2:38 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. A couple items at the top and then I’ll take your questions.
I’m sure you all have seen the recent Travel Advisory updates for Ukraine and the announcement that came out just a short time ago. So let me start by saying this: We don’t take this sort of action without the most thorough deliberation. And over the course of the last few days, these deliberations have led to a series of staffing changes in Ukraine. We feel all of these actions were absolutely necessary, and decisions were made with one thing and one thing in mind, and that is the safety and security of U.S. citizens and our colleagues on the ground.
Now, let me tell you what made this necessary: Russia’s continued escalation and seriously threatening military posture, as we have all seen in recent weeks and recent days. We are basing our assessment on what we are seeing on the ground with our own eyes, which is a continued and unprovoked Russian buildup on the border with Ukraine, and no accompanying evidence of de-escalation.
It is a distinct possibility, perhaps more real than ever before, that Russia may decide to proceed with military action. With new Russian forces continuing to arrive at the Ukrainian border and Russian forces staged all around Ukraine, an invasion, as we have said, could begin at any time. Should Putin decide to order it, there would be widespread human suffering.
All the while, we are actively working to try to reach a diplomatic solution, and we remain engaged with the Russian Government following President Biden’s call with President Putin over the weekend. But since no one has full visibility into President Putin’s decision-making and there hasn’t, as I said before, been any tangible sign of de-escalation, we have taken the prudent steps of updating the Travel Advisory for Ukraine to urge U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine immediately using any available mode of transportation, and now most recently, as you saw just a little bit ago, we are in the process of relocating our diplomatic staff from Kyiv to Lviv.
The staff in Lviv, including our chargé, Kristina Kvien, will remain engaged with the Ukrainian Government, coordinating on diplomatic efforts. We will continue our close coordination with Ukraine as well as with our allies and partners. Russia, if it sought to do so, has failed in its goal of dividing the United States and our allies and partners. If anything, we are more united as we confront Russia’s threats and aggression.
We are intensifying our efforts to deter Russia and to impose costs should Moscow decide to go ahead with military action. Whatever happens next, we are resolute in our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and we will continue our assistance to the people of Ukraine.
It remains unclear to us whether Russia is interested in pursuing diplomatically – pursuing a diplomatic path as opposed to the use of force. We remain committed to keeping the prospect of de-escalation through diplomacy alive. We will remain committed to doing that for as long as we can. But Russia must de-escalate and engage in genuine dialogue and diplomacy.
Next, before I take your questions, one additional element. I want to take a moment to explain the executive order that President Biden signed on Friday. As we are all acutely aware, the people of Afghanistan face enormous challenges – an economic crisis born of decades of dependence on international aid, severe drought, COVID-19, endemic corruption, among others.
Afghan central bank reserves held at the Federal Reserve have been inaccessible for months in part because of the uncertainty regarding who could authorize transactions on the account, but also due to pending litigation by 9/11 victims and other victims of terrorism.
Victims of terrorism, including of the September 11th terrorist attacks, have brought claims against the Taliban, and they are pursuing the central bank’s remaining assets in federal court. This administration will continue to support these victims and their families, recognizing the enduring pain they have suffered at the hands of terrorists, including those who operated from Afghanistan prior to the September 11th attacks. These victims and their families should have a full opportunity to set forth their arguments in court, and they will.
We have no idea how long that litigation will take, and in the meantime, the humanitarian and economic situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate by the day. That is why President Biden signed the executive order on Friday to preserve and protect those reserves as part of an effort to make $3.5 billion available for the Afghan people.
Fundamentally, this EO is aimed at protecting and preserving funds for the benefit of the Afghan people, and we’ve taken further steps to set aside 3.5 billion for such uses, to try to clarify that they cannot be attached or seized. The objective is to make these funds available for the Afghan people without having to wait for the full court process to conclude.
No decision has been made about how these funds will ultimately be used to benefit the Afghan people, many of whom are also victims of terrorism. Whatever mechanism is established, it will be designed to minimize the risk the funds end up in the hands of the Taliban or other sanctioned individuals or groups.
