MODERATOR: (In progress) (Via interpreter) and today foreign minister of the Republic of Latvia received his counterpart from the United States, the Secretary of State Mr. Antony J. Blinken. We’ll start with the statement from foreign affairs minister of Latvia.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: (Via interpreter) Good afternoon, everybody. We’ve just concluded a very productive meeting with Secretary of the State Joe Blinken. The distance between us doesn’t mean that we have any differences. Unfortunately, due to the precautionary measures we have to keep social distancing. But on a more serious note, we’d like to underline that we had indeed a very productive meeting.
We had a very constructive discussion on regional security. We are extremely grateful to the United States for its contribution to regional security and the national security of Latvia and developing them both on the practical and political level. And we, of course, discussed the Lukashenka regime’s orchestrated hybrid attack on our border, Lithuanian border, Polish border, which are also at the same time the EU and NATO external borders as well. We are very happy that U.S. shares our understanding of how to deflect these hybrid attacks.
The Secretary of State and I also talked about the current situation in Ukraine and around Ukraine, and we came to a consensus that the Russian military buildup and movement of military are highly concerning. NATO and the European Union should send a clear signal and should clearly indicate to which point the threats to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine will become our political and military concern, and we will respond appropriately.
We also discussed our bilateral relations at great length. Next year we’re celebrating the centenary since the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. I do suppose that next year we will also have a high-level event marking the centenary.
We also discussed to a great extent the overhaul of the financial sector. We are thankful for the U.S. – to the U.S. side for its support in overhauling the sector. We are also grateful for the cooperation in the sector of IT. As we come up to the Three Seas Initiative, next year Latvia will host the summit, the Three Seas Summit and Business Forum, and we hope that the United States representatives will take an active part in the summit and the business forum. We also discussed about the agenda of the forthcoming ministerial, NATO ministerial.
(In English) So here I’ll continue in English. But one more time, Antony, it’s great to have you here, and thank you for the great discussion that we have had this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very, very much. Good afternoon, everyone. And Foreign Minister, Edgars, thank you so much for your both warm welcome, for your leadership, and for your partnership these many months and particularly today in hosting the NATO foreign ministerial, which comes I think at an important time.
You noted that next year our nations will commemorate 100 years of diplomatic relations. During that time, the United States commitment to Latvia’s right to self-determination never wavered, and we are proud now to be allies and partners. This year indeed, 2021, marks three decades since brave Latvians peacefully restored their nation’s independence, and it really is remarkable to see how far this nation has come and our bilateral relationship along with it, a relationship rooted above all in a shared commitment to democracy, to human rights, to the rule of law, to mutual respect and prosperity.
Now, these issues can feel a little bit abstract at times. We throw these words around, but I think today we see the challenge in serious ways from autocratic governments that seek to erode the international rules-based order, to the COVID-19 pandemic, to the climate crisis. And in each of these areas, the United States and Latvia are closely aligned. We know that no one nation alone can confront these challenges, and it’s really why President Biden has made it his mission to revitalize our alliances and partnerships and reaffirm our commitment to NATO. That’s very much the message that I shared in meetings today with President Levits, with Prime Minister Kariņš, and with my friend the foreign minister.
Our commitment to Baltic security and to Article 5 – an attack on one is an attack on all – is ironclad. We know that when our allies are stronger and more secure, we are too, and we applaud Latvia for not only meeting the Wales commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 but actually exceeding that commitment. We’ve been proud to support that effort. We’ve provided more than $400 million in security assistance to Latvia since 2015 to strengthen its military and also to enhance its capacity to operate side by side with NATO Allies. Additionally, NATO has deployed four multinational battle groups to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland to bolster deterrence in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
This cooperation is vital, and it remains vital in the face of ongoing Russian actions in Ukraine, its increasingly belligerent rhetoric, its recent buildup of forces, its unusual troop movements along Ukraine’s border. I’ll have a lot more to say about that tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to consult with our Allies in the NATO meetings that start this afternoon, but for now let me just reiterate that any escalatory actions by Russia would be of great concern to the United States, as they would to Latvia, and any renewed aggression would trigger serious consequences.
We go into this NATO ministerial knowing that it’s not enough to simply recommit to NATO but to reimagine the alliance and other tools of the transatlantic partnership so that we can defend ourselves against 21st century threats and seize 21st century opportunity. And here again, Latvia is playing a vital role. Consider, for example, the leadership that Latvia has demonstrated in the NATO Strategic Communications Centers of Excellence, which brings together the civilian, military, private sector, and academic experts to collaborate effectively on countering disinformation. This is crucial, as autocracies are increasingly using disinformation to foment division and erode trust in our democracies. Latvia has hosted the center since 2014. It’s its biggest contributor; it’s been a leading innovator on this issue. That’s something we talked about in our meeting, and that includes Latvia’s efforts to launch a more coordinated response to beat back disinformation on COVID-19, something that both of us are seeing.
