Department Press Briefing – March 15, 2022
2:27 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Good to see everyone.
A couple things at the top. President Putin chose to launch this brutal, unprovoked war against Ukraine. Just as he is engaged in aggression beyond his borders, he is acting even more repressively at home.
Despite Putin’s crackdown on free media and his government’s continued peddling of blatant lies, we have seen many Russians bravely stand up against Putin’s war, including on state-run TV. Now nearly 15,000 Russians have been detained by Russian authorities for doing just that, for exercising the rights that are as universal to them as to citizens around the world. We support the voices of the people of Russia who are calling for an end to this war, who refuse to let their principled views be silenced, who refuse to let a new Iron Curtain descend again around Russia.
Russian journalists are being prosecuted for doing the vital work that you all do here, which is to report, to interview, and to share the truth about what is happening. The people of Russia have a right to know about the thousands and thousands of casualties that the Russian Federation’s forces are taking right now in Ukraine, as well as the civilian casualties and the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure Putin is inflicting on the people of Ukraine.
There are thousands of Russian mothers who will never see their sons again, yet the media in Russia is not allowed to share that information with the people of Russia, obscuring the real costs of this war. Those who dare to speak up are branded as liars, they’re branded as traitors, and they are subject to prosecution.
We stand with Russian citizens of conscience as they seek to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. We will hold responsible those who engage in human rights abuses. We will ensure that credible allegations of war crimes are investigated and those involved are held responsible.
To that end, as you saw earlier today, the Secretary announced a series of actions in response to President Putin’s premeditated, unjustified, and unprovoked war against Ukraine and its people, as well as the Lukashenka regime’s efforts to enable Russia’s further invasion. This war does not reflect the will of the peoples of Russia and Belarus. Indeed, their respective governments’ aggressive behavior abroad is coupled with systemic and increasing repression within their own borders. We are witnessing an autocratic attack on democracy.
U.S. actions today include sanctions and visa restrictions on Russian and Belarusian officials and private individuals involved in human rights abuses, corruption, and repression.
The United States and our partners and allies – we are committed to imposing massive, severe costs on those involved in the invasion of Ukraine.
As Russian soldiers continue to die needlessly in Ukraine and the economic consequences of the war mount within Russia, the world remains open to genuine diplomacy. We will, together with our Ukrainian partners and our allies and partners around the world, continue to pursue every avenue to de-escalate the conflict, end the bloodshed, and save lives.
Next, today we acknowledge the anniversary of the Syrian uprising. On this day 11 years ago, the Syrian people took to the streets in the name of freedom, reform, and human rights. Bashar al-Assad responded to this peaceful call with brutality, sparking a war against his own people that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced more than 13 million, brought food insecurity to some 12 million, and left 14.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
As we stand with the Syrian people, we continue our efforts to explore – to secure a nationwide ceasefire, expand access to humanitarian aid, achieve justice and accountability for the Syrian people, and reach a political resolution as outlined by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We will not normalize relations with Assad until and unless there is irreversible progress towards that political solution. The Syrian people deserve nothing less after more than a decade of war.
Before I turn to your questions, I just had – want to add one final element. I know all of us in this room were heartbroken yesterday to learn that our colleague, Ben Hall, sustained injuries while reporting from Ukraine. And today I understand that Fox News has announced that his camera operator, Pierre Zakrzewski, lost his life in the same attack.
All of us know Ben. We’ve traveled the world with him. Many of you knew Pierre, who was renowned for his talent documenting conflict zones around the world. Our thoughts are with Pierre’s loved ones, his family, and all of us here at the department are rooting for Ben and rooting for his speedy recovery.
Ben’s collegiality, his sense of humor, his wit, his warmth have always been a balm for the very tough questions that he would always hurl my way, at the way of Secretary Blinken. I know I speak for the Secretary when I say that we look forward, once again – hopefully very soon – to being on the receiving end of all of those. We have engaged at multiple levels with Fox News. We have made very clear that we will do everything we possibly can to help Ben and any others who may have been involved and injured in this horrific attack.
So with that, I’ll take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. I don’t see Rich or Nick in here, so I’ll say – I don’t want to speak for Fox, but thank you for those comments, and on behalf of the whole press corps, thank you for that. We appreciate it.
Before going into Ukraine, I just wanted to ask – one thing that you just said about the anniversary of the Syria situation struck me as a bit unusual. You said, “We will not normalize relations with Assad until and unless…” and then you gave the conditions. When did it become a possibility that the U.S. would ever normalize relations with Assad?
MR PRICE: Well, I —
QUESTION: For a long time the line was his days are numbered, going back almost 11 years now.
MR PRICE: It has been 11 years, Matt. It has been 11 years since a peaceful uprising was met with the iron fist of the Assad regime —
QUESTION: Yes, I get it. So when – so has there been a decision made that you could, in fact, go back to having normal relations with a government in Syria that is led by Bashar al-Assad?
MR PRICE: Matt, there can never be normal relations with a government that has treated its own population, its own people with the level of brutality, with the level of violence, with the level of suppression, the use of chemical weapons, other forms of horrific violence that we’ve seen from this regime. We’ve made our position clear when it comes to holding the Assad regime accountable. We have not, we will not lift sanctions on Bashar al-Assad or his regime. We will continue to oppose reconstruction led by or for the Assad regime until and unless there is irreversible progress on that political solution that is laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
QUESTION: But you’re saying it is possible for the U.S. to have a normal relationship with a government led by Assad if those conditions are met?
MR PRICE: Matt, I do not think there will ever be a normal relationship with —
QUESTION: Well, you said – you were the one who used the word “normalize,” so I just —
MR PRICE: There – I think that term has come up in the context of other governments that have approached the Assad regime. We have made very clear that the United States Government will maintain our sanctions on the regime. We continue to support the political process that’s laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We continue to stand with the people of Syria in that regard.
