Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on President Biden’s Call with President Putin of the Russian Federation
DECEMBER 30, 2021
5:41 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Thank you. Good evening, everyone. And thanks for joining us. A reminder that this call will be on background, attributed to a “senior administration official,” and the contents are going to be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
We will have an official readout of the call out shortly, attributed to Jen Psaki. But for now, we’ll go ahead and begin the background portion of our readout.
Our speaker today is going to be [senior administration official].
[Senior administration official], over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much. And thanks, everybody.
So while this call took place at the government of Russia’s request, it’s consistent with our view that head of state engagements, particularly between these two countries, and particularly going into the intensive period of diplomacy that is to come, not next week but the week after, is appropriate and the best way of moving forward on the very serious situation that we face.
The tone of the conversation between the two presidents was serious and substantive. They each framed their positions as they’ve done in previous calls and also as they have done publicly.
President Biden laid out two paths, two aspects of the U.S. approach that will really depend on Russia’s actions in the period ahead. One is a path of diplomacy leading toward a de-escalation of the situation, and the other is a path that’s more focused on deterrence, including serious costs and consequences should Russia choose to proceed with a further invasion of Ukraine. And those costs include economic costs, include adjustments and augmentations of NATO force posture in Allied countries, and include additional assistance to Ukraine to enable it to further defend itself and its territory, as we’ve laid out previously.
The leaders agreed to the sequence of Strategic Stability Dialogue starting on the 9th and 10th in Geneva, a NATO-Russia Council conversation on the 12th, and an OSCE meeting on the 13th. They both discussed the importance of pragmatic, results-oriented diplomacy. And I think President Biden very much saw this call as seeking to set the conditions for that.
President Biden was very clear that the United States will be operating on the principle of “nothing about you without you”: no conversations about issues that are of ultimate concern to our partners and allies without the full consultation and participation of our partners and allies — which President Putin said that he understood.
Both leaders acknowledged that there were likely to be areas where we could make meaningful progress as well as areas where agreements may be impossible, and that the upcoming talks would determine more precisely the contours of each of those categories. That’s what diplomacy is. That’s what negotiations are for.
Over the next week to 10 days, in advance of these talks, we expect to continue what has been a very intensive period of consultation on the U.S. side with our allies and partners, including providing an account of this conversation to those allies and partners, and in particular, of course, to the government of Ukraine, as well as to NATO Allies and partners.
In recent weeks, we’ve been engaged in extensive diplomacy along these lines, including by the State Department, the Defense Department, the Treasury Department, and here at the National Security Council.
President Biden has spoken with leaders across Europe. Secretary Blinken met with his counterparts at the G7, at NATO, at the OSCE ministerial meetings earlier this month. Secretary Blinken spoke with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine just ahead of this call, and — as well as speaking with his European Quad counterparts. Secretary Austin has spoken with several of his European counterparts in recent weeks. Our newly confirmed ambassadors to both NATO and the OSCE have begun active outreach to their counterparts. And we expect that those conversations will continue to be the focus of U.S. diplomacy over the course of next week — again, in advance of the sequence of diplomatic meetings that’ll begin on January 9th.
With that, I will turn it back over to the moderator.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’re ready to go to questions.
Q Yeah. Hi, thanks so much for doing this. Was there — I was wondering, is — this seems like it was a call where both leaders were trying to shape the frame, the diplomacy that was coming up. But was there anything else that was a sort of obvious reason for Putin to request this call? Anything else that came up that he wanted to talk about, apart from the upcoming diplomacy?
And then, I guess, the other question I have is: How are you going to parcel out the issues between, you know, the actual bilateral talks versus NATO-Russia Council versus OSCE? And is there any risk of sort of Russia wanting to discuss some of those issues in a bilateral format that perhaps the U.S. doesn’t want to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Paul. So, I agree with your characterization. I think the call’s primary purpose seemed to be to set the, sort of, tone and tenor for the diplomatic engagements to come.
I think it was also, on the Russian side, part of a series of, kind of, end-of-the-year calls that President Putin has been engaged in. But this was not some mere pleasantries; this was a serious, substantive conversation.
And in terms of, you know, how the different issues will be divided among the different formats that we’ve described, I think one of the things that’s important is that there are issues that are more appropriate for each of these specific formats — some U.S.-Russia bilateral issues that are more appropriate for the Strategic Stability Dialogue; issues that relate to NATO Allies and that implicate the interests of the Alliance, obviously much more important to discuss in the NATO-Russia Council; and then broader issues of European security that go beyond merely NATO and Russia, in the context of the OSCE.
I’m not going to get into exactly which of the issues fit where on this call. I will say I think there will be some degree of overlap among the different conversations. But more important than that is that there will be very careful and very intensive coordination and transparency among our partners and allies and the United States.
We will make very clear and come to a very clear understanding, and have already set about to doing that, as to exactly what the agenda of each set of conversations will be. And that is going to be some of the focus of the diplomacy over the course the next week or 10 days.
Q Thank you for doing this. Can you hear me?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yep.
Q You’ve laid out a lot of it — I just was wondering if you guys can shed any more light on who was with the President today in Delaware, or were others chiming in from D.C., or sort of anything else about his preparations for this.
I know, as you said, it was kind of one of the standard series of calls they’ve been having ahead of those talks (inaudible), but give us a sense of who was there and whatever else you can.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, sure. So, I guess what I’ll say is — and I’ll leave it to our press team to determine whether they want to put out exactly who was, you know, in the various conversations — but the President has been preparing for the last few days with members of his senior foreign policy team, and you know who they all are, but principally the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan.
There were others who have been involved in the prep. But I’ll leave it to our team to decide whether they want to put all that out or not.
Q Thanks so much for doing this. I was wondering if Putin had provided any other, you know, details on — or given you any additional sense on whether he had a made a decision on whether to invade or not. Some have indicat- — some have suggested that he’s been conciliatory in the last few days, that maybe he’s looking for an escal- — an exit ramp. I was curious about your feelings on that.
And second of all, I did want to know: Is there anything that the United States and allies could provide or offer Putin that’s less — less than a written guarantee about NATO expansion? Is there somewhere in between what President Biden has said so far, in terms of, you know, obviously supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine — but also he has not, you know, offered a fulsome, “Hey, come into NATO. We’re going to totally back you on this” — versus between that and what Putin wants? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. So, on your — on your first question, you know, I’m — we’re not going to draw conclusions, and there were certainly no declarations as to intentions, from this conversation.
But, regardless, our focus is really on actions and on indicators, not on words, at this point. So we’re going to continue to monitor very closely the movement and buildup of Russian forces on the Ukraine border and prepare ourselves for whatever decision ultimately is made by the Russian president. But I don’t have anything more to say about that.
You know, in terms of your second question, I think it does, unfortunately, get into territory of starting to negotiate in public. And again, whatever the Russian side has decided is its best tactic and strategy in terms of its public pronouncements, we really believe based on past precedents that it is most constructive to have these conversations privately with our partners and allies, and with the Russian side.
You know, on the issue you raised related to NATO, our position is very clear that these are decisions to be made by sovereign countries, obviously in consultation with the Alliance, and not for others to determine.
But beyond that, I’m not going to get into any of the substance.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you all. That concludes the call. And with that, the embargo is lifted.
A friendly reminder that we are on background, attributed to a “senior administration official.” Thanks.
5:53 P.M. EST