Briefing with Deputy Secretary Wendy R. Sherman on the U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue

Wendy R. Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State

Via Teleconference

MR PRICE:  Good morning, for those of you in the United States.  Good afternoon, for those of you in Europe.  Thank you for joining this press call regarding our diplomacy in pursuit of a de-escalation with Russia.  As you know, this is an on-the-record press call with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, who just concluded this round of the Strategic Stability Dialogue with her Russian counterpart.  We are not going to impose an embargo on this call.  Again, this call is on the record with the deputy secretary and without an embargo, and with that, I’ll turn to Deputy Secretary Sherman for an opening statement before we then take your questions.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Thanks so much, Ned, and thank you all for joining us.  I speak to you from Geneva, Switzerland.

About a half an hour ago or so, we concluded the extraordinary session of the bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue with the Russian delegation here in Geneva.

We had a frank and forthright discussion over the course of nearly eight hours at the U.S. mission in Geneva.

This is the third time the U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue has convened since President Biden and President Putin met in Geneva last June. The United States came to today’s extraordinary meeting prepared to hear Russia’s security concerns and to share our own.  We came as well with a number of ideas where our two countries could take reciprocal actions that would be in our security interests and improve strategic stability. The United States offered to meet again soon to discuss these bilateral issues in more detail.

The preliminary ideas the United States raised today include missile placement.  We also made clear that the United States is open to discussing the future of certain missile systems in Europe – along the lines of the now defunct INF Treaty between the U.S. and Russia.

We shared that we are also open to discussing ways we can set reciprocal limits on the size and scope of military exercises, and to improve transparency about those exercises, again on a reciprocal basis – and appreciating this will also be a topic of discussion in the NATO-Russia Council and at the OSCE meeting this week.

The United States and Russia agree that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.  We have discussed this shared principle in past SSD meetings, and it was reaffirmed last week in a statement by the P5 nations.  That is why the United States has long been interested in discussing with Russia options for arms control that include both strategic and so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons.  We reiterated our interest in having deeper discussions on this topic during today’s meetings as well.

We were firm, however, in pushing back on security proposals that are simply non-starters for the United States.  We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s “Open Door” policy, which has always been central to the NATO Alliance.  We will not forego bilateral cooperation with sovereign states that wish to work with the United States.  And we will not make decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, or about NATO without NATO.  As we say to our allies and partners, “nothing about you without you.”

The United States is committed to meaningful, reciprocal dialogue with Russia, just as we are committed to consulting and coordinating with our allies and partners.  We are ready to continue discussions on the bilateral issues we identified today as soon as practical, and we made that clear.  We will have discussions with our allies and partners in the days ahead, and at the end of this week, informed by those discussions, the U.S. and Russian Governments will discuss the way forward.

Russian officials have said in public and in private that they want to move swiftly, and the United States is ready to do so.  At the same time, negotiations on complex topics like arms control cannot be completed in a matter of days or even weeks.  That is something that my counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, understands very well.  We must give diplomacy and dialogue the time and space required to make progress on such complex issues.

We called this an extraordinary session because it took place without the preliminary meetings of the two expert working groups the two sides agreed to create at our last meeting in September.

But it was also an extraordinary session because of the context in which we find ourselves.

As we speak, Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders.

Meanwhile, Moscow claims it is Ukraine seeking conflict and behaving provocatively, and not Russia.

It bears repeating that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine in 2014.  It is Russia that continues to fuel a war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed nearly 14,000 Ukrainian lives.  And now it is Russia’s actions which are causing a renewed crisis not only for Ukraine but for all of Europe.

One country cannot change the borders of another by force, or dictate the terms of another country’s foreign policy, or forbid another country from choosing its own alliances.  These are basic tenets of the international system, and they are principles that Russia has previously agreed to many times over the years.

We have been clear, and we were clear today, that the United States would welcome genuine progress through diplomacy.  We also reiterated that we believe genuine progress can only take place in a climate of de-escalation, not escalation.  If Russia stays at the table and takes concrete steps to de-escalate tensions, we believe we can achieve progress.  But if Russia walks away from the diplomatic path, it may well be quite apparent that they were never serious about pursuing diplomacy at all.

