QUESTION: Ladies and gentlemen, my guest tonight has worked in government for nearly 30 years and currently serves as our 71st Secretary of State. Please welcome Secretary Antony Blinken. (Applause.)
Thank you for being here. I don’t take this lightly. You don’t get a secretary of state on a late-night show every day. (Cheers.) Have you done many of these?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: This is the first one.
QUESTION: This is the first one?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It is.
QUESTION: You’re going to love it. (Laughter.)
Now, I want to talk to you a little bit later about basically the State Department in general. I think people misunderstand its mission often and how important it is. But the first thing I want to talk to you about is that you’re the most informed person right now I could talk to about what’s going on in the war in Ukraine. And – but before I ask you my questions, what would you like people to know about what the state of that conflict is right now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Stephen, this is day 82 of what was an unprovoked, unjustified aggression by Russia against Ukraine. And I think what the world already knows is we’ve seen the remarkable courage, resiliency of the Ukrainian people. Overmatched – (cheers).
QUESTION: Everyone said three or four days and it would be over. Everyone thought it would be over in three or four days.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There was a lot of expectation that that might happen. But because of their courage, because of their resilience, but also because of the assistance that we’ve been able to provide them with dozens of other countries, they’ve not only held their ground, they’ve been pushing the Russians back. They won the battle for Kyiv.
Now, there is an intense fight going on in eastern and southern Ukraine. And the other thing is the country has been terribly brutalized by this Russian aggression. We had that – the town of Bucha near Kyiv. The Russians moved out. When that tide receded, we saw what was left in its wake, and I’m afraid that as that happens in other parts of Ukraine, we’ll see it.
But the most important thing is this: 82 days in, the Ukrainians are standing up for their freedom. They’re standing up for their sovereignty. They have so much of the world with them. And here’s what I can tell you: What Vladimir Putin was trying to do was to take away their independence, their sovereignty. In his mind, Ukraine is not an independent country; it needs to be subsumed into Russia. That’s what this is about.
And what I think we can say with a lot of certainty and conviction is that a sovereign, independent Ukraine is going to be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene. (Cheers.)
QUESTION: Now, you were one of the first people to actually brief Zelenskyy before the war ever started about the likelihood of this invasion. You were first to warn the public on behalf of the administration of what might be going over there. You’re now leading the U.S. efforts to have a joint response from NATO countries and set the tone for the entire world. All of that seems like the right thing to do.
One thing that worries me, however right I think the fight for the Ukrainians is, is that: Is there a chance that this could tip over to a hot war with Russia? Because certainly, Putin and all of his – the people in his circle have said they consider this a hot war with the West, whether or not we want to call it that. So how do you make sure that that doesn’t happen?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Stephen, the President’s been very clear about this, about what this is and what it isn’t. And what it isn’t is it isn’t a war with Russia. This is the United States —
QUESTION: Not a proxy war.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And it’s not a proxy war. It’s about us giving the Ukrainians the help that they need to defend themselves, to stop the aggression, to hold onto their freedom, to hold onto their sovereignty. That’s what we’re doing. And we’re also putting pressure on Russia to try to get it to stop the aggression. We have sanctions that we’ve been leading with dozens of other countries that are making life pretty difficult for the Russians. More than 800 companies, big – the biggest brand names in the world – have left Russia because they don’t want the reputational cost of doing business there given this aggression. That’s having a real impact. (Applause.)
QUESTION: Now, we see reports about the fall of Mariupol, and the Ukrainians fighters put up a fierce resistance there. Now that that city – is that accurate, that Mariupol has fallen to the Russians?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The Russians have taken Mariupol. It is —
QUESTION: What does that mean to the Russian efforts now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The fight now is – after the Russians got pushed back from Kyiv and around Kyiv and from northern Ukraine and parts of western Ukraine, this has moved all the way east and all the way south, pretty near Russia itself. And that’s what they’re – that’s what they’re fighting over.
And again, as I said, what’s so heartbreaking about this is when the world actually sees what’s happened in Mariupol, which it will one day, I’m afraid the pictures that we’ve seen coming out of Bucha a few – a couple months ago are going to be nothing by comparison.
So this is why I think people – and the American people have been incredibly generous, because – through Congress – so much support given to the Ukrainians, because I think it is touching people’s hearts. They’re seeing a big country aggress a small one. They’re seeing one country try to change the borders of another by force. They’re seeing one country try to say to another country: we’re going to decide what your future’s going to be, not you. And we can’t have a world that works that way.
