Sunday, 15/9/2019 | 12:05 UTC+0
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Press Releases: Background Briefing: Previewing Secretary Tillerson's Upcoming Travel to Italy and Russia

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, and thank you to all of those who have called in today for our background conference call with senior State Department officials on Secretary Tillerson’s upcoming travel to Italy and Russia. Our speakers today are [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. As a reminder, this call will be on background, so these individuals will be attributed as senior State Department officials, and we’ll have an embargo on this call until the call’s conclusion.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to our speakers.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator]. I’m happy to go first if the Italy stop is first on the agenda. And I thought I would just offer you all on the phone a very quick summary of what we expect to be the outlines of the G7 ministerial. As you know, the Secretary will travel to Lucca to attend the foreign ministers meeting on April 10 and 11. Accompanying the Secretary will be Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon.

The ministerial provides a venue for the foreign ministers to exchange views on global political and security issues of mutual concern, and the discussions will contribute to the G7 leaders summit which the President will attend in Taormina, Italy at the end of May. That’s May 26 and 27. So this foreign ministers meeting is designed to frame the leaders summit that will happen next month.

Some of the issues that we expect will be the focus of the discussions will be the ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS and the shared commitment of our G7 partners in that regard. This is going to be a timely follow-up to the global coalition meeting hosted by the Secretary of State here in D.C. in March.

Additional topics are likely to feature counterterrorism and violent – countering terrorism and violent extremism; regional issues – Syria, Iraq, Libya, Russia, Ukraine, and Africa; nonproliferation and arms control, specifically with regard to the DPRK and Iran; and maritime security.

That’s just a very skinny version of the G7 agenda. That agenda remains in development, so I encourage you to stay tuned as that list is finalized.

And with that, I will turn it over to my colleague to discuss the second stop.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hello, everyone. This is [Senior State Department Official Two]. I’ll speak to the Russia stop on this trip.

I want to start out by first though by reiterating our strong condemnation of Moscow’s reprehensible attack – Monday’s – I’m sorry, not Moscow – Monday’s reprehensible attack on the riders of the St. Petersburg metro. As I’m sure you saw, President Trump called President Putin on Monday to express condolences to the victims and their loved ones and to the Russian people. This is obviously one of the topics that will come up during the visit in Moscow.

I also want to reiterate for this call that what Secretary Tillerson and President Trump said yesterday about the chemical weapons attack in Syria on Tuesday. As President Trump said yesterday, the attack was an affront to humanity, and we stand with our allies across the globe to condemn this horrific attack. Secretary Tillerson was also clear yesterday that it’s time for the Russians to think carefully about their continued support for the Assad regime. Russia bears special responsibility here as one of the guarantors of the ceasefire and one of the supporters of Assad.

Let me move on to the trip. Once the meetings in Lucca are over, Secretary Tillerson will travel to Moscow, Russia. This will be his first trip as Secretary of State to Moscow and his second meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. You may recall that he met with Lavrov in Bonn in February.

Secretary Tillerson is going to continue to stress his core message that the United States is willing to work with Russia in areas of practical cooperation that are of benefit to the American people, but we remain committed to hold Russia accountable when it violates international norms.

I would ask you to look at the Secretary’s comments at NATO, and I think you’ll see some of what he said to the allies will help frame what he says in Moscow, and it’ll give you a sense of how he’s approaching the relationship with Russia. In addition to reaffirming the American commitment to NATO, the Secretary said when he was at the ministerial that the NATO alliance is also fundamental to countering both nonviolent but at times violent Russian agitation and aggression.

He also said that every country has the right to chart its own future, including Russia’s neighbors. He discussed Russia’s aggression in the region and noted that its actions in Ukraine shook the very foundations of security and stability in Europe, and that Russia’s ongoing hostility and occupation is compromising our shared vision of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.

So these are some of the things that will inform the planning for the trip in Moscow. He will, of course, push on the Ukraine issue for Russia to meet its Minsk commitments, and he will reiterate that sanctions will remain in place until Russia reverses the actions that triggered them and as well as on the Crimea-related sanctions that will stay in place until there is a change there. So I don’t think you’ll see any real surprises in terms of the discussion, but he will make clear where America stands on those issues.

We expect that some other topics will come up as well – arms control, security issues. We remain concerned about Russia’s violation of the INF treaty, which we see as a major destabilizing factor, not only because it affects security in Europe and Asia, but it also reduces international trust in arms control agreements. As I mentioned earlier, counterterrorism is likely to come up, the defeat of ISIS in Syria; DPRK is another issue that I’m sure they’ll touch on; and Afghanistan.

