Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on President Biden’s Calls with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine and European Leaders
6:00 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Thank you. Good evening, everyone, and thanks for joining. A reminder that today’s call will be on background, attributed to a “senior administration official.” The contents will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
Our speaker today is [senior administration official]. They’ll have a few remarks at the top, and then we’re happy to take some questions. Over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, and good evening, everybody. Sorry for running a few minutes late. Happy to jump on and give a readout of the two calls that the President made today.
Before I do that, let me just take a brief step back and put this in the context of the larger diplomatic outreach that we have been doing this week.
Obviously, as everybody is tracking, the President spoke with President Putin on Tuesday. Similarly to what the President did this summer before he met with Putin in Geneva, there was a clear effort made to engage with our allies and partners on key security issues.
Last week, Secretary Blinken was in Riga, where he participated in the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting, including conversations with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, as well as our NATO Allies.
On Monday, before the President spoke with President Putin, he had a conversation with his Quint partners. Everybody will be tracking that immediately after the call with President Putin, President Biden again followed up with his Quint partners to give them a readout of the call.
Diplomacy continued with the Europeans as well. Secretary Blinken spoke yesterday with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg to give him a readout of the call and have a follow-up conversation.
And in addition to NATO, we have been engaged in active diplomacy with our partners in the European Union, including Secretary Blinken’s conversation yesterday with European Union President Charles Michel, as well as ongoing conversations at various levels of the EU government.
So, within that context, the President, today, then had a conversation with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. There was an initial touch made by Secretary Blinken, I believe, on Monday, with Zelenskyy to set the stage for the President’s phone call. And it was very important to President Biden that he call and follow up with Zelenskyy personally after that call.
Similarly, the President spoke today with the B9 — the Bucharest Nine. This is our group of eastern flank allies.
So, just wanted to give that initial chapeau to place the calls that happened today within this broader context of diplomacy that we have been doing with our European partners and allies both before and after the President’s conversation with President Putin.
The call today with President Zelenskyy was very warm. It lasted around 90 minutes. The main purpose of the call was an opportunity for President Biden to give President Zelenskyy a readout of his phone conversation with President Putin.
President Biden made very clear a continued U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The President shared a readout of his conversation with President Putin — including telling Zelenskyy, as he had told Putin, that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the U.S. and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures, provide additional defensive materiel to Ukraine, and fortify our NATO Allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities.
He also explained that he had told President Putin that there is another option in terms of de-escalation and diplomacy. So, as part of that, the President underscored the United States’ continued support for the Normandy Format and ongoing efforts to implement the Minsk Agreements, including U.S. support for that overall process, which, of course, is led by our French and German allies.
I know there’s been lots of churn in the press about whether or not there were concessions. There very clearly were not. I think President Biden has made very clear that he stood by our principles. He made very clear that one nation can’t force another nation to change its border, one nation cannot tell another to change its politics, and nations can’t tell others who they can work with.
And so, President Biden underscored those points that he made to Putin and made very clear to President Zelenskyy that that was a key message of his call with him.
Turning to the call that the President had with the B9: He engaged with this grouping earlier in the summer in advance of his trip to Geneva, where he participated in a summit with those leaders. It was a very positive exchange. I think the eastern flank allies were very appreciative of the outreach and found the President’s message quite reassuring and really underscored the unity of resolve that that we have within the alliance.
The President was very clear to express his awareness of the broader concerns that are had by the eastern flank. So, in addition to what we have been seeing in terms of the worrying buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, the President also made clear that these threats are bigger than Ukraine and reaffirmed his very strong support to transatlantic security and reiterated — as he frequently does — the sacred commitment, as he describes it, of the United States to Article 5, to transatlantic security, to NATO, and especially to our eastern flank allies.
Similarly to what he described to President Zelenskyy, the President gave a readout of the conversation that he had with President Putin and talked about his focus on the way forward.
The President made very clear that there was this other path separate from the military path — similar to what he said to Zelenskyy — that there was also the path of de-escalation and diplomacy. And the President made very clear that this path was going to be pursued in full consultation with our allies and partners.
The conversation was then an opportunity for several of the allies to be able to share their views of the security situation and to be able to discuss with the President their views on next steps, especially in terms of continuing to pursue this diplomatic path.
Finally, the President made clear his support for continued consultations and conversations at NATO about ongoing efforts to refine our defense and deterrence posture there.
So, let me stop there, and happy to take any questions.
Q Thanks for taking the question. What’s your current assessment of the effect that the threat of sanctions have had on Putin’s behavior? And are you expecting that there will be direct engagement between NATO members and Russia to address concerns that Putin raised on the call with Biden? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, in terms of the first question, I’m not going to characterize the Russian position on that. All I can say is that President Biden made very clear what the United States’ view was, which was the readiness to impose very significant economic consequences if Russia took steps to further invade Ukraine.
In terms of follow-up, this is something that we are actively discussing with our partners. That was the purpose of the conversations that have been happening at NATO with our Western European partners and then with the Eastern European partners today.
There are existing formats, including the NATO-Russia Council, where there is a longstanding invitation to the Russians to participate in talks. That invitation very much remains open. And we will continue working through ways to continue engaging diplomatically on this full range of issues.
Q Hi, thanks for doing this. A couple questions, if I may. In terms — just in terms of sequencing the calls, why did Zelenskyy get a call two days after — after the Putin call, coming after European allies, when this is obviously an issue which concerns Ukraine so directly?
