Foreign Policy Remarks at YSU

Ambassador Richard Mills Remarks at Opening of Ministry of Health’s Tavush Regional Laboratory of the National Center of Disease Control and Prevention

Thank you for your warm welcome, and for inviting me to join you today.  I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that this is my first visit to Yerevan State University.  I’ll try to make up for it by visiting more frequently in the future, if you’ll have me.

One of my top priorities as the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia is to do my best to make sure that Armenians of all backgrounds have the opportunity to better understand U.S. foreign policy.  I especially appreciate the opportunity to talk with young Armenian students.  Unlike your parents, you have lived your entire lives in an independent Armenia. For you, Soviet Armenia – and the dark days following the breakup of the Soviet Union – are a matter of history, not memory.  I think that that gives you a unique perspective, and I have high hopes that as you complete your studies, begin your careers, and get involved in your communities, you will continue to carry forward the important progress we’ve seen in Armenia over the past 25 years.

For Armenia to continue on this path of progress, it needs a new generation that has an understanding of international affairs; it needs people who know how to make sense of global developments, who understand why countries act the way they do, and who feel comfortable navigating on the global stage.  That is why I wanted to discuss U.S. foreign policy with you today, to give you a better understanding of what factors and values underpin our policies and actions.  A full discussion of U.S. foreign policy would take far longer than I have today, so what I would like to do is highlight a few of our top global priorities at present.  I’ve tried to keep my remarks short, because I want to leave plenty of time to answer your questions at the end.

As Armenia is culturally and geopolitically connected to Europe, let me start with our transatlantic policy.  Our overarching goal on the European continent, one that we have been working on for 25 years, is a Europe – whole, free, and at peace.  Now, “free” and “at peace” are pretty self-explanatory, but let me take a moment to explain what we mean by “whole.”  In essence, in the aftermath of two World Wars and the Cold War, we stand – with our European allies – for a Europe that is undivided, with no spheres of influence that create artificial military or economic lines.  Our complete rejection of a demarcated, divided Europe parceled into spheres of influence, our goal of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace, explains the reaction of the U.S. and our European partners to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.  Russia’s aggressive actions represent a step backward, an attempt to return to an era of division and conflict.  That is not why we fought the Cold War.  We fought in order to defend values that have continued to shape our foreign policy with Europe, and of which we are proud:  democratic choice, collective security, peace, tolerance, and shared prosperity.  Within this framework, you can understand why the U.S. and our transatlantic allies have taken such a strong stance against Russian actions in Ukraine, and why we will continue to push Russia to respect the commitments it made under the Minsk agreement, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces, weapons and landmines from Crimea; political normalization; the return of all hostages; and full humanitarian access for UN agencies, Ukrainian NGOs, and government relief agencies.

While on the subject of Russia, I want to emphasize that despite some stark policy differences, the United States and Russia have sought and found common ground and cooperation on other issues of importance to the international community, most notably on the Iran nuclear issue and within the OSCE Minsk Group process, where the American, Russian, and French Co-Chairs continue to engage effectively.  And as I will discuss shortly, 10 days ago at the Munich Security Conference on efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria and find a political solution to the tragic conflict there.

I think it is important, as we discuss U.S.-Russian relations, and the history of those relations, to have as context the history of U.S. engagement with Russia over the past 25 years.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, we were there as a partner for the Russian people, providing more than $20 billion dollars over the years to help Russia strengthen and open its economy, promote open governance, and improve health care, as well as to encourage closer ties between Russia and NATO.  We therefore reject the narrative of grievance that is popular in Moscow today, a narrative that claims the U.S. Government wanted a weak Russia.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What we wanted, what we still want, is a strong, democratic Russia that respects the rule of law at home and abroad, as well as the sovereignty of its neighbors.  A Russia that works with us, and with Europe, to build peace and security.  But that can’t happen if Russia continues to trample on the international system, biting off pieces of its neighbors’ territory and bullying them into economic and political submission.  The political leadership in Russia has to make the decision to abide by international norms of behavior – to stop fueling the conflict and to allow Ukraine to control its side of the international border, so that it can rebuild political, economic, and societal structures, work through the legitimate grievances of those in the east, and give the people of the Donbas a chance to decide their own future peacefully and lawfully.  In sum – the ball is in Russia’s court, and we are waiting for it to act.

I am asked often by Armenians how the U.S.-Russian relationship affects the way we view the Armenian-Russian relationship.  Let me say that we recognize, as a reality of geography and history, that your two nations enjoy strong ties.  I believe, as I think most Armenians do, that this strong Armenian-Russian relationship, and Armenia’s memberships in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, should not and does not preclude Armenia from also pursuing strong, mutually beneficial relations with the United States, the European Union, and other potential partners, as well as with organizations like NATO and the Council of Europe.  These relationships are not mutually exclusive.  It is not a zero sum world.  The U.S. values its friendship with Armenia and wants to not only maintain our friendly relations, but make them stronger and deeper.  Armenia, like the U.S., needs healthy, close relations with as many nations as possible, and like all sovereign countries, Armenia is free to pursue relations with whom it wishes.

