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Europe and Eurasia: Telephonic Press Briefing With European Journalists

MODERATOR: Thanks, Sean (ph). Hello, everybody. Greetings from the U.S. Department of State. I would like to welcome all of our participants who are dialing in from across Europe and those of you who are dialing in from the U.S. as well, and I’d like to thank all of you for joining in today’s discussion.

Today in particular, as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day, we are pleased to be joined from Washington by Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken to reflect with you on the transatlantic relationship. And as you know – you have his full bio in front of you, but as you know, he is an esteemed foreign policy expert who has served in two different administrations over the course of two decades, so of course he brings great insight to this conversation.

We’re going to begin today’s call with opening remarks from Deputy Secretary Blinken and then we’re going to turn it over to your questions. At any time during the call, if you would like to ask a question, you must press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. Again, that’s *1, and you can do that at any time during this call.

Today’s call is on the record, and we’re going to try to get to as many of your questions as we can during the time that we have. And with that, I will turn the floor over to Deputy Secretary Blinken for his opening remarks.

Sir, go ahead.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very, very much. I much appreciate it, and thanks to everyone for getting together and good afternoon or early evening to everyone in Europe.

As you all know, 70 years ago, Europe lay in ruins, ripped apart by years of war, death, and destruction. And today we commemorate the end of the most destructive war the world has ever seen, the conflict that claimed over 40 million lives across the continent, including 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime. Today’s a day to honor the sacrifices here in the United States – the sacrifices made by American armed forces, some 400,000 of whom gave their lives – but also, of course, as well to the sacrifices of our allies and everything that they did to liberate Europe from Nazis and fascism. We remember as well the tremendous sacrifices made by the people of the multinational Soviet Union, which lost 24 million civilians and soldiers from Russia and also from the former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Belarus during the war.

The end of the war also marked a beginning: the beginning of the great transatlantic community that grew out of the rubble of the conflict. It’s a community whose essential character is defined not by a single language or culture or religion or ethnicity, but by a common embrace of basic values: democracy, the rule of law, the dignity of every human being. And today, that community is more vibrant than ever, united in common purpose to build a more secure, prosperous, and free world for its own citizens, but also for people everywhere who aspire to those goals.

Today we’re also reminded why NATO was founded 66 years ago – out of the carnage of war, an alliance committed to peace through security. It entrusted in every member responsibility for the collective defense. NATO helped underwrite a global system – not just a European system, but a global system of commerce, of democratic governance, and inclusive development that gives an entry point to literally every nation and its citizens. That, too, is a legacy of VE Day. So today we are giving thanks for the millions of allies from both East and West who sacrificed so that we could build not only a Europe whole, free, and at peace, but also help extend the rule of law, democracy, and peace beyond Europe’s borders.

As we commemorate this moment, we cannot overlook that Russia is testing the values and institutions of the post-war world. In eastern Ukraine, they’re doing more than violating the borders of one country. They are threatening the principles on which the transatlantic partnership was founded and upon which the international order we seek to build depends. Among those principles, that the borders and territorial integrity of a sovereign state cannot be changed by force; that it is the inherent right of citizens in a democracy to determine their country’s future; that linguistic nationalism, something we thought was confined to history, must not be allowed to be resurrected; and that all members of the international community are bound by common rules and should face costs if they don’t live up to the solemn commitments that they make. These principles emerged as key lessons of World War II and formed the foundation of the transatlantic community in the hope that never again would the horrors of war return to Europe.

Let me just say also that, of course, threats to our transatlantic community do not just come from the East. Together we’re working to confront violent extremism, foreign fighters, and the specter of ISIL or Daesh.

As we meet these and many other challenges – the challenges of our time – we take great inspiration from the generation that we honor today, a generation that not only won the war but then built the peace. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Thank you for setting the stage for us. We’re now going to begin the question and answer portion of today’s call, and as a reminder, in order to get into the question queue, you must press *1 to ask a question.

