Wed. Jul 24th, 2024
Briefing with Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien on Secretary Blinken’s Upcoming Travel to Europe

MR TEK:  Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining our call today previewing the Secretary of State’s upcoming travel to Europe.  This call will be on the record and is embargoed until its conclusion.  Joining us today is Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien.  The assistant secretary will open with brief remarks and then we’ll turn it over to your questions.  And we’ll try to get to as many questions as time allows and we’ll take questions in groups of two or three for efficiency’s sake.  If you want to ask a question, please use the raise hand function in Zoom and then we’ll call on you.

So with that, I’ll turn it over to Assistant Secretary O’Brien to kick us off.  Over to you, sir. 

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Thanks, Nathan.  Thanks, everybody.  Sorry for the slight delay on my end.  Just a few notes, primarily on schedule and themes, and then we can take questions.

So the Secretary is traveling next week to Europe.  On Wednesday, he’ll arrive in Chisinau, Moldova.  Then that evening, into Thursday, he’ll be in Prague and Czechia.  And starting Thursday evening, he’ll participate in the informal ministerial of foreign ministers in preparation for the NATO Summit.  In those meetings in Moldova he will meet with President Maia Sandu, with the prime minister, with other officials.  He’ll have an opportunity to highlight Moldova’s progress in its path toward European integration, its solidifying its democracy, and the threat posed by the Russian interference in its internal processes.

In Czechia he will meet with a number of senior officials – still confirming the meetings, but it will be an opportunity to affirm our really strong partnership, both the alliance and partnership with Prague on a number of issues, but also the strong support in particular for Ukraine, where the Czech Republic has helped solidify international support – has itself contributed more than half a billion euro in military equipment for Ukraine, and is leading efforts to provide much-needed munitions to Ukraine now.  All of those will be points that we’ll emphasize along with Czechia’s traditional strong support for democracy and human rights, in particular in the meeting with the foreign minister.

Then in the informal ministerial, this is to focus on events in Ukraine but also preparations for the Washington Summit, which is July 11th and 12th.  And in that vein the secretary general has asked that the ministers discuss a range of decisions pertaining to Ukraine.  We do not anticipate that there’ll be an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO, but we think there will be a substantial show of support for Ukraine as it works to win its war.  This will include ongoing NATO support in building Ukraine’s future force and efforts to help Ukraine as it makes the reforms needed so that it’s able to join the EU and run across the bridge to NATO as quickly as it’s able.

So with that, why don’t I stop and we can take some questions.  Nathan, I’ll leave you to figure out who we call on and how and when.

MR TEK:  Great.  Thank you so much.  Let’s take a question from Shaun Tandon.  Shaun, if you could ask your question.  Let me turn on your mike here.

QUESTION:  Thanks, Nathan.  Thanks, Jim.  Could you ask you, Jim, a little bit more on the Transnistria issue?  A few months ago, there was some talk that there’d be a bid to annex it by Moscow.  What’s the concern level you see on that?  And in terms of more broadly how you see the situation in Transnistria evolving, how much concern do you have with the Moldovans?  Is there any new support you might – you might be looking at, whether it’s diplomatic, defense, or economic?  Thank you. 

MR TEK:  Great.  And then let me take one more question from Oskar Gorzynski.  Oskar, you should be able to unmute yourself now. 

QUESTION:  Hi.  Hopefully you can hear me.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  So the other day, the UK defense minister said that they have evidence of China providing lethal aid to Russia.  I know that Jake kind of shut it down, but could you characterize what the – what China’s response to the threats of sanctions was following Secretary Blinken’s visit there?  And if – are you prepared to and are the Europeans prepared to impose those sanctions if China is not – not cooperating, I guess? 

MR TEK:  Great.  Thank you.  We’ll start —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Okay.  Thanks, Nathan.  So Shaun, good question on Transnistria.  I’m going to save any announcements the Secretary will make for the day of.  I anticipate he’ll have a robust package of support for Moldova’s transition, both energy independence or less dependence on sources to the east but also on support for democracy against Russian threats, but the specifics we’ll leave for the day.

