Department Press Briefing – February 2, 2022
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Before I take your questions, just one element at the top.
QUESTION: Not about Groundhog Day.
MR PRICE: Well, it is about Groundhog Day. It is about Groundhog Day, in fact. Matt, you stole my thunder.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
MR PRICE: But today is Groundhog Day, and I raise that not only because it sounds like we’re in store for six more weeks of winter, nor because, as some of you might allege, I stand up here every day and say the same thing over and over again; I say that as a way to note the fact that this is the one-year anniversary of the resumption of the daily press briefing at the Department of State. We have literally been doing the same thing over and over again at the department every day we’re here, here in this room, and we’re proud of that. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
As many of you will recall, it was a pledge of then-Candidate Biden, long before he was sworn in as President, to resume daily press briefings in his administration, and he made that pledge because it is so fundamentally important in any number of ways. Whether an ally, a partner, a competitor, or adversary, the world needs to know where the United States stands. Just as importantly, the American people deserve to know what their government is doing, what we are doing to protect and to promote their interests around the world, how we’re confronting threats and seizing opportunities. That is, after all, why we’re here.
I also made the point exactly a year ago that the model we set here conveys well beyond our own borders. If the values of transparency and responsibility and accountability are to – are going to be more than just buzzwords in our global engagement, we have to practice what we preach here at home. And we need an engaged, active press corps to hold our feet to the fire. A year later I can say you all have lived up to your end of the bargain, perhaps too much so, done too good of a job. And I promised a year ago that we’d always seek to be transparent, accurate, and respectful; I hope that we, too, have lived up to ours.
So one year down, many more briefings to go. And with that, turn over to you, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Yeah, one year down and, what, three to go? Or two? Or two or one? Whatever. Anyway, thank you. And just to note that yes, it is appreciated that you’re up here every day, or at least when you’re in town, not on official travel, up here every day answering questions. Whether or not we like the answers or think that the answers are satisfactory or not is a different question.
MR PRICE: Understood.
Can I start with Ukraine once again, speaking of Groundhog Day? So the Pentagon have made its announcement this morning; I don’t expect you to have any additional details about that. But then – on that. But I’m just wondering if the Russian reaction to that deployment that was announced has been that you guys are escalating, now escalating tensions. And I’m pretty sure I know what your response will be to that, but I’d like to get it anyway.
And then secondly, your colleague at the White House just said that you are no longer – the administration is no longer going to refer to or is no longer referring to a potential Russian invasion as “imminent” because that might send the wrong signal. And I’m just wondering, especially in the context of you saying that this is the year anniversary of getting up and telling us what the U.S. policy is, if – was it a mistake to be calling it imminent in the first place? If you didn’t really know, what was the point? Why were you describing this as something that could, like, happen at the snap of a finger if now – was it what Putin said yesterday? What was it? Thanks.
MR PRICE: So – thank you, Matt. Well, first, on your first question: Look, I don’t think anyone here is going to be surprised by the reaction you’ve noted of the Russian Federation. I mean, this is literally their playbook, to turn the reality upside down. The metaphor we’ve used, that my colleague at the White House used, paraphrasing our boss here at the State Department: this is literally the fox claiming that it had no choice but to attack the henhouse. This is – talk about Groundhog Day —
QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s actually in the fox’s nature to attack the henhouse. That’s what foxes do. So maybe that’s —
MR PRICE: Is that a statement about the country or —
QUESTION: No, no. I just think it’s a – it might be a poor analogy because the fox —
MR PRICE: Okay. Well, I will let you choose your analogy, but I think you get the underlying point. And one other analogy, other words, is – our concern is this idea of Groundhog Day, because we have seen this before; we have seen something like this before, at least. It was eight years ago, just about, when the Russians amassed troops on Ukraine’s borders; the Russians engaged in misinformation, in disinformation, in propaganda, seeking to portray Ukraine as the aggressor. The Russians then took it one step further, manufactured pretextual provocation that they then cited as a means by which to aggress against Ukraine and to undertake an incursion into sovereign Ukrainian territory.
So what we are doing – and my colleague at the Pentagon spoke to this at the orders of the President – these are about deterrent and defensive measures. These are measures that we have spoken to in broad strokes over several weeks, noting that – given what we are seeing: the amassing of troops, the bellicose rhetoric, the history that is at play here – it is only prudent for us to take steps in the past several weeks to provide defensive security assistance to our Ukrainian partners, and we’ve done that at an unprecedented level that we’ve spoken to in some detail. And the President also made clear that both in the event of a Russian invasion, and as a means to deter and to defend our allies on the eastern flank against broader aggression, we would be taking defensive and deterrent steps. And that is precisely what the Pentagon spoke to today.
Many of these force, as you heard, are already in the European theater. These are not permanent moves; they are in – precisely in response to the current security environment in light of this increasing threatening behavior by the Russian Federation. These troops, as you all know, they are not going to fight in Ukraine; they are going to ensure the robust defense of NATO territory. That is something to which we have a solemn commitment – solemn commitment under Article 5. This is just another unmistakable signal to the rest of the world, to any countries that would threaten that collective security, that collective defense of our NATO Allies, that we are committed to the Alliance, we’re committed to our Allies, we’re committed to Article 5.
When it comes to the second part of your question – What comes next? – Matt, we’ve always been clear there’s only one person who knows what the Russians may have in store. We don’t believe that individual, who happens to be the president of the Russian Federation, has made a decision one way or another. What has been our concern is what we have spoken to since November: these unusual movements of Russian troops; the massive buildup along the Ukrainian border; the inflow of Russian forces into what should be a sovereign, independent country – the country of Belarus – all of these steps have positioned the Russians to be able to move quickly should they so choose.