QUESTION: On Ukraine, I just have two brief ones that are kind of diplomatically related. Both of them have to do with Russia. You mentioned the sanctions that you guys imposed today on them, but they also imposed sanctions on several – the President, the Secretary, the Secretary of Defense, others. I noticed you were left off the list, but —
MR PRICE: I’m feeling left out.
QUESTION: But I’m just – the White House – obviously, your colleague at the White House addressed this earlier and said, well, none of us have bank accounts in Russia, none of us are planning to go to Sochi for vacation or anything like that. But that’s exactly what the Russians say about the sanctions that you put on them, that they essentially have no impact and – so I’m just wondering what you have to say about the sanctions that they imposed.
And then the second one, which I’m sure your response will be extremely brief, is: Do you have any comment about Russia formally withdrawing from the Council of Europe?
MR PRICE: So first, on the sanctions, look, I don’t have a specific response to it. I will let my esteemed colleague who is now the subject of Russian sanctions – I will let her response stand, but let me make a couple general points. Number one, you asked how our sanctions are any different from their sanctions.
QUESTION: No, no, I’m – I know how they’re different, but when you blow off their sanctions and say, well, none of us have bank accounts there or none of us – well, that’s exactly the same thing as – that the Russians say.
MR PRICE: Well, so I’ll make a couple points there. Number one, anyone who claims that the measures we have imposed, whether on individuals or the Russian economy or the Russian financial system – anyone who claims that those measures have been inconsequential has not been in Russia, has not been observing what has happened to the Russian economy and to the Russian financial system. This is an economy that is in a tailspin. It is an economy that is reeling. It is an economy that is suffering the worst setback, the worst couple weeks that it has had since the demise of the Soviet Union.
Thirty years of economic integration have been undone over the span of some two weeks, and you can look at any measure – the Russian stock market, which has now been closed for weeks, will be closed at least through the course of this week, presumably to prevent capital flight; the fact that the ruble is almost virtually worthless, literally worth less than a penny; the fact that a – hundreds of international companies are fleeing, heading for the doors, wanting no part and no role in supporting Putin’s war effort; the fact that inflation is skyrocketing; the fact that Russia’s credit rating is now essentially at junk status – I could go on and on and on.
That – those are the sanctions and economic measures that are targeting the Russian system broadly. You look at those measures that are targeting Russian individuals, oligarchs, cronies, President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, Sergei Shoigu, Dmitry Peskov, others. We’ve already had cases of asset seizures, assert forfeitures. There will be more of that. The Department of Treasury, the Department of Justice – they are working closely with their counterparts around the world to go after yachts, to go after aircraft, to go after ill-begotten gains that have been plundered and pilfered from the Russian people. That will continue.
Let me make one other point. I saw that the Russians called this, in a sense, a reciprocal measure. I think – I certainly took umbrage at that term, noting that nothing can be reciprocal, given that we imposed the measures we did in response to President Putin starting a premediated, unprovoked, unjustified war against a civilian population next door. We imposed our measures in response to the untold death and destruction, the killing of civilians in Ukraine, the loss of life that both sides have already endured. We imposed our measures for the destruction – an attempt at destruction of an entire country. And we imposed our measures in response to President Putin’s apparent thought that he could flout the basic tenets of the rules-based international order, the rules that all countries have abided by, the rules that have really set the predicate for some 70-plus years of untold levels of stability, security, prosperity around the world, whether that’s in Europe, whether that’s in the Indo-Pacific, whether that is anywhere in between.
So there’s nothing reciprocal about what the Russians have done versus what we together with our allies and partners have sought to do. What the Russian Federation has done is start a war, has caused untold loss of life in Ukraine, among Ukrainians, among Ukrainian civilians – men, women, children, maternity hospitals, residential buildings, not to mention the Russians who have also lost their lives in this needless war. President Putin has started a war. We are doing everything we can with our measures, with our other steps, to end the war.
QUESTION: Council of Europe?
MR PRICE: Oh, Council – Council of Europe.
QUESTION: Does that register with you or does it – you think it doesn’t matter? I mean, I know you’re not part of the Council of Europe so —
MR PRICE: Well, we are aware that Russia has informed the Council of Europe that it intends to withdraw. Of course, we would refer you to the council for next steps. We did previously welcome the Council of Europe’s suspension of the Russian Federation for its aggression in Ukraine. We similarly welcomed the parliamentary assembly’s strong statements of support for Ukraine in the extraordinary session that was held. And we share the Council of Europe’s values – human rights, democracy, the rule of law. Russia clearly does not share these same values. I think it is only appropriate that Russia is not a member of such a council.
QUESTION: So you’re not concerned that this shuts down yet another potential channel of communication?
MR PRICE: We have plenty of potential channels for communication. What we need to see from the Russian Federation is the Russian Federation engage in good faith with seriousness of purpose through those channels.
QUESTION: Just to follow up a little bit on the action. EU today, for example, took action to freeze the asset of Abramovich. As far as I know, U.S. has not done anything on that, on that particular individual. Are you guys planning to? Because there was a time where you said from this podium that you were – that U.S. was looking to catch up with EU and make some of the measures symmetrical.
And I also would love your response on what does the U.S. make of Abramovich’s, like, recent moves? He was in Israel, Turkey, Russia. Does the U.S. see him as a potential interlocuter? He’s not just a private citizen.
MR PRICE: So a couple points, Humeyra. First, and most importantly, in response to your question, we don’t preview any actions that we may or may not take. What I will say – and you referenced this – is that European Union, they have their own authorities; they have their own capabilities. We have our own authorities; we have our own capabilities. What we have done each over time is to harmonize the steps we have taken in important regards.
