Department Press Briefing – March 21, 2022
2:27 p.m. EDT
This morning, as I know many of you all saw, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum the Secretary announced that the State Department has, after rigorous factual and legal analysis, determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya. Since the Holocaust, the United States has concluded only seven other times that genocide was committed; this determination marks the eighth.
Burma’s military has for decades committed unspeakable atrocities against Burma’s population, and that includes ethnic and religious minorities and pro-democracy activists. In 2016 and 2017, Burma’s military unleashed a wave of horrific violence in northern Rakhine State against predominantly Muslim Rohingya that, at the time, the United States concluded constituted ethnic cleansing. Since 2017, the Department and others have worked to investigate and document these atrocities.
The United States is committed to pursuing truth and justice for victims and accountability for those responsible for these atrocities and for other human rights violations and abuses across Burma. As the Secretary made clear, justice and accountability – whether via international or domestic courts – must be part of the pathway out of genocide in Burma. Our commitment includes support for international mechanisms like the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, IIMM, for which the Secretary announced a nearly $1 million contribution to support its mandate to investigate, collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of the most egregious and serious international crimes in Burma since 2011.
Although this determination focuses on genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, Burma’s military has committed atrocities against members of other ethnic and religious minority groups across Burma for decades. Many of the military leaders involved in the genocidal campaign against Rohingya in 2016 and 2017, including the general who led it, are the same ones who overthrew Burma’s democratically-elected government on February 1st of last year. And since the coup we have seen the Burmese military use many of the same tactics, only now the military is targeting anyone in Burma it sees as opposing or undermining its repressive rule. Shining a light on these atrocities is critical to ending the decades of impunity that has brought Burma to the crisis it is in today.
We call on the international community to do more to stop the Burmese military’s violence, including by ending the sale and transfer of arms, materiel, dual-use equipment, and technical assistance to the Burmese military regime and its representatives. We are working with our allies and partners to achieve this.
We reiterate our call for the Burmese military regime to end its use of violence, release all those unjustly detained, and engage in constructive dialogue with all parties to restore Burma’s path to democracy.
Next and finally, the world continues to witness Russia’s unrelenting and coldblooded bombardment of Ukraine, causing death and destruction. These strikes have destroyed civilian infrastructure, including a maternity hospital, apartment buildings, and an art school where 400 civilians were sheltering. And hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women, and children have lost their lives in this needless carnage.
In the face of it, President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine continue to show strength and courage in the country’s fight against these Kremlin forces.
As Russia’s forces continue to die needlessly in Ukraine and the economic costs of the war mount within Russia, President Zelenskyy has also made it very clear that he is open to a diplomatic solution that does not compromise the core principles at the heart of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.
The effects of Putin’s war of choice aren’t restricted to Ukraine and Russia, however. This conflict has had ripple effects around the world. It calls into question security and prosperity for all of us on issues ranging from self-governance to human rights to energy and food security. That is why we cannot stand quiet. We must all stand up for what is right.
We support the people of Ukraine in their just cause: the defense of their country and their defense of their democracy. And as we have done since the beginning of this crisis, we will continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to de-escalate through diplomacy in order to secure a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russia’s troops from Ukraine.
We know that diplomacy requires both sides to genuinely engage in good faith, but President Putin has made no indication that he is prepared to stop the onslaught. This war, we know, is not going according to Putin’s plan. A quick victory has been stymied by Ukraine.
Whenever and however this war ends, the United States and the international community will, together with our partners in Ukraine, ensure that Putin’s war of choice is a long-term strategic failure for the Kremlin.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. I do have a question or two about Burma.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: But I’ll let them – I – we need to get this Russia diplomacy stuff out of the way first, and that is: What, if anything, do you take from this démarche that the Kremlin – or that the Russian foreign ministry says that it delivered to Ambassador Sullivan today, which, according to them, warned that we’re on the brink of severing diplomatic relations?
MR PRICE: Well, I will leave it to ask you to —
QUESTION: Ask me? (Laughter.)
MR PRICE: I will leave it to you to – (laughter) —
QUESTION: Well, let me expound on —
MR PRICE: I know you always have – you’re always willing to postulate. But I will leave it to you to ask the Kremlin what message it was that they may have wished to relay.
I can tell you the message that was relayed by Ambassador Sullivan when he met with Russian Government officials. As you know, as a general matter, we don’t speak to every single diplomatic communication, but I will say this: Ambassador Sullivan took advantage of this encounter to demand that the Russian Government follow international law, and basic human decency for that matter, and allow consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention.
You’ve heard from us say in recent days that we have repeatedly made this ask, this request for consular access to American citizen detainees, and we have consistently and improperly been denied access for months. This is completely unacceptable. It is in direct contravention of Russia’s international obligations under the Vienna Convention and under our bilateral agreement on consular access to detainees.
QUESTION: Okay. So he did not take this opportunity to raise the situation in Ukraine at all?
MR PRICE: Matt, we have a number of avenues where we can raise our concerns, including here in public. Again, I’m not going to read out the entirety of that session. But if you listen to the Russians, they had a message that they wanted to convey. We too have a message that Ambassador Sullivan was very direct in conveying.
When it comes to what we’ve heard from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as they have explained, they have given their version of events, I think it is worth repeating that Russia is carrying out an unprovoked and an unjustified war on Ukraine, and we are seeing, clearly, evidence that they are intentionally targeting civilians and committing indiscriminate attacks. President Biden’s comments last week, the comments that were later echoed by Secretary Blinken and others, they speak to the horror of the brutality Russia has unleashed on an innocent neighbor, an innocent neighbor that posed absolutely no threat or security risk to Russia.