On Transnistria itself, there’s not a direct military threat that we see at this time, but there’s ongoing Russian influence operations, and that is of concern. 

What we have seen over the last two years is a real benefit to citizens both in Transnistria and Moldova from loosening dependence on Russia and from the increasing European integration of Moldova.  And we think that that gives a strong basis in Transnistria as well as in Moldova as a whole for continuing that path, and that’s obviously of real importance as they face a crucial election this year.  On the broader Transnistria question, we’re continuing to support the OSCE-led process that will lead to a comprehensive settlement, we think.

Now, on the question of the PRC and aid to Russia, our position – I’m not going to add to what Jake said the other day on the specific element.  What we have been emphasizing is that China is an actor in this war; that without Chinese support, Russia would not be able to batter Ukrainian cities and attack civilian targets in the way that it has been doing.  And our main point to China is that this needs to stop.  That I think they are taking seriously.  They are hearing it from many of our European allies and partners, and it is an important factor in the way that not only U.S. policy toward China will be shaped, but European policy going forward.  That’s the important first step.

We have made clear that we will take additional steps against the specific Chinese actors involved, and we’re in ongoing consultations with our European colleagues.  As you know, they’re in the course of developing their next sanctions program.  But as always, this isn’t to be measured simply by that one factor of sanctions.  It’s really about the fact that China’s aspirations to remain a significant player and to – or, sorry, let me scratch that sentence – that China’s policy toward Europe is very much affected by the acknowledgment now that China is keeping this war ongoing and is helping Russia pose a threat to Europe itself – and that’s a factor that China now has to consider that it didn’t a bit ago.

MR TEK:  Great.  Thank you so much.  Let’s go to – let’s get to a couple more questions at once.  Let’s do Steff Chavez.  I’ll open the line.  Your – you should be able to unmute yourself.

QUESTION:  Yeah, good morning.  Thanks so much.  I’m wondering where the administration is on shifting its policy about Ukraine being able to fire U.S. weapons into Russia.  Like, is that change actually going to happen?  Thank you.

MR TEK:  Thank you, and then let’s also please go to Alex Raufoglu as well.  Alex, you should be able to unmute.

QUESTION:  Hey, thank you so much for doing this.  Ambassador, thanks for your time.  Just a quick follow-up on what you just said about Moldova.  I want to expand little bit a comparison with the events we are seeing in Georgia, if I may.  Just curious, when it comes to Moldova’s NATO aspiration, whether you see a sort of success story there given the fact both Moldova and Georgia had applied for NATO membership pretty much at the same time.  But they both have been threatened and enticed, if you want, by Russia from the get-go.  But today, one aspirant is moving forward and even is getting the Secretary-level visit while another one, in Georgia’s example, has not only give in but rather is acting in ensemble with Russia, if you want, by pushing conspiracies such as a fight against, quote/unquote, “global war party.” 

Want to get your comments on it, and of course if you have any response to the Ivanishvili regime’s initial reaction to the visa restriction policy.  Not surprisingly, they reacted with further escalation, disinformation, and an insult.  Thanks so much.

MR TEK:  Thank you.  I’ll turn it back over to you, Assistant Secretary O’Brien.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Okay.  So Steff, I’m not going to comment on this.  I just want to emphasize in discussions on this issue:  Ukraine uses its own weapons very effectively in attacking targets in Russia, but I’m not going to comment on – further than that.

And then the other question on Moldova and Georgia, maybe to walk through it this way, the – in both countries it’s clear the populations want to move toward transatlantic integration.  That includes the EU and NATO.  It’s evident in opinion polls.  It’s even in Georgia’s own constitution, which was enacted by Georgian Dream.  So, the very party that is now raising questions is the party that was elected to office several times and locked in its policy of wanting to pursue membership in the EU and NATO.

