MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Sorry we’re running a few minutes behind, but it is with great pleasure that we have with us again today someone who is well known to all of you, Toria Nuland, our Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs. She will offer some remarks at the top and then will take some of your questions, and then we will move on with our regularly scheduled programming.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Thanks, Ned. I feel for Ned, because every time I work for him he has to have the podium at the lowest possible rise here and then live with that for the rest of his time. Anyway, good afternoon.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: You can raise this thing up and down, but I’m vertically challenged, as you know, so —
QUESTION: I know. Yeah, but he doesn’t have to have it (inaudible).
MR PRICE: We all rise to the occasion for Toria.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Oh, good one, Ned. This is why he’s paid the big bucks. All right.
Good afternoon. It’s great to be back with all of you and pleased to be working for Ned. As you heard from the Secretary yesterday, the U.S. and NATO both delivered our responses back to Russia, and we believe that these responses offer a real opportunity for security improvements across the Euro-Atlantic area if Moscow chooses the path of diplomacy rather than that of conflict or sabotage.
We and our NATO Allies and partners have long been concerned about many of the same issues that Russia raised, and we have long wanted serious talks about these things, including intermediate and short-range nuclear weapons that can reach our Allies’ territory and the need for more transparency and risk reduction measures and updated and reciprocal rules of the road for military exercises. And we, too, have concerns about weapons and military activity around Ukraine, including in Donbas and occupied Crimea.
Between the U.S. and Russia, between NATO and Russia, and within the OSCE, we have resolved very difficult security and arms control issues before through negotiations. This was true even in the worst of times, and we need to do that again now. So it’s on that basis that we hope Moscow will study what we have offered them and come back to the table – back to the bilateral table with the U.S., back to the NATO-Russia Council and to the OSCE.
You’ve heard us say that we coordinated our response with our allies and partners, including Ukraine. I want you to know that the two documents that we gave to Moscow yesterday were the result of dozens and dozens of hours of consultation with individual countries, including Ukraine, at NATO, and among our OSCE partners. As the President said earlier this week, we are unified – unified in our preference for diplomacy, but we are also unified in our resolve that if Moscow rejects our offer of dialogue the costs must be swift and severe.
Many dozens of hours of diplomacy at all levels are also going on now to prepare very painful financial and economic sanctions if we need them. The Secretary also talked yesterday about a number of other lines of effort that we’re working on, including preparing U.S. forces to meet our NATO obligations as needed, supporting Ukraine’s defense and economic needs, and working with Europe on energy solutions should Moscow cut off gas or oil.
I want to take this opportunity to commend and thank the huge number of talented and creative people in this department, across the interagency, and in allied and partner capitals who are doing this work. Again, this is a moment for diplomacy and for cool heads to prevail. That’s what we want. However, if President Putin rejects the peaceful negotiated path that we have offered, we must and we will be prepared.
Thank you. Ready to take your questions.
MR PRICE: Matt.
QUESTION: Thanks. Toria, thank you very much. So no doubt you have seen the very early responses from Foreign Minister Lavrov, from President Putin’s spokesman Mr. Peskov, about the written response. And I’m wondering if you – do you make anything of those, or do you just kind of brush them off and say, well, until Putin himself speaks to it, it doesn’t matter?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, as you have made clear, Matt, there’s only one decider in Moscow and that is President Putin. They have said that —
QUESTION: Well, I didn’t make that clear. (Laughter.) I’m just asking do you put any weight on what they’ve said, which is – and I’ll refresh your memory if you don’t recall what they are, but —
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: I’ve seen them.
QUESTION: But they basically said, okay, there’s a tiny little bit of space that maybe we could talk about but that our main issues are not addressed, are not resolved, and there’s no – and on those points it’s unacceptable.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: The most important thing we heard from Moscow today is that the documents are with President Putin, that he is studying them. And as I said, we hope he will see here a real opportunity for a legacy of security and arms control rather than a legacy of war.
MR PRICE: Michele.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, Toria. What are the next steps diplomatically? I mean, have you heard back from the Russians directly? Are you trying to get the U.S. – U.S.-Russia-Ukraine talks off the ground? Are we going to see more Wendy Sherman, Sergey Lavrov meetings? I mean, where are you guys heading diplomatically? How do you keep the momentum in that direction?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, again, Russia just got our responses yesterday. They made clear to us that they need a little time to study them. So from where we’re standing, the ball is in their court, but we are ready for talks bilaterally, NATO-Russia, OSCE, whenever they are ready.
MR PRICE: Shaun.
QUESTION: Thanks. You mentioned diplomacy in other capitals as well. But what do you make of the talks that went on in the Normandy format in Paris? They agreed to meet in two weeks. Is that a positive sign at all that Russia may be delaying more drastic action? How do you read that?
And on the topic of the Europeans, do you have any reaction to the latest comments from Germany on Nord Stream 2? Are you confident that that won’t go ahead, if there is an invasion?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, first to say it’s very good to see national security advisers of the Normandy 4 meeting again. It’s been a while since they had substantive talks. When they last met, which I think was before Christmas, they were able to get a fragile Christmas ceasefire. We believe that that Normandy format is the best format for implementing the Minsk agreements and getting the Donbas conflict resolved. So it is a good thing that Russia chose to go to the table there, and we hope that they will similarly choose to go to the table on all of the other issues that we have said we are more than ready to talk about.
With regard to Nord Stream 2, we continue to have very strong and clear conversations with our German allies, and I want to be clear with you today. If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward.
MR PRICE: John.
