2:18 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: Good to see everyone. Just one thing at the top today.
As we’ve stated for recent weeks and months, we’ve been working with foreign counterparts to support the establishment of an international financing mechanism that will facilitate the use of certain Afghan central bank reserves for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan without benefitting the Taliban.
Today, the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury, in coordination with international partners including the Government of Switzerland and Afghan economic experts, announced the establishment of a fund to benefit the people of Afghanistan, or the “Afghan Fund.”
In February, President Biden set a policy of enabling $3.5 billion worth of Afghan central bank reserves to be used for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan while keeping them out of the hands of the Taliban.
With the Afghan Fund, the United States and our partners are following through with that commitment with a concrete step toward ensuring that these additional resources will contribute to helping relieve hardship and suffering in Afghanistan.
In particular, we would like to thank the Swiss Government for its partnership to ensure this effort would be possible.
This fund will protect and preserve the Afghan central bank reserves, while making targeted disbursements to help stabilize Afghanistan’s economy and, ultimately, support its people and work to alleviate the worst effects of the humanitarian crisis.
The Afghan Fund will maintain its account with the Bank for International Settlements – or BIS – based in Switzerland. An external auditor will monitor and audit the Afghan Fund as required by Swiss law. The Taliban are not a part of this financing mechanism and resources disbursed will be for the benefit of the Afghan people, with clear safeguards and auditing in place to protect against diversion or misuse.
In addition to our leadership to facilitate the establishment of this fund, the United States continues to be the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. This effort has proceeded along multiple tracks, including working with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to make available more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance and support for the basic needs in addition to over $814 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.
With these measures, we will help the people of Afghanistan as the economy of Afghanistan faces serious structural issues that no amount of external support can resolve on its own. And the U.S. has made clear to the Taliban that the onus is on them to make key reforms which we have outlined repeatedly.
With that, turn your questions.
QUESTION: Right. Thanks, Ned. I just have, like, 17 really brief – I’m kidding. (Laughter.)
MR PRICE: I would believe you if you told me that.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) I don’t; I’m kidding. I didn’t have any, but now just because of your opening statement, I – so when is the soonest that this money could actually get to people or to organizations that could help people in Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: So a couple things on that, Matt. The establishment of the Afghan Fund was recently finalized; it was announced publicly today early this morning. We are working with our partners, including at the Treasury and our international partners as well, to disburse these funds to the Afghan Fund as soon as possible. We’re working with great alacrity.
QUESTION: Oh no, I – from the Afghan fund at the BIS, when is the soonest that any of this money might be able to actually make its way to help the people of —
MR PRICE: So there are a couple steps that would need to take place before that. One, we need to disburse the funds that are currently located in the United States to the Afghan Fund that’s based in Switzerland. That will take a little bit of time. We’re, of course, working as quickly as we can to do that.
But the other key point is that the Afghan Fund is explicitly not intended to make humanitarian disbursements. The Afghan Fund itself is to facilitate macroeconomic stability inside Afghanistan. So we will remain the largest humanitarian donor for the Afghan people. As I said before, we’ve already provided over $814 million. We’ve worked with international partners to facilitate the provision of over $1 billion, additional dollars, to the Afghan people. This is not what that fund is for. This fund is to provide macroeconomic stability in Afghanistan that will enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance from the United States and other donors.
QUESTION: Okay, that’s fine, but how long is it going to take for the money, the 3.5 billion, which you guys have right now, to get to the BIS? And then how long is it going to take for it to get from the BIS to any group, whoever it is, that would actually help Afghanistan?
MR PRICE: So the answer to your first question is as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Well, okay, but what is that, a week?
MR PRICE: I’m —
QUESTION: Is that a day?
MR PRICE: I’m just not in a position to put an exact timeframe on it, but as soon as possible. The answer to your second question is largely dependent on needs and what the independent – what the trustees of the Afghan Fund, working closely with the independent auditors, assess are the macroeconomic needs of Afghanistan.
QUESTION: But Ned – that’s fine. But how soon could – once this board of governors or whatever it’s called decides that something is a worthy project, how long does it take to get from the BIS to Afghanistan? Like an hour? Less? Is it instantaneous transfer?
MR PRICE: Well, wiring money is a pretty instantaneous process. But of course, there will be —
QUESTION: Well, tell my banker that, but —
MR PRICE: I’m sorry to hear that. (Laughter.) Of course there will be deliberation on the part of the trustees to see to it that the targeted disbursements to —
QUESTION: No, I get it, but what’s —
MR PRICE: — to a vetted list of entities is appropriate and in the macroeconomic interests of the Afghan economy.
QUESTION: All right. And then last thing from me. The – you said that the President had set a policy of putting aside 3.5 billion, but that’s only half of the amount that is being held by you guys. And that other 3.5 billion, have the plans changed for that?
MR PRICE: That other 3.5 billion remains subject to litigation, and so we’re going to let that litigation proceed.
QUESTION: So they – so the Afghans can’t expect to see that, whether it’s the – not the Taliban, but whoever, the people in Afghanistan can’t expect to ever see that?
MR PRICE: First, the additional 3.5 billion is subject to litigation, so it’s not on us to get ahead of that litigation.
QUESTION: Could I just ask one thing to follow up on that?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Just for our understanding, will you guys, will this new fund be making announcement when this money is actually transferred to these economic efforts in Afghanistan? Like, will we be able to track this as it goes?
