Summary

 

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR: And good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. I am Ryan Roberts. I’m the director of the Foreign Press Centers and thrilled to have so many people here with us today. I’m pleased to welcome John Kirby back to our podium. Admiral Kirby, of course, is no stranger to the foreign press or this podium, and there’s no one better positioned to brief us today on the Biden-Harris administration’s national security and foreign policy priorities than Admiral Kirby. Many of you know him from his time at the State Department as Assistant Secretary and spokesperson here or his time at the Pentagon, including as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and Press Secretary. In his current role, he coordinates interagency efforts to explain U.S. policy and is a senior administration voice on those issues.

If you’ll allow me, I just want to go quickly over the ground rules and some housekeeping. This briefing is on the record. We will provide a few brief opening remarks and then call on questioners. Raise your hand if you’re interested in asking a question, if you’re here in our briefing room. Raise your virtual hand if you are on Zoom, and we will call on you as we can. And without any further ado, let me turn the time over to our briefer.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you so much. I appreciate that. I think – think this thing lowers, right?

MODERATOR: I don’t know if it will.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. Well, I’m just going to have to stand on my tippytoes. So listen, thanks for having me over here. I’m really excited to do this. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the Foreign Press Center, and it sure does look – you definitely – you’ve done a nice job refurbishing the place. It’s terrific. And I apologize for being a little bit late.

MODERATOR: Okay.

MR. KIRBY: I apologize for being a little bit late. I do have just a quick comment at the top, and then we’ll get right to your questions. I think you all saw today in Lebanon, Israel and Lebanon concluded an agreement on a new maritime border between the two countries – first time they’ve had this. This is a significant achievement. And after months of U.S. mediation and facilitation, we were able to get this maritime border established. It’s going to help economic and energy security in the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s going to open up natural gas resources to Lebanon so that the – so that they can not only look after their own energy needs, but be able to gain economically inside the market. And of course it’s going to preserve the safety and security of Israel. It actually contributes to safety and security there between the two countries and in the region. So we’re very, very pleased by this.

There are some implementation steps that have to occur now, and we look forward to working with both countries as they work towards full implementation. But today, they concluded that agreement, and it’s really the result of a lot of hard work and effort – a lot of courage for both nations but also a lot of hard diplomatic effort by the United States. One of the things that the President wanted to do when he went to the region last summer was to work towards his vision of a more integrated, more cooperative Middle East. And this is yet another example of that vision coming true and that diplomacy does matter; diplomacy can have a strategic effect on the lives and the livelihoods, the prosperity of people all around the world. So, again, we’re very, very pleased by this, and again look forward to working with these nations as they go to – towards full implementation.

And with that, I’ll take some questions. Yeah.

QUESTION: So on the Iran – oh, I’m sorry. On Iran, protests in Iran —

MODERATOR: Sorry, just when we take questions, just give us your name and your outlet if you could.

QUESTION: Sure. My name is Roj Zalla. I work for RUDAW TV. My question is on Iran. Protests in Iran – last night, yesterday, they got a lot more deadly. I wonder where does the Biden administration stand in terms of the Iranian protesters’ demand for regime change. Does the administration support regime change in Iran? And also is there any – will the administration still – is – are you guys still working towards a peace – a nuclear deal with Iran.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, so look, on the – it’s up to the Iranian people – it certainly should be up to the Iranian people – to determine their futures. And so I think we’ll leave it with that. What we have said clearly and unequivocally – and the President in the well of the United Nations a couple of weeks ago made clear – that we certainly stand up for the right of peaceful protests. And we certainly stand against any governments’ efforts to violently try to repress those protests. And we’ve already tragically seen – yesterday was the 40th day after the death of Mahsa Amini – a tragic, completely unnecessary death at the hands of the so-called morality police.

And the United States in addition to again standing up for the right of peaceful protest and for these Iranian citizens and their ability to be able to protest policies that they find are antithetical to basic human rights – and we certainly agree – we also had been holding the regime accountable. Just yesterday, another 14 sanctions were issued for entities and individuals, organizations tied to the regime with respect to the way they’re treating their own people. So our message has been clear to the regime, stop killing your own people.

Now, as for the JCPOA, that’s just not our focus right now. Our focus is actually on the first part of your question, on making sure that we continue to stand up for the right of peaceful protest and that we’re holding the regime accountable. The truth is we’re just not close to a deal with the Iranians. They have made conditions that are outside the scope of the deal, so we’re just not – we’re just not there and we’re not focused on that. Our focus is on supporting the protesters.

QUESTION: South Africa?

MR. KIRBY: South Africa. That’s what you want to ask?

QUESTION: I have a question.

MR. KIRBY: That’s where you’re from, or —

QUESTION: That’s where I’m from too, yes.

MR. KIRBY: You’re from? So – all right, that’s good. Let’s go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, John. It’s great to see you in person, so Happy Thursday.