It is ultimately up to the courts to determine whether the remainder of these funds should go to victims of terrorism who hold judgments against the Taliban. These funds will continue to be the subject of ongoing litigation in U.S. courts by victims of terrorism. These victims and their families, as we’ve said, should have a full opportunity to set forth their arguments.
This action marks a significant step forward in the United States’ effort to authorize the transfer of a significant portion of the funds to meet the needs of the Afghan people. I want to reiterate: Friday’s executive order was a step towards making a significant portion, $3.5 billion, of these funds accessible to the Afghan people. And this action demonstrates that America’s ties to the people of Afghanistan, built during two decades of working side by side are steadfast and enduring.
And with that, be happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. Can I just – on Ukraine, your comments just now and the decision to close the embassy, move to Lviv, would seem to suggest that you don’t put a lot of faith in the comments that Foreign Minister Lavrov made this morning about – that there is still time for diplomacy to work here. Is that a fair assessment of your understanding?
MR PRICE: We have taken note of his comments. What we have not taken note of is any indication of de-escalation. We have not seen any tangible, any real sign of de-escalation. We have been consistent that we want to pursue the path of diplomacy. We want to resolve this through dialogue, through diplomacy, through communication. We hope the Russians have a similar willingness. But we have – we’ve also said that in order for diplomacy and dialogue to succeed, it has to take place in the context of de-escalation. And we have not seen anything resembling de-escalation. There is not that context yet. If Foreign Minister Lavrov’s comments are followed up with concrete, tangible signs of de-escalation, we would certainly welcome that. We have not seen that yet.
QUESTION: Is there – is there any – has there been any movement on another conversation between the Secretary and the foreign minister? Have you gotten – and also, it looks like the Russians are making noise that they’ve pretty much finalized their response to your response. And so has – have you been led to believe that anything on either of those fronts – the response, or another meeting or phone call – is coming soon?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve seen the comments from the Kremlin, from Moscow today indicating that their response, in their words, has been finalized. It’s been, I believe, over two weeks now since we dispatched our non-paper to Moscow. We have yet to see a response. That remains accurate as of today, as of this moment. But we will, of course, carefully review the Russian written response when we do receive it.
As you know, Matt, over the weekend President Biden has – had an opportunity to speak to President Putin. That call was preceded by a phone call that Secretary Blinken had with Foreign Minister Lavrov while we were in flight. During that first call, the call between Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov, Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated what the Russians seem to be indicating now publicly today – namely, that is, that they are finalizing, they were finalizing at the time, the written response that they intended to transmit to the United States, a response that would carry the imprimatur of President Putin. We have yet to receive that, but the foreign minister did indicate a willingness on the part of the Russian Federation to engage in dialogue once that response was received.
Now, there was no discussion, no specific discussion, as to when that dialogue would take place. We don’t have anything scheduled at the moment. The next step will be the receipt of the Russian response. We’ll of course need a bit of time to evaluate it. But as we’ve said, we are prepared to engaged in diplomacy. We hope to engage in good-faith dialogue and diplomacy. But in order for it to be good faith, of course, that will require the Russians to respond in kind. In order for this to bear fruit, it will also have to take place in the context of de-escalation, and that is just not something we’ve seen today.
QUESTION: Okay. And he – did he – Foreign Minister Lavrov or anyone else hasn’t given you any indication of what the content of the response might be? Isn’t that what —
MR PRICE: No. We’ve seen various public characterizations of —
MR PRICE: — the Russian view of our non-paper, of the non-paper that was sent over by NATO, but we’ll have to wait and see what’s actually in that, in the Russian response.
QUESTION: President Zelenskyy has just said that he’s been told that Wednesday, this coming Wednesday, is potentially the day of a Russian attack. Is that your assumption, too? Is that what you have shared with your Ukrainian allies – partners?
MR PRICE: Well, so I’m not going to go specifically into a great deal of intelligence. What I can say – let me start by what we’re not saying. We are not saying that President Putin has made a final decision. We have not communicated otherwise to our partners. We believe that diplomacy continues to be viable. We believe that there still remains a window to resolve this through dialogue and diplomacy.
