MR PRICE: I have a couple of announcements at the top and then we’ll turn to your questions.
You may have seen yesterday that the CDC announced changes to their COVID-19 Travel Health Notice system. We here at the Department of State have also reassessed how COVID-19 considerations factor into our Travel Advisory levels for U.S. citizens.
Starting next week, the State Department Travel Advisory levels will no longer automatically correlate with the CDC COVID-19 Travel Health Notice level. However, if the CDC raises a country to a Level 4 for COVID-19, or if COVID-19-related restrictions threaten to strand, isolate, or otherwise seriously affect U.S. citizens, the State Department’s Travel Advisory for that country will also be raised to a Level 4, or Do Not Travel.
The updated framework will significantly reduce the level – the number of Level 4 Travel Advisories, and we believe it will help U.S. citizens make better informed decisions about the safety of international travel at this time.
We encourage U.S. citizens planning international travel this summer, or any other time, to check their passport expiration date. Act now to renew or apply for the first time. Keep in mind that many countries do require passports to have at least six months’ remaining validity for entry. Routine passport processing, as we have warned, can take eight to 11 weeks.
We also encourage U.S. citizens to stay connected with us via travel.state.gov and through our @travel.gov social media accounts, and to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, to receive timely alerts about evolving health and safety conditions.
And finally, today the U.S. Department of State released our first ever Equity Action Plan to implement Executive Order 13985 on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. We joined over 90 federal agencies and all cabinet-level agencies across the U.S. Government in this launch.
This plan is the product of President Biden’s historic executive order directing federal agencies to address barriers to opportunity for underrepresented and underserved communities. Our Equity Action Plan outlines commitments, actions, and accountability mechanisms to improve our effectiveness in successfully integrating equity across our foreign affairs work.
With that, happy to take your questions. Daphne.
QUESTION: Russia warned today that it would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles into Leningrad if Finland and Sweden joined NATO. Is the U.S. concerned about Russia upping its rhetoric around this? And then I have a question on embassy staffing as well.
MR PRICE: The warning I saw in that regard came from a former Russian official who is no longer in power and arguably may not have been in power at the time he purportedly was in power. So no, we don’t have a specific response to that. The Russian Federation knows where we stand in terms of our commitment to Article 5, the idea, the sacrosanct commitment we have that an attack on one is an attack on all. But we don’t have a specific response to that.
QUESTION: France said today it will very soon transfer back its embassy in Ukraine from Kyiv to Lviv. Are U.S. embassy staff still commuting from Poland to Lviv? And are there any plans to stop commuting and be fully operational in Lviv, or to reopen the embassy in Kyiv?
MR PRICE: Well, a number of weeks ago, just before the start of the invasion, a core Mission Ukraine team that previously was working from Lviv relocated to Poland. They remain in Poland; they are not currently traveling over the border to Ukraine due to the unstable security situation. I will say, however, that we are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the safety and the security situation. It is, of course, our goal to have a diplomatic presence re-established in Ukraine as soon as it would be safe and practical to have U.S. diplomats on the ground there.
But I would also hasten to add that the lack of a U.S. diplomatic presence, U.S. diplomatic officials in Ukraine has in no way hampered our ability to coordinate and to consult with our Ukrainian partners. In fact, just today, just a few hours ago, Secretary Blinken again had an opportunity to speak over the phone to Foreign Minister Kuleba. Foreign Minister Kuleba, of course, is the same Foreign Minister Kuleba that we saw last week in Brussels. It was the same Foreign Minister Kuleba that Secretary Blinken saw just before that in Warsaw, the same Foreign Minister Kuleba that he saw just before that inside Ukraine when we met with Foreign Minister Kuleba and his team along the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Of course, President Biden spoke to President Zelenskyy yesterday. Secretary Austin routinely speaks to his Ukrainian counterpart. So the point is that our engagement has been consistent. It’s been routine. It’s been very deep to discuss precisely the issues that are of most important to us, how we can continue to support our Ukrainian partners and how we can continue to hold the Kremlin to account for its illegal war of aggression against the state and the people of Ukraine.
QUESTION: Is there a likelihood that Secretary – is there a likelihood that Secretary Blinken will go to Ukraine?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any travel —
QUESTION: There’s been a great deal of talk —
MR PRICE: I don’t have any travel to speak to. What I would do is reiterate what I just said. Secretary Blinken, on very frequent occasions, has the opportunity to speak to his Ukrainian counterpart. He ends up speaking to Foreign Minister Kuleba roughly several times a week most weeks, and in recent weeks we’ve ended up seeing Foreign Minister Kuleba in person as well.