MR PRICE: We do have a U.S. representative as a trustee on the Afghan Fund, but this will be a decision on the part of the Afghan Fund. We’re not in a position to – we won’t be in a position to speak for the fund, because while we will have a representative, it is its own entity.
QUESTION: Will the fund itself make announcements about where it’s putting this money?
MR PRICE: I would need to defer to the fund to speak to that.
QUESTION: And do you have a prioritization for where in the economy this money should go, or is that still up to the board to make those decisions?
MR PRICE: Well, it will be up to the board to make those decisions. These are trustees from the United States, from the Government of Switzerland – there are two independent Afghan trustees as well. They in turn will make those decisions. There is a vetted list of sources for disbursement. But just to give you a flavor for what these sorts of macroeconomic infusions could look like, for example, to make payments for critical imports like electricity, that is something that could – we could envision the fund doing. To pay arrears at international financial institutions, the types of activities that are separate and apart from the day-to-day welfare that our humanitarian assistance and the humanitarian assistance of the international community is designed for. This has a very specific purpose that is separate from that.
QUESTION: The – your representative for Afghanistan, Tom West, was having talks with the Taliban in Uzbekistan shortly before al-Qaida’s leader was killed in Kabul. Among the topics that were being discussed were the 3.5 billion. Can you detail any updates on any engagement with the Taliban since then, and whether they were in any way part of any discussions after those discussions and after the death of Zawahiri about this – these funds? Or how do you foresee engagement continuing with the Taliban?
MR PRICE: Well, these reserves have been a topic of discussion with the Taliban for months now, really going back to our earliest engagements with the Taliban. We have repeatedly made clear to them our concerns with potentially recapitalizing the Afghan central bank absent very specific reforms. We made clear – Tom West and others have made clear – to the Taliban that there are a number of steps that we would need to see before we could contemplate a recapitalization of the Afghan central bank.
For example, demonstrating its independence from political influence and interference, demonstrating it has instituted adequate anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism controls, complete a third-party needs assessment, and onboard a reputable third-party monitor. Those steps have not taken place yet. We’ve made very clear to the Taliban those are the kinds of steps that would need to occur before we could consider recapitalization.
But more broadly, our engagement with the Taliban has been predicated on U.S. interests and the interests of the Afghan people and the broader international community. And so that’s why in every engagement with them – and there, to my knowledge, has not been a senior-level engagement since the one you reference, since the one a couple months ago when Tom West met with Taliban representatives – we have emphasized the importance of human rights, the rights of all Afghans, including women and girls, minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, the ability of the people of Afghanistan to freely depart the country should they so choose. The counterterrorism commitments that the Taliban has subscribed to – subscribed to publicly in its public commitments, but also the counterterrorism commitments that it put forward in the U.S.-Taliban agreement of 2020, commitments that clearly were not honored in the instance of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the now late al-Qaida leader living in Kabul.
And we’ve also made clear consistently the priority we attach to the safe return of Mark Frerichs. We have made clear to the Taliban that there cannot be any improvement in our relationship while the Taliban continues to retain control or to have control over a U.S. citizen who remains a hostage.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Price. As you mention about Afghanistan, still school is closed. Some primaries in Afghanistan opened and they reclosed. I don’t know how many group of Taliban they have power and control in Afghanistan. Even a week ago, girl in Afghanistan was crying because they open two months ago; they reclosed. That’s big consideration, and Afghan people has a high expectation from the United States. They said you are superpower. Why you don’t bring pressure on the so many terrorist group in Afghanistan? And it’s not fair to girl, cry every day. I’m crying here. Girl in Afghanistan – time goes fast. They lost their opportunity. Any option?
And also, the second question: Panjshir Province is a bad situation. Resistance group fighting with the Taliban, and hundred people get hostage by the Taliban. I don’t know United States know about it, support resistance or not? Resistance —
MR PRICE: In many ways, Nazira, you are right. It is not fair. It is a profound injustice what the Taliban are doing, what the Taliban have done to Afghanistan’s women and girls. It is just a simple fact that no society can succeed, let alone thrive, if half or more of its population is systemically deprived of an education and, in turn, deprived of the opportunity that comes with secondary education. That is precisely what the Taliban has been doing. We are using the channels and the tools at our disposal to make very clear where the United States stands, where the international community stands, but also what the people of Afghanistan deserve and expect of those who purport to be their leaders.
Tom West, our special representative for Afghanistan, Rina Amiri, our special envoy for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, they have made this point directly to the Taliban. They spoke to the so-called foreign minister, Mr. Muttaqi, in May, to make this point. Tom West in his face-to-face engagements with the Taliban have made this very similar point. And we are using every tool at our disposal to make clear that this is unacceptable.
The international community has certain sources of leverage. There are things that the Taliban wants and there are things that the Taliban has not gotten. We spoke to one of those today. The Taliban has desired a recapitalization of the Afghan central bank. The fact that the Taliban has not provided any solace or reassurance that funds would not be diverted for nefarious or otherwise malign purposes led us to the announcement that we made today, the establishment of an independent fund that puts this $3.5 billion in Afghan reserves out of reach of the Taliban itself even as that funding is – will be used to support the macroeconomic stability of the Afghan people.