So these are – this is kind of the general – some of the general focus for the trip, and happy to take any questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press *1.

And first we’re going to the line of Josh Lederman, AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for holding the call. I was wondering, you were talking about Tillerson telling the Russians that the U.S. will hold it accountable when it violates international norms. I was wondering if interfering in the United States election is a violation of an international norm as far as Secretary Tillerson is concerned, and whether he plans to address that or the ongoing FBI investigation into potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign during his meetings with Russian leaders.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, Josh. Nice to hear your voice. Yes, the violation – the interference in our elections is of – by the Russians is a concern to the Secretary of State. He sees it as one of several areas where Russia has been either violating international norms or – and/or creating tensions unnecessarily that erode trust. So among the issues that he will discuss, I would expect that to come up.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we’re going to the line of Michele Kelemen, NPR. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi, thanks. I also wanted to ask about the Russia stop. This administration has talked a great deal about cooperating with Russia in fighting ISIS in Syria. Has this week’s chemical weapons attack and Russian’s decision to shield Assad again – does that change anything?

And the second question. A group of senators has written to Secretary Tillerson, encouraging him to meet with civil society activists while in Moscow. Are there any such meetings anticipated?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On the – I’m sorry, what was the first question? The —

QUESTION: On Syria. Has the chemical weapons attack —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, Syria. Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: Is there still room to cooperate with Russia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I – right. I mean, I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of the trip, but obviously, that has been a huge issue in the last couple of days and will color, I think, the discussions, certainly, as we look at the possibility of cooperation with Russia. No decisions have been made this stage to shift towards more cooperation. This trip is an exploratory trip to see what the potential is. So if Russia chooses to continue to shield Assad on this issue, I’m sure that will have a big impact on our thinking.

On the issue of other meetings, the trip – all of the details of the trip are still being scheduled. So I don’t have anything to announce on that, but I also wouldn’t rule it out.

OPERATOR: Next we’re going to the line of Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, please.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on the whole subject of the Russia investigation? Putin has said as recently as last week that there’s just nothing to it and that it is – “read my lips,” it didn’t happen. So how does Secretary Tillerson approach this issue with President Putin, given all of the denials from Russia? What strategy – as well as the denials from Russia on chemicals? How do you approach these issues, given the facts of – that the U.S. has on the ground?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, on the issue of credibility, I think that’s exactly the right point. I think Secretary Tillerson, as long – as well as many others in the administration, recognize that Russia has very low credibility on – across a range of a number of issues, if you look at various commitments that it has not met or various statements that they continue to make. So this is one of the issues – the fundamental issues in the relationship. The relationship is not a very strong, constructive relationship principally and primarily because of Russian actions and because of lack of trust. So credibility is fundamental. It’s fundamental for the Russians to rebuild that, because they have very little at this stage.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of David Clark, AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon. Thanks for doing this. When you approach Russian officials to complain about interference in the U.S. election, is that – is your position weakened by the differing messages coming out of the administration? The intelligence agencies and you just said Secretary Tillerson believe that there was interference, but obviously the White House has had a very different message, insisting that it made no difference, and that it – and there was no connection. Is it possible to speak to Russia with a united voice on this issue?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think it is. And I think you’re talking about two different things: one, whether interference – there was interference, and two, what the impact of that interference was. Obviously, the Russians were trying to have an impact. Fortunately, we have a strong democracy and their ability to have an impact is limited.

I think if you look to Europe this year, you’ll see a number of European countries that are concerned and have voiced concern about Russian interference in their elections, having looked at the U.S. experience. Many of them are taking specific steps to improve their own resilience and prevent Russian interference from having an impact.

So I do believe it’s possible for the administration to speak on one voice, because I think we have strong evidence of what happened. And the Russians may deny it, but I think you’ve seen our intelligence agencies took the unprecedented step of putting out a lot of that evidence for everyone to see. And I think what’s happening in Europe and what has happened in other countries, such as Ukraine, shows exactly what kinds of things the Russians do and what kinds of things we’re watching out for.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of Demitri Sevastopulo, Financial Times.

