AIDE: (Inaudible) on background with a senior administration official, and embargoed until the end of the conversation. And it’s just going to be [senior administration official].
Q This conversation.
AIDE: Embargoed until the end of this conversation, on background with a senior administration official.
So, [senior administration official] will give some opening thoughts and then happy to take questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, let me just sort of do a brief overview and walk you a little bit through the events of today and the plans for tomorrow.
But in the context of this overall trip — in the context of the overall trip, I think we already talked about a little bit, is that the context of this administration’s approach to this crisis and approach to our alliances and partnerships in general, which we stress was key to this administration’s foreign policy from the start. And it’s moments like these that they become particularly important.
And you’ve seen, I think in the recent weeks and days, a very deliberate, intentional, coordinated, and clear rollout on how we’re approaching this crisis. You’ve heard it multiple times from the President, from the Secretary of State, from the Secretary of Defense, and the Vice President.
And she came here as part of that overall approach to this crisis to do a number of things: to continue the process of consulting as we continue to flesh out our response to Russia’s aggression and threats of aggression; coordinating that with our close partners in Europe who are involved in this; and delivering the message that we’ve been delivering all along to them — one of support and solidarity and commitment to some core principles, and to the Russians that we are and continue to be ready for diplomacy — and we put a lot of ideas on the table — but we’re also determined to respond as we need to respond and impose costs if they go ahead and continue with the further invasion of Ukraine.
So this is part of a real administration-wide process of consultation with our close allies.
So it was, in that context, fitting that her first meeting of the day was with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. There are a lot of elements to our response, and they’re not only military and defensive and deterrence, but they include that. And NATO has been a big part of the response to Russia’s activities.
And she used this opportunity with the Secretary General to further coordinate how we as an Alliance of 30 countries are responding. And so they talked about some of what we’ve already done and some of what we might need to do in the future. And you know — we’ve already talked about some of the force posture adjustments we’ve made to reinforce our Allies to which we have Article 5 commitments in NATO. So we’ve done a lot of that, including sending troops from the United States — further troops from the United States to Europe, and also what we’ve done for Ukraine, including the $650 million of defense assistance.
And she thanked the Secretary General for his leadership over the past eight years. He’s been a stalwart friend of the United States and a great leader of this Alliance and is called upon to lead at a really difficult time.
So they talked about Alliance unity, the way forward. I mentioned force posture adjustments and also the diplomacy. You saw that we, as recently as Secretary Blinken’s speech — either yesterday or the day before; it’s hard to even keep track — at the U.N. said that we’re still ready to meet and proposed a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. NATO has done the same — the Secretary for NATO-Russia Council.
So this was a real opportunity to coordinate on all those fronts, diplomatic and military.
Following a meeting with Secretary General Stoltenberg, she met with the three leaders of the Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. It was really important for her in that meeting — for the Vice President — to underscore our enduring and unshakable commitment to NATO’s Article 5. These are among the Allies who are most concerned about that because they feel the threat themselves directly, and not least from the massive Russian military presence in Belarus. And so she reassured them that the United States means what it says when it says it’s committed to Article 5.
And they, together, discussed some of the same themes from the meeting with the NATO Secretary General — the force posture adjustments that we made, the further troops and equipment that we’ve sent to Europe to, as we’ve said many times, be ready for any contingency.
The Vice President also discussed with them the issue of costs, which we all in this Alliance agree on it, if Russia goes in further. And that requires coordination of economic sanctions, which has been a priority for us as well. These are members of the European Union, and their role in that will be important.
And then, finally, she had a meeting with a bipartisan delegation from Congress — I think we’ve put out some information about that already — but delegations led by Speaker Pelosi and Senators Graham and Whitehouse — bipartisan, bicameral.
The Vice President, as a sort of a tradition at the Munich Security Conference, took the opportunity to meet with them. And that was not only useful to see them and discuss some of the issues, but to demonstrate that our approach to this crisis is really a bipartisan one. There are plenty of divisions in Washington on plenty of issues. But I think it’s fair to say when it comes to standing up to Russia and its aggression, we’re quite unified. And that was a really important message and is an important message that the Vice President here is here leading our delegation. And there are important members of both houses of Congress here as well.
Sorry to go on for so long, but maybe a couple of things about tomorrow, and then after we’ll take a few questions.
