Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Russia and Ukraine
5:24 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Good evening, everyone. And thanks for joining. Tonight’s call is going to be on background, attributed to a “senior administration official,” and contents will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call. Our speaker tonight is [senior administration official]. [Senior administration official], over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thanks. And thanks, everybody.
I want to start out by discussing Russia’s recognition of the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine today. We have long anticipated that Russia might take this action, and as you saw, we were ready to respond immediately.
President Biden has issued, today, an executive order that will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions. This EO will also provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine.
We will take further measures tomorrow to hold Russia accountable for this clear violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as of Russia’s own international commitments.
To be clear: These measures respond to Russia’s recognition gambit; they are not the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with Allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine. We are pleased with the historic coordination we have had with our Allies and partners on developing these measures and will continue to stay closely coordinated in the days ahead.
But I also want to address the speech President Putin made today, because we believe it made clear his true designs. This wasn’t a speech just about Russia’s security, it was an attack on the very idea of a sovereign and independent Ukraine.
He made clear that he views Ukraine historically as part of Russia, and he made a number of false claims about Ukraine’s intentions that seemed designed to excuse possible military action. This was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war. In fact, he once again explicitly threatened one.
Unfortunately, the sequence of events that Secretary Blinken laid out at the U.N. Security Council appears to be proceeding exactly as we predicted.
Russia has increased the number of false-flag events and provocations over the past few days. Today, it called a dramatic Security Council meeting. That was followed by the recognition of sovereign Ukrainian territory as independent republics, with whom Russia immediately signed so-called friendship and mutual aid agreements.
No one should mistake these theatrics as legitimate statecraft. This is Potemkin politics — President Putin accelerating the very conflict he has created.
Today’s speech from President Putin follows several days of heightened tensions and escalations by Russia in and around Ukraine. Russian troops have continued to move closer to the border in what looks like plans for an invasion at any moment, most likely in response to attacks Russia falsely claims are occurring in the Donbas.
Indeed, just in the last hour, we’ve seen Russia order troops to deploy into the DPR and LPR for so-called peacekeeping functions. We have seen a number of actions that are clear Russian-backed pretexts for further invasion, like explosions at eastern — at eastern Ukraine that just happen to have Russian state media covering them in the middle of the night, or videos of alleged emergency evacuation calls or so-called saboteurs whose metadata show clearly that they were created days before their release. These attempts at disinformation aren’t fooling anyone.
But the human costs of these actions are already accruing. Russian-backed forces are forcing civilians in eastern Ukraine to leave their homes and conscripting men and boys in those regions against their will. The human costs of a further Russian invasion and occupation will be devastating.
Today after President Putin’s speech, President Biden both spoke with President Zelenskyy and held a joint call with President Macron and Chancellor Scholz. In all these calls, the President strongly condemned President Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. We will continue to consult with our Allies and partners about both diplomatic solutions and the consequences we will impose on Russia should it further invade Ukraine.
Russia continues to escalate this crisis that it created in the first place. We’ll continue to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll, but we are under no illusions about what is likely to come next. And we are prepared to respond decisively when it does.
Thanks. And with that, happy to take any questions.
Q Thank you very much. Thank you, [senior administration official]. I have a question that I’ve been asked on television which is relevant, which is: If the so-call- — if the letter to the U.N. that Ambassador Crocker wrote is correct and based on the intelligence is correct, and if there are lists of people in these categories that might be arrested, even killed, you know, sent to prisons or camps — if we see this happening, if we see Americans at risk as well, will we stand on our — what the President said and has repeatedly said and (inaudible) have said about not sending American troops into Ukraine on rescue missions, about standing on this not being an Article 5/NATO situation. How is that sustainable for President Biden if these dire consequences are, you know, visible to the world? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Andrea. So if what was described in our letter transpires, those would be horrific crimes — war crimes, even. We have been warning individuals and groups who we think could be targeted based on our understanding and our knowledge of Russian plans to try to enable them to protect themselves or move to places where they might be safer. But I have nothing to amend in what the President has already said, which is that he has no intention of sending American forces to fight inside Ukraine.