No one, I don’t believe, has been encouraging panic. No one has been saying an invasion is a foregone conclusion. What we have been doing is speaking to our concern. It has been a growing level of concern as Moscow’s aggressiveness and assertiveness has itself grown. But what we are doing is preparing for that. We are engaging in dialogue and diplomacy just as we pursue the path of defense and deterrence.
QUESTION: So you have no – there were no concerns that you’re getting people worked up for – not nothing, but getting people worked up and panicking? That’s not why you’re stepping away from the “imminence” thing?
MR PRICE: Matt, what we’ve been doing for weeks now is far from seeking to sow panic; we have been seeking to explain our concern and to —
QUESTION: No, but you got a lot of people’s attention by saying “imminence” and “we think that this is a” —
MR PRICE: Well, this is something that should have people’s attention. We believe —
QUESTION: Well, I’m not saying it shouldn’t, but I – but you guys used the – very deliberately used those words, like this could happen, like, in the snap of a finger, and now it seems less. So I’m just wondering —
MR PRICE: I don’t think you are going to hear us say this is off the table; I don’t think you are going to hear us say this is a foregone conclusion.
QUESTION: No, I know. But —
MR PRICE: You will – you will hear us saying, and you have heard us say, that we are taking preparations for whichever path Vladimir Putin chooses.
QUESTION: Got you. I get that. But, I mean, is the decision not to use – not to describe this as “imminent” based on what President Putin said yesterday, or is it based on something else? What is it based on? Or is it based on the complaints from the Ukrainians that you’re getting people stoked up and put into a panic? Why?
MR PRICE: Our language, Matt, is always calibrated to what we’re seeing. What we’ve seen ‑‑
QUESTION: So it’s less imminent now than it was yesterday?
MR PRICE: I think you are – I think you are reading far too much into —
QUESTION: Well, I guess —
MR PRICE: — into what you may have heard.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: Humeyra.
QUESTION: So I am actually going to follow up a little bit on that, maybe from a slightly different angle. So you guys were waiting for Putin’s remarks yesterday. Obviously, you monitored it very closely where he basically blamed the West. And you just said that there is one person and he still hasn’t made up his mind yet. So after watching Putin yesterday, the United States still thinks that he still has not made a decision to invade or not, is that correct?
MR PRICE: Our assessment has not changed. We have made the point – I alluded to this yesterday – that Kremlinologists in this country and around the world are going to parse every single syllable, every word, every utterance, every sentence that came out of Putin’s mouth. If you were to do so, you could find reasons for optimism, you could find reasons for pessimism.
For our part, we are not optimistic, neither are we pessimistic. We’re clear-eyed about the stakes. We’re resolute in our determination to engage in diplomacy if we have a good-faith partner on the other side doing so in tandem with our partners and allies, just as we pursue simultaneously that path of defense and deterrence.
QUESTION: So indulge me a little bit more. His comments were pretty defiant, and like, he accused the West of trying to lure him into war. You said we’re not pessimistic, we’re not optimistic. Watching that, did those comments make you a little bit more hopeful about the diplomatic path? I mean, you must have, like, swung one way or the other. You can’t be – like it cannot have happened right in the middle.
MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to provide color commentary of the Russian president’s remarks yesterday.
QUESTION: It’s not color commentary.
QUESTION: Did you say that people are – in this town are not parsing?
MR PRICE: Are, are, are.
QUESTION: Oh, they are parsing —
MR PRICE: Are.
QUESTION: — every single word, syllable, that —
MR PRICE: I assume that is the case.
QUESTION: So we’ve gone back to the Soviet reviewing stand school of analysis?
MR PRICE: I assume – you’re probably, in fact, are speaking to some of these people. I know some of you in this room are.
But look, Humeyra, this is the point. We – there are people here, to acknowledge, who are watching very closely and listening very closely to what the Russians are saying. We are in the position of knowing something that was confirmed in the Secretary’s call with Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday – that the Russians are preparing a written response to our non-paper. That is a response that will be reviewed and presumably approved by President Putin. That is a response that we assume will convey in detail, in writing, in specific language specifically what the – where the Russians are, what they are willing to engage in, what for them seems like a viable path, what doors may be closed.
It remains our hope, as Foreign Minister Lavrov seemed to indicate yesterday, that there will be an opportunity following the receipt of that Russian response for further diplomatic engagement. We don’t yet know the form; we don’t yet know the timing. What we do know is that any further diplomatic engagement, which we hope occurs, will be done for our part in the closest of coordination with partners and allies. We hope it is done in good faith by the Russian Federation, but we’ll be in a position to judge and we’ll be able to judge based primarily on one criterion, and that is if it takes place in a broader context of de-escalation.
We can talk. There are no preconditions to talking. But this diplomacy is not going to go anywhere. It is not going to address our security concerns. It is not going to address the concerns of the transatlantic community; that is to say our allies and partners on the other side of the Atlantic. And it won’t address the stated concerns of the Russian Federation if it doesn’t take place in this broader context of de-escalation.
QUESTION: Do you have any indication over the past 24 hours when that response might be coming from the Russians?
MR PRICE: No. There has been – we don’t have anything additional to add beyond what we said yesterday in the aftermath of the call.
QUESTION: There are reports that Russian mercenaries are leaving the Central African Republic – these are the Wagner mercenaries – and perhaps headed to Ukraine. I’m wondering if you can tell me anything about that. Is that something that you’re seeing?
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything to add on those reports. We have made our position on Russian mercenaries in Africa well known. These are forces that tend not to improve the security situation, and on the other hand, tend to leave countries less stable, poorer, more prone to violence. These are not constructive forces or elements. But I don’t have anything to add in terms of reports that they may be moving to other theaters.