QUESTION: On the issue of diplomacy and diplomatic presence and so on, you spoke about diplomatic presence in Ukraine, American diplomatic presence. Can you update us on the U.S. diplomatic presence in Russia, in Moscow, and vice versa? Is there anything that is happening? Are you guys in contact with the Russians through Ambassador Sullivan, or are you here in contact with Ambassador Antonov?
MR PRICE: That’s the point of our diplomatic presence in Russia and around the world, to be in contact with the host government. So of course we do have a functioning embassy in Moscow. Ambassador Sullivan is in – as are Ambassador Sullivan’s deputies and colleague – in regular contact with their Russian counterparts on issues of bilateral interest. We have spoken not only in recent months but throughout the course of this administration about the unfortunate actions that the Russian Federation has taken to limit our diplomatic presence on the ground in Russia. What we seek is parity in terms of the level of diplomatic staffing that we are able to have in our embassy in Russia, our embassy in Moscow, and what the Russians have here in the United States.
We believe that the diplomatic relationship, the ability to communicate clearly, effectively, and oftentimes frankly, is important at all times, but it’s especially important in times of increased tension – and in the case of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, in the case of conflict.
QUESTION: The ICC prosecutor general is on the ground in Ukraine right now. I know you mentioned repeatedly that the U.S. is supporting international mechanisms. Is the U.S. sharing information with the ICC on potential war crimes? And then can you just clarify: Is the U.S. doing its own assessment of whether atrocities like genocide and war crimes have taken place in Ukraine?
MR PRICE: Let me start with that second question, which I appreciate, because I believe there is a misimpression about the process that is involved here. I think specifically there’s a misimpression that the department would require a demand signal or an order from on high to undertake a careful review of what is transpiring on the ground in Ukraine. To be clear, there is a constant demand signal, including from Secretary Blinken, for insight into potential atrocities or atrocity crimes committed around the world. And as a matter of course, our Office of Global Criminal Justice and their colleagues, other experts from the department, are carefully reviewing all of the inputs that are available to us regarding what is transpiring in Ukraine. That includes very public data points that all of us have seen across our television screens, that we’ve read in newspaper, but it also includes details gleaned from intelligence reporting as well.
As we’ve said – and this gets to the first part of your question – our priority at the moment is pursuing accountability for atrocity crimes. And we’re supporting the efforts of various accountability mechanisms, including the efforts of the Ukrainian prosecutor general, whose work we have assisted since long before Russia’s current military campaign in Ukraine began. We’ve been assisting this work for the better part of a decade now.
As you may know, and I mentioned this yesterday, our Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack is going to have an engagement – she’s going to engage virtually with her Ukrainian – excuse me, with the Ukrainian prosecutor general, who is leading an effort when it comes to criminal accountability for what has already transpired in Ukraine. That will take place tomorrow.
But let me hasten to add that same broader process, the process to collect, analyze, share, document evidence of atrocities and potential atrocity crimes is the very same one that could ultimately inform other potential atrocity crime determinations, including the atrocity crime of genocide.
As you know, the department has already assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes, one of the three forms of atrocity crimes, another atrocity crime. There is, just to reiterate, a constant demand signal in this building for that work for a few reasons. It helps us shine a spotlight on these atrocities, it helps us bring the world together in our diplomatic campaign in support of our Ukrainian partners and in the diplomatic campaign to hold Russia to account, and to craft our public messaging, how we speak about what is transpiring in Ukraine. And when it comes to all of those elements, we will follow the facts, we will follow the law wherever they lead.
QUESTION: So sorry, just to clarify —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Are you currently sharing information with the ICC given that the U.S. is not a party?
MR PRICE: So we are in the first instance supporting the work of the Ukrainian prosecutor general, because there is a very clear jurisdiction in terms of her work for potentially holding war criminals, in this case, accountable for the atrocity crimes they have committed. We are consulting very closely with allies and partners about potential other accountability mechanisms. In fact, we’ve helped to birth at least one accountability mechanism. We, as part of our re-engagement with the UN’s Human Rights Council, helped to establish the Commission of Inquiry that is now focused on this as well. The OSCE and the Moscow Mechanism, the first report of which was issued yesterday, we’re supporting.
But when it comes to the ICC, we know that the ICC is one potential venue for accountability. We have cooperated with the ICC in the past. I believe I mentioned this yesterday, that within recent days the trial of a former Janjaweed commander has begun at The Hague under the auspices of the ICC. That is – that individual is being tried in part based upon evidence that the Department of State ourselves collected for his role in the genocidal campaign that the Omar al-Bashir regime carried out a number of years ago.