Q Hey, [senior administration official]. You know, in the last hour, obviously, you noted that the Russian government’s decree, Putin decree, sending the troops in, there’s lots of suggestions that there might be, you know, so-called boots on the ground for Russia in parts of Ukraine, that they may cross that border tonight, perhaps tomorrow.
You know, is this not the time? Or are you — are you not under pressure at this point to go ahead and impose the actual sanctions — the full-blown package of sanctions?
And, you know, if not now, I mean, is there a — you know, are you literally going to wait until the first, you know, truck rolls across a particular line? Or how do you guys, you know — I mean, could that be three in the morning? Or what — how will you guys roll that out?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, thanks for the question, Mike. Look, as has been the case throughout this crisis, we are going to assess what Russia does and not focus on what Russia says. The actions that we take are very much focused on response to Russian actions, of which there have been some taken up till now and we have calibrated our responses accordingly.
But I want to take a step back here and point out something that may be lost on people who have not been paying attention to this conflict throughout most of the last eight years, which is that Russia has occupied these regions since 2014. It has been Russia’s position that there are not Russian forces present in this part of the Donbas.
The reality, as we pointed out on a number of occasions over these past years, has been quite different. There have been Russian forces present in these areas throughout. And so we’re going to be looking very closely at what they do over the coming hours and days, and our response will be measured according, again, to their — to their actions.
We’ve taken a number of actions today, including the President’s executive order. We’ve indicated that we have further actions to take tomorrow. Beyond that, I’m not going to get into any more details.
Q Hi, [senior administration official]. Thank you for doing this. Interfax says that armored columns already are entering Donbas, and there’s reports on the ground of that as well just on social media. Has the U.S. verified that there are additional troops — have moved into Donbas? Does it believe that forces are rolling out now? And will the new — will the U.S. not react if this is limited to Donbas? I mean, these would be armed forces entering this area. Is that okay and, you know, something else has to happen to trigger the sanctions package?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Ellen. So I have no other information to provide on the troop movements that you described. As I said, we’ll be watching very closely the actual actions that Russia takes, including the type of action that you just mentioned and that is apparently in these reports.
In terms of your question of whether we will not react if Russia take steps in the Donbas, that’s sort of the opposite of what I said; I said we would react based on actions that Russia takes. We’ve already said, including in our statement that we put out today in response to the action that President Putin took, that we would have additional steps to roll out tomorrow. And I’m not going to get ahead of those announcements, but we will be taking additional action.
And, certainly, to your question about whether it is okay, the answer is absolutely not.
Q Thank you, [senior administration official]. I have a follow-up to the series of questions that are being asked about this. Well, first of all, to — just to make sure I understand what — the steps, the measures you’ve imposed today are basically a ban on investment and trade with the two regions — right? — Donetsk and Luhansk, and then the authority to impose economic sanctions on people in that — in those two regions, correct?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, that’s correct.
Q Okay. But you’re saying you will — you will impose additional steps tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s also correct. (Inaudible) and our statement said — that we’ve already published, under Jen Psaki’s name, that we will take additional steps as soon as tomorrow and going forward.
Q And those will be sanctions — economic sanctions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t think the statement specifies that, but there will be, I strongly suspect, sanctions activity related to this.
Q Strongly suspect sanctions activity.
It looks like — very much like that Russian troops are moving, if not already, in Donbas, according to Interfax, armored columns. Would Russian troops moving into Donbas consist of a — of an invasion — in your words, in your view — such that it would trigger the sanctions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I think you’re just citing the same report that the previous question asked about. And I said I don’t have anything to, sort of, verify or confirm. But I did say that we are going to be carefully observing and assessing Russian actions and responding accordingly.
But I do also want to remind you and everyone on the call that the Russian troops moving into Donbas would not itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years. Their narrative has been that they do not; our, you know, certain knowledge has been that they have. And they are now — they’re apparently now making a decision to do this in a more overt and open way. But this has been the state of affairs in that region and a big part of why it has been so unstable since 2014.