QUESTION: Like Iraq or Afghanistan or —
MR PRICE: Kylie.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering how the lack of substantial progress on the diplomatic side impacted the decision today to send more U.S. troops to Europe.
MR PRICE: Kylie, we have made the point that we’re going to do these things simultaneously. Until and unless we see a de-escalation, until and unless we see an indication that Russia’s preparations for potential aggression have stopped and have been rolled back, it is only prudent for us to continue to take steps in the vein of defense and deterrence. That’s what we’ll continue to do. That’s what we’ve been doing for several weeks now.
QUESTION: And so even if Russia starts to engage in a more substantive way in the ideas you guys have put on the table, that won’t in any way impact the presence of U.S. troops in the future in European countries?
MR PRICE: I will let my colleague at the Pentagon speak to this in greater detail, but our presence, our force posture around the world, is calibrated to the security environment that we face. And if we face a security environment that is prone to disruption, that is prone to destabilization, that is prone to threats, we are going to take steps in the vein of defense and deterrence. That is what we’re doing here. If that security environment changes – that is to say, if there is de-escalation when it comes to what we’re seeing from the Russian Federation – we will, of course, evaluate that and we will evaluate the implications of that on our force posture.
QUESTION: Putin has made very clear that the U.S. has not addressed their main security concerns, and so with that in mind, is what the U.S. handed over sort of the final offer? Or have you got more things in the bag that you can offer if they come back and say this is a non-starter, we need more?
MR PRICE: So, Ben, I think everyone in this room is probably in a better position to judge today than they were yesterday what it is exactly that we have conveyed to the Russian Federation.
QUESTION: Why is that?
MR PRICE: I will let you – that is your job, to ask questions. It is my job to answer questions.
So I will just make the broad point that the ideas we have put forward – these are ideas. These are essentially proposals for additional discussion. So we have never and we have not been in a position to hand over to the Russian Federation, NATO has not been in a position to hand over to the Russian Federation an exact roadmap of what it is precisely that we are prepared to do across every realm.
What we have conveyed, what NATO has conveyed, the ideas that we’ve conveyed in close coordination and consultation with one another are proposals for further diplomatic engagement. This will require engagement in good faith, some concerted, fairly technical discussions if they are going to result in anything.
But it remains our posture and remains our preference to take part in that diplomacy, one, because it has the potential to redound positively on our security concerns, on the concerns of our European allies and partners, but also to address what the Russians have put on the table; and two, if it were to take place in the context of de-escalation, it would certainly seek to mitigate some of the tensions, some of our concerns that we’ve seen with this massive buildup of Russian forces around Ukraine and in Belarus.
QUESTION: So the door remains open for potentially more dialogue, more things in this document than are already there. I mean, you have more to offer them if they wanted it?
MR PRICE: The door remains open to discuss the ideas that are in this document. The ideas that we conveyed, the ideas that NATO conveyed – again, they are very high-level ideas. Those ideas are not spelled out in terms of what it would look like in practice, how it would be executed, the reciprocity that would need to be entailed for each of these steps. What we said very clearly is that’s something we wish to continue to discuss, but it needs to be a discussion that takes place in the context of de-escalation if it is to work.
QUESTION: The French president has had two calls with Vladimir Putin in the last week. The Italian president had a call yesterday, Boris Johnson today. Has the State Department gotten readouts from these governments of their engagements with the Russians?
MR PRICE: So I would make a couple points on that. One, Conor, as you know, we have engaged bilaterally with the Russian Federation ourselves. President Biden has had now a couple conversations with President Putin in recent weeks. Secretary Blinken, as we’ve spoken to recently, has met with and engaged with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and there have been other engagements in that vein.
Every time we do so, we do so in full consultation and coordination with our allies and partners. And in advance of the Strategic Stability Dialogue, in advance of Secretary Blinken’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov last month in Geneva, we have heard from our partners and allies of really the unprecedented level of coordination and consultation which has put them in a position to voice strong support for the type of bilateral engagement that we are undertaking with the Russian Federation.
That is the kind of dialogue and diplomacy, when done across the board by our partners and allies, that we think has the potential to lead to a de-escalation of tensions. So it’s something we support when it’s done in that vein. Without getting into the specifics of any diplomatic conversations, I can tell you that we are constantly on the phone with our European allies. We have representatives of this building and the administration constantly on the ground in Europe. The Secretary just yesterday had an opportunity to speak to the NATO secretary general, to the chairman in office of the OSCE, to Josep Borrell as well of the EU. So there is a constant sharing of feedback and dialogue, but just can’t get into those specific conversations.
QUESTION: You’re not seeing the same kind of reciprocal basis from these European – like, you’re not seeing the same level of calls. Or maybe they are taking place, you’re not reading them out?
MR PRICE: We are reading out those calls that take place at the level of the Secretary, but there is a lot that goes on in this building and in this administration that we don’t always issue a formal written readout for.
QUESTION: But is there any concern that President Biden hasn’t spoken to President Putin in over a month, and he hasn’t had a call with President Macron after his two calls in the last week?
MR PRICE: The President had an opportunity to speak to the French president not all that long ago. The Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Le Drian not all that long ago. We have a number of people – we have, fortunately for us, an entire bureau that engages on a day-to-day basis with their French counterparts. So we have excellent coordination with our French allies.
QUESTION: On the 30,000 troops that may move into Belarus, is that still the assessment of the U.S. Government? Has that changed at all given this debate around imminence?
MR PRICE: I don’t believe there’s been any change in that assessment.
QUESTION: Before we leave Ukraine, could I —
MR PRICE: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Extremely briefly. So Conor mentioned some of the European – but what about Orbán? Do you expect to hear anything from the Hungarians?
