TRANSCRIPT: Ambassador Baer’s Interview with Reuters

Ambassador Baer’s Interview with Reuters

January 11, 2017
Hofburg Palace
Vienna, Austria

QUESTION: What are the United States’ expectations for the Austrian Chairmanship [of the OSCE] and what do you think Mr. Kurz’s main challenges will be?

BAER: I think our expectations for the Austrian Chairmanship are high, and obviously, the world is in a difficult moment right now. In some respects, that can make the job of being chair of an organization that is known around the world for being unique in the way that it integrates a commitment to human freedoms and democracy with more traditional hard security — it can make that seem more daunting — but at the same time it is even more important than ever, so I think it’s a great opportunity for leadership for Austria.  I think, more specifically, the expectation is that — obviously, despite the best effort of many people — the Russia-Ukraine conflict remains the most pressing, hot, European security challenge.  So we expect that Austria will devote time and attention to keeping that at the top of the agenda and obviously working towards the objective that we all have endorsed, which is the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements and the peaceful de-escalation of that conflict. Foreign Minister Kurz’s trip last week to Mariupol was a good sign that he places that priority and he understands the significance of placing priority on the resolution of that conflict.

QUESTION: That was a very symbolic move by Kurz, but what do you think, how realistic is it that Kurz will reach a solution — that there will be any chances to bring the parties together, find a way that Ukraine and Russia can be defused.  When you look at the news today, it feels like there is no way.

BAER:  Well, I think one of the things about being Chair of the OSCE — you know, Austria has some advantage because all of the OSCE is located here in the capital of Austria, so there is geography and proximity gives some advantage to working efficiently. But this is not about one person. Even though the Chairperson in Office is the Chief Executive Officer of the OSCE for the year and, in many cases, will speak on behalf of the Organization and on behalf of the other participating States, part of what Foreign Minister Kurz’s challenge is is not finding a magic silver bullet –- obviously, we know what a solution looks like — the challenge is getting the political will to implement that solution. But the way that he can contribute, and the way that we all can contribute to getting to that solution, is by being strictly loyal to the fundamental principles that underlie the OSCE, as well as holding each other accountable to the agreements that have been made, including the Minsk Agreement.  So, I think where he can really lead is by taking the whole group of 57 and continuing to place political priority on seeing the implementation of these agreements, and that creates a political environment in which there are costs to those who slow down the implementation or who refuse to implement. And that is not just one party — there are costs on anyone who slows down. And so, I think part of what he is doing is not serving as the deal maker, he is serving as a custodian of a set of values and he can do that effectively and be a real political force in doing that.

QUESTION: What do you think, how tough will Kurz be?  Because we all know he has been a friend of lifting sanctions against Russia. He says he wants to normalize the relationship with Russia. One could guess he is not as focused on implementing the Minsk Agreement but more on normalizing the relationship with Russia.

BAER: Well, look, I think it’s important to recognize that none of us want there to be sanctions. Nobody likes sanctions. Sanctions are not something that anybody wishes we could have.  We all wish that we didn’t need them.  The fact is that sanctions are a tool in foreign policy to try to encourage responsible behavior, in this case.  And they continue to be needed until responsible behavior happens.  Obviously, we haven’t seen the Kremlin make the decision to deescalate the way that it needs to make that decision.  So, the sanctions continue to be necessary.  And I think that Foreign Minister Kurz understands that very well. The other thing is, he is a very impressive guy personally, Foreign Minister Kurz — as he often reminds us very young — and he has a long career ahead of him, and I think history has not looked kindly on those who have turned from holding fast to commitments in difficult moments.  And I think Foreign Minister Kurz will understand that, and I share his desire to see sanctions removed.  The point is that sanctions can only be removed when Minsk is implemented, and I think that makes it ever more important to work for the full implementation of Minsk.

QUESTION: Talking about the Special [Monitoring] Mission to Ukraine, there has been much criticism — what do you think?  How could it be changed to be more effective? Are there any ways to bring the Mission forward? Are there any actions you can imagine that should be taken?

BAER: I think there’s been a –- you know, this is a Mission that was decided on a Friday and the first people hit the ground on a Sunday, so it was rapidly deployed, and it has rapidly grown, and there has been a need and an effort to constantly innovate and refine the way that the Mission does its work.  And to begin with, we are very grateful to all of the monitors from more than 40 countries who participate in this Mission — including the largest contingent, which comes from the United States — so we are grateful to the monitors. I think one of the things that we have been working with others on to support the Mission is enhancing its use of technological tools to complement the human monitoring, and so that means UAVs, cameras, sensors and other technological tools that can help the monitors complete, get a more comprehensive view, or complement their work by helping them focus their efforts, etc.  Obviously, this has been a challenge because the UAVs, in particular, have been jammed or shot down by Russian-backed separatist multiple times — and they’re expensive — so one of the challenges going forward is to figure out both a cost efficient and effective way to make sure that the monitors have the right technological tools. But we continue to work with other participating states and with the leadership of the Special Monitoring Mission to identify ways that we can help them improve and do even better, but we are very grateful for the work they do.

QUESTION: Do you think there is going to be a way for the monitors to take other routes to get deeper insight — to really make their Mission more effective?