John, I’d like to preface my question to you with something from a member of our audience. My name is Pearl Matibe. I’m with Power FM 98.7 out of South Africa. I’m going to read a quote. This is after the threat, the terrorist threats that were sent out over the last day or two to South Africa and Nigeria through your embassies, and the response is this, quote: “This is scary. It’s been in the news. Not sure why the U.S. is doing this. It could be the snub from SA government who allowed Russian billionaire yachts to dock, and they wanted us to sanction them.”

John, analysts on the continent are also saying that for these threat alerts to have gone out over the last couple of days, it has sent people scrambling across the continent and feel like this is somewhat of a serious non-capacitation of intelligence, for example, through U.S. Africa Command, if there had been some capacitation, people wouldn’t have been caught off guard with okay, this is what is happening.

So my question to you is: When and how long is it going to take, for example, to overcome this perception of things that the United States might be doing in earnest but the people, local people in Africa, are not seeming to understand what the United States is doing and seem to feel Africa is an afterthought, John?

MR. KIRBY: So with the caveat that I haven’t seen these messages that you’re talking about, I would certainly refer you to the State Department to speak to that. I haven’t seen them.

So separate and distinct from these individual terrorism messages you’re talking about, neither Africa Command or our State Department colleagues issue warnings without reason, particularly when it comes to terrorism, which remains a challenge not just in Africa but in many other places around the world. And so we take those responsibilities seriously, as we must and we should.

So again, I can’t speak to that individually, but your question, I think, gets to a bigger issue. At least I gather that it gets to a bigger issue, in that Africa matters significantly to the Biden administration, to President Biden specifically. In fact, in December he’s hosting an Africa Leaders Summit right there at the White House in the middle of the month, and he’s very much looking forward to that because there’s so many challenges on the continent, but there’s also so much promise. And the President understands that, the administration understands that, and we’re going to continue to look for ways to engage our African partners throughout the continent to address both the challenges and the promise. And again, that’s one of the reasons why the President wants to hold this summit in Washington and host it himself, and he’s again very much looking forward to it.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, John, for doing that. I think you know me already. My name is Hariana and I’m covering for Angola in Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique as well. So my question about African summit is: Is the President Biden expect to sit with some African leaders during the summit, especially those who represent like a big portion of countries? Like for example, the President of Congo Félix Tshisekedi, he is now the chairperson of SADC, which basically concentrate like 16 countries. So is the President expecting to sit, for example, with him? Through him he can understand many issues going on in those 16 African countries.

And also with his strategic partners’ country, like for example Angola, Angola is a strategic partner of U.S. Is the President Biden expect to sit with President João Lourenço of Angola? This is one question.

And one quick question about vaccines. You want me to – just to ask?

MR. KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, the vaccines. Equatorial Guinea, the Government of Equatorial Guinea, purchased, paid the U.S. Government – and this was released though the Justice Department – more than $19 million of vaccines, but it passed one year. For more than a year, not a single dose of vaccine was sent to Equatorial Guinea and the people still waiting for those vaccines. Is the President or do you have any update on this purchase? And for example, when the vaccines will be sent to Equatorial Guinea, or if the U.S. Government is expect – is maybe thinking and send back the more than $19 million that they paid already the Government of Equatorial Guinea.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I don’t have an – any (inaudible) answer to your question about vaccines to Equatorial Guinea. I’d refer you to our State Department colleagues on that. But as you know, the United States has been a leading donor of vaccines throughout the world. We’re going to continue to, as we are here at home, continue to advance the science, advance the preventative power of these vaccines as much as we can and share that as broadly as we can. But I just don’t have an update for you on that.

On the summit, I’m not going to get ahead of the agenda. I think you can imagine it’s still a couple of months away. So we’ll have more detail as we get closer to it as to exactly what the agenda’s going to look like. The President, though, is very much looking forward to meeting face to face with African leaders that are coming – and specifically to your point, to listen, to listen to them and to their perspectives of what they’re seeing there on the continent, ensure that he – that our policies and his decisions with respect to the continent are well informed by the perspectives of those leaders who live there.

So it’s in the President’s mind that this summit is going to be very much about two-way communications. Clearly, he knows they’re interested in our policies and where he wants to go, but I can promise you the President is very much looking forward to being in the receive mode too as he spends time with these African leaders.

And again, as we get closer, I’m absolutely certain we’ll be able to lay out in more specificity who he’s going to meet with and on what day and what that’s going to look like. Okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Let me go to – can I go to Zoom?

MODERATOR: Yeah, let’s go to Zoom.

MR. KIRBY: A little bit?

MODERATOR: Absolutely. Yeah, let’s go to Oystein Bogan from Norway. And if you would turn on your camera —

QUESTION: Yep, I’m right here. Thank you for taking my question. Admiral, on the issue of Norway arresting a suspected Russian illegal spy last Tuesday, is this a matter you have briefed on – have been briefed on? And if so, on the backdrop of Russia’s aggressiveness on the European continent these days, what’s your reaction to it? And has the U.S. rendered any assistance to Norwegian authorities in order for them to be able to make that arrest and ID the person?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, sorry, I do not have information specifically about that arrest. If there was any prior communications or coordination, I’m not aware of it, so I just don’t have anything on that. I’d refer you to Norwegian law enforcement I think is the best place to go for that.

