Press Briefing With U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore

Briefing With U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore


MARCH 2, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: So yeah, this will be just embargoed until the end of the conversation.

Okay, go ahead, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: You ready to start?

MS ORTAGUS: Yes, sir.

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: Okay. Well, listen thank you all very much. I’m here for the global ambassadors conference that was held this week. The first day I met with the international organizations group, and then after that there was a global ambassadors conference on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Thursday the European division, and then I’m in some individual meetings. So I’m happy to take an opportunity to talk with you all and keep you up to date and discuss the United States Mission to OSCE and Vienna with you, the issues that you’re interested in.

Let me start off by saying that the U.S. Mission – the U.S. Mission to OSCE wants to basically announce our support for the demonstrators that – the demonstrations that took place in Russia on Saturday, that it was a demonstration in the anniversary, the fifth anniversary, of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, who was the principal political opposition leader who was murdered five years ago. It seems that the people of Russia are not letting that continue to just go by. They had a demonstration on that day, and I – we at the U.S. Mission see that as a very positive development. We see that as a sign that the people of Russia are not just really being satisfied to remain silent but are interested in having a more robust democratic process within their country.

The U.S. Mission to OSCE supports that, just as we support it in other countries as well. So we’re very happy to be – to basically announce that position and to congratulate the thousands of brave Russians who marched on Saturday to mourn his loss and to make a point about their quest not only for justice but also for a government that’s more accountable to the people.

The second point that I think I’d make with you just in my opening remarks is to point out that this is the – that the U.S. continues to be a strong supporter of Ukraine in the Ukraine conflict that is going on there, the ongoing conflict. The U.S. Mission and the OSCE is fully engaged in that. There is a special monitoring mission there that is on the ground in eastern Ukraine. There is a Normandy Four process that President Zelenskyy has reactivated for the purpose of trying to bring some type of resolution to that conflict. Look, the United States is the fiercest defender of Ukraine, and we believe that – we believe that we would like to see the Ukraine continue to move closer to and to be cooperative with the European Union and also to work cooperatively and be closer to the NATO alliance.

I’d remind you of Secretary Pompeo’s Crimea declaration, which once again restates that the United States is committed to the Crimea being a part of Ukraine. We are supportive of Ukraine’s borders within their internationally recognized borders, and we continue – the U.S. Mission continues to speak on that every week in Vienna. You can take a look at our statements usually on the web page, the U.S.-OSCE Mission web page. We also translate that into Russian and speak directly within our statements – recently the statements we have made speak directly to the Russian people, which once again echoes exactly what I opened this press conference with: We want to speak directly to the people of Russia that want a more positive country and want a more democratic – a more democratic process and system.

I would point out that this is a grim sixth anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine or an attempt to – an attempt to annex Crimea. Everybody here is aware that the OSCE is – grew out of the Final Act in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. That sets down a set of rules of behavior within Europe for the purpose of trying to avoid war and conflict in Europe. The Russians have violated that by their invasion of eastern Ukraine and by their attempt, purported attempt, to conquer or to take over Crimea.

I would point out the dreadful situation in Crimea. There are reports that the Tatar indigenous population there is subject to a great deal of pressure – arrest, incarceration, reports of torture. And also the independent media is being blocked and imposed upon in Crimea as well. These are all violations of the principles of the Final Act in the Helsinki Accords, which OSCE purports to stand for.

So that’s – those are my opening remarks. I’ll be happy to talk about the other issues.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Anybody have questions?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: Thank you for being here.

MS ORTAGUS: Oh, yeah, of course. Yes, Carol.

QUESTION: I’m curious about Crimea. I mean, what’s – why do you have any reason, or is there any reason, to believe that someday Russia will abandon Crimea? It seems like for six years the United States has been saying we don’t recognize this, and they’ve done nothing except build a bridge and railway system and just cement it even further. They seem to have done nothing to pull back and, if anything, seem to be tightening their grip on Crimea. So why is there any reason to believe that Russia would ever in any way even consider giving up on Crimea?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: Carol, I think maybe – I’m going to answer you directly, but I think that we need to focus on what the United States position should be, particularly at the OSCE, and whether we really stand for the Final Act, the Helsinki Accords, or whether we’re going to abandon them. Every time that the Permanent Council meets on Thursday, every time, we stand and the entire 57 – 56 countries stand for the proposition of the Final Act and that you cannot conquer other countries in Europe by military force. You can have a peaceful change in Europe – we saw that with Germany – but you can’t have a military invasion and take over.