They want sanctions relief. It’s very clear that the Taliban want to engage in broader economic activity with the international community. They want to be able to travel freely. The international community has made clear that while the Taliban systemically deprives half or more – in some cases much more – of its population of fundamental rights, that there will be no such sanctions relief.
They want better relations with the United States. They want better relations with the international community. They have called for the international community to reopen diplomatic outposts, to reopen embassies in Afghanistan. For our part, for the part of our partners and allies, we have made very clear that we are not looking at recognition. We are looking at where – in our interests, only practical engagement, practical engagement that we hope will push the Taliban in the right direction, and will continue to engage with them on that basis until we see improvements in those areas that we care most about.
QUESTION: Sorry, Ned. You mentioned that – what this – you gave two examples of what this money might go to. One was electricity – paying – and the other one was paying arrears to international financial institutions.
MR PRICE: That’s right. That’s right.
QUESTION: Obviously, electricity is something that all Afghans, not just the Taliban, use or would want to use. But how is paying arrears to international financial institutions not benefiting the Taliban, remembering, of course, that money is fungible? So if they’re not having to use their own money for this, they’re putting that – whatever money they have to whatever they want to go.
And then secondly, what is the evidence that the Taliban wants better relations with the United States or the West? What is the evidence that they want to travel freely? They seem to be able to travel to Doha and then from there to go beyond.
MR PRICE: They’re able to —
QUESTION: What’s your evidence for this?
MR PRICE: They’re able to travel to Doha only because of a travel ban exemption, a travel ban exemption that is still —
QUESTION: Yeah. But what’s your evidence that they want to go to Australia or to Brazil? What’s the evidence for that?
MR PRICE: Matt, these are individuals, some of whom have lived in Doha for quite some time or spent a significant amount of time there. They have made clear that —
QUESTION: Yeah, and they – and they’re the ones that can afford to go to Doha. But the normal – the average Afghan person cannot fly – can’t —
MR PRICE: We’re not – we’re not talking about the average Afghan person. We’re talking about senior Taliban officials. We’re talking about the restrictions that are placed on senior Taliban officials.
QUESTION: Well, what is the evidence that they want to —
MR PRICE: Of course, we’re differentiating between the Taliban and the Afghan people. We’re supporting the Afghan people.
QUESTION: What’s the evidence that they want to go anywhere other than New York for UNGA?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: What’s the evidence that they want to go anywhere other than New York for the UN General Assembly?
MR PRICE: They want to be able – they have made very clear in their public statements, but also in their private statements as well – they want to be seen as any other government around the world. What is very clear is that they are not any other government around the world. We have not recognized – that is not something that is on the table. But they want the benefits and the advantages that every other sovereign government around the world accrues.
When it come to the fungibility of money, this fund is for Afghanistan’s macroeconomic stability. Afghanistan’s macroeconomic stability is in the interests of the people of Afghanistan. It’s in the interests of the broader region. It’s in the interests of the international community. What is important is that the Taliban does not have access to these funds. The Taliban will not be able to pull the levers of these funds, to direct these funds to specific entities.
QUESTION: And I’m sorry to interrupt you, but look, the whole idea – you started off by saying you’re going to address the question of fungibility. The point is that they don’t need access to these funds directly. If you’re going to pay their debts to the IMF and the World Bank and whoever else, then they don’t —
MR PRICE: These —
QUESTION: It never – they don’t ever need to touch it.
MR PRICE: These are debts —
QUESTION: But they still benefit from it.
MR PRICE: These are debts – electricity payments, arrears – that would otherwise go unpaid and that would plunge Afghanistan into even greater levels of macroeconomic instability. That would not benefit the people of Afghanistan. Ultimately —
QUESTION: But isn’t —
MR PRICE: Ultimately – ultimately, we’re doing what is in the best interests of the people of Afghanistan, putting in place the safeguards to see to it and the auditing structures to see to it that these funds are used as they were intended.
Anything else on Afghanistan? Sure.
QUESTION: One more on Afghanistan while we’re still here. According to some congressional sources, the State Department has told Congress that there are more than 120,000 Afghan SIV applicants who are still in Afghanistan and that approximately 11,000 of them have chief-of-mission approval. Can you just bring us up to date as to – I mean, you say you’re supporting the Afghan people, but clearly these are Afghans who want to leave the country. So what is the status of those flights out of the country right now for those folks?
MR PRICE: Sure. So let me just give you an update. As you know, revamping and revitalizing the SIV program was an early priority of this administration. When we took office in January of 2021, there had not been a single interview, SIV interview, conducted in Kabul since March of the previous year – nearly a year without interviews. Some of that was as the result of COVID; some of that was the result of what appears to have been, unfortunately, intentional neglect of a program that would bring and that has brought thousands of our partners who have helped the U.S. military and the U.S. Government over the course of 20 years to the United States and to safety.
As a result of the steps we’ve taken internally as a result of the coordination that we’ve done with the other departments and agencies that have a role in this program, we have significantly shortened the processing time. We have taken that processing time and, by some estimates, reduced it by about one-tenth. We have shaved months and months off the time it takes to process an individual through the chief-of-mission stage.
As of essentially August 1st, in part because of some of these steps that we’ve taken, we’ve issued approximately 15,000 SIVs to principal applicants and their eligible family members since the start of the Biden administration.