MR PRICE: Well, look, I’ll leave it to the Hungarians to speak to —
QUESTION: No, no, no. I don’t want you to leave it to the Hungarians. I want to know if you, the United States, expects to hear from the Hungarians, your NATO Ally, about the prime minister’s meeting with President Putin. Don’t leave it to the Hungarians to tell me whether you expect —
MR PRICE: What I can tell you, Matt, is that if the Secretary has an opportunity to speak to his Hungarian counterpart, I imagine you will hear about that. We —
MR PRICE: What I can tell you, Matt, is that if the Secretary has an opportunity to speak to his Hungarian counterpart, I imagine you will hear about that. We —
MR PRICE: — are in regular dialogue with our Hungarian —
QUESTION: – your Pentagon counterpart seemed to confirm this, but I just want to see if we can get – the documents that were published by El País this morning are, in fact, the documents that you – that you gave to the Russians last Wednesday, or not?
MR PRICE: — happy to take this question. So what I would say on that question, Matt, is that –
QUESTION: Because they do seem to – what the contents of these documents seem to mirror, identically, what you guys have been saying in public. So if they’re not legit, they’re – someone is a pretty good forger.
MR PRICE: What I’ll say on this, Matt, is that we did not make these documents public, but now that they are, we can confirm what we have always said: We are united with our NATO Allies in our resolve to engage in an open, constructive, serious set of diplomatic engagements. We have gone the extra mile to seek, to find, to test the proposition that there is a diplomatic solution to this crisis. If Russia actually wants to negotiate a solution, as it claims, these documents – to go back to what I was discussing with Ben – make clear that there is a path forward to do so.
Look, if the source of these documents – whoever that source may be – thought that by leaking them that they would embarrass the United States, that they would drive a wedge between the United States and NATO, I think they will find that they were sorely mistaken in their effort to do so. What they – what the world can now see is that the United States and our NATO Allies are in extraordinarily close coordination, that the ideas we put forward are complementary, are symmetrical. You can probably deduce from the documents that they were closely coordinated with one another.
QUESTION: Right. Can you just say in a simple declarative sentence that yes, this – these were the documents that were —
MR PRICE: Matt —
QUESTION: Because you’ve said – you’ve gone around it – “we did not make these documents public, but now that they are” public – well, so can you just say yes or no?
MR PRICE: I have seen nothing to suggest these documents are not authentic.
QUESTION: You talk about coordinating with NATO Allies in this document, and I just want to read a part of it. It says that you have “prepared to discuss” the transparency mechanisms to “confirm the absence of Tomahawk cruise missiles,” then it goes on to say, “we must consult with NATO Allies…on this issue.” So is that something you had not discussed with NATO Allies in advance, or you had?
MR PRICE: Well, to be clear, NATO Allies saw our response in advance. We sought their feedback – we incorporated their feedback into the document before we provided it to the Russian Federation.
I think the passage you’re alluding to speaks to the fact that – speaks to the phase of implementation and how we might operationalize something like this. And goes back to the discussion you and I were having just a second ago. These were broad proposals. These were ideas – ideas that would need to be fleshed out in some detail, including in some technical detail, if they were to be set in motion.
So if that is something that the Russian Federation would be interested in pursuing on a reciprocal basis with the United States, it is something that we are willing to discuss. And if we were to get to a stage where it would be operationalized, that is something we would consult very closely with our NATO Allies on.
Who haven’t we called on? Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Paul from AFP.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Thanks. A couple of questions, one going back to “imminent.” It was almost daily the Pentagon says that the Russian – Russia is enlarging its positions on the border. That suggests the threat is growing. So is the threat not more imminent? Or is there some reason that the word “imminence” is dropped that change that – changed that picture?
MR PRICE: Well, for some time now, Paul, our concern has been that the Russian Federation is in a position to be able to move quickly if it made the decision to do so. With the amassing of forces along Ukraine’s borders, with the dispatch of troops and forces into Belarus, the Russian Federation has for some time now been in a position to move in a very dangerous and destabilizing way if that decision were made.
QUESTION: Okay. Then after these calls with President Putin and discussions is there – is it possible – is it right that maybe NATO’s – NATO Allies and Ukraine have asked the U.S. to drop the word “imminent” because it’s kind of provocative? Did you do this at the – in response to Allies’ requests?
MR PRICE: Everything we have done has been in the vein of defense and deterrence, if not diplomacy and dialogue. Our rhetoric, as opposed to what we are hearing from the other side of the Atlantic, far on the other side of the Atlantic, has been in the vein of defense and deterrence, diplomacy and dialogue. We have not sought to do anything, whether it is in terms of our actions or our rhetoric, to ratchet up tensions. And actually, to the contrary, we have sought —
QUESTION: But after speaking – I’m sorry, after speaking with Putin, these talks with Putin by NATO Allies, this comes – is this in response to requests from Allies to tone it down?
MR PRICE: We coordinate with our Allies and partners on a daily basis on everything from our actions to our rhetoric. I don’t have anything to add to that. But we have simply been describing in accurate terms what it is we are seeing and the steps that we have been taking in response to that on a defensive and deterrent basis.
QUESTION: Okay, one other thing, can I just —
MR PRICE: Yep.
QUESTION: Is it – from what I understood, you said before the ball is in Russia’s park in terms of responding to the letters from the West, and you said it has to go to President Putin to respond. Given the discussions that NATO Allies have had with Putin and that he’s going to Beijing, when do you – what are you hearing that he might respond? After he goes to Beijing, within a day, within two days? When’s the next move going to happen?