So, the main element of tomorrow’s program is her speech to the Munich Security Conference. I think, as I mentioned before, you know, you’ve heard from other senior people in this administration, starting with the President — and you’ll see, I think, her speech fit into the message that we’ve been sending from the start of this crisis: that we are preparing for either contingency, diplomacy or a response — a tough response, as necessary.
We have been putting the world on notice of what we’re afraid of and seeing from the Russians — these provocations that we fear that they could use as a pretext for invading Ukraine. And in the past hours and days, unfortunately, we have seen some of those.
The Vice President — I think you can expect her to articulate some core themes. And I (inaudible) get into too much detail about the speech, but she will no doubt articulate some important themes, including “strength through unity.” The whole point of meeting with these close Allies is that we’re stronger when we’re acting together.
I think she’ll underscore some of the core principles that are at stake here — you know, not least that: One country simply can’t decide it’s just going to invade another country and violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity. It’s a core principle of NATO and many other organizations in which we’re a part, and certainly one that we believe in and the Vice President strongly believes in.
She will make clear, as we have been making clear for days and weeks and months, that we remain, even at this late hour, open to diplomacy. But if the Russians reject that diplomacy that we have offered, that will be a sign that they weren’t really serious about it.
I think you can expect the Vice President to be clear about the costs that would be imposed on Russia if it further invades Ukraine. We’ve been pretty clear that those (inaudible) will include significant, severe, and swift financial sanctions and export controls that will be very costly to Russia and weaken Russia. And that’s, in fact, one of the core points that, regardless of what happens, we, in this Alliance, believe we will emerge stronger and Russia will emerge weaker.
Then, the rest of the schedule I think we discussed on the call the other day: a bilateral meeting with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, a bilateral meeting with Chancellor Scholz of Germany. And then a number of other, you know, what we call “pull-asides” with a number of other leaders — world leaders in town that she will be meeting with.
I don’t have a list for you, frankly, simply because the schedule, like the world is, is in flux. And we haven’t set a final schedule, but you can be sure there’ll be a number of other world leaders that she’ll spend some time with — once again, because — going back to the core point that we’re stronger when we’re together, this whole trip is about coordinating with key partners.
AIDE: Great. Let’s open it up to questions.
Q Can we — you mentioned the conversations today with the Baltic leaders and commitment to Article 5. They also were asked for a greater U.S. presence. (Inaudible) pretty blunt, and I thought that the wording was strong about “we’ve lost our freedom to Russia once; we don’t want to do it again” — is what Estonia’s Prime Minister said.
What commitments are you guys ready to make to them? And in the case of Lithuania, they formally asked to go from the rotational presence to something more permanent. Is this just necessary at this point in the world we live in for there to be a bigger and more permanent presence on the eastern flank?
And then, secondly, on Zelenskyy, is there any concern tomorrow about him coming, even if it’s just for several hours, to be seen outside of Ukraine at such a fluid and difficult time?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the first, I don’t have any new announcements on force posture in Europe beyond those that, you know, our administration has already announced. Because I did say that we have adjusted force posture. And we do that to be ready for any contingency, and that’s — that’s what we remain determined to do.
As you know, there is already NATO force posture presence in the Baltic states: battalions announced — rotational battalions after 2014, and also Baltic Air Policing, where NATO countries help them patrol the airspace.
But I think you will find that our force posture — we have said: If Russia further invades Ukraine, then we will continue to look at the force posture that is necessary to make sure Article 5 is preserved, protected, and all of our countries can be defended.
On Zelenskyy, I don’t have anything to announce that we announced the other day. I think you probably saw that his spokesman put out a statement that they were considering their trip, so I can only refer you to the Ukrainians as to President Zelenskyy’s plans about being in Munich.
Q Is there any concern about him coming?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. What is important is that we continue our dialogue with the Ukrainians and continue to demonstrate support for the Ukrainians.
President Biden has spoken a number of times with President Zelenskyy. Secretary Blinken has been in Kyiv. We have, as a government, engaged very closely to demonstrate our support for Ukraine in this situation.
And when President Zelenskyy said he was going to be in Munich, this was another opportunity to continue that dialogue. And if he’s here, the Vice President will be — it will be an important opportunity for her to engage with him.