Now, when it comes to the current backlog, as of August of this year there were approximately 17,000 principal applicants who have submitted all of the documents that are required for chief-of-mission approval. These applicants are either being reviewed for chief-of-mission approval or have received chief-of-mission approval and are awaiting further processing steps. These figures are published regularly on our website, quarterly, when it comes to the backlog.
Now, there are larger numbers out there. Some of those numbers are woefully inaccurate and just wrong. There are – there is a larger universe of Afghans who may wish to apply for this program, of Afghans who have completed one or more of the steps to – towards that chief-of-mission approval. But the number of Afghans who have submitted all of the documents required for this stage is 17,000.
QUESTION: And how many flights are going out a week?
MR PRICE: Flights are going out regularly. These are flights that we have maintained since shortly after the U.S. military withdrawal from Kabul late last year that over the course of nearly a year now, or just about a year, have taken more than 800 Americans, U.S. citizens; if I recall, more than 600 lawful permanent residents; but also thousands upon thousands of our Afghan allies on these flights as well.
QUESTION: And just to be clear, when you say 17,000 principal applicants —
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: — that means an applicant, but it doesn’t include their family members who may be applying with them? Is that right?
MR PRICE: Well, under the law, as it was drafted by Congress, there are certain family members, close family members, who are eligible for the SIV program when there’s a principal applicant. So yes, those are principal applicants.
QUESTION: Yeah, right. Thank you.
QUESTION: And the 17 doesn’t include the 15 that were already granted, right?
MR PRICE: That’s correct, yeah, that’s correct.
QUESTION: On Russia, Congress – some members of Congress are introducing a bill that would force the administration to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Obviously, I don’t want to ask you a hypothetical, but the – the administration, you’ve said that the administration doesn’t support or doesn’t agree that the Russia should be – should get this designation. So I wonder if you could say whether – what is the sort of – the reason that you don’t support that? Is it because Russia doesn’t legally pass the test of state sponsor of terrorism, or are there other reasons? Is it because it’s not in the national security interests of the U.S.?
MR PRICE: So we have taken this question a number of times. Let me see if I can recap our approach to this particular step. We’ve always said we are going to do what is effective in holding Russia to account for its brutal invasion of Ukraine, and we have made good on that pledge. Since the earliest hours after February 24th, we have launched with ourselves and with partners around the world a series of rounds of sanctions aiming not only at President Putin and his lieutenants in the Kremlin, but also the cronies and others who enable them. We are going to continue to do that. And we have had even in recent days continued discussions with Congress about steps that would be appropriate and, importantly, effective for use as we continue to increase the costs on the Russian Federation for its brutal invasion.
A couple things, though. The SST statute, the state sponsor of terrorism statute, of course, as a statute, as a law, it was written by Congress, drafted by Congress. It is our charge, as is always the case, to examine the facts and to apply that to the law that was drafted by Congress. We have an obligation to always follow the law. We are going to do that whether it’s this statute or any other statute. So one thing, there’s a statutory definition.
But there’s also the unintended consequences that could come with designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. We believe that there are more targeted approaches that we could take that would hold the Russian economy and the Russian Government to account, to continue to impose those massive costs and consequences, without incurring those unintended consequences. We have heard from humanitarian organizations, we have heard from NGOs of their sincere and profound concerns that designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism would hinder their ability to deliver humanitarian assistance inside Ukraine, leaving aside what they could do inside Russia, what they would want to do inside Russia.
They have concerns that taking this step would hinder their ability to help the people of Ukraine, and that is something that we take very seriously. We also take very seriously the need to see food continue to leave from Ukrainian ports, to travel by Ukrainian rail. And we are mindful of the implications, intended or not, of potentially labeling Russia a state sponsor of terrorism – the implications it would have on the ability of the international community to take part in transactions would see food, whether it ultimately starts in Russia or ultimately takes root literally in Ukraine from getting to the region and well beyond.
So to sum it up, there are steps that we have taken and there are steps that we are discussing with Congress that we could take that would have effects that are analogous to those envisioned by the SST without those unintended consequences. But if you take a step back and you look at all that we have mounted on Russia, on President Putin, on the Kremlin since February 24th, you see a really stunning toll. You see a GDP that is in freefall – estimates range of a decline between six and 15 percent. About a thousand multinational companies have left, fled the Russian marketplace. We’ve seen inflation on the rise; we’ve seen the stock market tumble. We’ve seen the Russian Government have to go to extraordinary lengths to artificially prop up the value of the ruble.
And final point: All of the costs that have been imposed on the Russian economy, these are costs that will be compounded over time as the sanctions, coupled with the export controls, systematically deprive Russia of the inputs that it will need for its technological base, for its military base, for its defense base, for its energy production base. We will see the effects of these tools grow and grow over time. You already see Russia’s automotive industry struggling. You already see Russia turning to countries like North Korea, turning to North Korea and Iran to fulfill what it feels it needs on – to wage this war against Ukraine. That is all a result of the measures we’ve taken.
QUESTION: But what you’re saying to Congress is we’re discussing – you’re discussing with Congress analogous measures, but you shouldn’t do this, we don’t want to see this bill?
MR PRICE: We’ve – the President was asked about this recently. He voiced very clearly our approach to this particular authority. Again, these authorities are drafted by Congress. We have to marry the facts to the law. We also have to take into account the consequences, both intended and unintended, and that has led us to the approach we’ve taken here.
