2:16 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone.
MR PRICE: Happy Monday. Will take your questions in just a moment, but first, last week’s African Union announcement of the signing of a cessation of hostilities between the Government of Ethiopia and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, represents, as we’ve said, a significant step towards peace. We again commend the parties for reaching an agreement and applaud the African Union and the governments of Kenya and South Africa for helping to drive this process.
The parties are in Nairobi, in keeping with the provision that the Ethiopian National Defense Fund and the Tigrayan Defense Force would meet within five days to work out the implementation. Also, as provided by the agreement, a hotline has been established between the two senior-most commanders.
These concrete implementation steps reflect a commitment by both parties to, quote/unquote, “silence the guns.” But more work remains. We understand the agenda for the Nairobi talks will also include the urgent need to expedite humanitarian assistance and restoration of services for Tigray and adjoining affected regions of Afar and Amhara, in accordance with the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. The talks are being presided over by the AU High Level Panel of former presidents Obasanjo and Kenyatta, the AU Commission, and with the participation of Kenyan and South African generals. The observers include the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, and the U.S., represented by our special envoy, Mike Hammer. Our special envoy is remaining in the region to support implementation of the Pretoria agreement. We stand ready to continue to support the parties along with the international partners on implementation of the agreement.
And then finally, today the U.S. Department of State, through the Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program, announced a reward offer of up to $1 million for information leading to the arrest and/or convictions of three Haitian nationals: Lanmò Sanjou, a/k/a Joseph Wilson; Jermaine Stephenson, a/k/a Gaspiyay; and Vitel’Homme Innocent.
On October 16th, 2021, the 400 Mawozo gang, of which these individuals are members, engaged in a conspiracy to kidnap 16 U.S. Christian missionaries and one Canadian missionary to hold them for ransom. The missionaries and their families were abducted after visiting an orphanage in the town of Ganthier, east of Port-au-Prince. The kidnapping victims of the 12 missionary – of the missionary group included 12 adults and five children.
The United States support the efforts of our Haitian law enforcement partners seeking to enforce rule of law in Haiti, and to combat transnational organized crime. Supporting the Haitian people is a whole-of-government effort. This reward offer complements the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement of felony indictments against Wilson, Sanjou, and Innocent for their roles in the kidnapping. Currently, all three individuals are fugitives from justice.
With that, Matt.
QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Ned. Happy Monday.
MR PRICE: Happy Monday.
QUESTION: Before I get to a question on Russia, I just want to ask real quick – because I don’t think you’ll have a lot on this, but I just want to make sure – and that is the murder of a USAID worker in Baghdad. Have you –
MR PRICE: You’re right. We don’t have much to offer on this publicly just yet. We’re of course aware of these reports. We’re looking into these reports. There is a process that we would need to undertake, if and when we are in a position to confirm that an American has been killed. We would of course first notify the next of kin before making any public comment. So, we’re still looking into these reports to determine what we can regarding these allegations.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, does that mean that you’re – that you don’t even know if someone has been – has been killed in the circumstances that were described?
MR PRICE: There is no reason to doubt that someone has been killed, as the reports indicate. But we want to be thorough in determining that the victim in this case was in fact a U.S. citizen, and of course then undertaking any necessary efforts to notify next of kin.
QUESTION: Okay. And then moving on, unless anyone has more on that, I just want to ask you about this, quote/unquote, “admission” by Mr. Prigozhin in Russia that they have interfered, they will continue to interfere, in U.S. elections and what you make of it, if anything.
MR PRICE: Well, I suppose his own statements didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. His bold confession, if anything, appears to be just a manifestation of the impunity that crooks and cronies enjoy under President Putin and the Kremlin.
As you know, we have sanctioned this individual, Yevgeny Prigozhin, since 2018 for his interference in the – with our election processes and institutions. In March of 2018, the Department of the Treasury designated the Internet Research Agency and Prigozhin himself. This designation targeted malicious cyber actors, including those involved in interfering with the election process and institutions.
On September 20th of 2019, Treasury, under the auspices of OFAC, also took action against Russian actors that attempted to influence the 2018 midterm elections; including previously designated person Yevgeny Prigozhin as well as the employees of the Internet Research Agency which Prigozhin himself finances.
In July of this year, we put forward a so-called Reward for Justice, or RFJ, seeking information on interference in U.S. elections by the Internet Research Agency, by Prigozhin, and related Russian entities, offering up to $10 million for information on foreign interference in U.S. elections.
We all know, especially today but every day, the free and fair elections are a cornerstone of American society, of American democracy. We won’t tolerate interference in our elections regardless of where it comes from. We’ve demonstrated that – not only with our words, but with our deeds. In addition to the sanctions against Prigozhin, against the IRA, this administration has announced sanctions against Russia. We did so in April of 2021 in response not only to Russia’s malicious cyberattack, in the context of Solar Winds and in the context of what it had done to Mr. Navalny with the chemical weapons attack – what it was doing to Mr. Navalny’s supporters, but also in response to its interference in our elections. We’ve done the same against Iran. We are prepared to do the same against any other state or entity that would seek to interfere in our democratic processes.