QUESTION: Hi. There’s been a lot of talk recently about what China should do to help the U.S. deal with North Korea. But Russia is also a source of revenue for the regime in Pyongyang. So what kinds of things would the U.S. like Russia to do to try and get North Korea to roll back its nuclear program? And to what extent do you think this is going to come up in the meetings that Secretary Tillerson will have in Moscow?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So North Korea is – I would expect to come up in the meetings in Moscow. It’s a major focus right now, given what the North Koreans are up to. You’re right that China, I think, is – probably would have the most influence, and we need China’s help. And that’s something that the President is going to be working on today. But in terms of Russia, they can be helpful as well, both to put pressure through sanctions and being – strict implementation of sanctions. But there may be other economic measures they can take, and we can explore some of those with the Russians.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of Felicia Schwartz, Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing the call. I was wondering if Secretary Tillerson had any – or anyone at the State Department had any – communications about the statements they made about Russia’s culpability in the attack before they went out there and gave those comments and if there was any response from Russia. And then will the Secretary present – he said Russia should rethink its support to Assad, as you mentioned. Is he coming with consequences for Russia if they don’t do that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So I’m not sure if I understood. The question is whether we told Russia we were going to say something first before we said something publicly?

QUESTION: Yeah. That – yeah, that’s the first question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, I don’t think so. And I don’t see why we would. I mean, we have conversations with the Russians on a regular basis at many different levels. So we do talk about Syria frequently, so – but to reach out to them in advance and say we’re going to say something publicly, no, we don’t do that. And certainly they don’t do that for us, either, so no.

And then what was the second part of the question?

QUESTION: If – is Tillerson going to bring consequences for Russia if they don’t back off of Assad, as Tillerson suggested?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I’m – again, I can’t get ahead of the meetings in Moscow, so I don’t really have anything to give you on that.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of Laura Koran, CNN.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. So my question is also about the Russia portion of the trip. Can we expect Secretary Tillerson to echo what Ambassador Haley said at the Security Council meeting yesterday, that the U.S. might feel compelled to take its own action against the Assad regime? Is he going to give any kind of explanation to the Russian officials about what actions are potentially on the table if there are more attacks like the one we saw on Monday? And then how much, if at all, can we expect the Secretary to raise human rights issues in his meeting with President Putin? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Again, I mean, I’m not going to get ahead of the meetings and details of exactly what might be said or anything like that. I can’t really speak to that. On the question of human rights, I mean, I think the Secretary – again, without getting into details, the Secretary has very strong views on kind of values and commitments, and anything that involves violations of commitments or not living up to commitments will certainly be part of the conversation.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of Yeganeh Torbati, Reuters. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I just wanted to confirm – I wasn’t sure – is he actually going to be meeting with President Putin for – is that on the schedule right now in Moscow?

And then also, has Secretary Tillerson spoken to Foreign Minister Lavrov since the chemical weapons attack? And – yeah, those are my two questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So on the first question – what was the question again? The – oh, Putin, yeah. So on the Putin – so the meeting with Lavrov is confirmed. Certainly, if there is an invitation for him to meet with Putin, he will do so. And as you know, in the past Secretary Kerry, when he’s been in Moscow, there’s usually been an opportunity. So I can’t confirm that, but again, I wouldn’t rule it out.

And then – yes, Secretary Tillerson has been in touch with Lavrov since the attack. Yesterday there was a phone call in which they discussed what had happened, and we sought the Russian analysis or readout of what they thought had happened.

QUESTION: Can we – could you all provide us with a readout of that call?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I just provided the readout that we have.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of Dmitri Korsanov, TASS. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes. Da.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks a lot for doing the call. I wanted to ask if Secretary Tillerson and Minister Lavrov are going to speak about the bilateral summit, if they are to explore possible dates for a meeting between President Trump and President Putin.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The discussion that we plan to have in Moscow is about the bilateral relationship writ large and the prospects for improving it, so I think Secretary Tillerson’s view is that first we need to see – to prepare the ground to see if such a meeting makes sense in the context of the relationship, so I think that’s going to be an approach that he’ll be taking. Don’t have specifics on discussing dates or anything like that, but I think all will depend on kind of the broader prospects for the relationship.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of Kylie Atwood, CBS News.

QUESTION: Hey. Thank you for doing this call. My question is in regard – back to Russia, in terms of your mentioning that if Russia continues to shield Assad then that will have a big impact on the thinking of Secretary Tillerson and the State Department. In terms of what? Like in terms of maintaining sanctions, adding new sanctions, determining if Putin and Trump get together? Just what kind of thinking will that impact?

