MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Very sorry for the delay, but as you can see, we have a special guest joining us today for the second time, at least in this current iteration. She is no stranger to all of you. Victoria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, will offer some opening remarks, take some questions, and then we will proceed with our regularly scheduled programming.
So Under Secretary Nuland, over to you.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. Sorry to be a little late. It’s great to be back in this room, and working for Ned.
This is, as you all know, a very important week. We have three sets of diplomatic talks ongoing: the U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue yesterday; the NATO-Russia Council meeting tomorrow, both of which are led for us by Deputy Secretary Sherman; and the Permanent Council meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday – all of this in an effort to resolve through diplomacy the crisis that Russia has created for Ukraine, for European security, and for global stability.
So before I go into some of the diplomatic substance, let’s remember how we got here.
It is Russia that created this crisis out of whole cloth.
It is Russia that has amassed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders.
It is Russia that has prepared internal sabotage, destabilization, and false flag options for Ukraine.
And it is Russia that has spewed disinformation and lies about Ukraine, about the United States, and about NATO to justify its own actions.
At a time when COVID is running rampant again across Russia, as it is in other places, and where only half the population is vaccinated, the Kremlin has to justify to the Russian people why it is stoking a potentially very bloody and costly conflict for Russia, rather than focusing on its own citizens’ health and on Russia’s own significant challenges in building back better. No one needs a conflict now, least of all Russia.
As the Secretary did last week, let me set the record straight on a couple of other points as well.
First, Ukraine is not the aggressor in this situation. It is Russia that invaded Ukraine in 2014, that forcibly occupied Crimea, and that continues to wage war on Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has made clear that it has no intention of threatening Russia in any way. It only wants a peaceful, democratic, European future for its people. And the United States remains unwavering in our support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
Second, NATO poses no threat to Russia either – unless, of course, Russia chose to pose a threat to NATO. NATO is a defensive alliance whose sole purpose is to protect its members. Decisions regarding NATO membership are up to each individual applicant country and the 30 NATO Allies. No one else has a voice or a veto in those decisions.
Third, diplomacy is the best option to restore stability and security for Ukraine, for Europe, and for Russia itself.
And fourth, the United States will not make any decisions about Europe without Europe, about Ukraine without Ukraine, or about NATO without NATO.
In that context, we’re consulting intensively with our allies and partners. The White House put out a fact sheet on some of these engagements today. As you saw, President Biden has spoken to 16 European leaders. Secretary Blinken has done more than two dozen calls and meetings with foreign leaders and ministers, Deputy Secretary Sherman has met with the North Atlantic Council and the EU – just today made dozens of calls, as have I, as has Assistant Secretary Donfried and other members of the international – of the interagency community.
Now on to the diplomacy. In the Strategic Stability Dialogue with Russia yesterday, as Deputy Secretary Sherman made clear in her own press engagement yesterday, we have demonstrated our commitment to diplomacy by putting preliminary ideas on the table, including with regard to military transparency, risk reduction measures, and exercises. And as you know, the United States has long been interested in discussing arms control with the Russians, including both strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons. And we reiterated those interests in having deeper discussions on these topics when we met with Russia’s – Russia yesterday in Geneva.
We’ve also made clear that genuine progress can only take place in a climate of de-escalation, not escalation, and on the basis of true reciprocity. That requires Russia to stay at the table and take concrete steps to reduce tensions.
So as the deputy secretary said yesterday in Geneva, Russia now has a stark choice to make: whether to take the path of diplomacy and dialogue or instead seek confrontation and the massive consequences that that will bring.
If the Russian Government further invades Ukraine, further destabilizes Ukraine, we are ready and aligned with our allies and our partners to impose severe costs. We will respond with massive economic measures, including those that have not been used before, and will inflict very significant costs on Russia’s economy and its financial system.
But let me emphasize again our preference is diplomacy.
As the Secretary has said on numerous occasions, we’ve done this before. I’ve personally been engaged in this before. Even in some of the times of greatest tension, the United States, our allies, and our partners have worked with Russia to reach understandings together.
We’ve negotiated multiple instruments that have formed the bedrock of peace and security, including the Helsinki Accords, the INF Treaty, and other arms control agreements. We’re working together now to try to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA. And, of course, we created the OSCE together, where we will be meeting on Thursday.
Again, we did these things on the basis of reciprocity and through painstaking, careful diplomacy, in full consultation and coordination with our allies and with every country whose interests were affected. This is the way forward. This is what needs to happen now.
I’m happy to take your questions.
MR PRICE: Matt.
QUESTION: Thanks. Hi, Toria. Welcome back to the briefing room.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Hello, Matt.
QUESTION: So I have a question about this, the mantra we’ve heard over and over again – massive consequences, severe costs, this kind of thing. But I’m just wondering: How solid, how confident are you in this – in the solidification, in the solidness —
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Solidity?
QUESTION: — in the solidity of the Western – of Western unity on this? Particularly given the fact that you and Amos Hochstein were up on the Hill yesterday essentially begging Democratic senators not to go along with Nord Stream 2 sanctions because you think that it’ll – it will shelve or it’ll reduce the German – Germany’s desire to do anything. So how solid is this alliance of – for massive consequences and severe costs?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Matt, we are very confident in the consultations that we’ve been having with our allies and partners. We’ve been working at this for some two and a half months at every level, from the President on down. We have, as I discussed in very broad strokes and will only discuss them in broad strokes, a common understanding of the kind of intensive financial measures we’ll need to take, and also now in the context of export restrictions that will have a painful impact on Russia.