We warned Russia before the invasion began that, if they were to move forward with it, they would face severe consequences and unprecedented costs, unprecedented economic costs, financial costs, diplomatic isolation, strategic weakness on the world stage. And that’s exactly what has happened. And the United States, along with our allies and partners, we will continue to raise those costs until and unless President Putin relents in this war of choice that he has – continues to perpetrate against Ukraine. His economic woes will grow, his financial woes will grow, his diplomatic isolation will only increase, and his strategic weakness on the world stage will only develop further over time.
We believe at the same time – and this is the very reason why Ambassador Sullivan was there today; it’s the very reason why Jake Sullivan spoke to his counterpart, Mr. Patrushev, last week; it’s the very reason we have deconfliction channels on a tactical level with Moscow – we believe it’s important to maintain channels of communication with Russia. You’ve heard us say before that open dialogue, or the ability to engage in open dialogue, it’s crucial, especially during times of tension, especially during times of conflict.
We have sought to maintain those open lines of communication. We have sought to maintain a diplomatic presence in Moscow. We have sought for the Russians to be able to continue to maintain a diplomatic presence here in the United States.
Now, the Russians, at just about every turn, have taken actions that call into question whether they too welcome these same open lines of communication. We find them important; we find them necessary. But I’ll leave it to the Kremlin to speak to their thoughts.
QUESTION: Well, except that they did call him in, so I mean, they’re obviously interested in communicating something. They say that they – the Foreign Ministry statement said that they summoned him because they wanted to complain about President Biden’s comments that you just mentioned. Is it safe to assume that Ambassador Sullivan said that the U.S. stands by the comments of the President, the “war criminal” comments that the President made, and that the Secretary then repeated?
MR PRICE: I think it is safe to assume that Ambassador Sullivan, as he has consistently done, has made clear to his Russian interlocutors the costs that before the invasion would befall the Russian Federation if they went forward with this action —
QUESTION: No, no, no.
MR PRICE: — and since then, the fact that the costs will continue to climb until and unless President Putin relents.
QUESTION: But specifically, they said that the comments were inappropriate and not becoming of a person – you know what they said. So did he —
MR PRICE: It’s awfully rich to hear a country speak about, quote/unquote, “inappropriate comments” when that same country is engaged in mass slaughter, including strikes and attacks that have resulted in civilian lives; strikes and attacks, barrages that have leveled civilian cities; an invasion of a hundred-plus thousand forces against a largely civilian population. That’s awfully rich to hear that country speak about unacceptable comments.
QUESTION: Last one. Just on – his point, you said, was to talk about the treatment of the U.S. detainees. The three of them that we know most about – I don’t know if there are others – but has there been any change in the case of Trevor Reed, Paul Whelan, or Brittney Griner?
MR PRICE: There has been no change in those cases, and that’s part of the reason why Ambassador Sullivan took advantage of the encounter, took advantage of the opportunity to stress Russia’s obligation, including under international law, including under its obligations under the Vienna Convention, to allow consular access to individuals like Paul Whelan, like Trevor Reed, like Brittney Griner. We have not yet been granted any consular access to Brittney Griner. It has been some months since we have been allowed to see —
QUESTION: Are you able to say if they offered him any assurances on the detainees?
MR PRICE: I have nothing to relay on that.
QUESTION: No? Thank you.
QUESTION: To clarify, the President called Putin a war criminal. As I recall, the Secretary says war crimes were committed. Did he actually call Putin a war criminal, the Secretary of State?
MR PRICE: The Secretary, when he was addressing all of you last week from this podium —
QUESTION: Right. He – I recall he said that war crimes were committed.
MR PRICE: He said, personally, that he agrees with the President.
QUESTION: So he is calling Putin a war criminal?
MR PRICE: Secretary Blinken echoed the same sentiment that the President conveyed a day earlier, that it is impossible as a human to witness what is transpiring, what has transpired in Ukraine, to look at the horrific imagery – a strike against a maternity hospital in Mariupol, not to mention attacks against civilian neighborhoods, schools, residential buildings, apartment buildings – and as a human, to come away from that feeling that war crimes have been committed. The President was speaking from the heart. Secretary Blinken was doing the same, echoing precisely what the President had said the day before.
Now, of course that doesn’t obviate the fact that this building, as it always does, is conducting a rigorous analysis, collecting evidence, analyzing that evidence, sharing that information with international partners. And if, to – knowing that there is a legal definition of war crimes that has to be met as a matter of law and policy before this building can issue such a formal proclamation.
QUESTION: So the question is – I mean, you talked about diplomacy and the need and the necessity of maintaining open channels and so on. I mean, when you call someone a war criminal, that’s really at a point of no return, so to speak, in terms of engaging them diplomatically. And so what is the next step? Probably severing relations or something like that?
MR PRICE: Said, it’s rare that we negotiate or conduct this type of diplomacy with friends. It is this kind of diplomacy that we have supported, the Ukrainians are engaged in, our allies and partners are engaged in, for one reason and one reason alone: to save lives. It is a fact that the Russian Federation is the belligerent in this case that has invaded a country that posed no threat, that continues to have its forces on sovereign Ukrainian territory, that continues to assault Ukraine with bombs and missiles and artillery and gunfire, resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian casualties and untold more in terms of Ukrainians and Russians who have already lost their lives in this needless conflict.
So yes, as is President Zelenskyy, as is the Ukrainian Government, we are committed to seeing through the diplomatic path, recognizing that only through the path of diplomacy will we be able to save lives. Diplomacy oftentimes requires that you negotiate with those who you probably wouldn’t describe as friends, those who may be unsavory, those who, as in this case, are responsible for violence and carnage. But we’re doing that with one goal, and one goal in mind: to bring this war to an end and to save innocent life.
