SECRETARY KERRY: (In Italian.) Good evening, everybody. It's a great pleasure for me to be back in Rome. I'm especially pleased to be here in Rome at a time when Italy is making a transition in a -- with a new government and making progress, important progress, on growing its economy and tackling unemployment. Tonight, I will have the pleasure of meeting with Italy's new foreign minister, Foreign Minister Mogherini, and I'm hopeful -- we were supposed to also be joined by the prime minister, but he's on his way back from Brussels, may be a little bit delayed, but we hope he can make it.
I want to assure our Italian friends that the United States intends to continue to deepen our economic and security partnership with this government, including our shared commitment to negotiating an ambitious transatlantic trade and partnership -- investment partnership agreement. We believe that such an agreement would be enormously helpful to all of our economies -- good for Europe, good for the United States. It will create jobs. It can help create wealth. And at this time, the global economy needs that kind of trade partnership. President Obama, as you know, will be here shortly at the end of March, and I look forward to joining him here at that time in order to talk about these valuable partnerships and many other issues.
The reason that my counterparts and I came to Rome today was to demonstrate our commitment all together -- the huge number of countries that came together to demonstrate our commitment to Libya's democratic transition. And we recognize that this is really a pivotal moment for Libya as it drafts a post-revolution constitution and moves towards national reconciliation and elections. I can tell you that we in America, who are still perfecting our democracy and working and struggling to make it work as effectively as possible, and it goes up and down as we all know -- we very well know from our own history the difficulties we had centuries ago in developing our constitution and giving it full bloom that this is hard work. It doesn't happen overnight. And it is something that takes devotion and commitment and courage. And I think today, we heard from the prime minister and the president of Libya their dedication to helping to make this transition work.
We also know that Libyans did not risk their lives in the 2011 revolution just to slip backward into thuggery and violence. And as I told President Abu Sahmain today as well as Prime Minister Zeidan, we have no illusions about the challenges ahead, but we are committed to work very, very closely with the Government of Libya, but also with our partners, and Italy is one of the central partners in the effort to help Libya in this transition together with France, Great Britain, Germany, and others. And we will continue to work closely to fight terrorism, to prevent the spread of conventional weapons and to secure those weapons where they should be secured, and to build democratic institutions.
Now, let me say a word about a subject that I know is on everybody's mind, and that's the question of Ukraine. Just a few moments ago, President Obama spoke in Washington and laid out the steps that he has ordered with respect to this situation at this time, which are in keeping with precisely what we said last week we would do as a consequence of the steps that Russia decided to take with respect to Crimea. As you have heard me say all week, the choices that Russia has made escalated this situation, and we believe that Russia has the opportunity now -- together with the rest of us -- but Russia particularly has the opportunity now to make the right choices in order to de-escalate.
The United States also has choices to make, and President Obama has been clear that we cannot allow Russia or any country to defy international law with impunity. There's no place in the community of nations for the kind of aggression and steps that we have seen taken in Crimea in Ukraine in these last days.
So today, as we announced we would last week, we have taken specific steps, and the State Department also has taken specific steps in response to what has occurred. Starting today, at President Obama's direction, the State Department is putting in place tough visa restrictions on a number of officials and other individuals. And the United States will not grant visas to those who threaten the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and if they already have one, it will be revoked in those individual cases.
Now, let me remind you that this decision comes on top of our existing policy to deny visas to those who are involved in human rights abuses or political oppression in Ukraine. And it is also on top of other steps that the United States has already taken which we have announced. Now, at the same time, President Obama has issued an executive order that gives the Treasury Department the legal framework to sanction those who threaten Ukraine's sovereignty, security, and democracy, those who contribute to the misappropriation of Ukraine's state assets, and just as importantly, those who try to assert government authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the legitimate government in Kyiv.