We’ve made it clear that if Russia further invades Ukraine, there will be significant costs and consequences well beyond what they faced in 2014.  President Biden said as much to President Putin in their recent call, and I said that plainly to Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov as well.  Russia has a stark choice to make.

As in all things, the United States will continue our close coordination with our allies and partners.  Since the New Year, President Biden has spoken directly with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.  Secretary Blinken spoke with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba and with EU High Representative Borrell, held a call with the Bucharest Nine, hosted German Foreign Minister Baerbock in Washington, and participated in a virtual meeting of the NATO Foreign Ministers, just to name a few of the interactions.

Likewise, in the week before I came to Geneva, I had calls with the Greek and Georgian foreign ministers; with the Spanish state secretary; with the NATO deputy secretary general; with the EEAS Secretary General Sannino and with OSCE Secretary General Schmid; and held a group discussion with France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

So we are lashed up at every level with our allies and partners, and we will continue to be in the days and weeks ahead.

Tomorrow morning, very early, I will travel to Brussels to meet with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg and brief the North Atlantic Council.  I will also meet again with EEAS Secretary General Sannino, and I will brief the EU’s Political and Security Committee.  All of these meetings will take place before the NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday, where I will lead the U.S. delegation.

I fully expect that the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE this week, Russia will hear a consistent message from the United States and from our allies and partners – namely, that it is on Russia to de-escalate tensions so that we have a real chance at finding diplomatic solutions.

Thank you again for joining us.  Sorry for my words getting fumbled sometimes in the midst of my mask.  I look forward to your questions.  Thank you.

MR PRICE:  Thank you.  Operator, would you mind repeating the instructions to ask a question?

OPERATOR:  Certainly.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad.  You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the command of 1 then 0.

MR PRICE:  Thank you.  We’ll start with the line of Andrea Mitchell, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  One moment.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Could you talk about the kind of sanctions that you’re talking about more broadly?  There’s been a very detailed explanation by our colleagues at The New York Times over the weekend.  Are we talking about the SWIFT system, we talking about export-import controls on key sectors?  Could you be a little bit more specific about what Russia would face if they weren’t on the diplomatic track?  Thank you so much.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  So, Andrea, what we’ve said is if Russia further invades Ukraine, there will be significant costs and consequences well beyond what happened in 2014.  We are very ready and aligned with our partners and allies to impose those severe costs.  You’ve seen statements from NATO, from the G7, from the European Council.  We are very well aligned.  Those costs will include financial sanctions, and it’s been reported those sanctions will include key financial institutions, export controls that target key industries, enhancement of NATO force posture on allied territory, and increased security assistance to Ukraine.

I’m not going to go into any more specific detail, Andrea, although I understand why you’d like it, because we want to make sure that these have impact, they cannot all be anticipated by Russia if we have to impose them, and that they will have the consequences that we know that they can have.

QUESTION:  But to be precise, could I ask a follow-up about what you mean by increased support to Ukraine?  Do you mean that Ukraine – Ukraine’s government and Ukraine militia groups?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  I’m talking about security assistance to Ukraine.  As you know, we’ve already provided some security assistance.  We continue to do so, and we would increase it.  And it’s not just the United States; there are all other governments in Europe who are providing security assistance to Ukraine.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Jennifer Hansler, please.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much for doing this.  The Russians obviously are speaking at the same time, and they say that they told the U.S. side that there is no – there is no need for fear of escalation, that they do not intend to attack Ukraine.  Could you elaborate on what they told you and to what extent you believe them?

And then in terms of the discussions, did they – did they raise issues that you were not willing to discuss today?  Do you believe that they negotiated in good faith?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Today was a discussion, a better understanding of each other and each other’s priorities and concerns.  It was not what you would call a negotiation.  We’re not to a point where we’re ready to set down text and begin to go back and forth.  We, in fact, did not sit there and sort of go through the treaty they put on the table word for word and line by line.  So we’re not in that kind of a setting.  We are trying to have very serious, businesslike, candid, clear-eyed, straightforward conversations with each other to best understand each other’s concerns and priorities.