Now, as we’ve done in the past, the U.S. may take one set of measures and Europe and other allies may take parallel steps that are not exactly the same but also painful to Russia because we have different economic exposure. But we are very confident that we are coming together around a very painful package, but we don’t want to have to use it, as you know.
QUESTION: So you’re okay with putting sanctions on NS2AG?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: What we have said is that the agreement that we did with Germany in July makes absolutely clear what will happen —
QUESTION: Let me put it in a different way: Are you concerned that Germany might not go along with whatever you’re hoping you’ll get in place should it become necessary if there are sanctions imposed on Nord Stream 2 – on AG?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: We are concerned now that what is being discussed on the Hill will have no impact on Nord Stream 2. What we are doing now is working with the Germans, working with the EU to slow their consideration of implementation of the pipeline. This German Government has taken significant steps to do that, and they’ve also reconfirmed the agreement we had with the previous government with regard to what happens to Nord Stream 2 – namely, it’s suspended if Russia aggresses against Ukraine.
MR PRICE: Laura.
QUESTION: Thank you. Hi, Toria.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Hey.
QUESTION: Regarding Nord Stream 2 but also other discussions that Secretary Blinken is having on the Hill today, can you read out a little bit of what the message to the lawmakers is today? Is it the same as what you have reiterated for us here and now?
And then also I’m wondering a little bit about what the administration’s position is on NATO enlargement in practice. You’ve made very clear that the United States continues to agree with the principle of other member – or other states joining NATO, but I’m wondering if you can be a little more specific about whether or not this administration supports other states in practice coming into the alliance. Thank you.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, first to say the Secretary has a number of engagements on the Hill. It’ll shock you to know that not all of them are about Russia-Ukraine. Some of them are about other subjects that we’re working on with members. But he’s also meeting with a group who is considering traveling to Ukraine in a bipartisan fashion. So he will go through with them all aspects of the policy and make sure that they’re up to date, both on the diplomacy, but also on the costs and on our engagements with the Ukrainians, which have been extremely rich and full, as you know, and ask them to carry messages of preparedness and of unity, and as they go in this bipartisan manner, to underscore the American people’s commitment across the aisle to their sovereignty and territorial integrity. So that’s number one.
With regard to NATO’s “Open Door,” as you know, I’ve been involved in this for more than 30 years, including helping to support and usher into the Alliance some of the Allies that joined after 1997. It is a bedrock principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its founding charter from 1949 that its door stays open to any European country who could meet NATO’s high standards. So we have a number who have joined. We have a number who want to join and are working hard with NATO to meet those standards. Those include Georgia, Ukraine, et cetera. So it is absolutely essential not only that we live up to that principle that we’ve had for almost 70 years, but – or longer than 70 years, but also that the countries that aspire to join NATO do the hard work that’s necessary to be ready.
QUESTION: Just to drill down a little bit, I do understand that you agree and continue to support the right and the “Open Door” policy in principle, but I’m wondering, say of Finland said, “We would like to join,” would the United States support Finland joining? Would the United States support Sweden joining? Would the United States – I’m not trying to make this just about Ukraine and Georgia today.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: I think across the five administrations that I have served we have always said to Finland and Sweden: Anytime you want to talk to us about membership, we are — ready to do that. But again, Finland and Sweden would also have to be measured against NATO’s high standards. Obviously, they are long time established, stable democracies. So that conversation would be slightly different than it is with countries that are making the transition to democratic systems and dealing with intensive problems of corruption and economic reform and democratic stability, et cetera.
MR PRICE: Andrea, then Daphne.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Toria. In the context of what you said about the need to see Russia’s reactions and whether they were in a posture of de-escalation, how do you view the reported live fire exercises by several thousand troops very close to the Ukraine border today? And I’d like to also ask you about another issue elsewhere in the world, if I may.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: So we’ve obviously seen those reports. I don’t have them validated, but we’ve seen them. That obviously goes in exactly the opposite direction. When we talk about de-escalation, we talk about getting that mass number of troops off the Ukrainian border; we talk about serious engagement at the table; we talk about getting rid of destabilizing equipment as well around Ukraine’s borders, and ending the massive disinformation and the plans with regard to internal destabilization.
QUESTION: And if I may, since you’re here, if I could impose upon you with your broad reach, and since the Secretary is on the Hill talking about a lot of different issues, the North Korean missile launch which, according to our South Korean allies and other experts, was at Mach 10, which makes it hypersonic, and which apparently, according to also the South Korean defense ministry, had a maneuverable re-entry vehicle, making it, according to experts who we’ve spoken to, hard to track, hard to defend against.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: So I’m going to —
QUESTION: What do you think – this is the second in just one week from Kim Jong-un.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Yeah. I’m going to leave to Ned when he follows to share what we can —
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: — from intelligence about what we believe happened and didn’t happen. But obviously it takes us in the wrong direction. As you know, the United States has been saying, since this administration came in, that we are open to dialogue with North Korea, that we are open to talking about COVID and humanitarian support, and instead they’re firing off missiles. So this is dangerous and it’s —
QUESTION: Are there any direct talks that we don’t know about?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Say again?
QUESTION: Are there any direct talks that perhaps we don’t know about?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: I don’t have anything to share on that, Andrea.
QUESTION: In addition to the live fire exercises today, Kremlin Spokesman Peskov said there was no real cause for optimism after the talks on Monday. Does this change the U.S. view at all of how the talks went, and does this give indication to the U.S. that Russia has no intention of easing the military presence?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, that’s obviously disappointing to hear that from the Kremlin. I hadn’t seen that report before coming down here. As I said, we believe that the exchange of views that we had with the Russian side was constructive and worth doing, and we want to see those talks continue, and we’re prepared to do that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Michel.