MR PRICE: So just to be clear, I was relaying what we had heard from the Russian Federation. It was conveyed to Secretary Blinken yesterday by Foreign Minister Lavrov that a written response would be forthcoming, it would have carried the imprimatur of President Putin, and we would be in receipt of it. We didn’t receive a timeframe, but when the Russians are ready and prepared to send it over we’ll be ready and prepared to evaluate it.
QUESTION: Yeah, I just wanted to ask about the Minsk process. Russia’s ambassador to the UN mentioned both during the Security Council debate and yesterday when they took over the presidency – the Security Council – that – pointed out that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield didn’t mention the Minsk process while the other Security Council members did during the debate. Does the U.S. still see the Minsk 2 Agreement as any kind of a roadmap or a peace plan? Or is that something that that you think has moved on, is not the best blueprint for the —
MR PRICE: No, we absolutely do. We have encouraged full implementation by all parties of the Minsk agreements. The fact remains that one party to these agreements has been responsible for the vast majority of violations, but all parties need to adhere to the Minsk agreements as a way to de-escalate tensions, especially in this environment. That’s precisely why we have continued to support the Normandy Format as a means by which to discuss how all parties might be in a position to fully adhere to the agreements.
QUESTION: And a quick one on sanctions. The U.S. has talked about massive sanctions and sanctions that would start at the top and go down, but don’t you have to calibrate the sanctions to some degree? There’s debate in Congress, there’s debate among allies, about whether the most severe financial sanctions cutting off the top Russian banks or the entire Russian financial system would be something that it would make sense to use even at the beginning, whether – is that a debate in this administration, whether it makes sense for the U.S. as the kind of guarantor and custodian of the world financial system to some degree to make – to do something starting literally at the top with cutting off an entire nation’s financial system, if Russia goes into Ukraine?
MR PRICE: Well, if you’re talking about an invasion, we have been very clear that any renewed invasion would be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies. We have made no bones about that, neither have our allies and partners, including in the formal statements that have emanated from the European Commission, from NATO, from the G7, and from countries on a bilateral basis.
The point we have made is that the stakes here and the precedent here could not be more important, because we are talking about, were the Russians to invade Ukraine, an assault on the core principles that for some 70 years have undergirded the rules-based international order – the rules-based international order that have – that has enabled unprecedented levels of stability, security, and prosperity, not only in Europe but around the world.
So the fact is that not only are we in a position to enact these swift, severe sanctions, we are ready to given the stakes of the matter. And yes, you’ve heard from my colleagues that these sanctions and economic measures would be different from ones we, the United States Government, has levied in the past, and – on a couple of levels in terms of their scope, in terms of their strength. These would be measures that we, the United States, intentionally did not pursue in 2014, but also in the way they’re implemented – because they would start at the top of the escalatory ladder as we need – would need to send a very strong signal to Russia and countries around the world that might seek to undermine the rules-based international order that this is something that the United States and our allies and partners around the world would not countenance.
QUESTION: Wouldn’t you want Congress to tell you what’s the top and where to start with the financial sanctions, or does this administration prefer to calibrate its response to avoid collateral damage?
MR PRICE: We prefer to continue collaborating and coordinating with Congress very closely, because one of the most important things we can do – and one of the most important things we have done – is to send a message to the Russian Federation that the United States is solidly against and would stand against what Vladimir Putin might have in mind. The United States is united, regardless of political party, regardless – regardless of political stripes, and we’ve seen that message be conveyed. There have been bipartisan congressional delegations that have gone to Ukraine. We have seen bipartisan members of Congress, House and the Senate, speak out very clearly and forcefully supporting what the administration is doing, but also echoing the admonitions that any Russian invasion of Ukraine would be met with a strong, swift, and united response.
QUESTION: Can I follow up with you on the Minsk Agreement thing? You said again that you want full implementation, but Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s security chief, said yesterday in an interview with the Associated Press that fulfilling those obligations – fulfilling the Minsk agreements – would mean destruction for Ukraine, and he said it was impossible for them to do so. Do you have any response to that? Why is he wrong that it would destroy the country?
MR PRICE: The Minsk agreements – and we’ve heard this from Ukrainian leaders as well – they do provide a blueprint that would serve to de-escalate tensions. The fact is that one party is primarily responsible for most of the violations, and that’s the Russian Federation. But the Minsk agreements as a whole were negotiated in good faith, they were signed on to by the parties, and we continue to believe – along with our European allies and our Ukrainian partners – that they do provide a blueprint to de-escalate tensions.
QUESTION: Kim Dozier. I wanted to change the subject for a minute. So I understand the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding a classified hearing today on Afghanistan. So I wanted to give you a chance to give us an update on Afghan evacuees – not just the American citizens, legal permanent residents, and those who have already had approved SIV applications, but the would-be evacuees who are still stuck inside Afghanistan who can’t start their P-1 of P-2 process until they physically leave the country. I’ve spoken to a number of volunteer groups. They’ve manifested entire plane-loads of people, but they can’t find third countries will to take those people, and they – those third countries, according to diplomatic go-betweens, have said the State Department has actively discouraged them from taking these Afghans.
So I want to hear your take on that, and do you encourage other countries to allow these people in so that they can be processed?
MR PRICE: So, Kim, first, to take a step back: You heard from us during the course of the U.S. Government evacuation prior to August 31st and the end of the U.S. military mission that our commitment to American citizens who chose to remain behind or who were not able to leave at that time, to lawful permanent residents, to Afghans to whom we have a special commitment, would be enduring. And I think over the past several months you have seen us make good on that pledge. When it comes to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, we have directly relocated nearly a thousand.
