MR PRICE: Good afternoon. We have previously noted our strong concerns regarding Russian disinformation and the likelihood that Moscow might create – seek to create a false flag operation to initiate military activity. Now, we can say that the United States has information that Russia is planning to stage fabricated attacks by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces as a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine.
One possible option the Russians are considering, and which we made public today, involves the production of a propaganda video – a video with graphic scenes of false explosions – depicting corpses, crisis actors pretending to be mourners, and images of destroyed locations or military equipment – entirely fabricated by Russian intelligence.
To be clear, the production of this propaganda video is one of a number of options that the Russian Government is developing as a fake pretext to initiate and potentially justify military aggression against Ukraine. We don’t know if Russia will necessarily use this or another option in the coming days. We are publicizing it now, however, in order to lay bare the extent of Russia’s destabilizing actions towards Ukraine and to dissuade Russia from continuing this dangerous campaign and ultimately launching a military attack.
Russia has signaled it’s willing to continue diplomatic talks as a means to de-escalate, but actions such as these suggest otherwise. We will continue to diligently work together with our allies and partners to expose Russian disinformation and other hybrid tactics used against Ukraine. We continue to work to prevent any effort Moscow might make to justify further military action in Ukraine. We again urge Russia to stop its destructive and destabilizing disinformation campaign, to de-escalate tensions, and to engage in diplomacy and dialogue for a peaceful solution.
QUESTION: Thanks. Okay, well, that’s quite a mouthful there. So you said “actions such as these suggest otherwise” – suggest meaning that they suggest they’re not interested in talks and they’re going to go ahead with some kind of a – what action are you talking about?
MR PRICE: One, the actions I have just pointed to, the fact –
QUESTION: What action? What —
MR PRICE: The fact that Russia continues to engage in disinformation campaigns.
QUESTION: Well no, you’ve made an allegation that they might do that. Have they actually done it?
MR PRICE: What we know, Matt, is what we – what I have just said, that they have engaged in this activity, in this planning activity —
QUESTION: Well, engage in what – hold on a second. What activity?
MR PRICE: But let me – let me – because obviously this is not – this is not the first time we’ve made these reports public. You’ll remember that just a few weeks ago –
QUESTION: I’m sorry, made what report public?
MR PRICE: If you let me finish, I will tell you what report we made public.
MR PRICE: We told you a few weeks ago that we have information indicating Russia also has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine. So that, Matt, to your question, is an action that Russia has already taken.
QUESTION: No, it’s an action that you say that they have taken, but you have shown no evidence to confirm that. And I’m going to get to the next question here, which is: What is the evidence that they – I mean, this is – like, crisis actors? Really? This is like Alex Jones territory you’re getting into now. What evidence do you have to support the idea that there is some propaganda film in the making?
MR PRICE: Matt, this is derived from information known to the U.S. Government, intelligence information that we have declassified. I think you know —
QUESTION: Okay, well, where is it? Where is this information?
MR PRICE: It is intelligence information that we have declassified.
QUESTION: Well, where is it? Where is the declassified information?
MR PRICE: I just delivered it.
QUESTION: No, you made a series of allegations and statements —
MR PRICE: Would you like us to print out the topper? Because you will see a transcript of this briefing that you can print out for yourself.
QUESTION: But that’s not evidence, Ned. That’s you saying it. That’s not evidence. I’m sorry.
MR PRICE: What would you like, Matt?
QUESTION: I would like to see some proof that you – that you can show that —
MR PRICE: Matt, you have been —
QUESTION: — that shows that the Russians are doing this.
MR PRICE: You —
QUESTION: Ned, I’ve been doing this for a long time, as you know.
MR PRICE: I know. That was my point. You have been doing this for quite a while.
QUESTION: I have.
MR PRICE: You know that when we declassify intelligence, we do so in a means —
QUESTION: That’s right. And I remember WMDs in Iraq, and I —
MR PRICE: — we do so with an eye to protecting sources and methods.