What we are saying – and you just heard me say this a moment ago, as I was explaining the rationale behind the moves in recent days – that we have a sufficient level of concern based on data points that are as clear to me as they should be to all of you, and that’s what we’re seeing on the ground. It is the massive buildup that we have seen continue even in recent days and recent weeks, more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, Russian forces in Belarus, essentially Russia positioning itself to be in a position should that decision be made to move quickly and aggressively against Ukraine from multiple sides. That’s what undergirds our concern.
We have erred on the side of transparency with our allies and our partners. Of course, that includes Ukraine. We’ll continue to share with our Ukrainian partners information and intelligence as we are able. But at this point, our assessment has not changed. We believe that a window remains open to resolve this diplomatically. That is certainly the course we prefer. It is a course we will continue to pursue for as long as we have a partner on the other side.
QUESTION: And to follow up on Matt’s question on any engagement with Lavrov, is it at this point – de-escalation, is it preconditioned to any further in-person engagement with Prime Minister Lavrov or not?
MR PRICE: We are open to dialogue. But again, in order for that dialogue to lead to anything, in order for it to be effective, it would need to take place in the context of de-escalation. Right now the Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders, on – along Ukraine’s borders and in Belarus has created a very tense and challenging situation. It is a very dangerous situation that could escalate, whether intentional or not, with little or no warning.
We want to see de-escalation, both for the sake of this dialogue and diplomacy bearing fruit and resolving this peacefully, but also in an effort to lower the risk of conflict, to lower the risk of this turning very bad very quickly. That is our concern right now. We have not seen that de-escalation. We don’t yet know that President Putin has made a decision. That is why we think diplomacy continues to be viable. But we need to see de-escalation in order for that diplomacy —
QUESTION: What does de-escalation mean? I mean, you guys always talk de-escalation, but you never defined it.
MR PRICE: Well, we have talked about it. We —
QUESTION: We’ve seen escalation on the other side, even like troops going to Albania, Poland, airplanes and so on —
MR PRICE: First of all, I would take issue with that. What we have done is to prepare, to prepare for either course that the Russian Federation may take. Again, we are prepared and we have engaged in dialogue and diplomacy. We’ve done that in concert with our allies and partners. But we’re also prepared for the course of defense and deterrence, knowing that President Putin may well decide to order an invasion and now has the ability to do so in short order.
Everything that we have done, Said, has been in the vein of defense and deterrence. It is not NATO that is threatening Russia. It is not Ukraine that is threatening Russia. NATO is a defensive alliance. What we have done is reassure, including through measures that the Department of Defense and the President has spoken to, to re-ensure and to reinforce our allies on NATO’s eastern flank and to provide Ukraine with defensive supplies that Ukraine would need to defend itself should Russia make the decision to move forward with an unprovoked attack against Ukraine. That is not in the vein of aggression. That is quite the opposite. That is in the vein of defense and deterrence.
In terms of the steps Russia would need to take, I’m not here to define what Russia needs to do. There are a range of steps that the Russian Federation could take that would signal de-escalation. There are more than 100,000 forces arrayed along Ukraine’s borders. There are thousands of forces in Belarus. We’ve heard bellicose rhetoric emanate from elements of the Russian Federation. All of those things could change. This buildup has taken place in the course of a couple months. In the course of hours or days we could see tangible signs of de-escalation, if Russia makes the political decision to do so.
QUESTION: President Zelenskyy – sorry – recently suggested very vaguely that perhaps the notion of NATO membership might not be achievable. He said it is for us “like a dream.” And of course, you had the comments from the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, in which he suggested it might be up for some kind of negotiation, although that’s been walked back and they said it’s part of the constitution and so on. But there is discussion perhaps on how to respond to this particular crisis and whether NATO membership might be part of that.
What are the Americans saying to Ukraine about that? Is that something that you’re encouraging? Is that something that you are advising on, some kind of formula, that that might be a place where there could be a diplomatic solution? Because it seems unlikely there’ll be some kind of solution without involving Ukraine’s status.