QUESTION: Okay. You said that his own statements didn’t tell you anything that you didn’t already know, and then you mentioned how it demonstrates impunity – that they act with. But I mean, he’s not accused of violating any Russian law. Are you suggesting it demonstrates impunity for him violating U.S. law, and that he should fly over here and turn himself in? Is that —
MR PRICE: Clearly, Matt, these are not —
QUESTION: Well, I just – I mean, it seems like he’s boasting, right?
MR PRICE: It’s —
QUESTION: So – but I am not sure how that’s a demonstration of his impunity because —
MR PRICE: It is a demonstration of impunity that someone anywhere can boast publicly of interfering in the democratic elections of another sovereign country, and that nothing would happen to them. And far from anything having happen to him, in terms of the criminal justice system, the so-called criminal justice system in Russia, he is by all accounts a Kremlin insider. He is someone who is a prized associate of —
QUESTION: But that – but the point, I mean, do you expect Putin to act against him?
MR PRICE: Of course, we don’t —
QUESTION: Okay, all right.
QUESTION: We don’t expect President Putin to act against him, but we’d like to see the Russian Federation act against someone who so openly boasts about interfering in the elections of a sovereign country. Of course, we would expect that of a responsible law enforcement system of a responsible government; but of course we know better than to expect that of Russia.
QUESTION: Ned, just a clarification. So, you said boasting and so on. He could be just making himself a lot more important than he really is. I mean, are the Russians really involved in this thing? Do you think that he would say this without giving – being given a green light by Putin, frankly?
MR PRICE: So, I will leave it to my colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to speak to what the current threat environment looks like. But what I will say is that we know that both the IRA and its benefactor Prigozhin have been involved in election interference in the past. We are very closely watching – the Department of Homeland Security is very closely watching any potential efforts to interfere, whether it’s with disinformation or misinformation or otherwise, in our upcoming midterm elections or other democratic processes in this country.
So, whether everything he has said over the past day or so is completely accurate, that’s not something I’m going to weigh in on. But what I will weigh in on is that this is an individual who has and continues to claim to be interfering in our democratic processes. And that’s something we take seriously.
QUESTION: So, do you think that it is maliciously intended, right on the eve of the midterm elections, to sow – to throw some sort of a monkey wrench if they can into this election?
MR PRICE: Look, I am not going ascribe any particular, motive to these statements, whether it was boasting, whether it was bragging, whether there was some broader strategic intent. What we do know, and we’ve spoken to this publicly a number of weeks ago now, is Russia’s efforts around the world to interfere in the election, in the electoral processes of sovereign countries. We declassified and made public at the time that Russia has invested at least $300 million in these efforts. Its efforts have been well publicized in some instances, including in the context of our elections in 2016. There is an Intelligence Community assessment that lays that out. There is a public version of that that lays that out in some detail.
But Russia’s efforts to subvert democratic processes are of course not confined to the United States. They’re not confined to any one country. What we will do is to respond, and to respond decisively, to any country – any actor that seeks to interfere in our elections.
Alex. Or – sure.
QUESTION: On this line, given who he is, is it your assessment that his actions have been sanctioned by President Putin himself? And when you talk about impunity —
MR PRICE: Sanctioned as in authorized?
QUESTION: Authorized, yes.
MR PRICE: Okay, because we have sanctioned him.
QUESTION: Yes, yes.
MR PRICE: Look, it is – it’s difficult to say. I think what is clear is that someone of this stature, someone who is making these sorts of claims, would not be in a position to do so, going back to Matt’s question, if the Kremlin at some level didn’t approve of it. The lack of action against an individual like this is itself a pretty telling action. It is an indication that he has, at least, some degree of tacit permission from senior officials in the Russian Government.
What we do know about – and this goes back to the publicly released intelligence assessment from a number of years ago now – is that when it comes to Russia’s previous interference in our elections, it was approved at the highest levels of the Kremlin. But again, when it comes to what is the threat we may be facing now from Russia or from any other state actor, that is something that I would refer you to the Intelligence Community or to DHS.
QUESTION: And when you talk about impurity, is the U.S. Government ready to sanction President Putin himself for —
MR PRICE: We have sanctioned President Putin himself.
QUESTION: Election – in terms of violating, interfering with U.S. election process?
MR PRICE: We have sanctioned President Putin himself for the actions he’s taken in recent months. Of course, I’m not going to preview what might happen in this upcoming midterm election or what could happen going forward but suffice to say that we will respond. And we will respond decisively to any country, to any entity, to any individual that seeks to interfere in our elections.
QUESTION: And in terms of his actions in recent months, can I get your comment on the reported talks with the Russians? Are there different camps inside the administration in terms of how to deal with Russia at this point?
MR PRICE: There is both in this administration and with our European allies a firm recognition of the principle that has animated our efforts since before February 24th, and that is nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. That is something that we have all subscribed to. It is something that you’ve heard from this administration; it’s something that you’ve heard from our partners as well.