QUESTION: Thank you. There are voices in town that say that instead of waiting for Russia to invade Ukraine, why don’t you send weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves. And if you have any update on Vienna talks on Iran.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Michel, I know that you know from Ned that we have this year alone supplied Ukraine with some $450 million worth of defensive lethal support in all kinds of categories that they need for their preparedness now. And as the President has said, we are continuing to provide that support as they need it. But the problem is this Russian provocation, which is causing them to be increasingly insecure.
MR PRICE: Kylie.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Secretary Blinken was pretty clear over the weekend that you guys aren’t expecting major breakthroughs. We’ve heard from Secretary – Deputy Secretary Sherman that this was useful but not necessarily exact forward progress here. What would the U.S. deem success at the end of this week of diplomacy?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, we’ve said all along – and the Secretary said this and Deputy Secretary Sherman said it yesterday – that the kinds of issues that they have put on the table and the kinds of issues that we’ve put on the table – some of them I annunciated earlier, including military transparencies, et cetera, but particularly our concerns about their intermediate-range missiles, their concerns that they’ve put on the table in these two treaties about nuclear weaponry – can’t be negotiated overnight. They take painstakingly hard diplomacy. So this first round was an exchange of views, and we are open and welcoming of continuing to talk. But if we want to make real progress, it’s going to take that kind of hard work, and it’s going to take some time.
QUESTION: So is success getting another date on the calendar for follow-up discussions?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: I don’t think in diplomacy you measure success in inches; you measure it in outcome. And again, it is almost impossible for a single round with issues this intense to settle everything, let alone sometimes anything. So we had to exchange positions; we had to understand each other. And then we have to get down to the hard work, and we are ready to do that. The question is: Is the Kremlin?
QUESTION: And can I just ask one more question about Russia?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: I’m curious if the United States has a timeframe for how long you think Russia can financially back the placement of troops along the Russia-Ukrainian border, or if they have no timeline and they’re willing to put any amount of resources into maintaining that aggression.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, Kylie, I’m going to let the Russians speak for themselves, but you make a very, very important point, which the Russian people should be paying attention to. These kind of deployments, hundred thousand troops out of barracks and on the Ukrainian border are extremely expensive, as is the deployment of this kind of weaponry in the cold winter, when the wealth of Russia, were I a Russian citizen, I would want to see applied to the healthcare system, to the education system, to the roads, the same kinds of conversations that we’re having here in the United States, rather than hemorrhaging money on a created crisis and putting their own military out there in the snow.
MR PRICE: Time for a final question or two. Yes, sir. Please.
QUESTION: Victoria, thank you. My audience is in Ukraine, and the most important thing for them that previously the level of the expectation was very high. So right now, after Geneva talks, on the eve of other negotiations, do you see even the slightest sight of the de-escalation? You talked about this atmosphere of the de-escalation which we need so very much. So do you see right now even the slightest sight?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, again, in light of the news we’ve heard today, we haven’t seen the kinds of steps that we need to see in terms of Russian de-escalation. And as we’ve said, as these talks continue, they will not be successful unless we can do this in an atmosphere of de-escalation. Ukraine should not have this sword of Damocles hanging over it. What I would like to say to the Ukrainian people and to Ukrainian leadership is that national unity is absolutely essential at this moment and to make the case continually, as you’ve always made to us, that your independence, your sovereignty, is about your European aspirations. And we understand that completely, but it’s important to be united now in the context of what’s going on.
MR PRICE: Said.
QUESTION: Thank you. Good to see you behind the podium. My question to you as – you said that you’ve worked with – back in 1997 and so on you’ve seen the entry of countries and so on into NATO, so you know quite well. Why shouldn’t Russia feel threatened and affronted by Ukraine or any other bordering country joining NATO? I mean, NATO is not exactly a country club. It is a military alliance. It has proudly Russia in its crosshair. So why shouldn’t they fear the joining of Ukraine?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Said, I’ll say it again: Ukraine is – sorry. Try this again. I will say this again: NATO is a defensive alliance. It is about defending its members against any potential attack. It is not in the attack business itself. We also have these longstanding relationships between NATO and Russia which I was part of building back in the ‘90s and in the early aught years. And the hope was that Russia and NATO would increasingly be doing a lot of European security together, rather than seeing each other as enemies. But Russia chose not to go in that direction.
And again, NATO is about defending its members. In fact, NATO never even had any forces on its eastern edge because we didn’t feel the need to have troops close to Russia until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and led NATO members to be concerned that they might keep going into NATO territory. So it is Russia that created this situation that brings us closer to their borders. It’s not something that we wanted to do.
MR PRICE: Thank you, Toria.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Great to see you all.
MR PRICE: That’s it, Matt? You’re leaving?
QUESTION: No, no, I’ll be right back.
QUESTION: Hey, where is he going?
MR PRICE: I’ve learned not to, especially with him. Let me get through a couple pieces of business at the top, and then happy to take your questions.
First, today the United States Agency for International Development announced the United States Government’s initial 2022 contribution of more than $308 million for humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan.
This new funding brings total U.S. humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and to the Afghan refugees in the region to nearly $782 million since October 2020 alone.
President Biden has been clear that humanitarian assistance will continue to flow directly to the people of Afghanistan, and the United States remains the single largest provider of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan.
This assistance includes food and nutrition assistance; support for health care facilities and mobile health teams; winterization programs that includes the provision of emergency cash grants, shelter kits, heaters, blankets, and warm clothing; and logistics and transportation support to ensure that aid workers and critical relief supplies can make it to the hardest areas to reach.
