SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon, everyone. Very good to see folks here. And to those I haven’t had a chance to say this to, Happy New Year.
This morning, NATO’s North Atlantic Council met to discuss our coordinated response to Russia’s military buildup along the Ukraine border and its increasingly sharp threats and inflammatory rhetoric.
I want to thank NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg for bringing us together.
As he said in his own press conference a short while ago, Russia’s aggressive actions are a threat to peace and security in Europe.
We’re prepared to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression.
But a diplomatic solution is still possible and preferable, if Russia chooses it.
That’s what we, together with our allies and partners, will continue to pursue intently next week at the Strategic Stability Dialogue between the United States and Russia, and at the meetings of the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Ahead of these urgent discussions, let’s be clear about how we got to this moment.
In 2014, the Ukrainian people chose a democratic and European future for themselves. Russia responded by manufacturing a crisis and invading.
Ever since, Russia has occupied Ukraine’s territory in Crimea and has orchestrated a war in the eastern part of Ukraine – with proxies that it leads, trains, supplies, and finances – that has killed nearly 14,000 people and redrawn Ukraine’s borders by force.
Beyond its military aggression, Moscow has also worked to undermine Ukraine’s democratic institutions.
It’s interfered in Ukraine’s politics and elections; it’s blocked energy and commerce to intimidate its leaders and pressure its citizens; it’s used propaganda and disinformation to sow mistrust; it’s launched cyber-attacks on the country’s critical infrastructure.
Then, starting last March and continuing through the fall, Russia began a massive, unprovoked buildup of military forces and equipment on Ukraine’s border – nearly 100,000 troops today, with plans to mobilize twice that number on very short order.
So how does Moscow explain its actions?
It claims that Ukraine is threatening Russia.
That Ukraine seeks to provoke a conflict.
And that the Russian troop build-up and the tanks and heavy artillery are all purely defensive.
That’s like the fox saying it had to attack the henhouse because its occupants somehow pose a threat.
We’ve seen this gas-lighting before.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, it claimed that Ukraine was the aggressor to justify pre-planned military action.
And again today, we see a significant effort to push propaganda against Ukraine, NATO, and the United States.
That includes malign social media operations, the use of overt and covert online proxy media outlets, the infection of disinformation into TV and radio programming, hosting conferences designed to influence attendees into falsely believing that Ukraine – not Russia – is at fault for heightened tensions in the region, and the leveraging of cyber operations to deface media outlets and conduct “hack and release” operations – that is, hacking, and then releasing private data and communications.
No one should be surprised if Russia instigates a provocation or incident – then tries to use it to justify military intervention, hoping that by the time the world realizes the ruse, it’ll be too late.
The idea that Ukraine is the aggressor in this situation is absurd.
It’s Russia that invaded Ukraine nearly eight years ago.
It’s Russia that is the military occupier of part of Ukraine, in Crimea.
It’s Russia that, to this day, is fueling a war in eastern Ukraine.
It’s Russia that has failed to implement any of its Minsk commitments, indeed is actively violating many of them, and refuses to acknowledge it’s a party to the conflict.
It’s Russia that’s taken aim repeatedly at Ukraine’s democracy.
And it’s Russia that’s sending troops to Ukraine’s border, once again.
All these actions are violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and an immediate and urgent challenge to peace and stability in Europe.
It’s also worth noting that Moscow is simultaneously driving the false narrative that NATO is threatening Russia – that NATO plans to station military infrastructure in Ukraine to stir conflict with Russia, that NATO swore after the Cold War not to admit countries in Eastern Europe, and that NATO has broken those promises.
Each of those claims is false.
NATO is a defensive Alliance.
It exists to protect, not to attack.
That’s why, after the Cold War, NATO greatly reduced its conventional and nuclear forces, because NATO didn’t need to maintain the same defensive posture any longer.
From then on, NATO didn’t strengthen its defensive posture in Europe until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.
And even then, it was done in a limited and measured fashion, to be prepared to meet further Russian military action against members of the Alliance.
Additionally, NATO never promised not to admit new members.
It could not and would not – the “open door policy” was a core provision of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty that founded NATO.
The Russian president at the end of the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev, was asked directly about this in an interview in 2014, and said very clearly that the topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all in negotiations about German reunification that led to the end of the Cold War.
There was no promise that NATO wouldn’t expand.
Secretary of State James Baker said the same thing.