But yes, we are engaging with Congress on tools that would continue to have analogous implications for the Russian economy, for the Russian Government, that would not have those unintended consequences.
QUESTION: And separately, there’s a conversation today between Secretary-General Guterres and Putin, President Putin, discussing a possible deal on ammonia. This is all related to grain, the grain deal, I guess. Do you have any response to that (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: We’ll leave this to the UN to speak to. What I can say is that in the massive set of costs and consequences that we’ve imposed on Russia, we’ve been very careful at every turn to install humanitarian carve-outs for Russian food and fertilizer. So insofar as our sanctions, insofar as international sanctions are concerned, there is no limitation, there is no prohibition on the Russian export, on the Russian sale of food and fertilizer. That’s very intentional.
That also gets back to one of the points I was making previously about some of the potential unintended consequences of a designation like the SST. We need to see the world continue to receive food, to receive fertilizer. The grain deal that was instituted a number of weeks ago with Turkey, with the UN, with Ukraine, and also with Russia has been an instrumental part of that – more than 2.7 million metric tons in about 120 voyages that have left from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in recent weeks. We want to see food continue to flow. We are not going to do anything to hinder that in any way.
QUESTION: Staying on Russia.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: It’s been reported that ex-Governor Richardson is in Moscow this week, presumably to try and help or release the U.S. prisoners there. Do you have any details of that trip? Would – do you support it? Do you condemn it? Do you think it would be helpful? What can you say to that? And have you, the State Department itself, been in contact with the ex-governor?
MR PRICE: We have been in contact with the Richardson Center. We’re not going to comment on the governor’s travel or the governor’s activity. What we have said is that we have been engaged directly with the Russian Government through the appropriate channels to do everything we can to bring home Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. When President Biden met President Putin in Geneva in June of 2021, they discussed this very issue. They established an appropriate channel that these issues would be worked through. That is the channel that we have been using this time.
Through that channel, as the Secretary said standing here a couple months ago now, we made a significant offer to the Russians. We have followed up on that proposal repeatedly. Those discussions are ongoing.
Our concern is that private citizens attempting to broker a deal do not and cannot speak for the U.S. Government. And we have urged, warned private citizens not to travel to Russia owing to the dangers that they would face. And of course, those dangers are pronounced given that we’re talking about the case of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.
Our concern is that anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to hinder the efforts that we have undertaken to see the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.
QUESTION: On Russia?
QUESTION: Same topic, Ned.
MR PRICE: Same topic?
QUESTION: Same topic.
MR PRICE: Same topic.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Ned, war crimes investigation (inaudible) continues to expand in Ukraine because they found an access to new territory, new facts. The defense minister just posted a picture which they believe to be torture chamber, where they torture Ukrainian prisoners. Also new bodies were found in Kharkiv. How much does it reflect on your end? I know you have several State Department bureaus are working on this at the same time. And are you prepared to call what Russia is doing in Ukraine war crime?
MR PRICE: We – we have already called it a war crime. We have said very clearly that Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. We came to that assessment after evaluation just a few weeks into the – Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Their —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) believe that this is – this also is a sign of genocide that the Russian Government has been committing?
MR PRICE: Well, there is no question that Russia has committed – Russia’s forces have committed war crimes. Russia’s forces have committed atrocities. Russia’s forces have committed what appear to be crimes against humanity. Genocide, like other terms, carries its own definition. There are offices and individuals in this building, including our ambassador at large for Global Criminal Justice, whose primary task is to work with international partners culling through the evidence that has been collected in an effort to analyze, to preserve it, and to disseminate it so that we can support the global accountability mechanisms that are already in play.
The Ukrainian prosecutor – the office of the Ukrainian prosecutor general has an effort underway, has had an effort underway for some time. There have already been prosecutions that have been carried out under those auspices. The OSCE and its Moscow Mechanism is taking a very close look at reports of war crimes and atrocities committed by Russia’s forces, and the ICC has indicated an effort to take a close look at well – as well. We support all of these and any other accountability efforts that are likely to end in accountability for the Russian officials responsible for this.
QUESTION: Yes, and about the SST, what of the – what of the SST designation? What are the signs that you —
MR PRICE: We’ve covered this a little bit, so I’m going to try and move around. Yes.
QUESTION: Yeah, so I mean – but I also want to follow up on Simon’s question just about the SST, because you cited potentially unintended consequences, but this administration previously lifted a SDGT off of a Yemeni terrorist group, the Houthis, but then you also – I know you guys haven’t, but the administration has mentioned that they’re considering or reconsidering designating group because of actions that they’ve taken following that move by the administration. So is the administration prepared to review – I mean, after today’s bipartisan legislation, which obviously go further than the non-binding resolution that passed calling on Russia – calling on the U.S. to designate Russia as an SST – I mean, if Russia continues or increases these war crimes or other actions inside Ukraine, is the administration prepared to reconsider that decision that it’s taken not to designate Russia?
QUESTION: Well, just because – I’m drawing the parallel because it was for humanitarian —
MR PRICE: Well, and you were making the point that I was making earlier. We made a decision very – very early on in this administration to take a targeted approach towards the Houthis, to designate and to hold accountable through appropriate authorities those Houthi leaders who were directly responsible for the cross-border attacks, for the terrorism, for the other offenses that had been a menace to the region. And that’s what we’ve done, but we lifted the FTO, again, after hearing from NGOs and humanitarian organizations that that specific designation would and had had unintended consequences for millions of Yemenis, which at the time was the site of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. So we are intensely attuned to the humanitarian implications of authorities, whether it’s FTO, SDGT, SST.
