US State Dept Presser

Presser from Brussels Media Hub, Dec 16

11 Min
Presser from Brussels Media Hub, Dec 16

MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us today for the virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by Uzra Zeya, the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the Department of State.

With that, let’s get started. Under Secretary Zeya, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you, John, and thank you, everyone, for joining me today to discuss Russia’s devastating war of aggression against Ukraine, its escalating humanitarian costs, specifically its human toll, and the United States’ steadfast support for Ukraine and humanitarian efforts for as long as it takes.

Russia’s brutal further invasion of Ukraine and brazen attempts to redraw borders by force upended the peace and security of the people of Ukraine, of Europe, and the international community. There are now 5.9 million internally displaced people in Ukraine who have been driven from their homes this year. Furthermore, more than 7.8 million fled the country as refugees. Today, we’re hearing reports of overnight strikes with at least 40 missiles aimed at Kyiv. These early reports suggest the strikes again targeted the electrical grid across the country, with power out in about half of Kyiv’s districts and possibly more serious damage in Kharkiv. This is in addition to Russia’s December 5th missile and drone attack that left one-third of Ukraine in the dark, and the December 11 attack that left more than 1.5 million residents without power around Odesa.

Now, as the harshness of winter descends, millions of Ukrainians have been without power, water, or heat because of Russia’s unrelenting attacks on civilian infrastructure that weaponize winter. These actions are desperate attempts to drive refugees into neighboring countries, break Ukrainians’ awe-inspiring resilience, and compromise the unprecedented solidarity European governments and citizens have shown for their Ukrainian neighbors. We know the international community’s support is unwavering and that these assaults will not break our collective resolve.

In addition to displacement and assaults on civilian infrastructure, Russia’s filtration operations and forced deportations of Ukrainians continue to create horrifying consequences, including the transnational kidnapping and forced adoption of as many as 11,000 Ukrainian children.

It’s hard to overstate the fear and suffering of more than a million civilians subjected to the Kremlin’s horrific filtration operations. Filtration survivors recount threats, harassments, and incidents of torture by Russia’s security forces and their proxies in southern and eastern Ukraine. They’ve had their biometric data captured, identification documents confiscated, and means of communication cut off. Ordinary Ukrainian civilians recount detention and unsanitary conditions, systematic humiliation, interrogation, beatings, and torture. Whether through detentions, disappearances, or deportations, Russia’s harsh filtration operations are aimed at intimidating the populations living in areas of Ukraine under Russia’s control and denying Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.

In response to the atrocities inflicted on the Ukrainian people since the beginning of Putin’s savage further war, the United States has demonstrated a robust commitment to support Ukraine as long as it takes through sustained security, energy, economic, governance, and humanitarian assistance. We’ve provided over $32 billion in assistance since February 24th, and of that amount, nearly $1.6 billion supports humanitarian assistance for those most impacted by the war inside Ukraine and in the region.

The United States is providing over $140 million in aid to restore critical power infrastructure destroyed by Russia’s forces, including $55 million in assistance for generators and other equipment to help restore emergency power and heat to local municipalities, as well as more than $53 million announced on November 29 by Secretary Blinken for emergency energy sector support.

In providing this vital aid, the United States works in lockstep with the Government of Ukraine, transatlantic allies and partners, humanitarian actors – including NGOs, the UN, and other international organizations – and other donors to address urgent humanitarian needs. U.S. taxpayer-funded assistance has responded to everyday needs of Ukrainians, providing safe drinking water, food, shelter, ways to keep warm as winter sets in, and help with livelihoods.

Our help also covers a range of health and dignity issues, from sanitation to hygiene supplies, emergency health care and mental health support, assistance for persons with disabilities, and protection efforts for the most vulnerable, including gender-based violence prevention response.

The United States has also provided $10 billion in budget support to Ukraine through World Bank mechanisms. This critical funding pays the salaries of first responders, honors pension obligations, and maintains hospitals.

Now, we know our U.S. actions are only one piece of the international community’s broad and steadfast support for the people of Ukraine. We applaud European partners’ generosity in providing safe haven for the 7.8 million Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their homeland, some of whom I was humbled to meet in my visit to Warsaw this past October. We welcome the important decision by the European Council yesterday to approve €18 billion in macro financial assistance to Ukraine. We also commend the EU and its member states for mobilizing over €900 million in humanitarian assistance to support those devastated by this war, as well as for uniting with partners via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism – which includes the 27 EU member states,

Norway, Turkey, North Macedonia, and Iceland – to provide vital in-kind assistance to support the medical and shelter needs of Ukraine’s displaced populations.

Now, beyond financial support, what can we and the international community do about the war crimes and atrocities being committed in Ukraine as I speak? The United States is leading actions alongside our partners to hold Russia to account for the atrocities and abuses they continue to perpetrate in Putin’s unprovoked war. We’ve deployed teams of international investigators and prosecutors to assist Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office in documenting, preserving, and preparing war crimes cases for prosecution. This work is part of a multilateral initiative that the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group for Ukraine, or ACA, launched with the EU and the United Kingdom to coordinate support and provide strategic advice and operational assistance to the prosecutor general. The ACA is designed to deploy our financial means widely, avoiding duplication and recruiting the best experts in the world to help the Prosecutor General’s Office in its challenging but crucial work as the sole domestic accountability mechanism for grave crimes.