This new contribution from the United States will provide lifesaving aid for the most vulnerable Afghans, and that includes women and girls, minority populations, and people with disabilities.
In addition, the UN launched its Afghanistan humanitarian response plan with the world’s largest humanitarian funding appeal ever.
The United States remains committed to helping the people of Afghanistan. However, for this assistance to be the most effective, all aid workers, especially women, must be permitted to operate independently and securely and be able to reach women and girls without impediments.
The United States continues to urge the Taliban to allow unhindered humanitarian access, safe conditions for humanitarian aid workers, independent provision of assistance to all vulnerable people, and freedom of movement for aid workers of all genders.
We will continue to work to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people and call on other donors to continue to contribute to this international response.
Together, we can deliver critical assistance directly to the people of Afghanistan.
Next, we welcome the release of the weekend – of the weekend – we welcome the release this weekend of activists Ramy Kamel and Ramy Shaath from pre-trial detention in Egypt, and we encourage the Government of Egypt to continue additional releases of long-term detainees. The United States will continue to engage with Egypt on human rights issues and to emphasize to the Egyptian Government that our bilateral relationship will be strengthened by improving respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
And finally, the United States notes the January 9th decision by Somalia’s National Consultative Council to complete the country’s long-overdue parliamentary elections by February 25th of this year. We call on all of Somalia’s national and federal member state leaders to adhere to the newly agreed timeline and correct the procedural irregularities that have marred the process to date.
Somalia’s elections are more than a year behind schedule, and February 8th will mark the one-year anniversary of the expiration of the president’s term. The United States is prepared to draw on relevant tools, potentially including visa restrictions, to respond to further delays or actions that undermine the integrity of the process.
With that, happy to take any remaining questions. Daphne.
QUESTION: Can I start with Ethiopia?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: An air strike in Tigray on Monday killed at least 17 people, mostly women, and wounded dozens, aid workers have said. This was the same day that Biden spoke with Prime Minister Abiy and urged a stop to the air strikes. Did Abiy offer any commitments to stopping air strikes during the call? And with civilians being killed in these, what will the U.S. do to ensure that the air strikes stop?
MR PRICE: Let me make a couple points on that. First, as you noted, the President did have an opportunity to speak to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy yesterday, on January 10th. The President did raise specifically concerns about recent airstrikes causing civilian casualties and other human rights violations. We have consistently called out violations of human rights by all parties to this conflict, and we will continue to do that in all of our engagements at the most senior levels and including in our public statements.
We also believe, and you’ve seen us resort to measures to this effect, that there must be accountability. We supported a move for example by the Human Rights Council last month to establish an independent commission of experts for Ethiopia. We believe fundamentally, and this has really been at the core of our approach to the conflict in northern Ethiopia over the course of this administration, that the best way to end the human rights abuses, to end the violence, the conflict, the widespread suffering, the humanitarian strife, is to bring this war to a close. And that is what we have been so focused on.
We are pursuing robust diplomacy. Yesterday’s leader-level call was an element of that. Ambassador Special Envoy Feltman and now Special Envoy Satterfield are deeply engaged in this, have been deeply engaged in this, working very closely with former President Obasanjo, working with other regional leaders, working with the AU as a whole, to bring about an end to this conflict.
We do believe the current situation offers an opportunity for both sides to demonstrate good faith and to demonstrate that progress is on the horizon. They can halt combat operations, they can come to the negotiating table – again, all in furtherance of what is our overarching, overriding goal, and that’s bringing this conflict to a close.
Andrea. Oh, sorry.
QUESTION: Sorry. On the airstrikes, did Abiy make any commitments in the call with Biden?
MR PRICE: Well, we have read out our side of the call. I just offered some additional detail. I will leave it to the Ethiopians to read out what the prime minister said.
QUESTION: Could it be to the White House?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Or maybe to the White House?
MR PRICE: Well, I suspect the White House will be in the same position of leaving it to the prime minister to speak to what precisely he said, but we can be – you can be very confident that President Biden raised these concerns. There was no ambiguity about the fact that we do have serious concerns, including regarding what has transpired in recent days.
QUESTION: Could you follow up about North Korea and the reaction to what has been described as a hypersonic missile which landed in the Sea of Japan but which did have a maneuverable re-entry vehicle?
MR PRICE: Well, you heard from INDOPACOM overnight. You’ve also probably seen the language that has emanated from the State Department. We have made very clear that we condemn this latest ballistic missile launch. INDOPACOM put forward a statement overnight that made clear our assessment that the launch did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory or to our allies. But the launch clearly does highlight the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons programs. It violates multiple UN Security Council resolutions. It poses a threat to the DPRK’s neighbors and to the broader international community.
This is precisely why we have for some time, including in recent days, been consulting very closely with allies and partners. You may have seen that our ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, spoke on this topic yesterday from New York. We’re consulting closely with our allies and partners on this. As you know, our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan is ironclad. And when it comes to North Korea, we continue to call on the DPRK to refrain from further provocations and, importantly, to engage in sustained and – sustained and substantive dialogue, what we have been open to and in fact calling for for some time now.
We have not – the DPRK has not responded to these overtures, but we continue to believe that dialogue, we continue to believe that diplomacy, is the best path forward. And we’re going to continue to plot out that course with our allies, to work in lockstep with our allies and our partners, and we will be ready if the DPRK demonstrates that it is willing to engage in such diplomacy.
QUESTION: Well, this launch got approximately 425 miles into the Sea of Japan, but we have consistently underestimated the rapidity of Kim’s advances. Do you agree with the FAA decision for the unusual ground halt for a somewhat – slightly under 15 minutes of West Coast air traffic minutes after this launch?