QUESTION: I got a couple questions. One is, I didn’t really understand something you said at the top, where you said President Zelenskyy made it clear that he’s open to a democratic – diplomatic solution, that – and then you said that does not compromise the core principles at the heart of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. So I – that didn’t make sense. That sounds like you’re supporting the Kremlin’s principles. But anyway, if you could clear up what you were trying to say there.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Secondly, all these reports of the Russians forcibly – forcing people from Mariupol to Russia, which could be considered a war crime. Do you have any information that would confirm those reports?
MR PRICE: So on your second question, what remains true is that we continue to see evidence every day pointing to acts, actions, activities that may constitute war crimes. We are taking a very close, very thorough look and examination of all of the information that is available to us to determine formally, as a formal matter, if war crimes have been committed. When it comes to the situation in Mariupol, we continue to call on the Russian Government to allow genuine safe passage so that civilians can depart cities and towns of Ukraine that are besieged by Russian forces and allow deliveries of humanitarian goods. In short, when it comes to Mariupol, when it comes to other cities that are under siege, we want the opportunity for civilians to go out, humanitarian supplies to go in. That is what is important to us.
The reality continues to be that while humanitarian goods are gathered and en route to the areas most in need, the convoys typically are not able to reach people in besieged cities. This is what appears to us to be blatant – excuse me – blatant manipulation and exacerbation of human suffering to serve nothing more than the Kremlin’s political ends. As the International Committee of the Red Cross stated, quote, “With no aid, the people in Mariupol are being suffocated.” We have seen growing reports of this type of abhorrent behavior, including intentional attacks of civilians, by Russian forces in Mariupol. These reports include, as I mentioned before, the attack on the maternity hospital, bombing a theater clearly marked as a shelter for children, reports that Russian forces are attempting to use hundreds of civilians at an intensive care hospital as human shields, while continuing to fire on Ukraine’s soldiers.
These brutal tactics demonstrate an utter indifference to human life, and they are appalling. The – this continues a horrific trend. Civilian deaths, we know, are multiplying, as is destruction of civilian infrastructure.
What seems to be the case – and you heard this from a number of officials, including our senior intelligence officials when they testified before Congress in recent days – that President Putin had in his mind a clear plan, a plan that would have him taking cities, major urban centers in a matter of days if not hours, tanks rolling into Kyiv shortly after they rolled across the border, only to have been stymied – only to have been stymied by the fierce resistance that Russian forces have continued to meet and to find that those plans for a quick territorial victory have been thwarted, as Russia’s forces now have remained stalled for more than three weeks.
QUESTION: You mentioned Mariupol. So these reports that people are actually being moved from there to Russia, do you have any evidence of that —
MR PRICE: We’ve seen those —
QUESTION: — that supports these reports?
MR PRICE: We’ve seen those reports. We are in the process of investigating them. We are in close consultation with our Ukrainian partners, with others who may be able to provide firsthand accounts of what is taking place on the ground. Of course, these reports are deeply concerning, and if true, they would be – amount to additional evidence of what would appear to be the mistreatment of civilians.
QUESTION: And in the first part I asked you to clarify: What are you saying about your support for a negotiated settlement à la Zelenskyy, but on whose principles?
MR PRICE: So the point I was making – I was trying to make, at least – is that this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine, however – however important and however monumental the stakes are in this, in President Putin’s war against Ukraine. The key point is that there are principles that are at stake here that have universal applicability everywhere, whether in Europe, whether in the Indo-Pacific, anywhere in between. And those are the core principles that President Putin has sought to violate and flout and that our Ukrainian partners, backed by the international community, have sought to defend – the principle that each and every country has a sovereign right to determine its own foreign policy, has a sovereign right to determine for itself with whom it will choose to associate in terms of its alliances, its partnerships, and what orientation it wishes to direct its gaze. In this case, Ukraine has chosen a democratic path, a path – a Western-looking path, and that is something that, clearly, President Putin was not willing to countenance.
QUESTION: But does that – does that mean that if under pressure of negotiation and war, that Zelenskyy gives up the previous desire to join NATO, if he even gives up control of his military, that the U.S. wouldn’t go along with an agreement, a negotiated agreement?
MR PRICE: We are – we are there to support our Ukrainian partners, and this gets back precisely to those principles. It is a sovereign right, the sovereign responsibility of every country to determine for itself its foreign policy, with whom it chooses to associate, and to make decisions regarding its path forward. We are there to support President Zelenskyy. We’re there to support the Ukrainian Government. We’re there to support the Ukrainian people.
But more than that, what we are doing – even while we see at the moment very little indication that the Russian Federation is serious about genuine diplomacy – what we are doing is moving across multiple fronts to strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table. And we’ve done that in a number of different ways. As you’ve heard, in recent days, including last week when we went into some detail, we have provided an unprecedented amount of security assistance to our Ukrainian partners – $2 billion since the course of this administration; $800 million was announced last week; within the last week there’s been a billion dollars total, providing our Ukrainian partners with precisely the systems and the capabilities and the assets that they will need and have been able to use to defend themselves effectively against this Russian aggression. So that’s on the one hand.
On the other hand, we are imposing costs, just as we said we would, on the Russian Federation for this egregious violation of sovereignty, of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and you see those costs being borne by the Russian economy, its financial system, also its strategic standing in the world. It was just today that a very limited sector of the Russian stock market reopened. It had been closed for these three weeks now, presumably in an effort to forestall capital flight. You look at the value of the ruble, you look at interest rates, you look at the number of international companies that have decided to flee the Russian marketplace, not wanting to in any way be a part of President Putin’s war of choice against his neighbor and, quite literally, making clear where they stand with their feet, leaving the Russian marketplace behind.