So there have been times where we have taken action against entities, against individuals that the Europeans, other countries and partners around the world in turn followed suit. There have been times where the European Union has, in the first instance, taken such action and we have later harmonized our authorities going after similar targets. I certainly have no doubt that we will continue – the EU will continue, our partners and allies around the world will continue – to go after oligarchs, to go after cronies, to go after all of those who are in one way or another aiding and abetting Putin’s war effort, playing a role in his war machine.
Just look at what we did today, one day alone. We announced actions against 91 individuals and one entity. We used five different authorities across two departments – the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury. I won’t go through the whole roster, but there were visa restrictions under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act of last year. There were designations pursuant to an executive order, 14024. There was – there were visa restrictions announced under Section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This is a new authority that allows us to go after current and former government – Russian Government officials believed to be involved in suppressing dissent in Russia and around the world.
There were imposition of visa restrictions on six individuals under the Khashoggi ban. Of course, this was a new authority that we announced early in the administration, last year, in response to governments around the world pursuing dissidents extraterritorially. And we also used Presidential Proclamation 8015 to go after 25 individuals responsible for undermining democracy in Belarus.
We will continue to go after those responsible for the war effort in Ukraine. We will continue to go after those responsible for aiding the war effort, those who reside in Belarus. We will continue to go after private individuals whose closeness to the Russian Government, to the Kremlin, whose ill-begotten wealth is a result of illicit activity, plundering what should belong to the Russian people – we will continue to do that, but what we won’t do is preview those actions.
QUESTION: Sure. How about the second part? Do you see that some of these people can actually be interlocutors as well, and with this particular individual? Because you have a task force, are you also keeping an eye on their movements?
MR PRICE: So I’m not going to speak to any particular individual. What I will reiterate is what I told Matt. There are plenty of fora, there are plenty of avenues for diplomacy. We know that our French partners, our German partners, our Israeli partners, our Turkish partners, our Ukrainian partners, of course, have engaged in diplomacy, direct diplomacy with the Russian Federation. What we’re not looking for, what we’re not bereft of, are avenues. What we’re not missing are not fora. What we’re looking for is a genuine display of good faith on the part of the Russian Federation. We need them to show up at any one of these venues to make clear that they are genuinely interested in de-escalation, in putting an end to this conflict, in putting an end to this war, in putting an end to this senseless and needless loss of life.
QUESTION: And you have received no such indication up until this moment?
MR PRICE: I think we will —
QUESTION: Through any channel?
MR PRICE: We will judge that based upon what we see in Ukraine, and what we have seen in Ukraine, including in recent days, including in recent hours, is continued escalation, is continued bombardment of towns, of cities, of residential areas, is continued loss of life.
QUESTION: Okay. So I understand all you said about the Russian economy, but the average Russian doesn’t own stocks. The average Russian doesn’t buy a lot of imported goods. The Russian ruble has lost, if I’m right, 35 or 40 percent of its value, which is not as bad as some of the economic crises we’ve seen in a long time. And you haven’t gotten any progress on deconfliction, de-escalation. So what about taking more steps? What about expanding SWIFT things? We continue to send money to Russia for energy purchases. So why aren’t you taking stronger steps to add sanctions on a lot of people who don’t have Western bank accounts or property in the United States? It doesn’t seem to add much pressure.
MR PRICE: So in terms of energy purchases, the President did sign an executive order last week putting an end to our purchase of Russian oil, our purchase of Russian energy.
QUESTION: When I say “we” I mean West – the West in general.
MR PRICE: Well, the point is, Paul, that we have already applied a set of measures that have been unprecedented in terms of their scale, in terms of their scope, and in terms of their impact. And I won’t go through the various metrics of impact again, but they’re clear for everyone to see.
The other point is that as long as President Putin continues to escalate, we, working with our allies and partners, will continue to escalate. You mentioned —
QUESTION: How about the SWIFT measures? Why is it that —
MR PRICE: You mentioned some measures that may be on the table. Going back to what I offered to Humeyra, of course we’re not in a position to preview specifically what we are prepared to do, but what I can tell you that we are prepared to do is continue to escalate the costs. And I should say that the economic sanctions, the other financial measures and economic measures that we have placed on the Russian Federation, that is one important measure to mount pressure on the Kremlin, on President Putin, on those around him. It is clearly putting the squeeze on their economy, on their financial system.
At the same time, we will continue simultaneously to provide our Ukrainian partners with massive amounts of security assistance. In recent weeks alone, we’ve spoken of some $550 million worth of security assistance. Those deliveries are continuing just about every day – anti-armor, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, small arms, munitions, precisely what our colleagues at the Department of Defense have determined that our Ukrainian partners most need to defend their country against this invasion. And we are very fortunate that, given the passage of the spending legislation out of Congress, we now have $13.6 billion for the people of Ukraine in different realms. And a good chunk of that money, about half of it, will be made available in the form of additional security assistance.
So we have provided more than $1.2 billion in security assistance to our Ukrainian partners over the course of the past year. We’re going to be in a position to do much, much more given the spending allocation that we recently have had from Congress. That is another avenue that is putting pressure on President Putin, and we have seen that pressure and the effectiveness of that security assistance, the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance, in that we are now on day 20 of this Russian invasion, of this Russian war. President Putin’s – certainly cannot be comfortable with what he has seen from his forces on the battlefield. I will leave it to others to offer the military analysis, but again, President Putin gravely miscalculated if he thought that he could dispatch 100,000 forces into a sovereign country and not face and find the stiff resistance that he has found with thousands of Russians, Russian service members losing their lives, with his forces stalled in key areas.