I want to emphasize -- and there's a reason why only the legal framework was put in place and not the specific designations -- and that reason is that even as we will keep faith with what we have said we would do, we want to be able to have the dialogue that leads to the de-escalation. We want to be able to continue the intense discussions with both sides in order to try to normalize and end this crisis. And we will absolutely consider, if we have to, additional steps beyond what we've done. But our preference -- and the President has said this and I have said this -- is to emphasize the possibilities for the dialogue that can lead to the normalization and defusing of this crisis.
Now, yesterday in Paris, we had lengthy discussions and we met also, obviously, with our Ukrainian counterpart, the foreign minister of Ukraine, and discussed with him Ukrainian thoughts about what should form the centerpiece of our approach to this effort to negotiate. And with the Ukrainian view in mind and with the input of all of our allies in the European community, we have made suggestions to Foreign Minister Lavrov which he is currently taking personally to President Putin in Sochi, I believe, and we have agreed to stay in close touch in order to see if there is a way forward, and try to get to the negotiating table with the parties necessary to be able to stabilize this.
We've been in very close touch all day with our European counterparts -- both those who were here in Rome as well as by telephone for those who were in Brussels. And we agreed that over the course of the next hours, next days, there is an imperative to try to move quickly in order to prevent a mistake or misinterpretation or any other measures that might preclude our opportunity to be able to find the political solution that we believe is the best way to proceed.
The Ukrainian people, we are convinced beyond any doubt whatsoever, want nothing more than the right to determine their own future, and they want to be able to live freely in a safe and prosperous country where they can make the choices that people make in other countries around the world. And they have the international community's full support, and while we reserve the right to take steps beyond those things that were announced today, we want President Putin and Russia and everyone to understand our preference is to get back to a normality and get back to a place where the rights of the people of Ukraine will be respected and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation will be respected.
The United States will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people, as will our allies and friends in the European community and elsewhere, in order to stand up for the values that we all believe in our fellow -- that define our fellow democracies. So thank you very, very much, and I look forward to the opportunity to take a couple questions.
MS. HARF: Great, thank you. The first question is from Elise Labott of CNN.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You said that the Ukrainian people have the right to determine their own future. Does that include the people of Crimea? Don't they have the right to determine their own future? Are there any conditions under which the U.S. might accept a referendum as part of the solution?
And then on your meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Minister Fabius said that he's forming this contact group and that the Russians might agree. Did you talk about this with the minister, and do you see this as a useful mechanism that might happen in the coming days?
And lastly, I'm wondering if you talked to him about the fact that he told you last week that the exercises that the Russians were doing had nothing to do with Ukraine. We now know that that was a pretext to mask the Russian intervention.
SECRETARY KERRY: What was the first part of that question? I'm sorry.
QUESTION: Well, we understand that --
SECRETARY KERRY: We now know what?
QUESTION: Well, we know that the -- this exercise did have a lot to do with the Ukraine and perhaps it was a pretext for Russia to go into the Crimea. I'm just wondering -- you've invested a lot in your relationship with Minister Lavrov, and I'm wondering if you feel misled by him at all and whether you spoke with him about that. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me take the first part of that question. Crimea is part of Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine. And we support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the Government of Ukraine needs to be involved in any kind of decision with respect to any part of Ukraine. Any referendum on Ukraine is going to have to be absolutely consistent with Ukrainian law. And it's my understanding that the constitution of Ukraine requires all -- requires an all-Ukraine referendum; in other words, every part of Ukraine, all Ukrainians, would have to be part of a referendum with respect to the territory of Ukraine. So therefore, the proposed referendum would violate the constitution of Ukraine and international law and the sovereignty of Ukraine itself.
QUESTION: But if it was a Ukraine-wide referendum --
SECRETARY KERRY: If it were -- if it adheres to the constitution of Ukraine, it's up to Ukrainians to define that. It's not up to the United States or Russia to make that decision. Ukrainians need to live by Ukrainian law and according to the constitution, and their constitution would require precisely what I just said. So that is, I think, critical to anything that would flow.
