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Europe and Eurasia: Remarks With Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin After Their Meeting

SECRETARY KERRY: Make sure it’s still morning. Good morning, everybody. Thank you for being here with us. It’s my pleasure to be able to welcome Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin to Washington, and this is the second time that he and I have had a chance to be able to meet and thoroughly discuss the issues of Ukraine, the challenges of the region, and I deeply appreciate his making time today at a critical time in the region.

We meet today less than two weeks after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was tragically shot out of the sky in the separatist-controlled territory of Ukraine, and the victims of that crash and their families clearly deserve a thorough international investigation that is unimpeded in any respect so that people have access to the site, so that the families can know that their loved ones are being treated with the decency that any family anywhere in the world would expect in these circumstances.

The United States supports a thorough international investigation into this heinous act, and we support the efforts of the Malaysians, Dutch, and Australians to help the Ukrainians in order to secure the site so that those investigations can take place now. They’re overdue, and it is absolutely important for the separatists to stand back and permit this access to take place.

The work of the investigators is absolutely critical. It’s been 10 days since this plane went down. And investigators have still not received full, unfettered access to the crash site. And without this access, they have no way to collect debris, no way to collect other evidence from the scene in order to be able to provide the kind of examination that is necessary. They still can’t even ensure that all of the victims’ remains have been removed, and that is an unsupportable burden for any family to have to bear, and it is an unacceptable standard for behavior, period. The site has to be cordoned off. The evidence has to be preserved. And Russia needs to use its considerable influence among the separatists in order to be able to help ensure this basic approach of common decency.

Well beyond the crash site, the fighting is continuing. And as President Poroshenko has made clear repeatedly and as Foreign Minister Klimkin reiterated to me just a few minutes ago, the Ukrainians are ready to accept a mutual cease-fire now – not in the future, now. And they have proposed a peace plan that includes serious and substantive dialogue with the Russian-backed separatists with international participation because they understand that that is the only way that this crisis is going to come to an end.

This morning, I talked with Foreign Minister Lavrov and raised these concerns and agreed that there is a way to try to put some very specific proposals on the table to try to move forward. But the Russians and their so-called volunteers are continuing to ship arms and funds and personnel across the border. We see this. There is clear evidence of it. We now have clear evidence of artillery and rocket fire from Russia into Ukraine. And while the Russians have said that they want to de-escalate the conflict, their actions have not shown a shred of evidence that they really have a legitimate desire to end the violence and end the bloodshed.

As a result, the Russian-backed separatists refuse to lay down their arms and be part of the political process. They continue to fire on Ukrainian forces, even in the area just around the crash site, and they have displayed an appalling disregard for human decency. And evidently, the separatists will continue to do so unless they can feel some pressure, something real from their Russian backers.

President Putin can make a huge difference here if he chooses to. And we and our European partners will take additional measures and impose wider sanctions on key sections of the Russian economy if that is what we must do. We hope that it will not be necessary. And if Russia continues to go down this path, however, Russia will leave the international community with no choice. What is unfolding in Ukraine has already gone on for far too long. It’s well past time for the violence to stop and for the people of Ukraine to begin the process of rebuilding their country and rebuilding it in a way that can have a relationship with Russia, with the West.

I think Foreign Minister Klimkin will affirm today that we’re not asking them to choose between the two, and I think Ukrainians understand that they have strong ties to Russia. They’re prepared to have a relationship with Russia, and they understand that the future of Ukraine depends on having a strong relationship with Russia.

So it’s well past time for this violence to stop, and that is why yesterday, Vice President Biden announced nearly $7 million in rapid assistance for humanitarian and rebuilding purposes to be deployed immediately. Specifically, these funds will go towards rebuilding eastern Ukraine, including the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, where people celebrated in the streets recently when they were liberated from separatist control.

We are also asking Congress for approval to provide financial support and mentoring to small businesses throughout Ukraine. Through mechanisms like the public-private partnerships and export promotion initiatives, we are hoping to inject additional resources into Ukraine’s economy so that together, all Ukrainians can rebuild their lives along with their cities.

Over the past few months, the Ukrainian Government has taken a number of steps to try to bring about a better future for its people and to reform the government that had failed them so much in the past, including signing an historic association agreement with the European Union and also finalizing a vital standby arrangement with the International Monetary Fund. We strongly urge Ukrainians to continue the process of reforming their democracy, even if not particularly during this moment of crisis, because this is a troubling time where everyone is looking for those reforms to be implemented, and they can make a huge difference in rebuilding confidence and also in providing a sense in Russia that the concerns expressed by the separatists are, in fact, being listened to and being incorporated into the political process of Ukraine.

