TRANSCRIPT: Ambassador Baer’s Press Roundtable

A TV camera positioned in front of a backdrop with OSCE logos prior to a news conference at the Hofburg in Vienna. (OSCE, Mikhail Evstafiev)


December 15, 2016 

Ambassador Baer’s Press Roundtable 

December 15, 2016 

Hofburg Palace

Vienna, Austria

 AMBASSADOR BAER:  Thanks everyone.  I know that this is supposed to be a conversation that is forward looking and that is looking specifically at the Austrian Chairmanship taking over next year, but in order to have some idea of how that is set-up, I think it does help to look back at last week and the meeting in Germany.  I think the key takeaway from Hamburg was that what we call in OSCE land “the crisis in and around Ukraine” remained at the top of the agenda, and we saw, as the Foreign Ministers gave their interventions, our team counted and there were 53 mentions of either the attempted annexation of Crimea or the on-going Russian-fueled conflict in the Donbas —or both— by Ministers.  And that indicator alone suggested that this was still front and center for the Ministers.

We were not able to agree — as you probably know that there are always efforts to agree on political statements as well as new decisions on forward areas for action.  We were not able to agree on a political statement about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, although the German Chairmanship did put a text on the table, one that was not satisfactory to us or to others because it wasn’t sufficiently strong in our view, but it was a good effort to get a consensus.  Russia was the only country that blocked that text, and so, in addition to underscoring Russia’s ongoing isolation in this context, that prevented there being a consensus statement.

The other thing that happened last week that I think lays the groundwork for future work is that, while there were a few modest decisions taken in terms of the political-military, security, and economic and environmental dimensions of the OSCE, Russia, along with in some cases a couple others, obstructed all of the decisions in the human dimension related to human rights.  So there were no decisions taken on human rights last week.  And while we are disappointed by that outcome, we aren’t discouraged.  And as we said in our closing statement, there are plenty of human rights decisions and standards in the OSCE decisions of the past that we can still work on implementing and that leave much to be desired in terms of the implementation.

And on those, as well, I think one of the things that was different about this year than in some others years in which there have been challenges in the human dimension was that everybody left Hamburg clear on why there were no decisions in the human dimension.  And it was because Russia obstructed those decisions or put in poison pill amendments that they knew would kill the decisions.

Looking forward to the Austrian Chairmanship, I think we have, obviously, one of the key challenges will be for them to continue to be — the way the OSCE is set-up, the Chairman in Office, in this case Foreign Minister Kurz, is the CEO of the OSCE, and obviously the flagship operational effort of the OSCE will remain the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.  And in that respect, there is a management challenge that they are gearing up to take over from the Germans in terms of supporting that monitoring mission that has been operating under particularly difficult circumstances.  And, then, they will also, I assume, be doing an analysis of what lessons to take away from the way that the German chairmanship played out in terms of the political discourse and decisions at Hamburg, which I’ve just covered.

So I will stop there and am happy to take questions.

QUESTION:  The increase in violations in Donbas in eastern Ukraine — can you link that with anything?  Perhaps the transition going on in Washington?

BAER:  You know, I’ve heard that hypothesis, which doesn’t strike me as crazy, but I think the increase — what we can link it to is that — and this you can talk to Alexander Hug and others in the Special Monitoring Mission — you can link it to the fact that it could not be possible without a very sophisticated supply chain that is continuing to deliver weapons and fighters to the front line, to the line of contact.  And it’s clearly not an accident in that respect, and so, in terms of what the motivation is or what the purpose is, I think you’d have to ask Moscow what their purpose is in ratcheting up the heat.  We’ve seen this tactic repeated multiple times over the last two and three quarters years where there seems to be a link between Moscow’s perception of the political environment and the tenor or progress of political discussions, and the use of violence on the line of contact as a violent veto over political moves, or as a way of attempting to put pressure, particularly on the Ukrainian government.  And I don’t know what their calculus is right now — it remains an unconstructive and unproductive approach to actually reaching a political resolution, as well as one with tremendous human consequences, particularly now that we’re in the midst of another winter.