President Putin has gravely miscalculated if he thought he could do all of this without facing opposition at home, and we have seen very prominent displays of that opposition, including in recent hours in ways that would have been unexpected even a few weeks ago: 15,000 people arrested across Russia, across dozens of Russian cities, including in President Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, for peacefully exercising the rights that are as universally available to them as to anyone else on the planet, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of expression. We continue to stand with them. And President Putin, going back to where we started, has gravely miscalculated if he thought that the United States, that our allies and partners were bluffing when we talked about the profound costs that we were prepared to impose on Russia’s economy, on its financial system, on the Kremlin if he were to go forward. President Putin has now found that he made grave miscalculations in all three regards.
MR PRICE: Follow-up? Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you. Paul asked about the more stronger steps and you talked about the military support to Ukraine, but one of those more stronger steps might be the transferring to Ukraine their old Soviet-era weapons. And so could you – including S-300. So could you comment on the CNN, today’s report, that reportedly State Department is already involved in the talks with the European partners and creating such a list?
MR PRICE: So we are in constant discussion with our Ukrainian partners in the first instance about their needs, their security needs. I can say that Secretary Blinken spoke to Foreign Minister Kuleba again today. They discussed Ukraine’s security needs once again. Working very closely with our colleagues at the Department of Defense, we have put together packages of defensive security assistance that our Ukrainian partners most need. And as I said before, that includes anti-armor, that includes tanks – anti-tank, that includes small arms, that includes munitions, and it most certainly includes anti-aircraft and surface-to-air systems.
So we are not detailing every element of those security packages that we are providing, but we are continuing to provide security assistance in all of those realms. We know that Russian missiles, Russian rockets, Russian artillery have wrought destruction across large parts of Ukraine, and we are prepared to and we have provided our Ukrainian partners with the sort of surface-to-air systems, anti-aircraft systems that would help protect themselves against this onslaught, against these attacks.
We are always looking at what’s in our inventories, and also our allies around the world are looking at what’s in their inventories. And Secretary Blinken has on several occasions now authorized our NATO Allies to provide U.S.-origin equipment to our Ukrainian partners. Our inclination has always been to – to be responsive to precisely what our Ukrainian partners need. We have been able to do that with the funding we’ve been granted from Congress, and now that we have $13.6 billion of additional funding to work with, about half of which will go in the direction of security assistance, we’ll be able to do quite a bit more.
QUESTION: Can I just make sure of one thing? You said tanks and then you said anti-tank —
MR PRICE: Anti-tank, anti-tank.
QUESTION: You don’t mean tanks and —
MR PRICE: Anti-tank, anti-tank. Anti-armor.
QUESTION: Ned, just because things are always moving and in the air, since the start of Russia’s invasion, has the United States yet engaged directly with Russia about offramps or ways to reduce violence? Directly – have you engaged directly with Russia about this?
MR PRICE: John, a number of our partners are engaged directly with the Russian Federation at high levels. I think what is clear is that none of these engagements have yet resulted in the diminution of violence and an end to the war in a reduction of the loss of life that we’ve seen across Ukraine. If we determine that high-level U.S. engagement would be advantageous to help move forward with that overriding goal of putting an end to this violence, putting an end to this senseless war, we would absolutely be prepared to do so.
What we have found, however – what our partners and allies have found, however, and what our Ukrainian partners, most importantly, have found, however – is that we have yet to find a Russian interlocutor that is either able or willing to negotiate in good faith, and certainly not in the context of de-escalation, given that Russian forces have continued to escalate, have continued to wreak violence across Ukraine. So we’ll continue to look for diplomatic openings. In the meantime, we will continue to support our Ukrainian partners, as well as the diplomatic efforts that our allies around the world are taking part in.
MR PRICE: So we’ve discussed this yesterday a bit. What I will say is that we have made significant progress over recent days when it comes to the possibility of a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We continue to engage with Russia on a return to full implementation of the JCPOA. I think what you heard from Foreign Minister Lavrov – I will let him speak for himself, I will let the Russians speak for themselves – but is – may well be a reflection of the fact that we, of course, would not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of resuming full implementation of the JCPOA. We can’t and we won’t and we have not provided assurances beyond that to Russia. We will let Foreign Minister Lavrov speak to – speak for his country, but perhaps it is now clear to Moscow – perhaps a couple things are now clear.
Number one, as we have said publicly, the new Russia-related sanctions are unrelated to a potential return to full compliance with the JCPOA, and they shouldn’t have any impact on its implementation. And it may well be a reflection of what we’ve said all along, that an Iran that is unconstrained in its nuclear program and that has no permanent, verifiable limits attached to that nuclear program – that is not in our interests, it is not in the interests of our European allies, it is not in the interests of the PRC, and it’s certainly not in the interests of the Russian Federation.
I will reiterate one additional point, that you’ve heard several references in recent days to external factors, and we have engaged with the Russian Federation on the possibility of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, but as I said the other day, there were and are a small number of outstanding issues. Now that we are this close to the finish line, those outstanding issues tend to be the hardest issues, so we’re not there yet. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But we continue to assess that a mutual return to compliance would be the most effective, the best way to verifiably and permanently once again have those limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
QUESTION: So to follow up, is it this building’s understanding that the objections that Russia raised in the last few days have now been resolved?
MR PRICE: It is – what I am relaying to you is that you will need to ask the Russians.
QUESTION: But you guys are in the negotiations with them, so is it this building’s understanding that they are no longer objecting?
MR PRICE: We have seen the statements from Foreign Minister Lavrov. We will leave it to the Russian Federation, to Foreign Minister Lavrov, to others to explain exactly what those statements mean. But it is logical – it has been logical to us; it should be logical to all parties – that we would not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of a full resumption of the JCPOA if in fact we are able to get there. We have not offered the Russians anything more, there has been nothing additional conveyed, but you’ll have to refer to – you’ll have to ask the foreign minister.
QUESTION: Let me ask it this way: Did you guys understand whatever it was that Lavrov was trying to say? What was your understanding of what he was saying?