MR PRICE: So I won’t speak to any precautionary measures that the FAA might take. I understand that they put out a statement to this effect that they did this out of an abundance of caution. As you alluded to, full operations resumed within 15 minutes, and the FAA is reviewing the process around this ground stop.
QUESTION: And do you think since the DPRK, as you’ve just acknowledged, have not responded to our overtures, is there another tack that we should be taking to try to get through, with perhaps removing any preconditions or changing the climate of our overtures?
MR PRICE: Well, I want to be very clear: there are no preconditions. We think that diplomacy is and dialogue is a viable option right now. It is, we think, incumbent on the DPRK to cease these provocations, to demonstrate that they too are interested in and hopefully serious about this dialogue. And if they are, they will find a willing counterpart in the United States and our allies as well to engage in this dialogue.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that, Ned?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah, just to follow up on that last question, is there any kind of clock for the U.S. as far as determining when to change course when it comes to the DPRK? Yesterday’s joint statement by Ambassador Thomas-Green — she mentioned every time they fire a missile they make advancements. So is there a clock similar to how you mention a clock with negotiations with Iran?
MR PRICE: Well, these are fundamentally in some ways different challenges. One of these countries has a nuclear weapons program, and the other does not. And we – when it comes to the other, our goal is and our commitment is to keeping it that way.
When it comes to North Korea, we’ve spoken repeatedly now about the concern we have for its nuclear weapons program, for its ballistic missiles program, for the threat that these programs pose potentially to international peace and security. And even as we have put out these overtures, these offers to engage in dialogue and diplomacy with the North Koreans, with the DPRK, we have continued to consult very closely with our treaty allies, the ROK and Japan. We have continued to speak very closely with other partners both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, and we continue to engage with the UN. And just yesterday, as I mentioned, there were consultations on this at the UN. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is continuing down that path.
So yes, we have a number of tools in our arsenal. We will continue to call on those tools to hold to account the DPRK for its violations, for example, of UN Security Council resolutions, the threat it poses to international peace and security, and the broader set of challenges that we face from the DPRK. But of course, I wouldn’t want to preview anything at this stage.
QUESTION: Ned, are you sure that North – that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program? I mean, just because they don’t have a bomb or haven’t exploded one doesn’t mean they don’t have a program. Are you sure that they – are you sure that they don’t?
MR PRICE: Matt, I will leave it to the IAEA that continues to have inspections and – but let me just make one other broader point. This is precisely why we want the JCPOA, a return to full compliance with the JCPOA, because it has the most stringent verification and monitoring program ever negotiated. That would be something we would do well to have right now.
QUESTION: Ned, since we’re talking about JCPOA and Vienna talks, do you have any update on the talks? Are you getting closer to a deal?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific update. As you know, this round is ongoing. We’ve spoken to the modest progress that we have seen in recent days. Of course, that progress needs to be more than modest if we are going to be in a position to salvage the JCPOA and to ensure that the nonproliferation benefits that the JCPOA conveys aren’t diminished, watered down, eliminated by the advancements that Iran has made in its nuclear program.
And that, I think, brings us to where we are today, and it’s worth spending just a moment on how we got here. I alluded to it with Matt, but it is deeply unfortunate that because of an ill-considered or perhaps unconsidered decision by the previous administration that this administration came into office without these stringent verification and monitoring protocols that were in place and that according to the State Department, according to our Intelligence Community, and according to the IAEA international weapons inspectors, a deal that was working to permanently and verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: But Ned, during this week did you feel any change in Iran’s position?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any updates to offer. We’ve spoken of the modest progress that we’ve seen since the resumption of the eighth round. But we’ve also spoken of the urgency and the need for progress to take place at a pace that is – that not only is on par with but that outpaces the significant advancements that Iran has been able to make in its nuclear program since the last administration abandoned the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Sorry. Do you really think the previous administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA is unconsidered?
MR PRICE: Certainly ill-considered.
QUESTION: Well, but they didn’t – it was certainly considered. Remember, it took some time before it actually happened, so I don’t think you can say – it’s your opinion that it’s ill-considered and that may or may not be true, but unconsidered?
MR PRICE: Well, I – Matt, it’s not an opinion to say that —
QUESTION: No, no —
MR PRICE: No, but it —
QUESTION: It is – it’s perfectly fine for you to say that you think that it was ill-considered, but to say that it was unconsidered —
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: — seems a bit much.
MR PRICE: Let me just – let me touch on something you said. It is not an opinion to remind you and everyone that we were promised a better deal. Remember the so-called – the promise of the so-called better deal? Of course, that never materialized; that never came close. And in fact, quite the opposite was true. Ever since the last administration left the JCPOA, Iran has been able to gallop forward with its nuclear promise. We were promised that Iran’s proxies would be cowed, that Iran would be cowed into submission by the so-called maximum pressure program. Quite the opposite is true. And we continue to see reminders that Iran’s proxies have not been subdued, and in fact, quite the opposite.
We were told that we’d be in a better position to take on the full set of challenges that Iran poses, whether its ballistic missiles, whether it is support to terrorism, whether it’s human rights violations. How exactly were we supposed to do that when it was the United States and not Iran that was isolated as a result of the decision to abandon a deal and a protocol that was working. That’s just the starting point that we had to accept on January 20th of this year. It was an unfortunate starting point, but that’s the starting point from which we’ve been working.
QUESTION: Thank you. I want to go back to two things that Toria said a few minutes ago. One, she said that Secretary Blinken was on the Hill talking about issues even beyond Russia and Ukraine. Presumably, that includes Nord Stream 2 and North Korea. Can you confirm that? What was his message on both of those issues, each of those issues, and is there anything else that he was briefing the Hill on?