QUESTION:  Next year, Austria will take the Chairmanship.  Austria traditionally takes the role of — sort of sees itself as a bridge builder between East and West.  (Inaudible) Nobody is a huge fan of Russia sanctions in Austria, I think.  Do you see it — does that worry you or concern you that Austria might not be tough enough on Russia next year?

BAER:  You know, the goal is not to be so-called “tough on Russia.”  First, on the bridge builder, we all want — and we should all be clear that we all want bridges, not only to Russia but to others.  It makes it hard to build bridges when the Russians continue to move farther and farther away from the rest of us in terms of their behavior and in terms of the level of constructive engagement that they bring, including here at the OSCE.  And so I think that’s a challenge that faces all of us, not just the Austrian Chairmanship next year.  I think one of the things that is fundamental to and unique about the OSCE is that it is not just a place where everybody sits around the table, although in that sense it is valuable in that the Russians are at the table, along with the other 56 participating States.  But it’s also a place where we’ve agreed to have dialogue, which is important, but dialogue grounded in principles.  And that is to say, not mere transactional exchanges of who can agree on the lowest common denominator — but we’ve actually established standards which will govern our own behavior, and we’ve made commitments to that, but that also are the foundation for that dialogue.

And as long as the Austrian Chairmanship is a responsible steward of the foundations of the OSCE, which is to say, they press for dialogue, yes, but dialogue that is grounded in those principles, then those efforts to reach out — they may be unreciprocated, but those efforts to reach out are something that everyone should be able to support.

In terms of sanctions, I think it’s important to be clear: nobody likes sanctions.  If we could avoid having them, that would be a good thing for everyone.  But the fact is that when one country is so obviously violating international law and undermining the security order that protects all of us, there needs to be consequences as well as incentives for them to come back into compliance.  And so, I think reality has a way of — no matter how much one wants something — reality has a way of interceding and I think the reality is that, although many would like to see the sanctions go away, right now, the need for those sanctions remains.  And it will remain until Russia makes the choice — and it is a choice — to deliver action on the ground in Ukraine that can facilitate the political and peaceful resolution of the conflict.

QUESTION:  I’m just wondering how much the change in Administration in Washington is going to make a difference next year?

BAER:  Obviously, I am President Obama’s ambassador to the OSCE, and the new Administration will have to speak for itself.  But to follow on the last point I made, I think two things.  One, if you look back at history, the fact is that the rhetoric of campaigns has usually dissolved into a relative consistency in policy.  The changes are not in the melody, but in harmony.  And I think with respect to U.S. policy vis-a-vis European security, there has been a consistent approach through Democratic and Republican administrations over the last 70 years, which is our deep investment in a rules-based order in Europe and one that is backed up by the defensive alliance that is NATO.  And, obviously, grounded in the kind of rules-based dialogue that we have and cooperation where possible that we have in other places, including here at the OSCE.  So I think, as I said, reality has a way of interceding and kind of softening the hard edges of rhetoric — is the lesson that I would take from past experience.  And I think it will continue to be in the U.S. national interest to have a strong and stable rules-based order globally and with respect to European security.  And that won’t change depending on which Administration is in power in the United States.

QUESTION:  So you’re not worried?

BAER:  Look, 2016 has been a year of tremendous uncertainty.  And I think anybody who says they’re not worried about a number of challenges that those who are committed to building a constructive, rules-based system and a constructive, cooperative environment in international politics — anybody who said they weren’t worried would be either foolish or lying.

The challenges are real, and I think in moments of uncertainty, one of the most — to me, the most important thing now is to not give up the foundations that have led us this far.  And I think you heard this in Secretary Kerry’s remarks last week in Hamburg, in terms of going back to basics and not abandoning the fundamentals.

The liberal, rules-based system, which is to say, a set of rules that are grounded ultimately in the principle that each and every person has certain inalienable rights, grounded in human dignity, is something that has been under threat militarily — not only, obviously in eastern Ukraine — it’s been under threat politically in the authoritarian populism that we see in a number of countries across the OSCE area — but it’s not ever been compellingly challenged intellectually or morally, and empirically, the record still shows — and I think we shouldn’t forget this — but the fact is that the end of the Cold War brought freedom and better lives to tens of millions of people in Europe.  And that is the most compelling empirical evidence of the rightness of the foundation of this rules-based system.

