QUESTION: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is one of the many top Biden administration officials who’s been monitoring the events of the last two days, and he joins us from the State Department. Good morning to you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, Margaret.
QUESTION: Can you tell us who in the Biden administration has been in touch with Russian leadership?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I instructed my own team at the President’s behest to engage with the Russians, first and foremost to make sure that they understood their responsibilities in terms of protecting our own personnel, ensuring their safety and well-being, as well as any American citizens in Russia. So a number of people have engaged to make sure that the Russians got that message.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. ready for further unrest in Russia and the scenario that Vladimir Putin does not remain in power?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, this is an unfolding story and I think we’re in the midst of a moving picture. We haven’t seen – we haven’t seen the last act. We’re watching it very closely and carefully.
But just step back for a second and put this in context. Sixteen months ago Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine thinking they’d take the city in a matter of days, thinking they would erase Ukraine from the map as an independent country. Now, over this weekend, they’ve had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making. Prigozhin himself in this entire incident has raised profound questions about the very premises for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And it was a direct challenge to Putin’s authority. So this raises profound questions. It shows real cracks. We can’t speculate or know exactly where that’s going to go. We do know that Putin has a lot more to answer for in the weeks and months ahead.
QUESTION: But is the U.S. prepared for the potential of the fall of the Putin government, and is their nuclear stockpile – the largest in the world – secure?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We always prepare for every contingency. In terms of what happens in Russia, it’s an internal matter for the Russians to figure out. Of course, when we’re dealing with a major power and especially a major power that has nuclear weapons, that’s something that’s of concern. It’s something we’re very focused on. We haven’t seen any change in Russia’s nuclear posture. There hasn’t been any change in ours. But it’s something that we’re going to watch very, very carefully.
QUESTION: Vladimir Putin is appearing on television this morning, but it appears to have been prerecorded. Do you know the whereabouts of Vladimir Putin right now? Is he in Moscow?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I don’t want to – I don’t want to speculate on that or what information that we have. Again, we’re watching that carefully.
I think one of the things this tells you is that we still don’t – don’t have finality in terms of what was actually agreed between Prigozhin and Putin. I suspect that we’re going to learn more in the days and weeks ahead about what deal they struck. The President brought together not only the national security cabinet yesterday, he brought together the leaders of our key allies and partners. He instructed all of us to do the same. We have tremendous unity of purpose and unity of action when it comes to supporting Ukraine, and that’s where our focus is.
QUESTION: But as you just said, Prigozhin drew into question the very premise for Vladimir Putin’s war, so —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: So do the Wagner fighters return to the fight in Ukraine? Do we know?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Too soon to tell what’s going to happen to the Wagner forces, whether they go back to the fight. I mean, it was extraordinary that they were moving out of Ukraine and into Russia. But it’s too soon to tell whether they’re going to go back into the fight as Wagner, whether they get integrated into regular Russian forces, what this means for Wagner in other parts of the world. I mean, keep in mind —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — both Putin and Prigozhin are responsible for committing terrible acts in Ukraine against Ukrainian civilians. But also in the case of Wagner, in country after country in Africa, wherever Wagner is, death and destruction and exploitation follow.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: But all of this is likely to unroll in the coming days, in the coming weeks. To the extent that it presents a real distraction for Putin and for Russian authorities that they have to look at – sort of mind their rear even as they’re trying to deal with the counteroffensive in Ukraine, I think that creates even greater openings for the Ukrainians to do well on the ground.
QUESTION: Well, as you just indicated, Yevgeny Prigozhin has a footprint that goes from Africa to Syria to Ukraine. Do you have any idea where he is right now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I can’t get into what we know or don’t know through intelligence. It’s something that we’re looking at and that we’re tracking.
QUESTION: One of the things Prigozhin did was directly undermine the Russian military leadership. Do we know who is in charge of the Russian military right now, and how could Vladimir Putin agree to any changes in the leadership of his military and still look like he’s in charge?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Those are great questions, and I think we’ll get the answers in the days and weeks ahead. It’s too soon to say with any – any certainty what the final chapter in this particular book is going to be. The rising storm of Prigozhin inside of Russia is something that many people have seen over months now: direct challenges to the leadership – to the military leadership; powerful criticism of Russia’s conduct of its aggression against Ukraine; and now questioning the very premises of the war, Prigozhin himself saying that Ukraine and NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which has, as you know, been part of Putin’s narrative.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: These create more cracks in the Russian façade, and those cracks were already profound. Economically, militarily, its standing in the world – all of those things have been dramatically diminished by Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. He’s managed to bring Europe together. He’s managed to bring NATO together. He’s managed to get Europe to move off of Russian energy. He’s managed to alienate Ukrainians and unite Ukraine at the same time. So across the board this has been a strategic failure. Now you introduce into that profound internal divisions, and there are lots of questions he’s going to have to answer in the weeks ahead.
QUESTION: Is there a possibility of civil war?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I don’t want to speculate on that. These are fundamentally internal matters for the Russians to figure out. It’s not our place to do that.
QUESTION: Will President Biden reach out directly to Vladimir Putin? Has the CIA director reached out to Russian intelligence?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, I’m not going to get into any diplomatic contacts that we may have or have had. I can tell you that on my instruction, on the President’s instruction, we had some engagement with the Russians over the weekend to make sure they understood their responsibilities when it comes to looking out for the safety and security of our personnel in Russia – very important that we do that and we did that.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about Beijing. I was there with you earlier this week and I listened to you pick every single one of your words very carefully. And then on our way home, President Biden called Xi Jinping a dictator with economic problems who didn’t know what his own military was doing by flying the spy balloon over the United States. How much did that hurt the work you did?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, one of the things that I think you heard me say during the trip and after the trip is that the main purpose was to bring some greater stability to the relationship. But one of the things that I said to Chinese counterparts during this trip was that we are going to continue to do things and say things that you don’t like, just as you’re no doubt going to continue to do and say things that we don’t like. And if you look at what comes out of the Chinese foreign ministry on a daily basis, you’ll hear that.
QUESTION: Are you saying that was a strategic remark?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The President always speaks candidly, he speaks directly, he speaks clearly, and he speaks for all of us.
QUESTION: You also said that Chinese officials assured you they won’t provide lethal assistance to Russia but that Chinese companies are. According to U.S. Treasury, Chinese companies have also done business with the Wagner Group. Have you reached out to the Chinese about trying to gauge what is happening on the ground inside Russia now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, I can’t get into any diplomatic contacts that we may or may not have had. But you’re exactly right that when it comes to the visit, the Chinese did reiterate to us as well as to many other countries that they have not and will not provide lethal military assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine. I also raised the concerns that you said about Chinese companies providing that kind of support and pressed them to be vigilant about that. I’m sure they’re making their own assessments about what’s happened inside of Russia in recent days.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you for your time this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Margaret. Good to be with you.