But we are consulting very closely with allies and partners with an eye, first and foremost, to the mechanisms and to the jurisdictions that will help us see that ultimate goal of accountability achieved.
MR PRICE: Good to see you.
QUESTION: Number one – thank you. Number one, the Taliban still continue their policy toward Afghan girls not allowed to go to school. What will be the next consequence from the State Department?
Number two, the people who are approve for SIV visa are still – there was some problem, because they have children over 21 or 22 years old. They have problem; they cannot travel without their kids.
And number three, the people who applied for the SIV visa after September 10, they didn’t get any response from the State Department.
And also the last question. Some Afghan former soldiers disappearing from the Taliban jail and nobody know where they are. Of course, some people think that they get killed by the Taliban. And Afghan people think that United States forgot Afghan people and all attention goes to the Ukraine. I don’t know.
MR PRICE: Well, nothing could be further from the truth. As you know, we have continued to stand by the people of Afghanistan in terms of our humanitarian leadership and the contributions that we have made, including in recent days, to the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people, but also in terms of what we’re doing diplomatically on the world stage together with our allies and partners.
And you raise the issue of girls education and the egregious decision last month. March 23rd, what was supposed to be the first day of the school year for school children, including girls across the country, turned into a day of horrible disappointment and despair for millions of Afghans with the Taliban’s very regrettable decision not to allow girls to return to secondary school. This – in doing so, the Taliban reversed commitments that they had made very publicly and commitments that we had discussed with them privately as well.
Their decision, as I mentioned before, it was a deeply disappointing one. It was, in some ways, an inexplicable reversal of the commitments that they had made to their own people. We’ve made the point previously that education is not only a human right, but it is indispensable to the success of any particular country. Holding back more than half of any country’s population is not a recipe for success for Afghanistan or anywhere else around the world. No country can succeed economically, no country can succeed politically, no country can succeed on any basis when half of its population or more than half of its population is unable to go to school, ultimately unable to join the – join a workforce.
Together with our partners in the international community, we have been working for some time and we continue to work to support education in Afghanistan, expecting that schools last month would have opened for all. We have called on the Taliban to overcome whatever impediments exist to implementing the commitments they’ve made, to honor the commitments they’ve made to their own people. Each day that Afghanistan’s secondary schools remain closed to girls is another missed day of school, another missed opportunity, not only for the girls of Afghanistan but for the people and the country of Afghanistan.
The Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, Tom West, our Special Representative for Afghanistan, our Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights Rina Amiri, our chargé d’affaires who is now based in Doha – they have all decried this decision on the part of the Taliban.
We have also done so in coordination with many of our close partners around the world. Shortly after the Taliban announced this decision, we released a joint statement with our counterparts in Canada, in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, the UK, and the high representative of the European Union, all condemning the decision on the part of the Taliban not to reopen secondary schools. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation similarly put out a statement, as well as female foreign ministers from 16, at least 16, countries around the world from Albania to Tonga and the UK.
This was a topic of discussion during the extended troika that Tom West attended late last month in Tunxi, China, and we have been very clear that if this decision is not reversed and if it’s not reversed promptly, it will hold significant, serious implications for our ability to engage with the Taliban and the Taliban’s desire to have better relations not only with the United States but with the international community.
QUESTION: On Taiwan, several U.S. senators arrived to Taiwan today. Was the – do you have anything on that, first? And – first of all. And then second of all, was the State Department given a heads up before their visit? What is the message U.S. is sending to Taiwan and China? Thank you.
MR PRICE: I don’t have a comment on the congressional delegation. I would need to refer you to the members of Congress. The State Department does assist members of Congress as a routine matter oftentimes when they travel overseas, but for comment on this particular visit I would need to refer you to those members.
QUESTION: And also, I have a follow-up. Earlier in April, Deputy Secretary McKeon met with WHO director general, and Taiwan’s participation of WHO was discussed. How hopeful is the United States that Taiwan will be invited as an observer to the World Health Assembly in May? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Well, it’s something that we support, that we have consistently supported. We believe that Taiwan, consistent with its status, should have meaningful participation in international organizations. So it’s something that we’ll continue to support.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have a couple of questions on the Palestinian issue. First of all, I want to note that the Palestinian Affairs Unit Chief George Noll spoke to the family of Ghada Sabateen yesterday to express your condolences to the family and demand investigation. Does that mean there is a marked change? I mean, you’ve never done that before. Do you have evidence that this was done in a cold-blooded fashion, for instance? I mean, she was a mother of five, she was partially blind, and so on.
