Via Teleconference

12:41 P.M. EST

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for joining us today for the National Security Council background call previewing President Biden’s call with President Putin. 

As a reminder of the ground rules, this call will be on background, attributable to a “senior administration official,” with the contents of the call embargoed until its conclusion.

Not for attribution but for everyone’s awareness on the call, our speaker is [senior administration official]. 

[Senior administration official], I’ll turn it over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  And thanks, everybody, for joining.  I’ll be brief in my opening comments and then happy to take your questions. 

Tomorrow, President Biden will speak with President Putin by telephone at the request of the Russian side.  President Biden has always believed that there is no substitute for direct leader-to-leader dialogue and engagement, and that is especially true when it comes to Russia and to his engagement with President Putin. 

The two presidents will discuss the upcoming dialogues with Russia on a range of security and strategic issues.  Those include bilateral talks through the Strategic Stability Dialogue, as well as the NATO-Russia Council, and the OSCE Permanent Council meeting, all of which will take place the week of January 10th. 

Russia has put its concerns on the table and we are prepared to discuss them.  The United States and our allies and partners will put our concerns on the table and expect Russia to be prepared to discuss them as well. 

This dialogue should, and we expect will, proceed on the basis of reciprocity.  There will be topics where we can make meaningful progress and topics where we will have differences.  That’s in the nature of diplomacy. 

President Biden will make clear when he speaks with President Putin that we will continue to coordinate closely with our allies and partners on all of these matters.  And we will proceed on the principle of “nothing about them without them.” 

Indeed, we’ve had intensive consultations day in and day out over the course of the past several weeks, including this week, with European counterparts at senior levels through the State Department, Defense Department, Treasury Department, and National Security Council channels. 

Secretary Blinken will speak with President Zelenskyy today to coordinate and consult on a range of issues from the perspective of the government of Ukraine. 

President Biden will also make clear when he speaks with President Putin that we are prepared for diplomacy and for a diplomatic path forward, but we are also prepared to respond if Russia advances with a further invasion of Ukraine. 

We have coordinated with our allies to impose severe sanctions on the Russian economy and financial system, far beyond what was implemented in 2014. 

We have made plans to reinforce NATO’s force posture in Allied states in the event of a further invasion, which would destabilize the security situation in Europe and demand adjustments to NATO forces and capabilities, especially on the eastern flank. 

And we are prepared to provide Ukraine with further assistance to defend its territory and respond to a potential Russian occupation should a further invasion proceed in the coming weeks.

Still — and the President will emphasize this to President Putin — we are united with our allies in our willingness to engage in principled diplomacy with Russia. 

We are prepared to discuss the security and strategic matters that have now been the subject of both private and public debate and discussion over the course of the past days and weeks.

President Biden will make clear that there is a diplomatic path to deescalating tensions in the region if President Putin is interested in taking it. 

And following the call, we’ll provide detailed readouts to our allies and partners so we can coordinate on next steps and take stock of where things stand. 

And I will leave it at that for now and would be happy to answer questions. 

Q    Thank you so much for doing this.  Do you have a sense for why it is that Putin felt that this call was necessary at this point? 

And do you have any — you know, his list of demands has been circulating for a while now.  Do you have your own list of demands or any update on how you’re going to respond to his?  Thank you. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, on the second point, I would just say we have developed in some detail a laydown of our concerns.  We intend to share it with the Russian side at the appropriate point.  Many of those concerns are well known.  We have raised them, voiced them publicly over the course of the past months and years.  And they should be part and parcel of any discussion on issues relating to European security and strategic stability.

Our view is that we can make most progress actually at the negotiating table, sitting across from one another behind closed doors and in close consultation with our allies and partners. 

So, we don’t have any current plans to go publish a document or a draft agreement the way that the Russian side has done.  We’ll approach this, you know, using our own methods, which are much more focused on dealing directly with the Russian side in the room so that they well understand what our concerns are and what our expectations are in terms of addressing those concerns. 

I cannot speak to why the Russian side has requested this call.  I would only observe that over the course of the past year, we’ve requested calls with President Putin; President Putin has requested calls with President Biden. 