But obviously, we continue to work closely with allies and partners throughout the continent with respect to what Russia’s doing in Ukraine, which is obviously devastating to the country of Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, particularly in recent days and weeks here where they have deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure and innocent Ukrainian civilians. And so we are working closely with allies and partners to make sure that we are helping Ukraine get the security assistance they need to defend themselves, and so that when – if and when this comes to a negotiated settlement, Mr. Zelenskyy can succeed at the table as well.

But I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you on this particular arrest.

MODERATOR: Another one from —

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, you can do another one.

MODERATOR: All right. We’re going to take a couple more from Zoom; I promise we’ll come back to the – come back to the room.

Let’s go to CNN Portugal.

QUESTION: Hi there. This is Luis Costa Ribas from CNN Portugal. John, this morning while he was introducing the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Security Strategy, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the whole point of the U.S. nuclear stockpile is to be a deterrent. So we all know that mutual assured destruction is a concept and it’s a doctrine also. Is it also U.S. policy now, particularly given what’s going on in Eastern Europe and Russia and so forth?

MR. KIRBY: Is what a U.S. – I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question. Is what a —

QUESTION: Mutually assured destruction. Is that a U.S. policy? In other words, is this how we will respond to any Russian use of nuclear weapons in Europe?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, look, I think Secretary Austin put it well. Our strategic posture is meant to deter. I won’t go beyond his words, the words of – that were in the posture review. And I’m certainly not going to detail with any specificity what the United States might do should Russia decide to use nuclear weapons inside Ukraine. The President has been very clear that there will be severe consequences should they do that, and it wouldn’t – it wouldn’t just be from the United States; it would be from so much of the rest of the international community.

And so when they – when Mr. Putin talks the way he does about it, we have to take that seriously. We have to – we don’t consider that bluster. He’s the leader of a modern nuclear power, and we find it irresponsible and reckless to be using the kinds of language he is when he’s talking about the potential use of nuclear weapons. So again, I’m not going to telegraph here publicly what options the President might consider. I’ll – I think it’s best left in his own words, which is that there would be severe consequences.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: Let’s just —

QUESTION: Follow up?

MODERATOR: Do you want to go to the room or —

STAFF: No, go ahead.

MODERATOR: We’ll do Oskar from Polish Press Agency.

MR. KIRBY: We’ve got plenty of time, guys. I don’t – I’ll get to as many of you as I can.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. I don’t know if I – yeah, I wanted to ask you about the – so in this new or newly released National Defense Strategy, complementing the NSS – like the – in the NSS, China is mentioned as the main (inaudible) challenge, but Russia is viewed as the acute threat. But in terms – so far, though, in terms of U.S. military presence, Europe seems to be the most – have the most footprint. So is that expanded U.S. presence there to stay? And do you sense a tension there between the U.S. military presence in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific and the – and can you do both? So that’s my question.

MR. KIRBY: The short answer is yes, of course we can deal with challenges in the Indo-Pacific region as well as what’s going on on the European continent. We’re a big enough, powerful enough military that we can absolutely handle not only those challenges but other challenges around the world. That’s what a responsible power like the United States is responsible for, and we take that seriously.

As for the troop presence in Europe, a couple of points. One, we recognize that the security landscape in Europe has changed – not is changing, not will change, has changed – because of what Mr. Putin has done in Ukraine, the war, the unprovoked war of aggression that he’s conducting inside Ukraine. And as a result of that, over the last several months, the United States has added additional forces to the eastern flank of NATO, something to the tune of 20,000. And now the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Defense has worked out a way of keeping that posture high and keeping those additional 20,000 in Europe for the foreseeable future.

Now, this will be on a rotational basis; not all of them will be permanently based there. But you have now about 100,000 American troops on the continent, and we think that that presence will probably stay the same for a while – again, a mix of permanent basing and rotational basing. And that is, again, in response to the changed security landscape in Europe.

President Biden made it clear: we take our Article 5 commitments to our NATO Allies extremely seriously. And we will, as he has said, defend every inch of NATO territory – every inch. And that means making sure that we and our NATO Allies have the capabilities and the resources available to themselves to be able to do that. We are contributing. We’re going to continue to look for ways to contribute to that security. It looks like NATO will soon be joined by two additional members, and we look forward to having them in the ranks as well, two modern militaries that we know how to work with and we know that they’ll add very, very advanced and capable military resources to the defense of NATO.

QUESTION: Follow up to that?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Marcin Wrona, TVN Warner Bros. Discovery from Poland. Now, Vladimir Putin today said that the West is planning to destroy his country, that he is fighting to preserve his country, that Ukraine is planning to use a dirty bomb, those things that we have been hearing for a few weeks now.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: So do you see any signs that Russia is actually planning a false flag operation, be it a dirty bomb or something else? And with this heightened rhetoric, shouldn’t the United States increase the presence – the military presence on the eastern flank? You kind of answered this a moment ago, but this is new, what is going on now. Should you kind of react to that with sending more troops to Poland and other countries on the eastern flank?