MR PRICE: I don’t have any additional information for you on that. As you know, our officials on the ground do often engage with Israelis, with Palestinians, but I don’t have anything to read out from any particular engagement.
QUESTION: Okay. I have a few other questions. The Israeli Times of Israel newspaper reported that the U.S. aims to fold Palestinians into an expanded cooperation between Israel and Arab states. How do you envision this happening?
MR PRICE: Well, Said, you saw the Negev ministerial that Secretary Blinken attended with several of his counterparts from Israel and the Arab world. And there was a focus during the course of that ministerial on, of course, the Abraham Accords and the normalization agreements that have brought – built bridges and brought new opportunities for Israelis and Arabs alike with normalization becoming in some ways the new normal and the opportunities that come with that.
But what we heard during the ministerial itself and what you heard during the press availability that the ministers participated in was a recognition on the part of Secretary Blinken, on the part of others, that normalization can’t be a substitute for progress between Israelis and Palestinians. And so as Israel and its Arab neighbors enjoy additional opportunities owing to the progress that normalization is bringing with it, there was a concerted desire on the part of Secretary Blinken, on the part of his Arab counterparts, on the part of Foreign Minister Lapid of Israel, to do what we can across several different areas – the working groups that are emanating from the Negev forum – to achieve progress when it comes to conditions for the Palestinian people.
QUESTION: And my last question regarding the Human Rights Report, I mean the Human Rights Report that was a issued a couple days ago. It talks extensively about the West Bank and Israel and so on. My question pertains to the six human rights organizations that were listed as terrorist organizations. They have – they issued an appeal to you, to Europeans and so on, to follow through. I mean, you were investigating this. You, I guess, requested the Israelis to supply you with why they listed them to begin with, and that was back in October. Where do we stand? Have you gotten a satisfactory response from the Israelis? Do you believe that these organizations should be or should remain listed as terrorist organizations?
MR PRICE: Well, we have received detailed information on that very question from our Israeli partners, and it’s something that we’re continuing to review.
QUESTION: But is their response satisfactory as far as you’re concerned?
MR PRICE: We received —
QUESTION: That they have committed such egregious acts to require enlisted or being enlisted on the terror organization —
MR PRICE: We received detailed information from our Israeli partners on the basis for their designation. We’re taking a very close look at that ourselves.
QUESTION: Hello, Ned. Do you have any update on the talks with Iran? Any new session in Vienna soon? And did the U.S. unfreeze any money for Iran, or do you know of any of your allies that unfrozen any amount?
MR PRICE: All of our sanctions remain in effect and all of our sanctions will remain in effect until and unless we’re able to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. It’s been very unfortunate to see a number of stories that are false, that are completely untrue, not only on the questions of sanctions, or reported sanctions relief, I should say, but the related question or the way it’s been conflated of false claims of a detainee deal.
The fact is, unfortunately, we don’t have any breakthrough to announce. Any information relating to our negotiations regarding wrongful detainees, Americans who are held wrongfully in Iran, would come directly from the State Department. We know there’s been a lot of false information out there. We urge everyone to exercise caution with these reports. But the fact is now that there are two parallel tracks that are underway with Iran, one, as we’ve talked about in the context of Vienna for mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA, and one on the release of all four U.S. citizens who are unjustly held in Iran.
Unfortunately, at this stage, neither of these negotiations has been successfully concluded. Any reports otherwise, including, as you referred to, Michel, reports that Iranian funds held in restricted accounts in third countries would be transferred, are false, and our partners have not released these restricted funds to Iran, nor has the United States authorized or approved any such transfer of restricted funds to Iran.
We are continuing to approach both of these negotiations with the utmost urgency. We urge Iran to do the same. We urge Iran to allow U.S. citizens Baquer and Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz to return home to their loved ones.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan. Pakistani newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has said that he wants better relations with United States to promote shared goals of peace, security, and development in the region. Does the U.S. see his election of PM Sharif of an opportunity to improve the bilateral relations with Pakistan?
MR PRICE: Well, you probably saw a statement that we released from the Secretary last night regarding the selection of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. For almost 75 years, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been a vital one. We look forward to continuing that work with Pakistan’s Government to promote peace and prosperity in Pakistan and the broader region. And in that spirit, we’ve congratulated Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on his election by the Pakistani Parliament, and we look forward to working with him and his government.
