Senior Administration Official
February 17, 2022
MODERATOR: Thank you, and welcome, everyone, to this on-background briefing this morning. The focus of today’s call will be the UN Security Council’s meeting today on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Before we move into the on-background portion, I’m pleased to let you know that we’re joined by a special guest this morning, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will make an on-the-record statement at the top. This is immediately reportable and unembargoed.
Ambassador, you have the floor.
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you, [Moderator], and good morning, everyone. I know you weren’t expecting me this morning, but I wanted to give a short update on this morning’s briefing in the Council.
Overnight, after a series of conversations with the White House, the National Security Council, and the State Department, I asked Secretary Blinken to come speak directly to the UN Security Council on his way to Munich about the serious situation in Ukraine.
Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation. The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment. This morning’s Council meeting should not distract us from that fact – it should focus on what is happening right now in Ukraine.
That’s why Secretary Blinken is coming to New York to signal our intense commitment to diplomacy, to offer and emphasize the path toward de-escalation, and to make it clear to the world that we are doing everything – everything – we can to prevent a war.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Again, for those who might have joined late, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s statement was on the record and there is no embargo on that statement.
The remainder of this call is on background, and you can attribute what you hear to a Senior Administration Official. For your knowledge only and not for reporting purposes, I’m happy to let you know that we have on the line with us today [Senior Administration Official]. Again, you can attribute what our briefer says to a Senior Administration Official. And the remainder of this call is embargoed until 10:00am Eastern.
With that, I will turn it over to our Senior Administration Official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator]. And thanks to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield for joining this morning.
Later this morning, the UN Security Council will convene to discuss the implementation of the Minsk agreements. This is a meeting that Russia has requested and planned as part of its presidency of the Security Council this month. The topic for this meeting is not new or surprising; the Security Council has routinely met to discuss the situation in Ukraine since Russia invaded and illegally occupied Crimea in 2014 and took control of parts of eastern Ukraine through its proxies. What is extraordinary is the context in which we find ourselves this year, with more than 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border in a position to further invade Ukraine at any time. And, of course, you will hear the Secretary speak to this in the Security Council this morning.
We continue to receive indications that Russia could launch a false pretext at any moment to justify a further invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, we may already be seeing signs of this pretext in real time. That false pretext could take a number of different forms, including a provocation in the Donbas. We have seen an increase in false claims by the Russians in the past few days, and even overnight, including reports of an unmarked grave of civilians allegedly killed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Earlier this week, President Putin, without any factual basis, accused Ukraine of committing “genocide” in eastern Ukraine. And last night, the Russian mission to the United Nations circulated to the members of the Security Council a document it calls, quote, “a joint project of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and RT News Channel” which alleges that war crimes have been committed in the course of the armed conflict in southeastern Ukraine.
Each of these allegations are categorically false. I expect that you will hear Russia repeat these claims in today’s meeting, and we should expect more false reports from Russian state media over the coming days. We’ve seen this playbook before in their previous military incursions into Ukraine and in Georgia and elsewhere.
It is hard to draw any conclusion other than that Russia plans to use today’s UN Security Council meeting as part of an attempt to establish a pretext for a potential invasion, building upon the disinformation and incendiary statements we’ve seen over recent weeks.
This follows a pattern of misdirection and misrepresentation we have seen intensify just in the past few days.
On Tuesday, the Russian Government said it was withdrawing troops from the border with Ukraine. We now know it was false. In fact, we have now confirmed that in the last several days, Russia has increased its troop presence along the Ukrainian border by as many as 7,000 troops.
The Russians have said in recent days that they are prepared to engage in diplomacy, as we and our allies have repeatedly offered. But every indication we have now is that they mean only to pretend to engage in diplomacy, where they publicly offer to talk and make claims about de-escalation, while privately mobilizing for war. And I think the Secretary will speak to this in today’s session as well.
At a time when Russia occupies Crimea, controls forces in portions of eastern Ukraine, and has amassed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, Russia would like everyone to believe that it’s not a party to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. They would have you believe that the conflict is a Ukrainian civil war, and that its role in the Normandy Format talks – the talks in which the Minsk agreements are discussed – is akin to that of France or Germany as a mediator. This is, again, a blatant lie.
As Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said, our goal in today’s meeting is to convey the gravity of the current moment. The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving towards an imminent invasion. Secretary Blinken is not here today just to sound alarm bells, but to once again urge Russia to choose the diplomatic path and uphold its commitments: its commitments under the Minsk agreements, its promises to withdraw troops from Ukraine’s borders, and its obligations as a UN Member State and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
We want to see both the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s broader and deeply concerning escalation in and around Ukraine’s borders resolved – peacefully with Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity intact.
So I’ll stop there and I’ll turn it back over to [Moderator] for any of your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you. As a reminder, this briefing is on background and can be attributed to a Senior Administration Official. I’ll ask our AT&T moderator to repeat the instructions for joining the question queue and then we’ll get started with Q&A.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, for questions it’s 1 and then 0. You’ll hear an acknowledgment that you’ve been placed in queue. And again, you can remove yourself from queue by repeating that 1-0 command.
Our first question will come from the line of Michelle Nichols of Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. Thank you so much for the briefing. I just wanted to follow up on where you say this is heading now. Basically in sort of UN terms, are you planning to call more meetings if there’s no sign that the Russians are withdrawing? And how much did the shelling overnight that we’ve seen have to do with Secretary Blinken changing his travel plans? And do you guys see this as possibly the pretext for an invasion? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much, Michelle. I would just say a couple of things. First, as you heard Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield just say, overnight over a series of conversations about the situation and the gravity of the situation, she asked Secretary Blinken to come this morning to speak directly to the UN Security Council, and that’s the backdrop for this. Obviously what we have been seeing on the ground, the facts that the President spoke to just a day or so ago, and the concerning and urgent buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border – more than 150,000 troops – and the fact that we’ve seen that troop buildup continue to escalate rather than de-escalate, this suggests that there is an imminent threat here, and we want to make sure that we’re underscoring the gravity of that threat and of the situation. And I’ll just leave it – I’ll just leave it at that.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to the line –
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But in terms of – maybe I’ll just finish. Your second question on additional action at the Security Council. I would just say the focus right now is on this morning’s session. As I said, Russia originally called this session. This is an open session in the Security Council that they have called on in the last few years. I think we have a good sense of why and how they expect to use the meeting this morning, and what I tried to just lay out is how we intend to use this to highlight the urgency of this situation and the imminence of the threat to Ukraine.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go next to the line of Nick Schifrin of PBS.
QUESTION: Hey, [Senior Administration Official]. Just to kind of re-ask a question that my colleague just asked to get a little bit more specific. I don’t know if you’d be willing to engage, though. Overnight, as we’ve seen, and as you kind of replied is the backdrop for this, separatists from Luhansk have launched artillery shells that damages a kindergarten that the Ukrainians are calling a provocation. Russia says Ukraine fired first. So do you believe that the Russian-backed separatists fired first? Do you believe this could be provocation, as the Ukrainians put it? And do you believe it is connected, the timing of this attack is connected to Russia’s calling a Security Council meeting for this morning? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I guess what I would say without getting into any particular facts or claims, what we have been saying over the past number of weeks is that this buildup on the Ukrainian border is concerning; that we are concerned that Russia has an intention to further invade Ukraine; and that the way that that aggressive action could start is a kind of provocation that – a sort of pretext that Russia will announce, will promote in its media, and will point to as a reason for action that it is planning to take. And I think that the kinds of reports that we’re hearing, the kinds of claims that we’re seeing made in Russian media, are exactly the kinds of claims that we have indicated could form the basis of a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine. And so it’s not just what we’re seeing on the ground; it’s that there’s a playbook here that we have laid out and have been discussing now for a number of weeks, and I think we’re now seeing the signs of that playbook, certainly very concerning reports that suggest exactly the kinds of concerns that we’ve been laying out are potentially now underway.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to the line of Pamela Falk of CBS.
QUESTION: Thank you, [Senior Administration Official], for the briefing. It’s Pamela Falk, CBS. My question is: What can the UN do, and certainly not the Security Council with Russia’s veto vote? Is there anything that can be done behind the scenes or on the record at the UN? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you’ll see Secretary Blinken have an opportunity to speak directly to the Security Council and to the world about what we’re seeing and what we expect to happen. And I think that’s – I think the fact that he’s coming to New York on the way to Munich to speak to the Council underscores the gravity of the moment and the importance that we’re placing on the situation, and that’s why Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield asked the Secretary to come and participate in this session today.