QUESTION: President Biden just reiterated his warning about the danger of Russian cyber attacks. Do you have anything to add from the State Department on the nature of that threat, where the intelligence for that threat comes from?
And has the State Department or any other part of the administration issued a warning to Russia against committing cyber attacks of that nature, and was there a threat of consequences?
MR PRICE: So I understand that my colleague at the White House, Anne Neuberger, is speaking to this at the moment, so I’m going to largely defer to the White House to speak to it.
But to the second element of your question, as you know, we have had a number of opportunities to express in no uncertain terms to Russia the – our concerns regarding its use and its behavior in cyberspace. This was a principal topic of discussion during President Biden’s meeting with President Putin in June in Geneva. There was a lot of attention, of course, at the time paid to the issue of ransomware. But we have made it very clear to the Russians that there would be a high price to pay if they were to use their capabilities to target critical infrastructure, to target sectors of strategic importance. But it’s not something we’d want to speak to from here.
QUESTION: Just related to that, other than the meeting with Ambassador Sullivan, has there been any other high-level contact between the administration and the Russian Government?
MR PRICE: Well, last week the White House read out Jake Sullivan’s phone conversation with his counterpart, Mr. Patrushev. We do maintain channels of communication, including at the tactical level, and the Department of Defense has spoken to a channel of tactical de-confliction. We, of course, have our embassy in Moscow. Ambassador Sullivan, as I just mentioned, had an opportunity to convey our own message to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today. So if we want to convey a message to Russia, we have multiple avenues to do so.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. On the talks, you just said that there’s very little indication that the Russians are taking them seriously. So does that mean that you don’t think any progress has been made? Is there any sign of progress that you have seen? And if so, in which of those key areas?
MR PRICE: Well, Alex, I will, in the first instance, leave it to our Ukrainian partners to speak to progress or lack thereof, and I think you have – we have all heard statements from senior Ukrainian officials, including President Zelenskyy, that continue to cast doubt on Russia’s intent in taking part in discussions which have taken place at a number of different levels but heretofore have not resulted in any concrete sign of de-escalation, has not resulted in any diminution of the violence, has not created any clear pathway out of this conflict just yet, at least. Of course, we continue to support dialogue and diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia, Ukraine with the support of the United States, Ukraine with the support of our partners and allies.
But more than sentiment and reactions coming out of the talks, what we are going to continue to look for is any indication that these talks are bearing fruit in some of the most important metrics. That is the diminution of violence, that is a withdrawal of forces, that is anything that would indicate that the Russians have any genuine interest in seeing a way out of this conflict, and that’s not anything we’ve seen yet.
QUESTION: Are they briefing you on their talks after each round?
MR PRICE: So, as you know, the Secretary has spoken to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Kuleba, multiple times in the past week. We have been regularly apprised of the – of developments from these discussions from our Ukrainian partners. There are several close allies and partners of ours who are supporting talks and dialogue in different ways – our French allies, our German allies, our Turkish allies, our Israeli partners. We have also had an opportunity to hear from them directly in recent days regarding the progress or lack thereof in these various channels.
QUESTION: Can I – one final question, sorry. Do you have any confirmation that any of these top-level security officials have been arrested in Russia? There has been a report of at least the one FSB intelligence officer in charge of Ukraine.
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to confirm those reports. What I can say, though, is what has been clear to everyone with access to uncensored information – that is to say just about everyone outside of Russia’s borders – we have seen signs of dissent within Russian society that have been high-profile and quite visible.
It is clear, to my earlier point, that President Putin has made a series of miscalculations. I already said before that he severely miscalculated if he thought that his forces could roll into Ukraine and could take the country by force, including its major cities and urban population centers, within a matter of hours and not face resistance. President Putin miscalculated if he thought that he wouldn’t face the serious economic and financial repercussions that President Biden and the international community promised he would face, pledged that he would face if this invasion went forward. And he miscalculated if he thought that he could mount this type of large-scale invasion, have his forces bear the costs in terms of blood, in terms of treasure, and not face popular discontent back at home.
It’s been very clear that this is not a war that the Russian people are uniformly behind. The Russian Government, the Kremlin has done everything it can to try to control information, to control the information environment to an even greater degree than the Kremlin previously did. But even despite this crackdown on channels of information, on protesters, with the arrests of more than 15,000 peaceful demonstrators, there are clear – there are still very clear indications that President Putin’s war of choice does not have the full support of the Russian people.
And we see that dissent even knowing that the Russian people do not know the full cost of this war. The Russian people aren’t being allowed to see that their sons, brothers, fathers are coming home in body bags, if the Russian Government is bothering to bring them home at all. They aren’t seeing the true financial costs of this war. They aren’t seeing the true toll of the international community’s sanctions and other economic measures of this war. And surely they aren’t seeing the strategic implications for Russia that the country will grapple with for quite a long time to come as a result of President Putin’s aggression.
QUESTION: Ned, news reports say that the U.S. may provide Ukraine with Soviet air defense systems it secretly acquired. Are these reports accurate? And did the State Department ask Turkey to provide Ukraine with their S-400 systems?
MR PRICE: So clearly, I’m not going to speak to news reports you’ve just referenced. What I will say is that —
QUESTION: Why not?
MR PRICE: — we are working to provide our Ukrainian partners with precisely the types of systems, including the surface-to-air systems, that they need to take on the threat from Russia that they are enduring.