QUESTION:  Do you see the chance that Ukraine is going to be the price demanded that the U.S. is going to pay for reconciliation with Russia?

BAER:  I have never heard a responsible policymaker in the United States talking about trading countries.  You hear that from the Russians in terms of — they’d like to have a new dividing up of Europe — but I don’t think that that’s feasible — I think we should remember that the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine was brought about by Ukrainians who were sick and tired of Russian-style kleptocracy and authoritarianism and who were attracted to European style institutions where they could trust their leaders and they could trust the institutions and know that they were getting a fair shake and that they had a fair shot at a good future.  And I think that will continue to be true no matter who is in the White House.  And I think that’s something that, like I said, throughout the last 70 years, the United States has always been on the side of those in Europe who have been campaigning for the kind of open society that we think holds the best promise in terms of delivering for individuals, as well as is in our interest in terms of the best promise for delivering responsible governance on the international stage.

QUESTION:  So you don’t see in the near future that the U.S. is going to recognize Crimea as part of Russia?

BAER:  I can’t imagine that reality.

QUESTION:  But it’s not just the United States.  The UN…

BAER:  As a matter of international law, it is clear that Crimea is Ukraine.  And the UN General Assembly Resolution stands as the determinant decision in international law.  The United States has a record — look at the non-recognition of Soviet annexation of the Baltics — we have a decent track record of non-recognition even over the long-haul.  And I think that as a matter of principle, the non-recognition of Crimea — of the illegal attempted annexation of Crimea — will continue to be the policy of the United States.

QUESTION:  As a follow-up question, have you been asked for clarification by other countries about this point?

BAER:  No, none of our European colleagues who I work with here have asked about that.

QUESTION:  And in terms of sanctions and Crimea, is it all part of a package that these sanctions are tied to?  Or are some sanctions tied to Crimea and some tied to Russia’s involvement in Donbas?

BAER:  That’s a good question, and it is actually two distinct sets of sanctions, and so there is one set of sanctions — and actually there are several different types in each bucket — but there is one bucket of sanctions for individuals and companies that are engaged in supporting the attempted annexation of Crimea, and there’s another set of sanctions that are targeting those who are implicated in Russia’s fomenting of conflict in eastern Ukraine.

QUESTION:  One not Ukraine-related question, but Russia-related anyway — the OSCE has monitored the U.S. elections.  Now, over the past days there has been mounting evidence, it seems, of possible Russian involvement in the elections.  Is there anything you would like the ODIHR office, the monitors, to do?  I mean, they are still working.  They are still in the country.  They have still not issued their final report, so they could still look at this.  What would you like to see the OSCE do?

BAER:  You know, I think, you can talk to Michael Link.  I think he’s continuing to track this closely.  Obviously, the President of the United States has emphasized his commitment in recent days to ensure there is a full investigation and that we know what — we can defend the integrity of our electoral system.  And I think, you know, I don’t speak for ODIHR, but they are making their own decisions about how they want to continue their follow-up to their observation.  And my understanding is, at this point, they believe that the resources that can be brought to bear by the U.S. Government in investigating this probably far exceed what ODIHR could contribute in terms of observing, although I assume that they will continue to track the outcome of the investigations that have been announced by those in Congress as well as the White House.

QUESTION:  Coming back to Ukraine, this guy killed — Motorola — this rebel commander, how do you read that?  Do you think it’s Russian involvement?  Do you think it’s a rebel thing?  Do you think it’s a sign that the Russians maybe are becoming less interested?

BAER:  Yeah, there have been a number of assassinations of key figures in the kind of opaque, gang-style, de facto control structures there.  You know, I read it as significant, but I’m not sure exactly how.  I think when you start having assassinations and in-fighting it can either be that Moscow decided to remove one gangster in order to put another one in place, and that can just be a message to all gangsters that they’re expendable.  It can be that somebody got too greedy and was stealing too much money and they were being sent a message in that respect, or that there was a turf war of some sort.  You know, I don’t know the exact significance of that.  I think it’s what you expect in what has become effectively a kind of 21st Century Mad Max dystopia in eastern Ukraine that the Russians have created there.