Q So, there is no effort to ask or encourage Zelenskyy not to leave Ukraine?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s really his call. It’s really up to him where he feels he needs to be. If he’s in Munich, the Vice President will look forward to meeting with him. If he decides he needs to be in Ukraine, we’ll find other ways of engaging with him to keep on the dialogue that we’ve had from the start.
Q Following up also on the Lithuanian — I mean, that was a very public request. It was made very directly to Vice President Harris about the permanent troops. I mean, what do you — what do you make of just the fact that it’s such a public request? I mean, is it — is that — you mentioned things will change if there’s invasion. Does that mean permanent rotation is under consideration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What it means is that we have had and continue to have a very fruitful and, I think, satisfactory dialogue with all of our NATO partners, including — or, you might even say, especially — the Baltic states in recent weeks and months about force posture, and we’ll continue to do so.
Secretary Austin was just at the NATO defense ministerial in Brussels. He then went on to Poland and is going to Lithuania to continue this discussion of what is the best and right force posture for the United States and NATO in Europe.
So, I don’t have anything beyond that to say except that, obviously, we’re constantly looking at what we need to do to defend all of our NATO Allies.
Q Do you know, has President Putin — has President Putin made up his mind on whether to attack or not? Does the U.S. believe he knows now what he’s going to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I think you’ve heard us be pretty clear that we don’t try to figure out what’s in his mind. All we can do is watch what we’re watching.
Q So, no determination has been made yet on whether he plans to attack or not, at this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We can’t know what’s in his head. We can’t know what’s in his head. We just have to prepare for what — you know, we have noted what we feared could precede an invasion as being alleged provocations and what could be a pretext. We’re seeing some of those things which are a great cause for concern. And that’s why our diplomacy that the Vice President is leading here in Munich has been intensified. But we’re not going to guess what’s in President Putin’s mind.
Q A couple of quick questions. President Putin obviously did a news conference earlier today in which he sort of brushed off, you know, the threat of —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, what news conference?
Q President Putin did a news conference earlier today, which you’re obviously aware of, but there he spoke about sort of how the West always finds a pretext to impose sanctions on Moscow. So, essentially, kind of brushing off the threat that has been sort of the cornerstone of the, you know, the U.S. strategy.
How concerned are you that, you know, this has kind of failed to really deter him in the past? Do you — do you really think that that’s going to happen this time?
And also, separately, the Russian Defense Ministry said that he’s going to oversee nuclear drills in Russia on Saturday. Do you consider that to be a concerning sign — a sign of escalation? How — you know, how are you thinking about, sort of, Putin looking at nuclear drills in Russia in this situation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the first, you know, look, obviously there are no guarantees. All we can do is make clear that there will be severe costs if Russia decides to further invade Ukraine.
We’ve also made clear, because you alluded to him saying that “they’ve put sanctions on us before” — which is true; we have done for other violations — we’ve made clear that these sanctions would go well beyond anything we’ve done in the past. And we’ve put on some significant sanctions not just in 2014 after the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of parts of southeastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, but well beyond anything we’ve done since then.
And I mention that that will include very severe financial sanctions, coordinated with our European allies, and export controls to weaken Russia’s industrial base, defense industrial base.
So, we hope President Putin really takes that to heart and gets that message, because if he thinks somehow invading or occupying Ukraine will strengthen Russia, we believe we’re going to demonstrate through these actions the opposite is the case.
Q So you’re confident that this is going to act as a deterrent?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sorry?
Q So you’re confident that this is going to act as a deterrent? Everything you have planned, in terms of export controls and sanctions, that is going to deter him this time around?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not making any predictions about it. I’m just describing what the thinking behind what we’re doing is. We’re bolstering Ukraine. We’re reinforcing our NATO Allies in Europe to make sure they’re safe. And we’re going to hit Russia with very severe economic costs if it goes in, while also saying, to this day: We are ready for and prefer a different path, which is diplomacy.
So I’m not making any predictions. I’m just describing what we’re conveying with the hope that it will lead the Russians to see that they are better off and we are all better off if they choose the course of diplomacy.
Q And could you please answer my question on the nuclear drills? The — you know, that the Defense Ministry said is going to happen tomorrow and Putin is going to actually be overseeing them. Do you think that is — would you classify that as escalation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. I think — obviously, in the context like this with so many military forces deployed and lots of tensions in the region, I think it’s fair to say that adding on top of that with nuclear and other strategic exercises is escalatory and unfortunate.