Another enormous challenge the world faces today is the threat of Islamic extremists and non-state actors such as Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS).  This struggle has destabilized Syria and sent waves of refugees into the world.  The U.S. and its allies are leading the combat against terrorism because, as President Obama said during his recent State of the Union address, our priority is protecting Americans and other innocent people from these terrorist groups.  So, together with a 65-member international coalition, we have mobilized to defeat the terrorists, and Armenia is considering how it can contribute to that effort.  The coalition’s efforts are directed both at Daesh’s core networks in Syria and Iraq and at strangling attempts by the terrorists to establish branches or inspire attacks elsewhere.  We are also working with partners to prevent violence in the Middle East from spreading and to care for the refugees that Daesh is creating.  We appreciate Armenia’s significant role in these efforts.  Armenia ranks third among European nations in the number of Syrian refugees it has accepted.  And of course, Armenia continues to shoulder important responsibilities in NATO and UN peacekeeping missions.

The U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, having contributed some $5.1 billion in aid since the conflict began in 2011, including an additional $601 million that Secretary Kerry announced just a couple of weeks ago.  But when we look at the numbers from the Syrian tragedy – 1 Syrian in 20 has been killed or wounded in the past 4 ½ years, 1 in 5 is a refugee, 1 in 2 has been displaced – it is abundantly clear that humanitarian aid cannot be an end unto itself, and that we must put an end to the refugee crisis.  And to do that, we must put an end to the Syrian conflict itself.  That is why the U.S. Government is deeply involved in ongoing diplomatic initiatives to de-escalate the conflict in Syria and encourage a political transition.

And over the past week, as many of you know, as a result of efforts by the U.S. Government and the Russian Government, as well as the direct personal involvement of Secretary of State Kerry, there has been progress made in possibly ending the conflict. Progress that culminated in yesterday’s announcement by the U.S. and Russian Governments of the terms for a cessation of hostilities to begin on February 27.

The diplomatic effort behind yesterday’s announcement began in Munich earlier this month, where all the members of the International Support Group for Syria, which is composed of governments that are neighbors of Syria or have a role to play in addressing the violence  – including Secretary Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and representatives of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the EU and others – met and pledged to take action in two areas:   First, to immediately improve humanitarian access and second, to oversee a cessation of hostilities, in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254 that had been adopted in December.  Resolution 2254 endorsed the work of the International Syria Support Group, and set forth a set of steps that the international community agreed were necessary to end the war – full humanitarian access, an end to hostilities, and the start of political talks under the direction of a UN Special Envoy to decide on the mechanics of a political transition in Syria.

Regarding the first of these commitments under UN Resolution 2254, humanitarian access, at the Munich meeting on February 12, Secretary of State Kerry joined by Foreign Minister Lavrov and all other International Support Group members pledged to use their influence to expand the delivery of humanitarian aid beginning by February 19.  This aid would go first to the areas where it is most urgently needed:  Deir al-Zor, Kafrayah, the besieged areas of rural Damascus, and then to all the people in need throughout the country. In his remarks in Munich, Secretary Kerry said the test was whether these words on paper could be turned into action.  And, over the past week we saw action.  Provision of desperately needed humanitarian aid began late last week when shipments of humanitarian aid entered the besieged suburbs of Damascus for the first time in several months.  114 trucks in the last week reached five areas of Syria that were under siege, where inhabitants had not received aid, literally, for years.

More areas are now receiving help and will receive help in the coming days and weeks as called for in UN Resolution 2254.  This is good news, and we are committed to keep this flow of humanitarian aid flowing.  But let me reiterate remarks Secretary Kerry made this past weekend.  The Syrian regime has a humanitarian responsibility, as do other parties to the conflict, to facilitate humanitarian access to populations in need.  This is a fundamental responsibility and to use food as an instrument or weapon of war is a war crime.  We expect this humanitarian aid to continue to flow to all areas of Syria where it can be provided safely and securely.  The U.S. Government has put the Assad regime on notice that we will watch closely for proper and full compliance with this requirement that has been codified in UNSC 2254 by a unanimous vote.

The second important outcome of the Munich meeting earlier this month was the announcement that all the members of the International Support Group – the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the EU, etc.  — had agreed to use their influence with the warring parties to achieve a nationwide cessation of hostilities and to work out the arrangements for an end to the fighting to begin as soon as possible.    The International Support Group agreed the cease-fire would apply to any and all parties in Syria with the exception of the terrorist organizations Daesh and al-Nusrah and any other terrorist organization designated by the Security Council.  To achieve this goal, a task force was established under the auspices of the UN, co-chaired by Russia and the United States, which was to develop the terms and mechanisms for a comprehensive, and long-lasting cessation of hostilities.

And yesterday, after ten days of hard work and diplomacy, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov announced the adoption by the International Support Group of the Terms for a Cessation of Hostilities in Syria that will begin on February 27.  The cessation of hostilities is to be applied to all parties to the Syrian conflict – government and opposition forces — that have indicated their acceptance of the terms of the cessation.  Again, this cessation does not apply to “Daesh”, “Jabhat al-Nusra,” or other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council. The international community’s fight to destroy these terrorist groups will continue.