QUESTION: The former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, still blaming U.S. for his ouster while his supporters are organizing anti-U.S. protest here in America, like in different states. Yesterday, D.C., his supporters attack on Pakistani American journalist and a few community members who disagree with them. So do you have any message with them who are organizing anti-U.S. protests here in America, even when you rejected all those claims and White House also rejected all those claims?
MR PRICE: Our message has been clear and consistent on this. There is no truth whatsoever to the allocations that have been put forward. We support the peaceful upholding of constitutional and democratic principles, including respect for human rights. We do not support, whether it’s in Pakistan or anywhere else around the world, one political party over another. We support broader principles, including the rule of law and equal justice under the law.
QUESTION: Sir, one last question, if you allow me, please. So today the Pakistan’s military spokesperson said that they had no evidence to suggest that United States had threatened or was involved in the conspiracy to seek the ouster of Imran Khan’s government. Your thoughts and comment on this statement?
MR PRICE: We would agree with it. Thanks.
MR PRICE: Well, we remain committed to promoting a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for the South Caucasus region. And we welcome, as you’ve heard from us before in the readouts from Secretary Blinken, the April 6 meeting between Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev in Brussels, including the positive momentum on preparations for peace talks and the formation of a bilateral commission on border delimitation.
As the Secretary emphasized in the calls he had with those two leaders the day before on April 5th, we continue to encourage further peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and we reiterated – and the Secretary reiterated – that the United States stands ready to engage bilaterally and with likeminded partners, including through the role as an OSCE Minsk group co-chair to help the countries find a long-term comprehensive peace.
QUESTION: The same topic?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: There’s a phone call between Deputy Secretary Sherman and her French colleague yesterday in which she discussed the South Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Now we have Lavrov a couple of days ago complaining that U.S. and France are not informing us about what they are doing. Are you guys deliberately shutting the door to Russia’s mediation efforts? And given everything Russia has done in Ukraine, do you think that – doesn’t that disqualify Russia in peacemaking efforts between Azerbaijan and Armenia?
MR PRICE: I can’t speak to the role that Russia might play in this. What I can say is that we stand ready to engage Armenia and Azerbaijan – again, bilaterally or with likeminded partners, including through the OSCE mechanism.
QUESTION: And one more question about OSCE report that you mentioned earlier. So there are details that Russia has been using OSCE symbols to do what it has been doing. Does that bother you at all? Is Russia going to be suspended from OSCE if they continue doing that?
MR PRICE: I would have to refer you to the OSCE. They put out the Moscow Mechanism under the auspices of the OSCE, put out a comprehensive report yesterday regarding the atrocities, the potential war crimes that, according to the Moscow Mechanism, the Russians – Russia’s forces have committed in Ukraine. But I would need to refer you to the OSCE to speak to the particulars.
QUESTION: Staying on Ukraine, pro-Russian social media accounts published what appears to be the U.S. passport of an American citizen named Joseph Ward Clark, claiming that he was captured or killed. Can you confirm whether or not that’s the case?
MR PRICE: I cannot confirm that because reports that this U.S. citizen was captured in Ukraine are not true. Can’t offer anything further due to privacy considerations, but those reports and those claims are not true.
QUESTION: So are you saying that he wasn’t captured, but is the possibility that he was killed or is – it’s entirely false?
MR PRICE: I’m limited in how much I can say due to privacy considerations, but I have reason to believe that this individual is safe.
QUESTION: Is safe, great.
MR PRICE: Yep.
QUESTION: And then to follow up on Jenny’s questions, just on the meeting tomorrow that’s happening between Ambassador Van Schaack and the Ukrainian prosecutor general, are you – is the U.S. providing intelligence to her office, beyond just sort of cooperating and any financial support you’re offering? Are you sharing intelligence on what you know about potential atrocities?
MR PRICE: So to the point earlier, we are pulling every lever that’s available to us to garner insight into what has transpired on the ground in Ukraine, what Russia’s forces have committed in terms of atrocity and atrocity crimes. We are looking at open source information – that is to say, what all of us are seeing with our own eyes and reading with our own eyes. But also we have the advantage of the resources of the U.S. Intelligence Community and the intelligence-sharing relationships that we have around the world. And as you might imagine, there is quite a bit of focus trained on this very question.
I’m not going to get into the specific type of information that Ambassador Van Schaack may or may not share with her – with the Ukrainian prosecutor general tomorrow, but what I can say is that we are providing our Ukrainian partners with a range of information – strategic information, tactical information, information that they would need for the purposes of primarily self-defense.