The United States stands ready to support our Ukrainian partners in this effort, because we know that ultimately, a strong democratic government and a strong economy are the keys to providing the Ukrainian people with the stability and the prosperity that they want and that they deserve.

So again, I thank Foreign Minister Klimkin for joining me today for this meeting, and I have pledged to him that we will continue to work closely together. We’re talking about the possibility of when we could find time for a visit to continue this discussion more directly with the prime minister and with President Poroshenko. I think we share high hopes for the possibilities of what a resolution of this crisis with the separatists and with Russia could bring – a strong Ukraine, the respect for their sovereignty, and the possibilities of stability for the region.

Mr. Foreign Minister, please.

FOREIGN MINISTER KLIMKIN: Good morning, everyone. Mr. Secretary of State, I would like to thank you for your commitment, for your solidarity, and for – also for your personal leadership, also in Geneva format, and for your commitment to democratic, united, and European Ukraine.

It’s my first visit since I’ve been appointed the foreign minister, and it’s, indeed, a pleasure to be here to discuss all issues of bilateral agenda, but first and foremost, the ongoing developments in Ukraine. And I’m glad we have the same vision of these developments and I am glad that I feel a real commitment, a real solidarity here. We have in Ukraine clear commitment to the settlement of the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the peace plan of the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, gives peace a chance.

It includes three main dimensions. It’s firstly about de-escalation and reaching a cease-fire. Secondly, it’s about humanitarian dimension and restoring the infrastructure disrupted on the ground. And of course, it’s about political dimension, because what counts and what is critical is reaching the bilateral cease-fire with the aim of restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Of course, we need a critical progress. We need a breakthrough on hostages. We need to release hostages as soon as possible. And it’s also the issue of human dignity.

We need, of course, the OSCE. We need the OSCE observers to be present on the ground from the very first moment of cease-fire. We paid for our commitment on two unilateral cease-fire with 30 lives and more than 100 people wounded. The unilateral cease-fire was broken more than 100 times, and now it’s about bilateral cease-fire, it’s about OSCE again to be present on the ground, but it’s also about closing down the border. It’s also about stopping the inflow of money, armed persons, weapons, and heavy weaponry across the border, because it’s critical precondition for reaching stability in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Of course, it’s also about humanitarian dimension. It’s about restoration of all disrupted infrastructure, because what we’ve been doing now, we’ve been trying to restore disrupted electricity networks, water supply, gas supply. We’ve been trying to bring normal life back to the people of Donbas. And I am particularly grateful to the Secretary of State, to the United States, for urgent help, for urgent assistance to the people of Donbas, which should be aimed at restoring infrastructure. I believe it was – has symbolic, but also extremely important practical dimension.

And of course, it’s about political process. It’s about settlement. And we are ready to (inaudible) decentralization. We are ready to give more powers to the communities, to the districts, to the regions. It’s about giving people more freedom, but also more responsibility – political responsibility and economic responsibility. And it’s about not allowing to play up any sort of issues like using the Russian language, because it would be up to every community to decide what language should be spoken.

It’s about clear idea how we can de-escalate the situation on the ground, because we are ready for local elections. We are ready that the real representative of Donbas, a real representative of Donetsk and Luhansk should take responsibility over the situation on the ground, should take responsibility over de-escalation, over economic and social development on Donbas. And in this sphere, we feel solidarity by the United States and we also have clear and targeted assistance.

And also under difficult conditions on the ground, we’ve been trying – we’ve been working around the clock on securing access to the crash site, and it’s our key priority. We’ve been working on ensuring the possibility for fully transparent and effective investigation of the causes of the tragedy with the plane of Malaysian Airlines. And of course, for us, it’s about human dignity. It’s about the possibility of recovering all bodies and body fragments from the crash site. It’s about giving back the friends and the loved ones any sort of personal belongings. It’s not just the priority; it’s an absolute priority for Ukraine at the moment.

So we have the same vision on these developments and we feel continuous support by the United States. Of course we’ve touched upon also a number of issues on our bilateral agenda and we’ve been – we’ll be working on that extremely closely. And I used the chance to invite the Secretary of State to visit Kyiv and to chair the next meeting of our Strategic Partnership Commission, where we are able to discuss all the issues of bilateral interest and all the issues of bilateral agenda. Many thanks again.

MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.

QUESTION: Thank you both very much. Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you about Ukraine and about the sanctions and Vladimir Putin. But first, let me ask you about the situation in the Middle East. Overnight, two UN officials have been reported killed in Gaza. Israel has apparently hit the electric utility, the only source of electricity for much of the strip. And the Israeli media has unleashed a fierce attack on you personally, from the left and from the right, unprecedented in, frankly, any of our experience. Ari Shavit in Haaretz is quoting a senior official as saying that your diplomacy has been, quote, “a strategic terrorist attack” on Israel. Others say that if there is an escalation, you are responsible for the increasing bloodshed. At this point, there’s also a report today of a new Palestinian initiative from the Palestinian Authority, perhaps with Hamas joining in. I wanted to ask you about that. There’s a report in Al-Hayat that you have launched a new initiative as well.