QUESTION: And there’s a bipartisan response, which is —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: This has been remarkable.
QUESTION: Is unusual these days.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well —
QUESTION: Anything that anyone can agree on.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s been remarkable. (Applause.)
QUESTION: Part of Putin’s motivation for the war – as I see in the reporting that part of Putin’s motivation for the war is to weaken NATO. Now, this was Monday and then Tuesday, Finland and then Sweden —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: — signed the applications.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: Is Putin himself the greatest advertisement for NATO in a generation? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: If I was going to have a poster for – well. (Laughter.) What’s remarkable is when you look at this, Stephen, President Putin has managed to precipitate everything he sought to prevent. He wanted to prevent NATO from getting bigger with Ukraine. Now it actually is with Finland and with Sweden. He wanted to divide the West, divide the Alliance. It’s more united than it’s ever been. And as I said, he wanted to subjugate Ukraine, make it part of Russia. That is not going to happen. So everything we’re seeing is Putin achieving the exact opposite of what he says he wants.
QUESTION: Now, my buddy Pope Francis – (laughter) – has said that NATO takes some blame for this by basically stressing out Russia by expanding east up against Russia’s borders. Do you think he’s got a case?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So NATO —
QUESTION: I mean, he’s the Pope. He’s the Pope. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And I have great reverence for him. I had the – now, he told me that you were very close when I saw him.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I have great reverence for him, but let me say this. NATO is a defensive Alliance, countries coming together to make sure that if one of them was attacked all the others would come in and defend that country. That’s what it’s about. It has no aggressive intent against Russia. It’s never attacked Russia; it won’t attack Russia. It doesn’t intend to attack Russia.
QUESTION: I’ve got a crazy idea. Invite Russia to be part of NATO.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well —
QUESTION: Then what’s he got to be worried about?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: You know what? Back in the 1990s that was actually something that people talked about.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, the Russians decided that wasn’t what they wanted to do. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay. We have to take a quick break, but when we come back I will ask the Secretary about what Zelenskyy is like in person. Stick around.
QUESTION: Hey, everybody. We’re back here with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. You’ve met Zelenskyy. After speaking to him many times, I assume, as Secretary of State, you went over there and visited with him over in Kyiv.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I did.
QUESTION: What’s he like? He seems very impressive as a leader from a distance, but we know he was an actor and a comedian so he could just be acting impressive. (Laughter.) But what’s he like in person?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’ve got to say, Stephen, he is – he is quite literally the embodiment of the courage of the Ukrainian people. Because this is a guy who, when the bombs started coming in, the missiles started flying, he could have left town. He could have gotten out of Kyiv. He didn’t; he stayed. He led his people. And that’s both incredible personal courage, but it’s also because I think he felt that he had to represent Ukrainians, he had to stand up for the country’s freedom and independence.
So he’s really inspired people all around the world. And I’ve had the occasion to meet him – meet with him half a dozen times. Before the war, when we had this information that Russia was likely to do this, I had to tell him. We were at the COP26, the climate meetings, and I sat with him and shared the information. Telling someone that Russia may be about to invade your country is definitely an eye-opener, but he has proven to be remarkably resilient.
And of course, he’s also, I think, made a powerful fashion statement out of the green t-shirt. (Laughter.)
So when we visited – (applause). When we visited, I went with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. And if you’re going to go into a conflict zone with anyone, you want to go in with Lloyd Austin.
QUESTION: Because you can stand behind him. He’s a huge man.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes, exactly. He’s a big guy. And we went and we had a remarkable three hours with President Zelenskyy, with his team. We went in on this train that took about 12 hours to get from the Polish border into Kyiv. And actually, Kyiv itself looks, now at least, remarkably normal – people on the streets going to coffee shops, et cetera. Now, that doesn’t stop the Russians from still firing missiles that hit Kyiv, but the city has come back to life.
QUESTION: I understand that the embassy is going to reopen there.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The embassy – the flag went up today. Embassy —
QUESTION: The American flag.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: American flag. (Applause.)