And secondly, in terms of your internal kind of thinking and planning for deterrence and responses, what are you defining as an “invasion”? Like what is the red line there? You know, Russia is obviously very skilled at this hybrid warfare game. So are we talking border skirmishes? Is it more little green men, escalation in the Donbas, or tanks in Kiev? What would be the line that would trigger the response there? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that question. In terms of the sequencing, the President obviously has a lot of other things on his agenda, including domestic issues, domestic travel, and the rest. And so, you know, had an entire sequence of calls and conversations that we did with the full range of partners.
As I mentioned, Secretary Blinken had spoken with Zelenskyy in advance of the call. There obviously have been continued conversations with the Ukrainians as well as our European partners over the last couple of days.
The one thing that I would say that the President made crystal clear to Zelenskyy in his call today was that if Ukraine is on the agenda, then Ukraine is at the table. And I think the conversation today was an important opportunity for the President to be able to follow up with Zelenskyy on that call, and to be able to engage with him directly as a follow-up to conversations that we were able to have with the Ukrainians over the last couple of days.
And on your second question, I’m, you know, not going to speak to any of the specifics on there. But suffice it to say that the President made very clear to President Putin that there would be very significant consequences and made very clear that if there was any further escalatory measures against Ukraine that there would be a very strong reaction and very significant consequences.
Q Thanks very much for doing the call. Two questions. One, given that the President was at the Democracy Summit and has been stressing corruption, did the topic of corruption come up in his conversation with President Zelenskyy?
And second, both National Security Advisor Sullivan and Under Secretary Nuland have stressed that our response will not be like 2014. What, in the administration’s view, was wrong with our response in 2014? And what is the lesson that’s been derived from that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the first question, the President did actually make reference to the importance of democratic resilience in democratic institutions in his calls with both President Zelenskyy and with the B9. Obviously, a focus on democracy is something that is always front and center on the President’s mind. And as you said, it was very apt today, in terms of this being the kickoff to the Democracy Summit.
I think there certainly is a recognition of the significant progress that Ukraine has made to date on some of these democratic reforms, a recognition of continued steps that they need to make. And I think a reminder for all of us that one of the best ways to address our own security, both in the United States and in Europe, is to ensure that we have strong and resilient democratic institutions here at home.
And in terms of looking forward at steps: Certainly, I think in the context of economic measures, the President has made very clear that the United States, in consultation with our European partners, are looking at a very strong set of economic measures. And I think some of those will include things that that were not done in the past.
So, I don’t want to detail the full range of things that are being contemplated, but I think what the President and Under Secretary Nuland and others have laid out is what the President made very clear to President Putin, which is that there would be significant consequences, particularly on the economic side, if these military aggressions were to continue.
Q Hi. Thanks so much for doing the call. Did President Zelenskyy make any specific requests of President Biden in this call? I know you mentioned that there was a discussion of defensive materiel for Ukraine and fortifying the NATO Allies in the eastern flank. But did he come to the call with any specific requests of the President?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to read out the Ukrainian side of the call, and we’ll refer you to the Ukrainian government for information on their side.
But what I can say from the President’s perspective is that he did make very clear to President Zelenskyy what he had also said to President Putin, which is a strong and ongoing commitment by the United States to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, cited the continuing security assistance that we have been continuing to provide to Ukraine, as well as the strong resolve that the United States has in partnership with our European allies for a significant response if Russia were to further invade Ukraine.
Q Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for doing this. I have a quick logistical question and then a substantive one. The call today with Zelenskyy was a telephone call. Right? It was not a video call like the one that the President held with President Putin? That was my first one.
And then also, just in terms of any kind of conditions that the U.S. and its allies may set for these talks to proceed to, kind of, you know, really get underway: Is there a condition — like Russian de-escalation, a reduction of troops, reduction of threatening rhetoric, anything like that — that’s being put on the table as a definitive condition or even just a gesture from the Russian side that they are, you know, coming to this with good intentions and ready to really proceed, you know, with the talks? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. So, on your first question, both of these were phone calls today; they were not video calls.
And in terms of that, I’m not going to go into any further — in terms of reading out the conversation on what the President discussed with Putin on those fronts. It’s not something that we’re going to telegraph publicly.
But I think the two of them did agree, as Jake Sullivan had read out, that the President and President Putin agreed that our teams are going to follow up on the issues that were discussed today.
The President and his colleagues agreed that we’re going to work together to ensure that our engagement with Russia is closely coordinated.
So, I think within the next couple of days, we’re obviously going to continue talking with our European partners, we’re going to continue talking with our Russian partners, and finding a way forward.
The one thing I will add is, I know there has been a lot of churn in the press on this idea of concessions and what is going to happen in the talks. And the one thing that I want to make clear — and this goes to your question — is that we are always prepared to talk about security issues with Russia and, frankly, a large number of formats exist to be able to do that. That’s why the NATO-Russia Council exists. It’s why the OSCE exists. It’s venues where the Russians can raise their concerns, and it’s venues where we can raise our concerns.
And so, we are, of course, prepared to talk to the Russians about this full set of issues.
MODERATOR: All right. Thanks, everyone. Those are all the questions that we have time for.
Again, reminder that we’re on background, attributed to a “senior administration official.” And with the conclusion of the call, the embargo is lifted.
6:19 P.M. EST