More recently, you’ve heard from the United States and from our partners, including in the G7 statement that was just released at the conclusion of the ministerial in Münster – there was a reference to this in the leaders statement some weeks back – that we believe, as do the Ukrainians, in a just peace – a just peace that respects the UN Charter’s principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, that would safeguard Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in the future, that would ensure Ukraine’s recovery, its reconstruction, and would provide for accountability for Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its commission of war crimes.
If Russia is ready for that negotiation, it should stop its bombs. It should stop its missiles. It should stop attacking and killing Ukrainian civilians – pursuing infrastructure, including civilian infrastructure. But of course, the Kremlin is doing the opposite. It is continuing to escalate this war rather than to offer any sort of real signal that it is ready for or open to negotiations.
If Russia wants to negotiate, why then did it walk away, even if temporarily, from the Black Sea Grain Initiative? That was perhaps the one forum where Russians and Ukrainians spoke and now speak, directly, on a daily basis. If it wants to demonstrate a serious commitment to de‑escalation, Russia could start by committing to renew this Black Sea Grain Initiative when it comes up for renewal later this month.
But it is not just us saying this. You’ve heard this as well from our Ukrainian partners. President Zelenskyy gave an address over the weekend. He said, quote, “We are ready for peace, for a fair and just peace, the formula of which we have voiced many times. The world knows our position. This is respect for the UN Charter, respect for our territorial integrity, respect for our people.” He has said a number of times that this war can only end through dialogue and diplomacy. We feel exactly the same. Our European allies feel exactly the same.
But it is incumbent upon Russia to signal its willingness and its readiness to sit down to engage with the Ukrainians. Instead, the only signal Russia has sent is one of death, is one of destruction, is one of continued brutality.
QUESTION: An Italian paper is reporting that NATO and the EU are discussing possible talks with Russia after Ukraine liberates Kherson. Can you confirm this, and are you viewing that as a sort of turning point?
MR PRICE: Yeah, the notion is that the Ukrainians would begin?
QUESTION: That NATO and the EU are discussing possible talks with Russia after Ukraine ‑‑
MR PRICE: So, I would have to refer to NATO and to the EU for any plans they have. But I feel confident in stating, as I just did a moment ago, that we are firmly of the belief, NATO is firmly of the belief, and the EU is firmly of the belief that there can be nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.
So, certainly, it is not the case that – and again, without speaking for NATO or the EU, but I am confident in saying that it is not the case that NATO and the EU would separately engage with Russia to determine the future of Ukraine and determine how this conflict ends. That is only something that Ukraine can do with Russia. These are decisions that the Ukrainian Government is going to have to make as the democratically elected representative of the Ukrainian people. It is something that President Zelenskyy has said he is committed to pursuing. He has said that this war will only end through dialogue and diplomacy; it can’t end decisively on the battlefield. It won’t end decisively on the battlefield. But ultimately, this is going to have to be a process between Ukraine and Russia.
In the interim, we are going to continue the process that we have had underway since before February 24th, and this is also something we’ve done in close coordination with the EU and with NATO, and that is to continue providing Ukraine with the security assistance it needs, the economic assistance it needs, and the humanitarian assistance it needs so that when that negotiating table develops, Ukraine will be in the strongest possible position. Nobody wants this war to end more than the Ukrainian people. No one has been more brutalized and battered than the Ukrainian people, of course. So, they have every incentive to see this war come to a close, but what we want to see is that they are in the strongest position – despite what Russia is doing to them day in, day out – to try to weaken them, to try to break them. And we’re going to continue providing our Ukrainian partners with what they need not only to withstand this aggression but to emerge strong and capable at the negotiating table.
QUESTION: But Ned, that could go on for a very long time, as you know. In the meantime, the war is going on. Nobody seems to be winning. Despite all the claims that the Ukrainians are making progress, the Russians going back – but anyway, they’re there. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon. So, you have to be looking at backdoor channels to have some sort of – not necessarily at this moment negotiations per se, but you have to be looking at other options because this could go on forever. So, what do you say to that? There has been contacts or – of course, Jake Sullivan was in Ukraine. There’s been contacts with the Russians and what have you. So, what – under what conditions could you be open to some sort of diplomatic solution besides saying that obviously Russia stop the war, because that’s not going to happen?
MR PRICE: Well, there seem to be a couple elements to your question. One has to do with the modalities of a negotiation, two has to do with the timing of any potential negotiation, and three pertains to any contacts on the part of the United States. So, I’ll take those in turn.
The first two, really the answer is the same: It is up to the Ukrainians to determine what those negotiations look like. And we’re – when we’re talking about negotiations in this context, I’m referring to negotiations between – it has to be – Russia and Ukraine, regarding the end to the war. It is up to Ukraine to determine who exactly is involved in this process, what precisely this process looks like. Of course, the United States and Ukraine’s many partners around the world stand ready to assist and to offer counsel and advice, but ultimately these are going to have to be decisions that the Ukrainians themselves make.