I think both leaders believe that there is genuine value in direct leader-to-leader engagement, that we are at a moment of crisis and have been for some weeks now, given the Russian buildup, and that it will take a high level of engagement to address this and to try to find a path of de-escalation. 

So, we will obviously listen closely to what President Putin has to say, and President Biden will share exactly the set of observations and comments that I laid out in my opening.  And then we will take stock of where we are. 

Q    Hi there.  Thanks for doing this.  You’ve addressed part of my first question, which is about the principle of “nothing about Ukraine without them.”  It does appear that the call between President Zelenskyy and Secretary Blinken did happen today.  Should we expect a similar call from the President after he speaks with President Putin tomorrow?

And then secondly, as it relates to the January 10th talks, can you speak more about who we expect to participate in those discussions?  And does tomorrow’s call preclude or rule out the possibility that Presidents Putin and Biden might also participate in those talks as well?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think you can expect President Biden and President Zelenskyy to stay in close touch.  We don’t have a call specifically scheduled, but they will talk again at some point soon.  And I’m in near-daily contact with my counterpart on the Ukrainian side, and obviously Secretary Blinken has now spoken with President Zelenskyy today.

So, as we have more information to share on the next scheduled call between the two leaders, I will make sure to get it to you. 

President Biden and President Putin are not expected to participate in the talks in Geneva.  Those — the delegation for the Strategic Stability Dialogue will be led by the State Department, as they have at the previous meetings.  And I don’t have specific delegation information to share with you today, but it will be a State Department-led delegation that will also include representatives of the Department of Defense and other relevant departments and agencies of the U.S. government, as well as representatives from the National Security Council.

But just to restate: It is not our expectation that President Biden and President Putin will participate in that session on the 10th. 

Q    Thank you.  The administration has repeatedly said that these talks will be more productive if there’s a significant de-escalation on the Russian side.  Have you seen any such de-escalation in recent days? 

And also, you have really three sets of talks going on.  You have the bilateral talks on Monday, the NATO-Russia Council two days later, and then the OSCE discussion today after that.  Can you please explain what sets of issues are to be taken up, and which one of these in these individual fora, and how they — how you plan to coordinate on that?  What are you going to take up bilaterally?  What does NATO-Russia take up and what does the OSCE take up, since the Russians have laid down a whole array of concerns?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  On the second, we are coordinating very closely with our allies and partners on the agendas for each of these sessions.  And some topics will come up at all three.  You know, issues related to arms control and offensive systems and capabilities.  There’s an element of that that is well designed for the Strategic Stability Dialogue. There’s an element of that that has NATO equities.  And there’s an element of that that goes to the broader question of the European security architecture and should be discussed at the OSCE.

Other things are much more naturally in one bucket or another.  So, for example, Russia has put forward an entire proposed agreement between Russia and NATO.  Obviously, that would be discussed in the NATO context.  And issues related to Ukraine naturally fit well in the OSCE context because, of course, Ukraine is a member of the OSCE and will be present at the table there. 

So, without going into the details of each of the different items one by one, I would just say, broadly speaking, we have developed a theory of the case with our allies and partners about how to put the appropriate sets of issues in the appropriate vehicles and venues.  And there will be some natural overlap and then some division of labor among them. 

And for all three of them, we will have a very close and transparent set of consultations with all of our allies and partners so that everybody understands what’s being discussed where, both in the topics and in the substance and content of what’s on the table.  And that’s how we intend for things to play out over the course of the week of the 10th.

With respect to de-escalation, we continue to see a significant Russian troop presence in and around the border of Ukraine.  And we have continued to make clear to the Russian side — and President Biden has indicated this to President Putin — that for there to be real progress in these talks, for us to get to a place where we have security and stability in Europe, a context of de-escalation rather than escalation will be required.  And so, obviously, that will be part of what President Biden communicates to President Putin tomorrow. 

Q    Thanks very much for doing this.  To follow up on your — the question on de-escalation: You said at [redacted] you needed to see some de-escalation.  But from your answer just now, it sounds like maybe things are just stable.  You are not — you didn’t say that you’d seen an influx of more troops.  So, if you could just clarify on that.