And then secondly, kind of more broadly, she – at the end of what – her comment, she said that we haven’t seen the kind of de-escalation we want from Russia. I’m just wondering how you would advise we read that. Is that some kind of warning that a tripwire is about to be crossed? Or what kind of – is this just another reiteration of the fact that they haven’t pulled back yet? Like, is there some kind of red line that – or warning that the United States is trying to issue at this point?
MR PRICE: I did not take that as a warning; I took it as an observation. It was an observation that we just have not seen the type of de-escalation that we think is necessary if there is to be meaningful progress in the context of the diplomacy and dialogue that’s taking place between the Russian Federation, the United States, our allies and our partners. That’s just a fact. Yesterday at the SSD, the Strategic Stability Dialogue, it was about putting ideas on the table. It was not about reaching breakthroughs or coming to any firm agreements. We’ve been very clear that we will do that only in consultation and only together with our allies and partners. And that’s part of the reason why there is a meeting of the NRC tomorrow; there’s a meeting of the OSCE permanent Council on Thursday.
So these will be opportunities for the Russians to put their stated concerns on the table, opportunities for the United States and our allies and partners, including Ukraine in the context of the OSCE, to put our concerns, our collective concerns on the table. We can do that now, but if we are going to have meaningful progress towards these reciprocal measures that would redound positively on our collective security – our meaning the collective security of the transatlantic community – we will need to see de-escalation. That can’t take place in an environment of escalation. And that is why the under secretary was just observing that we haven’t yet seen that.
QUESTION: And what kind of de-escalation are you looking for? Is it removal of troops? Is it stopping the live fire? Is it removal of helicopters? All the above? More?
MR PRICE: I would say yes.
QUESTION: Like what more?
MR PRICE: The fact is – and we talked about this yesterday. Several months ago, there were not 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders. Several months ago, there were not these large-scale live fire exercises. Several months ago, there were not maneuvers with heavy weaponry, with helicopters, the other reports that we’ve seen in recent weeks and even recent days. All of this the Russians have done in recent months. They have done so in a manner that was clearly not an attempt to be furtive or stealthy. It’s hard to be stealthy when you’re moving 100,000 forces along internationally recognized borders. That underscores and undergirds our concern, and the fact that this was done and is being done in an effort to intimidate, in an effort to coerce.
And our concern – and Under Secretary Nuland made a reference to this when she spoke about the potential for a false-flag operation – our concern that the Russians will again resort to the playbook they’ve resorted to in the past, including in 2014, when they did something very similar. And they amassed troops along Ukraine’s borders, they offered specious explanations and justifications that ultimately, they pointed to a pretextual purported provocation. They said that the Ukrainians had done this, that, or the other and that’s why they needed to cross the border. That is our concern here. I should say it’s one of our concerns here, that the Russians will resort to what was, what has been their playbook and may still be their playbook.
So yes, de-escalation to us would mean many of those things, if not all of those things. It would mean troops returning to their barracks. It would mean transparency around any legitimate exercises that were to take place on Russian soil. We’ll be looking for all of those things in the days and weeks ahead if we are in a position to make meaningful progress.
QUESTION: And I’m sorry, the meetings on the Hill by the Secretary. Understand Afghanistan was also on the agenda.
MR PRICE: Look, I will leave it to members to speak to these engagements if they want. The point I will make is that we are committed to consulting with members and Hill offices, as the Secretary likes to say, not only on the landing but on the takeoff and in between. And this is a good reminder we can get you some I think really good metrics that speak to the scope and scale of our engagement with Capitol Hill over the past 11 or 12 months here. But we have made coordination and consultation and dialogue with the Hill an absolute priority. We know the important role that the Hill has to play when it comes to oversight, when it comes to foreign policy, and we’re committed to that.
QUESTION: I’d love to know the content as opposed to just the scope and scale.
MR PRICE: I’m sure you would. I’m sure you would.
QUESTION: Can you just enlighten us as to what the date for the status quo ante that you want the Russians to go back to is? Does it go back to 2014, or is Crimea a lost cause for you now? Would you – do you – does de-escalation mean that they have to relinquish control of Crimea?
MR PRICE: Crimea – look, we’re certainly not saying —
QUESTION: Does it mean that they have to go back to 2008, 2007, or – and leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia? What – where is this – where does this de-escalation point start from?
MR PRICE: So Matt, I’m not in a position right here to give you a firm date. But I will tell you that we have been talking about this since about mid-November, for going on two months.
QUESTION: Yeah. Okay. So you’re basically saying go back to where things were in early November, right? In terms of your troop presence.
MR PRICE: We are saying that —
QUESTION: Which also means that —
MR PRICE: — de-escalation in this context would call for Russian troops to return to their barracks, for these exercises to either be explained or to come to a halt, for this heavy weaponry to return to its regular storage locations. But we are also committed to doing everything we can to support a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. And obviously, of course, Ukraine has demonstrated a commitment to finding a peaceful end to the war. We stand ready to support those efforts, including, as we’ve heard —
QUESTION: Okay. Well, what’s the administration doing to back up its demand that Russia get out of Crimea, and to say that the annexation – quote/unquote “annexation” – of Crimea is illegitimate? What are you doing about that? Or is that just not an issue in this current situation?
