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QUESTION:  And joining us now with a very busy day ahead at that summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Mr. Secretary, good morning to you.


QUESTION:  The President is set to meet with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine tomorrow.  As you know, the President has said no NATO membership for Ukraine while this war is going on.  Zelenskyy has said he wants a clear signal from NATO, that the President is the decision maker here.  And he wants an invitation to join NATO.  Will he get it from the President?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Savannah, first, I think what you’ve seen just overall, is an Alliance that’s stronger, it’s bigger – now with the Turks moving forward on Sweden’s admission to the Alliance after Finland got in.  It’s more united than ever before, and it’s also united when it comes to support for Ukraine.  I think what you’re going to see happen over the next couple of days is a clear demonstration of the progress that Ukraine has made toward eventual membership – that’s going to be reflected in what comes out of this summit – as well as work that still needs to be done.  And I think everyone’s been clear, including President Zelenskyy, that in the midst of a war, membership can’t happen.  But they’ve made real progress and the alliance will lay out the further reforms, both in terms of their security work and their democracy, that are necessary to keep moving down that path.

QUESTION:  One question.  If the Alliance’s position is no NATO membership until the war ends, does that not just incentivize Russia to keep it going and going and going since the very thing it fears is that Ukraine will be welcomed by NATO?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think what it claims its fears is a stronger, bigger, and more united Alliance, and that’s exactly what we’ve already seen with two new members joining the Alliance, the Alliance strengthening its positions across its eastern flank in defense against the possibility of Russian aggression, and united – united in its support for Ukraine.  One of the things that will come out of this summit is not only what we’re doing right now for Ukraine, but what the Alliance plans to do and what countries individually plan to do to help Ukraine build up over time its deterrence and defense capacity.  That tells President Putin that he can’t outlast us, he can’t outlast Ukraine, he can outlast all of the countries that are supporting Ukraine, and it would be in his interest to bring this aggression to an end as soon as possible.

QUESTION:  The U.S. has just announced that it will provide so-called cluster munitions to Ukraine.  As you well know, these bombs are controversial because they can explode later and after a war – after a conflict – and hurt civilians.  And in fact, they’re banned by more than 100 countries.  Our own UN ambassador said last year such bombs have quote, “No place on the battlefield.”  How do you justify it now?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It comes down to this.  At every step along the way, we tried to make sure that Ukraine had what it needed to defend itself and to retake its territory.  It was running low and, indeed, running the risk of running out of the munitions that it has in its inventories, and inventories around the world are low.  We’re working to build up the production of the munitions that it’s been using.  In the meantime, to fill the gap, to make sure it doesn’t run out, to make sure it can continue to defend itself, the President made the hard but necessary decision to provide cluster munitions.  And this is a stopgap to get them to a place where new production comes online.

The Russians have already saturated Ukraine with cluster munitions.  And there’s a big difference between what the Russians have done in Ukraine using these cluster munitions against the Ukrainian people, as opposed to the Ukrainian Government, which, in defense of its country, in defense of its own people, needs these weapons to make sure that it can resist the Russian aggression and take back its territory.  They’re going to be very focused on where they use them, making sure, of course, they’re not targeting their own civilians.  And we’re all deeply committed to cleaning up the country once the Russian aggression ends, something that we have to do anyway given the use of these munitions by Russia over the last two years.

QUESTION:  But taking a step back here, I mean, the U.S. – I understand the argument saying, look, this is a temporary solution, this is a backstop because Ukraine is running low on munitions.  However, this war has been going on for 500 days, the West has sent billions of dollars to Ukraine – how do you find yourself in this position where you’re essentially out of ammo and having to resort to this highly controversial weapon that is banned by many, many countries, including allies?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, take a step back.  Sixteen months ago, Russia was on the doorsteps of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.  It was working to take over the entire country, to topple its government, to erase Ukraine from the map, to end its independence, to subsume Ukraine into Russia.  That has failed, and it’s failed because of the incredible courage of the Ukrainian people.  It’s also failed because of the very strong support from country after country.  Everything has gotten pushed to the east and the south.  Ukraine’s working to get more of its land back that Russia has taken from it.  We’re in the fight with them, and it’s vitally important that they do everything they can to succeed.  But in terms of what Russia was trying to do, it’s already failed.  And now we want to make sure that Ukraine can do as much as it possibly can to recover territory that remains in Russian hands.

QUESTION:  How do you see this war, this conflict, coming to an end when you have – certainly we know Russia’s position, but also Ukraine’s position, which is:  We’re not giving back one inch of territory, including the Crimean Peninsula.  So how do you get these two sides to the table when there’s this intractable conflict?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  First, Russia needs to be disabused of the notion that it can somehow outlast Ukraine or outlast the many countries around the world that are supporting Ukraine.  And that’s a big piece of what’s going on here in Vilnius at this NATO Summit.  What you’re going to see coming out of the summit is a deep commitment to ongoing support for Ukraine, not just in the moment for this counteroffensive but for years to come.  And I think that’s going to help show President Putin that he can’t outlast anyone.  He can’t outlast Ukraine or the countries in support of Ukraine.  Ultimately, the Ukrainians have to decide when to bring this to a close because it’s their country, it’s their land, it’s their future.  These are their decisions, but we’re committed to working with them, to supporting them for as long as it takes.

QUESTION:  That’s interesting that you just said that it’s Ukraine’s decision when to end the war.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  They’re the ones who are the victims of this aggression.  And beyond the fact that we feel strongly, as many countries around the world do, that we can’t allow a bully to simply go in and take territory from another country – and we’ve seen the brutalization of the country, of its people by Russian forces – it’s also a matter of broader principle, because if we and other countries allowed this to stand in Ukraine, it opens a pandora’s box around the world where any would-be aggressor says:  Hey, they got away it; I can get away with it too.  And that leads to a world of conflict that’s not in our interest or anyone else’s.

QUESTION:  It was fascinating to see a few weeks ago as the Wagner Group head Yevgeniy Prigozhin tried to march on Moscow, obviously retreated.  And it’s now been reported that he and Putin actually met days after that failed rebellion and met for three hours.  How do you interpret that?  What do you see?  How do you – how do you evaluate what Putin’s strength is right now?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Savannah, it’s hard to speculate on exactly what’s going on internally in Russia, and this is fundamentally an internal Russian matter.  What’s extraordinary is we saw a direct challenge to Putin’s authority from Prigozhin.  We saw Prigozhin questioning the very premises of the war that Putin’s advanced for the last couple of years.  I don’t think we’ve seen the final act in this.  And it’s very hard for any of us to speculate where this goes next, but I do think it’s opened cracks, it’s raised questions that Putin still has to answer.

QUESTION:  All right.  Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a very busy day, thank you for your time, sir.  Appreciate it.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Savannah.  Good to be with you.

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U.S. Department of State

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