2:17 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Two items at the top, and then we’ll proceed.
Over the past weekend and even today, President Putin has continued to escalate his attack – hitting hospitals, schools and residential buildings, pummeling infrastructure, and killing civilians, all while Ukrainian forces bravely continue to repel this siege.
It becomes more evident every day that President Putin has gravely miscalculated. Now, three weeks into his unprovoked war against Ukraine, the Kremlin’s forces remain stalled in many areas and convoys have been unable to make significant progress. It is also clear that many brave people of conscience in Russia oppose the Kremlin’s unjustified war despite the unprecedented crackdown on dissenting voices.
Ukraine’s stiff resistance has slowed Putin’s assault, and Ukraine’s continued defense has stymied the Russian Federation’s plan for an imperial-style land grab.
This is – there is a clear off-ramp for this conflict: President Putin must stop the violence, de-escalate, and choose the path of diplomacy.
I also want to take a moment to reiterate our strong recommendation to U.S. citizens living in or traveling in Russia: you should depart immediately. This has been our recommendation for 10 days now, but I would note that our Travel Advisory has been at Level 4 – Do Not Travel – since August of 2020.
We have consistently messaged for weeks to U.S. citizens in Russia about the financial issues they may face, the danger in participating in protests, and the diminishing travel options, including flight options to depart. Most recently, we sent an alert about how to find our advice and recommendations given that Russia is drastically limiting the information space. Our embassy in Moscow has a limited ability to assist U.S. citizens, because of the Russian Government actions to restrict our staffing there. Since August of 2021, we have been able to provide only emergency services to U.S. citizens.
For all of these reasons, and more, we urge U.S. citizens to depart Russia now.
Next, in celebration of International Women’s Day, the U.S. Department of State was proud to announce the awardees of the 2022 International Women of Courage Awards. We were honored that First Lady Jill Biden and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield attended the ceremony and provided remarks in honor of the inspirational achievements of the 2022 International Women of Courage awardees. From promoting environmental protection in Bangladesh to combatting corruption and organized crime in Brazil, to advocating for democracy and human rights in Burma and beyond, the 2022 International Women of Courage are an exemplary group of women. Their strength is endless, their courage unyielding, and their leadership inspires all of us.
The awardees will now embark on an International Visitor Leadership Program virtual exchange to meet and engage with American counterparts in civil society, academia, government, and the private sector in cities across the United States. Over the past 16 years, the United States has proudly bestowed the IWOC award on more than 170 courageous women from over 80 countries around the world. These women have shown exceptional courage in advocating for peace, for justice, human rights; promoting the empowerment of women and girls in all of their diversity, and making substantive positive change in their communities, sometimes at great personal risk.
We know countries that empower women and girls to be meaningful participants in social, political, and economic sectors of life – they are more just, they are more peaceful, they are more prosperous. It continues to be a great privilege for the United States to stand with the IWOC awardees and highlight the contributions of women from around the world. We remain deeply committed to advancing gender equity and equality at home and around the world as a central foreign policy and national security priority. For more information and updates on the 2022 Women of Courage, we encourage you to follow the hashtag #WomenOfCourage and #IWOC2022 on social media.
Bless you, and I will take your questions.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Just logistically, you said they were going to embark on a virtual tour?
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: Is there going to be an actual physical tour as well?
MR PRICE: Knock on wood, COVID conditions permitting.
QUESTION: So, it’s a COVID thing?
MR PRICE: That’s correct.
QUESTION: Okay, on Ukraine.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Yesterday, administration officials were expressing concern that – about a Russian request to China for military assistance in their Ukraine invasion. I know that Jake Sullivan met with Yang Jiechi earlier in Rome, and the White House will have more to say about this later. But I’m wondering if in the meantime you have gotten any indication that this has gone – that this request that you say has been made has been met with any kind of a response, either positive or negative, by the Chinese.
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, to your question, we haven’t spoken to this, and not going to comment specifically on these reports. What I can say broadly, however – and you alluded to this – is the fact that our National Security Advisor, who is accompanied by our assistant secretary for the region, Dan Kritenbrink, is in Rome today, where they met with Yang Jiechi and his delegation from the PRC. The National Security Advisor and our delegation raised directly and very clearly our concerns about the PRC’s support to Russia in the wake of the invasion, and the implications that any such support would have for the PRC’s relationship not only with us, but for its relationships around the world. That includes our allies and partners in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific. Beyond that, I’m just not in a position to get into the details. But the purpose of this meeting – and you will hear more from the White House later today, I expect – was to convey very clearly our concerns and to discuss the implications.