MR PRICE: Ukraine’s aspirations are not a matter for us to decide. Ukraine’s aspirations are not a matter for any other country to decide. We’ve been very clear about this, and this is at the core of what we’ve been saying in terms of that diplomacy. There are some areas where through the course of good-faith discussions and negotiations we think we could improve our own – address some of our own security concerns, the security concerns of the transatlantic community – that is to say the shared concerns of the United States, of our European allies and partners – and also address the stated concerns of the Russian Federation. And we’ve delineated a number of those.
A number of those are now available online to subscribers of El País to see for themselves, so I need not go into them now. At the same time, we’ve been consistent all along. There are some things that are non-negotiable.
QUESTION: But is it something that they have raised with you?
MR PRICE: I’m not going to go into discussions with the – with our Ukrainian partners, but our message to them, both public and private, has been that no country – no other country – should be in a position to dictate the aspirations of any other country, whether that is Ukraine or any other country around the world. This is, we’ve made the point repeatedly, tensions that Moscow have – has provoked needlessly, tensions that Moscow has precipitated for no reason. But in many ways what we are seeing here is bigger than the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the tensions between Russia and the international community.
And that is because what Russia is threatening itself is an affront to the rules-based order that has undergirded 70-plus years of unprecedented levels of stability, of security, of prosperity. If Moscow purports to dictate international borders, if Moscow purports to dictate the foreign policy decisions, if Moscow purports to dictate the alliances and partnerships of any other country, that would be an assault on that order. It would have implications certainly for Ukraine, but it’d have implications far beyond Ukraine. And I think that is why you’ve seen not only the United States but also the United States and our partners and allies speak up firmly, speak up with one voice, to make clear that we would not stand for it and that there would be profound, profound consequences for Moscow should it choose to move forward with that aggression.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask on the – two things. On the embassy, so the – can you just confirm that the Marine guards are also gone and that there’s nobody left? And who will be responsible for – presumably the Ukrainian Government, but what are the arrangements around safeguarding the facility?
And then just to clarify on the potential for further diplomacy with the Russians, is it your understanding – or what is your understanding regarding whether or not they have agreed firmly to more NATO-Russia Council talks or the bilateral talks or the OSCE talks, or have they just sort of indicated general openness to it? And what’s your understanding based on the recent discussions?
MR PRICE: So on your first question regarding our status in Ukraine, we are in the process of moving our operations from Kyiv to Lviv. The chargé is already in Lviv. The vast majority of our team is in Lviv. We are grateful to the Ukrainian National Guard and – Ukrainian National Guard Police, I should say – who will guard our embassy in Kyiv. It is certainly our intention to return to that embassy in Kyiv just as soon as it is safe for us to do so.
When it comes to the dialogue, as I’ve said before, the Russians have indicated a willingness – at least stated a willingness – to continue to engage in dialogue and diplomacy. We certainly hope that is the case. We certainly hope they will do so in good faith in the context of de-escalation.
We have also been very clear with the Russians that this cannot be exclusively a bilateral matter because it is not a bilateral matter. This is an issue that involves, of course, Ukraine, in the first instance; NATO, Europe, and that is why we have continued to insist that even if – and we hope – there is additional bilateral contact between the United States and the Russian Federation, that that would be accompanied by additional engagement at the NATO-Russia Council, through the OSCE.
What we know at the very least is that any additional bilateral engagement between the United States and the Russian Federation – which, again, we hope takes place and takes place in the context of de-escalation – would continue to be – we would continue to closely coordinate that engagement with our Ukrainian partners, with our European allies as well. A number of countries are now engaging on a bilateral basis with the Russian Federation, and we think that’s a good thing. We think that is a good thing because these countries, including the French, including the Germans, they have done so in close and extensive coordination with the United States. As you know, President Biden has had now a couple opportunities to speak to President Macron. Chancellor Scholz was just in Washington. I believe it was last week where he met with President Biden. Secretary Blinken was also in that meeting.