As regards the 100,000 troops massed on the borders, I don’t think you’d be surprised to hear that Russia indeed said to us, as they said publicly, they do not intend to invade, these are just maneuvers and exercises.  But I would note that none of this was notified to anyone, and it is typical that we notify each other’s exercises to each other where we can.  And they can prove that, in fact, they have no intention by de-escalating and returning troops to barracks.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Missy Ryan, please.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) the officials and who have briefed in recent days has addressed, and I’m hoping that you can provide additional clarification about, and that’s regarding whether or not there will be any discussion of American troop levels in Europe at any of the discussions this week.  I know that we’ve been told that it will not be on the table and was not on the table in the U.S.-Russia bilateral talks today.  Can you rule out discussion of any change to American troop levels or discussion of a potential future format or venue, some CFE type thing being discussed at the Russia-NATO meeting, at the OSCE meeting as well?  Just hoping to clear up any – avoid confusion about that.  Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  We did not have discussions about American troop levels.  In our discussions, I don’t think that is what is on the table.  That’s not anticipated. That’s not a topic of conversation.  CFE is a longstanding agreement that is very important, not always paid attention to by Russia, but troop levels and American troop levels were not on the agenda for today.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Matt Lee, please.

QUESTION:  I’m a little bit curious about as to whether there was anything in today’s talks that gives you, like, hope for future discussions.  Were there any agreements to continue working group talks, that kind of thing, or any agreements on that?

And then secondly, there’s been a lot of talk about de-escalation.  And from – I want to know what it is that you guys think is de-escalation.  Is it removing all of the troops or some of the troops from the border?  Because I’m mindful of the context of all of this – Georgia and 2014 – but these Russian troops are in Russian territory.  They haven’t actually gone anywhere yet.  So what is it that would amount – that would amount to de-escalation for you guys?  Thanks.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  I’ll do the last part first, Matt.  It’s really what I said before: return the troops to barracks or tell us what exercises are ongoing and what their purpose is.  That’s not at all clear.  One doesn’t normally send 100,000 troops to a border just to sort of exercise.  It’s quite extraordinary and it is all on the border of Ukraine.  So clearly, it was meant to send a decisive message.  As General Mingus said, who was with us on this delegation, we can see what they do just like they can see what we do.  So it’s not a mystery that we should see their troops on the border.  They knew we would see it.  They knew it would make us concerned, and it certainly has for very good reason.

As for hope for future discussions, Matt, it’s very hard for diplomats to do the work we do if you have no hope.  So of course I have hope, but what I care more about is results.  We had serious, as I said, straightforward, businesslike, candid discussions.  You know, Matt, because you’ve followed these things for years, that Minister Ryabkov and I know each other very well.  We worked on the Syria chemical weapons deal together.  We worked on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action together.  We’ve obviously now worked on the SSD in my role as deputy secretary of state.  We know each other very, very well.  So we can be very straight-up with each other to the extent that we can be, knowing that we are here for our national interests and are very loyal to those national interests.

And I think what I said before is what will happen, which is we will go through all of these discussions this week.  We will reflect on them all.  I expect that incorporating those, talking with our partners and allies at NATO, at OSCE, we will then have further conversations with the Russian Government and decide on the best way forward.

MR PRICE:  David Sanger, please.

OPERATOR:  David, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

MR PRICE:  David, if you’re speaking, you may be on mute.  Okay, not hearing David.  Let’s go to the line of —

QUESTION:  I think we’ve got it all here now.

MR PRICE:  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me, Ned?

MR PRICE:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Sorry about that.  Thank you, Secretary Sherman for doing this.