QUESTION: Okay. But you said that you raised – I’ll go back and look here, but you said that – raised your concerns about Chinese support for, so does that mean that you think that they already are supporting?
MR PRICE: I am not confirming anything from here. What I will say is that we are watching very closely the extent to which the PRC, or any other country for that matter, provides any form of support – whether that’s material support – whether that’s economic support, whether that’s financial support, to Russia. Any such support from anywhere in the world would be of great concern to us. It would be of, of course, the greatest concern if a country like the PRC were to be doing that – a country that, by the way, has tremendous leverage with Russia, has a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the relationship that we or just about any other country on the planet has with Russia – and with that in mind, could do more than probably many other countries to bring an end to this senseless violence, to this brutality, to Putin’s premeditated war of choice.
We have communicated very clearly to Beijing that we won’t stand by if – we will not allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses.
QUESTION: Let me put it a different way. Are you disappointed in how the Chinese have responded to your outreach?
MR PRICE: I think, Matt, it is fair to say that it is incumbent upon every country around the world to speak out clearly, to allow there to be no ambiguity in terms of where they stand. We’ve heard statements from the PRC that have somewhat of an ambivalent message, calling for a diplomatic solution. I read a statement the other day from a PRC official, calling the situation complicated. There’s nothing complicated about this. This is naked aggression; this is a war of choice. This is a country, a – one individual at the top of that country violating, in a brazen manner, what have been the cardinal rules of the international order for the past 70 years, the basic tenet that big countries cannot bully small countries, that might no longer makes right, concepts that should have been banished to the last century, should not be around today.
So, we would like to see every country make very clear where it stands and to stand on the side of the rules-based order, the very rules-based order, Matt, that has benefited, of course, not only the United States and our allies and partners, but also countries like Russia and China.
One final point on this – and we’ve made this point before – countries like the PRC have over the years touted and brandished the concept of sovereignty, often pointing to sovereignty in any manner, in any matter of foreign policy and diplomacy. If the concept of sovereignty means anything in practice to a country like the PRC, we would expect countries like that to stand up, to speak out, to make clear that a blatant violation of state sovereignty, the likes of which we have not heretofore seen in this century, is unacceptable.
QUESTION: So just to follow on that, follow up on that, Ned. We have reporting showing that U.S. sent diplomatic cable to allies in NATO and in Asia saying China had shown willingness to supply Russia with military and economic assistance. Can you say anything about the scope of this economic and military assistance?
MR PRICE: I can’t, and I would point you to that somewhat extended answer I just gave to Matt. The point is it is true: we have coordinated very closely with our allies and partners. We have shared concerns not only about, of course, Russia’s egregious behavior, but concerns beyond that. I’m just not in a position to speak to it in detail.
QUESTION: Right. So, what’s next then, because Jake Sullivan over the weekend said there would be consequences? Will you guys now convene and start working on a sanctions package for China as well?
MR PRICE: Well, again, we’re not going to preview where this might go. Obviously don’t want to entertain a hypothetical like that at this point, but I can point to what has happened today. And the National Security Advisor, our assistant secretary, our delegation, met with Yang Jiechi and his delegation to precisely make clear our concerns and to be very candid in terms of the implications.
Again, we are watching very closely to – the extent to which the PRC or any country in the world provides support – material, economic, financial, rhetorical, otherwise – to this war of choice that President Putin is waging against the Government of Ukraine, against the state of Ukraine, against the people of Ukraine. And we have been very clear, both privately with Beijing, publicly with Beijing, that there would be consequences for any such support.
QUESTION: Just one more thing. Just at the beginning of this, the Chinese were walking a more ambiguous line, perhaps. What is your assessment that – why they changed their mind and are now partnering up with Russia?
MR PRICE: I am not going to speak for the PRC. I will let them explain their actions. I will let them —
QUESTION: I am asking for a U.S. assessment of why Beijing has changed their mind. Surely, you have an assessment.
