2:09 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Let me actually start where you left off, Andrea, and to go back to a point that Conor raised. And with the arrest of Vladimir Kara-Murza, to add a little more detail to this, this is someone who has previously endured arrests and even near-fatal poisonings in connection with nothing more than his peaceful activities on behalf of the human rights and civil liberties of the Russian people.
We have urged Russia to cease the abuse of repressive laws that it has used to target its own citizens, non-violent demonstrators, peaceful protestors, individuals who are doing nothing more than advocating – again, peacefully – on behalf of what are rights that are as universal to them as they are to people around the world. The Russian people – and this is the key point – like people everywhere – have the right to speak freely, to form peaceful associations, to exercise their freedom of expression, and to have their voices heard through free and fair elections.
And Conor, you asked about the trends we’re seeing in Russia, and certainly anecdotally at least, we do seem to be seeing a crackdown, a regime that is more aggressive beyond its borders and more repressive within its borders. We’ve seen that last year. We spoke about that in the context of the arrest of Aleksey Navalny, the subsequent arrest and detention of the thousands of individuals who – again, peacefully – took to the streets to protest his detention. We’ve seen that just over the past 24 hours with the arrest of Vladimir Kara-Murza. We’ve seen that in recent weeks with the detention of more than 15,000 Russians who took to the streets to protest what their own government is doing, purportedly in their name, and the subsequent crackdown that we’ve seen in towns and cities across Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s hometown, to towns and cities across the country.
I think if you look at this, these are not the actions of a government that is confident. These are the actions of a government, of a regime, that is fundamentally insecure, that is not willing to allow its own people to do what is the right of every people everywhere, to voice their protest, to march peacefully, to form associations, and to make their voices and their free will heard.
QUESTION: A follow-up, Ned. In a related issue, in clear rejection of the President’s appeal to President Xi, China is reportedly increasing its echo chamber of the Russian false statements about atrocities, false claims that it was Ukraine that staged a lot of these atrocities. Is there any – anything more between the U.S. and Beijing in trying to get them to not propagate these – the propaganda from Russia?
MR PRICE: These lies. This has been a topic between – to include at the highest levels – between the United States and the PRC. President Biden did have an opportunity to address this. Other senior officials in this government have had an opportunity to address this.
The fact is, at the end of the day, the PRC is going to make their own choices about their partnerships, their alliances, their actions, and their messaging. And this would not be the first time that we have seen false propaganda emanate from the organs of the PRC. It won’t be the last time.
Our concern, however, is that this time is different because the issue is not the sort of run-of-the-mill propaganda that we expect to hear from governments that have something of an adversarial relationship with the truth on occasion. This is an effort that may seek to provide cover to Russia’s potential plans to employ some of the most heinous weapons in their arsenal against the free people of Ukraine.
We are concerned, as we’ve said before, that Russia may seek to resort to chemical weapons. We’re concerned on the basis of a few elements. We know that Russia has a track record. Russia has used these agents against its own people on Russian soil, on European soil. Russia is engaging in the practice of projection, projecting onto – whether it’s Ukraine, whether it’s the United States – what they themselves may be planning to do in terms of the false lies that there are active chemical weapons programs on Ukrainian soil or that the United States is somehow involved in any chemical weapons program on Ukrainian soil – both outright lies.
And of course, we know that this is not a campaign that has gone according to plan for Vladimir Putin, and you can make that judgment on the basis of any number of facts. But at the most basic level – and we have declassified this; you’ve heard this from our CIA director – this was a campaign that Vladimir Putin thought would land his forces in Kyiv within 48 or 72 hours, very shortly after the initiation of aggression against Ukraine. We’re now more than five weeks into Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russia has lost the battle of Kyiv. Its forces are retreating, and Russia’s tactics are becoming even more brutal.
So the Secretary was asked earlier about reports. We’re not in a position to confirm anything at this time, but we have long voiced our concern, and long voiced our concern that any government would seek to lend any degree of credibility to what appeared to be nothing more than outright lies seeking to cover, obfuscate what Russia may be planning to do in terms of the employment of chemical weapons.
Kylie. I will come back.
QUESTION: Just on that, could you provide any more clarity on the U.S. role in confirming these reports? Have you guys just offered to assist in determining if these chemical weapons were used, or is there an active process underway and you guys are part of that process? Are you reviewing any evidence and the like?