When it comes to systems like the S-300, we are working to get this done to help Ukraine acquire long-range anti-aircraft systems and the munitions for those systems. We are continuing to work with our partners and our allies, as we’ve done well before this war began, to surge new assistance, including Soviet or post-Soviet Russian-made anti-aircraft systems and the necessary ammunition to employ them. These are the systems our Ukrainian partners are already trained on, the systems that they have used to good effect already.
Secretary Blinken has approved 14 of our partners to provide U.S.-origin equipment to Ukraine. More than 30 countries around the world have provided their own forms of security assistance. We are working, together with the Department of Defense and others, to do an inventory to source and, ultimately, to provide the equipment, whether it’s U.S.-made or it is some other – of some other origin, to our Ukrainian partners so that they can have what they need.
MR PRICE: When it comes to Turkey, we thank Turkey for its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, to its territorial integrity, as well as for Turkey’s efforts to assist in Ukraine’s time of need. We know that our Turkish allies, as I mentioned before, have been deeply engaged in these diplomatic efforts as well.
We will defer to the Government of Turkey to speak to the specifics of any assistance that it is providing to Ukraine. But every NATO Ally has stepped up in important ways, whether that is security assistance, humanitarian assistance, financial assistance, or economic assistance to Ukraine.
For our part, as I said before, we’re continuing to surge security assistance to our Ukrainian partners. We are helping to acquire those longer-range anti-aircraft systems that President Zelenskyy has requested.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have a quick question on Russia and China. From this podium you have said the U.S.-China relation is not binary. So when it comes to China-Russia relation, I wonder, do you view it as binary, black and white? Because from your previous remarks, it sounds like if China doesn’t agree with the United States a hundred percent, then China is on the wrong side.
MR PRICE: No. Look, every country is going to have a unique relationship with Russia, and with the PRC, for that matter. The point we’ve made is that whether it’s the PRC or any other country around the world, we aren’t forcing our partners to choose between us and them. What we are doing in this case is putting a spotlight on the fact that whether – regardless of your partners and allies, what the Russian Federation has done is attempt to tear asunder the principles that have been at the center of unprecedented levels of stability, of security, and prosperity, born over the course of two world wars and a cold war.
And what Russia is doing is violating in a blatant and unmistakable way the same principles that countries like the PRC have long claimed to hold dear – the principle of state sovereignty. This is a refrain that we have consistently heard from the PRC, the importance, the emphasis – importance of, emphasis on sovereignty of all states. It is certainly a principle that we have sought to protect around the world, but our point has been that when these principles come under threat, countries around the world have an opportunity to demonstrate whether what they have said over the course of years or longer actually means anything, whether there was actually anything behind their pronouncements.
And so countries around the world will have to determine for themselves where they want to be when the history books are written, whether they want to be on the side of these very principles or whether they want to be on the side of naked aggression, of violence, of destruction. And we are asking countries to speak very clearly and to show the world once and for all where they stand.
QUESTION: The Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, yesterday told CBS that China and Russia has a trusted relationship. It’s not a liability but asset to solve the current crisis, because he said condemnation may not solve the problem, but diplomacy might. Do you agree?
MR PRICE: Well, what we have said is that we welcome countries around the world to use the leverage that they have with Russia to bring this conflict to a close. It is undeniable that the People’s Republic of China has significant leverage with Russia, perhaps more so than just about any other country around the world, so it stands to reason that the PRC could do more than most countries around the world to bring an end to this violence, this bloodshed, this destruction, and this war. But we have not seen that yet. We have heard from the PRC various statements, including the fact that what is happening is complicated. There is nothing that is complicated about a war, a needless war of aggression against a neighbor that posed absolutely no threat. There is nothing complicated about a massive military campaign against a civilian population that entails missiles and bombs and artillery raining down on population centers, on cities, on towns, maternity wards, hospitals, residential buildings, neighborhoods. There is nothing complicated about that.
So it is the responsibility of every country around the world to make very clear where they stand. Now, what gives us concern is the fact that, as you alluded to, the partnership between the PRC and Russia has grown closer in recent years. It is a partnership that is predicated on a vision of the world that in many ways is at odds with the free and open vision that the United States and our allies and partners around the world have sought to create and protect, also the very system that has enabled much of China’s economic growth in recent decades. Their vision, as opposed to ours, that is free and open – their vision is one that is increasingly repressive at home and one that is increasingly aggressive beyond its borders. If the PRC wants to show the world that it is – that it means what it says, that it stands behind the principles that it has claimed to stand behind for years and decades, now is an opportunity for them to do so.
QUESTION: But last week, during the phone call between the two presidents, China did explain what they did, like, humanitarian aids and also urge for peace talk. What more do you want to see from China?
MR PRICE: Well, the White House had an opportunity to speak to this on Friday. We will let the PRC speak to their impressions of that call. For us, it was an opportunity for the two presidents, as part of our emphasis on maintaining those open channels of communication, to speak directly in a way that was substantive, in a way that was detailed, and was candid. And President Biden had an opportunity to offer a pretty detailed review of how things have developed in President Putin’s war against Ukraine, his assessment of the situation today. And President Biden, for our part, underscored that the United States continues support for a diplomatic resolution to this crisis.
Now, part of the conversation was based on the concerns we have, that countries around the world, including and perhaps most notably the PRC, may seek to provide a lifeline to Russia to provide economic support, financial support, to help it attempt to skirt the sanctions that have been imposed on it, the other economic measures that have been placed on it, or to provide weaponry for the battlefield effort – weapons or materiel for the battlefield effort that, very clearly, has not gone according to plan, and for which President Putin seems desperate to seek to change course.