MR PRICE: I will let them explain their actions. I will let them explain their words. I think there is a lot for them to explain. Look, I think the broader point is that we have seen the relationship between the PRC and Russia grow closer. This is not a phenomenon that has taken place over recent days or even recent weeks. This is a relationship that has grown closer over the course of many years now. And I think we saw an encapsulation of that with the 5,000-word communique that the two countries put out now, a number of weeks ago.
Without trying to – without going too deep into the analysis of the relationship of – that two sovereign countries share, what I will say is that what does seem to unite them is a vision of the world that is in stark contrast to the vision that the United States and our allies and partners have not only built and promoted and defended, but the system that itself has advantaged countries like the PRC and Russia. This is a free and open rules-based order that has governed affairs between states for more than 70 years now. This is very clearly a case of two autocracies with a desire to see a world that is more closed, that is less open, that is less free, come together, in some ways joining forces, and we’re watching very closely to determine the form that any such cooperation may take.
QUESTION: Ned, it seems hardly a coincidence that this is a pivotal moment in terms of Russia and Russia’s finances. There is a lot of reporting that they could default by Wednesday if someone doesn’t bail them out. And now you have the National Security Advisor on a quick trip to Rome to talk to the Chinese in a matter of some urgency. So, would it be fair to conclude that it is vitally important to the sanctions that were imposed on the central bank, and on Russia in general by the U.S. that you get an answer in the next – within 24 hours, within 48 hours from China – that this is a key moment in terms of potential financial support for Russia?
MR PRICE: Andrea, I think it is – it is fair to conclude that the Russian economy is in dire straits. That has been the case ever since the series of sanctions and other economic measures were instituted in the – at the very outset of the invasion of Ukraine. We can point to any number of metrics. I did see an independent analysis that Russia’s on the brink of default. We know that its credit rating is now at junk status. We know that the Russian stock market will be closed at least through this week, now going on several weeks of closure, in an apparent effort to forestall capital flight that is bound to happen as soon as the Russian stock market reopens, whenever that is. The ruble is almost literally worthless. It is worth less than a penny at this point. You could go on and on and on.
Here’s the point. We’ve made very clear that any country that would seek to attempt to bail Russia out of this economic, financial morass will be met with consequences. We will ensure that no country is able to get away with such a thing.
But here’s the other point. No form of economic or financial support will be able to extricate Russia from the strategic morass that it has created for itself. Russia today, Russia going forward, it is a much weaker country. It is a country that is in a strategically unenviable position, because of the diplomatic isolation, the diplomatic rebuke; but, also, the economic costs and the export controls, the measures that we have put in place to see to it that Russia cannot import the inputs, key components it needs for its strategic ambitions in the world. That is not going to change. That will not change until and unless President Putin changes course and —
QUESTION: But the export controls are a long-term issue for Russia. The collapse of its currency, and lack of reserves to bail it out, is precipitous and —
MR PRICE: You have a series of short-term and long-term measures.
QUESTION: In the short term, what do you understand the financial relationship between Russia and China to be as of today?
MR PRICE: Look, I will let these two countries speak to their relationship. It’s not for me to characterize the economic relationship or the potential economic relationship. It is for me to characterize the consequences that would befall any country, whether the PRC or otherwise, that would seek to help Russia avoid the brunt of the measures that have been put in place by, really, the rest of the world, or certainly a large majority of the world.
And that’s the other important point. Russia and China, when you combine their GDPs, it’s something like 25 percent of global GDP. When you combine the GDP, the economic might, of the United States, the European Union, our allies in the Indo-Pacific, our other allies and partners that have joined us: well over 50 percent. So, there is not a country out there that would be able to fully extricate Moscow from this. The only thing that could relieve the pressure, that could extricate, in a meaningful way, Moscow from the morass it has created for itself, is for Putin to change course, to de-escalate and to end the violence.
QUESTION: And do you – is it your understanding that there was an answer on this subject today in Rome?
MR PRICE: As I was coming down here, the meeting had not concluded, or at least the last time I received an update the meeting had not concluded, so I will leave that to the White House to characterize.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan. Sir, it looks like that a few of the neighboring countries of Russia secretly supporting Russian aggression, like China with the India, Pakistan, Iran, and some other – and some others, rich Arab countries. So, are you engaging with these countries that – to change their stance on that?