Our first question today is coming to us from Dmitry Zlodorev from Russia’s RIA Novosti. Dmitry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for the calling – this call. Very lot of information with Secretary Kerry meet next week with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Russia in city of Sochi. Does this information have some basis? Can you confirm this? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks very much. I don’t have anything for you on the Secretary’s schedule. I think, as you know, as a general matter, he engages with Foreign Minister Lavrov on a fairly regular basis, but I don’t have anything for next week at this point.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is coming to us from Poland. We have Jedrzej Bielecki from Rzeczpospolita. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Hello, thank you so much (inaudible). But I have two short questions, if I may. The first one concerns Ukraine because there are more and more reports saying that maybe the separatists, backed by Russia, could again start a kind of offensive in eastern Ukraine, especially on the port city of Mariupol. My question is: If this happens, what will be the reaction of the United States in that case?

And a short question concerning history, because you mentioned the Holocaust and the Nazi responsibility, but James Comey, the chief of the FBI, said recently in an interview with The Washington Post that it’s not only Germany but other countries, especially Poland and Hungary, are responsible in the same way as the Nazi Germany for the Holocaust. Do you agree with this comments of James Comey, the chief of the FBI? Thank you so much.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great. Thank you very much. With regard to your second question, I think that Director Comey has had occasion to address those comments subsequently, and I will let the comments he made stand for themselves.

With regard to Ukraine, let me just say a couple of things. We stand strongly behind the Minsk agreements, the agreements that were reached last September, and then the implementation plan that was reached a few months ago with France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine participating. And that is a clear way forward to resolve this crisis, to restore the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, to bring peace and stability to all the citizens of Ukraine – and, if that were to happen, to end the sanctions with regard to the Donbass in eastern Ukraine. So it is our strong hope that the plan is implemented, and that is the way forward.

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen to date is that while the overall level of violence has decreased, which is positive, unfortunately and tragically, significant violence remains in specific places, and that violence is being perpetrated almost exclusively by the separatists and by the Russians who back them and indeed provide command and control. If you look at a map of Ukraine, and in particular the Donbass, and you look at the line that separated the separatists from the Ukrainians that was in September, when the Minsk agreements were initially reached, you will see that every single point of conflict today is to the west of that line. In other words, every point of conflict is a result of the separatists trying to extend their territory, backed and supported by Russia, and the Ukrainians are acting defensively. The Ukrainians have made a very significant effort to implement their responsibilities under the Minsk accords; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the separatists or for Russia.

So unless and until those agreements are actually implemented, the sanctions that have had a profound effect on Russia will remain. And if further aggressive action is taken, including in a place like Mariupol, it would be my anticipation that the sanctions would be increased.

MODERATOR: Thank you for that. Our next question is coming to us from Erdem Aydin, who’s dialing in from CNN Turkey. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. Deputy Secretary, thank you very much for this opportunity. My question will be on the train and equip program of the Syrian opposition in Turkey. While following a tentative agreement, as you know, it was expected that the train and equip program for the Syrian opposition would begin this spring in a central Anatolian military base, but yesterday we saw reported in the Turkish press, based on a Pentagon official, that the program is in jeopardy and may not go through. And the report said that the point of contention is, “who the enemy will be” – i.e., whether ISIS or Assad. Is this true? If yes, will Turkey’s position in the Idlib takeover could have played a role in this? This is my question. Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, thank you very much. With regard to the train and equip program, in fact, the U.S. military and partner forces have begun training the initial class of vetted Syrian opposition recruits this week to support the effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL or Daesh in Syria. The training phase is critical. It’s a critical step in the train and equip mission, and it’s designed to build the capability of the appropriately vetted Syrian fighters so that they can defend the Syrian people from attacks by Daesh; secure territory controlled by the Syrian opposition; protect the United States, our friends and allies and the Syrian people from threats posed by terrorists in Syria; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria. I think what we’re seeing more broadly is the international community recognizing the significant threat posed by Daesh in the region, and the train and equip program is a vital part of that effort. We now have more than 70 partners in the global coalition to counter Daesh working in a collaborative, synchronized fashion with mutually reinforcing efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat this threat.