Membership in the Alliance has always been a decision between NATO and countries that aspire to belong – no one else.
And in the Istanbul Charter for European Security, Russia itself affirmed the right of countries to choose or change the security arrangements that they have, including alliances.
Russia is now demanding that both the United States and NATO sign treaties to withdraw NATO forces stationed in the territory of Allies in Central and Eastern Europe and to prohibit Ukraine from ever joining NATO.
They want to draw us into a debate about NATO, rather than focus on the matter at hand, which is their aggression toward Ukraine.
We won’t be diverted from that issue, because what’s happening in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine. It’s part of a broader pattern of destabilizing, dangerous, and often illegal behavior by Moscow as it tries to build a sphere of influence that covers the countries that were once under Soviet dominion, and to stop them from realizing their democratic aspirations as fully sovereign, independent nations.
Let’s remember that over the past two decades, Russia invaded two neighboring countries – Ukraine and Georgia – and maintains troops and munitions in Moldova against the will of the government. It’s interfered in elections in many nations, including our own. It’s used chemical weapons to try to assassinate opponents of the Russian Government – including poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal when they were on NATO Ally territory in England. It’s violated international arms control agreements, pulled back from long-established confidence-building and transparency measures, supported violent dictators, enabled crimes against humanity in places like Syria.
Moscow’s actions have threatened to set a new precedent on European soil whereby basic international principles that are vital to peace and security are up for debate:
That the borders and territorial integrity of a state cannot be changed by force.
That it is the inherent right of citizens in a democracy to make their country’s decisions and determine their country’s future.
That all members of the international community are bound by common rules and should face costs if they don’t live up to the solemn commitments that they make.
These principles transcend Ukraine.
They transcend Europe.
They are the fundamental rules that underpin the international order that together we have sought to build, to sustain, and, as necessary, adapt.
In challenging them, Russia seeks to challenge the international system itself and to unravel our transatlantic alliance, erode our unity, pressure democracies into failure.
Diplomacy is the only responsible way to resolve this crisis.
We are fully committed to meaningful reciprocal dialogue with Russia, just as we’re fully committed to consulting and coordinating with our allies and partners – including the European Union – in all our discussions in all formats.
We would far prefer a diplomatic path and a diplomatic solution to a crisis that Russia has brought forth.
That’s what next week’s meetings of the U.S.-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue, the NATO-Russia Council, and the OSCE are all about. And we believe that there are areas where we can make progress.
If Russia has legitimate concerns about our actions, the United States, our NATO Allies, our OSCE partners are willing to hear them and to try to address them – if the Kremlin is prepared to reciprocate regarding its own dangerous and destabilizing behavior.
Next week, we’ll reconfirm our readiness to increase transparency, institute new risk-reduction measures, and renew efforts to address nuclear and conventional threats to European security. But again, it has to be a two-way street. Our goal is to have a relationship with Russia that is predictable and stable, so that we can cooperate when it’s in our mutual interest and address our differences with an open and frank dialogue.
It’ll be very difficult to make actual progress if Russia continues to escalate its military buildup and its inflammatory rhetoric. And we’ve been clear with Russia about what it will face if it continues on this path, including economic measures that we haven’t used before – massive consequences. That clarity has been powerfully echoed in recent weeks by the G7 – the world’s leading democratic economies – by the European Union, and by NATO. So, we hope Russia makes a different choice.
And again, we’re fully committed to diplomacy and to seeing if we can produce results. After all, Russia and the United States have done it before, even during times of great tension. We negotiated the Helsinki Accords, we created the OSCE, we signed the INF Treaty and other arms control agreements. Just this week, we joined forces to issue a statement with all permanent members of the UN Security Council to affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won, and so should never be fought. We committed to our work together on the space station, and we’re working together to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.
We achieved these things through mutual understanding, reciprocity, and full consultation and coordination with our allies and with everyone whose interests were represented. That’s exactly what we’ll seek to do again next week and beyond.
And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.
MR PRICE: Christina.