MR PRICE: We are engaging with countries around the world, and we have done so from this building. I think you have probably noted that virtually every conversation the Secretary has, which you can glean from our readouts, he raises the issue of Russia and Ukraine. We are doing so intensively at our mission to the UN, and I think you saw the fruits of the efforts out of this building and the fruits of the efforts out of New York in the UN General Assembly vote the other day, where 141 countries came together, the majority of the world’s countries – the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries – to make clear that this sort of aggression would not stand, and that the vast majority of the world was on the side of the rules-based order that Putin is so blatantly violating, and standing very firmly against his actions. So, of course, we have had conversations with our partners in South Asia. We have had conversations with our partners in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, Africa, around the world.
QUESTION: A few days back, India confirmed that it had accidentally fired a supersonic nuclear-capable missile into Pakistan because of a technical issue, while Pakistan warned New Delhi of unpleasant consequences. Sir, would you like to say something about that?
MR PRICE: Well, we have no indication, as you also heard from our Indian partners, that this incident was anything other than an accident. We refer you, of course, to the Indian Ministry of Defense for any follow-up. They issued a statement on March 9th to explain precisely what had happened. We don’t have a comment beyond that.
QUESTION: If we talk about the safety issues, this is not the first time we’re hearing all this. A few months ago, there was an incident of uranium theft in India, and its citizens have been arrested while smuggling uranium. Sir, have you ever raised concerns on this incident and talk about it during your diplomatic conversations in India?
MR PRICE: I’m not familiar with that particular incident. What I would say is that nuclear safety around the world, especially in countries – nuclear-armed countries, it is always a conversation that is ongoing.
QUESTION: Switch to Iran.
MR PRICE: Iran, sure.
QUESTION: The Iranian Foreign Ministry today said the U.S. needs to make a decision, whether to revive the JCPOA. That mirrors the language from you on Friday saying it was essentially in – the ball was in the court of Moscow and Tehran. How would you define or describe the status of these negotiations today? And then, did the missile attack over the weekend near Erbil, which the IRGC is taking credit for, affect the calculus of this at all?
MR PRICE: Well, as we said on – late last week, last Friday, Special Envoy Malley and his team returned to Washington that day for consultations. Other political directors have also returned to their respective capitals. These are complex negotiations. We are at what could amount to something close to the finish line, but as we’ve said, there are a few outstanding issues, and when you reach, when you near the finish line, the issues that are outstanding are, by definition, going to be the hardest issues there are.
You’ve also heard in recent days, including from Josep Borrell, including from a statement that the E3 issued, that there are now some external factors that are weighing on where we are. You may have seen the statement from the E3, our French, our German, our British partners, that came out over the weekend. It said, “Nobody should seek to exploit JCPOA negotiations to obtain assurances that are separate to the JCPOA.” We would certainly endorse that statement. We continue to believe that it is profoundly in our national interest to see to it that Iran is permanently and verifiably barred from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We’ve heard from our European allies that they are squarely with us. Of course, it does not stand to reason that it would benefit the PRC or Russia, for that matter, if Iran were in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon. Much to the contrary.
When it comes to what we saw over the weekend, let me just say first that the Secretary had an opportunity to speak yesterday to Prime Minister Kadhimi and to Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. He shared his outrage and condemnation at the Iranian missile attack near Erbil. These were attacks that were attacks against the sovereign state of Iraq. These were clear violations of Iraq’s sovereignty. The Secretary expressed his solidarity with the Iraqi people, and agreed with Prime Minister Kadhimi that the attack demonstrated the need for Iraqi unity and the urgency in that regard of forming – forming a – forming a government accountable to the Iraqi people that protects Iraq’s territorial integrity. He also conveyed our commitment to working with the Iraqi Government and others in the region to hold Iran – to hold Iran accountable, working with the Iraqi Government to do so. This incident is being investigated by Iraqi Security Forces. We would refer you to them for further comment.