So we’ve been in close, regular, extensive consultation with our allies and partners, but as for the next steps, first we’ll – it’s our impression that we’ll be in receipt of the Russian response, and we’ll have to take it from there.
QUESTION: Okay. So the scheduling of any specific NRC or SSD or OSCE meeting will – would come, if it comes, after you guys get the response?
MR PRICE: Well, I can’t speak for NATO. I can’t speak for the OSCE. What I can say at this point is that there is not another engagement on the books right now, but again, we hope there is one and we hope there is one that gives way to de-escalation and to diminution of tensions.
QUESTION: Thank you. Following a little bit on Missy’s question, can you say for the record why Lviv is really that much safer for American diplomats than Kyiv, given the multipronged, overwhelming invasion that so many of you are forecasting? Is it a way to just sort of pretend you still have a presence in the country?
MR PRICE: No, it’s a matter of geography, and Lviv’s location, of course, affords it a degree of protection that other places in Ukraine may not have. The buildup of forces on Ukraine’s eastern borders, the buildup of forces along its northern border with Belarus, of course that has implications for large swaths of Ukraine, including Kyiv. We have made the determination to move our operations to Lviv out of consideration for the safety and security of our personnel on the ground.
QUESTION: And when you say the vast majority of our team is there now in Lviv, do you mean the vast majority of the original full embassy, or you mean the vast majority of the core team?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve been drawing down our embassy presence for some time. As you know, we ordered – we went to ordered departure for dependents; we went to authorized departure for some of our staff now a number of days ago. With the ordered departure, we have drawn down further. Some of those members of our team have returned to the United States, others are going to other locations inside of Europe. Now we have a core team that remains in Ukraine. We are in the process of moving that remaining core team from Kyiv to Lviv.
QUESTION: I know you won’t say numbers, but, like, is that core team, what, 10 percent of the original —
MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to get into numbers.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Ned, thank you. Mark Stone from Sky News. A couple of points can I just get clarification on?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: There have been reports that documents and computers in the embassy in Kyiv are being destroyed. Is that correct? Can I also ask about reports that you’ve seen artillery pieces and troops on the Russian side being moved into an attack position, as it’s being described? Do you recognize that?
And then a more broad point, if I can: The Zelenskyy – the President Zelenskyy comments about a Wednesday attack. In the last few moments his spokesperson has said he was being sarcastic and – in his statement. Can you explain the clear disconnect between what the Ukrainian Government is saying about the threat and what the West is saying about the threat? Because I think the public is a bit confused, globally.
MR PRICE: Understood. Remind me of your first question again. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: The first question was just details on whether stuff is being destroyed in embassy.
MR PRICE: So, as you know, we’ve been planning for this contingency, as we do for a range of contingencies, for some time now. And there are a standard set of procedures that we set into motion when we do begin an embassy drawdown, and certainly when we relocate our operations from one site to another. I can’t get into the full set of those operations, but those operations were set in motion, as appropriate. What I can say is that we had been planning for this. There was a great deal of meticulous planning that went into this, and as testament to that, for example, we did not have to destroy any valid passports. We have undertaken prudent precautions when it comes to sensitive documents, sensitive equipment, but just can’t offer a whole lot of detail there.
Your question on various reports of artillery moving into attacks positions, what I can say is that we have grown increasingly concerned by what we have seen on the part of the Russian Federation in recent weeks and recent days. Some of these reports are, again, very public, clear as day, in terms of additional forces heading towards, arriving at the border with Ukraine, additional forces going into Belarus. Not in a position to detail the full rationale for our concern, but our concern has only increased. We have not seen indications of de-escalation that we’ve called for that we think are necessary if diplomacy is to bear fruit.
When it comes to the – what you’re hearing from President Zelenskyy, from our Ukrainian partners, look, we are coordinating extremely closely with them. The Secretary had an opportunity to speak to Foreign Minister Kuleba this morning. President Biden spoke to President Zelenskyy yesterday. The Secretary just a couple days ago had another conversation with Foreign Minister Kuleba. We will continue that level of coordination; we’ll continue that level of information-sharing across every dimension. We have erred on the side of transparency with our Ukrainian partners. We think that is important precisely because they are our partners. They are the ones that are facing a potentially imminent threat from the Russian Federation, and so that’s why we’ve continued to engage with them.