QUESTION: What does that mean? What’s the significance – well, two things. What is the – and this will get us into what I want to talk to you about the State Department. What is the significance of an embassy having to be evacuated and that moment of return? What’s the significance of both those events?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: My first responsibility in this job as Secretary is to look out for the well-being of the men and women of the State Department. I’ve got to have their security uppermost in mind. So when the attack was coming, we had to make a really hard decision to suspend our operations and to get folks out of harm’s way. Let me tell you this: They didn’t want to go. But we moved them to Poland.
They took the flag that was flying over the embassy that day with them, and that is the same flag that’s now flying over the embassy again in Kyiv today. (Applause.)
QUESTION: We have to take a little break. We’ll be right back with Secretary Antony Blinken, everybody. (Applause.)
QUESTION: Hey, everybody. We’re back here with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. We’re talking about a war, and we talked earlier about, like, the munitions that might go over and the tactical and intelligence help the United States may give. But the State Department is not the Department of Defense; it’s not the Department of War. Richard Holbrooke called it the department of peace. And General Mattis said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: What do people not understand about the mission of the State Department?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, you’ve got it exactly right. Our job is to try to prevent war; if we fail at that, to try to make peace; and if we fail at that, to make sure that our diplomacy is doing everything it can wherever necessary not just to make life better for people around the world, but also to make life better for our own people, for the American people. Because everything that we’re trying to do is to try to make the world just a little bit safer, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit healthier, a little bit wiser, a little bit more tolerant, and that’s going to benefit us.
QUESTION: What’s the state of the State Department right now? We only have a minute here. I’m just very curious. It was sort of famously reported as being sort of denuded during the previous administration, that people who were leaving were not being replaced, that the halls were empty. Is the State Department being restaffed?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, President Biden said early on, as we started to move around the world again, America’s back. And I can tell you this: The State Department’s back. We have – our men and women throughout the world – (applause) – even as we’re relentlessly focused – relentlessly focused on Ukraine and on helping the Ukrainian people, we’re doing a lot of other things too.
We’ve gotten a truce in Ethiopia so that humanitarian assistance can get to people up in Tigray. (Applause.) We got a truce in Yemen after eight years of war so that there’s a chance at a lasting peace. We’ve helped get now more than 500 million COVID vaccine shots to people around the world, on our way to 1.2 billion shots the United States is giving away free, no strings attached, so that we can get ahead of COVID around the world. That’s the work we do every day.
And here’s the thing, Stephen. What we know is this: If the United States is not engaged, if we are not trying to lead, then one of two things. Either someone else is – maybe it’s China, and that might not go forward in a way that reflects our interests and our values – or no one is, and that usually leaves a vacuum that’s filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things. So that’s why it’s so important that we engage, that we lead, and we’re leading with diplomacy. That’s what President Biden said he wanted. That’s why the State Department is front and center. That’s what we do. We’re leading with diplomacy, we’re leading for America, and we’re trying to make things a little bit better around the world. (Applause.)
QUESTION: Well, thank you so much for being here. As important as that work is that you just described, I think perhaps you’ll be – you’ll best be remembered as the lead guitarist for the band Ablinken. (Laughter.) And this is an actual photo. We did not mock this up. (Applause.) Tell me about your band. What do you get out of it and where are you guys gigging next? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Stephen, I long wanted to be a musician. As a kid, as a teenager, that’s what I wanted to do, and I see some real musicians over there. (Laughter and applause.) There was just one – one missing ingredient.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Talent. (Laughter.) But it has been a constant thread in my life, so I’ve been in a bunch of “bands,” in quotation marks. Coalition of the Willing.
QUESTION: Oh, sure, with András Simonyi, yeah, (inaudible), yes.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: With – yes, that’s right, among others. Big Lunch.
QUESTION: Don’t know that one. (Laughter.) That’s on me.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Name because we kind of make you feel the way you do after you’ve had a big lunch. (Laughter.) A little bit drowsy.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Exactly.
QUESTION: A little logy. Okay, sure.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: A little – exactly.
QUESTION: Logy dance band, yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And what we found – at least what I’ve found in my experience is that the best audience we have tends to be very young children who haven’t developed critical faculties. (Laughter.) That —
QUESTION: Well, just in case there are any of them watching right now, as we go out, would you care – do you guys have a guitar that the Secretary might be able to use? (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you so much. Antony Blinken, everybody. We’ll be right back with a performance by Twice. (Applause.) Please, sir. Won’t you, please.