QUESTION: Okay. And that’s all great news, but I’m still talking to groups who have thousands of people manifested, who have gone through the preliminary State Department okay that – they didn’t have any red flags – and they can’t move them off the X, still. And they say when they reach out to the State Department, they get silence.
MR PRICE: Kim, I think what you may be hearing, first of all, to be very clear, we are in many different ways supporting the Afghan people. We are supporting the Afghan people in their humanitarian needs and we have continued to lead the world in doing so.
QUESTION: That’s great, but that’s not getting P-1 and P-2 people out to start their applications going.
MR PRICE: That’s right, and what I can say is that it is an environment in which the U.S. Government is not in a position to operate. We don’t have an on-the-ground presence, so we are not in a position to undertake the same sort of operations that we were doing prior to August 31st.
As you know, we have an entire office here, the so-called CARE team, whose mission it is to work with a number of stakeholders, including private groups, working with them, doing all we can to support their efforts, working in turn with third countries, many of whom – and more than two dozen of whom – during the evacuation and in the weeks after showed extraordinary generosity in hosting Afghans. And many of these countries are still hosting Afghans who were relocated. That is something we continue to support.
When it comes to the P-1 and P-2 program, the P-2 program, as you know, it was introduced in early August precisely so that we would have another avenue by which Afghans who met the criteria would be able to enter the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program pipeline. It was a complement to the traditional P-1 program that has been longstanding.
It is also the case, Kim, for a number of reasons, that these programs we have always known would be useful, would be complementary to our broader efforts, but these are programs that this administration has had essentially to build up from – not quite from scratch, but programs that were decimated over the past four years.
QUESTION: You’ve eloquently explained the backlog and that these are things that are just started. What I’m asking about is that piece of getting – still getting more people off the X to third countries. Are you actively working with new third countries right now who would take these people?
MR PRICE: We are actively working with a number of countries in the region, in the Middle East, around the world, as we have been. I believe, over the course of this operation, these are countries spread across four continents who have displayed this extraordinary generosity in hosting Afghans.
There are many pieces to this equation. Part of it is impressing upon the Taliban the imperative that they live up to the right of free passage. Part of it is the operational component, ensuring that there is a means by which – usually by air – for individuals to depart Afghanistan if they so choose. There is the charter element that goes along with that. There is a longstanding effort that some of our partners are working on with the Taliban to get Kabul International Airport stood up to regularize the flow of civilian aircraft in and out of Kabul. There is the refugee pipeline. There is a third country pipeline.
So yes, there are many pieces to this, and it is impossible to say that one piece is the weak link. We’re working on all of them. We’re working on all of them because we have a commitment to American citizens, to lawful permanent residents, to Afghans to whom we have a special commitment, Afghans who primarily have worked for us over the years. But also we do have these so-called P-1 and P-2 programs as part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program that this administration has prioritized. In the case of the P-2 program, it’s a program that we specifically stood up knowing the needs of the Afghan people.
I say all of that not wanting to discount what it is that we are doing as the world’s humanitarian leader for Afghanistan, to support those many Afghans – millions of Afghans – who remain in Afghanistan and who are in need of nutrition, in need of shelter, in need of provision of health care and other basic human needs. Those Afghans are Afghans who are also benefiting from the generosity of the American people, but who are also benefiting from our leadership on the world stage, encouraging countries around the world to raise their ambition when it comes to humanitarian donations, when it comes to what they are doing on behalf of the Afghan people on a financial basis. But also on a political basis, to make very clear to the Taliban that there needs to be unhindered humanitarian aid and access, that they need to respect the basic human rights of the Afghan people, and they also need to respect the commitment they have made – to your point – to allow safe passage and freedom of movement for Afghans who do wish to leave the country.
QUESTION: And of course, you did get women back – partially back to school today?
MR PRICE: This is something that we have been pressing for. I know that there have been various statements made by the Taliban. What we’ll be watching for are the actions and the follow-through when it comes to the rights of women, the human rights of Afghanistan’s women, girls, its minorities. It’s something that we have prioritized to a great degree. I know that our Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West in every engagement he has had with the Taliban has raised this question of human rights, and specifically the rights of women and girls. We have a senior official here in our Office of Global Women’s Issues, Rina Amiri, whose sole job it is to focus on the human rights of Afghanistan’s women and girls. As you know, she was recently in Oslo with Tom West where this was a core point of discussion with the Taliban. The Taliban are under no illusions about the priority we attach to this issue, the priority we have attached and we will attach going forward.
MR PRICE: Good to see you.
QUESTION: Your colleague at the Pentagon announced some military support to the UAE in response to the recent Houthi attacks. What can the State Department politically offer since the President Biden promised to hold the Houthis accountable? And I have another question, but after your answer.
MR PRICE: What kind of security assistance can we offer?
QUESTION: The military support.
MR PRICE: Yeah. So as you have heard from my colleague at the Pentagon, we have spoken in recent days to our partnership with our Gulf partners, two of whom, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who have recently come under attack from these Houthi terrorist attacks. These cross-border attacks, the missile attacks that we’ve seen – have seen, these are operations that we have condemned in the strongest terms. We know that our partners have been able to deter and to prevent some of these attacks, including by calling on some of the technology and supplies that the United States has provided to them.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, we understand that our Saudi partners are now in a position to prevent about 90 percent of these incoming projectiles. Of course, we want to raise that to 100 percent. And we’re committed to working with the UAE and Saudi Arabia to help them bolster their defenses. We’re doing that through security cooperation, through arms transfers, defense trade, exercises, training, and exchanges. And those exchanges are in terms of security and defense, but also in terms of human rights and the protection of civilians, including civilian harm mitigation.