MR. KIRBY: We’re watching as best we can, (inaudible) we can. But as of now, we don’t see any indications that Russia is preparing to explode a dirty bomb. What concerns us is when they make this claim, this transparently false claim that Ukraine was planning to do that. It certainly gets our attention because it is not unlike the Russians to blame others for that which they are going to do or are doing themselves. That’s why we took it so seriously, but we just haven’t seen any indications that plans are being made or preps are being made. But we’re watching as best we can.

And as for your second question, look, force presence around the world is a dynamic issue that we’re constantly reviewing and looking at all the time. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t that long ago when the Secretary of Defense conducted a force posture review around the world. And it was done before the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and so it didn’t factor in these other 20,000 troops that are now on the continent.

Right now, I believe – and I don’t want to speak for the Defense Department – I used to do that; I don’t do that anymore – but I believe that they believe we’ve got the footprint about right, and we’re going to find a way to keep these additional 20,000 troops on the continent. Again, the units will come and go, but the posture will remain the same for the foreseeable future, and the Secretary of the Defense – certainly Secretary Austin – is certainly – has the authority, if he decides that there needs to be a change, to recommend that kind of a change to the President. But I’m not aware of any plans to do so now and certainly no plans to do so in reply or response to these latest Russian claims about what the Ukrainians might or might not do.

Does that answer your question?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: Let’s – let me – let me go back here. Ma’am, right there, grey with the glasses. There you are, yeah. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: I – I’ll get around, guys. I’ll get around. We got —

QUESTION: Yeah —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: I – I’m not going to – can’t ever forget you.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this and thank you for taking my question. I want to shift to a closer place, Latin America and Mexico. Are you concerned at all of the increased presence and influence of Russia – in this context of Ukraine – in Latin America? As you probably know, Russia today, the Soviet – Russian-controlled media have very strong followers all over Latin America. And I wanted to ask you: how much about priority is this, since it’s your backyard?

And concretely, on Mexico, not very long ago the USNORTHCOM said that Mexico was the place where there’s more GRU Russian agents than any place in the world. That tells you a lot. I was just wondering that, among the priorities of the Biden administration, you once in a while look into these things beyond just meeting the presidents of these countries and going to the OAS meetings. Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I’m – so I’m going to be careful here. I’m not going to talk about intelligence or law enforcement assessments with respect to where Russian agents may or may not be, but we are certainly mindful of Russia’s efforts to gain footholds and influence in Latin America, as well as Africa. And we – obviously, we watch that closely. It’s of concern, of course, because we know that Russia continues to act in ways – not just on the European continent, but elsewhere – in ways that are inimical to the security interests of so many local populations, as well as to our own national security interests.

So we take it seriously. We’re – we maintain collaboration and communication with our friends and partners here in the Western Hemisphere to make sure that we know what their perspectives are, what they’re seeing, what they’re learning, as well as being able to share with them what we know. But we do take it seriously.

Yeah, you in the red tie.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Kirby. Igor Naimushin, Ria Novosti. So U.S. officials have recently said that there is currently no place for negotiations between the United States and Russia on Ukraine peace talks. And moreover, the —

MR. KIRBY: We’ve said there is no place for —

QUESTION: For negotiations between Russia and U.S. on Ukraine peace talks. And moreover, the department, the Department of State has recently said that U.S. has never heard the message from the Russians that they are ready to engage in dialogue and diplomacy, so – although President Putin has just said that Russia is, frankly speaking, open to negotiations and waiting for U.S. to send a signal to Ukraine regarding it.

So the question is: Is there any kind of reluctance in part of the U.S. regarding negotiations? What might become an incentive for the United States to start such peace talks? And is there an acknowledgment in the White House that this conflict in Ukraine cannot end without direct dialogue between Russia and the United States? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Actually, those are really good questions – so bear with me here. What we have said from the very beginning is: nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. When – if and when it comes time to negotiate a peace, it will be and must be President Zelenskyy’s decision to do so, and on his terms. He’s the president of Ukraine. It’s a sovereign country; it’s a sovereign state. No matter how much Mr. Putin may not like that and may not want to acknowledge it, it’s a sovereign, independent nation. And President Zelenskyy, elected by the Ukrainian people, gets to speak for his people and for his country, and he gets to determine if and when he’s going to be ready to sit down with Vladimir Putin and negotiate an end to this war. He gets to determine what success looks like, he gets to determine what victory looks like, and he gets to determine whatever terms of negotiation might occur.

Now, Mr. Putin has shown – contrary to the rhetoric – has shown absolutely no interest in dialogue with President Zelenskyy and ending this war. Quite the contrary – everything he’s doing shows that he wants to continue to prosecute this war. He called for sham referenda, which we all know were fake, to try to politically annex territories he doesn’t own and possess because they’re Ukrainian land. He’s now ordered martial law in those annexed territories – so-called annexed territories. He’s now called up for – the call-up, I’m sorry – he’s called for the activation of some 300,000 reservists. And he’s conducting a series of airstrikes on civilian infrastructure and innocent civilians – my goodness, one of these missiles hit a playground. And he’s going to countries like Iran to get drones and perhaps even surface-to-surface missiles so that he can continue to rain down violence on the Ukrainian people.