As Edgars noted, Latvia will host the Three Seas Initiative Summit and Business Forum next summer. At its core, this forum is about demonstrating how democratic values can put governments in a stronger place to deliver inclusive, sustainable growth that all of our people are looking for, whether that’s by expanding trade, fighting corruption, or investing in infrastructure to create jobs, to connect people with communities, and to increase resilience to a warming climate.
Another area where Latvia’s leadership has been indispensable is in addressing the challenges posed by Belarus and the Lukashenka regime. Latvia has been a very strong voice in the European Union for holding the Lukashenka regime accountable for its violent repression of the Belarusian people. At the same time, Latvia’s government and its civil society have stood with Belarusians as they have expressed their democratic aspirations and demanded respect for human rights. That includes providing support to Belarusian journalists and other members of civil society and offering safe haven for many democracy advocates that have been targeted by the regime.
We join Latvia in condemning the cynical and inhumane way that the Lukashenka regime has exploited vulnerable people to orchestrate irregular migration flows across its borders, and we recognize the right of the Latvian Government and others in the region to secure their borders consistent with international law and the humane approach that’s needed.
Finally, today marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Rumbula massacre. From November 30 to December 8th, 1941, an estimated 25,000 Jewish men, women, and children, most of them Latvians, were murdered by the Nazis in the forest near here. Most of them were executed in just two days. We welcome Latvia’s efforts to remember all of the victims of the Holocaust, including those killed in Rumbula, and to ensure that its people know the dark history of that time. And we’re grateful as well for the country’s ongoing efforts to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms, and we’re encouraged by the recent momentum in Latvia to provide a measure of justice for Holocaust victims and their families by addressing property stolen during that time.
In closing, let me just say that we are profoundly grateful to Latvia for its partnership, for its friendship, for its leadership in addressing challenges that we face in the region and around the world, strengthening the alliances that we’re part of, in defending the values that unite us and that we care about most. Edgars, thank you. It’s always great to be with you and wonderful to be in Latvia.
MODERATOR: Many thanks, Mr. Secretary. (Inaudible.) (Via interpreter) Thank you. And we will now open the floor for questions. We’ll start with Ieva Vārna from TV3.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Good afternoon. I have a question to U.S. Secretary of State, Mr. Blinken. Mr. Blinken, considering the current security environment and the Lukashenka’s orchestrated hybrid attack and Russia’s military movement, and so on, so forth, would the U.S. consider in the light of such developments changing its presence, strengthening presence in the region?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Let me say a couple things to that. First, I think as you know, President Biden is deeply committed to our NATO alliance, deeply committed to Article 5, and equally committed to Baltic security. And we’ve manifested that not only rhetorically but also practically. We’ve been a participant in the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission. As I noted earlier, we’ve contributed significantly to the rotational deployments on the eastern flank of NATO. And we will be consulting closely with NATO Allies and partners in the days ahead, particularly in the context of concerns raised by Russia’s actions along Ukraine borders, about whether there are other steps that we should take as an alliance to strengthen our defense, to strengthen our resilience, to strengthen our capacity.
I’d mention also that the Pentagon, which has the lead on these questions, just put out its global posture review. And I would note that this is a framework for what we’re doing, for our approach. It’s not dispositive of each and every element, and those are constantly under review by our colleagues at the Defense Department, both within the context of NATO and, of course, as we look at this directly ourselves. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you much. Andrea Mitchell, NBC.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Andrea.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, how do you assess Ukraine’s claim of an attempted Russian coup against Ukraine? Could the U.S. – what steps could the U.S. take, if you could be more specific, to deter possible Russian invasion of Ukraine? Will the U.S. help Latvia with U.S. troop deployments on the border? Lots of Russian threats there. And if you could speak about Omicron – you’ve just come from Africa where the vaccination rate is less than 10 percent.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
QUESTION: What more should the wealthy nations be doing to help vaccinate the rest of the world, to prevent future mutations and variants?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Andrea, thank you very much.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) just —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Sorry. Mr. Foreign Minister, could I ask you as well: Do you have any new commitments from the Secretary about ways to deter the Russian threat? Thank you so much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Andrea, thanks very much. So at the risk of disappointing, let me just say that with regard to Ukraine, Russia, et cetera, I’m going have a lot more to say tomorrow. So I don’t want to get ahead of that. The reason I say that is because it is particularly important to the President and to me that we have an opportunity to consult closely with our NATO Allies and partners. That’s what we’re going to be doing this afternoon and through the course of tomorrow. So when we have a chance to speak again tomorrow, I think after the NATO session, I’ll have a lot more to say about this.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So here’s one thing I can tell you is that we have seen the Russians’ playbook many times over. And part of that playbook is to attempt to create and manufacture a so-called provocation as justification for something that Russia was planning to do all along. And so whether what’s been reported fits into that playbook, I don’t know, but as I’ve already said on a couple of occasions – and again, we’ll have a lot more to say about it tomorrow – we are very concerned about the movements we’ve seen along Ukraine’s border. We know that Russia often combines those efforts with internal efforts to destabilize a country. That’s part of the playbook. And we’re looking at it very closely. But I want to make sure that we have a chance to continue our consultations, which have been ongoing, with our allies. And as I said, more to be said about this tomorrow.