QUESTION: And how do you – how can you say for that for sure? Where does your confidence come from on that?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: As I said, we’ve had extensive consultations at every level with our German allies. I’m not going to get into the specifics here today, but we will work with Germany to ensure that the pipeline does not move forward.
MR PRICE: Simon.
QUESTION: Sorry, just to follow up again on that. But is there assurance that you have from the Germans? Because what the Germans have said publicly doesn’t match with what you’re saying exactly, and the agreement that you guys signed last year doesn’t specifically say if Russia invades Ukraine we will cut off the pipeline. So is there something new that Germany has said to you in the last 24 hours that’s changed your language on that?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Well, first of all, I would say go back and read the document that we signed in July that made very clear about the consequences for the pipeline if there is further aggression on Ukraine by Russia. That’s one thing.
Second, I think the statements coming out of Berlin even today are very, very strong, as were – as they were by Emily Haber from the embassy today.
QUESTION: Sorry, could I just follow up quickly as well on the conversation that Secretary Blinken had with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday? I wonder if you could talk to whether you think China is watching how you respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and whether that potentially would be seen as a bellwether for a U.S. response to a crisis, a potential invasion of Taiwan? Does that weigh on what’s happening here with Russia?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: I think you just went down six levels of hypothetical there, so I’m not going to jump into that.
What I will say to you is that our messages to Beijing have been very clear. We are calling on Beijing to use its influence with Moscow to urge diplomacy, because if there is a conflict in Ukraine it is not going to be good for China either. There will be a significant impact on the global economy. There’ll be a significant impact in the energy sphere. And it will be all the harder for all of us to get back to what we should be doing, which is building back better.
MR PRICE: Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah. Are you talking to any European countries to send U.S. troops there on a bilateral basis without the request of NATO?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: So Michel, I think you know how U.S. preparedness generally goes, right? That you heard the Secretary of Defense and Secretary Blinken make clear yesterday that we’ve put U.S. forces, which would be contributions to the NATO Response Force should it be activated, on notice. We also have other elements in Europe that we could use as part of a NATO response. But you’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes it’s the case that the U.S. can move more quickly and allies want that support and then NATO comes in, in support. So we’re looking at all of those options and talking to all of the countries, particularly those on the eastern edge of NATO, a number of whom would like to see more support both from NATO and from the U.S.
QUESTION: Did you receive any request from any of them?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Yeah, I’m not going to get into the details of the diplomacy. I think we’ll have more for you on that in coming days. But what’s most important is that we meet our Article 5 obligations to our NATO Allies and that we work with our allies so that there’s burden-sharing in that, and we’re doing all of that work now.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Christina.
QUESTION: Hi, sorry, so just to clarify. So in addition to the talks with – or to the 8,500 that are designated to be called up if NATO requests them, as the Secretary yesterday – there are separate conversations about – bilateral conversations from the U.S. and other European countries about other U.S. troops going to reinforce those countries.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: I’m not going to get into the details of conversations that we’re having to ensure that we can meet our NATO obligations. I’m going to send you to the Pentagon for any details about what they need to be discussing with allies.
MR PRICE: Yes, please.
QUESTION: The British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said today that he still believed there was, quote, “a chance” of a diplomatic breakthrough. Given President Putin’s comments that he was not optimistic, just how do you rate the chances now given where we are today? Do you agree with Ben Wallace?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: We’re diplomats, which make us optimists. It means that we will exhaust every opportunity to resolve this through diplomacy, to resolve this through negotiation, and that’s what we’re doing now.
MR PRICE: All right.
QUESTION: Can I ask one more?
QUESTION: I have one. Can I just have one other question?
QUESTION: I didn’t – if it can’t be with Toria, I’ll ask you, Ned, as soon as – but it’s going to be the same question, and I just want to – on Nord Stream 2, you echoed what Ned said on television earlier: If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward. That’s what you said, that’s what he said, that’s what – but Nord Stream 2 is already completed. The only —
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: It has not —
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, it’s finished. If they decided to turn on the – turn it on right now, it would be sending gas, or olive oil, or vodka, or whatever through —
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Vodka would be good. Olive oil would be good.
QUESTION: — (laughter) – it would be – all they have to do is turn it on. So when you say it won’t move forward, you mean it won’t open for gas supplies?
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Matt, it is not ready to be turned on. It has not been —
QUESTION: It’s finished.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: It has not been tested. It has not been certified.
QUESTION: But it’s finished.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: It has not been – the regulatory pieces that would allow it to be turned on, both on the German side and on the EU side —
QUESTION: But it’s —
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: — have not been completed. The physical —
QUESTION: But it’s finished from – from start point to end point, the pipeline is done. And whether or not there’s certifications that need to be done or not, if you sent anything through it right now, it would start in Russia and end in Germany.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: As Senator Cruz likes to say – I don’t quote him often, but as he likes to say, it is currently a hunk of metal at the bottom of the ocean. It needs to be tested. It needs to be certified. It needs to have regulatory —
QUESTION: But it’s still finished.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: — approval. And no gas will flow through it till those things happen.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: Michele.
QUESTION: I just have one clarification on the document yesterday, because apparently the NATO document raised concerns about Russia – urged Russia to pull troops out of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. I wondered if the American version had similar language.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: I’m not going to get into what’s the precise language either in our document or in the NATO document. Suffice to say that our document was extremely clear about our concerns about Russia’s own posture, including its violations of sovereignty with regard to its neighbors.
MR PRICE: Thank you all very much. Toria, thank you.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: All right. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
UNDER SECRETARY NULAND: Thanks, Ned.