In addition to the ACA, the State Department-supported Conflict Observatory program independently captures, analyzes, and makes public evidence of war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine committed by Russia and Russian-backed forces. Just yesterday, the Conflict Observatory published analysis of Russia’s unrelenting targeting of the energy infrastructure in Ukraine, which aims to deprive civilians of heat and electricity during this frigid winter. In the nine months of its further war, Russia has hit over 200 targets related to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, with at least five waves of missile and drone strikes on Kyiv and nationwide since October 2022.

The Conflict Observatory has also detailed the experiences of hundreds of individuals who describe being victims, survivors, or witnesses of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Tragically, these are only illustrative examples of the immense and catastrophic scale of damage wrought.

Another way we’re promoting accountability is through unified efforts to unveil the Kremlin’s disinformation and censorship campaigns that attempt to mask the truth of the global humanitarian impacts of this illegal and unprovoked war. The reality is that catastrophic repercussions have impacted Ukraine, its neighbors, and people across the globe. As one example, Russia’s aggression has directly exacerbated global and food – global food insecurity from Africa to Asia to the Americas. Ukraine historically has fed millions globally as the breadbasket of Europe, but that reality and the people who rely on Ukraine’s food exports all over the world are under constant threat.

In the face of the escalating humanitarian crisis Russia has caused through its unprovoked war on Ukraine, the United States and our allies and partners in Europe and around the world will continue to stand with Ukraine and its people. As Secretary Blinken declared, “Our collective resolve to support Ukraine is and will continue to be ironclad, now, throughout the [war]*, and for as long as it takes for Ukraine to succeed.”

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.

MODERATOR: Thanks so much for that, Under Secretary. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. The floor is open if anybody would like to ask their

question live. Otherwise, we’ll go to one of the submitted questions from Momchil Indjov, Club Z Media in Bulgaria. Momchil asks: “Your Excellency, is there a U.S. assessment on which concrete country is most affected by Russia’s use of dis- and misinformation, and in which way?”

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Well, thank you. I think it’s fair to say that no country is immune from the malign reach of Russian disinformation and misinformation. But we’re seeing Europe especially targeted. The Russian Government is trying to trick the world into believing that Ukraine’s behavior could provoke a global conflict and trying to convince Russian citizens of the need for Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine.

Russia is blaming others for its own aggression, but it’s Moscow’s responsibility to end this crisis peacefully through de-escalation and diplomacy. What we’re seeing here is a pattern of deception and destabilization, with Moscow invading Ukraine in 2014, occupying Crimea, and continuing to fuel conflict. This follows a further pattern of Russian behavior of undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries in the region, from invading and occupying parts of Georgia in 2008 to failing to honor its 1999 commitment to withdraw its troops and munitions from Moldova, where they remain without the government’s consent.

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We’ll go to a live question now, Marina Jakubowskaja. You have the mike. Please let us know which outlet you’re from. Thank you. Marina, your mike is live if you’d like to ask your question. Otherwise we’ll go to a submitted question.

QUESTION: Hello there, everybody. Was Belarus included in the ninth sanctions package against Russia? If not, then why?

MODERATOR: Under Secretary, the – go ahead. There was another part to that question that Marina submitted. She said, “Under what conditions can the work of the U.S. embassy in Minsk be resumed? Can we expect the appointment of a special envoy or a new U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the near future?”

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Okay. Thank you very much for that question. And yes, yesterday, December 15th, the United States announced a series of sanctions actions in our sustained effort to hold Russia to account for its brutalization of the Ukrainian people. So we announced additional sanctions measures on the Russian Federation and its enablers that targeted major actors in Russia’s financial sector, senior government officials connected to mobilization efforts, and proxy authorities installed in Ukraine.

I would note that this latest action is part of over 3,000 sanctions and visa restrictions actions that have targeted Russian officials and their enablers, including those in Belarus who have been part of this unconscionable war of aggression. And we will continue to use these tools as accountability to impose costs on those enabling this unconscionable war.

With respect to the operation of our embassy in Kyiv, our colleagues at the U.S. embassy, led by our courageous and dynamic Ambassador Bridget Brink, continue to do their work as a sign of the U.S. unwavering solidarity with the Ukrainian people and the partnership and the very substantial assistance which I described, which continues as a sign of our unwavering support as long as it takes.

With respect to your question on Belarus, I don’t have any further information to share with respect to U.S. representation. But we certainly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s sustained repression of the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people as well as its enabling and collaboration with Russia’s war effort against the Ukrainian people. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay, ma’am. We’ll go to another submitted question from Vasco Cotovio from CNN, based in the UK. He asks, “Do you have an estimate on the number of Ukrainian nationals that have been taken from the country and into Russia by Moscow’s armies?”