BAER: Well, I think it’s important to remember that these are civilian, unarmed monitors who are operating in a conflict zone.  And one of the challenges that they have faced repeatedly is the fact that, particularly in the areas that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists, they don’t have access — they don’t have unrestricted or safe access to large swaths of territory. And that means that that part of the territory is a black box. And we know from plenty of open source information about the vast quantities of Russian weaponry and Russian fighters that have come across the border, but part of building confidence — in order to have a ceasefire you need, of course, the guns to stop firing, but you also need those with guns to be confident that the ceasefire will stick. And part of having that confidence will be having more complete access, more complete monitoring of the area in and around the conflict zone, including the international border.  I think this is one thing that people lose sight of much of the time.  The border is seen as somehow separate from the ceasefire. It is not separate from the ceasefire.  It is actually fundamental to maintaining a ceasefire, because in order for Ukrainian government forces to feel confident that a ceasefire will be upheld, and will stick, there needs to be confidence that there are not new waves of fighters and weapons flowing across the border.  And part of the Minsk Agreements is that Russia will take the fighters and weapons back to Russia, so seeing them go the other direction would be a good sign, and would build confidence.  But I think this is — as you say, one of the challenges for the monitors is getting fuller coverage of the area in which they have a full mandate to operate.  So one of the things that not just we but the European Union and Canada and many other have repeatedly called for is more access, safe access, unfettered access for the monitors, particularly in the Russian-backed separatist controlled territories.

QUESTION: Just one last question regarding this Mission.  Can you give me an update — how is the situation currently?  I heard that there was a situation several months ago that pipelines were destroyed.  OSCE Members would go there, watch people restoring it, and they knew the very next day they there were going to be destroyed again.  Is there any way to simply secure water, heating, what people need over the winter time?

BAER: So, you know, one of the ways that the Special Monitoring Mission has been useful in a localized fashion has been in creating the kind of either limited area ceasefires or facilitating agreements from those operating on both sides of the contact line to allow for, for example, the repairs of pipelines and allow for personnel to come from one side or the other, or both sides, to do that. The way that makes those repairs permanent, obviously, is to end the fighting around those areas, and indeed all together.  One of the efforts that has been under way now since the end of the summer has been to identify these three, and then more, so-called “hotspots” where there can be an initial de-escalation, and to use those as a model for expanding the de-escalation across the whole line of contact.  And I think part of the thinking behind that is to choose areas where there is particularly vulnerable civilian infrastructure that people on both sides of the line of contact depend on, particularly in winter time, and to make sure that every effort is being made to protect that.

The humanitarian situation on the ground is really dire.  And there’s been — another challenge has been the fact that even where the infrastructure is in place, like water, the Russia-backed separatists have been collecting money from people living in the territory under their control for water, but have not been paying the money for water.  So, they have been extorting cash from people living under their control without delivering the services.  And that has caused repeated crisis where the Red Cross has to come in, and that is totally unnecessary.  That’s just thievery — not even a physical destruction of the infrastructure — that’s just the Russian-backed separatist robbing from the people who are unfortunate enough to live in the territory that they currently control.  So, we have been also very focused on trying to elevate the attention given to the humanitarian crisis on the ground, and one of the things that has been really regrettable is that Russia has not allowed for international humanitarian organizations, and particular countries by and large to make deliveries in line of the international humanitarian standards. To bar people from receiving aid is really tragic.

QUESTION: Can you see any way the U.S. is going to recognize Crimea as part of Russia?


QUESTION: Not under the new Administration?

BAER: No. I mean, it is unthinkable, and it would be in violation of international law.  The UN General Assembly Resolution is very clear.  It was 100 to 10, and the 10 where a bunch of third-rate dictators, largely.  So, I think both the moral case, the legal case, and the political case remain sound.  And the U.S. actually has quite a record of non-recognition, even over many decades — look at the Baltics — which has eventually proven to be the right course of action.  In this case, it is fundamentally clear that Crimea is Ukraine and Russia’s attempted annexation will not be recognized.

QUESTION: Just, more generally speaking, how much do you see our core values — the values of western democracies, the values the OSCE — as put in danger given populist movements on the rise, given fear regarding the extremist attacks, given how our world is kind of crashing around us?  What do you think, how do you look into the future?

BAER: I think it’s undeniable that we are in a difficult moment. But I also feel confident that it is a difficult moment, not a difficult permanent state. I think it is unquestionable that populist movement in a number of countries, including my own, have challenged fundamental values of liberal democracy.  But the challenge to those values and to that formula for peace, prosperity, and security has not been convincing intellectually.  It’s not convincing based on empirical evidence. We still know, the history of the last 70 years shows us, what progress free and open society can bring.  And it hasn’t been convincing morally. It’s a political challenge, and in the case of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and in other neighboring states it’s a military challenge, but it is not convincing on any of the other fronts.  And I think one of the things that we have to be confident on, and this is something that Foreign Minister Kurz really has an opportunity as well, in his Chairmanship to lead people on, is the idea that history doesn’t happen in a straight line.  There will always be setbacks and steps backward amidst steps forward.  But the message we should be sending to those who have attempted to undermine liberal democracy is that we will rebuild these institutions, and we will rebuild them stronger than they were when these people tried to destroy them. And that’s a message that, if Foreign Minister Kurz can send loud and clear, I think history will remember him well for it.

QUESTION: Thank you so much.

BAER: Thank you.