The broader point is that Iran poses a threat to our partners in the region and, by extension, us in a number of different ways. And we’ve spoken of Iran’s nefarious activities, going beyond its nuclear advancements and its nuclear provocations. We have seen Iran, of course, fund proxies in the regions – in the region, fund terrorist groups, engaged in – engage in malicious cyber activity. But the basic point is that Iran would be able to do all of these things, and potentially more, with far greater impunity if it were not verifiably and permanently constrained from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So, our focus on seeing to it that Iran can never obtain a nuclear weapon, that is not something we are going to walk away from. We are committed, President Biden is committed, to seeing to it that Iran can never obtain a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: I have a Ukraine question, but I actually wanted to follow up on that first. So how optimistic are you? You mentioned these external interests and external factors. How optimistic are you that some of those, namely Russia’s interest in trade with Iran, going to be resolved in the coming days, and that it won’t completely derail talks?
MR PRICE: Well, we should have a better sense in the near future whether there is a path forward for these specific talks. I don’t want to go into it beyond that, but when it comes to these external factors, when it comes to these outstanding issues, we should have a better sense in the coming days.
QUESTION: Great, thanks. And on Ukraine, there’s reports that the Biden administration is considering accelerating its support for Ukrainian refugees with U.S. ties, and particularly families that are already living here. Can you talk about sort of where those interests stand – where those efforts stand, and whether or not there is going to be an expedition of any kind of resettlement?
MR PRICE: Well, I can speak generally to that, and what I can say is that the United States continues to provide significant humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians inside Ukraine, those who have been displaced internally – that is to say, individuals still in Ukraine – and those who have been forced to flee their homes. We have, even in recent weeks, provided about $100 million in assistance. We also know – and we saw this ourselves when we were traveling in Poland – especially in Poland – last week, that a number of countries bordering Ukraine have demonstrated tremendous generosity in opening their communities and opening – and offering a welcome to the more than two million Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes in recent days.
It’s true that there are – many of these Ukrainian refugees have families, have family, have loved ones who are in neighboring countries. And for many of these individuals, it likely will make sense for them to remain with families, with family, with loved ones, rather than travel much further afield. We will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to support refugees in neighboring countries. When it comes to the United States, we have a ceiling that is set every year. Within that ceiling, there are categories, including refugees from that part of the world. If there is a need for Ukrainian refugees to be resettled farther afield from neighboring countries, that is something that we will look at very closely.
We have time and again proven ourselves to be a country that welcomes refugees, that welcomes immigrants, that recognizes that there is strength in doing so and has consistently derived strength from doing that.
QUESTION: You were talking about impact of sanctions and stuff on Russia and the economy’s going to hurt and stuff, but that’s over a while. I mean, Russian forces —
MR PRICE: Well, I – look, I mean —
QUESTION: Well, I mean, that’s going to be a while. There – I’m talking about the people —
MR PRICE: It’s – Paul, that’s today. It is today.
QUESTION: The question – that doesn’t do anything for the people in Ukraine, is – what I’m saying is that my question is: Russian forces continue to shell, to kill, they’ve shown they can extend the war to the Polish border, and it seems like diplomacy has stalled – I mean, what can you tell the Ukrainian people on the ground right now? What can you say to give them any hope?
MR PRICE: Well, let me just fill in one element of that. The toll, the economic toll is not something that we will see develop only over time. We’re seeing that very clearly today. I just went through some of those metrics from the stock market being closed since the first hours of the invasion to the ruble going through the floor, from Russia’s credit rating being at junk status – go on and on and on.
So that is very much today, and I think this gets to the broader point. We are pursuing two complementary tracks in service of one overarching objective, and that overarching objective is to effect an end to this senseless war, put an end to this brutal violence. The first track is what we are doing to support our Ukrainian partners, and specifically the massive security assistance that we are providing to our Ukrainian partners to enable them to defend themselves effectively against these Kremlin aggressors. Over the weekend, we announced another tranche of $200 million in security assistance, bringing the total this year to $550 million. We are grateful for the passage through Congress of a spending bill that had something along the lines of $13.6 billion in additional funding for our efforts with Ukraine and Ukrainian people. A large sum of that, about half of that, will be in the form of security assistance. So, we do expect to be able to do even more going forward.
The second element is what we’re doing to put the squeeze on President Putin and the Kremlin, and it’s precisely what we were just referencing a moment ago. This is a President who often likes to say that big nations don’t bluff. President Putin miscalculated if he thought we were bluffing when we, together with our partners and allies around the world, talked about the consequential, strong, swift, severe economic and financial measures that we would enact if this war of choice went forward.
