MS KVIEN: Hello, everybody. It’s great to see you all. And Mr. Secretary, I think you’ve been briefed that we have some of our folks here in person, but we also have some folks online. So the audience is actually significantly bigger than we have here in the atrium. So we’re glad that everybody could join us online and here in person. It’s great to welcome you back to Kyiv.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
MS KVIEN: And I think I can say that all of us have been watching the latest happenings and tensions with Russia with very, very close attention. Of course, many of our local staff are very concerned and watching this very carefully, and so I think that they really appreciate the opportunity to hear directly from you on what – your work that you’re doing both here and elsewhere in the world on this issue.
And with that, I think I’ll turn it over to you and let you say a few words. So, please.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Please, be seated, everyone. Great to – great to see all of you. Great to be back here.
Look, I had a feeling that you all didn’t have a lot to do, and so this might be a good time to just drop by and give you a little bit of activity in the embassy. But in all seriousness – because this is a very serious time – I really wanted to start first of all, Kristina, thanking you for your remarkable leadership of this mission in this time, and to every single one of you for the service you’re providing every day. And whether you’re here in person, joining us virtually, it really is good to be back with you, to be back in Kyiv.
I know how much work goes into these trips, and this one came up on relatively short notice so that means that that same amount of work was done in half the time, so I greatly, greatly appreciate it and particularly want to thank those who worked directly on it for all the efforts you’ve made over the last couple of days.
But to your point, Kristina, this is a critical time for Ukraine and the work that you’re doing is, in that sense, even more critical than ever.
As you all know very, very well, we have been engaged in the past couple of months in an intense focus on Ukraine because of the significant buildup we’ve seen of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border. No provocation, no reason except that we have a very significant force; we know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine. And that, of course, has gotten not only our attention but it’s gotten the attention of virtually all of our allies and partners, and not just in Europe, even beyond.
And as you all know very well because you’re working this every day, we have tried to make clear that there are two paths for Russia. There is the path of diplomacy and dialogue to try to resolve whatever differences there are peacefully, through diplomacy – clearly the preferable path, clearly the most responsible path and the one that we would prefer.
But there is also the path, if Russia chooses to renew aggression, of confrontation and consequences for Russia, and we have been working to build out both of those paths in very close coordination and collaboration with allies and partners – something that you’re doing here at the embassy as well, given all of the work that you’re doing with some of the other embassies and missions here in Kyiv.
As much as we are all focused on Ukraine and our own commitment to its sovereignty, to its territorial integrity, to its independence, I think you all know very well that this is in a sense bigger than Ukraine. And when some of our fellow citizens back home ask us why are we so focused on this, not just now but back in 2014 when Russia went into Crimea and then into the Donbas – why is this something that the United States has to focus on? – and the answer is this: Of course it goes to the feelings we have for Ukraine, the partnership that so many of you have been building over these years, but it’s also bigger than Ukraine.
It’s bigger than Ukraine because what Russia is doing with the aggression that it has already committed and the threat of further aggression is to challenge the very basic principles that undergird the entire international system and are necessary for trying to keep peace and security. Principles like one nation can’t simply change the borders of another by force. Principles like one nation can’t simply dictate to another its choices, including with whom it will associate. Principles like nations cannot exert spheres of influence to try to subjugate their neighbors to their will.
If we allow those principles to be violated with impunity, then we will open a very large Pandora’s box, and the entire world is watching what is happening here. So that makes what you’re doing every single day even more critical, as I said, than it is in more or less normal times here.
The President asked us to come here now – and by the way, I know you’ve had some other visitors recently. I was very, very pleased to see this terrific CODEL from the Senate here just yesterday – bipartisan, reflecting the fact that Ukraine has strong bipartisan support back home. But the President asked me to come now to both reaffirm our own commitment to Ukraine, to consult closely with its leaders, as well tomorrow in Berlin to speak to many of our European colleagues, and then finally on Friday to see the Russian foreign minister to take stock of where we are after a week of what’s been very intense diplomacy between the United States and Russia at the NATO-Russia Council and at the OSCE.
So we’ll see where we are at the end of the week, and again, I strongly, strongly hope that we can keep this on a diplomatic and peaceful path, but ultimately that’s going to be President Putin’s decision.
You’ve done tremendously extraordinary work here in this mission, and I know day in, day out, so many of you have been working to help Ukraine build democratic institutions, strengthen the rule of law, combat corruption, and defend against Russian aggression. And that’s in addition to the daily work of what is one of our largest and busiest embassies in Europe.
And of course, the last couple of years you’ve done that with the COVID cloud hanging over everyone’s head. And I know that for many of you, there may have been personal impact. You may have friends, family, loved ones who have been affected by COVID. I know everyone has literally been affected by COVID just because of the impact it’s had on the way we do our work and the challenges that that poses.
But as in our missions around the world that I’ve had a chance to visit over the last year, you’ve done it remarkably well with resilience, with camaraderie, with teamwork, making sure that this community stuck together despite the challenges.
And I think what you’ve been – what you’ve helped build here is a remarkable success story with free and fair elections, a very vibrant civil society, and fundamentally democratic values that are consistent with our own. And that doesn’t just happen; it’s of course, in the first instance, the remarkable work of our Ukrainian friends, but with a lot of support, assistance, guidance, help from us and from you. And for that I thank you.
We have a stake in continuing this record of success and making sure that American diplomacy continues to support a free and independent and successful Ukraine.
Let me just say a couple of words in closing. I particularly want to say to our locally employed staff who are here: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Everywhere I go, I see and I know that locally employed staff are quite literally the lifeblood of our missions everywhere around the world. And that is no more true than here in Ukraine. We simply couldn’t do what we do without you.
Several of you, I know, have been with us since the embassy’s opening in 1992, which is in and of itself remarkable, and you’ve played a direct role in helping to shape Ukraine’s democratic transformation. And I can imagine that this period is especially difficult, stressful, and maybe even scary for all of you, and I just want you to know that we’re thinking of you. We have your backs as you’ve had ours for so many years. And we’re with you, we’re with your families, communities, and we are deeply, deeply grateful for your service to and with us.
So I also want you to know that your colleagues around the world are thinking of you, looking at what’s going on here, and most important, we as a department in Washington are here for you – very, very focused on the wellbeing, the safety, the security of our community here, including your families.
But I also know that this is what you’re all here to do. This is what you trained to do. This is what you spent your careers doing. And I am extremely confident that based on the great work you’ve already done, we will be up to this challenge whatever it is in the days and weeks ahead.
With that, let me simply say again: Thank you, thank you, thank you, and very happy to take any questions or hear any comments or any good ideas, because no one has a monopoly on those. So, thank you. (Applause.)