MR PRICE: So this in some ways started before the reports that emerged yesterday, and you heard from the Secretary just a moment ago that we had developed credible information preceding the reports that came to the fore yesterday that Russia’s forces may use a variety of riot-control agents, and that includes tear gas mixed with chemical agents that would cause stronger symptoms, as part of the effort to weaken and incapacitate entrenched Ukrainian fighters and even civilians as part of its campaign to take Mariupol.
We’ve had a dialogue with our Ukrainian partners. We’ve shared this intelligence with them, as we have shared a great deal of intelligence and information with them, both tactical and strategic. And we shared the gist of this publicly, at least in terms of the outlines of our concerns that Russia may be seeking to use, to employ, chemical weapons.
We are – we already have been in direct conversations with our Ukrainian partners as they are collecting facts and evidence. We do stand ready to assist in case we can be useful in terms of that investigation, whether it is any sort of technical capability or anything else. But our Ukrainian partners know that we’re standing ready.
QUESTION: And just one more on that. And given that your intelligence predicted that this was in the realm of possibility, can you detail any specific protective equipment or anything that the United States has provided to the Ukrainians – gas masks, protective clothing? We’ve heard a lot about weapons, but we haven’t heard a ton about those things. Have you provided those necessities to the Ukrainians?
MR PRICE: Yes, so we have provided material and protective equipment to our Ukrainian partners in – to protect them from the potential use of chemical weapons. We can get you a broader inventory of what that looked like.
QUESTION: And that’s already there?
MR PRICE: We’ve provided that to them, yes.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
QUESTION: And just to follow up on what the Secretary said and you just repeated, when you say you have credible informations, even if it was before the latest reports, is that recent information about those – this possible use of chemical weapons?
MR PRICE: It’s recent information. It was recent information that was available to us before the reports emerged yesterday.
QUESTION: Ned, can I just switch gears a little bit and still talk about Ukraine? But can you talk a little bit about how the United States views the potential NATO membership or application of Sweden and Finland? This was discussed in last week’s NATO summit. Is it – can you guys, like, outright say this is something you welcome in light of these repeated statements from Russia saying that it would lead to instability and there are various views that it might be seen as provocation or anything like that? Can you just outline the U.S. thinking around that, please?
MR PRICE: Sure. Well, as you know, the United States nor any other country nor any other Ally does not speak on behalf of NATO. This would be a decision for the Alliance to make when it comes to the aspirations of any aspirant country.
What I can say and what we do support is the principle of NATO’s open door. It should be up to the members of the Alliance and no other country to determine what NATO’s roster looks like. If there are aspirant countries that are raising their hands that meet the stringent criteria that NATO has put forward, that would be a decision for the NATO Alliance to make.
QUESTION: Do you anticipate that these membership applications are likely to come through because of what’s been happening regarding the war in Ukraine?
MR PRICE: I would have to refer you to any aspirant countries to speak to the status of their applications for joining the NATO Alliance.
But I will say this – and without speaking to any NATO Allies beyond – potential NATO Allies beyond the 30 current NATO Allies – the point that the Secretary has consistently made, that Vladimir Putin has precipitated everything he has sought to prevent, I think is showcased here.
We are now five, six weeks into this war in Ukraine. In many ways, this is a strategic defeat for Russia already, and one of the ways it’s a strategic defeat is because the international community and NATO in particular has never been stronger, has never been more united, has never been more purposeful since the end of the Cold War. And you can measure that in the level of consensus and unanimity that has emanated from recent sessions of the NAC, the recent foreign ministerial that took place in Brussels. But you can also measure it, in some ways, quantitatively, in terms of the number of U.S. service members who are now in Europe. It’s increased from some 60,000 to now over 100,000. To the capabilities that NATO has at its disposal; to the steps that the Alliance has taken to reassure countries on NATO’s eastern flank.
All of this is done defensively in reaction to the offensive operations that Vladimir Putin is undertaking inside of Ukraine. None of this —
QUESTION: So what do you exactly make of the Kremlin saying that the possible accession of Sweden, Finland would not bring stability to Europe? Is that a threat?
MR PRICE: As a general matter, without speaking to any specific Kremlin statements, NATO is a defensive alliance. The – how the strengthening of a defensive alliance would bring anything other than additional stability and security, that’s not something that I have a hard time imagining.