And as I just noted, when the war did go forward, when President Putin made the grave mistake to commit this aggression, we in turn went forward with this package of measures that we have since escalated – precisely because President Putin has not only not de-escalated – he in fact has escalated. So, both of these tracks are – we view them as complementary.
QUESTION: Ned, you just – I’m sorry to interrupt, but you just said he has not de-escalated, he has escalated. So, if I’m on the ground in Ukraine, I don’t see any hope for a resolution.
MR PRICE: Just as Putin is escalating, so are we with our response, and we will continue to do that. Both of these tracks – the security assistance that we’re providing to our Ukrainian partners and the measures that we’re enacting against the Russian – the Kremlin’s war machine, its economy, its financial system, against Putin personally, against senior Russian officials personally, against their cronies, against oligarchs – both of these are putting tremendous pressure and will increasingly put pressure on the Kremlin. And I think you see the results of this security assistance in terms of what we’re not seeing, have not yet seen, from the Russian operation inside Ukraine. This is now day 19, I believe, of this war in Ukraine. The fact that the Ukrainians have been able to repel, to stall, to take on in self-defense these invading Kremlin forces, I think speaks to the effectiveness with which they are defending their country, defending themselves, doing so with the substantial security assistance that the United States, that our allies and partners have provided.
And we are going to continue to provide that similarly – unless there is a change in course, we will continue to mount pressure on President Putin, on the Kremlin, on his cronies, on the oligarchs, on all of those who in any way touch this Kremlin war machine. We are going to see the pressure continue to mount, and that pressure will mount until President Putin changes course.
QUESTION: Ned, on (inaudible) and the 200 million that was announced over the weekend, are you in a position to be more specific about what that is, or is it essentially – and I don’t want to say this disparagingly – is it more of the same of what you have already been sending, or is there anything significantly new in this package?
MR PRICE: So, we’re not speaking to every specific element of our security assistance. What I can say is that this package enabled us to provide more in the way of anti-armor, anti-aircraft, anti-tank, small arms, munitions, precisely what our Department of Defense colleagues have concluded that the Ukrainians need to defend themselves. We’re always doing an analysis as to the threat that they face, and what more we might be in a position to provide to help them take on that threat, and we are adjusting accordingly based on those needs.
QUESTION: Just can you clarify? When you said there was going to be clarity in the coming days whether there is a path for these specific talks with Iran, can you just, like, expand on what you meant? And why are you calling it external factors now? You mean, like, Russia’s last-minute demands? Is that what you mean?
MR PRICE: Clearly there are decisions that need to be taken in Tehran. Clearly there are decisions that need to be taken in Moscow. We expect to have a better sense in the coming days whether a path forward with a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is achievable. We’re —
QUESTION: Is there – sorry – is there a difference in your decision, in U.S. decision, to not entertain Russia’s demands, these last-minute demands? Or are you open to sort of taking a look at them and maybe negotiating with Russia on them?
MR PRICE: We are not. We have been very clear that the new Russia-related sanctions are unrelated to the JCPOA and should not have any impact on its implementation. We have no intention of offering Russia anything new or specific as it relates to these sanctions, nor is there anything new required to successfully reach an agreement on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.
But let me make one other point, to your question. The President, as I’ve said, has been clear that one way or another, Iran will not be able to obtain a nuclear weapon. We are committed to seeking a diplomatic resolution to this nuclear crisis. We continue to believe that a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA is the best way to address that, but if external factors make JCPOA reimplementation impossible, we will of course be open to diplomatic alternatives. We’re not going to speculate; we hope not to have to get there. But we will soon have a better sense as to whether a path to mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA remains viable.
QUESTION: Well, that’s kind of interesting. Is it – you’re going to exclude Russia from it?
MR PRICE: I hope to occasionally say something interesting from up here.
QUESTION: Well, okay, and that’s something. I mean, how exactly do you think you can go about excluding a member of the – a permanent member of the Security Council from this if you want it to have the imprimatur, as did the JCPOA, of the Security Council?
MR PRICE: Matt, we continue to believe —
QUESTION: Are you going to do a bilateral deal with Iran?
MR PRICE: We continue to – on that point, of course, we’ve made the point that this would be much more effective were we able to engage bilaterally on these pressing and urgent matters. The Iranians heretofore have not been open to that. But again, we continue to believe that the JCPOA, a mutual return to compliance with it, remains the best vehicle to achieve our policy objectives, that is to —
QUESTION: Yeah, but you just said if you can’t get there —
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: — you’re open to an alternative.
