QUESTION: And joining me now is the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Secretary Blinken, welcome back to Meet the Press.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Chuck.
QUESTION: Let me just start with your observations. What did we just see over the weekend? And the reason I ask that is because, look, this is a country that misinformation is a feature, not a bug. Sometimes there’s theater. What should we believe with what we just witnessed in the last 48 hours in Russia?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Chuck, if you put this in perspective, what we’ve seen is extraordinary. Think about it this way. Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, believing they would take the capital in a matter of days and erase the country from the map as an independent country.
Now, what we’ve seen is Russia having defend Moscow, its capital, against mercenaries of its own making. So in and of itself, that’s extraordinary. And in so doing, we’ve also seen rise to the surface profound questions about the very premises for this Russian aggression against Ukraine that Prigozhin surfaced very publicly, as well as a direct challenge to Putin’s authority.
So I think we’ve seen more cracks emerge in the Russian facade. It is too soon to tell exactly where they go and when they get there. But certainly we have all sorts of new questions that Putin is going to have to address in the weeks and months ahead.
QUESTION: What was amazing is what wasn’t said. Vladimir Putin didn’t blame the West for this – didn’t blame it during his very strident speech nor the after the fact. What do you make of that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s hard to put myself in Putin’s head or Prigozhin’s, for that matter. And keep in mind: Both individuals are responsible for terrible acts committed against the Ukrainian people – also, in the case of Wagner, in country after country in Africa, wherever Wagner goes, death and destruction and exploitation follow. But I think it does point to the fact that this an internal matter. This is a challenge coming from within to Putin, and that’s where his focus has been.
Our focus is resolutely and relentlessly on Ukraine, making sure that it had what it needs to defend itself and to take back territory that Russia has seized. The President brought together the national security cabinet, he brought together our key allies and partners to make sure that the unity of purpose, the unity of action that we’ve had with regard to Ukraine remains. And it does.
QUESTION: The president of Belarus apparently mediated this. That seemed startling because this is somebody that is portrayed by many Western analysts as simply a puppet of Putin. Puppets don’t often mediate their puppeteers here. So what do you make of this? Are we underestimating Belarus here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think it’s important for us not to speculate, and I suspect that we’ll learn more and more in the days and weeks ahead, including the actual details of whatever deal was struck. It may be that Putin didn’t want to debase himself to the level of negotiating directly with Prigozhin, so it was useful to get someone like Lukashenka into this on his behalf. But again, that is speculation. We want to avoid that. We want to focus on the facts, and we want to keep the focus on Ukraine.
QUESTION: There was some reports over the weekend that U.S. intelligence analysts seemed to think something was up. How – what you ended up seeing versus what the intelligence said, how accurate was it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Chuck, I’m obviously not going to comment on intelligence matters. What I can say is this. I think it’s been no secret to many people over many months that these tensions were rising, they were brewing. Prigozhin was already saying some rather extraordinary things about Russia’s conduct of the war in Ukraine and going directly at Russia’s military leadership. So this was a rising storm, but I’m not going to comment on the intelligence itself.
QUESTION: The dismantling of the Wagner Group – first of all, do you believe it’s being dismantled? And if so, what does this mean in Africa and Syria?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Too soon to tell. We’ll see if this means that Wagner forces are coming out of Ukraine. I mean, the very fact that, over the weekend, Wagner forces were coming out of Ukraine and going into Russia and toward Moscow in and of itself is extraordinary. But where this goes, whether those forces remain in Ukraine, whether they become integrated into the regular Russian military, what it means for Wagner in Africa – too soon to tell.
But the fact that this is, at the least, an added distraction for Putin and for Russia I think is to the advantage of Ukraine. It continues to move forward with the counteroffensive. These are early days, but they have in hand what they need to be successful. It’s going to unfold over weeks and even months. But this just creates another problem for Putin.
And keep this, too – in mind, too, Chuck. This is just the latest chapter in a book of failure that Putin has written for himself and for Russia. Economically, militarily, its standing in the world – all of things have plummeted. We have a united NATO that’s stronger than ever before, a Europe that is weaning itself off of Russian energy, Ukraine that Putin has managed to alienate and unite at the same time. Now, with trouble brewing from within, this, as I said, just adds more questions that he has to find answers for.