QUESTION: Good morning, Mr. Secretary. You talk about some of these claims Russia has made, including that NATO has promised not to expand, and in that last of demands they put out, one of the things – that was one of the issues in there, and both the U.S. and NATO have said that’s a nonstarter. Given that list of demands and that they’ve been declared nonstarters, is there a concern that the talks next week are Russia’s building up of a pretext for, if and when they fail, using them as justification to go ahead and invade?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think that’s certainly part of the playbook is to put out a list of absolutely nonstarter demands, and then to claim that the other side is not engaging and then to use that as somehow justification for aggressive action. But the fact of the matter is Russia knows well what is a nonstarter, but there are also areas, there are also subjects, there are also issues where we can engage. We can have dialogue. We can see if we can improve everyone’s overall security. Secretary General Stoltenberg mentioned some of them just today in the press conference that followed the session of the NATO foreign ministers: arms control, where we have successfully engaged with Russia, including by extending New START at the beginning of this administration; various confidence-building measures; greater transparency; risk reduction.
These are all areas where, if Russia has legitimate concerns, we’re fully prepared to listen, to engage, and to see if we can make progress, just as it’s vital that Russia hear our concerns, those of our European allies and partners, based on the threats that it is posing to peace and security and act on them. If we approach this as a two-way street based on reciprocity and try to address some of the challenges that exist when it comes to security in the transatlantic and European areas, then I think we can make progress. Certainly, as I said, we go into this committed to diplomacy, committed to dialogue, but equally committed to stand up for the principles that Russia is putting at risk.
QUESTION: And the massive consequences that you’ve been foreshadowing if Russia doesn’t reverse course – they’re political, they’re economic, but they’re not military.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we’ve talked about this in recent weeks, and not only us. The G7, the European Union, NATO have all made clear that there would be massive consequences for further Russian aggression against Ukraine. We’ve talked about financial and economic measures. Certainly NATO’s defensive posture, we’ll have to strengthen even further. Assistance to Ukraine to defend itself will continue.
And one of the things that’s so striking to me about this is that – and going back to 2014 – Russia’s actions have precipitated exactly what President Putin says he wants to prevent. Before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, public support in Ukraine for membership in NATO was about 25 percent. Now it’s 60 percent. NATO, after the invasion, as I noted, had to reinforce its eastern flank, and have greater capacity there to defend against the possibility of Russian aggression. So, I think it’s fair to say looking back, and also looking ahead, that this is not the way for Russia to achieve what it purports to want to achieve.
MR PRICE: Nick.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you listed arms control, risk reduction, greater transparency, reducing nuclear and conventional threats to European security. You haven’t mentioned the word “Ukraine” in that context. Is Ukraine on the agenda on Monday for U.S. and Russia talks? And then I’ll have a follow on Kazakhstan.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, Ukraine is front and center on the agenda because that’s what has precipitated this crisis: Russia’s threats against Ukraine, the prospect of renewed aggression by Russia against Ukraine. So, that has to be front and center. But there are different places for talking about different issues. We have the Strategic Stability Dialogue, which, as I mentioned, is something that came after the extension of New START as a place to see if we could make further progress on arms control and further reductions. The NATO-Russia Council will be meeting a couple of days later, and that, by the way, will be proceeded by a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council. And then we’ll have the OSCE.
But in each of these areas, to the extent that there is progress to be made – and we hope that there is – actual progress is going to be very difficult to make, if not impossible, in an environment of escalation by Russia. So we will see what results, what path Russia chooses. But if it genuinely wants to make progress on issues that it says are of concern to Russia as well as on issues that are of concern to us, that progress has to be in a – in the context of de-escalation, and that goes directly to Ukraine.
QUESTION: That sounds like when Ukraine comes up on Monday, because of course it will, when Russia pushes its agenda on Ukraine, you’re going to try and focus instead on bilateral issues and not focus on Ukraine on Monday, and wait till later in the week to focus on Ukraine? Is that —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we will – we will make the point in every single one of these fora that the aggression against Ukraine will be met with, as I’ve said and others have said, massive consequences; that if we’re going to make progress on any of these issues, it has to be in the – in an environment in the context of de-escalation, not escalation. And that goes directly to Ukraine.
And I would add something we’ve also talked to Russia about, including President Biden talking to President Putin about this: The way to resolve the differences in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas, is through the Minsk agreements. And we remain fully prepared to try to facilitate their implementation. Indeed, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Karen Donfried has met with both the Ukrainian and Russian negotiators as well as with the French and the Germans, who are leading this so-called Normandy format that brings France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia together toward implementation of the accords. And we remain fully prepared to try and facilitate that.