MR PRICE: Thank you. Do you guys need me? Am I —
QUESTION: Well, yeah.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Actually, I – well, do you have anything to —
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything at the top.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. Well, I mean, I think Toria kind of exhausted all the – or most of that, but I – so I won’t start, but I just – I do have two non – un – non-Ukraine issues that I do want to raise at the end, so – but I’ll defer to others.
MR PRICE: Okay.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Asking – asking China to use its influence with Russia. There was the call, obviously, with Foreign Minister Wang last night, our time. Could you explain about – a little bit about that? Do you think that the Chinese are actually going to do that? Do you see any forward movement there?
And also, the Chinese readout of this focused a lot on the Winter Olympics and that the U.S. shouldn’t, quote-unquote, “interfere” in the Winter Olympics. Does the U.S. have any readout of what the Secretary said on that?
MR PRICE: We did issue a readout, as you said. The Secretary made the point at the top of that call that we view these engagements, this dialogue, our ability to communicate candidly with our PRC counterparts as a good thing, because our charge as we see it, our primary charge with the PRC and the management of perhaps the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world, is to manage that competition responsibly, and to do all that we can to ensure that competition doesn’t spill over into, God forbid, conflict. And so the Secretary made that point very clear. It’s a point that we’ve also heard from time to time from our PRC counterparts as well.
So as we stated in our readout, we – Secretary Blinken did raise with the foreign minister the Russian aggression that we’re seeing against Ukraine. As you heard from the under secretary, we have sought from countries around the world – you have noted that we have issued dozens and dozens of readouts in recent weeks, and almost all of them have made some mention of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and our efforts to pursue dialogue and diplomacy just as we prepare with defense and deterrence.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Secretary did raise this issue with the PRC. The PRC has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the one that we have with Russia, that is distinct from the relationship that many countries around the world have with Russia.
So as you heard from the under secretary, the PRC does have a relationship that would allow it to use its influence in a manner that we hope to be constructive, that we would like to see be constructive. There were other topics of discussion – the DPRK, and the DPRK’s recent provocations – but also other issues in the bilateral relationship. In nearly all of these discussions there is an opportunity to raise our concerns regarding human rights, regarding our well-known concerns about the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang and crimes against humanity, but also broader issues in the bilateral relationship, including Taiwan as well.
QUESTION: Russian officials have warned Moscow could deploy troops to Cuba and Venezuela if the U.S. and NATO insist on the crisis of Ukraine. Is the U.S. concerned about it? Have you seen any movement in that regard?
MR PRICE: Look, we are not going to respond to bluster. If we do see any movement in that direction, we will respond swiftly and decisively.
QUESTION: Can we just go back to China for a second, Ned, just on the embassy staffing there? Are there any updates? Obviously, the Chinese came out publicly before anything had been even – well, not only not announced, but also not decided in terms of dependents and non-essential staff there. Presumably that came up in the call, or at least the Chinese said it did as part of your alleged attempts to sabotage the Olympics. Is there anything new on that front?
MR PRICE: Matt, you’ve heard us speak to this in different contexts even in recent days. We have an overriding priority in this department and across this government. It is the priority we attach to the safety, security, the welfare, the well-being of Americans around the world, and that, of course, includes our colleagues on the ground in any particular country and their families as well.
The operating status at our mission in the PRC has not changed. Any change in that operating status would be predicated solely and exclusively on those issues – the health, the safety, the security of our colleagues and their family members.
Now, what is true is that we have longstanding concerns regarding the PRC’s quarantine and testing policies that run counter to diplomatic privileges and immunities. We have discussed this issue with PRC authorities both here in Washington and in Beijing at different levels, and we’ve recommended what we think are a series of reasonable options that would be consistent with COVID-19 mitigation measures, and at the same time align with international diplomatic norms and practices.
QUESTION: “Recommended to the Chinese,” you mean.
MR PRICE: That’s correct.
MR PRICE: So we’re not going to go into the details of this, but the – this has been an issue that’s been under discussion both here and in Beijing.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, can I just ask you to clarify something? When you talk about how the operating status of the embassy hasn’t changed, I mean, a – I think a reasonable person from the outside would look at this and say, well, if kids and spouses get sent home, that – and – but the primary person who is the employee doesn’t leave, that doesn’t change the operating status. But are you saying that that does? And so there has been actually no change —
MR PRICE: There has been no change in the operating status.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks.
MR PRICE: Michel, yeah.
QUESTION: New topic. Today the State Department issued a Travel Advisory advising Americans not to travel to UAE because of COVID and the missile and drone attacks. To what extent are you worried about that, and what are you doing to prevent Houthis from attacking UAE, the Americans there, and the military bases?
MR PRICE: Well, Michel, this goes back to the conversation I was just having with Matt. Whenever we deem it necessary to alert either the American citizen community or to change our operating status, we are under an obligation to make that public. And so that is what you saw us do today when it comes to the UAE. We have, in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for some time now been issuing regularized guidance to the American public regarding recommendations for travel or not to countries around the world. And so as you noted in the advisory today, there was an element of that.
When we – I was last up here, day before yesterday, we spoke to the ongoing Houthi aggression, the ongoing Houthi attacks, including against countries in the region – Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Of course, we have seen attempted attacks and attacks against the UAE and Saudi Arabia in recent days alone, so this is an issue that we are – where we’re cooperating very closely with our Emirati partners. We provide them with significant assistance to thwart these attacks. In the context of Saudi Arabia, we do the same. We’ve made the point publicly that with our assistance, our partners in Riyadh have been able to thwart about 90 percent of the attacks that have emanated from Yemen. Of course, we want to see that number rise even further, to get to 100 percent.