Q Hey, can you talk about the coordination or whatever between the Vice President and the Secretary of State? Are they talking? Are they meeting regularly? Are they kind of staying in their own lane and all of that stuff?
And a second question: I wonder — one of the things that President Biden did was sort of speak directly to the Russian people, you know, in some of his speeches over the last week. I wonder if the Vice President plans to do something similar to issue a message or (inaudible) directly to the Russian people, directly to Putin in her speech, or whenever.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the latter, I’ll leave that to the speech. I described some of the key themes I thought — I think you can expect her to address. But I won’t preempt the speech further on that particular point.
Although, you know, we do think it’s important — and that’s why the President embraced it — and that’s, you know, linked to this issue of costs as well, because we want the Russian people to know this is not against the Russian people. We’re trying to defend Ukraine against an invasion, and have no ill will towards the Russian people. That’s why we prefer diplomacy.
As for the Vice President and Secretary Blinken: Yes, they are in extraordinarily close contact. They’ve met several times today, in fact — or at least a couple of times — including a private meeting this morning to coordinate and work together on how we’re going to advance our —
Q The VP.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Vice President and Secretary Blinken (inaudible).
And so, you know, I actually began by talking about how, we as an administration, have been rolling out a deliberate, intentional, coordinated strategy with multiple actors doing multiple things as part of the same team, and that’s what this deployment to Munich is.
I mentioned the Vice President has had and will continue to have a number of bilateral meetings with her counterparts — as mentioned, the two presidents and prime minister of the Baltic states, Chancellor Scholz, Secretary General of NATO, and President Zelenskyy.
And Secretary Blinken has had and will continue to have numerous contacts with his foreign minister counterparts, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
So, we are — you know, in the context of what I mentioned about being here and coordinating, and, you know, this is all about strength, unity, dialogue, and coordination. That — you know, their activities here are a core part of that approach.
But, absolutely intimately in contact with each other, including, as I mentioned, discussions throughout the day.
Q Can you share — can you share anything of what they’ve talked about or specifics, like how, specifically, does he guide her — whether it’s in a specific meeting or a specific question, or is it more as a sounding board? I just want to understand it better.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, they’re implementing the same strategy. And I’ve described — we’ve all described what we’re doing here: coordinating a joint approach with Europeans on sanctions, if it comes to that; looking together with our NATO partners on force posture adjustments; and discussing our support for Ukraine, which is not just military, but the sovereign loan guarantee. And so, they are implementing the exact same policy set by the President, and they’re doing it together.
AIDE: We have time, folks, for two more questions.
Q On the SWIFT —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let’s go to Molly. She hasn’t had a chance. And then come back to Jennifer.
Q Oh, go ahead. Yeah.
Q Thanks. I wanted to ask about the (inaudible) reports of the Russian separatists reporting mass evacuations and signaling that there’s a possible explosion that — a lot of reports coming out of that region.
You talked about the Vice President being willing to talk about some of these false-flag efforts in her speech. How specific do you expect her to get? And does the United States believe that these reports of mass evacuations that we’re seeing are part of a false-flag effort that are starting and could, perhaps, lead to a full-scale invasion by Russia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I’m just not sure I specifically said she would talk about that in her speech. If I did, maybe I misspoke, because what I was suggesting is that that has been the predicate to her speech. Like, she’s giving a speech at a moment when we’ve already warned that we’re going to see a potential pretext for an invasion, and we’ve already started to do that. So that’s like where we are at the moment she’s giving her speech. I think it’s been important to do that in advance because we’ve seen it play out.
So, as for confirming — I think I mentioned the other day when we talked about this — you know, this approach of throwing spaghetti at the wall. They’ve alleged many, many different things, most of which we can’t confirm. And that is concerning because they are all potentially in that category of things that they’re going to point to.
So you mentioned the specific one of evacuations. That’s troubling, as are the allegations of shelling and missile deployments and many of the other things that they have alleged that we’re not able to confirm, which makes us worry that this is part of what we were afraid of: that they’re coming up with some pretext for using force against Ukraine.