On the pandemic and on COVID-19, a few things here. First, I really want to applaud and express a – real gratitude to South Africa and its government for its extraordinary transparency, and also the very important work it did in detecting this new variant and in making it known to the world. That’s exactly, I think, a model of responsibility that South Africa has exhibited that we would hope everyone in the world would show, because we are all in this together. And South Africa has performed a vital service to the world in identifying this new variant and making it known.
There are three really important questions that we have to get answers to in the coming weeks to understand exactly what we are dealing with. And as the President said, I think just yesterday, this is a cause for concern but not a cause for panic. And the three questions we have to get answers to are these: How transmittable is this new variant? We don’t yet know that. Second, to what extent do the existing vaccines effectively guard against it, both in terms of becoming symptomatic and then, of course, whether it presents a grave danger that defeats the vaccines? And third, how dangerous is it in terms of hospitalization, in terms of death? And we don’t have the answers to those questions. They’re being studied very actively and aggressively by our scientists and by other scientists.
And so depending on the answers to those questions, we will – we’ll take the necessary steps. Meanwhile, as a measure of extra precaution, we’ve taken the steps that we’ve taken, including on the travel restrictions. And again, this is based on one metric and one metric alone, and that is public health and making sure that we’re doing everything possible to protect public health as we get answers to these key questions.
To your larger question, which I think is so important, it’s something we’ve been trying to put a spotlight on for many months. And we keep repeating it, but I think what’s emerged in Southern Africa just underscores the point. We know, we know, we know that none of us will be fully safe until everyone is. And we’ve been saying that as long as the virus is replicating somewhere, it could be mutating, and if it’s mutating, we might wind up with a variant that poses a new threat and that can defeat the existing vaccines or induce greater illness or be more transmissible, all the questions we’re looking at right now when it comes to Omicron.
But we also know two things, one of which you pointed to: that there is a real disparity in vaccinations throughout the world, and particularly a disparity between vaccinations in Africa and, for example, the United States and Europe. We have vaccination rates in the United States and Europe of 50, 60, 70 percent depending on exactly who you’re counting. And in Africa, it’s more like 14, 15 percent or less. So we have been working very aggressively to deal with that gap. As you know, the United States has committed to provide and is in the midst of providing well over a billion vaccines – principally through COVAX, or in the case of Africa, through the African Union – with no political strings attached and donated free of charge.
But – that’s part of the solution, but there’s another part that is equally important, and that’s actually getting shots in arms. Because one of the things we’re finding, including in Africa – and we’ve seen this in South Africa – is that the supply of vaccines may actually be sufficient, but the ability to get shots in arms is deficient. There are last mile challenges when it comes to logistics, when it comes to cold storage and things like that. This too we are very actively working on. We announced an initiative a few weeks ago at the foreign ministerials meeting that we hosted on COVID-19 to stand up a global COVID corps which brings the private sector into the game to help solve these last mile problems of getting shots into arms. We’re putting that into motion now; USAID is working on other initiatives to deal with the logistical challenges.
So we’re bringing all of this together. Foreign ministers are going to be meeting on a very regular basis on this to drive this from our perspective. Development ministers, USAID will be doing the same thing. And so we want to close the gap both in terms of the vaccines delivered and the vaccines actually administered. That is ultimately the solution to this challenge.
FOREIGN MINISTER RINKEVICS: Just a really quick word. Let me say that there is a very strong commitment by the United States towards our defense and security, and frankly, we don’t need any new commitments because the one we have is already very strong – rotational presence. The Secretary mentioned also the U.S.-led battle group in Poland. What we had agreed that we will continue working closer together not only on military, but also on cyber security issues, including 5G networks, including countering cyber attacks, and also disinformation, because we are a country that is quite affected by that.