We have the same focus and the same emphasis with our Emirati partners as well. We are committed to our partnership with the UAE. Of course, there is a large American citizen community there as well. The UAE is an important partner in the region, an important partner to the United States, and we’re committed to that relationship.
QUESTION: Did you provide them with equipment or are you providing them with these equipment now to prevent these attacks?
MR PRICE: We can get you details on the security assistance that we have already provided to the UAE, but there is extensive cooperation in that realm.
QUESTION: Yeah, I just wanted to follow up on this question before about Russia’s threat to send weapons to Latin America or Cuba. And you, without getting into details, note that the U.S. would have a swift response. If the U.S. did have a swift response or wanted to protect itself in any way, is that acknowledgment that the United States does have a sphere of influence that it would like to protect in Latin America, that it would be sensitive towards in the way that countries like Russia also maintain a sphere of influence in Europe?
MR PRICE: This is not about spheres of influence. This is not about concepts that, insofar as we are concerned, are relics of the last century. For us, this right now is in the category of bluster, so not going to entertain a hypothetical. But again, if we see anything like that come to fruition, we would respond decisively.
QUESTION: Yeah, a source from Xiomara Castro’s cabinet told us that Honduras is willing to be a diplomatic bridge between the U.S. and the Government of Nicaragua, something that according to the – this person, the U.S. had suggested. So can you please confirm this? And what is the U.S. looking for from this communications channel?
And if I may have another question.
MR PRICE: So I don’t have anything to offer in terms of the role that Honduras may or may not be playing when it comes to Nicaragua. We have made our concerns regarding Nicaragua very well known for quite a long time. It was what President Ortega and Vice President Murillo orchestrated on November 7th. I believe it was called a pantomime election. It was election – an election that was neither free nor fair. It was most certainly not democratic.
On top of that, this is a regime that has engaged in arbitrary detentions. The regime has arbitrarily detained some 40 opposition figures since May. That includes seven potential presidential candidates and the arrest of additional candidates even not too long ago. Independent media has been shuttered; freedom of expression, freedom of association is under threat.
And since the election last November, we have seen many of our concerns come into even sharper relief. The Ortega and Murillo family now rule Nicaragua as autocrats, in some ways no different from the Somoza family that the Sandinista movement fought several decades ago to overturn.
So this is a challenge that we have been approaching not only with partners in the region, but also the EU has been deeply engaged in this, the Spanish have been deeply engaged in this. You’ve heard from High Representative Borrell on this as well. So we are approaching this challenge not only with our partners in the Western Hemisphere but our partners across the Atlantic and beyond.
QUESTION: But is the U.S. looking to promote, like, a negotiation with the Government of Nicaragua like the one the Venezuelans have in Mexico, with the lifting of sanctions as a guarantee to these negotiations?
MR PRICE: We are looking to see the restoration through, of course, peaceful democratic means of genuine democracy in Nicaragua, precisely what Ortega and Murillo have sought to erode over time and what they certainly did erode with the fraud election that they put forward last November. Our goal in all of this, just as it is in Venezuela, is to provide support for the people of Nicaragua, support for the rights to which they are entitled, rights that should be universal. And just as we are in Venezuela, deeply focused on the humanitarian needs, humanitarian concerns of the people of Nicaragua as well.
QUESTION: But is the U.S. willing to promote this negotiation with the Government of Nicaragua?
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything to add in terms of what we are looking for right now. I can say that we have certainly not seen any substantive indication that the Ortega-Murillo regime is interested in any sort of negotiations that would move the ball in a constructive, positive direction. If we were to see that, it would certainly be a good thing, and we would support that as appropriate.
QUESTION: Hey, Ned, forgive me if I missed it in the past – in your past commentary about Nicaragua, but – and you may have but I missed it – called it a “pantomime election.” What exactly does that mean?
MR PRICE: It was an election that may have resembled an election in certain ways but in the most fundamental ways was certainly not free, certainly not fair, certainly not democratic.
QUESTION: I don’t get why that – I mean, and I know – I’ll move on, but I mean – “pantomime,” really? I mean, this is like – do you have something against mimes? What – it’s not like they’re – it’s – they do – are you saying it’s a performance that is – that there’s nothing – there’s nothing to —
MR PRICE: The point, Matt, that an election —
QUESTION: I just don’t understand why – why you say it was a fraudulent election.
MR PRICE: A true election is more than the technical exercise of dropping a ballot into a ballot box. A free and fair election – a real election – involves much more than that, and what we saw last November was barely the technical exercise. That certainly didn’t constitute a free, fair, democratic election.
QUESTION: In general, what is your response to this Russian allegation that it’s the U.S. and its allies that are being the aggressors here, putting thousands of troops on hold and using words to describe an attack at any time and imminent. My understanding also is that the Ukraine thinks that that is causing panic and would like the U.S. to sort of tone down its language given it’s having economic impacts in the Ukraine.
MR PRICE: Well, I’ll start my answer with where your question left off. You noted the fact that we are making prudent preparations. We are issuing – making our concerns known through public statements, through written statements. We are putting additional service members at a heightened state of readiness. All of those are either precautionary measures, measures we are taking to communicate the concern we have, or measures that we are preparing to put in place should we need to go down the path of defense and deterrence.
Now, on the other side, you see from the Russian Federation the amassing of 100,000 troops – 100-000-plus troops – on the border with Ukraine, a country that, of course poses no threat to the Russian Federation. You see tens of thousands of Russian troops flooding into what should be a sovereign, independent country – that is Belarus – in position that would allow Russia to move swiftly from multiple directions in Ukraine should it so choose. You have seen Russia engage in hybrid tactics, both in recent weeks but also since 2014. You have heard of and seen the aggressive disinformation, propaganda efforts emanating from Moscow. You have heard of various individuals in Moscow making statements to the effect of Moscow may be forced to move aggressively against Ukraine.