When the Russians do that, they stand for the proposition that those rules of the road in Europe are null and void. So the United States has to stand for the proposition and stand for the proposition that the Helsinki Final Act still is valid.

Now, what are they going to do? Well, I’ve asked that question, and I’ve discussed it with people all throughout the OSCE and throughout the United States Mission, and I am reminded that we never ever surrendered the proposition that the Baltic States were a part of the Soviet Union. They were conquered by force. We never agreed that they were Soviet socialist republics and legitimate parts of Russia.

Likewise, we’re going to stand for this proposition until it changes. There needs to be a change of the approach of foreign policy in Russia. And that has not yet occurred, but it will occur one day, and the United States is going to stick with our principles and stick with the principles of the Final Act.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Go ahead.

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: Does that help? I think —

QUESTION: Have you had any discussions with President Trump about maybe strengthening his resolve on Russia, more sanctions, for example, to try to force their hand on Crimea? And then separately on the Open Skies Agreement, where are consultations on that right now?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: Well, first of all, on Open Skies, the United States continues to participate in the Open Skies Treaty. We are still continuing to fly. We submitted all of our flight plans. We are – all of our allies have, and the Russians have. And they’re all flying. And just recently, for example, there was a flight that took place near Kaliningrad, which has always been somewhat of a sticking point. It was very cooperative. And also, the reports that we’ve had are that some of their reluctance to let us fly over one of their major exercises, they’re saying they’re not going to do that, they’re not going to make that objection anymore.

However, we don’t believe that that’s good enough. We think that we have to be holding the Russians strictly to account on the Open Skies Treaty. We have to – the President’s policy is that in all treaties that there needs to be reciprocity. If we’re going to adhere strictly to these – to our treaty obligations, we expect the Russians to hold strictly to their treaty obligations.

So we are watching that right now, and the – but it is still being discussed at the highest levels of the United States Government as we evaluate that reciprocity.

Now, your second question was have I talked to the President. I think that on —

QUESTION: On just strengthening sanctions or the punitive measures on Russia.

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: These communications would be between, I believe, the Secretary of State, and I believe that those discussions are ongoing. With respect to U.S. policy, we’re sticking to our sanctions on Crimea, and there are separate sanctions on eastern Ukraine. And the declaration that we have is that we will never abandon the sanctions on Crimea until they get out of Crimea. We will – we also are going to maintain our sanctions with respect to eastern Ukraine, and I think these are important measures that we take that are diplomatic actions that we take for the purpose of standing up for what’s right.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just you’ve been in the position for, what, almost a year now?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: About seven or eight months, yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. So what has – what’s changed since you’ve been there? Has there been anything that’s demonstrated some more U.S. resolve behind the ideals that you are talking about?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: Yeah, one of my specific policies that I’ve been working on at the Mission is, in fact, to underscore American leadership and presence. And at the OSCE, believe me, the United States is strong and present. We’re there every Thursday, we’re very strong in our statements. The Department is very supportive of the statements that we make there, and they are very strong.

So what have I noticed? I’ve noticed a renewal of confidence, a brightening up of people in Europe as they see America’s presence there, strongly expressed at the OSCE. So I believe that actually has been a change. Furthermore, there are a number of countries in Europe where the future may be less than certain. We’re seeing a lot of trying to find their way, a lot of countries. For example, in Central Asia, which are a part of the OSCE. Our policy is to – is to offer a welcoming hand to all of these countries, additionally to draw them further into the Western – the Western community of nations. I think that’s begun to move more positively.

I can report to you that I am personally contacted by a large number of ambassadors from countries that we would consider to be the countries still trying to find their way who are reaching out to me and reaching out to the United States through me to express their interest and support.