Q Hi, guys. Thanks for doing this. It’s actually Cecilia Vega with ABC.
[Senior administration official], can you say anything more about the proposed Biden-Putin summit in the wake of what’s happening right now and/or today? Does this — does this make it not happen? Or does it — what’s the effect on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’ve said a few things about this all along that I think remain true. One is that we were open to further engagements between the two leaders if we thought it made sense and could have a beneficial impact on the crisis, but there were a number of predicates to a meeting like that. One being — one critical one being that Russia does not take further military action inside Ukraine. And so, we are going to — again, as I said in response to previous questions — have to continue to assess what Russia is doing.
Our strong sense based on everything that we are seeing on the ground in the areas around the Ukraine — to the north, to the east, to the south — is that Russia is continuing to prepare for military action that could take place in the coming hours or days. And so, certainly can’t commit to a meeting that has as a predicate that Russia won’t take military action when it looks as imminently like they will.
Q Yes, hi, [senior administration official]. Thanks for doing this. I want to double check on something. So, were you saying because Russian troops have been in the Donbas for eight years that if Russian troops were to enter there anew, that would not necessarily trigger sanctions or you would not consider it a renewed invasion?
And then two is: There’s now calls for having a U.N. Security Council meeting. But of course, you’re well aware that Russia has a veto, so what would the utility of that meeting actually be? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I was not saying that, Alex, in response to your first question. What I was saying — and I’ll — I said it a couple times, but I’ll say it again — is that we will observe and assess what actions Russia actually takes and respond accordingly. We have already said we’re going to take additional sanctions actions tomorrow. And if Russia takes further actions, I suspect there will be further responses to those actions. That’s how we’ve handled this up until now, and that is how we will continue to handle things going forward. We have a number of options at our disposal.
On the U.N. Security Council session of — you know, I would say a few things. Russia cannot necessarily veto the holding of a meeting; they can veto a Security Council resolution. We see value in the U.N. Security Council, which is the sort of foremost international body charged with maintaining peace and stability in the world confronting what is, right now, the most significant challenge to peace and stability anywhere, which is what Russia is doing on the border of Ukraine and making Russia answer for the actions they took today and that it looks very likely to take additionally in the hours and days ahead.
We’ve done that a number of times during the course of this crisis. And given the steps that took place today, we think it would be appropriate for that to happen again.
Q Hey, [senior administration official]. Thanks for doing this call. Sorry to beat a dead horse here, but I just want to go back to this question over what constitutes a new invasion, because you said at one point that Russian troops moving into the Donbas would not be a new step. So would Russian troops have to move past the Donbas, or what’s the exact line that they would have to cross in eastern Ukraine to constitute a new invasion from that angle that you guys would consider a new invasion?
And then my second question is: Will Secretary Blinken still be meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov on Thursday as of now? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, again, Kylie, I’ll repeat what I’ve said up until now, which is: We are going to observe and assess what Russia does in the hours ahead and overnight, that we are going to respond to any actions that Russia takes in a way that we believe is appropriate to the action. And we’ve already said that there will be additional steps taken tomorrow — again, I said earlier on this call will likely to be sanction steps. And if Russia takes further actions, I suspect we would take further actions in response to that.
And so, I think that’s basically how we see it. And I’m going to leave it there.
I also reminded people, separate from that consideration, that there have been Russian troops in the Donbas for eight years now and that, you know, Russia has denied this. Now Russia looks like its going to be operating openly in that region, and our — and we are going to be responding accordingly. And we’ll have more steps to announce tomorrow.
Remind me of your second question though, Kylie? Sorry.
Q Yeah, just the Secretary Blinken —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Secretary Blinken/Lavrov. So I would refer you to the State Department on that question. I think they’re going to have more say about that than I will on this call.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone. That’s all the questions that we have time for. With that, the embargo is lifted. And friendly reminder that we are on background, attributed to the “senior administration official.”
5:43 P.M. EST