MR PRICE: That’s correct.
QUESTION: So, the alternative is what, a U.S.-E3-Iran deal without – excluding the – your new nemeses, or not so new, Russia and China?
MR PRICE: We are not at that point, and we’re not going to – we hope not to get there. Unless and until we are there, we’re not going to speculate on what that might look like, but we are committed to seeing to it that Iran can never obtain a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Concerning the possible trip of President Biden to Europe, can you tell us little bit more about it? Why now, and will he go to Cologne?
MR PRICE: I can’t, and I would need to refer you to the White House to speak to any travel that the President may or may not undertake. What I will say, however – and the same is true of this building, Secretary Blinken, Deputy Secretary Sherman, Toria Nuland, and others – that we have been in constant consultation and coordination with our allies and partners around the world.
Some weeks ago, we pointed to a couple hundred engagements that we had had with allies and partners around the world. That number is dramatically larger now, and speaking for principals in this building, we have had an opportunity now to see our allies and partners in person. We were just in Europe last week, at Brussels, where we saw all of our NATO Allies, our EU allies, our G7 counterparts; we went to our Baltic allies to send a strong message of solidarity and reassurance; we went to Moldova and France as well. So, for – and, of course, the Secretary saw Foreign Minister Kuleba inside of Ukraine.
So, we have at every opportunity coordinated closely – coordinated closely on our efforts to hold Russia to account, to mount pressure on the Kremlin for this war of choice, and to support our Ukrainian partners. And I think, by any metric that you evaluate, whether it’s the UN vote, whether it’s the statements of condemnation of President Putin and the Kremlin, whether it’s the statements and signs of solidarity, of support for and with Ukraine, you see that those efforts have paid off in an appreciable and meaningful way.
QUESTION: Do you have any information on the presence of the Wagner Group in Ukraine, the number of mercenaries?
MR PRICE: We have seen reports of such. Again, this would be another indication that President Putin’s plan is not going according to plan, the idea that the Kremlin would need to call in reinforcements. And last week we spoke to reinforcements that reportedly may be called in from other battlefields, the presence of private mercenary groups; reports that President Putin is desperately seeking a lifeline from other countries.
All of these point to the fact that President Putin has made several grave miscalculations. He gravely miscalculated that his forces would not find fierce resistance going into Ukraine, taking on the Ukrainian people; he miscalculated that he wouldn’t find opposition at home, and we have now seen Russians peacefully take to the streets in dozens of Russian cities, including President Putin’s own hometown, St. Petersburg, where there, like Moscow, like in other Russian cities and towns across the country, peaceful protesters have been arrested for doing nothing more than exercising what is their universal right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. More than 14,000 such protesters had been detained as of last week. That number is likely larger now. And President Putin also miscalculated if he thought that the United States and the rest of the world wasn’t serious about imposing these massive costs and consequences that we have since imposed on the Kremlin for undertaking this war effort.
QUESTION: Back to Iran, real quickly. What are you telling families of American detainees in Iran who are expecting to have some kind of deal in parallel to the return to JCPOA?
MR PRICE: Well, there’s a very simple reason why we have never tied the fate of these American detainees to the JCPOA or any other diplomatic effort, because any diplomatic effort is at best an uncertain proposition. We want to see their safe release, their return to their families, a certain proposition. So, we have been discussing this on a separate track. We have no higher priority than the safety, security of our American citizens, including those American citizens who have been detained overseas, including in Iran. The team has been working tirelessly on this and will continue to do that regardless of the fate of the JCPOA.
QUESTION: And about the Russian – and the Americans in – detained in Russia, I’d like to know if there’s anything new on that. Have you had any consular access to Brittney Griner?
MR PRICE: So, we discussed this on Friday, I believe it was. Our team at our embassy in Moscow continues to provide all forms of appropriate support to Americans who are detained in Moscow. We last had consular access to Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed late last year. We – whenever an American is detained anywhere around the world, and that includes Russia, we stand ready to provide all appropriate assistance.
The same, of course, is true of Ms. Griner. We have been following this case very closely, working through multiple channels to provide all appropriate support, but not in a position to offer further details on that.