As we’ve said, the role of the Security Council is to uphold the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, to protect those principles, including the right for a country to its territorial integrity and sovereignty, to prevent the changing of borders by force. And I think what you’ll hear, as you heard a couple of weeks ago in the Council, is you’ll hear Council members almost unanimously talk about the path of diplomacy being vastly preferable to the path of confrontation. And I think that’s part of what we’ll be speaking to, but I think you’ll hear a number of other Council members, I think you’ll hear the world’s powers underscore that a diplomatic solution is the right approach rather than the path of confrontation.
So I think we will be sharpening that divergent path, that choice that Russia has to make.
OPERATOR: We’ll go next to the line of Kylie Atwood at CNN.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing the call. I am just wondering, [Senior Administration Official], you mentioned one thing about Russia potentially using this meeting specifically as a pretext for war. Could you just elaborate a little bit on exactly what you mean by that for our viewers we’re trying to explain Minsk to and all of that? And could you also lay out how the United States interprets Minsk and how that is different from what Russia has been saying about those agreements? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Kylie. Well, let me just say a couple of things about that. What we have been saying now for a number of weeks is that we have indications that Russia could launch a false pretext at any moment to help justify an invasion of Ukraine. And that pretext could take a number of different forms. It could be a provocation in the Donbas. It could be a claim about NATO activity. It could be a claim of an incursion into Russian territory. And we’ve already seen over the last few days a number of false claims by Russia, including, as I mentioned, the reports of an unmarked grave of civilians allegedly killed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. We’ve seen statements that the U.S. and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons and that the West is funneling guerilla fighters in to kill locals in the Donbas.
Each of these allegations is categorically false. Just a moment ago in Nick’s question, I’m just – I’m hesitant to speak to any particular new fact that has come in just in the last few hours, but each of these allegations that we have seen so far are categorically false, and we would expect – and may already be seeing – more false reports from Russian state media today and over the coming days. And that’s part of the playbook that we have seen before and part of the playbook that we have been speaking to over the last few weeks that we may see happen in advance of a plan for Russia to further invade Ukraine.
And what I discussed just a few moments ago is that last night, the Russian mission to the United Nations circulated, again, a document to the Security Council to have it circulated formally to the members of the Security Council that it calls “a joint investigative project,” again, alleging that crimes have taken place in southeastern Ukraine. All of this is the kind of thing that we would expect to see as signs of a pretext, and it’s happening in real time. And I’ll sort of leave it there because I think the Secretary will have an opportunity to speak to this in just a short while in the Security Council itself.
In terms of the Minsk process, there – as we have been saying for a while, there is – there are several paths of diplomacy that are available to Russia were it interested in pursuing a diplomatic approach here. When it comes to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, there is an established diplomatic format under the Minsk agreements. There’s a set of obligations that both Russia and Ukraine have taken, and I think our assessment is that Russia has really not lived up to its end of the bargain. But there’s a diplomatic path here.
There’s something called the Normandy Format, where Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany meet to discuss the implementation of the Minsk agreements. That’s an available channel of diplomacy that Russia could use were it interested in pursuing de-escalation here. Obviously we’ve got a bilateral channel with Russia and we’ve made clear, including through materials that we have provided to Russia – a paper a couple of weeks ago that Russia has yet to respond to – that there are very serious issues related to their security and our security that we’ve put on the table as the basis for a serious negotiation. The President spoke to that just a couple of days ago.
And finally, there are avenues of diplomacy through NATO. The NATO-Russia Council met a while back and is available to meet at any time, and the OSCE, the organization in Europe that handles security in Europe and includes in its membership both Russia and Ukraine is also a channel. And today at the Security Council you’ll hear from OSCE briefers, including the head of the monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine, and they will speak to the facts that are actually happening on the ground. And one thing I would point you to and point your viewers and readers to: OSCE puts out a series of very dry, factual reports about what their independent monitors are seeing on the ground in eastern Ukraine on a daily basis, and those reports make clear that nothing like the claims of genocide that we’ve seen from Russia over the last couple of days are taking place.
So there’s a factual basis here to identify the fact that these Russian claims are categorically false, but we expect to see more of these claims as a potential pretext to a further invasion of Ukraine.