So I think if you weigh those two things, you will see that one is not like the other. What we are doing together with our allies and partners is pursuing prudently the course of defense and deterrence should Moscow move forward with its aggression. What we are doing is about defense; it is about deterrence. In the first instance, what we are doing is to do everything we can to forestall additional Russian aggression against Ukraine. That’s the deterrence part.
The defense part is putting those prudent preparations in place so that if Moscow does move forward with its aggression, we are prepared and our Ukrainian partners will be prepared with what they need to defend themselves. That is why we have provided the defensive security assistance that we have to Ukraine. That is why we have spoken of additional commitments to the NATO Alliance, the 8,500 U.S. service members that are on a heightened state of readiness. That is why you have heard us for weeks now consult and coordinate with allies and partners to ensure that we have in place a set of measures that would go into effect swiftly and have enormous implications for the Russian Federation in the event of Russian aggression.
So to equate or to put on the same plane what we are seeing from Moscow and what we are seeing from the United States and Kyiv and Berlin and Paris and Brussels and across Europe – that is precisely what the propaganda, what the disinformation, what the misinformation emanating from Moscow would like for us to believe. But you take an honest examination of the defensive steps we’re doing, what we are doing to prevent conflicts, the fact that we are sincerely and steadfastly pursuing the path of dialogue and diplomacy just as we are engaging this in defense and deterrence, and I think you see that these two things are not on an equal plane.
QUESTION: But just – do you think that the use – or do you concede that the use of words like “imminent” above and beyond everything that you’ve just described may not be helpful and may cause panic, and seems to be causing panic in Ukraine in particular?
MR PRICE: I do not think us voicing our concerns regarding what Moscow may well have in store is bringing us any closer to conflict. The only thing that is bringing us closer to conflict are the moves and the measures that we have seen from the Russian Federation. What you have heard from us in terms of our – voicing our concern is nothing more than prudent precautions that in this instance we are enacting out of concern for the safety, security, and the well-being of our colleagues and their families on the ground in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, international aid agencies and some allies are pressing the United States to do more to address the humanitarian crisis. While recognizing that U.S. aid funds have been generous, they have appealed this week for greater flexibility and action on issuing new Treasury licenses. How does the administration respond to these calls, and is it planning any additional licenses or loosening of sanctions?
MR PRICE: Well, John, so we have a commitment that you have heard to the people of Afghanistan. And you’ve seen us make good on that commitment and in a number of ways. Just earlier this month, we committed an additional $308 million in humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan. That brings our total humanitarian assistance to more than half a billion dollars since mid-August alone, since mid-August of 2021.
With the support of U.S. funding, our partners on the ground, including UNHCR, reached over 196,000 Afghans. UNHCR used these funds to provide basic relief items and cash assistance, winterization supplies, food, protection needs, shelter, and more. When it comes to – and that, of course, is only one of our partners.
When it comes to the issue of the authorizations and the specific and general licenses that we’ve spoken to from the Department of the Treasury, they have issued both to facilitate the provision of general – of humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan. We want to be very clear to the international community that not only are we not standing in the way of the provision of much-needed humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, but we are doing everything we can to facilitate the flow of vital assistance and support to the Afghan people.
We’ve also worked in multilateral fora to do the same. We advocated for the UN Security Council to adopt UN Security Council Resolution 2615 that exempted humanitarian and other activities that support basic needs from so-called 1988 sanctions. Again, it’s a signal to the world that the international community can and should do all that it is able to support the people of Afghanistan. We’ve worked with the World Bank, with the so-called Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to release nearly $300 million in funding – $280 million in relief. We’ve worked with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; we have worked with other multilateral organizations as well.
And one final point. In addition to all of that, we have brought more than 4.3 million doses of safe and effective COVID vaccines to the people of Afghanistan. So we have been a humanitarian leader when it comes to Afghanistan. We have used our own resources, our own authorities, but importantly – and in some ways just as importantly – our own galvanizing power to shine a spotlight on this to do what we are able, but also to make clear to the international community that we need to do all that we can and that every responsible country around the world, whether it’s in the region or beyond, has an opportunity and in some cases has an obligation to the people of Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Well, the contention from aid organizations is that, sure, the United States has done all of those things that you listed out, but that the scale and the scope of the crisis is such that there have not – hasn’t been sufficient action on sanctions and licenses.
MR PRICE: The fact is that the scale of the crisis is enormous. The scale of the crisis demands a global response. That is why, in addition to everything we have done, whether it’s licensing, whether it is support, whether it is lobbying, whether it’s advocating in international fora, we also know that the international community needs to raise its ambition. We’ve been clear about that. We’ve been clear about that in donor conferences; we’ve been clear about that in our bilateral engagements, in our multilateral engagements as well. So there is no understating the scale of the crisis, and that is why we have been clear and consistent in calling on the international community to raise its ambition, just as we have continued to make good on the commitment you’ve heard from us to the Afghan people.
QUESTION: I would like to ask you about DPRK. DPRK never stops launching ballistic missiles. And yesterday, we have seen another example. So do you think now is a time to put more pressure on DPRK? And secondly, could you tell us a bit more about the discussion between the Secretary Blinken and his Chinese counterpart yesterday on DPRK?