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you for asking this question. As I noted in my opening remarks, over 1 million Ukrainian civilians, including as many as 11,000 children, have been subjected to Russia’s brutal filtration operations in Ukrainian territory occupied and controlled by Russian forces. Now, we do not have precise numbers on the number of civilians specifically taken into Russia, but this is why it is so important that U.S. and European-led efforts on human rights documentation and accountability must continue.

And on this point I would underscore that the U.S. Government has dedicated more than 50 million U.S. dollars in assistance towards accountability efforts for this precise reason. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Under Secretary. The next question comes from Krystyna Zeleniuk from Ukrainian television channel 1+1. She asks, “How does the U.S. see the possibility of creating a special international tribunal on Russian war crimes and Russian leadership headed by Putin? Is it possible to bring Putin as well as Russian higher political and military leadership to justice?”

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you for asking this question. I would underscore that the United States is committed to comprehensive accountability for the many crimes committed in connection with Russia’s full-scale invasion and aggression against Ukraine. So we’re supporting a range of accountability mechanisms, including at the International Criminal Court and in Ukraine’s domestic courts, including through the very substantial support for the Office of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, who I was honored to meet in New York last September. This is a vital element of our accountability efforts.

Let me be clear. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a manifest violation of the UN Charter, and those responsible should and will be held accountable; that there are important interim steps that can be taken now to lay the foundation for this, such as collecting evidence of the crime of aggression while the international community considers what the appropriate modality would be to address the crime of aggression.

There are a number of proposals being considered in this regard, which raise important legal and policy issues that deserve careful consideration. But I would just underscore as part of our lockstep coordination with our Ukrainian friends and allies and partners, we are actively involved in these conversations and they are proceeding apace.

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Our next question comes from Zayyan Zawaneh. He asks or states, “The Ukrainian war has caused suffering to millions of civilians inside Ukraine

and billions outside Ukraine due to difficulties in securing food, energy, and further economic woes.” He notes, “The U.S. should urgently find a political and peaceful path to end the conflict.” And the question is: “When and how does the U.S. intend to do that?”

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Well, in terms of ending this conflict, let me be clear. Russia remains the sole obstacle to peace in Ukraine. Russia’s savage attacks on Ukrainian civilians, which I have explained in detail in my opening remarks, are just the latest demonstration that President Putin currently has no interest in meaningful diplomacy and that short of erasing Ukraine’s independence, he’s trying to force Ukraine into a frozen conflict, lock in his gains, rest and refit his forces, and then at some point attack again. He is trying to freeze the Ukrainian people into submission, but he will not prevail.

But the point is, in terms of responsibility, Russia – and Russia alone – can end this war today.

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We have one more question that’s been submitted, from Milana Peji?. She asks, “How does the U.S. plan to help Ukraine after these massive strikes on their energy infrastructure?”

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you very much. Well, our support is intensive and comprehensive in terms of what I described – the more than 53 million in U.S. support to support acquisition of critical electrical grid equipment. This is being rapidly delivered to Ukraine on an emergency basis to help Ukrainians persevere through this winter. So this supply package includes distribution transformers, circuit breakers, surge arresters, disconnectors, vehicles, and other key equipment. This new emergency U.S. assistance is in addition to $55 million in emergency energy sector support, which is funding generators and other equipment that’s helping restore emergency power and heat to local municipalities nationwide impacted by Russia’s just cruel and unrelenting attacks on Ukraine’s power system.

We are also working intensively with the humanitarian government and the Ukrainian – with the humanitarian community and the Ukrainian Government in developing a winterization strategy to protect those most in need and most vulnerable to harsh winter conditions. So this includes distribution of blankets, winter clothing, heating appliances, solid fuel, winterization repairs to houses, shelters, and collective centers for the millions of internally displaced persons that I mentioned earlier. It also includes water, sanitation, hygiene assistance, distribution of multipurpose cash assistance, which is allowing Ukrainians to buy food or other vital supplies that they desperately need.

So with the harsh winter months approaching, U.S. humanitarian partners have been working intensively to scale up assistance efforts and programming to meet urgent humanitarian needs, but also plan for longer-term responses.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Under Secretary. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you all for your questions, and thank you, Under Secretary Zeya, for joining us. We appreciate it.

Before we close the call, I’d like to see if you have any final remarks for the group.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Well, thank you so much, John, and thanks to all of you for your reporting on this absolutely devastating humanitarian crisis. I would just underscore that

Russia will not prevail in these efforts. We remain just absolutely in awe of the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian people, but we are also in lockstep coordination with our European allies and partners in supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, its safety, its welfare, as long as it takes.

MODERATOR: Thanks very much for that, ma’am. Shortly we will send an audio recording of the briefing to all the participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub – that’s one word – Thank you again for your participation. Thank you, Under Secretary. And we hope you can all join us again for another press briefing in the near future. This ends today’s briefing.

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA: Thanks very much, everyone.