But I’m also very pleased to see that the global posture review that has been published by the Defense Department is actually, from our point of view, the good news, because we see that the commitment to Europe by the United States is there. And we do believe that in due course, also assessing risks and threats that we are facing, we will be able to adjust through bilateral and also NATO channels.
And a very quick word on vaccines, because that’s – it is really important. Also, Latvia, we are not probably the richest country in the world, but we understand that it is very important to provide vaccines to countries in Africa. We have done it already through COVAX mechanism and also bilaterally to Kenya, to Tunisia. And I think that what we are seeing right now – it is important, of course, to fight COVID in our countries, but if we don’t address also countries where the vaccination rate is very low, then those mutations will come back and we will be fighting that pandemic more and more, and we will have to restrict movement, we will have to restrict our daily life. And I think that the realization that this is the global effort is slowly coming to everyone.
MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Thank you, and now the floor’s given to Ugis Libietis from the Radio of Latvia.
QUESTION: (In progress) speak in English and – to Mr. Secretary. But first I would like to express my sadness and disappointment that our face-to-face interview was not – was canceled. And so I am very grateful that I have a chance to speak to you right now.
And I would like to continue with the subject you just mentioned about the U.S. commitment to NATO, to European allies. And we know that for a couple of years during the previous administration, there have been quite intense discussions about the relations and the commitment of U.S. administration to Europe especially. After that, we saw the quite messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, which again intensified those discussions. Right now when we speak about challenges on our eastern borders, these discussions have again risen, and there are still a lot of skeptics who will say that there are worries and there are doubts about ironclad, rock-solid U.S. commitments to its allies – and especially to smallest allies – in a case when national interest faces, like, aggression from or counter actions from Russian side.
So I would like to ask you: What would be your message to those who are quite skeptical? And how to reach those who are skeptical, and also in such countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which is also very important for that? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. Two things. First, I would say that President Biden has a long and strong track record when it comes to a commitment to NATO, to Article 5, to our alliance. And so there’s a deep history there that people can refer to. But ultimately what I would say to you and say to anyone else is don’t judge us by what we say, judge us by what we do. That’s the ultimate test, so let’s see what emerges from the meetings that we’re having this week. I think you’ve already seen, based on the NATO summit that took place at the leaders level, a strong recommitment to NATO, not just rhetorically but in the work that we’re doing to modernize the alliance to be able to deal with the challenges that we face now, including many of the challenges that Edgars referred to in gray zones and in hybrid tactics of one kind or another.
There’s a determination to do that and a program to do that through a revised Strategic Concept. The last time NATO published a Strategic Concept was in 2010 when Russia was considered a partner, China wasn’t mentioned, and most of these hybrid methods of aggression didn’t exist or were not known. So this is very important work, and I would focus on that and making sure that we do the work, as well as the commitments that countries are making – including the United States – to defense and to deterrents, and finally the actions that we take to stand up to aggression or the threat of aggression, renewed aggression from Russia when it comes to Ukraine or, for that matter, the situation in Belarus.
But bottom line is this: We will be judged by what we do, and I would focus on that and invite people to focus on that. Thank you.
MODERATOR: (Inaudible.) We have time just for one more question. Alexander Yanevskyy, Voice of America.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Talking about China – so recently China and Belarus signed a memorandum on military cooperation, and I would like to know what’s the United States take on that. And following up on Ukraine, also Belarus is now conducting military drills with the – with Russia on southern border, and what’s your take on that as well? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. I guess my first reflection is to say we’re extremely fortunate to be here in Latvia today, a member of the NATO Alliance, a member of the European Union – both voluntary groupings of countries, more than two dozen in each, that are united by shared interests, by shared values, something that really stands out. Whether Belarus or other countries may have marriages of convenience if not conviction with other countries is something for them to decide, not for us. We’re focused on the actions, unfortunately, that Belarus has been taking, both in terms of repressing its own people and their democratic aspirations as well as, as we were talking about earlier, using migration as a weapon to try to sow division and destabilization in Europe.
We are, in close coordination with the European Union, preparing follow-on sanctions that will hold the regime accountable for these hybrid operations and its ongoing attacks on democracy, on human rights, on international norms. And the bottom line is this: As long as the regime in Belarus refuses to respect its international commitments, undermines peace and security in Europe, continues to repress and abuse its own people who are simply seeking to live in freedom, we will continue to put pressure on the regime. And we will not lessen our calls for accountability. That’s our focus. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. Minister, Secretary of State. That concludes our press conference.