Turkey is a critical partner in that effort, and what we are seeing is very close collaboration across the board in trying to deal with the threat posed by Daesh. And that collaboration is already strong and we are in very close contact, virtually every day, to look at how we can continue to deepen it. Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’re going to hop on over to Spain for our next question, and it’s coming from Esther Sanz of La Razon. Esther, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much. United States Senate yesterday overwhelming voted to let the Congress review any nuclear disarmament deal between Iran and United States. So I would like to know in which point leaves this the nuclear talks, and is there any threat that the nuclear negotiations can change after this?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. So as you know, the so-called P5+1 and Iran reached agreement on the elements of a comprehensive accord to deal with the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and having reached agreement on these elements, the challenge before us now is to turn that agreement into a comprehensive accord with all of the details, all of the Is dotted and the Ts crossed. And that is the work that’s going on as we speak with our partners and with Iran. And we have until the end of June to see if we can complete that and make sure that we have a comprehensive agreement. And right now, I can’t say whether we will achieve that. Certainly, both the P5+1 and Iran are working hard in that direction, but there are challenging issues to resolve as you turn an agreement on the elements in to a detailed accord. But we will work hard to get there.

The legislation that was voted by the Senate still needs to be passed by the House; in other words, by our entire Congress. And I think, as you’ve heard, we resolved some concerns that we had about the initial draft of that legislation and we – we’ve had no objection to the legislation that was passed, and it will give Congress and opportunity to review under a – over about 30 days to review any final agreement that is reached. And obviously, we – any agreement that’s reached should be carefully reviewed to make sure that it is what it must be: a strong and clearly verifiable agreement that gives us confidence that Iran will not be able to pursue effectively a nuclear weapon. And so we look forward to that scrutiny if and when we get a comprehensive agreement at the end of June.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is coming to us from Julian Borger of The Guardian. Julian.

QUESTION: Hello. As you probably know, we just had an election here that brings forward the prospect of a referendum on Europe. And now – not so long ago, your former colleague, Phil Gordon, went – took the unusual step of going on the record to express Washington’s preference to see Britain as a partner remain as a leading member of the EU. And is that still the policy, to publicly express that preference?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Julian. Well, let me say two things. First, we very much look forward to continuing the close cooperation with Prime Minister Cameron and his government and extend our congratulations to him. Second, with regard to the EU and the UK’s role in the EU, the UK’s relationship with the EU is first and foremost a question for the British people and the British Government, not for us. From our perspective, and we said this I think on a number of occasions, we value a strong UK voice in the EU. The EU is, from – for us, a critical partner on global issues as well as European issues and transatlantic issues. And we very much welcome an outward-looking European Union with the UK in it. We benefit when the UK is – when the EU – excuse me – is unified, speaking with a single voice, focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe. So that’s our perspective on the question.

Regardless of that, the UK is obviously a very significant player in the world and a longstanding and important friend of the United States and we will always enjoy a special relationship. But the – the question at hand is a question for the British people and the British Government.

MODERATOR: Our next question is coming to us from Naftali Bendavid with The Wall Street Journal, Europe.

QUESTION: Hi, I wanted to ask about a slightly different issue. Part of the post-war consensus that you mentioned I think had to do with the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons and other unconventional weapons. There seems to be a steady stream of reports coming out of Syria that the use of those chemical weapons has continued, despite the – Syria’s joining the Chemical Weapons Convention a couple of years ago. So I guess my question – and yet the OPCW seems unable to, you know, name names and actually cite perpetrators. And I’m just wondering sort of how concerned you guys are about this and if there’s any particular action the U.S. Government plans to take, for example, in the UN, to pursue the allegations.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’re very concerned about these reports. We have seen, I think, two things. First, thanks to the agreement that was reached, we have as a strategic matter virtually eliminated the threat posed by serious chemical weapons. They do not pose a strategic threat anymore to countries in the region. However, we’ve also seen that – very credible reports that the use of weapons, and in particular the use of chlorine, has continued as a tactical weapon in the horrific conflict in Syria. And those reports are strong and credible, and indeed I think, as you may know, there was a very powerful presentation made at the United Nations a few weeks ago, including by doctors who had assessed the use of these weapons. And so we are deeply concerned. We are focused on this issue and we’re seized with it, and this is something that is being very actively discussed and considered right now in New York at the United Nations.