Those aren’t the actions of a government, those aren’t the actions of a leader, who is serious about being willing to negotiate an end to this war, but it’s got to be President Zelenskyy’s decision and his call. What we’re going to do is we’re going to continue to support President Zelenskyy and his armed forces in the field, making sure that they have the capabilities to succeed, so that if and when it comes time to go to the table, Mr. Zelenskyy can succeed at that too.

Now, I will tell you, separate and distinct from Ukraine – and I want to be very clear, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine – there are channels of communication that exist between the United States and Russia, as there should be, at various levels. We certainly still have an embassy in Moscow. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, just recently had a discussion with General Gerasimov, his counterpart in the Russian military. Secretary of Defense Austin had two conversations in just the last week with Defense Minister Shoigu. And of course, we have a de-confliction line in Europe to make sure that there is – any – there can be no miscommunication or miscalculation with respect to NATO forces on the eastern flank and what’s going on inside Ukraine. So there’s – there are channels of communication that remain open between the United States and Russia, as there should be and as there will be going forward.

Go ahead. Afghanistan, go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. My name is Nazira Karimi. I’m an Afghan independent journalist. Mr. Kirby, thank you very much for taking my question. There is bunch of question. One question, Taliban is still —

MR. KIRBY: Keep it – let’s keep it brief.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Okay. Number one is there is a report that Putin ask for the Taliban former commando to send to the Ukraine war or something. There was a serious report yesterday. There is so many commando left behind in Afghanistan although United States spend a lot of money for them to get trained.

Number two, SIGAR report was very negative about Taliban activity.

And number three, United States send to Taliban every week 4-0, $40 million, under humanitarian assistance. There is conflict, confusion. It means that United State has a good relation with the Taliban, or the Taliban still didn’t open the school for girls?

And also SIGAR report and Senate also yesterday had a report about the commando. There are so many things, I don’t know U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in the future.

MR. KIRBY: (Inaudible) reports about Afghan commandos, I’ve seen the press reporting on that, but I can’t corroborate that or confirm that.

Number two, we have not recognized the Taliban, and you know that.

Number three, the humanitarian assistance that we are helping facilitate for the Afghan people goes to the Afghan people directly through nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations. That’s who we provide the funding for. It does not go through the Taliban.

QUESTION: But the new bank notes also. United State announced that the new bank notes printed in French and Polish for Afghanistan.

MR. KIRBY: I don’t have anything on that. I don’t have any —

QUESTION: John –

MR. KIRBY: Let me – I want to go to this side, and let me go, let me go – I’ll get you, I’ll get you. We’ve got time, guys. Let me go to this side and go to the back. Ma’am, you in the middle there with your black sweater.

QUESTION: The aisle seat. (Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY: That’s an aisle? They stuck you next to the wall, eh? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. – thank you, Admiral Kirby, for taking my question.

Department of State through Deputy Secretary of State Ms. Sherman announced that North Korea will be met with unparalleled response in case of another military – nuclear provocation, which they have been ramping up, especially this past year. But what does this unparalleled response mean? And specifically, will it be unilateral U.S. actions? Would it go through the Security Council? And how effective would it be, do you think?

MR. KIRBY: So let’s just back up a little bit. I’ve got a couple key principles here and ideas. Number one, United States has said and we still maintain that we’re willing to sit down with Mr. Kim without preconditions to pursue a denuclearization of the peninsula, which remains our goal. And the regime in Pyongyang has not responded to that. What they have in fact done is continue to test missiles and to continue to try to improve their military capabilities, offensive as they are, which just causes more instability on the peninsula and contributes to a degradation in the security environment.

We have said for months now that Mr. Kim could conduct another nuclear test at any moment, and we still believe that that’s the case. I’m not going to, again, telegraph options or get ahead of President Biden, but what the deputy secretary was referring to would be the severity of the response by the international community should that be the case, and I think I need to leave it there. But again, I want to stress we’re willing to sit down without preconditions. There’s no reason for another test to occur.

In the meantime, given that he hasn’t shown any inclination to want to talk, we have to do what we must to make sure that we can defend ourselves and our allies. Five of our seven treaty alliances in the United States are in the Pacific region – five of seven. And one of them is with the Republic of Korea. The other one is with Japan, or another one is with Japan. And we have to take those responsibilities – as the President said we take with respect to NATO and our Article 5, we take our treaty commitments to Japan and South Korea very seriously as well, which is why, in response to the provocations of the North in these last many weeks, we have increased our ability to gather intelligence in and around the peninsula.

We have conducted and tried to hone military capabilities, conducting exercises bilaterally with the Japanese self-defense forces as well as the military of the Republic of Korea. And we have been spurring and encouraging and trying to engender better trilateral cooperation between our three nations from a defense perspective, from a security perspective to make sure that short of a diplomatic path forward here, which we obviously prefer, we can defend our interests and those of our allies. Okay?