When it comes to the United States – again, I want to be very clear – there is no moving – there is no budging from our bottom-line position that there is nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. At the same time, the United States, as a responsible country, we have an obligation to maintain channels of communication with Russia. We have been very clear about this; in some instances, in spite of efforts of the Russians to make our diplomatic efforts, including those in Moscow, more difficult. But we have been emphatic in the belief that lines of communication and channels of dialogue are important even in times of tension. But they are especially important in times of conflict. So, we have been very intentional and deliberate about seeing to it that those – that existing lines of communication are not closed.
And you’ve seen us exercise those lines of communication. We don’t broadcast every conversation we have of course, but Secretary Blinken picked up the phone some months ago now because there were issues of great bilateral concern, including the status of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, the two wrongfully detained Americans in Russia. He wanted to send a very stark and clear warning to Russia at the time regarding our knowledge of what it planned to do. More recently, Secretary Austin, Chairman Milley, they’ve picked up the phones to their counterparts. Those have been the principal level engagements. But the fact is – and of course the White House has read out a conversation that Jake Sullivan has had with a Russian official, a number of months ago. But the fact is, those are all principal level engagements.
We have a functioning embassy in Moscow. We speak to the Russians via the embassy virtually every day, if not in fact every day. We speak consistently via the – we pass messages via the Russian embassy here in Washington. So, there are a number of ways for us to convey messages of bilateral importance to Russia. And I emphasize that word bilateral because we are not discussing with the Russians what a negotiated peace might look like, what the contours of a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine might look like.
We are discussing issues that have a profound importance in our bilateral relationship. Whether that is the status of the two wrongfully detained Americans, whether that’s the status of our embassy in Moscow, whether that is the imperative that the United States has to send a very clear signal to Russia of the enormous costs of escalation, or – God forbid, nuclear use, those are the types of conversations that we’re in a position to have day in, day out. Some of those conversations are routine, are prosaic; others are perhaps more strategic and significant. But the fact is that we believe it’s very important for us to have those conversations.
QUESTION: Thank you. At —
MR PRICE: Anything else on Russia-Ukraine before we – Kylie? Sure.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you would – there’s been a lot of conversation about diplomacy, and when or if the Biden administration will push for that. Would you say that the Biden administration right now is doing everything that you guys can to urge Russia towards a diplomatic solution?
MR PRICE: Of course, and we’re doing that in a number of ways. One is our messaging, and the very simple message that this war has to end diplomatically; it has to end through dialogue. The Ukrainians are doing this as well.
Consistent with that message is actually what we’re doing in terms of our provision of support to the Ukrainians. There is not going to be a decisive victory on the battlefield, yet we have provided billions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine. It’s more than $18 billion since the start of the conflict – since the start of Russia’s war on February 24th. We’re providing that to our Ukrainian partners so that they can defend themselves against this all-out Russian aggression, but so too that they can be in a stronger position on – at the negotiating table when it develops. We see an interconnection between what happens on the battlefield and what we are in a position to do to provide the sort of security assistance our Ukrainian partners need to defend themselves on that very battlefield and what ultimately happens at the negotiating table.
Same with our economic assistance. President Putin might have thought that he could starve Ukraine into submission, that he could bomb Ukraine into the depths of winter, into darkness. We have supported our Ukrainian partners with billions of dollars in economic assistance, including direct budgetary support, so that they can have an economically viable country, they can have a functioning government, they can provide their citizens with the basic services that they need to do – even while they are under this brutal assault from Russia.
So, we have signaled both in our messaging, in our words, but also in our actions, including the support to Ukraine, that we believe deeply in the necessity of dialogue and diplomacy. Unfortunately, the Russians have signaled – certainly in their actions – that, at the moment, they are focused on escalation. They are not focused on de-escalation. They are even less so focused on dialogue and genuine diplomacy. It’s our goal to help the Ukrainians shift that calculus.
QUESTION: And just one follow-up. There was a line from President Zelenskyy last month that got some pick-up after Washington Post reporting over the weekend where he said, “We are ready for…dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia.” What is the Biden administration’s response to that comment? Do you agree with that sentiment?
MR PRICE: So, you’re asking about the modalities of a negotiation, and obviously what – the details of what a negotiation between Russia and Ukraine would look like, that will have to be worked out between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainians will determine who their representatives will be, if and when a negotiating table develops. They will determine those individuals they’re willing to speak with, so we’re not going to weigh in on that. But I think what is much more important is what we’ve heard repeatedly now from President Zelenskyy, his fervent belief – something he has repeated in – even in recent days – that this war will be ended through dialogue and diplomacy.
QUESTION: But do you think there can be a diplomatic solution without regime change in Russia?
MR PRICE: Regime change is not our goal. It is not the goal of our Ukrainian partners. Our goal is to bring an end to President Putin’s war. It is to bring an end to it, to help the Ukrainians bring an end to it with a just peace, a just peace that reflects the principles of the UN Charter in terms of sovereignty, in terms of territorial integrity, in terms of a Ukraine that is at peace, that is free, that is stable, that’s economically viable, and that’s able to defend itself going forward.