Secondly, with respect to a contact group and where we're proceeding, frankly, I think everybody has been working to put a contact group together. I think it's been a general assumption of all of us in unity that we would like to see if a contact group can be put together. And I think that the key here is whether or not that is going to be something that will work in the context of Russia's willingness to do this, and obviously Ukrainian views about this.
Thus far, the Ukrainian Government has expressed their desire to have the support of a contact group, providing, of course, that the government -- that Russia is dealing with them in that context. This can't be in lieu of the respect for the existing Government of Ukraine, and we don't intend for it to be, and none of us who have been part of the discussions about a contact group view this as anything except supportive of the process. But I believe there is a way to structure this, and that is obviously part of what we are now engaged in discussions with Russia through Foreign Minister Lavrov and to Mr. Putin.
With respect to the relationship with Foreign Minister Lavrov, it's professional, as all of my relationships are with any foreign minister. There are moments in the course of a meeting over a year where you may be able to laugh at something, and there are moments where you disagree and disagree very strongly. And we work professionally, both of us, to represent our countries, represent our point of views, and try to get the work of diplomacy done.
This is obviously a moment where we have disagreement, as we do on some other issues. But where we can, we try to find a way forward, whether it's been on chemical weapons in Syria or with respect to Iran and P5+1, or the enforcement of the START treaty and other kinds of issues, Afghanistan and other things.
So we will continue to work in a professional manner in order to try to resolve those issues that come to us and to try to do so in a way that advances the global interests of peace and stability and security. And that's what I'm trying to do.
So another question.
MS. HARF: Great. Our final question comes from Oliviero Bergamini from TG1. Thank you.
QUESTION: Buonasera, Mr. Secretary. Are you satisfied with the way the European Union is dealing with this crisis? Because there seems to be quite a distance between countries like Poland that are really close to the position of the United States, and countries like Germany, and Italy to some extent, they get a lot of their energy supplies from Russia, they seem to be much softer on the theme of economic sanctions and so on. That's actually the reason why Prime Minister Renzi might be late for dinner because they are not finding an agreement right now in Brussels.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, actually, they did announce an agreement in Brussels, and --
QUESTION: Okay. Yeah, there was something. So do you -- how do you see the attitude of the European Union?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think the European Union has been extremely cooperative and has been a partner in this thoroughly. There's been a complete and total communication and sharing of information and sharing of ideas. I do not believe there is a gap. There may be some differences of opinion about timing or about one particular choice versus another. That's not unusual when you have as many countries working together as we do.
But fundamentally with respect to the question of what has happened and the need to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, there is no difference whatsoever. With respect to the need to have some sanctions as a result of what has happened in Crimea, there is no difference whatsoever. And Europe on its own tonight has made its announcement through its own process and own debate that they have taken some steps.
Now, Europe joins us in absolutely believing that we are all better served by getting back to a normality and a stability that will come through good diplomacy and good efforts to try to find a path forward that can protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, protect legitimate interests where they exist of ethnic Russians and/or of other agreements like the base agreement and other things that Russia has that are in law. Those are things that we can deal with. And our hope is that together -- Europe, the United States, and others, Canada, Japan -- there are a lot of countries interested in what is happening. And I think they all want to be supportive for a process that de-escalates, that reduces tension.
We have a lot of things to do together. We do not need to be distracted or split apart by virtue of what has happened in Ukraine. I think it is fair to say, and I have said that Russia does have some interests in the region. But they need to be dealt with according to law and in a proper way, and dealt with in a way that can respect the integrity of the country, and that's what we're trying to do.
At the same time, the Ukrainian people have an overriding interest, a paramount interest here in having their rights protected, their sovereignty protected, their hopes and aspirations which they died to achieve, that needs to be respected. And that's the tension here, and that's the -- that's what we're trying to balance as we approach a diplomatic and peaceful resolution of this, rather than an escalation that could harm the efforts of a lot of other initiatives that we all are focused on.
Thank you all very much. Appreciate it.