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m from SBS. My name is Mo Nam. Well, three days ago in a telephone briefing, you said the U.S. added some intelligence capabilities around the Korean Peninsula —

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: — to response DPRK’s nuclear test. So my question is: Your words means the U.S. deployed additional intelligence assets near the Korean Peninsula, or just improve abilities to collect information through bilateral or trilateral joint trainings?

MR. KIRBY: I do not talk about the method (inaudible) that we have worked on ways to improve our capabilities, and we’ve done that, but we’re obviously not going to talk publicly about that.

Go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Actually, my question related your opening statement.

MR. KIRBY: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Mounzer Sleiman, Al Mayadeen Network based in Beirut, Lebanon. You praised the demarcation of economic zones agreement that occurred. Now, Lebanon, still, to benefit from that agreement it’s going to take years probably.

MR. KIRBY: We understand.

QUESTION: It’s on the verge of collapse, economic collapse now, and there was a plan to have gas and electricity coming from Egypt and Jordan through Syria to help Lebanon to address the needs that now, currently, facing. Is the administration willing to ease the sanction on Syria? Because the only way that Lebanon can benefit if those lines, pipelines, go through Syria. Is – and when, in – at what circumstances United States will withdraw its forces from Syria?

One last thing about the broader Middle East, since you talked about the foreign policy, if you don’t mind, please. Question is: You talked about the integration in the region. One aspect of the integration was integration of missile defense network between Israel and the Gulf states, in particular, in light of the relation, uneasy relation with Saudi Arabia – I’m not going to describe it other than that – and the review of your relationship, the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. How that is going to impact that network? Is that network – in the foreseeable future could exist? And thank you very much.

By the way, may I say one thing? You can be voted the most popular spokesman in American history. (Applause.) I’m not exaggerating.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you. I think that’s a good note to end on, so we’ll see you later. (Laughter.)

(Chit-chat.)

MR. KIRBY: I appreciate that very much. I very much appreciate that.

So on your first question, I know of no changes to our sanctions regime, particularly with Syria. Two, as you know, we only – we do not have a large footprint in Syria – less than a thousand – and they are solely focused on the counter-ISIS fight, working with the Syrian Democratic Forces against the ISIS threat which remains there. They still try to sustain themselves there, resource themselves, recruit, and even to plan and conduct operations. And so ISIS remains a viable threat and we have determined that it’s a threat that we believe is important to our national security to continue to try to counter.

And so I certainly would refer you to the Pentagon for more specifics, but there are no plans right now to change that posture. We’re going to continue to go after ISIS, as we have and you’ve seen us go after in recent months.

And —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, no, no, I know. I know. What was your third question?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: Oh yeah, integrated air missile defense. Thank you. It’s still something we’d like to pursue. We talked about this a little bit in July when the President went to the region. And now, it’s not something that can be turned on like a switch, it’s not something we’re going to be able to stand up in the very, very near future. But the idea is, particularly because Iran’s ballistic missile program continues to advance and the capabilities continue to get better, and now it – they may be – we’re concerned that they may be willing to provide surface-to-surface missiles to Russia in Ukraine so that more Ukrainian people can be hurt and killed.

But because of this burgeoning program of theirs, we believe there is promise in the idea of an integrated air and missile defense network in the region. Many of the nations that we’re talking about are friends and partners of ours, and they have a lot of our capabilities, which can be netted together to help form a better, more layered, more capable missile defense regimen. And that’s really the key on missile defense. It’s got to be a layered process here. There’s no one thing, no one silver bullet – pardon the pun there – that will solve all the problems for a ballistic missile threat. You want to have short, medium, and long-range intercept capabilities. You want to have discreet and powerful sensing ability through radars, and you want to be able to net all that information together in a way that can allow the safest umbrella possible for incoming missiles.

So we still think it’s an idea worth pursuing. But we know that it’s going to take a lot of work. I mean, every nation-state, because they’re sovereign nations – and let’s not forget, that’s what really – when we talk about what’s going on in Ukraine today and even something like this, it is about protecting sovereignty. And these are sovereign nation-states that have these capabilities. They have to decide for themselves whether they’re willing to sign up for this kind of an idea, and if so, what that’s going to look like. And that’s one of the reasons we’re continuing to have conversations with them, and we will going forward.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: As I said, I know of no changes to our sanctions policy.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIRBY: We are proud and happy that this maritime boundary will allow for Lebanon to gain access to energy resources they haven’t been able to gain access before. And yes, it will take some time, but it will benefit their economy. And we are willing to work across – with them and others in the region to see what we can do to increase prosperity. Again, that was one of the reasons the President went there.

But I know what you’re – I know what you’re asking. I know of no changes to our sanctions policy with respect to Syria.