QUESTION: Speaking of alliances with NATO and all the work that this administration has done in the lead-up to this conflict, there is a very important presidential election going on in France. How concerned is the U.S. about the possibility of Marine Le Pen becoming the leader of a country like France, who you’ve obviously worked very hard with in terms of alliances against the Kremlin and displaying unity within – between the U.S. and Europe?
MR PRICE: This is a question for the people of France. France is our oldest ally, but this is a question for the French people, and they will exercise their right to vote in the coming days.
MR PRICE: Well, this is a question that we are working on right now with colleagues throughout the administration, including in the Department of Homeland Security. The statement that the President made from Warsaw is that the United States would seek to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainians. And so the USRAP program, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is one potential avenue that we would seek to utilize to reach that number. But there are other programs and authorities that we could potentially use, including programs and authorities that would seek to reunite and reunify families that had been separated because of President Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
But even as we work on these questions with our colleagues throughout the interagency, we are already taking drastic action to support the humanitarian needs of those who’ve been internally displaced inside Ukraine and the millions who have been forced to flee their home country and who are now residing in, in most cases, nearby European countries.
We also know that many Ukrainians want to stay in the region, and they want to stay in the region for a couple of reasons. In many cases, many of them have had to leave behind husbands, brothers, sons, who are fighting this Russian aggression. Additionally, there is every hope – and we share this hope – that Ukraine will, before long, once again be a secure, stable country where Ukrainians can return to. So our goal is in the near term to support the humanitarian needs of IDPs inside Ukraine, refugees inside Europe, and then, as appropriate and given the level of demand, to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians to the United States using all legal pathways available.
QUESTION: What about those who don’t want to stay in the region, they would want to come now? And so you don’t have anything in place now, you’re not taking action right now to —
MR PRICE: There are existing programs, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, there is the Lautenberg —
QUESTION: In the case here —
MR PRICE: There is the Lautenberg program that is very active right now. There are other potential avenues. And what the President committed to was to accelerate and to expand the scope of our ability to welcome Ukrainians to the United States should they choose to come here.
QUESTION: Can I ask just on another topic?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: On Brittney Griner’s case, do you have any update? Have you tried to make a consular visit and been denied in the last month?
And on Trevor Reed, any response to his – to the denial of his appeal today and his statement in court that he’s not getting any medicine and/or treatment for a broken rib?
MR PRICE: So when it comes to Brittney Griner, you heard us confirm that an official from our embassy in Moscow had an opportunity to pay her a consular visit on March 23rd, earlier this year. We have, beyond one-off consular visits, continued to insist that Russian authorities allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizens who are detained in Russia. That includes those who are in pre-trial detention, including Brittney Griner. We are in frequent contact with her legal team, with her broader network, and we have no higher priority than the safety and security of Americans, including those who are incarcerated in Russia.
Similarly, with Trevor Reed, the appeals court in Moscow today denied Trevor Reed the justice he deserves by remanding his case to a lower court. As you know, Ambassador Sullivan was in the court earlier today. He was able to talk to Trevor Reed through a camera to briefly ask him about his health, which does remain a concern of ours. The point with Trevor Reed is that he remains in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Ambassador Sullivan noted this earlier today, but the evidence at his trial was so flimsy that spectators and even court personnel laughed during the proceedings.
We know that Trevor’s health has deteriorated. He is in the hospital in Mordovia. He has exhibited, as you heard today from Ambassador Sullivan, symptoms of tuberculosis. We do believe that he needs urgent treatment to prevent any further deterioration in his medical condition, and we appeal once again to the Russian Government to provide a treatment plan and urgent medical care so that his family can be assured that his health needs are being addressed. And above and beyond that, we continue to urge that he be released given that he is being unjustly held and should be reunited with his family.
QUESTION: Thank you. On South Korea and Ukraine. Ukraine President Zelenskyy has requested WMD, I mean weapons of mass destruction, from South Korea yesterday during – he gave a speech at the national – South Korea’s national assembly. And South Korea Government refuse to provide WMD to Ukraine. What do you think of South Korea’s refusal to this request?
MR PRICE: I’m not familiar with that specific request, but any specific request that would come from our Ukrainian partners to another government, we would have to refer to that other government.
MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) is justified because these WMDs needing to provide Ukraine, but the United States (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: What we and our partners are providing Ukraine is a massive amount of security assistance and precisely what our Ukrainian partners need to defend themselves against Russian aggression. In the case of the United States, we have provided over $2.4 billion worth of security assistance since the start of this administration, about a hundred – $1.7 billion over the past month alone. If you add in contributions from our partners and allies around the world, more than 30 countries that have provided security assistance to Ukraine since the start of this ingression – aggression, that number grows even higher.
And I think you can look at the effectiveness of that security assistance through a number of different lenses. As I said before, Russia has lost the battle of Kyiv. They lost the battle of Kyiv as a result of the determination, the tenacity, the bravery, and the grit of the Ukrainian people. But what has enabled Ukrainian resistance to this aggression is the massive amount of security assistance that the United States and our partners and allies from around the world have provided.
And you can measure just the amount of that security assistance, again, through – by a number of different ways. If you take, for example, anti-tank systems that are currently in Ukraine, for every Russian tank currently in Ukraine, the United States alone has provided 10 anti-tank systems. If you add in the contributions of our partners and allies, their anti-tank systems, that number and that ratio goes up to 90 – 90 anti-tank systems for every single Russian tank in Ukraine. It is a similar ratio in terms of anti-armored systems. For every Russian armored vehicle, the United States has provided three anti-armor systems. If you count the contributions of our partners and allies, that ratio goes up to 25 to 1. And you can go almost across the board in terms of Russian assets in Ukraine and the amount of security assistance that we have provided.
What we’re also doing – beyond the scale and the size of that security assistance, we are providing our Ukrainian partners with precisely the type of security assistance they’ve requested. You heard from our colleagues yesterday that we’re going to be in a position to provide artillery, and that will come as a direct result of what we’ve heard from our Ukrainian partners. We also announced on Friday – and our Slovak partners announced on Friday that they would be transferring the S-300 long-range anti-aircraft system. That transfer was complemented, and in some ways enabled, by the fact that we were able to backfill that system with the provision of a Patriot missile battery.
So whether it is equipment from our own stocks, whether it is our ability to backfill what our partners and allies are then in turn providing, or whether it is what our partners and allies themselves are providing, we are making sure that every single day there is a delivery of much needed and requested security assistance to our Ukrainian partners, and most importantly, it’s security assistance that is having a clear effect on the battlefield.
MR PRICE: Well, we’re deeply concerned with violence in Israel and the West Bank, which we saw continue, unfortunately, over the weekend, and which has led to the deaths and injury of Israeli and Palestinian civilians. We urge all sides to refrain from actions that escalate tensions and unrest and undercut efforts to advance a two-state solution. And we encourage all sides to work together to end this cycle of violence.
QUESTION: Mariupol’s mayor has said that more than 20,000 civilians may have been killed in that city so far. Does the State Department have a sense of the civilian casualties in terms of numbers so far in Ukraine overall?
And then I have another question about Mariupol. Apparently there are people that are being forcibly removed from that city and sent into either Russian-controlled areas or Russian cities throughout the country of Russia. Do you know if that’s happening? Does the U.S. have any evidence of that happening right now?
MR PRICE: So in terms of the death toll, we aren’t in a position to attach a figure to that, primarily because the battle of Mariupol continues. Violence – in some cases, unimaginable levels of violence and brutality – continue to inflict grave harm on the people there. So we’ve heard estimates, but until we have – and our Ukrainian partners in the first instance have a better sense of what has transpired on the ground we’re just not going to be in a position to attach a figure to that or to endorse any numbers.
When it comes to reports of forced displacement, we have seen these reports. We believe some of them are credible. What we have consistently said is that whether it’s Mariupol or other besieged areas, there need to be humanitarian corridors to allow people to leave on their own free will, not to see to it that the only escape hatch they have is to a place like Russia or, to the north, Belarus, but to areas that are not under siege.
Just as civilians should be allowed to leave, humanitarian assistance should be allowed to enter, to flow in. We have not seen humanitarian corridors stick, certainly not to the extent that they should, because of one actor in this conflict, and that has been the Russian aggression, even when humanitarian corridors have been agreed upon.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on Humeyra’s question earlier about Finland and Sweden? Without speaking for NATO or speaking to their potential application, can you just say what the United States believes it would mean for NATO to have additional members with significant military – the kind of significant military capability that those countries have? As you know, they have a lot more military assets and bigger militaries than many other NATO countries, and if there’s just – I’m just trying to get at what this would do to the deterrent or defensive power of the Alliance.