I wanted to go back to your notation that you had – were willing to discuss a revival of INF.  Of course, at the – during the Obama administration and then through the Trump administration, there were concerns that Russia was violating that.  Do you have – can you give us a little more of a sense of what your concept is of how you would put that back together without having to go through the kind of violations you had in mind?  And did the Russians respond in any way to your offer there?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Well, let me put it to you this way, David.  The Russians addressed the concerns that we had that led to the ultimate demise of the INF treaty.  This was not a negotiation, so we were putting ideas on the table today.  And we have a long way to go, but of course, there are ongoing concerns about intermediate-range missiles.  That’s the whole reason there was an INF treaty in the first place.  That concern remains, and if there is a way for us to address it going forward, including our concerns that led to the demise of the treaty, that is something worth considering and seeing whether, in fact, reciprocal actions can be taken that increase our security.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Laura Kelly.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) give any indication during your meetings that Moscow is prepared to de-escalate the situation given that its massing of troops resulted in the scheduling of these extraordinary session of meetings?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  I don’t think we know the answer to that.  We made it very clear that it’s very hard to have constructive, productive, and successful diplomacy without de-escalation, because the escalation obviously increases tensions and doesn’t create the best environment for real negotiations, which we didn’t get to today but is what one would have to get to ultimately here.  So we will see whether, in fact, Russia understands that the best way to pursue diplomacy is for them to reduce those tensions and to de-escalate.  We’ll see how serious they are.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Elmar Thevessen from ZDF German Television.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) draft treaties, Secretary Sherman.  Did Ryabkov actually put those draft treaties that Russia put out a couple of weeks ago on the table as the basis for everything?  That will be one question.

And number two, you mentioned also the export controls that might be or are on the list of possible sanctions.  Do you expect European countries to join in those export controls, including, for example, for technology and technical products being exported to Russia?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  So there’s no question that the draft treaties that Russia made public were the basis from the Russian point of view for the conversations today. Be that as it may, we put our concerns on the table as well. We did not sit there and go through that draft treaty, but there was certainly reference to it and to articles in it.  So yes, it was very present in the room even if it was not the piece of paper we were working from.

Secondly, on export controls, we are in intensive discussion with partners and allies about export controls and working through the best way to move forward, and are finding a lot of understanding, agreement, and interest in pursuing them.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Nike Ching.

QUESTION:  How would you describe the trust level between your two countries?  And separately, if I may ask, last week Chinese President Xi Jinping talked to Ukraine President Zelenskyy by phone to celebrate the 30th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties.  Both agreed to push forward the strategic partnership between China and Ukraine.  Question:  How does the U.S. assess the Chinese influence over Ukraine; does the U.S. expect China to play any role to dissuade Russia from more military aggression against Ukraine at a time when Russia and China are deepening their military cooperation?  Thank you very much.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Thank you for your questions.  First of all, as a diplomat and negotiator, I generally don’t approach these kind of situations on the basis of trust.  I do try to respect that other countries have their own interests and those interests may be different than ours, and to try to gain an understanding of them.  I think what matters is:  What are the results?  Are they reciprocal?  Does it increase security for the United States of America?  Which is the responsibility that the Secretary of State and the President have asked me to carry forward as the lead of the U.S. delegation.

So for me, it is about doing the work, seeing if the results – whether one can understand the other’s interests, even if they cannot be met, because they don’t meet our security interests, to see whether in fact you can reach something that is reciprocal as it ensures our security.

And in terms of your second question, it really wasn’t the subject of any of our discussions or considerations at that point, so I’m not sure I have a very useful answer for you.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Mike Eckel from Radio Free Europe.

OPERATOR:  Mike, your line is open.  Please, go ahead with your question.

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.  My question concerns specifically NATO – I’m toggling back and forth between this particular briefing and the briefing being done by Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, and he makes it clear that NATO was or NATO expansion was discussed in some capacity today, and that according to Ryabkov the position expressed by the Americans was just an outright refusal on the question of further NATO expansion.  So I’m wondering if you can characterize the nature of the NATO question and how it was discussed with Mr. Ryabkov today.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Well, certainly if you’ve been listening to Mr. Ryabkov you know more than I do, because I’ve been listening to myself and to you all.  But I’m sure that he is saying that Russia believes there should not be any further expansion of NATO.  That was very clear from the draft treaty that he – they put forward two draft treaties; one with the United States, the other with NATO.  And we were unequivocal:  We do not make decisions for other countries.  We will not agree that any country should have a veto over any other country when it comes to being part of the NATO Alliance.  NATO has its own processes for that, and we support those processes, and we feel very strongly that countries get to decide their own foreign policy orientation and how they want to proceed in terms of their own sovereignty and their own territorial integrity.  And that should not be decided by others and certainly should not be decided by force.