QUESTION: Just so we are on same page here, given the report that was just mentioned of the Post, can you explicitly say that nothing that the U.S. Government has done last week or weekend that would suggest that you have been pressuring, advising, recommending Ukrainians talk to the war criminal Putin?
MR PRICE: We’re not pressuring our Ukrainian partners. Our Ukrainian partners don’t need any pressure to incentivize them to see this war come to an end. No one has suffered more than the Ukrainian people. No one wants to see this war end more than the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian Government. So, it is neither our place for us to pressure the Ukrainians, nor would we need to do such a thing. They have every incentive. It is the Russians that are sending a very different signal.
QUESTION: Thank you. Last weekend at the UN, a Security Council resolution, China and Russia again opposed adoption of condemnations of North Korea, and China and Russia shifted the blame to the United States. What is the next – U.S. next step to do?
MR PRICE: Well, the fact is that we have a slew of sanctions imposed against the DPRK, the United States does. There are a series of UN Security Council resolutions with costs associated with them and measures associated with them, and we’ve called on all UN member-states, but especially members of the Security Council, especially members of the Security Council that have a solemn obligation to uphold the principles of the UN Charter, the principles of the UN system, the tenets of the international order. Unfortunately, there are two members of the Security Council, the two you named, that have consistently shirked their obligations, that have stood in the way of the ability of the international community to impose additional costs, at least through this venue, on the DPRK for its continued and dangerous and destabilizing provocations that it has mounted in recent weeks and in recent months.
We have condemned the DPRK’s most recent ballistic missile launches, including the ICBM launch earlier this month, the reckless launch of a missile that landed dangerously close to the Republic of Korea. Every single one of these launches threatens regional global peace – threatens regional and global peace and stability – and is a violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions that were unanimously adopted by the council. So, members, permanent members especially, of the Security Council, have a special obligation. We’re especially concerned by the DPRK’s increasingly dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric – even went so far as to describe its recent missile launches and related activities as, quote/unquote, “practice runs” for the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the ROK, against the United States as well.
We will seek to continue to impose costs on the DPRK for its dangerous and destabilizing behavior even as we continue to seek serious and sustained diplomacy with the DPRK. We’ve called many times now for the DPRK to abandon its provocative behavior and to engage in that meaningful dialogue that we have put forward, but our commitment to the defense of our treaty allies, the ROK and Japan, it’s ironclad. We’ll continue to work closely with our allies to limit the DPRK’s ability to advance its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile program that threatens regional security.
When it comes to the Security Council, we heard from multiple UN Security Council members, including all of the elected members – the 10 elected members of the UN Security Council, just how crucial it is to address the advancing threat of the DPRK. And I call out the statement on the part of the 10 elected members of the Security Council because, of course, the two members of – permanent members of the Security Council have so far been silent. They have been unable or unwilling, for various reasons, to lend their voices to condemn what is objectively destabilizing and dangerous activity.
We’ll continue to engage with partners at the Security Council and continue to make the point to them, both in public and private, that a DPRK that feels that it can act with impunity and faces watered-down condemnation from the rest of the international community is not in the interest of China. It’s not in the interest of Russia. It is profoundly against the interests of the global order.
QUESTION: Today, North Korean military commander has released a statement saying it will take ruthless counterretaliation against South Korea and the United States. How would you response on this?
MR PRICE: Our response is what you’ve heard from us throughout this series of provocations: our commitment to the defense and to the security of our treaty allies, Japan and the ROK in this case, is ironclad. We have taken a number of steps when to increase our defense and our deterrence posture, and we’ll continue to calibrate our approach and our activities appropriately.
QUESTION: Do you think – quick – do you think North Korea’s continued provocation is simply set the stage for the dialogue with the United States? Or do you see it is – as an actual clash?
MR PRICE: Or do we see it as – what was the last part of —
QUESTION: Actual clash?
MR PRICE: As an actual crash?
MR PRICE: Oh, threat. Look, I would hate to ascribe a motive and I would hesitate to ascribe a motive to what we’re hearing from the DPRK. There is a pattern that has played out over the course of decades now of a period of provocation followed by a period of engagement. Whether what we’re seeing now will be preceded by a change in course, a change in tone from the DPRK, I think it’s impossible to say with any certainty. What we can do and what we can seek through both punitive measures and through our statements regarding dialogue and diplomacy, we can try to incentivize them in every way we can to come to the table, to engage in practical diplomacy, to make progress towards what is the ultimate goal of the United States, of Japan, of the ROK, and that’s the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
QUESTION: Thanks. Xi Jinping is planning to visit Saudi Arabia as the U.S. reevaluates its relations with the kingdom. Could you talk a little bit about how DOS weighs China’s potential to fill the void in foreign economic relations with Saudi Arabia as the U.S. re-evaluates its relations with the kingdom?
MR PRICE: These are going to have to be decisions that both the PRC and Saudi Arabia will come to. It’s not for us to say what a bilateral relationship between any two countries – when the United States isn’t among those two countries – should look like.
QUESTION: I do understand that, but do you weigh the potential for China to enter into that void as you determine what your future relationship with the Saudis is going to look like?