So, in Moldova, President Sandu has been a target of Russian disinformation and aggressive operations since her inauguration.  And we think that her success in delivering better results for Moldovans and in integrating further to Europe over the last years demonstrates that it’s a wise course.  Obviously, people of Moldova will have a chance to decide.  We want them to decide in a free and fair environment with as little interference and disinformation as possible, and the Secretary’s visit will reinforce that point.

On Georgia, as I’ve said, it’s clear what the Georgian people want, it’s clear what the policy of the Georgian Government is.  It’s unfortunate that a set of specific actions recently – particularly violence and threats to civil society and occasionally opposition politicians, a law that’s intended to stigmatize the very groups that help Georgia prepare for its European and transatlantic aspirations – that these specific actions have led us to question whether the current leadership is interested in moving forward.  So our focus is on the specific actions that they are taking and the hope that they will realize that their own people want to be sure that they continue on the path toward Europe and NATO.

And I’d just add it – we are at a stage where after several years of consolidation, of people recognizing that they are more safe and more prosperous if they join European and transatlantic organizations, it’s not a surprise that there are elements in some societies that feel that this forces them to change, because they’ve risen to the top at a point when those societies were not integrating.  So the noise we are seeing now is a normal part of moving forward.  We want to see that it’s successful because the people in Georgia and Moldova are very clear that they want to see further integration to Europe and transatlantic operations.

MR TEK:  Thank you.  Let’s go to Daphne Psaledakis.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you so much for doing this.  I just have a quick clarification, actually.  You said that the U.S. does not anticipate that there will be an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO, but there will be a substantial show of support.  Were those comments referring to the meetings next week or the July summit in Washington?  Thank you.

MR TEK:  Thank you.  And then we’ll – quicky —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Just quickly, it will finally be done in July.  Next week will be preparing the decisions.  But the decisions are actually made in July.  Sorry, Nathan. 

MR TEK:  That’s okay.  Thank you; great.  Let’s take a question from Nadia Bilbassy.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Nathan.  Hi, (inaudible).  A couple questions.  First, on NATO summit – the administration prides itself on building alliances across the Atlantic.  I’m just wondering how this meeting will be different considering that a few of your Allies – including Ireland, as you know, Norway, and Spain – has voted to – for a establishment of a Palestinian state, which the U.S. opposed to.  And also many endorse the ICC, and this is only the beginning.  So will this be a fraction point?  And can you confirm reports that the administration actually has been in contact with these countries prior to their announcing the support for the declaration?  And second, Putin has said that basically he’s willing to negotiate, but with conditions.  Do you take his statement seriously?  Thank you.

MR TEK:  Thank you.  And then for the sake of time, let’s take one more question.  Let’s do Ethan Holmes.

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you very much for taking my question.  Piggybacking off that last one, are there any plans at the foreign ministerial in preparation for the NATO summit to discuss prospects and potential routes to peace in Ukraine?  Thank you.

MR TEK:  Thank you.  AS O’Brien, I’ll turn it back to (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Thanks.  Nadia, I think the Alliance has never been stronger or more united.  We are allies, we agree and disagree on many topics, but we are fundamentally aligned in protecting the security of the territory of NATO member states and working to secure Europe’s defense.  So that piece unites us.  Other issues, we may disagree.  I’m not going to comment on ongoing conversations – I know there are other people who are having those discussions.  But no, I do not see this fracturing NATO’s support for Ukraine or commitment to making the Alliance stronger for its next period. 

The – in terms of discussions, I’m not going to preview all the items the foreign ministers discuss.  I think we do not see President Putin as being interested in peace now.  He has chosen a path of war, and it’s important that Ukraine have the opportunity to stabilize on the battlefield.  We are always interested in seeing that when Ukraine is prepared to make peace that it’s able to do so on terms that are a success for Ukraine.  So, we’ll never turn down the opportunity.  But for right now we’re very focused on ensuring that Ukraine is able to succeed, both on the battlefield and ultimately when it decides that it’s able to do that with its neighbor to the east.

