the fact, frankly, that we have not yet designated individuals I think should be leading people in Russia, people in Crimea to be asking whether or not they’re going to see their name in a designation.
So I think this is a very clear message that the United States is going to use the authorities that we have to target the assets, the travel of individuals who are responsible for that concerning behavior. And the flexibility it affords us I think should lead some of those individuals to be questioning whether or not they’re going to find their name on a list. But I turn it over to Treasury to say anything else.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Nothing to add.
Q I want to return to Peter’s question about the connection and timing with the referendum announcement. I hear what you’re saying on your concerns about the referendum. Our guidance earlier this week from administration officials was that you would take the week to watch how things played out. We were not expecting to see even the step towards sanctions this week. Did something expedite your timeframe? And also, can you talk about whether the concerns of countries like Moldova and former Soviet republics are considering -- are making the U.S. consider expanding its approach in doing any sort of preemptive assistance to any other countries besides Ukraine? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Margaret, no, the referendum announcement had nothing to do with the timing of this. We were planning this action -- frankly, we had to prepare the EO, to get it ready. We were also coordinating with our European allies. And I believe what we said throughout the week was not that we were going to hold off on any action until the end of the week; it was that we were going to have to prepare our various tools and make decisions about the timing of implementing them.
And now that we have this EO ready to go, we felt it was appropriate to signal the types of tools that are available to the United States, the types of costs that we’re prepared to impose on Russia and those who are responsible for what we’re seeing in Crimea.
So it wasn’t tied to the referendum; it was tied to basically the preparation of this tool, the consultations that we’ve had with European partners, and President Obama was able to discuss these issues with Chancellor Merkel, with Prime Minister Cameron. I know Secretary Kerry has been in touch with the Foreign Ministers of Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, as well as Cathy Ashton. And I think this sends a signal that Russia is not going to be able to avoid accountability for the types of actions that we’ve seen to date.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to add something to the question about Moldova, the Moldovan Prime Minister was here early this week on the snow day. The Georgian Prime Minister was here the last couple of weeks. Secretary Kerry hosted a U.S-Georgia bilateral working group, and I believe the Vice President saw both of those leaders during their respective visits. So we’ve had, because of earlier scheduled visits, good opportunities to see these leaders.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I should have added, Margaret -- that’s a good addition by my State colleague -- the President was able to see the Moldovan Prime Minister and the Georgian Prime Minister, along with the Vice President. I think separate and apart from how we’re responding specifically to events in Ukraine with these types of actions, we’re also providing additional reassurance to our allies in Eastern Europe and partners like Moldova and Georgia.
In addition to those meetings, you saw DOD, for instance, yesterday announce that they are going to be expanding their Baltic overflights, which provide additional reassurance to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They are going to be reinforcing our aviation detachment in Poland, and there is going to be a meeting of the Chiefs of Defense of Central and Eastern Europe with General Breedlove. So we continue to reassure our Eastern European allies that at this very delicate and potentially destabilizing time, the United States is strongly committed to their security.
Q I was hoping you might be able to just clarify something for me. Have individuals been identified for the sanctions, on listing them? Or now that the EO is in place, can you begin to identify people to take sanctions against? And additionally, you mentioned that this is an attempt to impose a cost on the Russians. If they do pull their troops back to their bases, will these be rolled back as well, or will these stay in place as sort of a punitive measure?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We can calibrate our sanctions and our actions based on what the Russians do. And, obviously, were they to deescalate the situation, pull back into their base, that would very much affect our calculus as to how we move forward with these types of actions. Like I said, we believe that there should be measures taken based on what’s already happened in Crimea. We’ve already taken a number of those measures in our bilateral actions and statements out of the international community. But we would certainly evaluate the situation if there were to be that type of constructive action taken by the Russians.
On individuals, Treasury can speak to the EO. And as my State colleague said, we don’t publish the names of those who are affected by visa bans. Suffice to say, that -- well, I’ll leave it to Treasury, actually, to describe their process for reviewing individuals.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So as I noted at the outset, the financial sanctions authority put in place today does not contain an annex. So no individuals or companies have been blocked or designated for sanctions this morning. What the authority does, though, is put in place a powerful tool that will allow us to target individuals and companies in the future that we see directly responsible for these destabilizing activities, as well as assets -- that we identified in the executive order today.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to answer the questions about visas, just to clarify, there are individuals who have had their visas pulled or would be banned from visas. And those individuals, while I won’t give names or numbers, this does include Russians and Ukrainians.
Q Well, you answered one of my questions here. Thanks for doing the call. I was going to ask about former President Yanukovych, because he has been targeted by the European Union, but I suppose you’re not willing to go that far. But yesterday, the Russians were threatening retaliatory sanctions of their own and I’m just curious if that’s been taken into consideration here.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll take the first and if anybody wants to add on Yanukovych. We’ve seen those comments by the Russians. Frankly, that does not concern us or factor into our decision-making on this. We believe, number one, that Russia has already paid a cost in terms of seeing its stock market contract, seeing significant instability with its currency. I think they have a fragile economy. And similarly, they also have a set of individuals who have been engaged in supporting corruption and supporting the destabilizing actions we’ve seen in Crimea. So there are specific vulnerabilities there, given the nature of the Russian system and the Russian economy, that these types of sanctions can be brought to bear on.
In terms of individuals, we have a process of reviewing who could be designated. That is underway so we have begun the process of identifying potential individuals. I’ll send it over to my colleague to see if he has anything to add on that or Yanukovych.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Nothing to add in particular on Yanukovych. I would just say that anybody who is involved or complicit in activities that are threatening the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or stability of Ukraine is as of this morning on notice that they may be targeted for U.S. sanctions.
Q In the context of your last comment on the vulnerability of the Russian economy, one of the (inaudible) of Russia’s influence in the region is its supply of energy. I’m wondering whether the administration is giving any thought to pressuring Russia through energy moves such as tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or through expediting approvals to export U.S. natural gas as a way to put pressure on Russia. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t want to speculate about some of the specific steps you mention. We’re certainly aware of the Russian reliance on energy as a source of support for its economy. I do know that this has been a subject that we and the Europeans have taken into account. As I’ve said, you’ve already seen instability in the Russian economy based on their destabilizing actions. Again, the further Russia escalates this, the more they’re going to face potential costs from the United States, Europe, and other countries around the world.
So I don’t want to speculate on the specific actions associated with energy markets or U.S. tools in that regard. But we are very aware of that dynamic. It is something that we take into account as we make these decisions.
And again, frankly, I think, over time, what you’re going to see is that if Russia continues to perpetuate this crisis, this violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it is going to bring greater isolation to their economy. It is going to, I think, carry with it not just the costs that are imposed through punitive actions like this, but the costs for having instability in the neighborhood. And that is not something that they are going to be able to compensate for.
And so we believe that there is a significant vulnerability over time that should affect Russia’s calculus. And that’s why we’re seeking through these types of punitive measures taken by the United States and through our coordination with other allies and partners to make clear that we’re not going to accept a status quo in which Russia can violate the sovereignty of its neighbors with some type of impunity. And so today’s action builds on the steps we’ve already taken. I think if the situation continues, you can see further steps that we would anticipate and that we would coordinate with our European allies on.
Anything my colleagues want to add before we wrap up the call?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Only to say that the State Department and the USG has been working on long-term efforts to help Europe diversify its gas sources. This has been in motion for a number of years and is beginning to yield results.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks everybody for joining the call.
MS. HAYDEN: Just a reminder -- this is Caitlin -- that the call was on background. These were senior administration officials and there’s no embargo. So thanks for joining us. Bye.
9:05 A.M. EST