QUESTION: So not —
QUESTION: Ned, do you have any comment on the ship Moskva —
QUESTION: I’m sorry.
QUESTION: So not for documenting atrocities? It’s more for the battlefield information?
MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to detail specifically what Ambassador Van Schaack may provide in that regard. But when it comes to our work here at the department, we are taking a close look at everything that is available to us, and our goal and what we are doing is documenting, analyzing, preserving, and yes, sharing that evidence. And in the first instance we’re sharing it with the Ukrainian prosecutor general.
QUESTION: And just one more on this, then. Ambassador Van Schaack and Ambassador Carpenter have both said that all options are on the table, including in terms of the question that Jenny had about the ICC. But does that include the U.S., this administration potentially joining the ICC and signing the Rome Statute, or is that out of the question?
MR PRICE: I don’t believe that is what’s being referenced here. What’s being referenced here is the ICC’s – is a potential venue for accountability for Russian war criminals.
QUESTION: I wanted to —
QUESTION: Yes, thanks. Thank you for the opportunity.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: My name is Boris Kunoski from Macedonian Information Agency. I have just couple of questions quick. It’s on – it’s about the EU integration process in the Western Balkans. You know – we know, actually – that Bulgaria is blocking the process two years now, almost two years now, by vetoing North Macedonians – North Macedonia’s opening, quote, accession talks with the EU.
So my question is: Is – are U.S. supporting the process to be untied? Because Albania – Albanian prime minister recently met with the German chancellor, and they said that – I guess Albanian minister, prime minister – that they might start the negotiation process with the EU besides Macedonia, and North Macedonia to be left behind, blocked – excuse me – blocked by Bulgaria. So this is my first question.
The second question is: What is United States doing to convince Bulgaria to lift its veto on North Macedonia opening – to open the accession talks with the EU, having in mind the widespread Russian influence on the Balkans?
MR PRICE: Thank you. So for these questions, I would need to refer you to the countries in question and to the EU. We have bilateral partnerships with all of the countries in question as well as with the EU, but those countries are best positioned to speak to it.
QUESTION: I have two questions on North Korea. First is: The U.S. Treasury imposed another sanction on North Korea today, but yesterday, the North Korean regime opened a luxury housing complex in Pyongyang. So do you see this as evidence that there are many loopholes in North Korean sanctions, enough to – that North Koreans can build luxury houses in their capital?
And my second question is: The department announced that Special Representative for DPRK Ambassador Sung Kim and the deputy representative, Dr. Jung Pak, will travel to Seoul. And so can you share about how they will address the concerns that North Korea can test another ICBM or resume nuclear test soon?
MR PRICE: So on your – on the second part of your question, we did announce today that Sung Kim, our special envoy for the DPRK, and his deputy, Dr. Jung Pak, will travel to Seoul later this month. They don’t leave for several days. They’ll be there from April 18th through the 22nd. And during this trip, they’ll have an opportunity to meet with their counterparts, other senior ROK officials to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula, including the international community’s response to the recent ICBM launches.
This is part of a regular engagement that our special envoy has with his South Korean counterparts. It’s also part of the regular engagement and similar to the regular engagement that he has with our Japanese counterparts as well. And if I’m not mistaken, the special envoy had a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart just yesterday, because we believe in the indispensability of working closely in the first instance with our Japanese and South Korean allies on the challenge posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program, but also trilaterally. And we have had recent opportunity to engage trilaterally with these two important allies, including when Secretary Blinken met with his counterparts in Honolulu late last year to discuss the DPRK.
To your question about reports of potential planning on the part of the DPRK, I’m not in a position to speak to those reports to confirm or to speak to any intelligence, but what I can say and what we know is that the DPRK in the past has on – has used the occasion of holidays and other notable occasions within the DPRK to engage in provocations. So of course, we’re closely watching for that possibility.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So when Ambassador Sung Kim is in South Korea, is he planning to meet DPRK officials in the region?
MR PRICE: I am not aware of any plans to meet DPRK officials. He’s there to meet with his South Korean counterparts.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes.
MR PRICE: There is no change because we believe that NATO’s open door is an open door, and it is up to the NATO Alliance to determine – and only the NATO Alliance – to determine what its membership looks like. As you know, there are – there is a set of criteria that any aspirant country would need to satisfy, would need to answer for before it would be in a position to join the Alliance. That ultimately is a question for that aspirant country and NATO’s 30 allied members.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR PRICE: Sure.
MR PRICE: Well, this is something that the NATO secretary general spoke to when we were in Brussels last week. He said, when he was asked, quote, “I’m certain that we will find ways to address concerns they may have regarding the period between the potential application, and the final ratification.” So I’d refer you to his comments on that.
QUESTION: So no plans for any bilateral, like, security agreements or anything between the U.S. and either of those countries?
MR PRICE: We have – Sweden and Finland are already close NATO partners. Of course, they are close partners bilaterally of the United States as well, but I don’t have anything to add beyond what the secretary general said.
QUESTION: If I could just follow up, first of all, regardless of Medvedev’s comments – and he’s still quite close to Putin – but the Kremlin has also described this as something that would not bring stability to Europe. Is the United States concerned that Sweden and Finland addition to NATO could prompt Russia to escalate?
MR PRICE: Without speaking to any countries in particular, we would not be concerned that the expansion of a defensive alliance would do anything other than promote stability on the European continent. Now, of course, any aspirant country would have to meet the criteria that’s spelled out in NATO’s charter, would have to receive consent from the Alliance itself, but again, NATO is a defensive alliance that is there to defend and to fortify. And NATO would not be a threat to anyone who is not attacking NATO.
QUESTION: Ned, can you comment on the ship – the battleship, Russian battleship, Moskva, that was allegedly struck by a Ukrainian missile, or do you have any other information that you could share with us?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any information beyond what you’ve heard from the Department of Defense. The Department of Defense, as I understand it, this morning confirmed that there appears to have been an explosion on board. But I don’t have any further details to offer.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a question on the genocide aspect?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you think that – in the long term, that frequent use or the repeated use of terms like “war crimes” or “genocide” would vitiate the enormity of such a thing? Like when one talks about genocide, Rwanda comes to mind, or some things that are really horrendous. Do you believe that keep repeating this thing, as we have seen in the last few days, ultimately is not good in terms – or that it lessened the enormity of such events?
MR PRICE: Said, we’ve repeated the term “war crimes” because Russia’s forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine. That is the assessment of this department, that Russia’s forces have engaged in war crimes. I think that it underscores the atrocities and the level of atrocities, the scale and the scope of atrocities, that are being committed. And as a general point, I think your point is well taken. But there is nothing routine, there is nothing general, about what all of us are seeing and have seen with our own eyes – the level of brutality, the level of atrocity that Russia’s forces have engaged in against the Ukrainian people inside sovereign Ukrainian territory.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: — Foreign Minister Kuleba tweeted that he discussed further sanctions with Secretary Blinken today. Should we expect them this week? And also, related to today’s announcement on Office of Sanctions Coordination, which is a new office at the State Department, will the office coordinate efforts between the agencies here, or is it about coordination between allies and partners, like, for instance, the immediate neighbors to Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia? I don’t think they have clear understanding of what is allowed to – what they are allowed to do, what they are not allowed to do.
MR PRICE: (Inaudible), that’ll be a key charge of Ambassador Jim O’Brien, who is the head of that new office at the Department of State. I hope many of you saw the announcement this morning that Jim O’Brien, who was confirmed by the Senate last week, is now hard at work in his new role this week. He will work throughout this building. He will work with the interagency, throughout the administration, but he’ll also work with allies and partners to ensure that our approach to sanctions, the implementation of sanctions, the development of sanctions – specific ones and sanctions authorities – are coordinated and implemented effectively with allies and partners around the world.
Remind me of your first question?
QUESTION: It’s about the new sanctions package.
MR PRICE: Oh, the – we have previously made the point that as long as Russia continues to escalate its actions against the people of Ukraine, until and unless its brutality comes to an end, we will continue to escalate our measures. And that would include additional financial and economic measures against the Russian Federation.
QUESTION: On sanctions, as Russian forces now prepare for this offensive in the east and in the south, is there any sense of urgency to apply new sanctions to – provide, obviously, this new $800 million tranche of weaponry in order to try to stop its offensive from even happening in the first place?
MR PRICE: Well, Conor, I think the – what is true, and you’ve heard this from our Department of Defense counterparts, is that the Russians have quite a bit of firepower, in part because they’ve been defeated in the battle of Kyiv, a battle that senior Russian officials apparently thought that they would be able to win within a couple days of initiating it in February. We’re now some six weeks into this conflict, and Russian forces have been repelled from Kyiv and are now repositioning to the South and the East to begin what we believe to be a concerted campaign against those areas.
So what we are doing in the face of this shifting tide of battle is providing our Ukrainian partners precisely the level and the particulars of the security assistance that they have requested and that they would need to defend themselves from the campaign that the Russian Federation plans to undertake, we believe. That is one element of the equation.