So if you could clear some of this up: Is it hurting your ability to be a mediator here to have Israel, with these blind quotes from Israeli officials, attacking you so vociferously? And is there a way out here through some new cease-fire that the Palestinians may be promoting today?

Secondly on Ukraine, you said that Vladimir Putin has a choice now. Does he still have a choice? We were told that the United States, with the President’s call with the European leaders yesterday, were going to be imposing sanctions today. Are you giving him yet another chance to prove himself after everything that’s happened? Or are these sanctions actually going to finally be implemented? And can you and perhaps the minister respond to credible reports from the region, we’re told today that government forces have fired back at Russian forces – so have fired across the border. Thank you for taking all of this.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me take the second part first and then I’ll come back to your first question. With respect to Ukraine, we are in the process of preparing additional sanctions with Europe. That is absolutely accurate. And what will happen will happen. But of course, President Putin still has a choice going forward with respect to his ability to be able to have an impact on the separatists. That is a choice that will be there tomorrow, the next day, and in the weeks ahead in order to resolve this. So separate the two.

Europe is working on the sanctions. We are working with them on the sanctions. We anticipate those additional sanctions, but – forthwith – but the point I’m making is that in the long road ahead here to resolve the kinds of issues of the gas deal – the gas has been cut off to Ukraine; to resolve the movement and flow of weapons and people across the border; the issue of firing from Russia into Ukraine; all of these issues – whatever happens with sanctions today or tomorrow, those issues remain and they are remaining to be the choices that President Putin has to make.

So we talked today about a political road ahead, the ways in which Ukraine can contribute to an effort to try to make it clear to President Putin that the agreements originally arrived at in Geneva about a political process are, indeed, being fully implemented. And Russia has raised on a number of occasions significant questions about whether or not that road has been sufficiently explored. And I think the foreign minister and I agree that there is more that we think can be done there, and we’re going to talk about that in the days ahead.

Now on the subject of Israel, I have talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu two, three, four times a day in the last days. We continue to talk. Last night we talked and the prime minister talked to me about an idea and a possibility of a cease-fire. He raised it with me, as he has consistently. He has consistently said that he would embrace a cease-fire that permits Israel to protect itself against the tunnels and obviously not be disadvantaged for the great sacrifice that they have made in order to be able to protect themselves thus far.

So the bottom line is that we are working very carefully and, I think, thoughtfully with our Israeli friends in order to be able to find a way to reduce the civilian loss of life, to prevent this from spiraling downwards into a place from which both sides have difficulty finding a way forward in order to address the underlying kinds of issues.

Now obviously, no one – no one in the United States, no one I know in the world condones the idea that Israel ought to be somehow subject to attack from these tunnels. We have supported from day one Israel’s right to defend itself, Israel’s right to take action, Israel’s right to live free from rockets and from tunnels that threaten it. But all we have suggested, and that President Obama has had several conversations with the prime minister about, is the need to try to find if you can resolve any of those issues through a legitimate negotiation and ultimately with less loss of life everywhere.

Now look, I’ve taken hits before in politics. I’m not worried about that. This is not about me. This isn’t about Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself, and our strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself, but about whether or not there is a way forward that could avoid the loss of soldiers for Israel and the loss of civilians in – everywhere. What we put on the table, in fact, allowed Israel – let me make this clear – allowed Israel to continue to deal with its tunnels even as they were in a short-term cease-fire to try to see if there was a way to reach a sustainable cease-fire. The UN has called for this, the international community has called for this, and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has said that he is prepared to embrace it, providing it doesn’t prejudice Israel in its way of protecting itself. And we have made certain that we guarantee that it doesn’t.

Now let me just finish quickly. The fact is that because of our efforts, we were able to get a short-term 12-hour cease-fire which then was expanded to 24, but then because of confusion over the 12 hours and four hours didn’t hold. That doesn’t mean that the right approach here isn’t to try to have an appropriate way to come to the table in order to see if a negotiation can take place. Now, let me emphasize Israel itself accepted a cease-fire under the Egyptian formula of no preconditions, cease of – cessation of hostilities, negotiations to take place in Cairo. That is exactly what we have been talking about. No variation, no deviation. We’ve been in touch with the Egyptians; we have honored the Egyptian concept. If there is a negotiation, it would be in Cairo. It would be entirely without preconditions, and it would not prejudice Israel’s ability to defend itself.