MR PRICE: I’m not going to interpret the foreign minister’s remarks. Again, you’ll need to talk to them to ask their position, where they are on a potential mutual return to compliance. We know where the Russian Federation has been in the past. Of course, Russia was an original member of the P5+1, understanding since well before 2015 that a nuclear armed Iran or an Iran on the verge of a nuclear weapon would not be in Moscow’s interest, certainly not in our interest. We hope to be able to complete a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA in short order. We should be able to if negotiators, if the parties come together, negotiate in good faith, and close out these remaining outstanding issues.
QUESTION: Ned, I’m a bit confused. How can you – how can you say for sure that you will not sanction any Russian activity related to the – any return to the deal? The Ukraine-related sanctions well postdate the original JCPOA. I mean, they only date back to February, late February of this year. If there is a Russian – and I realize this is a hypothetical, but you seem to be raising the hypothetical in the answer to your question, and maybe you’re not the right person to ask because it gets into the weeds here – but if there is something that is allowed, an activity that is allowed under the JCPOA, but it involves transactions that are sanctioned by not just the United States, but also the EU under the – with a bank, with a financial institution, a Russian financial institution – how can you say that that’s exempt?
MR PRICE: Well, to be clear, Russia is not getting out of the sanctions and other financial measures that we have —
QUESTION: You just said they would.
MR PRICE: — that we have been —
QUESTION: So if I’m the Russians —
MR PRICE: — that have been imposed for this war in Ukraine. What we are talking about here is the very basic point – something that should be quite clear – that we would not sanction Russian participation in nuclear projects that are part of a full resumption of the JCPOA. These are separate realms; these are separate areas.
QUESTION: Yeah, but if they involve any kind of a money – monetary transaction that touches either the European or American financial systems, or SWIFT for that matter, then you have a problem. I don’t see how you can – how you can exempt them. Because if I’m the Russians and I see that that’s exempted, well, then all of a sudden, every foreign transaction that I do is going to be related to Iran’s nuclear program and therefore exempt under what you’re saying.
MR PRICE: So, Matt, I think two things can be true. One, the JCPOA is not going to be an escape hatch for the Russian Federation and the sanctions that have been imposed on it because of the war in Ukraine. But two, we are not going to sanction Russia for undertaking, for participating in nuclear projects that are part of the JCPOA. You’re right; you’re asking a very weedy question. It’s probably better for —
QUESTION: Okay, then let me add another one to it. It may be better for an expert. But then what about the idea of secondary sanctions? Because any bank or financial institution that would be involved in a transaction – say Russia purchases heavy water from the Iranians or enriched uranium – you’re – this seems to open the Pandora’s box that you keep talking about in other things. It just seems that the Russians would be able to disguise any number of non-Iranian-nuclear-deal transactions through that same channel of exemptions that you’re offering them.
MR PRICE: Well, so – so what you’re raising is a hypothetical wrapped in another hypothetical, the hypothetical that —
QUESTION: I’m sorry, but you’re talking about a deal that doesn’t exist yet, which is a hypothetical.
MR PRICE: Well, that’s my point. No, that’s —
QUESTION: So I’m sorry. Well, my hypotheticals are related —
MR PRICE: That’s —
QUESTION: — are based on your initial hypothetical.
MR PRICE: That’s exactly my point. So rather than get wrapped around the axle of hypotheticals, we’ll —
QUESTION: Well, can we get someone down here to go through this stuff?
MR PRICE: Well, we’ll —
QUESTION: Are we done with Ukraine? I have Ukraine questions.
MR PRICE: Any more Ukraine questions?
QUESTION: Is Robert Malley going back to Vienna this week?
MR PRICE: Rob Malley and his team, they are still based here. I understand that negotiators are still in capitals. If it is prudent, if it is appropriate for Rob and the team to go back to Vienna, they’re prepared to do so.
QUESTION: And on Ukraine, how did the Secretary receive the news of sanctioning him and the President and other U.S. officials by Russia?
MR PRICE: I haven’t discussed him – discussed it with him yet today, but based on previous discussions, I don’t think he’ll be surprised.
QUESTION: He will be able to sleep —
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: He will be able to go to bed —
MR PRICE: I think he will sleep just as soundly as he otherwise would, which, given that he is Secretary of State, probably isn’t all that soundly.
MR PRICE: We don’t have a specific reaction to that. What I would say is that we’ve said time and again that our relationship with the PRC is at its heart competitive. It will be collaborative when it can be, adversarial when it must be. Our allies and partners around the world are going to have their own relationships with the PRC. What we are not asking countries to do is to choose between the United States and China. When it comes to many of our partners, what we seek to do is to give them choices and to make partnership with the United States and all that we bring to the table, all that we could bring to a bilateral relationship – make sure that countries, partners around the world know just how appealing that is.
QUESTION: And one on UAE too. How do you view the UAE conflicting statements on increasing the oil production? Their ambassador in Washington said that they will increase the production, and their energy minister contradicted that.
MR PRICE: I will leave it to our Emirati partners to speak to this question. We, of course, are not a member of OPEC, we’re not a member of OPEC+, but as you know, we have engaged with companies, with countries around the world. We maintain an interest in a steady global energy supply and our diplomatic outreach is a large element of that.
QUESTION: So we’ve talked in the past about the possibility of expediting refugee – Ukrainian refugees to the United States. I’m wondering if there’s any update to that, if the position in this building is still that they must apply through UNHCR, which is a process that you know can take months. And over the weekend we saw some people trying to come into the United States from the southern border. Is there any consideration given to humanitarian – for humanitarian parole for Ukrainians who might want to come to the United States, especially if they already have ties, family members in the United States?
And then I have a second question for you on a unrelated Ukraine topic.