MR PRICE: It’s a difficult question to answer because I know you asked me to zoom out, but I think by answering that question, I would necessarily need to zoom in on two aspirant countries or potential aspirant countries to the NATO Alliance.
But the point is that NATO is a defensive alliance. NATO now is more determined, more committed, more purposeful in those defensive aims precisely because we have seen Russia, NATO’s neighbor to the east, take aggressive action, take offensive action against countries in the region. There’s a concern, of course, that President Putin’s aims may not be confined solely to Ukraine. Of course, there are pro-Russia forces in Georgia, and Russia is a country that has meddled in other places as well, certainly to include Moldova.
So the reason – again, without speaking to any other countries – the reason we may be seeing additional interest in a defensive alliance is precisely because we’ve seen offensive operations and aggression on the part of the Russian Federation. So if there is any cause of increased interest on the NATO Alliance, if there is anything that at its core undergirds this sense of purpose, of unity, of determination on the NATO Alliance, at the core of that, I think it’s fair to say, is Vladimir Putin.
One final question? Sure.
QUESTION: Can I just ask something about Afghanistan? Does the U.S. have a hard number of how many American citizens are still in the country – how many of those people are trying to leave Afghanistan? And when was the last charter flight to take Americans out of the country?
MR PRICE: So we have made a commitment, as you know, to U.S. citizens, to lawful permanent residents, to those we have a special commitment, to help them relocate from Afghanistan should they choose to do so. Those efforts have been underway since the end of the U.S. military evacuation. The number is close to 1,000 between American citizens – U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who have been directly relocated out of Afghanistan with the assistance of the U.S. Government.
When it comes to the estimate of U.S. citizens who are still in Afghanistan, that’s a number, as you know, that fluctuates because there have been recent – there have – we have recently been able to effect the relocation of additional Americans out of Afghanistan, but there are Americans who will raise their hands having seen the success we’ve had. So we are in touch with a number of Americans. We’re continuing to do everything we can to support their desire to relocate and we will continue to do that as long as there are Americans who wish to leave the country.
QUESTION: Have there been flights that have been able to get out, though, recently?
MR PRICE: There have been recent flights.
QUESTION: Do you have the number of – the number of people who are in third countries still trying to get into the States? These are non-American citizens.
MR PRICE: We can – I think we can get you those numbers.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you speak to the decision and the degree that it was based around the COVID restrictions? And do you view them – China says that they’re based in science. Do you view them as onerous, as severe, as a violation of folks’ freedom of movement or anything like that?
MR PRICE: Well, as you alluded to, Conor, we did yesterday order the departure of non-emergency U.S. Government personnel and family members from our consulate general in Shanghai due to two things: one, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, but also the restrictions related to the PRC’s response to that outbreak. We previously were on authorized departure, and the move to ordered departure means that we are now mandating that all family members and certain employees depart Shanghai rather than making this relocation decision voluntary.
This reflects at its core our assessment that it is best for our employees and their families to temporarily reduce in-country staffing as we deal with changing circumstances on the ground. There are commercial flights. We expect our employees and their family members will be able to depart Shanghai in the coming days on commercial flights. Ambassador Burns and other department and mission officials have consistently raised our concerns about the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens with PRC officials, including in the context of the PRC’s COVID restrictions.
We have informed the government of the PRC about our ordered departure. And even as we draw down our staff at the consulate general in Shanghai, we continue to provide support to our U.S. citizen community throughout the PRC. We have adjusted staffing throughout the mission to respond to the surge and demand for emergency citizen services, including by standing up a team at the U.S. embassy in Beijing to provide supplemental support to Consulate General Shanghai. And where conditions permit, routine U.S. citizen and visa services remain open to the public, and facilities at the U.S. consulate general in Shanghai will be reopened – will reopen to the public as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Just to be clear, though, do you view these restrictions as too severe?
MR PRICE: Well, we are – we have moved from authorized departure to ordered departure because of the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that have been placed by PRC authorities on people in Shanghai, including our diplomats and their families.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:43 p.m.)