MR PRICE: The attempted annexation of Crimea is something that we have responded to since 2014, and there are sanctions in place, and there will be sanctions in place, and there will be measures to hold the Russian Federation to account for its aggression as long as that aggression persists.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, it’s almost six months now since the Taliban took over. You just now spoke of the many millions of dollars that the United States is sending in humanitarian aid to the people. But the reports that we get out of Afghanistan are deeply dire, and increasingly so, with hundreds of thousands of people starving or on the brink of starvation. What is your best explanation for why that aid is not reaching the people? Is it your refusal to deal with the Taliban? Is it what you mentioned earlier, the Taliban’s impeding access of some aid workers? Could you give us an explanation of why that aid isn’t helping?
MR PRICE: Sure. Let me first start what it is not – with what it is not. It is not because of anything the United States is doing or is not doing when it comes to our support for the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. What it is is the result of a number of things. It is the result of recent near-term conditions; a drought; winter, of course, now; but also, more to the point, the longer-term trends and conditions that we’ve seen ossify over the course of nearly two decades. And the United States and our partners, we were very clear with the Taliban before they – before the fall of the previous government in Kabul that any attempt to overtake the country by force would only worsen what was already a humanitarian emergency.
The conditions, the humanitarian challenges we’re seeing now, they did not start a month ago, they did not start two months ago, they did not start with the fall of the previous government. Some of these are structural. As you know, the international community previously provided the lion’s share of the public expenditures of the Afghan Government. The international community previously provided billions and billions of dollars each year for the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. That latter part is still true. The international community is providing and the UN today, as you heard, has started a pledge campaign to raise some $5 billion, including about $4.5 billion for the people of Afghanistan and about half a billion dollars for refugees in the region.
Now, the United States, as I mentioned before, has been the world’s leader in providing that humanitarian assistance, more than three quarters of a billion dollars since October of 2020 alone. But we’ve also encouraged other countries to step up. That remains the case. Other countries, including those in the region, including some of those that may share a border with Afghanistan or that may be in close proximity to Afghanistan, we need to see countries around the world step up, just as the UN called for today, to demonstrate their commitment to the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. It is not in anyone’s interest, whether you are a country that is thousands of miles away like the United States or you’re a country that shares a border with Afghanistan, to see deprivation, to see instability, to see hardship within and among the people of Afghanistan.
We’ve done more than that, however, beyond our humanitarian leadership, beyond our galvanizing call to action. As you know, the Treasury Department has issued both general and specific licenses to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan to send a very clear signal that not only is the United States Government not standing in the way, that we are doing everything we can to call on the international community to do what it can to help the people of Afghanistan. Recently, we supported the release of the so-called ARTF funds of the World Bank, the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Funds, a couple hundred million dollars, for the people of Afghanistan. As we’ve alluded to before, we’re looking at other ways, including in conjunction with the UN, that we might be able to support the people of Afghanistan – importantly, in a way that doesn’t flow through the coffers of the Taliban.
QUESTION: Can I ask about Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Do you have —
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MR PRICE: Do you have a follow-up?
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have metrics to show, though – you like to talk about metrics – to show that money or aid, I mean, is getting to the people? I mean, how do you measure that?
MR PRICE: Well, it is —
MR PRICE: As you know, it is more complex in the context of Afghanistan because it cannot flow through the coffers of the Taliban. And so the United States and our partners, we’re reliant on our – primarily on our NGO partners on the ground to dispense with these humanitarian funds. We are regularly in contact with these humanitarian partners. They continue to operate on the ground. They continue to implement programs from winterization to health care to nutrition to education. And so we are regularly in touch with them and they are in a position to offer reports on that progress.
QUESTION: We are hearing that the evacuation flights are still grounded. It’s been about a month now. We’re also hearing there are about 80 Americans still in Afghanistan who would like to leave. So when was the last evacuation flight that left Afghanistan? And is it – are those two things accurate, that they’re still grounded and there are about 80 Americans who want to leave?
MR PRICE: Well, let me just give you some context. As you know, we made clear prior to August 31st that our commitment to U.S. citizens, to lawful permanent residents, to Afghans to whom we have a special commitment would not end on any date certain and not on August 31st. And since August 31st, 479 – we have directly assisted the departure of 479 U.S. citizens and 450 lawful permanent residents. There are others whose departure we have indirectly helped or supported in various ways. We are working currently with a few dozen U.S. citizens and their families who have identified themselves as prepared to depart and who have the necessary travel documents to do so. We believe at this point that, in addition to those few dozen U.S. citizens and their families, there is a relatively small number, probably fewer than 200 – again, with all the caveats that apply to these numbers fluctuating – but we’re in touch with about 150 other U.S. citizens who don’t want to leave Afghanistan at this point or otherwise not ready to depart.
We have worked very closely, as you know, with our partners, including the Qataris, on these relocation efforts. We have a team here at the Department of State that is dedicated to this mission around the clock. And again, our commitment to any American citizen who may or may not be ready, who may or may not wish to leave is that if he or she and their family wish to leave and they’re ready to leave, we will be there to assist them.
QUESTION: Sorry, when was the last evacuation flight?
MR PRICE: I don’t have that available now. But again, our commitment to Americans is sacrosanct and we’re continuing to work very closely not only with them but also with our partners, including the Qataris, with whom we’ve worked on these relocation flights.
QUESTION: Is it problematic that these evacuation flights have been halted for so long?
MR PRICE: Again, I think you can look at our track record, and the fact that we have relocated more than 900 U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, not to mention a significant number of other Afghans who meet the criteria for relocation I think speaks to not only the commitment but also the ability that we have to relocate Americans and those to whom we have a commitment.
QUESTION: Can you give a number for the Afghans?
MR PRICE: It was – as of a couple weeks ago, it was in the ballpark of a couple thousand.