MR PRICE: So a couple points. We discussed this a bit yesterday, but there are now nearly 3 million Ukrainians who have been forced to leave their homes because of this violence. We are deeply, deeply grateful to Ukraine’s neighbors, to countries throughout Europe who have so generously opened their arms to welcome these Ukrainian refugees. We recognize the fact that many Ukrainians have family, have loved ones who are in Europe. We expect most Ukrainian refugees will seek to remain in Europe until and unless they can return to their homes, and of course, that is our ultimate objective, to see to it that Ukrainians who have been displaced by this violence, whether they’re one of the 2 million internally displaced persons inside of Ukraine or nearly one of the 3 million – one of the 3 million – one of nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees who’ve been forced to flee their country, our goal, of course, is to see to it that they can return to their homes once this violence ends.
We are working with UNHCR, with resettlement partners, overseas posts to determine whether Ukrainians who have departed Ukraine require resettlement to a third country because they can’t be protected in their current location. We, as we always do, assess protection needs, and that includes cases of particular vulnerability, as a central tenet of our refugee admissions to address the urgent need for resettlement across all regions. We don’t discriminate on the basis of any country of origin. As we discussed yesterday, our refugee ceiling has various regional categories attached to it. There’s a category for those who would emanate from Ukraine. Any admissions of Ukrainian nationals through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program would be in accordance with that presidential determination on refugee admissions.
What I can say right now is that we have been, we will continue to be a country that welcomes refugees from around the world. We know that as a nation of immigrants, as a nation that has always opened its arms to refugees, we are made stronger, that it is very much in our American DNA to continue doing just that. If there is a need to resettle Ukrainian refugees in the United States, we will look to do so. I have – I am fully confident we will do so. If there are additional authorities or avenues that need to be investigated, I have every – I have full confidence we’ll do that too.
QUESTION: But is the administration considering an expedited process for any people at this point? Do you know?
MR PRICE: So again, I don’t – I wouldn’t want to get ahead of anything, but we do have processes that are in place, including through the U.S. refugee admissions process, where we have the ability to bring in Ukrainian refugees, should the need arise.
QUESTION: Okay. And I also wanted to ask about the case of Brittney Griner. It’s been almost a month since she’s been detained in Russia, and what is the State Department’s understanding of how her conditions are in Russia right now, as she’s being held? And what is the State Department doing to try to get her released?
MR PRICE: There’s not much I can say given the privacy considerations that are implicated in this case. This is a case that we have been working on since the time of her detention. Every time an American is detained overseas, our consular officers, including our consular officers in Moscow, are providing every form of support that we can. In this case, I’m just not able to go into the details, but we are doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner, to support her family, and to work with them, do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release.
QUESTION: But it’s correct that you have not had consular access to her?
MR PRICE: I’m just – I could not speak to that at this point, given privacy considerations.
QUESTION: One more —
QUESTION: Well, hold on a second. You – this is a 30-year – almost 30-year battle that I have had. How is she exactly supposed to sign a Privacy Act waiver if you guys can’t get to her to ask her to see if she wants to sign one?
MR PRICE: Matt —
QUESTION: So I get that —
MR PRICE: Matt, with —
QUESTION: So I understand you can’t give details, but surely —
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, there’s a factual answer to your question, if you’ll listen for a moment.
MR PRICE: Lawyers do oftentimes, including in the case of Russia – Russian lawyers do have access to clients. Without speaking to any particular case, including this case, Russian lawyers have access to clients in Russia and as appropriate they can pass Privacy Act waivers.
QUESTION: But you’re now acknowledging her detention.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: So I mean, clearly there is a way you could go. I mean, a couple of weeks ago – or actually last week, you wouldn’t even – you weren’t even able to acknowledge her —
MR PRICE: And what I can say is that I expect we’ll be able to say more in the coming days.
QUESTION: Do you have any sense – can you give us any sense of her condition? Is she being treated well?
MR PRICE: Again, I’m just not in a position to offer updates right now.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on John’s first question about talks between Russia and Ukraine today. Have U.S. officials been briefed on how those talks went? And in particular Ukrainian officials expressed some optimism afterwards. Do you share that optimism? Everything you said earlier would indicate that you don’t.
MR PRICE: Well, the Ukraine – our Ukrainian partners are the ones who are taking part in these conversations. The conversations over the past couple days have been virtual. But as I mentioned a moment ago, Secretary Blinken did have an opportunity earlier today to speak to Foreign Minister Kuleba. Every time he has spoken to – virtually every time he’s spoken to Foreign Minister Kuleba, the foreign minister has passed on updates regarding the diplomatic efforts. Rather than characterize whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic, again, what we are going to be looking for are developments on the ground. And the developments we want to see are clear: We want to see de-escalation; we want to see a diminution of the violence; we ultimately want to see a withdrawal of Russian forces from inside Ukraine. We have not seen any of those things just yet.
QUESTION: President Zelenskyy today said that Ukrainians should be prepared that the country would not be allowed into NATO. Have you advised his administration at all in these talks, whether or not that should be something that they commit to, to not joining the Alliance?
MR PRICE: Nope. To be very clear, we have consistently underscored not only to our Ukrainian partners, but to countries around the world, that these are sovereign decisions that our Ukrainian partners will need to make for themselves. What we are here to do is to stand by our Ukrainian partners, to support our Ukrainian partners in any decisions that they would choose to make.
QUESTION: Just one more on that —
QUESTION: Can I ask just another couple —
MR PRICE: Oh.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: Just – we talk so much about sovereign decisions of other countries. What about the sovereignty of the United States, in the sense of we obviously have a strong interest in reducing conflict, ending wars, and obviously the longer that this conflict continues the greater the risk of escalation and other things like that. It just seems like you guys are so often shifting to the sovereignty of other powers. The United States has a real stake in this, and why be so reluctant about an outcome that might be in the U.S.’s interest?