And then, secondly, you said you’ve been talking to your Ukrainian counterpart in recent times.  And the Ukrainians seem to have some ideas about de-escalation of their own, and I’m wondering if you could talk about whether or not you’re hearing from the Ukrainians thoughts that might alleviate the issue of when they would seek membership in NATO, if ever, or what other kinds of status they might have that would in some ways relieve some of the Russian concerns.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  To take your second question first: We have had very good discussions with the Ukrainian side in terms of short-term confidence-building measures that they have put on the table with the Russian side.  I won’t go into details here because I think that’s for them to talk about, not us.

I would note that there was an agreement in the trilateral working group to recommit to the 2020 ceasefire.  And the Ukrainian side is eager to build on that to try to see if there are additional steps on the ground that could help alleviate the security situation in the Donbas and pave the way for more robust diplomacy to implement Minsk. 

And that’s something we are talking to them about, but ultimately, that is, of course, for the Ukrainians themselves to work with the Russians, both through the Trilateral Working Group and through the Normandy format.  And U.S. diplomacy is in support of those efforts rather than trying to displace those efforts.

But we have seen a real willingness on the part of the Ukrainian side to put forward proposals aimed at confidence building and de-escalation.

With respect to our view on diplomacy, I guess, what I said at [redacted], which is also what I said at [redacted] is to say: Getting to an end game — a diplomatic end game — getting to meaningful understandings between the U.S. and Russia, or NATO and Russia, or Ukraine and Russia, that can really only happen, practically, in an environment which we’re seeing de-escalation, in which the situation is being alleviated, not one in which it’s being exacerbated.

That doesn’t mean we can’t go sit down in Geneva and begin discussions, or go to Brussels and begin discussions, but it doesn’t mean concrete progress is naturally connected to de-escalation.

In terms of what’s actually happening at the border right now, you know, I would simply say that we continue to be gravely concerned about the nature of the Russian troop presence there and the capabilities that they have.  And it is not entirely static from our perspective.  I won’t go into more detail on this line, but it remains a continuing source of grave concern what the Russians have been putting in place in and around that border area. 

And we would like to see, obviously, a reduction in that buildup and the return of forces to their regular training areas or their long-term deployment areas.  And that’s something that we will continue to communicate to the Russian side. 

But our goal is to engage the diplomacy, begin the discussions, and then see if we can create the kind of environment that allows for both de-escalation and progress at the negotiating table.

Q    Thank you so much.  Can you hear me?


Q    Okay, I’m going to start with a really dumb one.  Thank you so much for doing this. 

First of all, what was the specific catalyst or perhaps the argument that President Putin made to convince President Biden that this call was necessary, you know, on this unusual schedule ahead of these talks? 

And then secondly, do the leaders intend to discuss Iran?  And if so, what is President Biden going to convey to President Putin about the ongoing Iran talks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, first, I’m not sure what you mean by “unusual schedule.”  But all I will say is that it was not a particularly complicated calculus, from our perspective.  When President Biden has asked to speak with President Putin over the course of 2021, President Putin has said, “Yes, let’s talk.”  And when President Putin says, “I’m interested in touching base and having a phone call,” President Biden says, “Yes.”

His view is: It makes sense, you know, if the leader of another country, particularly at a moment of elevated tension such as we have now, reaches out and says, “I want to discuss,” he’s going to be prepared to have direct leader-to-leader dialogue. 

So, really quite straightforward.  I don’t think there’s any magic or mystery to the decision to have this discussion. 

And obviously, President Biden knows what he wants to communicate, and he’s interested in hearing what President Putin wants to communicate.

With respect to Iran, the two leaders discussed this at some length when they held their video call a couple of weeks ago, and I do believe that they are likely to discuss it again tomorrow, given that we have ongoing talks in Vienna now, and the U.S., our European partners, and the Russians have been coordinating quite closely in Vienna — working quite constructively together in Vienna, actually. 

And so, I think the two presidents will want to touch base on that and see if we can continue to reinforce the close coordination that we’ve had as part of the P5+1 process.

MODERATOR:  Great.  And that’s all the questions we have time for.  Again, thank you so much to our speaker for joining, and thank you so much to all of you for taking the time to hop on this background call on short notice. 


1:01 P.M. EST

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