QUESTION: Why is it that they don’t seem as concerned about the threat as you are?
MR PRICE: The Ukrainian ambassador to Washington has made very clear statements. She has indicated that they are seeing much of the same information we are, and that is for a simple reason: because we are sharing robust amounts of information with them.
QUESTION: Sorry, so not the threat. I mean the intent. President Putin’s intent – they don’t seem convinced that he has the intent. The threat is obvious; it’s on the border.
MR PRICE: Well, as we’ve said, we also do not know that President Putin has made the decision. What undergirds our concern is precisely the threat that you were speaking to, that our Ukrainian partners have spoken to, that is visible to everyone here. There is a good reason why we are taking the prudent precautions that we’ve taken vis-à-vis American citizens in Ukraine, who we’ve urged for some time now to leave immediately using commercially available options, to take overland routes. And in fact, even in recent hours we have provided additional guidance to American citizens on the ground in Ukraine telling them specifically which border crossings they should use, facilitating their access through engagement with our Polish allies that will help them across the Polish border on an expedited basis.
It is precisely why we have taken the steps we announced today relocating our embassy operations from Kyiv to Lviv. It’s precisely why we are taking these prudent steps in the vein of defense and deterrence that we have. The threat is very real. I don’t think anyone is arguing about the severity of the threat that the Russian Federation is currently posing.
QUESTION: Just a little bit more about the decision to move the embassy, or to move embassy operations. Is that something that you discussed with the Ukrainian Government before you did it, and what was their response to you doing that? Because you’re saying that you’re going to continue to engage with the Ukrainian Government, but you’re going to be in a different city to where the Ukrainian Government is, right? So how does that work? Do you expect Ukrainian officials to shuttle back and forth from Kyiv to Lviv, or is the chargé going to come to Kyiv, or have you – it seems like you’re saying that Kyiv is not safe for Americans to be there right now. So how can your level of engagement remain the same with the Ukrainians and this not be a message to them that we’re no longer with you in Kyiv?
MR PRICE: Sure. Well, let me start by saying precisely what the relocation of our operations doesn’t signal. It does not signal any diminution on our part for the territorial integrity, for the sovereignty, for the independence of Ukraine. Quite the contrary, there are a number of functions that are going to remain. We are going to continue to be in a position to provide defensive security assistance to our Ukrainian partners. That will absolutely continue. Our chargé will – currently is in Lviv. She will remain in regular, constant contact with our Ukrainian partners. Of course, much of that contact takes place from our team on the ground in Kyiv, but as you saw just again this morning, Secretary Blinken is in frequent contact with Foreign Minister Kuleba, and I suspect that will continue as well.
What this does signal is one thing and one thing only, and that is precisely – that is the priority we attach to the safety, to the security of American citizens whom we’ve – whom we have now urged to leave the country immediately, and also to our colleagues who are on the ground, to their safety and security. Only the United States Government has that priority when it comes to the safety and security of American citizens, including our colleagues. No other country, no other entity, can be in a position to make a judgement about what is in the best security interests of our colleagues on the ground, and it is our considered judgment that it is now prudent for our colleagues to relocate from Kyiv to Lviv precisely because of the threat.
QUESTION: The specific threat to U.S. diplomats, that would be presumably a breach of, I guess, the Geneva Conventions. The Ukrainians are responsible for protecting diplomats in the country. You’re kind of implying that if the Russians do come into Kyiv they can’t be trusted to respect diplomats. Even in the Second World War, diplomats stayed in Berlin, for example. Is there a specific reason you have to believe that those diplomats would face harm?