MODERATOR: For our next question, we’re going to move over and take a question from Greek Public TV, from Eleni Argyri.

QUESTION: Thanks for that. A few hours ago, Mr. Hochstein, the U.S. special envoy for international energy affairs, met with Greek officials. And he raised concerns on the Turkish Stream pipeline project that would – according to the Greeks, will benefit the economy. Do you have an alternative plan on that, something else to propose that would increase their diversification, of course, but at the same benefit the Greek economy?

And that brings me to my second question, which is the state of the Greek economy and the concerns that the president has raised on the need of an agreement. How active or how involved the U.S. has been on that direction? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. Let me start with the second part of the question first with regard to Greece and the economy. We have and we continue to strongly encourage the Greek Government, its European partners, the IMF, to continue working together to chart a way forward that returns Greece to sustainable, long-term growth and prosperity. Greece’s implementation of credible pro-growth structural reforms will enable it to emerge stronger from economic crisis, and indeed, to play a stabilizing role in the region. Our hope is that our European partners can find pragmatic solutions that will allow Greece to continue its economic recovery. And for our part, we will continue – the United States will continue to support their efforts to strengthen the foundation for Greece’s long-term prosperity.

We also, by the way, continue to discuss ways that Europe can boost demand and job creation to help foster an environment that is supportive of reforms in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. So that is our focus with regard to Greece and Europe.

On the question of energy, I would say simply this, without getting into the specifics: We and every country in Europe have a strong interest in energy diversification, in terms of sources, in terms of types, in terms of routes, and that, in turn, will lead to greater energy security. So that is the lens that we bring to these questions, and that is the focus that we have in our conversations with European partners about the development of a more secure energy future. Thank you.

MODERATOR: For our next question, we’re going to go over to the Hungarian News Agency. Pogar Demeter, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Under Secretary. And you started this briefing by talking about the past of our alliance. And I’d like to ask you a few questions about the future.


QUESTION: One would be connected with the previous question, and I would like to know: (Inaudible) liberalization of the exports of the LNG, the U.S. LNG to NATO allies countries?

Second would be more about security. And I would like to ask you if in the context of what is going on Ukraine, do you foresee long-term reinforcement of U.S. forces in Europe for the reassurance of the allies?

And the third question is about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which could also enhance this alliance. My question would be: Do you foresee a possibility of signing this treaty by the end of the Obama Administration, given the disagreement between the two parts and the special point of view of some nation states in Europe? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much, and let me try to quickly address them since you got three questions in – very well done.

With regard to LNG, I think you’ve already seen a significant move in terms of LNG exports from the United States. And that has already had a significant impact on the global energy market and on supplies, including in Europe.

With regard to NATO and the reassurance of our allies and partners, there too we have taken significant steps, including at the last NATO summit in Wales, where NATO now has a virtually continuous air, land, and sea presence on its frontlines. And we have with our partners taken significant steps to reassure all members that NATO is prepared to defend its members under Article 5 if they are threatened or attacked. And indeed, we have backed up those practical initiatives with significant additional resources. Under the European Reassurance Initiative the President has committed another $1 billion to NATO and to the defense of Europe. And so I think what we’re seeing is a significant strengthening of – and focus on the core article that binds NATO’s members together, and that is Article 5.

On the question of TTIP, let me say a couple of things, if I may. I think that first we are firmly committed to the negotiations and to the critical goal of making all possible progress this year in 2015. We are committed to achieving a comprehensive, ambitious agreement that can spur economic growth and jobs growth both in the United States and in Europe. The President made clear that support in his State of the Union address just a few months ago and in nearly a dozen other public statements just this year alone. So this is very much at the top of our agenda.