QUESTION: Thank you. Switching gears to the Palestinian issue, Ned, there are Israeli reports that they are headed towards evicting more Palestinians or evicting Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah and from Silwan, despite your repeated calls on the Israelis not to do so. What can you do to sort of persuade them not to actually go on and go ahead with this action?
MR PRICE: Said, on the general issue, we’ve been very clear that it is critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions or might otherwise undercut efforts to —
QUESTION: But Ned, in all fairness, the Palestinian – yeah, but the Palestinian Authority did not evict any Israelis. I mean, this is really just – it’s an action by the Israelis.
MR PRICE: But if you let me finish – if you’ll let me finish, we have been very clear that it’s incumbent on both Israelis – on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps. In this case, we have been clear that steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution includes – would include the eviction of families from homes in East Jerusalem in which these families have lived for generations in some cases. We’ve been very clear about that.
QUESTION: But obviously the Israelis are not listening to you. What would you do to make them – to sort of persuade them that they should not do this?
MR PRICE: Said, we continue to discuss this with our Israeli partners. We’ve been very clear in our public statements as well, but there are ongoing discussions about this.
QUESTION: Very quickly, a federal judge last Friday ruled that a law targeting the PLO being unconstitutional. Does that – would that lead you to sort of reopen the PLO office here in Washington? Could that lead to the opening of the office —
MR PRICE: For any question – well, for any questions about litigation or the implications of litigation, including the Fuld litigation, I would need to refer you to the Department of Justice. When it comes to the Palestinian office, I just don’t have an update to offer at this time, but you’ve heard us say that as a general matter this administration is committed to and actively engaged with the Palestinians. Over the course of the last few months, we’ve had numerous high-level meetings with Palestinian officials. Of course, Secretary Blinken was in Ramallah mid-last year; Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Under Secretary Nuland were there in November as well. Our assistant – Acting Assistant Secretary Yael Lempert accompanied National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and met with senior Palestinian officials in December.
QUESTION: If I may return to Ukraine very shortly, tomorrow during NATO-Russia Council we will definitely hear one more time the demand that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO. There were a lot of statements, for example from Deputy Secretary Sherman, who told that we will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO “Open Door” policy. But could you clarify the American position? Does it mean that this issue is undiscussable, is totally off the table, or it might be discussed tomorrow during the council?
MR PRICE: The point of dialogue is that, of course, any country is able to put on the table a concern that that country may have. But the point of dialogue is for the other countries to be very clear, and we have been very clear that NATO’s “Open Door” policy for us is not something and for the Alliance is not something that is on the table. It is a fundamental pillar of the North Atlantic charter. It is a fundamental pillar of what it is to be the defensive alliance that is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
So yes, it is in that sense specific to NATO, but – and we talked about this yesterday as well – it’s also bigger than NATO. It’s bigger than any alliance; it’s bigger than any collection of countries. It’s about the basic fundamental tenet that no country can dictate the foreign policy, the decisions, the aspirations of any other country. No country can override international borders. No country should be in a position to threaten, to intimidate, to coerce any other country. And so that is the basic principle that Russia’s so-called demands have brought into sharp relief.
QUESTION: On Kazakhstan. Kazakh President Tokayev says the CSTO mission is going to start winding down, and that it has helped put down an attempted coup-d’état. What is your assessment of that explanation, and does it satisfy the concerns the U.S. had about the deployment of the troops?
MR PRICE: Well, we do welcome the reports of calm in the city of Almaty that we’ve heard in recent hours and over the course of the past day. We also welcome President Tokayev’s announcement that the CSTO collective peacekeeping forces have completed their mission. Until that process is completed and until the CSTO peacekeeping forces are withdrawn, we’ll continue to call upon all collective security treaty organization, collective peackeeping forces to respect international human rights and to uphold their commitment to promptly depart Kazakhstan, as the Government of Kazakhstan has requested.
We – with Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions in place, we are hopeful the situation can be resolved peacefully.
Final question, yes.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, there are reports – Foreign Policy reported that the Taliban have begun to replace diplomats who refuse Taliban rule, threatening them of violence and such things. So are you aware of these reports, and how do you comment?
MR PRICE: I will – I’m not in a position to confirm these reports when it comes to the makeup of the – any sort of Taliban delegation. I would need to – I don’t have a comment on that. But what we have said repeatedly and what the international community has made clear is that it is incumbent on the Taliban to form and to put together a potential future government that is inclusive, that is representative not only of the Afghan people, but that is responsive to the needs of the Afghan people. And we’ve spoken to the scale and the scope of those needs. They’re tremendous, and that is why it’s especially important that in order for the Taliban to earn the legitimacy that they seek, that their – that any future government of Afghanistan is inclusive, is representative of the people of Afghanistan, and is responsive to their needs. And that’s what we, together with our allies and partners, will be watching very closely.
QUESTION: So then are you considering restarting the assistance plan? And are you going to nominate an ambassador?
MR PRICE: So I don’t have an update for you on any nominations that may be forthcoming. When it comes to the assistance that was suspended in the aftermath of the October 25th actions that the military undertook, we’re determining the best course and looking at how we can most effectively support the democratic aspirations of the people of Sudan. It’s very clear from their actions over recent months that the people of Sudan still believe in the democratic revolution that swept over the country. Their aspirations for democracy, for human rights, for dignity, and for self-determination remains, and the United States will continue to be a partner to them in those aspirations.
QUESTION: One final question, if I may.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Also, there are reports that Biden administration expressed reservation over the EastMed pipeline. Can you confirm that?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, reservations over —
QUESTION: EastMed pipeline.
MR PRICE: I don’t have a reaction to that. If we have anything to share, we will.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:49 p.m.)