MR PRICE: We’re not here and this move does not indicate there is any specific threat to American personnel on the ground in Ukraine. But what we do know is given the capabilities that the Russians are poised to deploy should President Putin make that decision, that incursion into Ukraine could entail massive violence, massive destruction, and the loss of life would not discriminate between Americans, Ukrainians, others. And so it is in our considered judgment a prudent step for our team on the ground to relocate from Kyiv to Lviv. We’ve talked about the geographic reasons why Lviv is a prudent step at this point. But again, this is not out of concern that our diplomats would be any more under threat than anyone else.
QUESTION: I have a couple questions. One, Chancellor Scholz is on his way to Moscow. Has the administration contacted him, gotten a sense of what’s really happening in Kyiv right now? And is the U.S. giving him a message to give to President Putin?
And then my other question is – and it falls on Simon’s point – what is the U.S.’s commitment to ensuring that the Zelenskyy government or any democratically elected government in Ukraine remains intact and does not become a proxy state for Moscow?
MR PRICE: When it comes to our German allies, as I alluded to already, Chancellor Scholz was only recently at the White House. He had an opportunity to sit down with President Biden – Secretary Blinken was in attendance for that meeting as well – to discuss our joint and shared approach to the crisis that Moscow has needlessly provoked. And it is a joint approach. You heard that from Chancellor Scholz when he was standing next to President Biden at the White House. You heard that from Chancellor Scholz even in recent hours in terms of his comments about the strong, unified response that would befall Moscow were it to pursue the path of aggression.
So we are in regular contact with our German allies, our embassy in Berlin but also here from the State Department. I fully expect that high-level engagements will take place in the coming days with our German allies. As I’ve said before, there are a number of countries – the Germans, the French included – that have engaged at senior levels with the Russian Federation. We have all been doing this with that core precept in mind. Nothing about without when it comes to the United States, and the close coordination, the close consultations that we have engaged in, those have been reciprocated from our allies who themselves have engaged with the Russian Federation.
Look, I don’t want to get into a hypothetical when it comes to what may happen next. Our goal is to deter. Our goal is to do everything we can to prevent a conflict from breaking out. That is why we continue to leave open the possibility for diplomacy, not only to leave that open but to very clearly indicate in no uncertain terms that it’s our preference. We are ready and willing to continue discussions in close concert – in consultation with our allies and partners regarding means to de-escalate this. What is required for that to bear fruit, however, is de-escalation, and there is only one side that has escalated. There is only one side that is in a position to de-escalate, and that is the Russian Federation. That is yet what we’ve to see.
QUESTION: Just want to make it very clear: To the Russians, one of the things that they have looked at is what they consider an encroaching opposite political philosophy on their borders. Can you categorically say that the U.S. will not stand for a change of government in Ukraine in order to end this crisis?
MR PRICE: There is a democratically elected government in place in Kyiv. It is up to the Ukrainian people, through the course of democratic elections, to choose their leaders. It is not up to any other country to do so.
QUESTION: Can I change topics?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I have a couple questions on the Palestinian issue. We seem to be where we were a year ago with the Sheikh Jarrah situation. There has been increased aggression by the settlers. There is a guy who placed an office there. I know that you have spoken against this before. You’ve spoken against the expulsion of Palestinians. But why can’t you make it very clear in no uncertain terms that we will not stand for this, that this must end?
MR PRICE: Said, we’ve engaged on this publicly. We’ve also engaged on this privately. What we have said publicly is that – well, first let me say that we’re following very closely developments in Sheikh Jarrah, both on the ground and here from Washington. And we’re deeply concerned by the events of this past weekend. We’ve said this many times before: We believe it is critical for all parties to refrain from unilateral steps that have the potential to exacerbate tensions and to move us further away from efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. We have and we are strongly urging all parties against inciting violence, and we are urging calm on the part of all parties.
QUESTION: But it’s the Israelis that are really taking the steps. They are your closest allies. I’m sure you wield a great deal of influence and pressure on them. Why can’t you say, this Sheikh Jarrah situation must end; you cannot expel people from there?