To your second question, we are always evaluating the facts when it comes to any authority, including the SST. That is our job – to marry the legislation as drafted by Congress with the facts, with the policy considerations. So we are always taking a close look, but right now we have taken the approach that I outlined to Simon precisely because of the consequences that we want to see for Russia and the unintended consequences we don’t want to see.
Yes, sir, in the back.
QUESTION: Hold on a second. Do you think that – granted the SST and the FTO are different – yeah, that’s right – are different animals. But are – is it your assessment that the humanitarian situation in Yemen improved after you lifted the FTO designation on the Houthis?
MR PRICE: It is absolutely our assessment that the humanitarian situation improved after lifting the FTO designation and working – importantly – with our Yemeni partners, with our Saudi partners, with other partners in the region to achieve a humanitarian ceasefire and a humanitarian truce that has allowed humanitarian aid to enter parts of Yemen that had not seen humanitarian assistance in more than seven years.
QUESTION: Okay. So the answer – I’m sorry, I know this is – and I know I’m annoying other people – the answer to my question is yes?
MR PRICE: Correct, yes.
MR PRICE: Sir, in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Yesterday the State Department released information about Russia actually spent $300 million for worldwide influence, spreading influence. Do you have any specifics, maybe, today? I am interested for Balkans countries. People over there are very eager to know who got Russia’s money, what politicians, what country, what political party, organization and everything. Western Balkans is very fragile area right now, as you know.
MR PRICE: I don’t have any specific information to offer, and that’s quite intentional. We undertook the exposure step we did yesterday in an effort to make the point of the universal threat – nearly universal threat – that countries around the world face from the potential and, in some cases, the very real possibility of Russian interference in their sovereign political affairs. We’ve talked about Russia’s very explicit and blatant attack on Ukrainian sovereignty in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine. But around the world, including in this country, Russia and Russian actors have attempted to chip away at the sovereignty of peoples around the world by attempting to deprive from them their ability to make what should be a sovereign decision about who governs them, who leads them, who wins in their elections.
And that was the point of this. Our concern with Russia’s activity is certainly not in regard to any one country or any one region, but it is global in nature. And that’s why we wanted to put a spotlight on it.
QUESTION: I suppose that you are very aware that Russia has big role in Western Balkans countries, big influence over there. They are very active. And people on – majority of population is actually very worried what will happen, how to stop that.
MR PRICE: Well, and that is part of the reason, without speaking to any specific countries, why not only we took the public step we did yesterday, but perhaps even more importantly, we have engaged with countries around the world to share what we know about Russia’s meddling in electoral systems broadly, but also in specific cases. When we have – including intelligence information – regarding Russia’s interference, we’re often in a position to pass that classified information to government partners. We work with them to devise ways to thwart that interference. Sometimes that is in steps that are public, whether it’s through expulsions, whether it’s through the use of sanctions or other authorities. Sometimes that takes place in ways that are not public. But —
QUESTION: How much is State Department worried about specifically Western Balkans countries and Russian influence? It’s a big problem over there. How you worry? What can you do to help those countries?
MR PRICE: I’m just not going to speak to any specific country or region in this context. It is a universal concern.
Yes, in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. My question is about the situation in the Caucasus. And I know that Secretary Blinken had been involved already in talks with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials. But the situation remains very intense, and the report suggests that the forces of Azerbaijan advanced and captured sovereign territories of the Republic of Armenia, and the humanitarian situation is very desperate. Do you have any updates on that?
MR PRICE: Yes, you are correct that the situation continues to be very concerning. We are deeply concerned about continued attacks along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. We’ve seen continued attacks now for a second straight day. We are particularly disturbed by continued reports of civilians being harmed inside Armenia. As you know, Secretary Blinken, shortly after hostilities broke out earlier this week, had an opportunity overnight to speak to the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. He conveyed our deep concern over military actions along their shared border, including reports of shelling inside Armenia. He urged President Aliyev to cease hostilities immediately, to disengage military forces, to pull forces back from the border, and to cease hostilities that could endanger civilians, and to work to resolve all outstanding issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan through peaceful negotiations.
We’ve made clear, in this context and before, to both leaders and at all levels that there can be no military solution to this dispute. And we’ve urged both sides to refrain from further military hostilities and to engage in dialogue and diplomacy. For our part, we do remain deeply engaged. Ambassador Reeker, who is our senior advisor for Caucasus negotiations, he is still in Baku. He met yesterday, on September 13th and Wednesday, today, with senior Azerbaijani leaders. Ambassador Reeker met with President Aliyev yesterday in Baku. Assistant Secretary Donfried of our Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs spoke earlier this afternoon with Foreign Minister Bayramov of Azerbaijan. And we remain committed to doing all we can to promote a peaceful and prosperous future for the South Caucasus.
QUESTION: Very briefly on Turkey’s role. Erdoğan said they support Azerbaijan and there might be consequences, as he said, for Armenia, kind of blaming the victim. And Putin, president of Russia, and Erdoğan might discuss the situation in Armenia later this week. Have you had any talks with your Turkish counterparts considering Turkey’s growing role and kind of support to Azerbaijan, to one side of the conflict?