So I think there’s a little bit of energy being expended here unnecessarily, and I do think we will continue to work with our very close friend and ally. And I’m not going to worry about personal attacks. I think that President Obama has it right and the international community has it right when we say that it is more appropriate to try to resolve the underlying issues at a negotiating table than to continue a tit for tat of violence that will invite more violence and perhaps a greater downward spiral, which would be much more difficult to recover from.

QUESTION: Do you think it’s still possible --


QUESTION: Do you think it’s still possible to get a cease-fire after the past two days?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that depends entirely on the parties at this point, Andrea. I mean, we – we’re trying to very carefully – without, as I said, diminishing Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself against tunnels and rockets – but to find a way to see if we can spare the people of Israel as well as Palestinians the possibilities of, at any moment, something going terribly wrong. When one of those rockets hits a major school in Israel or a major population center, lots of people die. The effort here is to find whether or not – I can’t vouch for it and President Obama can’t vouch for it, but we know that we owe it to everybody to try to see if you can find that way. If, after you get to a table, it proves that there is absolute reluctance to honor basic defensive needs of Israel; to deal with the rockets, to deal with the tunnels, to deal with other things, then at least you know you’ve made that effort to try to spare lives and to find a legitimate way forward. That’s our job, to try to do that. And we think we’re doing it in a way that completely reinforces Israel’s rights.

I’ve spent 29 years in the United States Senate and had a 100 percent voting record pro-Israel, and I will not take a second seat to anybody in my friendship or my devotion to the protection of the state of Israel. But I also believe, as somebody who’s been to war, that it is better to try to find a way, if you can, to solve these problems before you get dragged into something that you can’t stop. And it seems to me that this is a reasonable effort, fully protecting Israel’s rights, fully protecting Israel’s interests, and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself said to me: Can you try to get a humanitarian cease-fire for this period of time? And if it weren’t for his commitment to it, obviously, the President of the United States and I would not be trying to make this effort. Now, either I take his commitment at face value, or someone is playing a different game here, and I hope that’s not the fact.

FOREIGN MINISTER KLIMKIN: On this report, I have such a record of cases of Russian – of shelling, not just artillery fire, but also rocket-propelled grenade fire from the Russian territory; of cases of Russian helicopters intruding the Ukrainian airspace. But we never, never fired back, of course, in order not to provoke the situation, but first and foremost because we are fully committed to international law. We have our legal and political commitments, and in the sense of United Nations statute, shelling from the territory of another state constitutes an act of aggression. So we are fully committed to international law. We never fired back.

And there were also many cases when the terrorists tried to position themself exactly near the border and fire on Ukrainian forces. We also exercised an extreme restraint, trying not to fire back, not to provoke the situation, and not to break our obligation under international law. So all reports on us firing back onto Russian territory are not true.

MS. PSAKI: The final question will be from Alex Yanevskyy from VOA.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you, Mr. Foreign Minister. I have a question. Putin not showing signs that he slows down. Mr. Secretary, what exactly the United States is going to do if Russia invades Ukraine, and should Ukraine expect to become an ally of the United States? Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: What was the first part of that?

QUESTION: What exactly the United States is going to do if Russia invades Ukraine?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President has made it clear that there are many different options, but that would be taken, needless to say, as not just a violation of all notions of international law, but an exceedingly dangerous action, which would wind up with the most severe possible kinds of isolation and sanctions possible. And Germany, France, other countries in Europe would clearly join into that in ways that would have a profound, profound impact on the Russian economy. I would believe, for the very reasons that hasn’t happened yet, that President Putin understands that, that the risks are enormous.

It doesn’t – I think that alliances are a more – I mean, it depends whether you’re talking in legal terms or in other terms. We are a partner. We are a strategic ally now. And we are working very, very closely already providing advice and materials to Ukraine, as well as other countries who are doing the same thing. And we are working very, very hard to see if we can’t find the political key to be able to provide redress for the grievances that President Putin keeps talking about through the political process in a way that will recognize that Russia has a legitimate interest, which even Ukraine has acknowledged – interests about ethnic connection, historic connection, about the religious and historical foundations of Russia, all of which can be traced back to Kyiv and to many battlefields that are now in Ukraine and so forth. All of that is understood. And what Ukraine is looking for is simply respect for its sovereignty, and hopefully the political process that is unfolding now can address the concerns in a way that will strengthen that sovereignty and address the concerns that President Putin has expressed.

But we are and Europeans who have signed now an association agreement are firmly committed to the sovereignty and independence and stability of Ukraine, and we will continue to do the things that we are doing in furtherance of that policy.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you, everyone.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all.