The new EU leadership has given us an opportunity to inject even more energy into the negotiations. The EU Trade Commissioner Malmstrom and our Trade Representative Froman have met four times in the six months since Commissioner Malmstrom took office, and they’ve taken concrete steps to move the negotiations forward. For example, they recently achieved a breakthrough in the important area of trade and services by jointly confirming that TTIP will not force privatization or prevent governments from expending – expanding, excuse me, the range of services that they supply to the public. We strongly believe that TTIP will promote our shared values as well as security, and by making regulatory practices more transparent and accountable to shareholders, it will increase trade and jobs while maintaining high levels of regulatory protection.

I would say finally also that it offers many other potential benefits, including the opportunity to improve and enhance investor state dispute settlement and it, in particular, is moving forward on a very transparent basis. We’re determined to make these negotiations as transparent as possible, and in response to requests from the EU member-state governments, the United States and the European Commission are making the negotiating documents themselves available to member-state officials in all 28 capitals.

And so it’s a long way of saying that this is something that is very much part of our focus right now, very much a priority from the perspective of the United States, and we’re determined to make as much progress as we can this year and obviously work to complete it as expeditiously as we can, for the simple reason that it will be a significant benefit to citizens in both the United States and in Europe.

The bottom line is that a lot of this trade is happening one way or another, and the real question for us is whether we come together to try and shape it in a way that benefits our citizens and that meets the highest standards in terms of protecting the environment, protecting the rights of workers, intellectual property, et cetera, while creating greater efficiency. That is what we can achieve with TTIP and that’s why we’re so focused on it.

MODERATOR: Thank you. As we’re starting to run low on time, I’d like to just kindly remind our journalists to please only ask one question at a time so we can hopefully get to a couple more.

Our next question is coming to us from Sabina Tanasa from Romania’s Monitorul. Go ahead, Sabina.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you. I want to ask you in the case of (inaudible) of Russia now to Romania, how will USA react? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you very much. As I noted in the – in answer to the previous question, I think one of the things that we’ve seen is a very strong recommitment to the core article of NATO, and that is Article 5 and the commitment each member makes to the defense of its fellow members. So should any member of NATO come under threat or under attack from any source, they can take confidence that their fellow members, including the United States, will defend them. So that reassurance, which is at the heart of the alliance, has been not only reaffirmed by the leaders of the alliance, but in very practical ways. The capacity to enforce it has been strengthened over the last year, year and a half, by additional resources, additional focus, additional work together to make our capacity to deal with any aggression as strong as possible.

So I would say that members of the alliance can be very reassured of the focus of every country in the alliance, starting with the United States, on that founding commitment to Article 5.

MODERATOR: And our final question today is coming to us from Bulgaria, from the publication Club Z, the online portal, and it’s coming from Momchil Indjov. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. Blinken, in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the victory against Nazi Germany, my question is: Do you think that the Nazism and Stalinism can be compared? Because you know there is a lot of discussion about that, not only in Russia – all over the world. Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I don’t want to get into the very complicated questions of historical comparisons, but I would simply say that we have experienced together the dangers of different kinds of totalitarian systems, and we know the destruction that they have produced. And their emerging from that experience was a commitment in Europe and the United States in the transatlantic community – one to build a Europe whole, free, and at peace, and in so doing try to ensure that those countries and the citizens of those countries would not again endure the terrible, terrible results of living in such a system and in dealing with the conflict that totalitarian systems can produce. And we’ve had extraordinary success in doing that over the last 70 years.

And so today, we’re not just celebrating something that happened 70 years ago in terms of a – the victory in World War II. We are celebrating everything that came after that victory, and that is the construction of a Europe whole, free, and at peace, and a resilient, strong, united community determined that all of its citizens enjoy the blessings of freedom, opportunity, the rule of law, where governments serve the people, not people serve the governments.

So I think that’s really what – very much what today is about, and I appreciated the opportunity to be able to celebrate every aspect of VE Day – the day itself, and everything it helped make possible in the 70 years since then. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, sir, and that will be our closing message for this call. I want to thank you, Deputy Secretary Blinken, for joining us, and I’d like to thank all of you for participating and for your questions today. A digital recording of today’s call is going to be available for the next 24 hours, so with that, I will turn it back over to AT&T to provide instructions for accessing that recording.

Thank you very much.