MR PRICE: Well, to your question, this remains a priority challenge for the United States. We’ve spoken ever since we unveiled it of the policy approach we have to the DPRK. It’s an approach that calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and explores diplomacy with the DPRK, because we believe and we know that diplomacy is the most effective means to bring about our overriding objective, and that’s the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Now, I don’t have to tell you, I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that we have obviously seen provocations from the DPRK in recent days and recent weeks. And so that is why we are continuing to take action alongside the international community to prevent the advancement of the DPRK’s WMD and ballistic missile programs. Following recent launches – for example, I believe it was January 12th – the Department of State and Treasury imposed sanctions on eight DPRK-linked individuals and entities for supporting the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile-related programs. The – our U.S. ambassador to the UN also proposed UN sanctions targeting some of those entities.
All the while, our commitment to our allies in the region, including the ROK and Japan, remains ironclad. And our message to the DPRK has been consistent. You’ve heard me say this before, repeatedly, I think even this week: We harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We continue to seek dialogue with the DPRK. We remain prepared to meet with the DPRK without preconditions. We’ve repeatedly reached out to Pyongyang; we have yet to receive substantive response. It is up to the DPRK to decide if they want to engage constructively.
In all of this, we have consulted closely with the ROK and in Japan at just about every level of government to determine how best we might engage trilaterally, bilaterally, and beyond with the DPRK. Special Representative to the DPRK Ambassador Sung Kim has led that robust trilateral relationship among United States, ROK, and Japan. We know that is critical, that trilateral relationship, for engaging the DPRK.
Last year, Secretary Blinken had trilateral meetings with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in May, mid-last year on the margins of the G7 ministerial in Cornwall, and at the UN General Assembly in September as well. The deputy secretary, of course, has also engaged her counterparts on a trilateral basis in July in Tokyo, in November here in Washington. And then Special Representative Sung Kim has had three trilateral meetings with his counterparts. So we remain prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy, just as we continue to take very seriously the provocations that we’ve seen from the DPRK. And you’ve seen us enact a response together with our allies and partners.
QUESTION: How was the reaction of the Chinese foreign minister yesterday?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: How was the reaction from the Chinese foreign minister during their conversation?
MR PRICE: So I wouldn’t want to characterize the reaction of the PRC foreign minister, but as you saw in our readout, it was a topic of discussion. It consistently is a topic of discussion, and this goes back to a conversation we were having about another relationship that the PRC maintains. The PRC, obviously, of course, maintains a relationship in this case with the DPRK that is unlike the relationship that most countries, the United States certainly included, has with that regime. We have consistently urged the PRC to use its influence constructively so that we can bring about together that overriding objective, and that’s the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
MR PRICE: Are there specific —
QUESTION: Agreements with Honduras that you’re going to announce soon?
MR PRICE: So I will defer to my White House colleagues. I know that they’ve been previewing some of those elements, but I’ll defer to them to speak to broader elements.
QUESTION: Thank you. Given the unprecedented tension you have with Russia, what impact does India’s decision to buy S-400 from Russia – the supply already began – has impact on your bilateral ties with India?
MR PRICE: What it has on the – can you repeat that?
QUESTION: India is going to buy – India has already bought, started to buy S-400 missiles from Russia, because of belief that that is in the best interests of its national security given the tough neighborhood it is in. But there is a CAATSA sanction here in the U.S., right? So given you have an unprecedented tension with Russia, and India, your friend, is buying something from Russia, how is it going to impact your relationship with India?
MR PRICE: Well, in many ways this doesn’t change the concerns that we have with the S-400 system. I think it shines a spotlight on the destabilizing role that Russia is playing not only in the region, but potentially beyond as well. When it comes to CAATSA sanctions, you’ve heard me say before we haven’t made a determination with regard to this transaction, but it’s something we continue to discuss with the Government of India, given the risk of sanctions for this particular transaction under CAATSA. Whether it is India, whether it is any other country, we continue to urge all countries to avoid major new transactions for Russian weapon systems.
QUESTION: But India has categorically said that this is a sovereign decision; it’s not going away from changing its decision. So do you have any timeline on CAATSA sanctions?
MR PRICE: What was the last part of your question?
QUESTION: Do you have any timeline on CAATSA sanctions?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a timeline to offer, but these are issues that we continue to discuss with our partners in India. Michel.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Ned, I have two questions, one on Iran. White House NSC Coordinator Brett McGurk said today that they are in the ballpark (inaudible) possible deal to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement. Can you elaborate on that? When do we expect the deal with Iran? Is it imminent? It will take time?
MR PRICE: Michel, you’ve heard us say this before: We are engaged indirectly in negotiations in Vienna because of a couple things. We believe that a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is – remains as of this moment the best means by which to reinstall those permanent, verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program; and second, we’re engaged in this process because we believe a mutual return to compliance is still possible. We believe the window of opportunity remains open.
Now, that window is closing. It is becoming narrower and narrower. I don’t want to characterize precisely where we are beyond what you’ve heard us say during the course of this round, and that is to say that there has been some progress achieved. But if we are to get there, that progress needs to outpace the speed with which Tehran’s nuclear program has moved forward, has advanced. So we need to see progress be more than modest. We need to see it be more than incremental. We need to see that progress continue and quicken if we are going to get there in time to effect a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: And one on the Secretary’s meeting yesterday with the Kuwaiti foreign minister. Did they discuss Lebanon and the proposals that Arab League and that Kuwait delivered to the Lebanese Government? And they are waiting for response from the Lebanese Government by the end of this month. And one of the proposals is to dismantle Hizballah.