MR PRICE: Secretary Blinken, Ambassador Reeker, Assistant Secretary Donfried, others in her bureau have had a number of conversations, including with Armenia and Azerbaijan, but with other concerned stakeholders and partners. Not in a position to detail all of those engagements, but as I said yesterday, we are going to remain deeply engaged in the diplomacy. We are prepared to do all we can on a bilateral basis, on a multilateral basis, to see to it that these hostilities come to an end and that tensions are de-escalated.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up —
MR PRICE: Shannon.
QUESTION: A couple of questions on two – about two of the Americans wrongfully detained in Russia. On Richardson, I just wanted to know if you could put a fine point on your messaging in May, which is when he first became involved in Griner’s case. You said, we welcome all partnerships that are closely coordinated that might help us seek the safe release of detained Americans. Can you just say, firstly, what’s changed there?
MR PRICE: Well, nothing has changed. We – again, there is an established channel in the case of Russia. It was a channel that was established by the two presidents. This was not something that we have imposed that the other side does not agree to. President Biden and President Putin agreed to discuss this very issue in this very specified channel when they met in June of 2021.
Of course, families are perfectly free to engage and to consult with outside voices, with outside entities. But again, we want to make sure that any outside effort is fully and transparently coordinated with us, and in this case we believe that any efforts that fall outside of that officially designated channel have the potential to complicate what is already an extraordinarily complicated challenge that we face – Russia’s practice of detaining Americans wrongfully, including in this case Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.
QUESTION: Special Envoy Carstens – sorry, a follow-up?
MR PRICE: Go ahead, yeah.
QUESTION: So he’s traveling to Vatican City today, you announced.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Can you just say more about that trip and —
MR PRICE: I – we did announce that he’s traveling to Vatican City, but as you know, with Ambassador Carstens, we often announce where he’s going without providing any context. But I can say he’s traveling to the Vatican to meet with Vatican officials regarding our efforts to see the safe return of Americans held against their will overseas. I —
QUESTION: Were you trying to suggest just then that Governor Richardson’s efforts are not fully and transparently coordinated with you guys?
MR PRICE: I – I think I was clear. I’ll leave it to you.
QUESTION: Well, no, you weren’t. I mean, you said that you want them to be coordinated, but you – but it sounded as though you were suggesting that he’s just out there operating on his own without any discussion. Is that what you were trying to imply?
MR PRICE: As I said, we have been in – we have been in contact with the Richardson Center. Not in a position to comment specifically on his travel, but what I could – what I can say is that this travel was not coordinated in advance with the embassy.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: With the embassy?
MR PRICE: With the embassy.
QUESTION: I’m going to change topics —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: — to the Palestinian issue very quickly. First, I want to note that the journalist I mentioned yesterday, Lama Ghosheh, was released, albeit encumbered with restrictions like a $15,000 fine and restricted to the home. And I sure hope that you played a role in that. I don’t know, but I trust that you may have. So I just wanted to note that she’s released for now.
Second, I want to ask you: Are you really concerned about the looming violence that is about to erupt in the West Bank, that is really erupting in the West Bank? And it’s all due to Israeli action, Israeli aggression, if you will, over the past so many months – of course, always; it’s in the history of the occupation – but we have seen an uptick since the interim prime minister took office back in June. We’ve seen it in Gaza. We’ve seen it everywhere. We’ve seen it yesterday in Jenin where two Palestinians and an Israeli soldier was killed. And I am wondering that these continued raids, nightly raids, should they stop to give – to give at least the Palestinian Authority that you claim to – to support and so on a chance of controlling things, lest it be completely – lest it lose all control?
MR PRICE: To your question, Said, we’re always concerned when we see escalated tensions, including and especially in a place like the West Bank, where violence there can have outsized implications for the broader region. We deplore the increased violence in the West Bank. We continue to urge Israeli and Palestinian officials to work cooperatively to lower tensions. Of course, Israel has every right to defend itself.
QUESTION: They’re attacking the Jenin camp. I mean, they’re not defending themselves. These are soldiers – they’re professional killers. They are there not to throw rose petals on the Palestinians or give them cookies.
MR PRICE: Said, we’re continuing both – we’re urging both Israelis and Palestinians to do what they can to lower tensions, to de-escalate tensions.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me just ask one more question that Matt raised yesterday about the organizations, the six organizations. Now, I’m sure you saw the reports in Axios and other places that a team of Israelis were here trying to convince you of their evidence and so on. And I know Matt asked about this. So what is your conclusion? Are you going to arrive at a conclusion anytime soon? Are you going to designate them as such? Are you going to go along with the Israelis? Are you going to say to them, no, these organizations are human rights organizations, this is the kind of work that they do?
MR PRICE: We discussed this at length yesterday, and what I said yesterday remains – remains operative today. We have had recent discussions, recent engagements with our Israeli partners. They have shared additional information regarding their rationale and their reasoning for designated – designating these Palestinian NGOs. But as I said yesterday, we’re continuing to evaluate that information. I wouldn’t want to prejudge or to prejudice that process from here.
Anyone who hasn’t asked? Leon?