MR PRICE: We’re not reluctant about that at all, John. We are doing everything we can to see a diminution of the violence, to see an end to this war. You’re right that every day this war goes on there is the chance of escalation; there’s a chance of broader conflict. But to that end, we’ve done a couple things. Number one, we’ve been very clear about steps that we are not going to take. President Biden has made very clear that American pilots are not going to operate over Ukrainian airspace. American service members are not going to operate on Ukrainian soil.
But number two, we have supported our Ukrainian partners in their efforts to achieve a diplomatic resolution to this conflict. We have supported and we’ve been in close coordination with our French partners, our German partners, our Israeli partners, our Turkish partners, and others who have engaged directly with Russia diplomatically to see that same outcome achieved. We share the same overriding objective with all of those allies, with – with all of those partners. So the idea that we are in any way hesitant to see this conflict come to an end as quickly as it can, that is just not something that rings true.
And I think it’s also fair that no country has done more to support our Ukrainian partners in an effort to bring this conflict to a close – in terms of the diplomacy, in terms of the security assistance, in terms of putting pressure on the Kremlin, on President Putin, on those around him who are responsible for this conflict. And we see all of those lines of effort as complementary – pressure on the battlefield, pressure on the Russian economy, pressure on the Russian financial system, pressure on oligarchs and senior Russian officials personally, and our efforts to support diplomacy – all of those things do support our overriding, overarching goal of seeking to find a diplomatic resolution to this conflict.
Ben – or Conor.
QUESTION: To follow up on your comments on our Fox colleagues, in addition to injuring Ben and killing Pierre, this attack also killed one of their Ukrainian producers. It’s obviously also not the first attack that injured or killed journalists. Do you believe that journalists are being targeted at all in this war?
MR PRICE: We know, of course, that civilians have been killed. We know, of course, that journalists have been killed. There was another American journalist who was killed just a couple days ago, Mr. Renaud. We have seen these reports. What we are doing right now is, through every piece of information available to us, we are documenting, we are trying to discern the facts. If we determine that there is any intentionality here – intentionality in terms of the intentional targeting of civilians or the intentional targeting of journalists or any other group – that should be completely off limits under international humanitarian law, under the Geneva Conventions, under the Law of Armed Conflict. That is something that we would take very seriously, and there would be a very serious response.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, so do you guys have, like, a formal review or an investigation where you’re collecting everything? And is there, like, a U.S. Government review where you’re looking into, like, war crimes?
MR PRICE: There are a number of review mechanisms. We’ve spoken to the effort that’s ongoing with the International – with the ICJ, with the UN Commission of Inquiry. The OSCE has its own process; the ICC has its own process. And yes, here within the State Department, we are documenting, we are compiling all of the information, all of the sources of information that we can, to document and to form our own conclusion.
QUESTION: Right, but I mean, are you going to send them off to these different institutions? Or are you going to come up with your own determination?
MR PRICE: Both. We are —
QUESTION: What will be the timeframe for that?
MR PRICE: We are supporting independent investigations. We’re doing our own analysis into what has taken place. I wouldn’t want to put a timeframe on it, but of course, we are, as with all things in this conflict, treating it as a matter of urgency.
QUESTION: Right. Based on what you’ve seen so far, is the administration prepared to say that Russia is committing war crimes?
MR PRICE: If we determine that Russia has committed war crimes, we are absolutely determined to make that public.
QUESTION: I have one on Vienna, and also Ukraine.
QUESTION: I have one on Ukraine, if that’s okay.
QUESTION: Yeah, go.
QUESTION: Okay. I am just wondering about this information/disinformation you guys have been really focused on in Russia. Can or should the U.S. Government be providing sources of more accurate information to Russians at this time?
MR PRICE: Well, what I will say is that we have undertaken a concerted effort, through means that are available to us, to do everything we can to get actual, factual, truthful information into what is a pretty closed Russian information ecosystem. We have done that through a number of tactics.
As you know, a number of us have spoken on Russian TV, independent stations, including in some cases independent stations like Dozhd/TV Rain that have been shut down, also through Russian state-backed outlets as well, those that will have on senior American officials. We use tools like Telegram to convey information as well. Every avenue that we can conceive of that would allow us to channel information into Russia, to reach Russian audiences, knowing that the best antidote to disinformation is information. That has been our strategy in speaking to audiences here in the United States and around the world, and it’s a challenge when it comes to Russia because President Putin and the Kremlin, they are doing everything they can to further constrict the information space throughout the country. And so we too are trying to get creative in terms of – in terms of our efforts to channel information in.
QUESTION: What do you mean you’re using Telegram, exactly? And would the U.S. consider putting any satellite internet resources along the border, things like that?
MR PRICE: Well, so let me make a point about internet access in Russia. We know that the Kremlin is engaged in a full assault, as I said before, on media freedom, access to information, and the truth within Russia. Of course, it wants its version of the facts to be the only version of the facts that is available to the Russian people. Moscow’s efforts to mislead, they are intensifying. We condemn the Russian Government’s recent actions to prevent the people of Russia from accessing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, numerous Russian and international news sites, and certain mobile applications as well. We also condemn the Russian Government’s passage of a new law that threatens prison sentences for accurately reporting on Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine.
The people of Russia – we’ve made this point repeatedly – did not choose this war. President Putin did; those around him did. They have a right, the people of Russia have a right to know about the death, the suffering, the destruction that is being inflicted by their government in their name on the people of Ukraine. The people of Russia also have a right to know about the human costs of this senseless war, including the cost to Russian service members – to their sons, to their brothers, to their husbands. So for that reason, we support access to the internet by all people, including the people of Russia. Even as we stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, we believe that more information is going to be the answer. Putin believes that less information is what’s in his interests.