QUESTION:  This police mission — there were some I guess questions about a police mission in the east of Ukraine.  Is that off the table definitively?

BAER:  I would say it’s not yet on the table.  I think the focus right now has been, and for the last few months has been, on getting disengagement at these hotspots along the line of contact.  As a step to catalyze the achievement of, we hope, a complete and sustainable ceasefire.  And what we’ve said is, look, the Special Monitoring Mission, the Observer Mission at these two checkpoints on the Russian side of the Russian-Ukrainian border, those have existing mandates, clear mandates.  They are civilian, unarmed missions.  They should continue to do their work.  When we have a sustained ceasefire, that will open up the possibility for progress on other parts of implementing the Minsk Agreements, which we strongly support and many others have voiced their strong support for.

And at that time, if there is an assessment that there’s a need for additional tools or support for the international community, we should have a frank and evidence-based discussion based on the conditions on the ground about what we can do as an international community to support further progress.

I think it is uncontroversial to state that the current security conditions on the ground in the Russian-separatist controlled areas are not conditions in which one could credibly say that one was going to hold free and fair elections.  And so there is obviously going to have to be a delta, a change, between where security is today — setting aside the fighting that’s on-going on the line of contact — there’s going to have to be a change between the security situation in these areas today and the security situation that one would need to have in order to credibly hold free and fair local elections under Ukrainian law that are in line with international standards and observed by ODIHR, as called for in the Minsk Agreements.

QUESTION:  There are two sorts of missions in the eastern Ukraine.  There is the SMM and there is the border control mission, which is located in two spots.  What is the point to keep this Mission — especially the border control mission, because there are 300 kilometres of open border and two border crossing controls?

BAER:  Yes, and the Russians — to be clear, the border observation post mission is only at those two spots and they are on the Russian side of the border, so they operate on Russian territory, and the Russians confine them — even within the border checkpoints, the Russians confine the monitors to a very limited space within the checkpoint that they cannot move beyond.  So they can’t actually walk around the border checkpoint.  Others have asked that question.  The question comes up, “is this just a fig leaf?”  I think there continues to be a need for – what we’ve been clear about is there continues to be a need for broader visibility across the entire part of the uncontrolled border.  Not only a need, this is something that Russia committed to in the Minsk Protocol of September 2014.  They signed an agreement that called for international observation of the Russia – Ukrainian border and a security zone on both sides of the border.  And so, I think we will continue to argue that that Observation Mission — and we are not alone, the Europeans and many others continue to argue that that Observation Mission needs to be expanded so that there can be confidence — and this is an important part of keeping the ceasefire if and when it’s achieved — keeping a ceasefire will take confidence on the ground that there are not additional weapons and fighters flowing across that border, because if there is insecurity about that, or a lack of confidence about that, it will heighten tensions on the ground.  So having visibility into that border is a fundamental piece of locking in a potential ceasefire, and so we will continue to make that point.

I will say that, despite its limitations, and despite all the restrictions that are placed on it by the Russian host, that checkpoint has reported on a number of occasions interesting information.  For instance, over the course of its operation, it has seen over 30,000 people in military style dress cross just at those two checkpoints, and that’s where the Russians know what we can see — so one can imagine what’s crossing at places we can’t see.  They’ve noted military vehicles or vehicles that are hearses or ambulances coming back with “Cargo 200” written on them, which is the Russian code for military dead, coming back from Ukraine into Russia, suggesting that the Russians are shipping casualties back through these checkpoints.  So, you know, there are interesting pieces of information.  At one point, a couple years ago, they reported hearing heavily loaded trains passing nearby the checkpoints.  They can’t see them, but they can hear the load of the trains that are passing on the tracks that run by one of the checkpoints.  So even despite its limitations, there have been, occasionally, important pieces of information for the international community to know coming out of that checkpoint mission reporting.