But Russia has to be willing to engage and to make good on its commitments. I mentioned a few moments ago there’s a long list of things that each side has to do under Minsk, and by and large, Ukraine has done or is engaged in doing most of what it was required to do. There are some things that are outstanding that are important. Go down the list. Russia has done virtually none of it. And in fact, not only is it not doing what it’s required to do, it is actively doing the opposite in many areas.
So again, this is a test for Russia. If it is serious about resolving the situation in eastern Ukraine, and to resolve it diplomatically and peacefully, Minsk is the way to do it. We will fully support efforts to implement the Minsk agreements by both parties, and again, we’ll see if Russia is willing to do that.
MR PRICE: Simon.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we’d like to get your assessment of events in Kazakhstan, and how that potentially weighs on these meetings with Russian officials next week. And more specifically, U.S. officials have raised kind of questions about the CSTO troops deployment there. What is – what specifically is the concern about those troops going in? Is there an implication that the Kazakhstan Government hasn’t actually invited them in, or how do you see that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks. So first, we are very concerned about the ongoing state of emergency that exists in Kazakhstan. We’ve urged authorities to respond appropriately, proportionately, and in a way that upholds the rights of protesters. I spoke with the foreign minister just yesterday. I reiterated our full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions, as well as the absolute importance of respecting human rights; media freedom, including the restoration of internet service; and to dealing with peaceful protests in a way that protects the protesters, upholds their rights, and is consistent with the rule of law.
So there has to be a rights-respecting resolution to this crisis. And again, that includes protecting the rights of any peaceful protester. At the same time, we’ve made clear that we condemn violence committed by anyone, including violence directed at the institutions of the state and government. We very much value the relationship that we have with Kazakhstan. We’re watching the situation with real concern. And we are encouraging everyone to find a peaceful resolution and constructive resolution to the situation.
When it comes to the CSTO, we have questions about the nature of the request, why it came about. We’re seeking to learn more about it. It would seem to me that the Kazakh authorities and government certainly have the capacity to deal appropriately with protests, to do so in a way that respects the rights of protesters while maintaining law and order. So, it’s not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance, so we’re trying to learn more about it.
We certainly call on those peacekeeping forces and law enforcement to adhere to international human rights standards to support a peaceful resolution. And again, we hope the government itself can quickly address the problems, which are fundamentally economic and political in nature. That’s what these protests are all about.
MR PRICE: Take a final question from VOA Ukrainian, Myroslava Gonzade (ph).
QUESTION: Gongadze. Yes. Thank you so much. On Kazakhstan a little bit because it looks like Russia is using different tactics right now, going to Kazakhstan and using other countries to join them and calling this a peaceful protest. It’s – in the same time, the head of – or the leading general who would be leading the operation was the one who was leading occupation of Crimea. What would be U.S. response to that, and do you think this valid for the national – for the security – UN security special meeting?
And second question on Ukraine: You mentioned yesterday and many times about not speaking about – without Ukraine – on – about Ukraine without Ukraine. How are you planning to fulfill that promise even in this discussion with Russians next week?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Well, let me take the second part first. We are absolutely committed to the principle: nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, just as we are fully committed to the principle nothing about Europe without Europe.
At the meeting of the North Atlantic Council foreign ministers today, one of the things that really stood out to me in all of the interventions – and something that Secretary General Stoltenberg mentioned himself in his press conference – was the deep appreciation for the intensive consultations we’ve been engaged with – engaged in in recent weeks with all of our European allies and partners about the situation in Ukraine and European security more generally. And that will continue.
And as it happens, just before coming to see all of you, I was on the phone with my friend and counterpart from Ukraine, the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba. And that engagement will continue. That coordination, that consultation, that communication will continue throughout this process. When it comes – whether it’s the Strategic Stability Dialogue where we will be talking and have talked, as I did today to allies and partners, in advance, we’ll do exactly the same thing after that conversation to readout what transpired. And similarly, when it comes to NATO-Russia, there’ll be a – with regard to Ukraine, there’ll be a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council in advance of the NATO-Russia Council. And of course, at the OSCE, Ukraine is a member. So, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.
And again, on Kazakhstan, I would not conflate these situations. There are very particular drivers of what’s happening in Kazakhstan right now, as I said, that go to economic and political matters. And what’s happening in there is different from what’s happening on Ukraine’s borders. Having said that, I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.
MR PRICE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks.
MR PRICE: Thank you, everyone.