In order to help implement the cessation of hostilities and protect those parties participating in it, Russia and the United States announced that they will work together to exchange pertinent information and develop procedures to insure the parties participating in the cessation of hostilities are not accidently attacked by Russian Armed Forces, the U.S.-led Counter ISIL Coalition, the Armed Forces of the Syrian government and other parties.  A Ceasefire Task Force, co-chaired by the United States and Russia, has been established under UN auspices to oversee communications among all parties to promote compliance and rapidly de-escalate tensions and to refer persistent non-compliant behavior by any of the parties to the International Support Group to determine appropriate action.

Secretary Kerry  joined with Foreign Minister Lavrov in calling upon all parties to accept and fully comply with its terms. If implemented and adhered to, this cessation will not only lead to a decline in violence, but also continue to expand the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian supplies to besieged areas and allow talks to now resume in Geneva on a political transition to a government that is responsive to the desires of the Syrian people.

This is positive news, and it was the result of committed diplomacy by many countries and groups, including the Russian Government.

But let me be clear, as Secretary Kerry was last night, that we take nothing for granted about this.  There are significant challenges ahead. Over the coming days, the U.S. Government will work to secure commitments from key parties that they will abide by the terms of this cessation of hostilities.

This is a moment of promise, but the fulfillment of that promise depends on actions. All parties must meet their commitments under this agreement and cease attacks on each other, including aerial bombardments.

If the cessation of hostilities can be put into place the next step is to achieve a political transition in Syria.  Make no mistake, in the U.S. Government’s view, the resolution of the Syrian civil war will not be found in any military alliance with Assad, or in military action, but can only be found in a negotiated political settlement with a transitional governing council, as set out consistent with UN Resolution 2254.  And given the violence and destruction that the Assad regime has inflicted on the Syrian people that governing council cannot possibly have Assad at its head.  That is why we have said again and again that with Assad in power this war cannot and will not end.

That is the purpose of the inclusive diplomatic process that is now underway.  The path to peace, the path to degrading and destroying Daesh, and to giving the people of Syria a real choice for their future, is actually right in front of us now.  And the United States is doing everything in our power to try to fulfill this moment of opportunity.

This progress in reducing the suffering in Syria is an example of how today, governments must work together through diplomacy on issues of concern.  Like the United States, Armenia too understands nations must work together on global issues of concern, and not just when it comes to combating violence and peacekeeping missions.  A sterling example of the type of cooperation I’m talking about is the historic climate change agreement adopted in Paris late last year by almost 200 nations, including the U.S. and Armenia.  This agreement marks international concurrence that now is the time to undertake a permanent transition to a new and low-carbon energy future for the world, and we need to continue to build on the momentum generated in Paris to ensure that the agreement is formally adopted and implemented.  We know that our future foreign policy will be shaped in part by the challenges caused by changes in our weather. That is why the U.S. is continually pushing for meaningful efforts to decrease human degradation of our environment – not only for the sake of future generations and their right to clean air and water and weather patterns that have not been made more destructive by human actions, but also as a preventative effort against future conflicts.

Armenia and the U.S. have stood united in one last area that I want to touch upon before taking your questions, and that is the sanctions program that helped bring about a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.  On October 18, 2015, when the negotiating teams adopted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, we achieved an important milestone in our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And when we reached Implementation Day on January 16, just last month, the Iran nuclear agreement transitioned from an ambitious set of promises on paper to measurable action in progress.  The world is now in a better position to ensure Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward.  In recognition of the steps Iran has taken thus far, the United States and the EU immediately lifted nuclear-related sanctions.  Of course, verification remains the backbone of the Iran nuclear agreement, and we will remain vigilant in verifying Iran’s continued full compliance in the months and years ahead.  I want to acknowledge and emphasize the part that Armenia played, fully respecting the international community’s sanctions on Iran over the years, even when that effort came at some cost to Armenia and its economy.  This was a meaningful sign of how seriously Armenia takes its role in the larger international community.  It is this kind of international unity that made it possible to achieve the agreement via diplomatic means.  As Secretary Kerry mentioned with regard to Implementation Day, this achievement once again proves why diplomacy must always be our first choice, and war our last resort.

Let me conclude with a message I believe strongly in – that diplomacy can be an enormously powerful force.  We’ve seen the fruit of diplomacy in the agreements we’ve reached on climate change in Paris and on Iran’s nuclear program in Switzerland.  These game-changing agreements were the result of marathon sessions at the negotiating table, not armed violence.  And it is thanks to the dogged and dedicated diplomatic work of the U.S., and of our allies and partners, that we have seen real progress in issues of grave concern all over the world – for instance, in our global efforts to halt the spread of Ebola and HIV/AIDS, in the challenges we are facing and the progress we are making in Afghanistan, and in our global stand against the threat of violent extremism.

I would like to now open it up to your questions about U.S. foreign policy, not just about our relationship with Armenia but how we view our actions globally.  My goal is that you leave here today able to say “this is what the U.S. is doing on a particular issue, and now I understand why.”