QUESTION: Senator Menendez yesterday warned that Iran may obtain nuclear weapons in three to four weeks, and he criticized the administration approach to Iran in order to get back to the 2015 deal. What’s your assessment in that period of time, and what is your next move in Vienna negotiation?
MR PRICE: Well, you heard from one of my colleagues just the other day about our concerns that Iran has made in terms of its nuclear program. These are advancements that Iran has been in a position to make ever since the last administration decided to leave the Iran deal, a deal that was verifiably and permanently preventing Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. When the Iran deal was fully implemented, the so-called breakout time to which you refer was one year, meaning that it would take Iran one year to accumulate the fissile material necessary for a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.
Now, that is separate and apart from the weaponization process. We’re very concerned with both of these processes. But purely from an enrichment standpoint, that breakout time was a year. Now – my colleague alluded to this a couple days ago – that breakout time is significantly less. And that is precisely because of the decision to leave the JCPOA that was working to elongate that breakout time.
So we find ourself – we find ourselves with an unfortunate set of circumstances, a set of circumstances that means that the window we have in Vienna, to answer the second part of your question, is very, very short. And that window is very, very short precisely because once Iran reaches the point where its nuclear advances have obviated the nonproliferation benefits that the JCPOA conveyed, that’s a point at which it will no longer make sense, from our national security interests and the national security interests of our allies and partners around the world, to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA and we’ll have to pursue another course.
QUESTION: Ned, just to be clear, the reason that the breakout time is less than a year now isn’t because of anything that any U.S. administration did. It’s because the Iranians decided to —
MR PRICE: The reason – the reason —
QUESTION: But – no, no, no. Hold on a second. The Trump administration pulling out of the deal didn’t force Iran to do anything. They’ve done it on their own. Right?
MR PRICE: The reason —
MR PRICE: The reason the breakout time is – can be measured in weeks instead of months is precisely because Iran did not feel encumbered by the deal that the previous administration chose to abandon.
QUESTION: Well, you can attribute motive. But they could have done it anyway, regardless. But anyway —
MR PRICE: They – well, they couldn’t have. If they did, there would have been severe consequences, as you know.
QUESTION: Right. Severe consequences similar to the sanctions that the Trump administration put on them, which didn’t stop them from doing it anyway. But that’s not – I don’t want to get into that. Can I get – I just need to ask you —
MR PRICE: Okay. We need to wrap up shortly, so —
QUESTION: Yes. Exactly.
MR PRICE: Let me – we have not taken a question —
QUESTION: I’ve got two Africa ones, but they are one sentence.
MR PRICE: Okay. We do need to – yes. Yes, please.
QUESTION: Thanks. Can I follow up with a few Yemen questions? Friday will mark a year since President Biden announced he was cutting certain support for the coalition while promising to step up diplomacy to end the war. I’m wondering, first, if you can reflect on a year out whether you believe this administration’s diplomatic approach to Yemen is working.
MR PRICE: We believe that there must be a diplomatic approach to Yemen. We believe that diplomacy is the only durable and sustainable means by which to resolve the conflict in Yemen that has allowed the Houthis to leverage the power vacuum that has worsened what is, by many accounts, the world’s worst humanitarian emergency, where more than 16 million Yemenis are suffering from food insecurity.
You are right that this is a diplomatic challenge that we have prioritized from essentially day one of this administration. One of the first policy – one of the first senior personnel appointments that President Biden himself announced when he was here on his first visit to the State Department was the appointment of Tim Lenderking as our envoy to this challenge. So we are committed to this mission; we believe a diplomatic solution is the only way to resolve the conflict. We’ve always known that a diplomatic solution is not going to be easy. After all, this has been a conflict – in fact, a civil war – that has transcended administrations, going back almost a decade now.
The Houthis’ Marib offensive, including repeated attacks on civilians in Marib over the past year, has been the primary obstacle to these peace efforts, and recent events should make it clear that this offensive will bring only further suffering, will only worsen the humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people. Now is the time, we think – and we think in coordination with our partners, including the UN special envoy – for the parties to listen to the voices of the people and the international consensus calling for a halt to this violence and a resumption of political talks.
At the heart, this is a civil war. This is a conflict among Yemenis, and a durable, Yemeni-led solution is needed to end this conflict and to reverse the humanitarian crisis. So we are very much supporting the parties. We are working closely with the UN special envoy to try to achieve such a diplomatic solution.
QUESTION: And then just a quick follow-up: Can you say whether the U.S. has made a decision on re-designating the Houthis, and can you speak to whether sanctions imposed this year on individual Houthi leaders have been at all effective in creating leverage or deterring the group?
MR PRICE: So you heard from the President last month now that this is a decision that is under review in terms of the FTO designation of the Ansarallah movement as a whole, but what I will say is that we will not relent in designating Houthi leaders and entities involved in military offensives that are threatening civilians and regional stability, perpetuating the conflict, committing human rights abuses or violating international humanitarian law, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, or seeking to profit from the suffering of the Yemeni people. We’ve taken a number of such actions, including in recent weeks and months alone, and I suspect we will be in a position to take additional action given the reprehensible attacks that we’ve seen emanate from Yemen from the Houthis in recent days and weeks.
QUESTION: Ned, to quickly follow up on Yemen, you condemned those attacks from the Houthis. You’ve condemned their Marib offensive. Would you take this occasion to condemn the Saudi coalition’s strikes in the last week and a half, including the one that appeared to take off – to take out Yemen’s internet connection, the other that killed scores of Yemenis in a prison, including several migrants?
MR PRICE: Conor, we issued a statement in the Secretary’s name on this just several days ago, and we made a point that the escalation in violence, including the attacks that have emanated from the Houthis and the deaths of potentially civilians and noncombatants – it is something that we are deeply concerned about. As —
QUESTION: Deeply concerned, though. But you’ve condemned specifically these things from the Houthis. Do you condemn these kinds of airstrikes?