And so it was an opportunity for President Biden to lay out very clearly those concerns, the implications of China’s decisions, all the while knowing that China will – the People’s Republic of China will make its own decisions. It was the task of President Biden, it’s been the task of others in this administration to make very clear the implications of those decisions for the PRC.
QUESTION: But China said the (inaudible) assistance is disinformation. You don’t believe that?
MR PRICE: We are watching very closely. We’re watching very —
QUESTION: Lastly, I’m sorry, this weekend you tweeted – your tweet actually commemorate the 50 years anniversary of U.S.-Qatar relationship. I know Matt had asked it a couple of times – 50 years anniversary is a big day. So why U.S.-Qatar relationship deserve a shoutout from this building, while U.S.-China relationship doesn’t, which is considered as the most important bilateral relationship in 21st century?
MR PRICE: There is no doubt that the bilateral relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is the most consequential bilateral relationship not only that we have, but probably the most consequential bilateral relationship on the face of the Earth. That is why it is incumbent on us, as responsible stewards of this relationship, to do all we can to manage the competition responsibly in a way that sees to it that competition doesn’t veer into conflict. And we do that through a number of ways. Our public messaging is part of it, to the fact that President Biden and President Xi spoke for nearly two hours on Friday. It is a testament to the fact that there are various channels to communicate between our governments, and we’ll continue to use those channels.
QUESTION: Thank you. On Iran, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that delisting the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is the last hurdle to rejoining – their rejoining the nuclear deal. Is that true?
And then a follow-up on that. On Friday the White House, and as you have said before, the IRGC’s behavior in the region and beyond has gotten more aggressive in recent years. Do you expect that to change with the return to mutual compliance?
MR PRICE: So broadly speaking, you’ve heard us say this before, but we are not in the practice of negotiating in public. We’re not going to respond to specific claims about what sanctions we may or may not be prepared to lift as part of a potential mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
I made the point last week that there are really two core issues, and always have been, in the course of this negotiation. On the one hand, you have the nuclear steps that Iran would be obligated to take if it were to resume full compliance with the JCPOA. Those are the steps that it would need to reimplement that would see to it that Iran is permanently and verifiably barred from obtaining a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, you have the sanctions relief that we would be prepared to undertake if we are able to achieve a mutual return to compliance.
What I’ll say is that we are prepared to make difficult decisions to return Iran’s nuclear program to its JCPOA limits. The fact is that, while the JCPOA was in full effect, while Iran was in full compliance with it, Iran’s breakout time – that is to say, the time it would need to acquire the fissile material necessary for a nuclear weapon if it made the decision to weaponize – was significantly longer than it is today. When the JCPOA went into effect, it was a full year. You’ve heard from my colleagues that that breakout time is now measured in terms that are far less than a year. We want to see to it that that breakout time is elongated, and just as importantly, that Iran is verifiably and permanently barred from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Now, when it comes to the status of the talks, there has been significant progress in recent weeks, but I want to be clear that an agreement is neither imminent nor is it certain. And in fact, we are preparing equally for scenarios with and without a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA. President Biden has made a commitment that Iran, under his watch, will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that commitment is as true and sturdy in a world in which we have a JCPOA and one in which we don’t.
QUESTION: Do you have an update on the – a return to Vienna?
MR PRICE: I don’t. What I can say is that Rob Malley and his team are here. Typically in the past, we’ve noted that Iranian negotiators tend to take a break during the holiday of Nowruz, but I don’t have any update to offer.
QUESTION: Another one on Iran. The Iranian-American UK citizen Morad Tahbaz – I wonder if you could give us an understanding – an update on your understanding of his current location, because – seems he’s been returned to prison and it seems that he may be on hunger strike. So do you have anything on that? And if it’s the case that he’s back in prison, do you have a response to what seems to be Iran breaking that promise to furlough him?
MR PRICE: What I’ll say, Simon, is that Iran, as we understand it, made a commitment to the UK to furlough dual U.S.-UK citizen Morad Tahbaz. This is someone who needs medical attention. We are not, as you heard us say last week, a party to this arrangement, but we join the UK in considering anything short of Morad’s immediate furlough a violation of Iran’s commitment. We are urgently consulting with the UK on appropriate responses. At the same time, we continue to work night and day on what is an absolute priority for us, and that is to secure the release of our wrongfully detained citizens, including dual-national Morad Tahbaz.
Simply put, Iran is unjustly detaining innocent Americans and others, and should release them immediately. Securing their release is in utmost priority for us. We call on Iran to make urgent progress towards the release of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens. This is something that Rob Malley, something that Roger Carstens – they have been regularly working on. As you heard me say last week, they spoke to the families of our wrongful detainees, and we continue to pass along the status of our negotiations to bring their loved ones and our citizens home.
QUESTION: One more on Syrian President Assad’s visit to UAE. I wonder – the Department has said it’s profoundly disappointed in the Emiratis for inviting Assad. Have you communicated that to the UAE, and to what extent do you think this invitation that they’ve extended to Assad is a reflection of strained relationships between you guys and the Emiratis?
MR PRICE: We – as you heard us say on Friday, we are profoundly disappointed, we’re troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad. He – this is an individual who remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless of his fellow countrymen. He is responsible for the displacement of more than half of the pre-war Syrian population and for the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, Syrian women, and Syrian children.
You’ve heard this from the Secretary, you’ve heard this from others in this administration, but we do not support efforts to rehabilitate Assad. We do not support others normalizing relations with Assad. We have been very clear about that. To your question, we’ve had a number of conversations with our Emirati counterparts in recent days, and we urge states considering engagement with the Assad regime to weigh carefully the horrific atrocities this regime has visited on their own people over the last decade. And just recently we celebrated another grim milestone.