MR TEK:  Excellent, thank you.  Two more questions.  We’ll start with Tom Bateman from the BBC.

QUESTION:  Good morning.  Thank you for doing this.  I realize it’s slightly out of the remit of this briefing, but this is the only briefing we have from the State Department today, so I wondered about the – any response to the ICJ’s ruling this morning that Israel should halt its military offensive in Rafah?

MR TEK:  Tom, thanks.  I think we may need to get back to you separately on that – on that one.  Let’s go to Maryam Ugrekhelidze as well – Maryam, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Assistant Secretary, my question to you is about Georgia.  Should we wait for more sanctions from the State Department?  Will there be an – a list of people who are under this visa restriction that the Secretary Blinken announced about?  Will Bidzina Ivanishvili and his family be on this list?  And does it mean that United States is changing, shifting its policy towards Georgia?  Also, if I may, Georgian Government says that these sanctions – United States posing sanctions is blackmailing Georgia.  What can you say about it?  Thank you very much.

MR TEK:  Thank you.  AS O’Brien, over to you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  Okay.  Sorry, Tom, but Nathan’s forbidding me from addressing that question. 

MR TEK:  (Laughter.)  Unless you want to but —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY O’BRIEN:  (Laughter.)  That would be bad for everyone, including the truth.  I don’t know. 

On the – Maryam, I think it’s a great question.  So we think we are reaffirming our Georgia policy, that we support Georgia’s reforms and integration into the EU and NATO.  That was a major message of my visit last week.  We feel that this particular law, the rhetoric that surrounds it, and the violence against protesters are all inconsistent with the choice of moving forward to the EU and NATO. 

And I had very detailed conversations with representatives of the government, including the prime minister and foreign minister, about the specific ways in which the proposed law, we think, is incompatible with the path that Georgia has set for itself.  And the Venice Commission, so the body in Europe that comments on these laws, came out with a very strong opinion this week making the same point.  So this is a matter of whether the Georgian – the leadership of the Georgian Government is trying to change what it means to join European and transatlantic organizations, not whether our policy is changing. 

The comment about whether this is coercion, no, it’s a simple point.  If you say you want to join a football match, you don’t get to say that – but our side will play with 15 people and you will play with seven, or we will play with an extra ball.  You play by the rules of the club you are trying to join.  And the point is that the actions being taken are incompatible with the – both the pursuit of membership and actually getting to membership.  And this, we would like to have had technical, routine conversations because the issues raised are issues every country faces and tends to deal with in a normal way. 

The actions of particular concern to us, though, involve violence and intimidation of people who do not support the government and putting in place legal frameworks that are incompatible with the aspirations the government was elected to carry out.  That’s a very different conversation than the way that the leadership of Georgian Dream has decided to portray it. 

As far as our additional actions, the Secretary noted that we are reviewing all the cooperation we have, and I’m not going to preview additional specific actions.  I’ll make a technical point.  Under the announcement of yesterday, we do not publish a list of names.  It’s not what that statutory authority allows us to do.  But we’ve made clear the sorts of acts that are of particular concern to us, and it’s the effort to undermine democratic processes, in particular the use of violence and intimidation against those who come.  And the way that this statute works, it’s not only the officials but it’s their family members.  And that, again, is not a coercive tactic.  It’s a statement that if you want to be in our community, including to benefit from things like where your kids go to school, then you have to start acting like a member of that community.  And that’s all we are saying.

MR TEK:  Great.  That does exhaust all of our questions, actually, and so I think that does bring us to the conclusion of our call.  A.S. O’Brien, do you want to say anything at the end here? 



MR TEK:  Thank you all so much.  As a reminder, today’s call was on the record, and the embargo has now lifted.  Thank you all for joining us this morning.  Appreciate it.

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originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS