2:32 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Welcome, everyone. To those with whom I’ve been traveling, welcome back. Welcome to everyone else. Welcome to those in the last row; I just want to call out – we have some members from, colleagues from our Operations Center who are here to observe today’s briefing. Obviously, our Operations Center is really a nerve center for the department. We were just saying that many of us literally could not do our jobs without the Operations Center. So appreciate them being here, and even more so appreciate the work they do every single day.
I have a couple things at the top, and then we’ll get to your questions. First, to meet the Secretary’s goals to modernize American diplomacy, win the competition for talent, and ensure that all applicants can present a full picture of their qualifications, the Department of State today is announcing improvements to the Foreign Service selection process.
The Department is moving away from the Foreign Service Officer Test as a pass/fail gateway test and expanding focus on a candidates’ education and experience for a more holistic approach in the selection process.
Starting with June the 2022 Foreign Service test takers, all candidates will proceed to the Qualification Evaluations Panel, or QEP, where their performance on the Foreign Service test will be one factor taken into consideration along with the personal narratives that they’ll submit during the registration process.
Combined with scores from the Foreign Service exam and the Qualification Evaluations Panel – which reviews each candidate’s work history, education, experience, and six brief written narratives based on Foreign Service core precepts – that will give the Department a more balanced view of candidates who will be selected for the next phase of the Foreign – of the selection process, the Foreign Service Oral Assessment.
This change is happening in the midst of what is expected to be the best year for Foreign Service intake in a decade. I think many of you saw the news earlier this month that we had the largest class of incoming officers, more than – just under 200 officers. And we expect this year to be the best year for our intake in a decade. It is the most significant change to the Foreign Service selection process since 1930, and we anticipate this change will result in a identifying a more qualified pool of applicants.
Next and finally, the United States is deeply concerned by the Tunisian president’s decision to unilaterally restructure Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for Elections, or ISIE. A genuinely independent election authority is critical, given its constitutionally mandated role in Tunisia’s upcoming referendum and parliamentary elections. The United States has consistently communicated to Tunisian leaders the importance of upholding the independence of key democratic institutions and ensuring Tunisia returns to democratic governance. We remain committed to supporting the Tunisian people in their democratic path and renew our call for an inclusive and transparent political and economic reform process with civil society, labor unions, and political parties represented at the table.
With that, happy to take your questions. Matt.
QUESTION: Thanks. Ned, just first briefly on the FSO testing thing. You’re aware that this is not being universally acclaimed, correct? That there is – particularly AFSA has registered some what seem to be some pretty significant concerns about this having been done without any input from them, without any other federal employee group, whether you want to call it a union or not. Will their concerns at all – do they matter at all?
MR PRICE: We are in a regular discussion with outside groups, including of course in this case AFSA. AFSA is an important organization. Their input is and will be especially valuable on these types of decisions. I am also aware, Matt, that the previous – or still the current – process also endured some criticism, given a narrow focus on a pass/fail Foreign Service exam that didn’t take into account the applicant’s holistic qualifications, what that person has done, that person’s educational experience, that person’s individual circumstances. We are confident that this restructured and revised process will help us select an applicant pool that is qualified, that is experienced, and that brings to bear the talents and diversity that this country offers.
QUESTION: Well, then why not eliminate the exam altogether?
MR PRICE: We still need various metrics to measure potential new colleagues against. So the Foreign Service exam will continue to be one such metric. But we’re going to look at a more holistic picture.
QUESTION: So would you – you would equate this to colleges and universities no longer requiring SAT or ACT scores for incoming students? Or how —
MR PRICE: Well, look. We are gratified that we have, and especially in recent months, received a tremendous amount of interest in this department. And with so many applicants, thousands upon thousands of applicants, we need various metrics against which to weigh applicants.
QUESTION: But the counterargument —
MR PRICE: So the SAT example is somewhat analogous. I’m not sure it’s a perfect comparison. But just as the SAT has done —
QUESTION: Well, it used to be that the test was administered by the same people as the SAT, back in my day, at least. But if you’re getting so many more applicants, wouldn’t you think that it would be more important to have a pass/fail on the Foreign Service exam rather than —
MR PRICE: We think —
QUESTION: — letting everyone go into the – everyone who takes the test, they all go – doesn’t that just bog the whole selection process down?
MR PRICE: Not at all. We think it is important, again, to be able to measure different aspects of a candidate’s qualifications. The Foreign Service exam will continue to be one input.
QUESTION: All right. On Ukraine – and I’ll be brief so my colleagues can go – two things. One is I realize that Secretary Austin spoke kind of about this earlier, but what you’re seeing in Moldova and Transnistria right now, does that give you any particular concern?
And then also, yesterday it came to light that the Russians had launched attacks on several train stations in the west of Ukraine, and I’m just wondering if there was any indication that you guys had that this might have been related at all to the two secretaries’ train journey into Kyiv and out.
MR PRICE: When it comes to Transnistria, Matt, you are right. The Secretary of Defense addressed elements of this this morning, but as I believe you’ve heard, we are aware of the explosions that occurred yesterday in Transnistria. We’re closely monitoring the situation as we determine what happened. We reiterate the Moldovan Government’s call for calm in response to these incidents. And we fully support, as you have heard us say before, Moldova’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We respect its constitutionally guaranteed neutrality.
We don’t know all of the details beyond – regarding what transpired yesterday, but we do remain concerned about any potential attempts to escalate tensions. I would just reiterate that over the past – in recent weeks, certainly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you have seen us demonstrate the partnership we have with Moldova in a number of ways. Some of you here in the room today were with us when we went to Chisinau with Secretary Blinken just a few weeks ago. We know that if left unchecked, Moscow’s aggression against – Moscow’s aggression could become a threat to the region. That’s why we’re not leaving Moscow’s aggression unchecked in Ukraine. It’s also why we are standing with our partners in the region, including all – our Moldovan partners.
Since February 24th, since Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine started, we’ve committed more than $30 million in humanitarian assistance to support the humanitarian response in Moldova – as you know, Moldova is generously hosting many Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to flee their homes – and $100 million in development assistance to strengthen Moldova’s long-term democratic and economic resiliencies. Our militaries work closely together, they cooperate in places as far off as Kosovo. We were, as I mentioned, just there a few weeks ago. And last week, we relaunched with Moldova our strategic dialogue, a dialogue that had been on pause for several years. Moldova is a strong partner. We are working to make sure that they have what they need to respond to the regional consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
QUESTION: Hi, Ned. I want to ask you about Lavrov’s comments from last night to – not to underestimate their threat. And I know that Secretary Austin responded very briefly at Ramstein to this, but it’s the first time we’ve heard this from the Russians in quite some time. The last thing that we heard analytically was what Bill Burns said in Atlanta in his speech – we’re always ready. But in talking to Secretary Moniz today, he talked to me about the nuclear threat, which, as you know, he’s so deeply invested in. He said to me that the Russians have now turned nuclear deterrence on its head, using the nuclear threat against a conventional opponent that they have invaded rather than as it had been used for decades as mutually assured destruction against two nuclear powers.
So I’m asking more broadly about how concerned you might be as Russia may feel increasingly cornered in this next phase and as the weapons delivery is obviously so increased from the West to use tactical nuclear weapons. I also want to ask you a follow-up question about the trip.
MR PRICE: Sure, and let me start with that one first. So we have seen in recent weeks a pattern of bellicose statements. And whether you call them statements, whether you call them bluster, whether you call them propaganda, this has become a pattern. These certainly are provocative statements. We think they are deeply irresponsible. We deem them to be a continuation of the Russian Government’s very clear attempts to distract from its failure in Ukraine, to distract from the brutality that it is perpetrating on the Ukrainian people, to distract from its apparent unwillingness to negotiate in good faith, and to distract from its history against its neighbors.
They have at every turn sought to deflect responsibility for their actions by attempting to shift blame from where it resides – and that, of course, is with the Kremlin – to other parties, whether that is to Ukraine, whether that is to NATO, whether that’s to the West, whether that is to the United States. Director Burns referenced this, as you mentioned, in Atlanta. We’ve spoken to this before. We think loose talk of nuclear weapons, nuclear escalation, is especially irresponsible. It is the height of irresponsibility. And it’s a clear contradiction of what the Russian Federation has confirmed and reconfirmed on any number of occasions, including with the UN Security Council statement that emanated earlier this year, that a nuclear war can – must not be fought and can never be won. That is a statement we heard from Moscow during the Cold War. It’s a statement we heard from Moscow after President Biden’s meeting with President Putin last June. It’s a statement that Moscow signed on to earlier this year.
Now, that is not to say that even as we talk about this in terms of bluster, in terms of propaganda, in terms of provocative statements or bellicose statements, that we’re not paying very close attention and that we’re not thinking through various contingencies. We absolutely are. When it comes to potential nuclear escalation, of course, we are paying very close attention to Russia’s activities, to what it’s doing, to what it’s not doing. You’ve heard from the Department of Defense that we are always evaluating our own nuclear posture, and at this point we have determined that there is no reason to change our posture.
You said you had a follow-up.
QUESTION: Is there any – to any extent, do you think that Secretary Austin saying that our goal was to weaken Russia so that they can never again invade when you were in Poland or Secretary Blinken saying that Ukraine is winning and that Ukraine will be a sovereign, independent nation – I’m paraphrasing – long after Putin’s gone – was that in any way provocative or poking the bear or changing the mission to be not just helping Ukraine defend but helping Ukraine win with the heavier weapons as well? I noted today in the hearing that Senator Romney, while praising – fulsomely praising what has been done so far, said with the caveat of what Secretary Blinken had said, Secretary Austin had said (inaudible).
MR PRICE: I have to say I’ve been a little bit surprised by the surprise that I’ve heard expressed regarding Secretary Austin’s comments. This is a point that we have made for some time now. We have said for months that we intend to make this invasion a strategic failure for Russia. They have endured tactical defeats on the battlefield, they have lost the battle for Kyiv, they have lost a large number of Russian service members, Russian equipment. You look at Russians – Russia’s economy, Russia’s financial system, they are well on the path to strategic defeat.
And one of our goals in seeking to ensure this outcome has been to ensure that something like this couldn’t happen again, and that’s precisely what Secretary Austin was referring to. It is precisely what Secretary Blinken was referring to some six weeks ago. The middle of last month, as I recall, he did an interview with NPR, and he made a couple of points then. He said one of the things we’re doing is denying Russia the technology it needs to modernize its country, to modernize key industries – aerospace, defense, high tech, energy exploration. All of these things are going to have profound effects – not just the immediate effects we’re seeing, but increasing and growing over time. He went on to make a second point: We’ll want to make sure that they – Moscow – that – to make sure that anything that is done in effect is irreversible and that this can’t happen again, that Russia won’t pick up and do exactly what it’s doing in a year or two or three years.
So this is a point that we have consistently made, not only that this will be a strategic defeat for Russia, a country that has on an unprovoked, unjustified, brutal basis invaded its neighbor and that continues to rain down terror on its neighbor, but we’ve also made the point that we want Ukraine to win. And that is why we have a strategy that has these two principal prongs. Number one, we are doing everything we responsibly can to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty, its territorial integrity. We have contributed billions of dollars to this effort, more than $3.8 billion worth of security assistance since the invasion began, about $4.5 billion since the start of this administration.
And as I alluded to before, the other prong is what we are doing to hold Moscow to account. That includes the sanctions. It includes the export controls. It includes the visa restrictions. It includes everything that you’ve heard from us that places accountability on the decision makers who are responsible for this invasion in the first instance and all of those in their inner circle and the circles surrounding them who in some ways have supported this disastrous decision. And that is something that we will continue to do.
QUESTION: Ned —
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ned.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that before we change —
QUESTION: Could I follow up on —
MR PRICE: Let me do one follow-up, and Kylie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, I have a follow-up too.
MR PRICE: Kylie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. I’m just curious. You said that Russia is well on the path to strategic defeat. Can you expand on that idea a little bit for us? Because you talked about them militarily not doing well and the hope that they won’t be able to invade Ukraine or another country again, but what does strategic defeat mean for the Russian economy, for Russia’s place in the world going forth, and some bigger ideas beyond the military?
MR PRICE: Well, that’s precisely what it refers to. You can talk about battlefield progress or lack thereof, and that, of course, is important when it comes to the fight for Ukraine’s freedom, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity. But when we talk about strategic defeat, we’re talking about Moscow’s positioning in the international system. And the Moscow that prepared to invade and that on February 24th went forward with its invasion will not be the same Russian Federation, in terms of its positioning on the world stage, that will emerge when this conflict is over.
And we mean that in a couple different ways. One, you can already see the toll on Russia’s economy and its financial system. It’s an economy that is forecast to contract by some 15 percent this year. It’s an economy that is losing hundreds, some 600 multinational companies that have made the choice to leave the Russian marketplace, either not wanting to in any way support President Putin’s war machine, or making the very strategic decision that it’s not a market that will be worth the investment either now or when this is over. You have seen what’s happened to the Russian stock market, to Russia’s currency. But you’ve also seen the toll that – and you will see over time increasingly – the toll that the export controls will have on Moscow’s ability to wield strategic influence on the world stage, and the way in which we are choking off key inputs to Moscow’s defense industry, its aerospace industry, its technology, its energy and oil and natural gas exploration capabilities.
All of those things, coupled with the pariah status that President Putin has on the world stage and the diplomatic isolation that Moscow has endured since – especially since the start of this invasion where it has seen itself handed really brutal defeats at the UN and be an object of scorn by the international community – all of those things add up to the simple fact that because of Moscow’s unprovoked, unjustified invasion against Ukraine, not only will Ukraine emerge sovereign and independent when this is over, but Moscow will emerge weaker. And we’re already seeing that, and many of these are tools that will have increasing effect over time.
QUESTION: Ned —
QUESTION: And just one quick follow-up on that. Moscow will emerge weaker for the long term, or when this war comes to a conclusion, will they be given the opportunity to rebuild themselves? Will you guys keep the sanctions in place, or will you take the sanctions off?
MR PRICE: So these are decisions that really are in Russia’s hands. Our sanctions – every sanction is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. And the end in this case, the near-term end, is seeing an end to this bloodshed, putting an end to this violence, bringing this war to a conclusion. So we’ve made the point that as long as Moscow escalates, we will escalate with our sanctions, with our economic measures. If Moscow changes its course, we will change our course.
Now, that’s not to say that there won’t have to be accountability. Of course, there will have to be accountability, and we’ve talked about various accountability mechanisms. We also want to see to it again, as the Secretary said some six weeks ago and Secretary Austin alluded to yesterday, that something like this, this type of aggression, can’t be repeated, whether that’s in days, weeks, or months, or years from the conclusion of these hostilities.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on this very point that you just mentioned, you said for weeks, months, for years, and so on – so you – this war can go on conceivably, I mean, to achieve the strategic defeat of Russia could go on for years? Is that what you’re saying?
MR PRICE: No, that’s not what I was referring to. What I was referring to is that we want to see to it that Moscow’s aggression, aggression of this nature, can’t be repeated once this conflict is over, whether that is weeks after the conflict ends, months after the conflict ends, or years after the conflict ends.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you keep saying that they are losing on the battlefield, yet they are controlling – they have controlled Mariupol, they are controlling the east, they are controlling the south and so on. It’s not exactly like a defeat. And the Russians, from their point of view, they say, we have good relations with China, we have good relations with India, and so on. Sure, they are a pariah in the West, but not among other countries. What’s your comment?
MR PRICE: Relations with no other country, even particularly large countries, will be able to replace what Moscow has lost and will have lost by its actions and the response that, together with dozens of countries across four continents, we’ve put in place. So no relationship, no set of relationships will be able to compensate for what Moscow will have lost and stands to lose.
To your first point, there is no denying, of course, that Moscow has a lot of firepower. They have demonstrated not only the capability but I think even more disturbingly a willingness to brutalize the Ukrainian people. Our goal is to see to it that this conflict, this war, Russia’s war against the people of Ukraine, is brought to a close as soon as can be achieved precisely to put this violence to an end, to put the bloodshed to an end, to put the brutality to an end as well.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR PRICE: Follow-up?
QUESTION: You mentioned diplomatic isolation. I get the sentiment, but as a matter of fact, the propaganda that we are talking about right now is being pushed during Russian leaders’ meetings with world leaders. UN secretary-general was in Moscow today, and Lavrov – some of statements that came out of Russia today in fact came during those meetings, and President Putin made a statement during his phone call with Erdoğan talking about already having Mariupol in his hands. My question is: Do you think the world leaders’ communications with Russian leaders should be precondition with getting out of Ukraine first before we communicate with you?
MR PRICE: We believe this war has to be brought to a close through dialogue and diplomacy, and we have consistently said that we support diplomatic efforts that are done in full coordination, in the first instance, with Ukraine. That’s most important because these are not choices that will be the purview of any other country, any other international organization. The Ukrainian Government, an expression of the will of the Ukrainian people, ultimately is going to have to be the entity that makes decisions that affect its country going forward.
So whether it’s the efforts of the Turkish Government, of the German Government, of the Israeli Government, of the French Government, of other governments who have used their good offices or offered their auspices for dialogue between the parties or attempted to shuttle between Russia and Ukraine, we support those efforts as long as they’re done in full coordination with our Ukrainian partners.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Couple of questions about the secondary sanctions. This is something that the Secretary was asked today in the hearing at the Senate. As the leaked phone calls suggested yesterday, sanctioned Russian oligarch who is one of the major architects of this war, Mr. Yevtushenkov, and Georgia’s richest man, oligarch Ivanishvili, who controls the Georgian politics from the shadow, they are figuring out ways to bypass the sanctions and secure supply of vital grain products to Russia. Yevtushenkov himself confirmed the authenticity of this conversation in an interview with Georgian media.
Based on these leaked phone calls, David Arkhamia, who is a leading Ukrainian politician who chairs the negotiations with Russia, he appealed to the Western leaders to consider imposing personal sanctions on Ivanishvili and his assets in the West. Does the U.S. track or assess this phone call, this leaked phone conversation? Do you have any assessment of that? And what would be your response to that when it comes to, like, imposing secondary sanctions on those countries or institutions who are helping Russia or Belarus bypass these harsh measures?
MR PRICE: So I’m not in a position to speak to any purportedly leaked phone call or to confirm the authenticity or not of what you’re referring to, but a couple points. Not only have we leveled sanctions and other tools against those who are responsible for the Kremlin’s decision to go into Ukraine – those in Russia, those in Ukraine – but last week we announced a large tranche of sanctions against those responsible for facilitating sanctions evasion. And so sanctions evasion is something that we are taking a very close look at around the world, whether that’s in Russia, whether that’s in Belarus, whether that is anywhere else around the world. And I think our actions last week demonstrated that we will go after those networks, those entities, those individuals who are willfully, deliberately, systematically evading or helping others to evade these sanctions. Of course, I’m not in a position to preview sanctions on any individual or any specific entities, but it’s something we’re taking a very close look at.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ned. I have two questions on South and North Korea. North Korean —
QUESTION: Could I ask a Ukraine – one more Ukraine question?
MR PRICE: Sure. Before we go on to another region, we’ll take a couple of final Ukraine questions. We need to – Conor.
QUESTION: Sure. Secretary Blinken announced – excuse me – on Monday that the State Department would return some diplomats to Lviv this week. Can you confirm whether or not that has started today and if they successfully made the journey back to Poland today?
MR PRICE: I can confirm that. The deputy chief of mission and members of the embassy team traveled to Lviv, Ukraine today, where they were able to continue our close collaboration with key Ukrainian partners. Today they met with interlocutors from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As Secretary Blinken announced yesterday, our diplomats are returning and have returned to Ukraine this week on a temporary basis.
Today’s travel was a first step ahead of more regular travel in the immediate future, and as we’ve said, we’re accelerating preparations to resume Embassy Kyiv operations just as soon as possible. We are constantly assessing and evaluating and re-assessing the security situation with a view towards resuming those embassy operations as soon as possible, again, to facilitate our support to the government and people of Ukraine as they bravely defend their country.
QUESTION: On Bridget Brink being finally nominated, what took so long? It’s been over a year into this administration. You said you’ve prioritized this relationship. Why did it take so long to get a nomination here?
MR PRICE: Well, the fact is that we haven’t had, unfortunately, an ambassador in Ukraine in several years now, and, of course, need not go into why we didn’t have an ambassador there in the first place. But there are processes, both within our government and coordination with the host country government – in this case, our Ukrainian partners – that are a prerequisite before we’re in a position to announce a nominee publicly. In this case, we’ve been gratified to hear of the reception to her nomination. Of course, we’ve heard a very positive response from our Ukrainian partners. And today, for those of you who were watching Secretary Blinken on the Hill, you heard again a very positive and welcome reception to the news from members of Congress, who we hope will be in a position to take up her nomination very shortly.
QUESTION: Ned, just to check on the Lviv thing. They – no one went in yesterday?
MR PRICE: Today was the first day.
QUESTION: Yeah, that’s not what I meant. For those people, but did anyone go in yesterday, on Monday?
MR PRICE: Today was the first day that we had embassy officers —
QUESTION: That anyone – well, okay. Embassy officers.
QUESTION: And they returned (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: Correct, correct. Yes.
MR PRICE: Let me take a couple – any – one more question on Ukraine.
QUESTION: Ukraine. Ukraine.
MR PRICE: Simon. Let’s move it around.
QUESTION: Yeah. The Secretary has spoken, including on the Hill today, about the war entering a different phase. And obviously this is something that was discussed in the meeting with Zelenskyy, with the other Ukrainian officials. In terms of what new weapons are required by the Ukrainians for this new phase, you’ve spoken about Howitzers, long-range artillery. Are there any other types of weaponry that they’re particularly asking for and that you’re considering giving any more sophisticated systems than that?
MR PRICE: Well, I think it – I would start by saying that we’ve already provided sophisticated systems directly or facilitated the provision of sophisticated systems directly in response to what our Ukrainian partners have been asking for. And it is a regular staple of our engagement with our Ukrainian partners that they update us on their particular needs, and those needs are different now than they were in the earliest days and hours of the invasion, because as you alluded to, Russia’s aggression is shifting from its initial ambitions to take the capital city, its initial ambitions to engage in successful urban warfare, to now the campaign for the south and the east. And so as Russia’s war aims have shifted, after they’ve been defeated in their initial aspirations, the nature of our assistance has changed as well in terms of the capabilities and the systems that we are providing them.
When Secretary Austin and Secretary Blinken met with President Zelenskyy and his team in Kyiv on Sunday, there was a discussion of the battlefield and precisely what implications that battlefield holds for Ukrainian needs. You heard from Secretary Blinken in the aftermath of that that we had – we’re going to be in a position to provide hundreds of millions of dollars more in FMF, foreign military financing. This is separate and distinct from the presidential drawdowns that you’ve heard us put forward in previous weeks, but it is equally useful, and in many ways it gives our Ukrainian partners flexibility in terms of what it is that they are procuring from the United States for their defensive needs against this Russian aggression.
Secretary Blinken also announced more than $150 million or so in terms of ammunition. The Department of Defense has talked about the artillery, the systems that the Ukrainians have requested for the battle for the Donbas. And I’ll defer to the DOD to speak to that.
QUESTION: Question about the German tanks?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Which is finally the Germans today agreed to send their tanks. Well, now according to Reuters, Switzerland is refusing to approve the re-export of the ammo needed for those tanks. Is there anything that the U.S. could do with Switzerland to try to smooth this out, given how long Ukraine has been waiting for the German weapons?
MR PRICE: Well, Germany has been an important partner, an important member of the coalition that we have put together not only in recent weeks but over the course of recent months. And we welcome Germany’s announcements over the course of months that it will increase defense spending, bolster defense capability and readiness; its announcement that it had halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline; and its transfer of lethal assistance and now heavy weaponry to Ukraine. These bold moves we think will strengthen Germany’s role as a leader in global security in line with its diplomatic, economic, development, and humanitarian influence in Europe and around the world.
It’s not for us to speak to specific systems or assets or capabilities that any other country is providing, so I’ll leave it to our German allies to speak to what it is precisely that they’re providing, and I would have to refer you to the Swiss Government for any discussions between those two governments.
QUESTION: Georgia participated in every peace mission and is a valuable NATO partner. Having this in mind, can Georgia get any tentative dates regarding its aspirations to become NATO EU member? We all have heard that it’s a consensus-based decision, but don’t you think the Georgian people and government deserve to know how much longer they need to wait instead of being told that it will happen someday?
And second question, please. You say you understand Georgia’s position very well, but it’s fact that there are both some opposition members inside of my country and also inside of my country who are trying to nudge Georgia toward a decidedly radical position on this. And this is happening in parallel to the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine. In our partner country, there was even talk of opening up a second front in Russia – on Russia, and this is being advised to a country that, together with Moldova, faces the greatest risk of renewed Russian aggression. As you know, 20 percent of my country is occupied of – by Russia. What objectives do you think this campaign for more radical stance and increased pressure on the Georgian Government serve? These have been, as I said, inside of my country and outside of my country. I mean opposition members. And this campaign is permeated with so much disinformation – the so-called secret recordings that are paraded as scandalous or exclusive (inaudible).
MR PRICE: Thank you. So on your first question, we have said for some 15 years now that we support Georgia’s NATO aspirations. We believe that NATO’s “Open Door” policy, it should be an open door for those countries that aspire to join the Alliance. We’ve also said that no outside entity can or should have a veto on any eligible country’s aspirations to join the NATO membership.
Now, as you alluded to in your question, the membership process, it is a process that is overseen by the Alliance. These will be Alliance decisions. They are a set of requirements that any aspirant country will need to fulfill before being eligible to be considered for full membership. But Georgia already is an important NATO partner. We have had close consultations with Georgia on the margins of NATO meetings.
And to your second question – and this bridges the two – we have consistently stood by Georgia and with the people of Georgia in their desire to be a free and sovereign people and a free and sovereign country. And over the years, from the earliest days of Georgia’s post-Soviet independence, we have now developed a strategic partnership between our countries. We work together towards our shared vision of a Georgia that is fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic family of nations and part of a Europe that is whole, free, and, we would hope, at peace. And this is a vision that takes hard work; it takes patience. It takes significant resources to realize. That’s why we have sought to do our part.
We have allocated almost $6 billion in assistance funds to Georgia. We’ve trained over 20,000 Georgian soldiers. We’ve sent over 6,000 people to the United States for cultural and educational exchange programs. We’ve helped promote economic growth, the rule of law, democratic governance, many other initiatives that are important to the Georgian people and their aspirations, but important interests of ours as well. And so we’ll continue to partner with Georgia on their aspirations, on their ambitions, and to protect what they’ve been able to achieve. Janne, I’ll go back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. On the North Korea – I have two questions also on North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un mentioned the preemptive use of their nuclear weapons at a military parade in Pyongyang yesterday. Regarding Kim Jong-un’s emphasis on the use of nuclear force rather than dialogue for abandoning the nuclear program, how can you assessing the prospect for future dialogue with North Korea? And I have follow-up next question.
MR PRICE: Well, to start, your reference to Kim Jong-un’s speech yesterday at the military parade – we’re aware of what he said. It reiterates our assessment that the DPRK constitutes as threat to international peace and security and to the global nonproliferation regime. We have a vital interest – together with our allies and partners around the world, but especially those in the Indo-Pacific – to deter the DPRK, to defend against its provocations or its use of force, to limit the reach of its most dangerous weapons programs, and above all, to keep safe American people in the region, our deployed forces, and our allies, Japan and the ROK being two of them.
Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. As you’ve heard me say before and as recently as last week, we harbor no hostile intent toward the DPRK. We do remain open to engaging in diplomacy and dialogue with the DPRK with an aim of achieving progress towards that overall objective. But we also have an obligation to address the recent provocations that we’ve seen from the DPRK, including its two recent ICBM launches. We have an obligation to enforce the UN Security Council resolutions that are in place. Those are obligations that we’ll continue to work on very closely with our allies in the region, with our partners in the region, and with our allies and partners at the UN. And it goes without saying, of course, that our commitment to our treaty allies, Japan and the ROK, is ironclad and remains that way.
QUESTION: Second question: According to a recent exchange of personal letter between South Korean President Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in this letter North Korea contains preconditions for dialogue with South Korea. What is your assessment of the sincerity of Kim Jong-un’s personal letter?
MR PRICE: It’s not for me to assess the sincerity of anything that has come from the DPRK. What we’ve said before is that we support inter-Korean dialogue. We support anything that de-escalates tensions and that moves us closer towards our shared objective with the ROK, and that’s the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Joseph.
QUESTION: Thanks. Secretary Blinken was asked multiple times today about the Vienna talks and nuclear deal. He was – I mean, he used very intricate language multiple times when it came to the FTO designation and specifying the Qods Force. Can you give us any updates on where those are? Are there – is there anything scheduled, any meeting scheduled back in Vienna? And is that what’s holding up the deal right now? Is it the FTO designation on the IRGC or the IRGC-Qods Force?
MR PRICE: We don’t have any travel to Vienna to preview. We are in close contact with the EU coordinator, who continues to convey messages back and forth. We continue, as you heard me say just the other day – we remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached, but it can be reached only if Iran is prepared to conclude a deal without, for example, raising issues that are extraneous to the JCPOA. If that’s the case, we believe that we can achieve a mutual return to compliance of the JCPOA in fairly short order, and that remains our goal for a couple of reasons. You heard the Secretary speak to this today. It remains our goal principally, because President Biden has a commitment to see to it that Iran is never in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon.
And the fact is that while the JCPOA was in full effect from implementation day in early 2016 until May of 2018, Iran was verifiably and permanently prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And again, when the JCPOA was in full effect, the breakout time – that is to say the time that Iran would require to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, if it chose to go in that direction – was about 12 months when the deal was consummated and fully in effect. Now – and the Secretary said this today – that breakout time is measured not in months but, unfortunately, in weeks. And that is something that is unacceptable to us as a long-term proposition. That is why we continue to see if we can reach a conclusion, a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. But as we said, we are preparing equally for either world, a world in which we have a JCPOA and a world in which we are forced to seek other means to be faithful to the President’s commitment.
Now, the challenge is we’ve seen both of these worlds. We’ve seen what a world with a fully functioning JCPOA looks like – and again, that’s a world in which Iran is verifiably and permanently constrained from obtaining a nuclear weapon with a breakout time that is extended – and we’ve seen a world without a JCPOA. So this is not a thought experiment. Unfortunately, there’s been a real-world experiment when it comes to the utility of the JCPOA.
And in the world in which the JCPOA has been suspended, not only have we’ve seen Iran’s nuclear program gallop forward with the installation of centrifuges, the accumulation of nuclear material, various developments that would contravene the obligations under the JCPOA, but we’ve seen Iran that has acted with even greater impunity. We’ve seen an Iran that has enabled its proxies, that has supported malevolent groups and actors in the region. We’ve seen an Iran that has continued with its ballistic missile program. We’ve seen in Iran that has continued to be a deeply destabilizing force to the region.
We believe that if we are able to put Iran’s nuclear program back into a box, if we are able to contain what would constitute the greatest challenge we could face from Iran, the greatest challenge we could face in the region, that we will be more effective and better positioned to confront these other challenges that we face with Iran.
So there’s some distance yet to close. It’s unclear if we’re going to be able to get there, but it remains our assessment that mutually returning to the JCPOA would profoundly be in our interest. And we’ll pursue that mutual return as long as it remains in our interest.
QUESTION: Ned —
QUESTION: You mentioned yourself months ago that this wouldn’t be open ended. And I mean, talks have been going on for a little over a year. Granted, I mean, it’s not an uneasy agreement to reach, but I mean, surely – and you guys have also been saying that the breakout time’s a matter of weeks for now months. So I mean, how much longer are you guys willing to wait? Because it seems like Iran’s – has its demands, and they’re not backing down.
MR PRICE: Well, we’re going to test the proposition of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA for as long as doing so remains in our interests. And the fact is that right now Iran’s breakout time, it is far shorter than we would like. Were we to reenter the JCPOA, and more precisely were Iran to once again be subject to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated, that breakout time would be extended. So as long as the nonproliferation benefits that a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA brings is better than what we have now, that will likely be an outcome that’s in our interest.
But again, we may not be able to get there, because a negotiation in this case, not only does it take two parties but there are multiple parties in this, and there are complex questions, some of which remain unresolved.
QUESTION: Ned, on this – and I’ll leave aside the argument that we could get into over whether everyone agrees that the JCPOA permanently and verifiably ended your nuclear potential – Iran’s nuclear potential. Leaving that aside, the Secretary seemed to suggest in his answers today that the State Department and the DNI had made a determination that the threat against former Secretary Pompeo and Special Envoy Hook from Iran continued, and that you are continuing to pay whatever amount it is per month for protection for them. Is that correct? Is that a correct reading of what he said?
MR PRICE: There is only so much I can say on this, but we have an obligation that we take very seriously to provide protection to former officials of this building who may be subject to a threat. Now I think you could understand why if someone were, in fact, subject to a foreign threat we probably wouldn’t want to speak to that publicly, so as not to spotlight something like that, to spotlight measures we might be taking to mitigate any such threat. But you heard this from the National Security Advisor on January 9th I think it was of this year. He issued a very clear statement.
QUESTION: Yes. But after that – and I remember that, and I appreciate the fact that he said that, but after that you guys notified the Hill that you were spending $2 million a month roughly for protection for these two former officials and also that a decision had to be made within the next – within 10 days of that notification of whether or not you were going to ask for more money to continue that protection. And it sounded to me, from what the Secretary said, that you had made that decision.
MR PRICE: We notify the Hill of many things that we’re not in a position to speak about publicly. Let me move around just – yes, please.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on Iran?
MR PRICE: Quick follow-up on Iran. Okay.
QUESTION: Very quick follow-up on Iran. The Israeli – the Times of Israel reported that Israeli officials are saying that the Americans have basically acknowledged the failure of the Vienna talks and you’re about to make that public in a very short order. Can you comment on that?
MR PRICE: My comment would be precisely the answer that I offered to Joseph just a moment ago, that we are going to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA as long as it remains in our national interest to do so.
QUESTION: So the Israelis in this case are wrong, exaggerating, that —
MR PRICE: It sounds like you’re citing a press report that’s citing anonymous Israelis, so oftentimes that is a recipe for information that may not be entirely accurate.
QUESTION: Can I —
QUESTION: One more Iran question?
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Sorry. I just want to build off what Joseph was asking you. Can you just explain to us how the breakout time has remained weeks for months now? It seems to indicate that Iran has slowed down accelerating its program, has done it more slowly than you expected it to. Is that the case? Can you just explain how we’re in the same place we were in January, February?
MR PRICE: Well, the breakout time is an assessment. It’s an assessment based on our technical know-how. It’s an assessment that is based on non-public sources of information as well, so there’s only so much we can say on this. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Iranians are – or feel – constrained right now, in terms of their nuclear program, and that’s precisely why we are still testing the proposition of a potential mutual return to compliance, so that they are constrained by the JCPOA, the constraints that are conveyed by the JCPOA, in terms of centrifuges, in terms of amassing nuclear material, in terms of amassing heavy water, in terms of what all of that means for a potential breakout time.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I have a quick question about China. Although Secretary Blinken mentioned today he would speak publicly about comprehensive strategy to deal with China, so the United States has published interim national security strategy and Indo-Pacific strategy already, which are focusing on China in some ways. So could you tell us, understand – could you help us understand what the difference between the incoming strategy and the ongoing strategies?
MR PRICE: So the Secretary did mention that he expected to have an opportunity in the coming days, coming weeks to speak in a bit more depth to our approach to the PRC. I think what you’re referring to when you mention our Indo-Pacific strategy – this was a strategy that Secretary Blinken laid out on a fairly memorable trip, for those of you who were with us, in Jakarta late last year, in December of last year.
And our Indo-Pacific strategy, as the name suggests, is focused on the broader region, is focused on principally our partnership with the region and our shared vision with and for the region. It’s a vision of a region that is centered on key elements.
First, advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific, in which problems are dealt with openly; rules will be reached transparently and applied fairly; goods and ideas, people will flow freely. Second, it’s about forging stronger connections within and beyond the region on a bilateral basis or on a multilateral basis, if you talk about the Quad, or stitching together our partnerships and alliances if you were to talk about, for example, an AUKUS. Third, it’s a vision that promotes broad-based prosperity for the region, again with us as a partner, knowing that the region is home to some 40 percent of global GDP. It’s a region of opportunity not only for the people of the region but also for the United States. It’s a vision that seeks to build a more resilient Indo-Pacific, resilience against COVID, resilience against climate change, resilience against shared threats. And finally, it’s a region in which we seek to bolster security, and there are any number of threats. And when it comes to our assessment, our system of alliances and partnerships is the most important tool we have when it comes to confronting those threats.
So it’s a vision principally for a broader region. We’ve talked about our approach to the PRC. We’ve talked about the multifaceted relationship we have with the PRC, but I know that the Secretary looks forward in the coming days to speaking a bit more about that.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: A quick question on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Ned, it’s been six months since the six organizations were designated as terrorist organization. I know I’ve asked you this question many times before, so please indulge me, so – and I know that you requested clarifications from the Israelis and you received that clarification. So are you satisfied that these organizations – these six organizations are in fact engaged in terrorist activities? Because their funding has been cut off, the European Union is looking at maybe – there has been experts today – UN experts that said they should be funded, there’s been no evidence that they have engaged in terrorist activity. What is your assessment after the Israelis responded to you?
MR PRICE: As I’ve said for some time now, Said, our Israeli partners have provided us with information regarding the basis for their determination. That’s information that we’re reviewing. It’s a process that can be lengthy because it’s a process that takes place not only here —
QUESTION: Six months – six months —
MR PRICE: — not only here in this building, but also across other departments and agencies across town.
I can say more broadly that we’ve made it very clear to our Israeli Government and Palestinian Authority interlocutors that independent civil society organizations in the West Bank and in Israel must be able to continue their important work. We value the monitoring of human rights violations and abuses that independent NGOs undertake in Gaza, undertake in the West Bank, undertake in Israel and elsewhere. And we strongly believe that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are critically important to responsive – and to responsive democratic governance.
It’s also important to note that we have already designated – we long ago designated the PFLP as an FTO. They have been designated as an FTO since 1997. And we’ve not designated, as you know, any of the six NGOs that the Israeli Government did. It’s also important to note we haven’t funded these groups.
QUESTION: But the PFLP is one thing and these organizations is another thing altogether. I mean, I understand that you have designated the PFLP a long time ago as a terrorist organization. There is maybe a good reason for that, I don’t know. But on these six organizations, they have conducted themselves only in terms of human rights abuses, reporting on that, doing civil society organization and so on.
MR PRICE: That’s something we’re looking at.
QUESTION: Ned, on Israel, presumably you’ve seen these very lengthy regulations that were dated February but apparently take effect in May for entry – entry by foreigners into the West Bank?
MR PRICE: I’m not immediately familiar with them, but if we have a reaction, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Yeah, because it would require foreigners of any nationality to get prior approval from Israeli military officials at the embassy where they’re applying for a visa before they can even present themselves for entry into the West Bank. So yes, I’d be very interested in any reaction you have, and also if this will have any impact on the visa waiver negotiations, because as you know, one of the main sticking points in that has been the treatment of Palestinian Americans. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you. Simon.
QUESTION: I just wanted to try and clarify something. You – the Indo-Pacific strategy that you were mentioning, I think the exchange that took place in – on the Hill earlier, the Secretary was being asked about a formal national security strategy on China, and your response just now – you seemed to suggest he will address this issue in coming weeks, but there isn’t a separate strategy for China that’s forthcoming. Can you just clarify? He’s going to address something in coming weeks but it’s not going to be a new strategy?
MR PRICE: The question was how remarks on the PRC might be different from the Indo-Pacific strategy that we – that the Secretary explained in December of last year. And so my answer was the fact that that was a regional strategy. It wasn’t about any one country. It was about our partnership with the region and our bilateral relationships with the countries of the region and the relationships we have bilaterally and multilaterally with blocs in the region as well.
QUESTION: So the Secretary will detail a specific strategy for China?
MR PRICE: The Secretary looks forward to speaking more about our approach to the PRC in the coming days.
A very quick final question, yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, actually two questions on Ukraine. First, to clarify on what you just said in your response to Conor’s question on embassy, you mentioned traveling. Are the diplomats going back out and forth? Is it like day-long trip? Do you have any timeline on when the embassy in Kyiv will be restaffed? And my second question after this.
MR PRICE: They are making, for the time being, day trips into Lviv. That first day trip started today. As I said before, we are accelerating planning to re-establish a diplomatic presence in our – at our embassy in Kyiv. It is something we want to do as soon as it is responsible for us to do so.
QUESTION: Awesome. And second question on the last weekend’s meeting. There are reports that Zelenskyy handed over a plan to strengthen sanctions. It’s about ramping up sanctions against Russia and enablers. Any – are you in a position to confirm those reports?
MR PRICE: Well, I think there are reports because in the Ukrainian Government readout, it said that President Zelenskyy handed over a document regarding the Yermak-McFaul International Expert Group on strengthening sanctions. So sanctions enforcement, the next step in our sanctions against Russia and those who are enabling the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine, that certainly was a topic of discussion, and we’ll continue to coordinate closely with our Ukrainian partners on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:32 p.m.)