MR PRICE: It was discussed in the Strategic Dialogue with the foreign minister of Kuwait. I believe this was the fifth Strategic Dialogue between the United States and Kuwait. Lebanon was certainly one of the issues that came under discussion. This fifth Strategic Dialogue, of course, came on the occasion of – well, right on the heels, I should say, of 60 years of diplomatic relations with Kuwait, 30 years since the United States and a coalition came together to liberate Kuwait in the early 1990s. So it was an auspicious occasion. It was also an opportunity for the Secretary to welcome the foreign minister after the amir and the foreign minister welcomed the Secretary to Kuwait City last year. Kuwait has been a vital partner across any number of fronts. We’ve spoken of the tremendous assistance that our Kuwaiti partners offered in terms of relocation efforts with Afghanistan. We have spoken of the important role that Kuwait has played as, in many ways, a regional bridge helping to heal the rift in the GCC, helping to address the situation in Lebanon, a key partner in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, or Daesh.
So there was much to discuss, and Lebanon and the other areas where Kuwait has played a very helpful, constructive role was certainly on the agenda.
QUESTION: Were the proposals coordinated with the U.S. before presenting them to Lebanon?
MR PRICE: We have a very close relationship with Kuwait. There is deep and regular coordination with our Kuwaiti partners.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on your response on Iran? It’s been a few days since the Iranians have made noises about potentially having more direct talks with the United States. Has there been any progress in that respect, a direct meeting between Rob Malley (inaudible) and the Iranians?
MR PRICE: Well, Shaun, again, that’s a question that is best directed at the Iranians, because we have been clear since this process started in April that we would find direct engagement, direct diplomacy, to be a more – to be more effective, potentially to be swifter in terms of the pace, it would help to prevent misunderstandings. These are also highly technical, highly complex questions which direct diplomacy would benefit from.
So we are not currently engaged in direct talks. Our understanding is Iran has not yet agreed to direct talks. But again, we believe we should be. We remain prepared to meet directly. We have long held the position it would be productive to do so both in the context of the JCPOA and on other issues. Whether it’s bilaterally, whether it’s multilaterally, the advantages that direct diplomacy has the potential to convey are great.
The other point I’ll make is that when it comes to the JCPOA, engaging directly could help to increase the pace of the progress that we’ve seen. If we are, as I said before, going to be in a position to achieve a mutual return to compliance, we need that progress to be moving along at a quick clip.
And again, there are some drawbacks when it comes to the indirect nature of these discussions. We are reliant on our partners in the P5+1 context to convey messages back and forth, literally playing the middlemen, playing what we hope is not a game of telephone, but obviously there are some drawbacks to that format. So that is why we’ve long been consistent, long been clear, that direct engagement would be to everyone’s advantage.
QUESTION: Could I ask you something completely different?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Ethiopia. There have been a few developments in the past few days, notably the TPLF saying that they’re going to advance into Afar in terms of what they say is (inaudible) pro-government forces. There have been some aid deliveries as well. Can you just give an update on where you see things going and on the U.S. diplomatic engagement?
MR PRICE: So I will start by saying that we have long called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, a transparent investigation into human rights abuses and violations by all actors, unhindered humanitarian access, and a negotiated resolution to the conflict in Ethiopia. And we’ve done that because it is a conflict that not only has inflicted humanitarian harm on the people of the region but also poses a threat to peace and security in the Horn of Africa.
Reports of renewed fighting in the Afar region are very concerning, and we repeat our calls to all actors to cease all offensive operations which also hinder that humanitarian access that we all know is so crucial. We welcome the Council of Ministers’ January 26th determination to lift the nationwide state of emergency. We hope this decision will be approved soon by the House of Peoples’ Representatives.
We call on the government to release all those detained under this state of emergency, and we encourage the active participation of all parties in an inclusive national dialogue that pursues a shared vision for a prosperous and democratic Ethiopia. These discussions should also include commitments to comprehensive, transparent justice mechanisms.
As you know, it was last week – well, just a few days ago, I should say – where Assistant Secretary Phee and Special Envoy Satterfield held productive meetings with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy and other government officials. The assistant secretary and the special envoy expressed the U.S. commitment to the unity, the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of Ethiopia.
They followed up on President Biden’s constructive call with the prime minister that took place a couple weeks ago now. They used the opportunity to encourage government officials to seize what we believe is a current opening for peace by, again, ending hostilities, negotiating a ceasefire, releasing all those detained, restoring humanitarian access on a sustained basis, and laying the foundation for an inclusive national dialogue, importantly, with the participation of all parties.
Fundamentally, we believe that this is the best path forward to end the widespread suffering and human rights abuses that this conflict has wrought. That’s why we’re pursuing this robust diplomacy. That’s why we are advocating for this path.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Hey, I’ve got – as I said at the very beginning, I had a couple.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: On the record?
MR PRICE: Sorry?
QUESTION: Are we on the record or off the record?
QUESTION: This is on – this should be on the record.
QUESTION: This is (inaudible). Sorry, sorry.
MR PRICE: Go ahead. That was your question?
QUESTION: Is your email back up or —
MR PRICE: Oh, is my email back up? Yes —
QUESTION: Well, not your personal – I have no idea what your personal email is, if it’s on or off. I’m talking about the State Department’s unclassified system, which went down.
MR PRICE: Well, I can tell you, Matt, if I did not respond to your email, it was not because I was ignoring you for once.
Look, what I can say is that we – our investigation into this is ongoing. At this time, we have absolutely no indication that this outage has anything to do with malicious activity. In fact, we believe there is a technical explanation for it.
QUESTION: Okay. So is it back up now?
MR PRICE: I have not been at my email for a couple hours now.
QUESTION: All right. But it wasn’t when you came out?
MR PRICE: The functioning or not of my email is not a issue of —
QUESTION: Not your —
MR PRICE: — national importance.