So of course, we want to all we can to support that information flow into Russia, to see to it that the Russian people have avenues of communication, have a free and open internet available to them. And we call on President Putin and his government to honor Russia’s international obligations and commitments, to withdraw Russia’s troops from Ukraine’s territory, and to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Russia’s citizens – and one of those fundamental freedoms is freedom of access to information.
QUESTION: Okay, maybe we can follow up on some more specifics later, but just one more quick question on the chemical weapons possibility. We haven’t talked about that in a few days, I guess. Has the Biden administration determined what their response is going to be if Russia uses chemical weapons? Not that you have detail it here, but do you guys have a response ready to go if Russia does use those weapons in Ukraine?
MR PRICE: Kylie, the only thing I will say about that is to reiterate what the President said the other day. If Russia engages in the use of banned agents, including chemical weapons, there will be a severe response from the United States and the international community.
QUESTION: Just one more on Vienna talks. As we were walking in, the Iranian foreign minister said that it was on the U.S. to provide the necessary response for a successful outcome. I mean, from that statement it seems like they’re waiting on the U.S. to say something, either through the EU or anybody else, to try to get back to Vienna.
MR PRICE: What I would say is that over the course of the past few weeks, we have made significant progress. We are close. There are external factors involved in this now. There are a small number of outstanding issues. The United States, although not a direct party to the talks, we have worked in good faith. We have sought at every juncture to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, knowing that in our assessment it continues to be the most effective means by which to impose, reimpose permanent, verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program. There are a small number of outstanding issues. We do think that we would be in a position to close those gaps, to close that remaining distance if there are decisions made in capitals, including in Tehan, including in Moscow.
QUESTION: One thing that – I meant, he – this morning, I mean, the top U.S. military general for the Middle East and the CENTCOM chief, quote, said – said, quote, that Iran likely has decreasing tolerance for continued U.S. presence in Syria. And then he went on: accordingly, Iran and its proxies or affiliates – and its affiliates are increasing the capabilities and plan to target U.S. and partner interests. And then he goes on about more troubling increase, proliferation of this advanced technology. It continues about all these threats and things that are concerning. So how do you justify striking a deal that doesn’t address any of these that impact U.S. national security?
MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is that we’ve been very clear that Iran poses a challenge, poses a threat to United States, to our allies and partners across different realms. The most significant threat we would face would be a nuclear-armed Iran. There would be no greater challenge to the United States, to our allies, to our partners around the world.
That is not to say that Iran’s nuclear program is the other challenge – is the only challenge we face. Iran supports regional proxies, it supports terrorist groups, it has cyber – it has engaged in malicious cyber activity, it has an active ballistic missile program. But what we know is that if Iran were in the possession of a nuclear weapon or if it were on the verge of a possession of a nuclear weapon, it could act with far greater impunity. The the first thing we want to do is to put Iran’s nuclear program back in a box, to take that challenge off the table so that, working with allies and partners, we can confront, we can take on the challenge that Iran poses in these other realms much more effectively. We actually see these goals as quite complementary. Knowing that – and a nuclear-armed Iran is an Iran that would have far greater impunity.
And I’ll make one other point. Our goal is to put the Iranian nuclear program back in a box. It was in a box until 2018. Prior to 2018, when the JCPOA was in full force, in full effect, we did not see the same kinds of provocations that we have seen in – even in recent days. So our goal is to put that challenge – take that challenge off the table, and to work with our allies and partners to address the fuller range of threats that we face from Tehran.
QUESTION: Just a last one, sorry.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: It’s quick. I mean, do you fear that – do you fear Russia could be trying to derail these talks in order to prevent Iranian oil from coming back on the international market? Presumably, that’s what they’re going to get under the deal.
MR PRICE: Well, again, whether or not there is a JCPOA, our posture towards an Iranian oil ban would not change. We would not replace Russian oil with Iranian oil; that would not be on the table. Beyond that, you’ll have to speak to Moscow. What I can say is what I’ve already said, that an Iran that is verifiably, permanently barred, prevented from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon, that is equally in our interest as it is in Russia’s interest.
Yes, last quick question?
QUESTION: On the previous question on getting information into Russia, who runs the Telegram operation? And do you have an inter-governmental body that is working, coordinating to try to get this kind of information into Russia? Second question – completely different – General McKenzie told Congress that the U.S. has agreed to – U.S. plans to sell F-15s to Egypt. Has the State Department formally signed off on that?
MR PRICE: We don’t speak to potential arms transfers or arms sales until and unless they’re notified to Congress, so I just wouldn’t have anything to say on that score.
In terms of conveying truthful, accurate message – messaging and information into Russia, that’s something that we’re very focused on as a government.
QUESTION: In the State Department, or —
MR PRICE: It’s something that the State Department is certainly very focused on. It’s something that I know a number of our allies and partners are very focused on as well. And we’re focused on it because Moscow has sought to be a purveyor of information that is false, that is misleading, that is disinformation.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, but who in the government is doing this? And is there an inter – interdepartmental body that is coordinating this – these kind of activities?
MR PRICE: These activities are coordinated across the government. Of course, we work closely with the National Security Council, but a lot of this activity does come out of the State Department in terms of the speaking directly to Russian audiences. If you’ve been on our social media channels, if you have seen what we’ve done with Russian media, independent media, media that is closer to the Russian state, much of that is emanating from the State Department. Of course, our embassy in Moscow is very engaged in this as well.
But I’ll also make the point that our allies and partners around the world have been doing the same, because the disinformation that we have seen emanate from Moscow targets not only the United States and mischaracterizes not only what we have done, but also what our allies and partners around the world are doing. So it is a shared objective of the United States, of our allies and partners to fight this disinformation – this misinformation – with information, with facts, with truth for people here in this country, for people around the world, including people in Russia.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Is Secretary Blinken going Brussels with the President?
MR PRICE: I do not have any travel updates at this time.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:31 p.m.)