Countries should also consider the regime’s continuing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security. We’ve made clear that, for our part, we will not lift or waive sanctions, and we do not support reconstruction of Syria until and unless there is irreversible progress towards a political solution, which we have not seen. And in fact, we will continue to use our sanctions authorities consistent with the law to hold accountable those Syrians, including members of the regime, who have perpetrated these atrocities on their own people.
QUESTION: Just to be clear, though, there was a conversation with the UAE after Assad’s visit.
MR PRICE: We have regular conversations with our Emirati partners, and I can confirm that there have been conversations in recent days.
QUESTION: Ned, it may be true that Assad remains responsible for what has happened in Syria, but you said that he remains accountable. And in fact, that’s the problem, because he isn’t been held – he hasn’t been held accountable. So that’s – so it’s the accountability problem that I think even you are getting at. Right? And when you say that you oppose normalization but that – of any country with Syria right now, how do you explain the fact that you guys have at least eased sanctions or allowed Syria to import energy so that it can get to Lebanon?
MR PRICE: Matt, we can do two things at once. We can continue to hold the Assad regime accountable for the atrocities it has perpetrated against its own people, for the forced displacement of much of its or a large part of its population, and still account for the humanitarian needs of people in places like Lebanon and those people, including those inside Syria, who themselves have been the victims of Assad’s atrocities.
QUESTION: Right. Except that you just went through this whole thing about saying you won’t – you won’t support reconstruction in Syria, which is for civilians whose homes and lives have been destroyed because of this. You say you won’t support that. But you’re willing to allow the Syrians to import energy to pass on to Lebanon for Lebanese civilians.
MR PRICE: Matt —
QUESTION: So how are you —
MR PRICE: There —
QUESTION: So aren’t you punishing Syrian – excuse me – aren’t you punishing Syrian civilians for the, quote/unquote, “crimes” of their leader?
MR PRICE: We are punishing members of the regime by using the authorities that are available to us, and many of our partners around the world have done the same, to economically isolate the regime to the extent we can, to impose economic pressures and economic costs, just as we can continue to devise ways to account for the humanitarian needs of people in the region that don’t directly benefit the regime.
There is nothing that we have done that directly benefits the regime. What we have done is sought to account for the significant humanitarian needs – and again, many of these humanitarian needs result from the very actions of the Assad regime. Many of those who are suffering have themselves been the victim of this very regime.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can I switch gears?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. On the —
QUESTION: Sorry, this —
MR PRICE: One final question on this?
QUESTION: Yeah. Are you considering any sanctions on UAE based on Caesar Act? And how do you feel that your allies in the region are taking steps against U.S. interests?
MR PRICE: Look, of course we don’t preview sanctions. Our Emirati partners, they are a partner of ours, and they will continue to be and are an important partner of the United States. We share a number of interests, including the security interests, our shared interest in bringing to a close this conflict in Yemen. We have a shared interest in terms of regional stability, in terms of pushing back on Iran, in terms of helping our Emirati partners defend themselves against the attacks that have emanated from Yemen, from the Houthis. And of course we are committed to all of that.
QUESTION: And one more on this. Do you have any comment on that trilateral summit that’s being held in Sharm el-Sheikh between Israel, Egypt, and UAE officials?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific response. But if we do, we’ll pass it along.
MR PRICE: There’s a law on the book —
QUESTION: What’s the —
MR PRICE: — CAATSA, that imposes sanctions on those countries that trigger that authority, in this case the possession of the S-400 system.
QUESTION: Ned, on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, 50 House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary Blinken asking him to urge or to demand, whatever, Israel to refrain from evicting about 3- or 400 Palestinians from the village of Walaja. Are you aware of the letter? And is there a response from the Secretary of State?
MR PRICE: I have seen – I was made aware of this letter only recently. Said, you know our longstanding position when it comes to these issues. It’s the same position that we’ve reiterated, encouraging all parties to refrain from acts that move us farther away from a negotiated two-state solution.
QUESTION: But this is a specific village, a specific act in the village of Walaja. Will the Secretary of State urge the Israelis not to do it? I mean, it’s imminent. So we’re about to see the displacement of maybe some 400 Palestinians.
MR PRICE: Said, again, we believe it’s critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tension and that undercut efforts to negotiate a two-state solution. That certainly includes settlement expansion —
QUESTION: But does —
MR PRICE: — and evictions, as we talked about.
QUESTION: So are you saying that the Israelis should not evict the people of Walaja?
MR PRICE: Said, I don’t have a response to offer you today to this particular letter.
QUESTION: One more quick question on the settlement. Ambassador Nides spoke with, I guess, the Israeli Peace Now movement and so on, and he said something about the settlements. He said – he called it stupid and he called it all kind of things, and he also said that: I am unable to undo a single settlement. Is the United States powerless to actually reverse the process of settlement, not even one settlement?
MR PRICE: Said, I reviewed the Ambassador’s comments. I don’t think he actually said that. What the ambassador —
QUESTION: That settlements are not stupid – I mean, he called them that (inaudible).
MR PRICE: You – you editorialized a bit. What I think the message that the Ambassador conveyed was the very message that I conveyed here. We’ve continued to be clear, including with our Israeli partners, including with our partners in the Palestinian Authority, regarding the criticality of avoiding these steps that could inflame tensions or could move us away from a two-state solution.
MR PRICE: With —
QUESTION: With Putin?
MR PRICE: With – we support any diplomatic initiative that President Zelenskyy determines for his government, for his country that is in the their – that is in their interest.
QUESTION: I – sorry. A question on Saudi Arabia said it will not incur any responsibility regarding any shortage of oil supplies as its oil facilities are attacked by the Houthis. How do you comment on that? This statement was today.