Yeah, you in the corner there, in the closet. Yeah. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you very much, John. And thank you for this briefing on Biden-Harris administration on priorities on foreign policy. On Bangladesh, Bangladeshi people are struggling for democracy, voting rights, as you know very well. Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus facing false charges, the former prime minister still is in jail, government – the regime is on zero tolerance on freedom of expression, as they’re using the draconian act, Digital Security Act. And we have experienced two farcical election, and it was not considered as free, fair, and credible according to State Department human rights report and around the world. So what is your position on Bangladesh as another election is approaching? So (inaudible) people are concerned whether it will be another managed election, or it will be a free, fair, credible election. As U.S. is one of the largest development partner of Bangladesh, and what is your comment about this and what is your administration thinking on Bangladesh? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Our view quite clearly (inaudible) Bangladesh, like everybody around the (inaudible), should have the right to use their voice, to assemble peacefully, and to make their aspirations known in a way that is peaceful and respects the rule of law. We call on the government to respect and protect the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Free and fair elections cannot take place in an environment with political violence. And genuine elections require the ability of all candidates to engage voters free from violence, free from harassment, free from intimidation. And that’s our view.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Alex Raufoglu, from Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. John, I want to go back to a Putin question. I know you have been asked about G20 this morning on different occasions. Is it —

MR. KIRBY: Ask again.

QUESTION: Is it the President’s position that Putin should not come to the summit as long as he’s waging war on Ukraine? And my second QUESTION: If you look at Putin from the perspective of South Caucasus – I cover Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia – you see two versions of Putin: Putin the troublemaker in Ukraine, and also you see Putin is trying to pretend to be peacemaker in that part of the world. Which one is the real Putin, from your opinion? I’m asking because the administration has been trying to facilitate peace process between Azerbaijan, Armenia lately, and also other conflicts that Russia is trying to insert itself as a quote/unquote “peacemaker.” Thanks so much.

MR. KIRBY: The President’s – first of all, we have not announced any travel by the President with respect to the G20. So I won’t get ahead of him or his schedule.

As for which Putin, I think is how you asked it – I don’t know that we share the view that there’s two Putins. There’s one Vladimir Putin, and this man decided, without provocation, to invade a neighboring state, a neighboring state, mind you, that had threatened exactly no one with anything. There was absolutely zero reason for him to move across that border on the 24th of February and begin to rain down destruction on Ukrainian cities and the Ukrainian people.

That’s the Vladimir Putin that we see. We see the leader of a military that clearly is willing to commit atrocities on innocent Ukrainian people, children. We see a Russian military that, again, is raining down missiles and now using Iranian drones for one purpose, and that’s to instill fear and to destroy civilian infrastructure, to knock out the lights so that the Ukrainian people will somehow rue the coming winter. Of course, it’s not having that effect on them; quite the contrary. Their resolve is as stiff as ever, maybe stiffer, as a result of what he’s doing.

We see a Vladimir Putin that’s willing to lie to his troops about what they’re being sent to Ukraine to do, or even that they are being sent to Ukraine; a Vladimir Putin is willing to obscure and lie to his own people about this quote/unquote, as he calls it, a “special military operation.” It’s a war, plain and simple. It’s a war, a war he started. And I’d add it’s a war he could end today. The Mr. Putin that we’re talking about – the Mr. Putin – he could end it today by pulling his troops out of Ukraine and calling it quits and just being willing to stop it. Obviously, he’s not showing a willingness to do that. So that’s the Mr. Putin that we see.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Go to Zoom a little bit, because I haven’t done —

QUESTION: Yeah. Rahim Rashidi or Mr. Kurd from Kurdistan. John, that all U.S. communication on Jina Mahsa Amini’s name to include her real name, Jina, which Iranian regime has banned from the day she was born. My question is that: Why the U.S. Government does not convince a UN Security Council meeting to condemn the daily massacre of demonstrators in Iran, especially in Iranian Kurdistan?

Second question is why you are, as U.S. Government, not able to meet Iranian opposition when, in Iran, we don’t have a free press, independent human rights organization; regime shut down internet, filter all social media. How you can get correct information and data of dating of people on the street, million of Iranian on the street requesting for regime change? Thank you very much.

MR. KIRBY: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met recently with some Iranian activists, so we have an ability to do that. We are also working very, very hard in a variety of means to keep open channels of communication, public communication, for the Iranian people so that they can stay connected, because we know they want to. It’s an incredibly young population and they want to be connected to the rest of the world. Even before these protests, there was a hunger and a thirst to be connected to the outside world, which we appreciate and respect. It’s even more now, and we are working in a variety of ways to try to keep those channels of communication open.

As to your first question, sir, I’m going to have to refer you to the State Department and to our office up at the UN. I don’t have any information on that particular case or what, if any, conversations at the UN need to occur. But again, in the well of the UN, President Biden made it very clear two or three weeks ago that we stand for the right of peaceful protest, as we do in Bangladesh. People should be able to protest government policies without the fear of violence and harassment, intimidation, without the fear of losing life and limb, and we’re going to continue to stand up for that all around the world. Peaceful assembly is an idea that this country was founded on, and we take that seriously.

Go ahead to Zoom.

MODERATOR: Alright, let’s go to Robert Papa from Albania.

QUESTION: Hi. Do you hear me, sir?

MODERATOR: We can hear you.

QUESTION: Yeah. What about the Open Balkans? Is U.S. supporting the Open Balkans under the leadership of Serbian President Vučić?

MR. KIRBY: We are supportive of all initiatives that would enhance economic cooperation, integration, and boost stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans.

