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Europe and Eurasia: Remarks at Press Availibility - Paris, France

SECRETARY KERRY: Good evening, everybody. Thank you very much for your patience. I know it’s late, at least here. And I apologize to everyone for running a little late, but we spent a fair amount of time in these talks.

As you know, I came to Paris today to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov because President Obama and the United States believe firmly that diplomacy has a critical role to play in helping the people of Ukraine to achieve their goal of living in dignity and in a stable, peaceful, and unified democracy. And we are here because of our firm conviction that diplomatic solutions ought to be the first resort in solving international problems.

The U.S. and Russia have differences of opinion about the events that led to this crisis, but both of us recognize the importance of finding a diplomatic solution and of simultaneously meeting the needs of the Ukrainian people – and that we agreed on tonight.

Both sides made suggestions on ways to deescalate the security and political situation in and around Ukraine. We also agreed to work with the Ukrainian Government and the people to implement the steps that they are taking to assure the following priorities: the rights of national minorities; language rights; demobilization and disarmament of irregular forces and provocateurs; an inclusive constitutional reform process, and free and fair elections monitored by the international community.

We agreed to consider the ideas and the suggestions that we developed tonight and to continue our discussions soon.

The United States is consulting with Ukraine at every step of this process, and we will not accept a path forward where the legitimate Government of Ukraine is not at the table. This principle is clear: No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine.

This afternoon when I spoke with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, I reiterated the United States’ commitment to coordinate closely with Ukraine and to sustain our strong support throughout this process. With the full support of the Ukrainian people, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is moving ahead with constitutional change, democratic elections, and painful but necessary economic reforms. And as we have seen in the past week at the IMF and the UN, as well as in the EU and the G7, the international community stands firmly with Ukraine. We will continue working in lockstep to provide them with the economic and the political support that they need during their transition.

In a frank conversation this evening with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I made clear that the United States still considers the Russian actions to be illegal and illegitimate, and Russians’ actions over the past several weeks have placed it at odds, obviously, with the rule of law and the international community, and we still believe on the wrong side of history.

But any real progress in Ukraine must include a pullback of the very large Russian force that is currently massing along Ukraine’s borders. And tonight I raised with the foreign minister our strong concern about these forces. We believe that these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine. It certainly does not create the climate that we need for the dialogue and for the messages sent to both the international community as well as to Ukrainians themselves about the diplomatic channel.

The United States and the international community stand in firm support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and Ukraine’s territorial integrity. We will continue to support the people of Ukraine’s right to choose their own future. And I will say that at least tonight Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated that Russia wants to respect the right of Ukrainians to make that choice. They obviously in Ukraine are traveling a difficult democratic path towards the possibility of prosperity and peace, and tonight Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated in our conversation that Russia wants to support Ukraine in its independence and in its ability to be able to make that transition.

The Ukrainian Government has demonstrated remarkable restraint in the face of enormous pressure. It has shown the world a kind of courage and resilience that every country ought to applaud. And as it continues down this path, the United States of America and our partners will remain firmly by its side.

I’d be delighted to take any questions.

MS. PSAKI: Michael Gordon, New York Times.

QUESTION: Sir, as you noted, the Russian have massed a considerable force, some people say as many as 50,000 troops maybe, right at the border, perhaps as a means of intimidation, perhaps because they have a military option in mind. You noted that you raised this force and asked the Russian side to pull its forces back from the border. Did they agree to do so? If not, what reason did they give?

And secondly, both sides talked in recent weeks about the possibility of federalization in Ukraine, largely as a means of protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population. But the Russian side appears to have a far-reaching concept of federalization in mind, one that would give the regions veto authority over national policies, even foreign policy. Did you make any headway tonight in narrowing the gap on this core issue, and what are the next steps? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much, Michael. As I said earlier, both sides made suggestions today on how we can deescalate the security as well as the political situation in and around Ukraine. And yes, we talked very seriously and at length about the impact of the massing of troops and the importance of including the drawdown and redeployment of some of those troops with respect to the process moving forward.

We both made suggestions as to how that might be able to be achieved, and I will return to Washington to consult with President Obama about his choices with respect to that. But in the end, let’s be clear: It is the Ukrainians who have to ultimately agree to or make any decisions with respect to the road ahead. We’re trying to find a way to defuse this, deescalate it, and provide a climate within which good negotiations can take place regarding the other issues.

And that brings me to the other issue that you raised, Michael, about the question of federalization. I said in my opening comments and I will repeat again: It’s not up to us to make any decision or any agreement regarding federalization. We talked about it. But it’s up to Ukrainians, and Ukrainians will decide their future for themselves, by themselves, with respect to what kind of definitions work for them. And it will have to be an input, obviously, of what the Russian view is. I think it’s important to take that into account because Russia obviously has long ties and serious interests. But in the end, Ukrainians are going to have to make that decision.

And so tonight we did not explore that because it would have been inappropriate for me to do so without Ukrainian input directly with respect to that. What we’re looking for here is a process, not a substantive resolution of each of the issues because Ukrainians have to do that substance. What we’re looking for is how do we deescalate it, how do we get on a track to be able to give the Ukrainians the opportunity that they deserve to be able to do that.

MS. PSAKI: Anne Gearan, Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi. Just to clarify on your answer on the discussion of troops, is there any scenario under which the United States would accept having any of those troops remain?

And secondly on the Middle East, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the Likud meeting today that the prisoner issue could take several days to resolve, and that he will make no decision about prisoners that doesn’t clearly benefit Israel. What is your reading of where Israel is on that – on the release issue? And how large a hurdle has that placed in your effort to get a framework agreement by the end of April?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, with respect to the troop deployment issue, I think I’ve really answered it. We have ideas. We have some proposals that both sides made. And it’s really important for the appropriate consultations to take place before there’s any discussion about that.

But in the end, obviously the troops are in Russia on Russian soil. The question is not one of right or legality; the question is one of strategic appropriateness and whether it’s smart at this moment in time to have that number of troops massed on a border when you’re trying to send a message conceivably that you want to deescalate and begin to move in the other direction.

So those are the choices that have to be made, but Ukrainians have to be front and center in whatever the lasting, long-term possibilities are, and I’m not going to venture there tonight because it’s really up to them what’s appropriate or not.

Secondly, with respect to the Middle East peace process and the prisoners, I’m just not going to comment at this important moment. I think it’d be inappropriate to get into any kind of judgments about what may or may not occur or happen because it’s really a question between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and what Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to do. So he has – he is working diligently, I know. I just literally talked to him 15 minutes ago. And he’s working at it.

Our team is on the ground. We have our chief negotiator and the full team there. They’re working every moment. I’ve been in touch with them constantly through the day. And we’ll see where we are tomorrow when some judgments have to be made.

MS. PSAKI: Thanks, everyone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all. Appreciate it. Thanks.