OPERATOR: We’ll go next to the line of Edith Lederer with Associated Press.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wonder if you could give us a broader idea of why you think that the Russians have chosen this particular time to go and escalate this war of – at least at the moment have been words and false claims. We’re at the eve of the Munich Security Conference. Obviously it’ll probably be the topic there. Maybe it could happen then. Why now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can’t pretend to get into the head of President Putin or other Russian decision-makers about why now. All I can say is that what we have been trying to do is lay out very clearly that we’re ready in whatever direction Russia chooses to go. There’s a very clear path of diplomacy that’s available here. We have laid out a number of ideas for topics that we could – we’ve put concrete ideas on the table to enhance the security environment in Europe for all of us, consistent with our values and the principle of reciprocity. So Russia would have to take actions, we would have to take actions, Europe would have to take actions, Ukraine would have to take actions. There are some serious ideas on the table. There’s a genuine path to diplomacy that’s available here.
But there’s also a path of confrontation, and Russia appears to be headed down that path. We’re prepared for that as well, and the President spoke to this, as I said, just a couple of days ago. We’re ready either way. And we hope – and part of the reason why today’s session in the Security Council will be so important is that we hope the world is ready as well, especially as we see the potential for a false pretext to justify what ultimately will be a war of choice. We don’t want to take these claims that Russia will make at face value. We think they should be held up to the light and scrutinized, and that’s what we intend to lay out for the world in the Security Council this morning.
Nevertheless, we will continue to pursue diplomacy over the coming days while being prepared to respond to whatever happens swiftly and decisively if Russia chooses to launch a new attack on Ukraine. Russia keeps saying that it wants to pursue a diplomatic solution. Their actions, unfortunately, indicate otherwise. But we hope that they will change course before starting a war that will bring catastrophic death and destruction.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line –
MODERATOR: Operator, could –
OPERATOR: I’m sorry, go ahead.
MODERATOR: Operator, we have time for one more question. And just a final reminder for those who may have joined late that these remarks and this portion of the call can be attributed to a Senior Administration Official.
Go ahead, operator.
OPERATOR: And our last question will come from the line of Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hey, thank you so much for having this. Really appreciate it. One thing that some of us find a bit confusing, or maybe not so confusing, is that the Russian ambassador to the UN last time the world was paying attention – end of January – was calling for a return to the Minsk process and for Ukraine granting more autonomy to these regions in the Donbas. And other Security Council members were also calling for the Minsk agreements to be continued. So, but what you’re saying today seems to suggest that Russia is now building a pretext for war rather than pursuing the Minsk agreements. So are they – I mean, in your best judgment since we’re on background, are they bitter that Minsk hasn’t been followed or could it go either way, back toward diplomacy or towards what you see as a pretext? What do you expect that debate to be today? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it’s a very good question. I don’t know that I would say it could go either way. I mean, I think unfortunately the signs have all been pointing in one direction. And what worries me is that Russia is using what could be a serious debate about implementation of the Minsk agreements and actually an effort to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine, and instead using this as part of a foundation to create the pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine. And so I think we should be on guard for that, and everything that we’ve seen in the lead-up to this meeting suggests that this is part of a larger picture here of what we’re seeing from Russia, and that all points in the direction of further escalation and confrontation rather than the path of diplomacy.
There is a very well-established process for addressing concerns about the conflict in east Ukraine in the Minsk – through the Minsk agreements. There is diplomacy that’s been put on the table, very serious diplomacy that France and Germany are part of as well that could be a basis for de-escalation were Russia to be serious about that. But I think what we’ll hear today is a lot of finger-pointing from Russia about what’s happening in eastern Ukraine rather than a serious diplomatic effort to actually de-escalate tensions. And I think part of what you’ll hear from the Secretary is an effort to point out and to make clear what it is that we’re seeing and what it is that we expect to happen.
And to kind of put a finer point on it, two weeks ago, as you mentioned, on January 31st, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield in the Security Council laid out the facts as we saw them then and what we expected to happen. I think that over the last couple of weeks, we’ve actually seen those facts unfortunately borne out and then some. We now see more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. and we see steps that Russia seems to be taking that suggest a further invasion of Ukraine is imminent. So that, unfortunately, we’ve been calling out what we’re seeing and trying to be transparent about the information we have. Unfortunately, it all seems to be pointing in one direction.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And this is [Moderator] chiming in. Just a reminder, as I explained at the top, this portion of the call is attributable to a Senior Administration Official and is embargoed until 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Back to you, operator.