QUESTION: Yeah, a question on North Korea, if I may. State Department usually likes to react and comment on whatever happens in the world, but unless I’m mistaken – and I may be – I haven’t seen a public reaction on the new North Korean law that declares the state – nuclear state – irreversible nuclear state. So I was wondering if that – if that’s on purpose that you’re keeping things quiet? What comment do you have with that new law? And especially since I think there’s a revival of the U.S.-South Korean deterrence strategy forum, or I’m not sure of the exact name, and that’s supposed to take place I think tomorrow or Friday, something like that. So could you give some comment?
MR PRICE: So I don’t know that it serves our collective interest to comment on every single one of the incendiary developments and provocations that emanate from the DPRK. What I can say to your question is that the challenges and the broader set of threats posed by the DPRK to the Indo-Pacific, specifically to our treaty allies Japan and the ROK, will be a key topic of the discussion that you reference. It’s a discussion on Friday of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group between the Republic of Korea and the United States. I do expect that the DPRK’s new law and its implications for the Korean Peninsula will be a part of that discussion. But we’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: One more. Why is the State Department being so tight-lipped about Advisor Hochstein’s travel to the Middle East? I mean, the U.S. has been heavily mediating for years now, and the embassy in Beirut released a small statement, but you guys haven’t made any official statements. I know you don’t comment on every single trip every diplomat makes but, I mean, this is something pretty significant.
MR PRICE: I suppose I would take issue with the idea that we’ve been tight-lipped. We —
QUESTION: About this most recent trip, excuse me. Correct.
MR PRICE: We, if I’m not mistaken, have spoken to it just about every briefing, and we often do announce his travel ahead of time. He was recently in Beirut, as we said; he has continued to be in contact from back here with Israeli and with Lebanese officials. He’s continuing that robust engagement to bring the maritime boundary discussions to a close. We continue to narrow the gaps between the parties and we believe a lasting compromise between the parties is possible. We welcome the consultative spirit that both parties have brought to this in an effort to reach a resolution.
I’d also add that shuttle diplomacy is just one component of the rigorous work that our team is undertaking to resolve this dispute. And Amos, Special Coordinator Hochstein, is in communication daily, as I said, with Israeli and Lebanese officials, including Lebanese Deputy Speaker of Parliament Bou Saab, and Ambassador Shea, our ambassador in Lebanon, also remains in touch with the speaker, with the prime minister, and their advisers as well.
We have long said that doing everything we can to help resolve this border dispute is a priority. We believe a deal has the potential to promote lasting stability and economic prosperity for both countries. As part of that, I am certain Special Advisor Hochstein will continue to travel to the region, but I am also certain he’ll remain engaged from back here.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a question on Cuba?
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Very quick question. Former National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes just accused the Biden administration of gaslighting Cuba.
QUESTION: That’s quite a promotion.
QUESTION: Huh? Deputy, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: He wasn’t.
QUESTION: He wasn’t. Okay, all right. Well, former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes accused the Biden administration of gaslighting Cuba. You’re maintaining the same harsh sanctions, the same harsh rhetoric, you’re not opening up. Could you explain that?
MR PRICE: Well, I’ll say a couple things. When it comes to Cuba, our policy has been predicated on the interests of the Cuban people, on the aspirations for greater freedom, greater democracy on the part of the Cuban people. It is true that this administration’s policy is not identical to the policy of the Obama-Biden administration. But it is also true that since 2017, five, six years have gone by. The Cuban regime in some ways has become even more repressive. We saw a stark reminder of that more than a year ago in July of 2021, when peaceful protests expressing aspirations for a brighter future were met with crackdowns and arrests and incarcerations across the island. That’s just one example of the repression that we’ve continued to see on the part of the Cuban regime.
We have taken steps that seek to serve the interests of the Cuban people. We have worked to restart travel and flights between the United States and Cuba. We have worked on programs that can unify and reunify families – separated in some cases by a mere 90 miles between Florida and Cuba – to bring families back together. We have increased our staffing at our embassy in Havana, in large part to provide additional consular support to process visas for, in many cases, this family reunification. And we’ve taken other steps that we think work and help to serve those interests and aspirations of the Cuban people.
Last question, Alex.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. On Karabakh. You mentioned some diplomatic efforts during the past 24 hours; thanks for details. Is there any room for the United States to step in as a facilitator for next meeting? I know that New York has been entertained during those phone calls. Have you heard from Armenia or Azerbaijan for next week, any hope for next meeting?
MR PRICE: We have had a number of conversations with senior officials in both countries. I wouldn’t want to detail the contents of those, but we have made clear to officials in both countries, to officials in the region, we have also made clear publicly that we are prepared to engage bilaterally as well as multilaterally, in any way that would be constructive to bring about an immediate end to this violence and more broadly a de-escalation of tensions going forward.
QUESTION: One more question on the UN, just because he asked about meetings next week. I know you guys haven’t detailed the schedule at all, but should we expect that the Secretary will seek a meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, or no?
MR PRICE: Again, our schedule is still coming together. What I can say at this point is that it is our firm belief that it cannot be business as usual with the Russian Federation. I am certain that the UN next week will provide an opportunity for Secretary Blinken and our counterparts around the world to speak not only to the principle of sovereignty that is really at the heart of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but also some of the attendant implications that have had dire consequences around the world – rising food, commodity, energy prices around the world.
So we’ll have an opportunity to speak to Russia’s actions, but at the heart of our approach is a belief that it can’t be business as usual with Russia.
QUESTION: Thank you.