Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry’s Meeting With Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Special Briefing
State Department Official
New York Palace Hotel
New York City
September 27, 2015

MODERATOR: Okay, folks. I believe you all are well familiar with our briefer. This is a background session, so Senior State Department Official. Our State Department official will have a few words to sort of read out the meeting that Secretary Kerry had with Foreign Minister Lavrov this morning, and then we’ll have time for just a few questions. We don’t have a whole lot of time for this session because our briefer has to get on to other things, so I’ll be moderating it and calling it when we have to go. And with that, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. Just to say that I’m going to be really brief because this meeting was preparatory, obviously, between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov to the meeting that our presidents will have tomorrow. So it was very much a working session. The Secretary considered it quite constructive. Two subjects – Syria and Ukraine – but it was not a decision session. It was to prepare the ground for the presidents, so you will forgive me if there is not a lot of information here because this is very much a process.

On the Syria issue it was a very thorough exchange of views on both the military and the political implications of Russia’s increased engagement in Syria. They discussed the need not simply to de-conflict, but if possible, to get back to the conversation about a way forward on a political transition. They did discuss various ways to look at that. Again, this was preparatory to the conversation that our presidents will have, so I’m not going to have a lot of detail on that. But just to remind that this was in the context of the commitments that Russia made as a party to the Geneva I agreements on a political transition.

On Ukraine, the Secretary made clear that we are very pleased to see the ceasefire holding in eastern Ukraine, that that now needs to quickly convert into a real pullback of heavy weapons as called for in Minsk. He also made clear our concern, our European allies’ concern, about separatist talk of another round of fake elections later this fall, and that that would be a violation of Minsk, and instead we should be using the Minsk structures to work on implementing the agreement which calls for a real set of elections under Ukrainian law as monitored by the OSCE.

That’s what I got for you. Oh, also the Secretary and the foreign minister agreed to try to find time to meet again this evening to have another round of conversation before our presidents meet tomorrow. That’s not yet been scheduled, but we’re working on it.

MODERATOR: We’ll start with you, Michael.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], the Secretary said at the start of the meeting that the new agreement between Iran, Russia, the Syrian Government, and the Iraqi Government had not been coordinated with the United States. Did he receive a useful explanation from the Russian side about the purpose of this agreement or what Russian military officers are doing in Baghdad now? And is the fact that none of this was coordinated with the United States auger well in your view for prospective cooperation between the United States and Russia on Syria?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So to just repeat, we didn’t talk about Iraq this morning. You heard what the foreign minister said and you heard what the Secretary said in the spray; the conversation with regard to Middle East was very much on Syria.

QUESTION: Wait. But in other words, you talked about de-confliction, which is related to Syria, but you didn’t talk about the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi intelligence sharing, which presumably is part of coordinating action on Syria?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Simply to say that if we can – the general thrust is that we need to, if the Russians are going to be more engaged in this theater, we have to de-conflict militarily. We also have to have a political way forward. In terms of getting into what the Russians have or have not already done with the Iraqis, we didn’t get into the detail in this conversation.

QUESTION: And do you feel like they’re – the Russians are essentially seizing the initiative here by coordinating or saying they’re coordinating with regional players and not including you?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Again, we’re just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians’ intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and to try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here. We’ve got a long way to go in that conversation.

QUESTION: Well, to what extent are – I mean, are the facts that they’re creating on the ground pretty much dictating what the cooperation and – it seems as if they’re – the facts that they’re creating on the ground are giving them the initiative and giving them the opportunity to dictate how this goes. And what to what extent are you going to let them run the show?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All I would say —

QUESTION: With Iran, by the way.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All I would say about that is that this series of conversations – the conversations that the Secretary is having with Foreign Minister Lavrov, the conversation that our President will have with President Putin tomorrow – are all designed on this set of issues to see if not only we can de-conflict but if there is a way to do better at bringing more peace, more stability to the region, and beating ISIL. We have to see where these conversations go.

Now, when a country becomes more deeply engaged, that draws increased responsibility for the outcome and increased risk, so those are obviously things that have to be considered on the Russian side as they move forward.

QUESTION: Did you get any insight at all today into what Russia’s intentions are specifically in Syria around Tartus and Latakia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the stated intentions continue to be the fight against ISIL, and we continue to make the points that we’ve made about the dangers of giving the Assad regime the sense that it’s going to be able to retain power. I think that’s what we got.

So thanks, guys. We’ll come back later.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

QUESTION: Did you say they will meet, or they talked about whether they might meet again?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They agreed to try to meet this evening. It has not yet been scheduled.

QUESTION: Thank you.