QUESTION: On Saturday, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 81 people, drawing condemnation from rights groups. Does the United States also condemn the executions?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ve these reports that Saudi Arabia executed 81 people on March 12th. We continue to raise with Saudi Arabia the need to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, the rule of law, and freedom of religion and belief.
QUESTION: So that’s it?
QUESTION: You don’t have anything else to say about 81 people just being summarily – being executed?
MR PRICE: We are – we have been clear about our concerns about the lack of respect for fair trial guarantees in Saudi Arabia. We’ve documented this in our human rights reports. We’ve raised these concerns with the Saudi Government. We’ll continue to do so. What we want to see, and we’ve made this very clear to our counterparts in Riyadh, is for all governments, including our Saudi partners, to respect and protect human rights and to ensure a fair and transparent judicial process.
QUESTION: Okay, fine. Well, do you think that happened here?
MR PRICE: Matt, we are continuing to raise concerns about fair trial guarantees. I’m not in a position to speak —
QUESTION: Well, do you think that any —
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to speak to specific cases that were included in what transpired on Saturday, but these are concerns that we continue to raise in Riyadh.
QUESTION: Did you express concern over the weekend?
QUESTION: Because —
MR PRICE: Can’t speak to the timing of that, but we have raised these concerns and we will —
QUESTION: So you didn’t call them after this happened or when you saw the report.
MR PRICE: Humeyra, I didn’t – you’re – please don’t put words in my mouth.
QUESTION: But did you have communication with Saudi authorities after this?
MR PRICE: We are in touch with our Saudi partners on a daily basis. We raise these concerns, and we will continue to do so.
QUESTION: Right. But, I mean, you began – this administration began with this kind of rejection of the previous administration’s quote/unquote – what some people called quote/unquote “kid gloves treatment” of Saudi Arabia, said you were going to put human rights at the fore. Now, it’s one thing if you don’t think that there’s an issue with the mass execution of 81 people over the weekend, but if you —
MR PRICE: In the category of not putting words in my mouth, I did not say that.
QUESTION: I know. I know
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: I’m saying it’s one thing if you don’t think that that is an issue. But if you do think that it’s an issue, why aren’t you coming out more forcefully and talking about it?
MR PRICE: We are talking about it, and I just spoke of our —
QUESTION: You talked about fair trial guarantees and that kind of thing. But you didn’t say anything about the executions, and whether you thought that they were —
MR PRICE: We’re talking about – you were – I offered that in the context of the question about the 81 executions that took place on Saturday.
MR PRICE: These are concerns that we have expressed very clearly to our Saudi partners. They know that for —
QUESTION: But do they know that you think that – that you have concerns about the mass execution of 81 people?
MR PRICE: Matt, they are well aware of our concerns.
QUESTION: About this? Okay.
MR PRICE: They are well aware of our concerns.
QUESTION: And how – how do you know they are well aware? Like, was there any kind of communication after this happened?
MR PRICE: Humeyra, we are in daily communication with our Saudi partners. They are —
QUESTION: If you guys are really worried about this, then why wasn’t any – there any communication?
MR PRICE: Humeyra, I have told you several times now, please don’t put words in my mouth. We communicate with them on a daily basis. They are well aware of concerns.
QUESTION: Just to stay on the Middle East, is the Biden administration still actively reviewing whether the reimpose a Houthi terror designation?
MR PRICE: There is – this is a process that does remain under review. You heard that from the President a number of weeks ago. We are in the interim – and you’ve seen us do this already – going to continue to hold Houthi leaders accountable for the attacks, including those attacks that they have perpetuated against our partners in the region. We are going to continue to work to address the underlying causes and some of the underlying tensions, including this civil war that has propagated a humanitarian emergency, that has inflicted untold suffering on Yemen’s population. Some 16, 17 million Yemenis are now suffering from food insecurity as a result of this humanitarian catastrophe, which has only been worsened by the Houthi offensives.
In that regard, we are also going to make sure that anything we do, that any step we take, does not exacerbate the humanitarian emergency that is plaguing Yemen, at the moment, and that everything we do is in service of bringing more hope, more stability, more security to the people of Yemen. We believe we can do that most effectively and efficiently by continuing down the diplomatic path, by supporting the diplomatic process that the UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg and his team are leading, and Tim Lenderking, for our part, will continue to do that.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:06 p.m.)