Q Is there any update on the troop levels? You know, since the 7,000, have there been — has the administration seen any additional troops come in the last — I guess, was it — has it been 24 hours since the 7,000? Or 48 hours? Does — do the numbers continue to rise? Are there more signs on the border of a potential invasion?
And also, you mentioned about seriousness of diplomacy. Does the administration now feel or is it increasingly feeling that Russia is not interested in diplomacy?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, on the first, I won’t go beyond. I think the President, you know, yesterday said something about, you know, upwards of 150,000 troops. We do — we have been clear that we are not seeing the withdrawals that they are claiming. In fact, the 7,000 you refer to is — not only did we not see the withdrawals, but we saw an additional 7,000, and we have not seen withdrawals (inaudible).
Q But have you seen increases since then?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t have any increases to announce here.
And the second part of your question is on diplomacy?
Q About diplomacy. And does the United States — you know, Harris said it’s up to — the onus is on Russia to take diplomacy seriously.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
Q Is the consideration that — does the United States now acknowledge or think that Russia is not taking it seriously — diplomacy?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The next few days will tell us a lot. I think you heard Secretary Blinken at the United Nations the other day make that clear that he is ready to meet his counterpart. NATO did the same — the NATO-Russia Council.
If Russia invades, notwithstanding our offers to continue to talk following these specific things we put on the table in terms of diplomacy, I think we would be forced by that to conclude that Russia is not ready for diplomacy. That would be the sign. But until that happens, we’re still (inaudible), because that’s a far preferable approach for everybody.
Q And until that happens, can you not rule out that they are not willing to find some sort of diplomatic — I mean, it seems like we’ve been in this pattern, the status quo, for a while. The administration is saying that, you know, they’re poised to do something at any time. It’s been a couple weeks. Things haven’t happened. And I guess the question is, sort of — it seems like by saying you’re not closing the door, that you are leaving some room open for them to still come to the table and do that in a substantive way.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are. The space has gotten narrower and narrower over time, with the troop buildup and the rejection of some of the specific ideas we put on the table. But we are not ruling it out.
Q And in terms of what Putin said today about being willing to negotiate but needing the West and the U.S. to take seriously all of their demands, obviously the sticking point with NATO on foreclosing Ukraine’s membership in NATO is not somewhere that you’re going to go. Do you think that this can – that there can be some kind of, you know, point of compromise here? Or are both sides kind of talking past one another?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We continue to be ready to test the proposition. When the Russians first put their ideas forward, we said that some of them were non-starters but others provided a basis for discussion, and we proposed those discussions then and we continue to propose them now.
Q On the SWIFT financial system, Daleep Singh at the briefing did say that that probably will not be part of the initial package of sanctions. Can you maybe explain a little bit why? Why wouldn’t the SWIFT — yanking them from SWIFT be part of the initial part of the sanctions? Is that something the VP is still talking with folks about? Was it because the Allies just were not quite comfortable with it for various reasons, which are understandable? Or can you just explain that a little?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I won’t go beyond what Daleep said about SWIFT, but I will say that coordinating specific sanctions with the Europeans remains a core part of our approach and remains part of the diplomacy that the Vice President is doing here in Munich.
We believe we are already quite united and are determined to be as united as possible. And this is something the Vice President has already brought up and will continue to bring up with our key partners in Europe.
Q Sorry, just had a quick last question on Anne, during the briefing in the White House, where she attributed the cyberattack on Ukraine on Russia. I was just wondering if you can give us any details on how the U.S. plan — or Allies plan to sort of respond to that. Are you planning to retaliate? I mean, how do you take that from here on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll have to leave that with what Anne had already to say about it, you know, except maybe to say: Obviously, cyber is part of this (inaudible) of things that we’re concerned about. We have heard that and the Vice President has heard it from partners here in Europe. You know that the Baltic states, Estonia in particular, has been the subject of cyberattacks.
So the only thing I would add is to just underscore that we obviously take that seriously as a part of the things that we’re going to speak about.
Q Is it fair to say the speech has been evolving because of all these — the attacks and everything over the last few days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s fair to say that we have taken a consistent approach. Obviously, there’s — it’s a fluid situation and new developments, and you always take those into account when you’re doing a speech. But I think you’ll find that the speech fits squarely into the consistent approach that this administration has been taking for weeks and months now. And it’s just one more part of this important project.