MR PRICE: Said, you alluded to this yourself. We have made very clear our position on those families who call Sheikh Jarrah home, in many cases over the course of generations. Again, our priority is to see to it that all parties refrain from steps that have the potential to exacerbate tensions or to move us further away from the end state that we hope to see, and that’s a two-state solution.
QUESTION: Why are they really not heeding your call for them to refrain from taking unilateral steps?
MR PRICE: Said, I am not here to speak for the Israeli Government. I am here to speak to our policy and to our approach. And our approach is to do everything we can to keep tensions at bay, to urge calm, to work with the parties to do just that.
QUESTION: Have you any update? We’ve seen very positive comments on the progress made in Vienna by Josep Borrell, by the Russian delegate there. Do you share that positive comments? You guys have said before this round of talks resumed last week we will see very, very quickly if there is the political will, decision, to make a deal. Have you seen that?
MR PRICE: So Francesco, as you know, the special envoy and his team remain on the ground in Vienna. I have to say that we are going to be a bit more circumspect in terms of progress that we may be seeing on the ground in Vienna precisely because we are in the final stages of what is by any measure a complex negotiation with key stakeholders. The fact is that this is the final decisive period during which we’ll be in a position to determine whether a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA remains a possibility. Our European partners as well as China and Russia – all of us urgently seek to achieve an understanding, but time is almost out. Time is very quickly ticking away. We have been very clear that at the current rate of Iran’s nuclear advances, we have little time left, and that’s precisely because at a certain point very soon those nuclear advances will obviate the advantages that the JCPOA, as it was finalized in 2015 and implemented in 2016, initially conveyed.
So the teams are continuing to meet. For our part, those discussions continue to be indirect with the Iranian delegation, but we know that we are speaking with one voice together with our P5+1 partners, all of whom recognize the importance of concluding, in whatever form that takes, these talks in short order.
QUESTION: Meaning this week, next week?
QUESTION: May I ask a question on Yemen?
MR PRICE: Yemen?
QUESTION: Yes. There has been a deployment of F-22s into the Emirates. Does that mean that you guys are siding with the Arab coalition, the Saudi coalition, in this war in Yemen?
MR PRICE: So the deployment that you’re referring to, Said, of F-22 Raptors, this is a – this deployment is defensive in nature. It is part of a broad demonstration of U.S. support after a series of terrorist attacks that our partners in the Emirates as well as in Saudi Arabia have endured from Yemen. The Department of Defense, in the same vein, has sent a Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Cole, to partner with the UAE navy, and they’ll continue to provide early warning intelligence, and they’ll collaborate on air defense.
So collectively, I think you will see that we are committed to helping our Emirati partners defend themselves against the aggression that we’ve seen emanate from Yemen. We stand with the UAE as a strategic partner. That’s the signal we’re sending.
QUESTION: But such a step is not likely to shorten the war, is it?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, say that again?
QUESTION: Will such a step be in any way like an element towards shortening the war?
MR PRICE: Our goal is to bring this conflict to an end. Our goal is to work with the parties, to work with the UN special envoy, to work with our Saudi partners, with our Emirati partners, with the Republic of Yemen Government, and others to bring this conflict to an end, for a couple reasons: first and foremost, conditions inside Yemen. The humanitarian emergency that by most accounts is the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the face of the Earth, more than 16 million Yemenis who are suffering from some level of food insecurity; but also the violence that Yemenis themselves are enduring.
Now, of course we see that violence spilling over into neighboring countries precisely because the Houthis have undertaken these terrorist attacks. It is our goal with these steps, the steps you referred to, the deployment of these additional defensive elements, to help our partners defend themselves, but that in no way replaces our emphasis on the diplomacy because we know only through a diplomatic end to this conflict will we be able to address the humanitarian concerns in Yemen, the security concerns inside Yemen, but also the threat that our partners face emanating from Yemen.
QUESTION: Sorry, did you say the USS Cole?
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: Isn’t that a little bit unusual? I guess you don’t do military deployments. Let me ask this: Why – any – do you have any idea why they decided that ship in particular might —
MR PRICE: I am not responsible for the deployments of such assets.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: Okay. Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:23 p.m.)