QUESTION: I know that whether ‑‑ but no changes to their nuclear posture. Was there open communication on that front, military to military, on the nuclear issue over the weekend, or not?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chuck, I’m not going to get into what diplomatic or other communications we had with Russia. But of course, we’re very focused anytime there is instability in a major country like Russia, particularly one with nuclear weapons. There has been no change in their nuclear posture; there’s no change in our nuclear posture. But it’s something that we’re watching very carefully.
QUESTION: Does the instability give you hope that there’s an opening for the American citizens that are being held captive in Russia right now, or do you fear there’s going to be a clamp-down and this will make it harder?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I don’t want to speculate on that. We’re, as always, regardless of anything else that’s happening, intensely focused on making sure that we do everything possible to bring home Americans who are unjustly or arbitrarily detained, including in Russia. That focus will remain.
QUESTION: Does this go to full speed ahead for the Ukraine counteroffensive? Is this a moment of opportunity?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chuck, it is full speed ahead for their – for the counteroffensive. But they have a plan and they have a very deliberate plan. They’re prosecuting that plan. And we have more than 50 countries that continue to support them in that effort to make sure that they have everything they need to do as well as they can in taking back the land that was seized from them by Russia over the last 16 months. That is in train, but it’s going to take some time – weeks, maybe even months.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There are very strong defenses that the Russians have built up in recent months that the Ukrainians are working their way through. But at the end of the day, the bottom line really is this – and it’s the reason that Ukraine will prevail. This is about their land; this is about their future. This is about their freedom, not Russia’s. And that is, in a sense, the real difference maker that you’re going to see unfold.
QUESTION: We originally booked you to talk about your China visit. (Laughter.) That’s why you were to come on. I want to ask you: Within 24 hours after you leave China, President Biden refers to Xi Jinping as a dictator. And the Chinese Government chose to be offended, and I – the reason I word it that way is they didn’t have to. We know this. A lot of times countries allow – domestic rhetoric as domestic political rhetoric. We ignore rhetoric sometimes with countries overseas. Why do you believe the Chinese decided to be so publicly angry over this comment?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Chuck, I can’t put myself in their minds. What I can say is this. I went to China at the President’s instruction to try to bring a little bit more stability to the relationship. We have an obligation to responsibly manage that relationship; China does as well. And we hear that from countries around the world. And restoring strong lines of communication, making sure that we can talk directly about the many and profound differences we have as well as looking for places that we might be able to cooperate, that’s important. And I think we put that in train.
But part of my visit was to tell them very clearly that we are going to continue to do things and we’re going to continue to say things that you don’t like or won’t like, just as you’re doing things and saying things that we don’t like. But we have to work our way through them, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
QUESTION: So no apology for the dictator comment is coming?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, I’ve been very clear that we will continue to do as we’ve always done, which is to stand up for our interests, stand up for our values, and say what we think. And at the same time, again, they’re doing the same thing.
QUESTION: Are we going to prevent China from having a military base on the island of Cuba?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We have been not only looking but also engaging in a number of countries over the last couple of years where China is trying to get a foothold, and we’ve been engaged diplomatically in a number of places.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And we’ve had some success in either preventing that, delaying that, or turning that around. We continue to do that. I’ve raised that directly with my Chinese counterparts. They know where we stand on that issue.
QUESTION: I noticed you say you raised it with your Chinese counterparts. There are – we don’t – we have no relations still with Cuba. I mean, this decision to pull back relations with Cuba, did we not just throw them into the arms of the Chinese?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, we actually have raised this with the Cubans as well. So they also – for them, there’s no secret about the concerns that we have —
QUESTION: Right. But are —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — and the fact that we’re watching this very carefully.
QUESTION: Are we going to make sure it doesn’t happen? Is this a line in the sand?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, we’ve made clear that this is a real concern. And as I said, in a variety of places where China has tried to get a foothold, militarily or with intelligence, we’ve been not only looking at that, we’ve been taking action to try to push back, and we’ve had some success.
QUESTION: All right. Secretary Blinken, Secretary of State, I know it was a long weekend. Appreciate you coming on and sharing —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Chuck.
QUESTION: — your perspective. Thank you, sir.