QUESTION:  The Conventional Weapons in Europe Treaty and the concerns you’ve expressed about Russian violations or non-conformity, how worried are you?  Is this just Russia being obstructionist or are there real security implications coming out of Russia’s…

BAER:  I think Russia’s non-implementation of the CFE Treaty contributes to a destabilizing environment.  It is a destabilizing act with respect to European security.  It is not an ideological point to say that, when you have large amounts of military capacity, the more transparency you can have about intent and location and quantity of that capacity, the more likely you are to avoid the kinds of misperceptions that lead to conflict.  Russia has chosen to cease implementing the CFE Treaty despite being a signatory of it.  And, you know, we continue to make the point that Russian implementation of that Treaty would be a contribution to a more secure European area.  In addition, in terms of the last few years — the last few years have taught us a lot of things about challenges in European security as well as perception and misperception and how that contributes to tensions.  So the Vienna Document, which is a set of political commitments by all 57 participating States, has some loopholes in it, some gaps.  And we’ve seen some cases of non-implementation and good faith of that document by the Russians, and we’ve made the case to them that we are ready to sit down with them and talk about how to modernize that document, and how to make it more appropriate for the year 2016 or the year 2017, and the current realities.  The Russians have so far refused to engage in a serious discussion of that, but we remain open to that — and we’ll continue to remain open and to invite them to do that — and in fact, we’ve been working closely with other partners, not only within NATO, but other partners among the 57, to identify what are some concrete proposals that we would like to discuss and that we think would make the Vienna Document a stronger confidence and security building measure in the year 2017.  So I think there remain opportunities to make concrete steps in that.

One of the things to come out of Hamburg was a Declaration about the importance of conventional arms control and confidence and security building measures, and in that there was an agreement to have at least a structured dialogue about threat perceptions and security concerns that the participating States have.  And we see that as, potentially, if everyone comes to it in good faith, as an opportunity to do a stock-taking and diagnostic of “where are we today?” that could lead to measures like a substantial modernization of the Vienna Document or other ways of reinforcing confidence and transparency in Europe.

QUESTION:  Another question concerning especially the OSCE but the Western community in particular — during the past years you said there hasn’t been enough done to stabilize Ukraine, because the Ukrainian government appears to be struggling quite a lot at the moment…

BAER:  I mean, the easy answer to that question is no, but I think, so I can say that personally that on the, I don’t know, half dozen or so trips that I’ve made to Ukraine in the last three years, I never ceased to be inspired by the genuine and courageous engagement of, particularly, young people in Ukraine in terms of believing in and being willing to work for and fight for a reformed Ukraine and a stronger, European future – by which they don’t mean, immediately at least, being part of institutional Europe, they mean what Europe stands for.  You can’t find any stronger European patriots, if you will, than you will find among young people in civil society in Ukraine.  They believe in the European project.  At the same time, you know, reforming a state that was so rotted out from the inside, that had so much corruption in the judiciary, that had so many private interests trumping the public good, was never going to be easy, and was never going to be linear, and was never going to be a short-term project.

And I think the honest answer to your question is that we have to be prepared to support the fight that the people on the ground in Ukraine are pressing forward with for reform over the long-haul, because it was a long-haul everywhere it ever succeeded.  And it was worth it where it’s ever succeeded, but it’s always been a long-haul.  And that’s not unique to Ukraine, that’s a feature of the challenge of reforming a kleptocratic, corrupt state into a democratic one based on rule of law.  And I think we need to be ready to support them over the long-haul.  (Inaudible)  John Kerry talked about last week that Ukrainians themselves rightly recognize the decisive battlefield for their future is the one being fought for reform.

QUESTION:  But this international support seems to be crumbling.  IMF is kind of cautious?

BAER:  I think on international support — one of the other lessons we can draw from reform processes is that you need — that sometimes tough love is what’s needed.  And I think we shouldn’t confuse — the IMF has put conditions in place because they know that they need to use the leverage of their assistance in order to help support the reform process and drive that forward.  And I think, yes, it is certainly the case three years later that there are other headlines that have come up, so in that sense, there is not as concentrated a focus, but I think the commitment to the reform process remains among policy-making shops across Europe and North America.

QUESTION:  Thanks very much.

BAER:  Thank you.