MR PRICE: Well, I think you have to distinguish them. One is an intentional effort to target civilians and civilian infrastructure in a third country. Another is an effort to take on a threat that our Emirati and Saudi partners face from the Houthis.
QUESTION: But that first phrase could be —
MR PRICE: So I think you have to distinguish these on an analytic level, but in our engagement with our partners, we continue to stress the need to prevent civilian harm, the need to protect civilian life in these operations. We’ve also taken steps to end our support for – our offensive support to the coalition, but we continue to engage our partners on this.
QUESTION: But that phrase, though, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure, could equally be applied to the airstrike that took out Yemen’s internet connection.
MR PRICE: Conor, we have had these discussions with our partners. They know the importance we attach to the protection of civilian life, the protection of civilian infrastructure, but I think you have to distinguish between terrorist attacks and operations seeking to dismantle threats to Saudi and Emirati security.
QUESTION: Thank you. If you could quickly go back to Ukraine? Because Conor’s question made me remember about Turkish President Erdogan is going to Ukraine tomorrow. Do you guys find that useful? I realize that you have been in touch with a number of European leaders about Ukraine, but there hasn’t been the same amount of traffic with Turkey, which has offered to mediate this crisis. They have a complicated relationship with Russia, but also selling drones to Ukraine. Do you find this trip useful, and what role in your eyes should they play? They’re a NATO Ally but have a complicated relationship with the U.S. as well.
MR PRICE: Turkey is an important NATO Ally. I will leave it to our Turkish allies to speak to the objectives of this trip. But we certainly —
QUESTION: Do you find it useful?
MR PRICE: We certainly support any effort on the part of a NATO Ally or any country around the world to show their solidarity with Ukraine.
QUESTION: What is the reason that you haven’t been more in communication with the Turks about Ukraine?
MR PRICE: I think —
QUESTION: Is it because of the strained bilateral relationship?
MR PRICE: You will have seen that in every engagement we have had, including our recent engagements with the Turks, we have raised Russia —
MR PRICE: — we have raised Russia and Ukraine. Turkey is a valued NATO Ally; Turkey is a member of the NATO Alliance; Turkey has signed its name to the very strong statements that have emanated from NATO on this question.
MR PRICE: We need to wrap up very quickly here. Yes, sir; I haven’t taken a question from you.
QUESTION: I’ll go to India. So Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, he made a remark in the Indian parliament today suggesting – saying, stating that it is due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ineffective foreign policies that Pakistan and China are closer than ever. Does the State Department agree with that assessment?
MR PRICE: I will leave it to the Pakistanis and the PRC to speak to their relationship. I certainly would not – would not endorse those remarks.
QUESTION: Okay. And a follow-up to that. Why do you think Pakistan is working so closely with China? I mean, do you think they’re – they feel abandoned by the U.S.?
MR PRICE: We’ve made the point all along that it is not a requirement for any country around the world to choose between the United States and China. It is our intention to provide choices to countries when it comes to what the relationship with the United States looks like. And we think partnership with the United States conveys a series of advantages that countries typically would not find when it comes to the sorts of partnerships that – “partnerships” may be the wrong term; the sorts of relationships that the PRC has seeked to – has sought to have around the world.
Pakistan is a strategic partner of the United States. We have an important relationship with the government in Islamabad, and it’s a relationship that we value across a number of fronts.
QUESTION: What’s the State Department’s guidance to U.S. athletes who want to express any opposition to China’s human rights abuses while they’re in Beijing for the Olympics?
MR PRICE: Well, so first I will say you know our position when it comes to the Olympics in Beijing. Of course, we don’t have any official diplomatic representation on the ground. We’ve also made clear we were not and are not coordinating a global campaign regarding participation in the Olympics. We know that the PRC uses disinformation to veil ongoing genocide in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses. We know that the PRC has made various accusations, including against U.S. athletes, and we know that’s what’s going on here.
U.S. athletes are entitled to express themselves freely in line with the spirit and charter of the Olympics, which includes advancing human rights. We call on the PRC to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including that very freedom of expression.
QUESTION: And just when and where are U.S. athletes allowed to do that while they’re in Beijing? Because the IOC Rule 50.2 says that they can’t – they can’t publicly demonstrate while they’re at Olympic sites or venues, but it seems to leave open interpretation for places outside of those sites or venues, or on social media. So are American athletes allowed to use those venues to express opposition to Chinese human rights abuses?
MR PRICE: I will reiterate precisely what I said: U.S. athletes are entitled to express themselves freely in line with the spirit and charter of the Olympics.
QUESTION: Can I just say: Did you have any more specificity on the Burkina Faso situation, in terms of the amount of aid that you have put on pause, whether a decision has been made about whether it was a coup or not? And then also just wondering if you have an update on Guinea-Bissau.
MR PRICE: I don’t have an update in terms of our provision of aid to the Government of Burkina Faso. As you and I discussed yesterday, we have put a pause on most of that assistance that was going —
QUESTION: But you don’t – you can’t tell me how much?
MR PRICE: I cannot.
MR PRICE: Very quick last question?
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Three thousand U.S. troops that have been deployed to Europe – that’s a U.S. deployment. Why not wait until NATO activates its defense forces?
MR PRICE: As we said, we can and will do both. So you heard from my colleague at the Pentagon that this is – this is, as you said, a U.S. deployment. This 3,000 service members that you noted is separate and apart from the 8,500 U.S. service members who are at a heightened state of readiness and who can be called upon by a decision by the North Atlantic Council.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:12 p.m.)