Now, one more thing that I’ll mention: The new chairperson-in-office of the OSCE is Albania, interestingly enough. This is a country that is a very strong supporter of the United States – very strong supporter of the United States – and that is a very positive development, and I think that that’s going to continue to be a strong new development. I will tell you that recently I have been making some quite specific statements in the Permanent Council, and the Russians haven’t been all that happy with my statements that I’ve been making. And I have a report that they actually complained to the chairperson-in-office about my statements, but the Albanians pointed out that I had broken no rules and that as long as I wanted to speak more directly to the Russian people, that as long as it was just my statements, that that was no violation of the rules.

QUESTION: Forgive me for not knowing, but what particularly were those statements?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: I have made statements in the Permanent Council, for example, to point out that we don’t think that the Russian people – it’s sad that the Russian people feel that they have to be in a country that is engaging in this aggression in eastern Ukraine. A second statement that I made was to point out that there are, sadly enough, funeral wagons going across the border from eastern Ukraine into Russia, and I pointed that out but I also spoke directly to the parents. And finally, I sent a message last week that said that the United States bears no ill will to the Russian people – and we don’t. I’m not aware of any ill will towards the Russian people, and I made that point very strongly. Once again, it was translated into Russian, it was put on our webpage, it’s tweeted, and the information I’m getting is that it’s being viewed in particularly St. Petersburg and Moscow.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead. I promised you next, sorry.

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: That’s actually news by the way, but go ahead. That’s —

QUESTION: Just going back to Boris Nemtsov at the parliamentary assembly last week, the week before, the OSCE PA, the special rapporteur came in and provided a report that discussed the possibility of Putin’s direct involvement in Nemtsov’s death. Do you think that’s likely?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: I haven’t seen the report, but I know this: There has not been a satisfactory investigation of that murder. And I think that is clearly the American position. So we would like to have some answers on that.

QUESTION: And what’s the —

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: But I can’t speak to the Parliamentary Assembly’s rapporteur report.

QUESTION: And then what’s the relationship between the protests this past weekend and the security and cooperation mission? Do you see some chain between Putin’s domestic political situation and aggressive policies in – continuing or additional aggressive policies in Eastern Europe?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: The OSCE’s position in accordance with the Final Act is that we support the opportunity for freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, an opportunity for the rule of law, for independent courts. These are all points that we support – democratic elections, honest democratic elections. The OSCE, as everybody here knows, is the gold standard on election processes, and they oversee elections everywhere. And we would certainly advocate that they oversee elections both in Russia and the United States. And the – that is the answer. The answer is that we stand for those propositions, we stand firmly behind them, and strongly behind them. To the extent that there’s a freedom of assembly in Moscow regarding the murder of a political opponent, we see that as a positive expression and something that we would want to encourage.

MS ORTAGUS: Shaun, did you have something?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: I think that’s the answer to your question.

QUESTION: Sure. I was going to ask you about a question – one area where the OSCE has a responsibility but probably gets less attention: Nagorno-Karabakh. That’s been going on for what, two decades now? In the past few years, there have been some statements by the Azerbaijani side in particular. I mean, do you see any possibility for headway on that? Do you think there is some sort of way forward the OSCE can supervise for a resolution of the dispute?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: Well, as you know, there is a process in place, a group that – a Minsk Group that is trying to find some answers and solutions into this. I have met with both the ambassadors from Azerbaijan and the ambassadors from Armenia, each of whom have talked to me about – separately about this conflict and how they see it in the big picture of both of their respective countries. The United States has taken the position that there just simply is not going to be a military solution to this. So there has to be a diplomatic solution. The Minsk Group is represented by Russia, the United States, and France. I have met with them previously. I think we’ll meet with them again. But as long as they continue to be engaged in a diplomatic conversation, at least we’re not seeing a further shooting conflict there. And so our position is to keep it steady, to keep the sides talking, and to see if we can’t find a diplomatic solution, not a military one.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Are you involved at all in efforts to get Americans wrongfully detained in Russia, including Paul Whelan, released?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: The OSCE is not engaged in that. We’re not engaged in that process, but we strongly support our Moscow mission in an attempt to negotiate those kinds of releases. But we have taken positions at OSCE strongly against the improper detention of people throughout the OSCE region, and particularly in Crimea. We’ve taken a very strong position. In fact, in my confirmation hearing before the United States Senate, I mentioned the Sentsov arrest and detention. He’s a – was filmmaker in Crimea. Now, I’m kind of going around to answer your question, but he’s – he was a filmmaker in Crimea. He was arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to a gulag north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.