MR PRICE: So you’ve heard us say before that we have held discussions with Saudi Arabia on a collaborative approach to managing potential market pressures. This administration, the President and the Secretary, is committed to doing everything we can to work with other countries to bring down the cost for the American people. Our guiding principle has been to maximize the cost for President Putin and to minimize the cost for the American people and for our allies and partners.
But you did raise the recent attacks against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. You may have seen that Secretary Blinken, just as Jake Sullivan did, yesterday issued a statement strongly condemning these Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. As you noted, as we’ve heard from our Saudi partners, the attacks reportedly targeted water treatment facilities as well as oil and natural gas infrastructure. It was a clear attempt, it seems, to disrupt global energy markets. We know that Saudi Arabia faces significant threats from Yemen and elsewhere in the region. We remain committed to helping our Saudi partners improve their capabilities to defend their country against these attacks. There were roughly 400 cross-border attacks last year launched by the Houthis with Iranian support. There have been fatal attacks this year. These attacks have also affected infrastructure, schools, mosques, workplaces, and endangered the civilian population, including tens of thousands of U.S. citizens whose safety is a top national security for us.
So that’s why helping to advance a durable resolution to the conflict in Yemen also is a priority for us. It improves the lives of Yemenis and it creates a space for Yemenis to collectively determine their own future and to put an end to this conflict that has only led and has only fueled additional attacks from these Houthi terrorists.
QUESTION: Ned, two things real quickly. Just one, all that litany of stuff that you just ran through that you just said the Houthis are doing, are those not the – are those not actions consistent with the actions of a foreign terrorist organization?
MR PRICE: Matt, you and I have had this conversation before, including from up here —
QUESTION: Well, I —
MR PRICE: — and I’ve given you the —
QUESTION: Well, I mean, you just —
MR PRICE: — I’ve given you the answer.
QUESTION: — went through the whole thing and you said that they are a clear attempt to disrupt the world energy markets, which that’s something that – that’s something that a terrorist organization would do.
MR PRICE: These – Matt, these are terrorist attacks. We have labeled them as such.
QUESTION: Well, I know. Okay. So why not label the group that’s doing them as a foreign terrorist organization?
MR PRICE: So, as you’ve heard me say before, there are any number of groups, as we’ve discussed, that are – that don’t carry this specific designation that – whose attacks and operations are no less reprehensible. I think you could have said something very similar about the Taliban, including during the height of —
QUESTION: Well, I don’t remember the Taliban trying to disrupt the world energy – world energy markets. Did they?
MR PRICE: It is – it is also incumbent —
MR PRICE: It is also incumbent upon us, and obviously the differences in geography between Afghanistan and Yemen and the UAE probably make this a conversation that is uninteresting to anyone but the —
QUESTION: Mostly, most people. Yes, you’re right.
MR PRICE: Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: So can I go back to your very opening statement on Burma? I just want to know, recognizing that these kinds of designations or determinations are complex and they involve a lot of rigorous legal scrutiny and analysis, still, why did it take so long to – it seems like this was – it came – this determination could have been made several years ago, and that the reason that it was done now was a political decision rather than a decision based on the facts of what has happened there on the ground.
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, this determination is based on a rigorous review of comprehensive evidence, the law, and all relevant policy considerations. So the Secretary in his remarks this morning offered a good bit of texture regarding the inputs that went into this. There was a previous study. There are outside expert evaluations that have – that were part of this determination. The Holocaust Memorial Museum itself has been a world leader in documenting the atrocities and the genocide that occurred in Rakhine State.
QUESTION: Yeah, but those aren’t new.
MR PRICE: It is not – it is not new, but it is —
QUESTION: Those – but those are – all of those determinations from human rights groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, which – the leaders of which the Secretary spoke to, I believe, last week. Those date back years when it relates to Rakhine and what’s been happening —
MR PRICE: And this administration has been in office for just over a year.
QUESTION: No, I get that, but —
MR PRICE: It is incumbent on each administration – or at least this Secretary – take seriously the responsibility that he has as Secretary of State to determine on behalf of the United States Government when and if genocide has occurred. So that is not a process that he takes lightly. In fact, he wanted to ensure there was rigorous analysis, not only of the law, not only of the evidence, not only of the policy considerations, but also, of course, taking into account that there was a coup in Burma just a little over a year ago, February 1st of last year.
In everything we do – and we’ve already talked about this in other contexts – we want to ensure that the choices we make, the policy choices we make, don’t have humanitarian – a bearing on the humanitarian situation of people around the world.
QUESTION: So do you think that – would it – had this determination been made six months or eight months or a year ago, it would have had a bearing on the humanitarian situation?
MR PRICE: It was a process that took some time. We wanted to carefully weigh all of the inputs, not only the law, not only the facts, not only the evidence, but also the policy considerations.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Ned, can I ask a question on Iraq?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. This past weekend marked the 19th anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And General McKenzie gave an interview to Military Times, in which he says that our presence will continue to be there for years to come. Could you update us on the status of American presence in Iraq?
MR PRICE: We are there, and any American forces are there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. The Department of Defense has spoken to the end of the combat mission in Iraq. We continue to share vital interests with our Iraqi partners, including to see to it that groups like ISIS, groups that pose a threat to the United States, to Iraq, to countries in the region continue to face pressure from the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
But as the Department of Defense has said, everything we do is in cooperation with and at the invitation of the Government of Iraq.
QUESTION: Is the American military presence in Iraq only to support America’s military presence in northern Syria and aiding the Kurds?
MR PRICE: I would leave it to my colleagues at the Department of Defense to speak to the specifics.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:35 p.m.)