MODERATOR: Alright, let’s go to – let’s stay in the Balkans. We’ll go to Boris from Macedonia.

QUESTION: Yes, do you hear me?

MODERATOR: We can hear you.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this, Admiral. So basically, yeah, it’s again on Western Balkans. And how is this administration support the goodwill of North Macedonia to start the negotiation talks with European Union? Actually, vice versa, European Union will start the negotiation talks with North Macedonia. And just recently, just actually yesterday, they signed the first agreement with Fontex for border control and for security between North Macedonia and European Union. How do you commend it? And do you see these countries as a successful story for other countries?

And by the way, you mentioned two more NATO member – two more NATO – two more countries who will become NATO members soon. Can you just precise tell us who are those two countries? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, it’s Finland and Sweden are the two countries that have applied for NATO membership and are working through the process.

Look, I’m going to refer you to the State Department on the more specific details of the first question that you asked. I would note that just recently the Principal Deputy National Security Advisor John Finer had a chance to meet with the Albanian foreign minister, and he reaffirmed the United States’ immediate, significant, and continuing support for Albania’s efforts to strengthen its cyber security, of course in the face of repeated and disruptive cyber attacks from Iran. And he also expressed U.S. appreciation for our strong cooperation on global issues, including our work together as NATO Allies, and Albania’s leadership as a member of the UN Security Council, especially as a co-pen holder of – I’m sorry, with the United States on resolutions related to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. So we welcome that visit, we welcome that conversation.

But as to your specific question, I just don’t have enough depth of knowledge on it that I can answer that today, the EU discussions that you talked about, and I regret that I am going to have forward you over to the State Department.

MODERATOR: I think we can do one more from Zoom. Katerina Sokou from Greece.

MR. KIRBY: And I can take one more from the room, and then I’ll —

MODERATOR: Perfect.

QUESTION: Thank you, John, for this briefing. To go back to the National Security Strategy of the U.S. administration, it notes that the U.S. supports de-escalation and integration in the Middle East, that it will use through diplomacy to reduce the risks of conflicts, work with partners that commit to rules-based international order, and not tolerate incursions and threats. I was just wondering, do these principles include in your analysis the Eastern Mediterranean? And given Turkey’s challenge of Greek sovereignty or its position for a two-state solution in Cyprus, are you concerned about the potential of conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean too? And if so, how can U.S. diplomacy reduce the risk of it? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Look, I won’t get into the specifics with respect to Turkey and Cyprus. Again, I’d refer you to the State Department. But in general, I think that the National Security Strategy does speak well to the way we look at the world today – the threats, the challenges, the opportunities around the world – and our respect for the international rules-based order that the United States and so many other nations helped usher in after World War II and that we’ve helped uphold – which, again, respects sovereignty and which respects territorial integrity and which respects basic human rights and respects the rule of law and governance that is responsible to and for the people that it represents. But again, on your specific question, I’d refer you to State.

I can take one more. Let’s see.

QUESTION: Saudi Arabia.

MR. KIRBY: What? Al Arabiya? Okay, go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, John, for doing this. I am with Anadolu Agency, Turkey. The question is about Saudi Arabia. As you may know —

MR. KIRBY: The question is about Saudi Arabia?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. KIRBY: Okay.

QUESTION: And the question is, as you may know, the Saudi Arabia authorities backed a UN resolution condemning Russia, and they committed $400 million for Ukraine. But yesterday, Mr. Secretary of State Blinken said these are positive developments but they do not compensate for OPEC+ oil decision. And White House officials also said there will be consequences. Even some lawmakers floated the idea of removing troops from Saudi Arabia, U.S. troops. Are you working on a, like, concrete consequence for Saudi Arabia, or just let this row go away by time? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Great question. Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner for the United States for 80 years. Even as a young naval officer myself putting to sea in the Gulf and in the Red Sea alongside the Saudi navy ships, and Saudi pilots flew missions in support of our initial fight against ISIS back in 2014. And they’ve been a partner on many, many issues.

The President believes that in light of the OPEC+ decision, which we believe (a) did not comport with the analysis of the proper balance between supply and demand on the oil market right now, a decision that did not have to be made this month, and (b) that benefited Russia, that benefited Mr. Putin’s ability to profiteer off oil so that he can continue to kill Ukrainians – we believe that. And in light of that, the President has asked his team to take a look at this bilateral relationship and make sure that it’s serving our interests and the interests of the American people in the appropriate way.

That discussion – that review, if you will – is ongoing, and the President looks forward as well to talking to members of Congress when they’re back in town about their views and perspectives on this as well. He has made no decisions. He has – he hasn’t come to any initial conclusions at this time. He wants to take the time it takes to look at this bilateral relationship in a measured, deliberate, thoughtful way. And whatever it looks like going forward, he wants to make sure it’s serving our national interest to the best possible way that it can.

Okay, thanks, everybody. I’ve got to go. Appreciate it.

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone. Really appreciate your turnout. Thanks to our briefer for taking so much time. Have a great day.

U.S. Department of State

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