The other element of the equation is to continue with the pressure on the Kremlin. And that pressure primarily has taken the form of financial sanctions, other economic measures that, by just about any metric, have had a profound effect on Russia’s economy, on Russia’s financial system, on Russia’s positioning in the world.
You take a look at the economic toll of this. And because of the coordinated sanctions and other economic measures, Russia’s economy has contracted by – is forecast by most estimates to contract by some 15 percent over the course of this year. Some 30 years of economic integration have been wiped out in the course of the past five or six weeks. Six hundred companies, multinational companies, have already been forced – have already chosen to leave the Russian marketplace. That – the pinch, the hurt of that – will only compound over time as inventories continue to be depleted with nothing there to replenish them. Inflation is at some 15 percent. The Russian Federation, the Kremlin, has been forced to employ draconian and drastic measures to artificially prop up its ruble and to keep its stock market afloat artificially.
So Putin has been – is facing a strategic defeat on the military front, on the economic front, as we’ve just talked about. Politically President Putin is a pariah. His country is isolated diplomatically. You can measure that in terms of the votes we have seen at the UN, of the condemnation that is raining down on Russia from all corners of the globe. His cronies face international sanction. Their assets are being seized. They’re not able to travel.
But also strategically – and you take a look at the strategic implications of what has already been borne by the Kremlin; Putin, I think, and this goes to the question we were just discussing about NATO – but the fact is, as the Secretary likes to say, that President Putin has precipitated just about everything he has sought to prevent. That has course – of course, has been the case during the – this invasion of Ukraine, but this goes back over the course of the better part of a decade, starting in 2014 when the European reassurance initiative began, when the United States began to increase our investments in the European continent. NATO is more united, more determined, more purposeful, than it has been really since anytime since the end of the Cold War. And President Putin faces an international community that is arrayed against him in a way that it never has been before.
So whenever this ends, however this ends, Russia, we already know, will be weaker. It will be enfeebled. It will have endured a strategic defeat. And we can already see elements of that – the military elements, the political elements, the economic elements, but also the strategic elements.
QUESTION: But it doesn’t seem to be stopping this coming offensive now, and my question is: Is there anything economically in terms of the sanctions that you were preparing that you think could have that effect? Or you think this offensive is going ahead either way?
MR PRICE: When President Putin made the decision to go into Ukraine, he did so knowing – because we were very vocal both in public and in private – about the severe consequences that would befall his economy, his financial system, his government, were he to make that choice. President Putin has prioritized this military campaign in Ukraine over just about everything else in Russian society. So what we’re focused on now is providing our Ukrainian partners with the security assistance, the level and the specifics of precisely what they will need to continue defending themselves effectively and doing together with our partners and allies everything we can to further diminish the economic, the political, the strategic standing of the Russian Federation. We’ve already done that to good effect.
A final question or so. Jenny.
QUESTION: Given that a number of officials in this administration have said this next phase of the conflict could be months and months long, what conversations is the State Department having about sustaining this high level of support over the course of many months, given there could even be, like, supply chain issues, for example, or just logistical problems? How are you planning around that?
MR PRICE: So we have been, I think, heartened if not at all surprised by the level of consensus and near unanimity in the international community. And really what is at the core of that consensus: number one, the efforts that the United States has put into this – not over the course of the past six weeks, but almost over the course of six months now. This was a campaign that started for us last year. Even then it was a campaign that was built on the first year of this administration that was predicated on rebuilding, on repairing, on revitalizing the systems of alliances and partnerships, those very systems of alliances and partnerships that have been so very critical to our ability to stand up to Russia and to stand for what our Ukrainian partners are fighting to defend.
I think the world has continued to be shocked by the level of atrocity, the level of violence, the level of brutality, that Russia’s forces have engaged in against the Ukrainian people. I think that will necessarily maintain this level of consensus within the international community. We’ve had an occasion – several occasions – to gather in Brussels, in other parts of the world, with our key allies and partners who are with us on this, whether that’s NATO, whether that’s the European Union, whether that’s the G7, whether it’s our partners in the Indo-Pacific, who, of course, have been a key element.
And there is no sense that these countries are preparing to move on, to look the other way. And in fact, every time we gather there is renewed horror, there is renewed condemnation, there is renewed determination to continue to see to it that our Ukrainian partners have what they need.
Now, there are practical challenges that come with this – supply chains, supplies, other elements of it. Those are things that we are working through. But at a political level, at a strategic level, there has been no indication that we’ve seen that the focus, the determination, the perseverance, will diminish over time.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)