MR PRICE: What we weigh are our national interests, and there are a number – there are a multiplicity of interests that we have when it comes to our relationship with Saudi Arabia. There are a multiplicity of interests we have when it comes to the bilateral relationship we have with the PRC. So ultimately, we weigh our approach towards any particular country in terms of those interests. We look at the implications of deepening relations between any two countries or any grouping of countries; we look at the implications that might have in terms of our interests. But ultimately, we are going to pursue a path that is predicated solely on our interests and the values that we bring to our work around the world.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. On Bangladesh, millions of people of Bangladesh gathering in rallies various part of the country and demanding voting rights, under a neutral caretaker government. Ruling Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned the opposition if the BNP went superfluous in the name of anti-government movement, then opposition leader Khaleda Zia would be sent to jail again as 77-years-old former prime minister, staying at her house with a limited access. And according to State Department reports, her imprisonment is a political ploy to remove her from the political process. So, will you urge the opposition leader of Bangladesh immediate release? And what is your comment on that?
MR PRICE: We put, as you know, democracy and human rights at the center of our relationships around the world, at the center of our foreign policy. We as such regularly raise these issues with governments around the world, including the Government of Bangladesh. We do so both publicly, as I’ve done from this room, a number of times. We do so in our private engagements. And in doing so we urge the strengthening of democratic process and political institutions, adherence to the rule of law, and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout Bangladesh for all Bangladeshis.
With respect to the political process and the next election in Bangladesh, we hope for a robust civic participation, and the people of Bangladesh ultimately will be able to choose their own government through free and fair elections. That is our hope; that is what we continue to support. We urge the Government of Bangladesh to create a safe environment for people to peacefully assemble and to voice their concerns, and relatedly, for opposition parties to campaign without facing intimidation and repression.
Let me – Dylan.
QUESTION: Yeah, regarding protests in Iran, late last week at a campaign event President Biden said, quote, we’re going to bring – “We’re going to free Iran,” end quote. Could you shed some light on what that means exactly, the President saying we’re going to bring – we’re going to free Iran?
MR PRICE: The White House has spoken to this. The President was referring to the sentiment we’ve put forward since the start of these protests – namely, expressing our solidarity with the protesters. We’ve been doing that from the very earliest days of these peaceful demonstrations. The fact is that Iran – its government is facing problems that are fundamentally of its own making. This is – these protests are so powerful, because they are fundamentally not about us. They’re not about any external actor. They are about the legitimate, they’re about the genuine, they’re about the heartfelt aspirations of the Iranian people.
And the reason these protests have continued is because there is a strong sense among the Iranian people that their government is depriving them of their rights, of their aspirations. The Iranian Government would like nothing more for these protests to be about us, for – to be able to blame the United States for what they’re seeing. But again, the only entity they can blame is themselves. What we are doing is continuing to look for ways to hold the regime accountable, and to show our solidarity and to show our support with those across Iran who are peacefully demanding the universal rights that are as much theirs as they are to people around the world.
QUESTION: Does it not throw fuel on that fire to some extent that you’re referring to Iran trying to make these protests about the U.S. when the President says that we’re going to – implies that we’re involved, says we’re going to free them, we’re going to do something?
MR PRICE: The – again, the Iranian regime would like nothing more than for these protests to be about us. We have made very clear, but more importantly, the Iranian people have made very clear that this is a movement that is an expression of their legitimate and their genuine aspirations. We are – our role in this is to hold accountable those who are responsible for the repression, for the violence, for these internet blackouts, and to signal our solidarity for the Iranian people in the same way and in similar ways we do it around the world to peaceful – to people who are exercising their universal rights.
QUESTION: Just one more quick follow-up. He also said the Iranian people are going to free themselves soon. Is there any indication that you have that there’s some impending regime change or shift that we should expect, or was that just an offhand comment?
MR PRICE: Again, it’s going to be up to the Iranian people to determine the course of this movement. I think what has been so impressive to so many people around the world is that this movement has persisted in the face of violence. It’s persisted in the face of repression. It’s persisted in the face of systematic efforts to deprive the Iranian people of access to information and the ability to communicate with one another.
The fact that these protests have continued, again, suggests that this is the widespread and genuine expression of the demands that the Iranian people have for their government. Rather than try to cast aspersions or to cast blame on others, the Iranian Government should listen to their people.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Very quickly, moving to the Palestinian – to Israeli issue. First of all, have there been any calls between the Secretary of State and the new prime minister would-be, Mr. Netanyahu?
MR PRICE: Said, you may have seen that President Biden had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Netanyahu today, so of course the President would be the first to speak with the – with Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him, as he did today.
QUESTION: Right, right. Because I know that the Secretary of State spoke to the outgoing prime minister. That’s why I asked.
MR PRICE: Of course, former Prime Minister Lapid is someone the Secretary worked with very closely in his capacity as foreign minister, as alternate prime minister, and ultimately as prime minister.
QUESTION: Right. Okay, so let me ask you: on the possible makeup of the Israeli Government, I mean, there is a great deal of talk about Ben-Gvir again, that he might get one of the security ministries responsible for the Palestinians. What is the U.S. position on this? I mean, I know the common wisdom around town, even from very pro-Israeli think tanks and so on, that this should not be the case. Do you have any position on such a choice?
MR PRICE: Said, it is early in the process. It’s far too early to speculate on the exact composition of the next governing coalition, as we wait for this process to play out. We’ll continue to watch this closely, but I’m not going to speculate on a hypothetical at this stage in the process.
QUESTION: But I mean, would – I think the U.S. – would the U.S. look okay or look unkindly on such a choice, considering that he is known for his racist views and called for the killing of Palestinians and so on? At one time they were listed on the terror list in the United States and so on. So, you don’t have any position on such a choice?
MR PRICE: As you hear from me almost every day, I don’t have a position on a hypothetical.
QUESTION: All right.
MR PRICE: I’m not going to speculate. But the point we’ve also made is that our rock-solid partnership with Israel is based on mutual interests and shared values, and it’s those shared values that have served as a powerful glue between our two countries over the past more than 60 years now. It is a commitment to the value of open, democratic societies, tolerance, respect for civil society including minorities, and our – ultimately, our identities as two democracies.
QUESTION: I understand, and that’s always stood. But I remember a case when the United States did not speak to one Israeli minister, Ariel Sharon, for 18 years because of his involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, for instance. Are we likely to see something like this, that you will deal with the government – you found a way to deal with the government – and not deal directly with Mr. Gvir?
MR PRICE: Of course, Said, we will have a rock-solid relationship with Israel. The president had a warm call with incoming Prime Minister Netanyahu, but I’m just not going to speculate on a hypothetical so early in the process.
QUESTION: So, if an asteroid were about to crash into the Earth, is it good or bad? (Laughter.)
MR PRICE: That seems to ascribe some —
QUESTION: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it’s a hypothetical, right?
MR PRICE: It is a hypothetical.
QUESTION: You have no position? So, it actually might be good?
QUESTION: Let me just —
MR PRICE: Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: A really quick follow-up. I know that the Secretary spoke with Palestinian President – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The situation is just going to hell in a handbasket, as they say. So, what is – what is your assessment? What are you trying to do to actually mitigate this very aggressive Israeli behavior in the West Bank?
MR PRICE: We’ve spoken for some weeks now about the concern regarding increased violence in the West Bank. We’ve re-emphasized the need for all parties to do everything in their power to de-escalate the situation. The recent period, as you know, Said, has seen a sharp and rather alarming increase in Palestinian and Israeli deaths and injuries, including those of numerous children.
We continue to emphasize – and this has really been the predicate of our policy – that Israelis and Palestinians deserve to have equal measures of security, of stability, of justice, of dignity, and democracy. Importantly, we have been conveying these messages. We’ve been doing so publicly, but we’ve also been doing so privately. And our message has been, to Palestinians and to Israelis alike, of the vital importance that the parties themselves take urgent action to prevent even greater loss of life. This is something that we have worked on quietly behind the scenes well before the recent flareup in violence, but it is something that we’ve continued to do in the context of this increase in violence.
QUESTION: Do you have any information or any comment on the killing of a U.S. citizen in Baghdad and a kidnapping attempt?
MR PRICE: We discussed this at the very start of the briefing. We’re aware of the reports. There is a process that we would need to complete before we were able to confirm anything publicly. We’re looking into those reports, gathering the facts, but I don’t have any more to offer at this point.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Yes, Elizabeth.
QUESTION: On Syria, is there anything you can share about the U.S. delegation visit to al-Hol camp this past weekend? Did they offer any additional support to the local authorities there?
MR PRICE: So, I can confirm, as you likely saw, that a U.S. interagency delegation, including State Department officials, visited al-Hol to discuss repatriations assistance and security needs in northeast Syria with local authorities and partners on the ground. We continue to encourage all countries with nationals in northeast Syria to work with us towards durable solutions. We believe it’s critical that countries of origin repatriate their nationals from – repatriate their nationals from, and provide assistance to, northeast Syria to prevent a resurgence of ISIS.
When it comes to our policy, it’s remained clear. We believe that repatriation is the only durable solution to the humanitarian and security situation and displaced persons camp – camps in northeast Syria. And we have continued to work with our partners around the world to help them effect those repatriations to alleviate this worsening crisis.
QUESTION: And then one more in the region. At COP27, will the U.S. delegation meet with any of the activists protesting outside? And will human rights be part of the discussions with Egyptian counterparts?
MR PRICE: So human rights are always part of the discussions in every single relationship we have around the world. When we have engaged with our Egyptian partners in the past, it has always been high on the agenda. We have made the point to the Egyptians that improvements when it comes to issues of human rights only serve to strengthen the basis of the bilateral relationship. I have no doubt that human rights will also feature in the discussions leading up to COP between senior U.S. and Egyptian officials, and while the U.S. delegation is on the ground in Egypt.