I made a point in my remarks to the United States Senate when I was confirmed that he needed to be released. Actually, he was. He was a part of the prisoner exchange when the sailors came back from the Black Sea; Sentsov also was repatriated at that time as part of the exchange. So I think OSCE and specifically the U.S. Mission’s strong advocacy for that will do that. But I think that with respect to the prisoners in Moscow, I will defer there to the United States Embassy there.

MS ORTAGUS: Did you have one more? Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah, if there’s nobody else. I was talking this morning by coincidence to a Baltic official about – who’s in town this week – about security issues in Europe and the likelihood of Russian aggression. And he said that it appears from these constitutional changes that Putin has proposed that there’s more internal pressure within the Russian system than it might sometimes look from outside. And so I wonder, have you observed anything like that, and do you – we occasionally see headlines about Belarus integration or – Putin last week or the week before even said something about integration of resources with Ukraine could be a global rival for the world. Do you see any relationship between his domestic political situation and anything like that? How stable does he seem politically and how likely do you see more aggression there?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: The observation I think I would have is that Vladimir Putin appears to still have to be responsive somewhat to the Russian people. That’s why today I’ve made this statement so much regarding those demonstrations that were held in Moscow. They do represent a certain strata of Russian society that we think are deserving of encouragement. It is – we don’t know why he made his changes of his government, but I do think that he’s having to pay attention domestically maybe more than we think he does.

Now, I don’t think that that bears upon a threat to the Baltics. The Baltic states are all members of NATO. The United States has made its position clear. They are a part of the military exercises that take place by NATO, which are not intended to be threatening to the Russian people. I assure you of that based on what I know. But nonetheless, the Baltic states are very much a part of what – of the Western society at this point, and we do not believe that there is a threat to them at this time.

Now, you had one more piece to that question.

QUESTION: Belarus.

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: It’s interesting you’d ask that question. I have received numerous contacts from Belarus to speak to me as the U.S. Ambassador to OSCE and I am embracing those things. I’m like you. I worry every time I pick up the paper and I see these headlines that say that the Russians are trying to impress themselves on Belarus, because what I’m hearing from the diplomatic community is they don’t want to be a part of Russia and they would like to have more contacts with the West.

Let me point out one thing: The United States, in this past ministerial meeting that was held in Bratislava – United States put forward at this point – we were supportive of many of the proposals that came forward, but the one point we put forward was a proposal to be stronger against human trafficking across the OSCE region. We had a partner in proposing – in that human trafficking proposal and that partner was Belarus, and they were – United States and Belarus were very pleased to be working together on an issue like that.

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. I think that’s one of the reasons the Secretary went, you’re right.

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: That’s exactly right. Secretary Pompeo went to Belarus, and I think that’s a really positive development. The fact that he would go certainly is a strong statement by the Secretary that – of our interest in that country, and I can second that.

MS ORTAGUS: I think we have time for one more. Carol.

QUESTION: Do you – is there any increasing concern within the OSCE that you’re hearing about the situation along the Turkish-Syrian border and what that means with migrants and refugees trying to push north?

And the other thing – this is probably entirely out of your wheelhouse, but is there any sense that the coronavirus poses a threat to the security of the countries? Is it coming up at all in discussions?

AMBASSADOR GILMORE: We have not heard anything about the migration issue having any relation to the coronavirus issue. I have not heard that. Interestingly enough, I meet with the Turkish ambassador every week. Every week, he and I meet and talk at the Hofburg in Vienna and we exchange ideas about what we’re doing, but I – the message I get from the Turkish Ambassador is their fundamental commitment to the NATO alliance and their – the American position with respect to the immigration issues is that every country is entitled to decide who is going to be in and not in their country, and that would apply to the Turks also. But naturally, the U.S. wants to work with all the parties, and OSCE is a good forum for being able to do that to make sure that we not only address some of these security issues that people are facing, including the Turks, but also the humanitarian concerns that I think the United States has for these poor people that have been displaced.


QUESTION: Thanks much.