And then my second question is in regard to Special Representive Joe Yun. Was he laying the groundwork for Tillerson’s visit, and can you give us a little bit of a description of what his meetings were in regard to North Korea in Moscow this week?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: All right. Let’s see. First question was – oh, impact on relations. Well, as you know, there’s been a fair amount of discussion generally about whether there’s more the U.S. and Russia can do to cooperate on against terrorism and to do things together in Syria. Currently, we engage with Russia and Syria on the basis of de-confliction, a de-confliction mechanism that was set up under the last administration and that continues to work. And the question has been: Are there more concrete things that we could do together? Secretary Kerry had worked a lot on this to try to see what we could do together to bring peace to Syria and to cooperate on counterterrorism.

So anyone can look at whether the relationship is such that there is enough trust that we could work together and – or whether there continues to be mistrust and differing goals and differing methods of approaching the problem. So certainly, one of the critical issues in working with a partner is trust and credibility. So the most recent incidents in Syria will have an impact on how Russia portrays what happened and will affect our thinking. And then, of course, that issue affects the relationship more broadly across a number of areas. So certainly, how fast or slowly the relationship can develop and in what direction depends on what the Secretary will hear in Moscow.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m sorry. I didn’t answer the Yun question. I think Embassy Moscow has put out a readout of that meeting. But yes, his meeting will be useful in some of the detail in terms of how the conversation on the North Korea issue evolves when the Secretary is in Moscow.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’re going to the line of Conor Finnegan, ABC News.

QUESTION: Excuse me. Hey. Thanks for holding the call. I had another follow-up question on what others have asked about Russia and Syria. You’ve expressed a lot of skepticism about working with Russia against terrorists in Syria, but the President has not. He seems to say more often than not why aren’t we working with them? Is that a directive from the President? Where does the skepticism come from, and is it shared by the whole administration?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think the question of why aren’t we can be answered because of past experience. So I think what the Secretary is trying to do is explore whether there is an opportunity to make progress so that we could cooperate. So – but I think he, like others – you don’t want to jump into a relationship where you’re not certain that you have a good understanding of how your partner is going to behave and whether they’re going to comply with their commitments.

So I think all of us would like to see an improved relationship with Russia. Russia is an important country; it has a lot of potential. They’re active globally. So there are many good reasons to try to have a better relationship and to cooperate against terrorism. So I don’t think there’s any question that people believe that there could be potential. But given the past history, no one, I think, would be anxious to move forward without working out what those details would be. And again, that’s – the Secretary’s role is to explore those opportunities and then report back on whether he thinks the Russians are prepared to address some of the issues of concern or whether they’re not. And I think that’s what he’ll be reporting back to the President.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next, we’re going to the line of Mike Eckel, Radio Free Europe.

QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thanks very much. I want to return to the issue of the INF violations. The previous administration obviously hit its head against the wall repeatedly on this issue, called a meeting of the Special Verification Commission, nothing came of that. Now we have the U.S. military saying the system has actually been deployed, which is pretty serious and pretty indicative, it would seem, of what Moscow thinks about the treaty. There’s, in fact, a growing school of thought that the INF might be a dead treaty altogether.

So what makes the department or Secretary Tillerson think that he’s going to have any more ability to break through on this? And will there be anything in the way of specific warnings or – with regards to the INF violation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, I think this goes back again to the issue of credibility and trust. The Russians can continue to try to stonewall and deny the facts, or they can acknowledge what they’ve done and indicate a willingness to discuss it and indicate whether they want to return to compliance or they have some other proposal. But this is a choice for Russia to make and to a president of Russia and a government that claims to want an improved relationship with the United States. So this is an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate that they’re serious that they want to improve the relationship.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And the next, final question goes to the line of Nike Ching, Voice of America. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the call. My question is following up on some of the previous questions. Is Secretary Tillerson bringing and personal message on behalf of President Trump to Russia?

And then separately on North Korea, how confident is the United States that Moscow will be on board with the U.S. when Secretary Tillerson is going to chair the United Nations Security Council meeting on DPRK later this month? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So on the question of a personal message, I mean, I don’t think I can speak to that except to say that he comes fully empowered by the President to engage in a full range of discussions with the Russians.

And then on the DPRK and the question of an UNSCR, I mean, that’s something that diplomats work out in – at the UN in negotiations, and I can’t really predict how things are going to evolve there. But certainly we’ll be working to try to reach a consensus so that an UNSCR can be passed.

[Senior State Department Official One], did you want to say anything on —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No? Okay.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. That will conclude today’s background conference call on the Secretary’s upcoming travel. Thanks to our speakers and thanks to our participants. As a reminder, our speakers spoke on background and attribution for our speakers should be senior State Department officials, and now that the call has concluded the embargo is lifted. Thank you.

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