QUESTION: Can we stay on human rights just for a second?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So, as you know, the Secretary and the President are headed to Cambodia this weekend. Back in August when he was there, the Secretary raised with Prime Minister Hun Sen the case of this Cambodian American human rights activist who’s been jailed, Theary Seng. At the time, he and you both said that she should be freed, as should others who have been unjustly detained. Has there been a determination that she has – that she is wrongfully detained in Cambodia and her case been moved from purely consular also to the SPEHA office, or not? And if not, why not?
MR PRICE: So, I’m not aware that there has been any change in categorization of her case. You are right that the Secretary did raise Theary Seng with Hun Sen in Cambodia in August. We routinely raise cases of detained Americans. When a U.S. citizen is arrested anywhere, we closely monitor the case, we provide all appropriate consular assistance. That’s what we’re doing in this case. We are providing Theary Seng and her family every form of appropriate assistance that we can. We’re aware that she has initiated a hunger strike. We’ve been in touch with her and her representatives. We’re, again, providing every appropriate service.
When it comes to how we categorize any individual who’s detained, around the world – any American who’s detained around the world, this is a process that doesn’t have an ending. We never come to a final determination that someone is not wrongfully detained. We are always looking at the information that is available to us to paint the full picture of the totality of the circumstances of a case. Whether a person is deemed to be detained wrongfully or not, we still have an obligation that we fulfill to provide all appropriate consular assistance to that individual and his or her family.
QUESTION: Right. But the point is, is that both you and the Secretary, as well as Samantha Power and Uzra Zeya, all referred to her as unjustly detained previously and that you no longer – are you saying that there’s some difference between unjustly detained and wrongfully detained?
MR PRICE: If the question you’re asking is about the formal process of classifying someone as a wrongful detainee, the process that’s laid out in the Levinson Act and a policy –
QUESTION: Yes. I think the argument is that her incarceration meets the criteria in the Levinson Act, and if it doesn’t, why not? And, also, if it doesn’t, why would you refer to her as being unjustly detained before and now not?
MR PRICE: There has been no effort to change our language on this case. We are always looking –
QUESTION: Well, can you say that she is – today, can you say that we call on the Cambodian authorities to release her, that she has been unjustly detained?
MR PRICE: We’ve engaged very closely, including at high levels, with Cambodian authorities. That’s why Secretary Blinken raised it with Hun Sen when we were in Phnom Penh, in August. But we’re always looking at the totality of circumstances of any particular case. But whether an individual is detained wrongfully or whether an individual is just detained, we provide every appropriate service to that individual and their family.
QUESTION: So, you can’t say today that you think that she was unjustly detained?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to say that.
QUESTION: Okay. Why – can you say why, if you had said it before?
MR PRICE: I’m – there has been no effort to shift —
QUESTION: Well, there obviously has been, because you used that language before and now you’re refusing to. So there obviously has been an effort to shift it, and I’m just wondering why.
MR PRICE: There —
QUESTION: I don’t know, maybe —
MR PRICE: To the best of my knowledge, there has not been any change in the status of her case.
QUESTION: Well, then – then why would you drop that word, that adverb, from the – from the lines that you —
MR PRICE: I would have to go back and look at precisely what you’re referring to, but there, to the best of my knowledge, has been no change in the status of her case.
QUESTION: Lastly, do you expect this will be raised by either the Secretary or – I know you can’t speak for the President, but do you expect it to be raised by U.S. officials during the meetings in Phnom Penh?
MR PRICE: I won’t speak for the White House, but this is a case that we routinely raise at senior levels, and that will continue.
Let me take a final question, so yes.
QUESTION: Last week, NSC Spokesperson John Kirby said North Korea was trying to send ammunition to Russia. And on last Friday, there was a report that the train was crossing from North Korea to Russia. Have you seen any indication that the train could be a secret shipment from North Korea to Russia?
MR PRICE: I’m not in a position to speak in any granular detail about our – any information we have pertaining to that particular shipment. What – we are aware of reports of resumed rail traffic between Russia and the DPRK. We continue to track this issue very closely. What is true is that multiple UN Security Council resolutions prohibit UN member-states from procuring from the DPRK all arms and related material. The UN Security Council imposed this prohibition over a decade ago in response to the DPRK’s illicit WMD and ballistic missile program.
So, it is an effort – it’s a program that we continue to watch very closely. We did declassify last week that the DPRK was seeking to supply Russia with needed security assistance, attempting to disguise those shipments by laundering them through third countries. But I’m just not in a position to speak to this particular rail shipment.
QUESTION: Ned, just before you go —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Can I just point out – this is what you said on June 15th in a statement, a written statement – and I wanted to pull it up so that I had it right and I could quote it a hundred percent. June 15th, 2022, your – in your name: “We call on Cambodian authorities to release all those unjustly detained, including Theary Seng, and protect freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, consistent with Cambodia’s constitution and its international obligations and commitments.”
So, I don’t see how you can say that there hasn’t been a concerted effort or action to change that determination. Because you won’t say it today, but yet you had no problem – you and the Secretary and the others that I mentioned – back in June. And —
MR PRICE: We’ll see if we can get you more details.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:14 p.m.)