MR PRICE:  Time for a couple final questions.  We’ll go to Vivian Salama, please.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) circle back on something that Matt Lee had asked, just in terms of if you could really, clearly tell us where did you leave things.  Do the Russians have to take any particular action, like troop reduction or something else, in order to ensure that the U.S. and its allies don’t take any of these actions that have been threatened, whether sanctions or anything else?  And is there a deadline for such action to prevent basically the status quo from resulting in inaction by the U.S. and its allies?  Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  I think you’ve probably heard Secretary Blinken talk about Russia having two paths that it can choose from. One is the path of diplomacy, which hopefully ensures not only Russia’s security, but ours, our allies’ and partners’. The other is deterrence and cost. And we will do what we must to deter Russia from taking any action that would be untoward toward Ukraine, and that should they do so there will be enormous costs – substantial, significant, and really compelling costs. And it’s really a very stark choice, and one that I suspect only Mr. Putin, President Putin can decide. We certainly urged Russia to de-escalate, to create an environment that was conducive to the diplomatic track. But we will see.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Anton LaGuardia from The Economist.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE:  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hello?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Can you hear me?

MR PRICE:  Yes, please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Oh – thank you.  I wanted to ask about the point on reciprocity that you mentioned several times.  Can you expand on what you mean by it in terms of exercises and missiles?  And did you get a sense that the Russians were willing to take that point on board?  Indeed, were they willing to go along with the rather extended timetable for formal negotiations that you’ve set out?  Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Well, on your last point, we didn’t set out a specific timetable for anything.  My – certainly, the Russians have said that they’d like to move swiftly. We had said to the extent that there are actions we can take, there’s work that can be done, we are happy to move as swiftly as possible.  The only point I made in my opening remarks is that these kinds of arms control negotiations – as Mr. Putin himself has said it, President Putin himself has said – don’t happen in just a day or even a week.  They’re generally quite complex, very technical, and take some time.  But we’re certainly ready to move as expeditiously as one possibly can in these circumstances.

On this point of reciprocity, arms control agreements only work and are only durable when they are reciprocal, when both party or parties are taking steps that ensure mutual security.  And so whatever it is that we may be able to do here – and it’s not clear yet because we’re just at the beginning and we don’t know where all of this is headed quite yet – anything we do that we might put on the table as an idea, we would expect reciprocal action from Russia.  It may not be the exact same action.  It may be another action which creates mutuality and reciprocity, and that is very critical in our – all arms control.

MR PRICE:  Michele Kelemen.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) not Kazakhstan came up in this discussion today.  And then more broadly, Anatol Lieven has thrown out this idea that the U.S. and Russia should consider neutrality for Ukraine à la Austria during the Cold War.  And I wonder if you think that it might be time to consider sort of more outside of the box ideas like that.  Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  Kazakhstan did not come up today, to answer that question quickly.  On the idea of neutrality, we have a really critical principle:  No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine.  Ukraine gets to decide its foreign policy orientation.  It gets to decide its future.  NATO gets to decide the process for NATO membership and how one goes through that process.  No country should have a veto or make decisions for others about their future.

MR PRICE:  And we’ll take one final question from Nick Schifrin, please.

QUESTION:  Wendy, thank you very much, if you can hear me.  David asked specifically about the INF.  I was wondering if you could talk about how specific you got on missile deployments and exercises and whether Ryabkov was actually willing to engage with U.S. priorities.  And bottom line, do you have a better sense today of whether the Russian proposals last month were designed to be rejected and then used as a pretext for war, or in fact they were an opening bid for serious negotiation?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SHERMAN:  The Russians would tell you that they were an open bid for serious negotiation, and we will see if that is indeed the case.  On missile deployment exercises, we put some ideas on the table.  I’m not going to go through any specifics around those ideas.  We will, of course, be consulting with our partners and allies over the next days about some of those ideas.  And I would say that even on things that are not Russian priorities, are not maybe their first or second priorities, we had useful discussions and exchanges today that will help inform our way forward.

MR PRICE:  Thank you very much, Deputy Sherman.  Thank you very much, everyone, for tuning in.  Just a reminder, this call was on the record with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, and there was no embargo.  Hope everyone has a good day.

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