QUESTION: Ned, you know what? Well, you’re almost certainly right about that. I just want —
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: So how long has this gone on?
MR PRICE: That’s the first time I’ve heard you say that.
QUESTION: When did it – when did it start?
MR PRICE: This is a – this is an issue that has been under investigation over the course of the day. I don’t have an update for you. I personally don’t have an update on my – on the status of my email.
QUESTION: Okay. Secondly, about – I don’t know, maybe it was two weeks ago or so, I asked you about the death of a – shortly after being in Israel, Israeli custody of an American citizen, an elderly Israeli Palestinian – I mean Palestinian American citizen. I see that the Israelis have come back with – or at least there’s been an autopsy report released on it. I’m wondering – you said at the time when I asked that you were seeking clarification from the Israelis on this. Have you gotten any clarification from the Israelis about this case? And if so, was it satisfactory? Is this a done deal for you guys or are you continuing to raise it?
MR PRICE: Matt, you’ve heard us express our condolences. As I mentioned, we sent our heartfelt condolences to the family of this American citizen. A representative of the mission was in attendance at the wake. We have not yet seen a final report from the Israeli Government. We took note of the disturbing media reports regarding the circumstances of his death and we continue to support a thorough investigation into those circumstances, and we welcome receiving additional information as soon as possible.
QUESTION: All right. And then just the other day, I asked you about – well, I’ll just start with this: Is the hold or the suspension of the 130 million in – dollars in foreign military financing for Egypt still in place? If it is, can you explain why you would go ahead and send or sell Egypt $2.5 billion in weapons?
MR PRICE: Matt, there has been no change in the status of that hold. As you know, in September of last year, the Secretary decided that we would hold 130 million in U.S. security assistance to Egypt pending specific actions related to human rights in Egypt. The Secretary has yet to make a determination regarding that balance in FY2024 in military financing. As you heard me say the other day, we believe that continued progress when it comes to human rights would only strengthen our bilateral relationship with Egypt.
We did announce a foreign military sale, as opposed to foreign military financing, earlier this week. It was a package that – under which the Egyptians would purchase equipment that is defensive in nature. It is equipment that is used in peacekeeping operations, but that is separate from the 130 million that you spoke of.
QUESTION: Yeah, no, I – okay. But I mean, do you not see any kind of contradiction here, any inconsistency in withholding a – what is essentially a miniscule amount of money in foreign military financing and then allowing the sale of hundreds of hundreds of times more military equipment to the Egyptian military?
MR PRICE: Well, you just noted one of the distinctions yourself, the difference between financing and a foreign military sale. So the Egyptians are purchasing a large share —
QUESTION: Okay. So every single dollar that they’re using for this 2.5 billion is Egyptian money?
MR PRICE: I do —
QUESTION: None of it, none of it, none of it is U.S. money or incentives or anything like that?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a —
QUESTION: Because I think —
MR PRICE: I don’t have a —
QUESTION: — that that’s going to be —
MR PRICE: I don’t have a full breakdown for you, but as I understand it, it is largely a sale to our Egyptian partners.
QUESTION: Well, okay, fine, but you still – there are still requirements that are supposed to be made, supposed to be in place for military sales. Like you wouldn’t sell $2.5 billion worth of military equipment to Belarus, right? Obviously Egypt is not Belarus, but if you’re – do you not see the – an issue with withholding $130 million in foreign military financing and then just selling an astronomical amount more than that in military equipment? You don’t see any contradiction or —
MR PRICE: Matt, my answer to you on this remains the same.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: This is the difference between foreign military financing and foreign military sales. What you’re referring to in the context of $130 million is security assistance that otherwise would have gone to our Egyptian partners. That is still withheld pending a determination —
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: — from the Secretary of State regarding progress when it comes to Egypt’s record on human rights. Human rights is an issue that we consistently, in every opportunity, discuss with our Egyptian partners. Secretary Blinken has discussed it with President Sisi. President Biden has discussed it with President Sisi. Secretary Blinken routinely discusses it with Foreign Minister Shoukry.
QUESTION: Last thing. Some members of Congress are complaining to the State Department that – they are complaining that the State Department is withholding or forcing the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior to withhold documents relating to the negotiations or the renegotiation of the free compact – association of free compact – I’m getting – the Marshall Islands agreement.
I know that you’re going to decline, you don’t want to – you won’t comment on congressional correspondence, so I’m just going to make the – make a public request right now that – why are these documents not being made available to Congress? Because this has to do with a nuclear legacy, the cleanup. The Marshall Islands wants money to repair the damage that was done by nuclear tests. Why are these documents not being made available to – or why is the State Department stopping DOE and DOI from releasing these documents to members of Congress?
MR PRICE: Matt, as you assumed, I don’t have anything for you when it comes to particular documents or correspondence or engagement with members of Congress.
But what I’ll say is that we are prioritizing compact negotiations with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Palau, collectively known as the Free Associated States as a regional foreign policy objective. We believe that we can enhance our broader bilateral relationships by negotiating agreements related to U.S. economic assistance and access to certain U.S. federal programs and services which are set to expire after Fiscal Year 2023 for the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, and for FY2024 when it comes to Palau.
QUESTION: Yeah, but – so why are you not handing over these documents —
MR PRICE: Matt, you know as a matter of course, we don’t discuss provision of documents or correspondence with members of Congress.
QUESTION: Yeah, no, I’m asking – forget about Congress. I’m asking for them right now. So can you get back to me and tell me or do I have to file a FOIA to get those?
MR PRICE: I will be happy to get back to you on this question if we have more to add.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:28 p.m.)
# # #
- Under ↑