QUESTION: And I remember that Kabul was not going to fall. I remember a lot of things. So where is the declassified information other than you coming out here and saying it?
MR PRICE: Matt, I’m sorry you don’t like the format, but we have —
QUESTION: It’s not the format. It’s the content.
MR PRICE: I’m sorry you don’t like the content. I’m sorry you —
QUESTION: It’s not that I don’t like it or —
MR PRICE: I’m sorry you are doubting the information that is in the possession of the U.S. Government.
QUESTION: No, I —
MR PRICE: What I’m telling you is that this is information that’s available to us. We are making it available to you in order – for a couple reasons. One is to attempt to deter the Russians from going ahead with this activity. Two, in the event we’re not able to do that, in the event the Russians do go ahead with this, to make it clear as day, to lay bare the fact that this has always been an attempt on the part of the Russian Federation to fabricate a pretext.
QUESTION: Yes, but you don’t have any evidence to back it up other than what you’re saying. It’s like you’re saying, “We think – we have information the Russians may do this,” but you won’t tell us what the information is. And then when you’re asked —
MR PRICE: Well, that is the idea behind deterrence, Matt. That is the idea behind deterrence.
QUESTION: When you’re asked – and when you’re asked —
MR PRICE: It is our hope that the Russians don’t go forward with this.
QUESTION: And when you’re asked what the information is, you say, “I just gave it to you.” But that’s not what —
MR PRICE: You seem not to understand —
QUESTION: That’s not the way it works.
MR PRICE: You seem not to understand the idea of deterrence.
QUESTION: No, no, no, Ned. You don’t – you seem not to understand the idea of —
MR PRICE: We are trying to deter the Russians from moving forward with this type of activity. That is why we are making it public today. If the Russians don’t go forward with this, that is not ipso facto an indication that they never had plans to do so.
QUESTION: But then it’s unprovable. I mean, my God, what is the evidence that you have that suggests that the Russians are even planning this?
MR PRICE: Matt, you —
QUESTION: I mean, I’m not saying that they’re not. But you just come out and say this and expect us just to believe it without you showing a shred of evidence that it’s actually true – other than when I ask or when anyone else asks what’s the information, you said, well, I just gave it to you, which was just you making a statement.
MR PRICE: Matt, you said yourself you’ve been in this business for quite a long time. You know that when we make information – intelligence information public we do so in a way that protects sensitive sources and methods. You also know that we do so – we declassify information – only when we’re confident in that information.
QUESTION: But Ned, you haven’t given any information.
MR PRICE: If you doubt – if you doubt the credibility of the U.S. Government, of the British Government, of other governments, and want to find solace in information that the Russians are putting out —
MR PRICE: — that is for you to do.
QUESTION: I don’t want – I’m not asking what the Russian Government is putting out. And what do you – what is that supposed to mean?
MR PRICE: Shaun.
QUESTION: Does the government have the video? Because U.S. officials are describing very specific scenes, but do they actually have a video?
MR PRICE: The fact that we are able to go into such great detail – obviously, I am not going to spell out what is in our possession, but I will leave – I will leave it to you – I will leave that to your judgment, to your imagination.
QUESTION: Ned, there are no facts that you’ve spelled out.
QUESTION: Whether they use it “in the coming days” – do you have evidence this was intended to come out in the coming days?
MR PRICE: We’ve said, Ben, for some time now that the Russians have positioned forces, they have undertaken preparations, that if Putin decides to move forward with an invasion they’re positioned to do so. They are poised to do so.
QUESTION: You just said – you said “in the coming days.” I mean, was that a timeline that you felt that this was going to happen imminently?
MR PRICE: Well, we know what they are planning for. We know the contingencies that they have engaged in. And again, these are the kinds of steps that they are poised to undertake if that decision is made. Our goal in all of this is to deter an invasion, to deter this type of activity. So we certainly hope it doesn’t take place. We are making clear what we know so that in the event it does take place it will be clear to the world what this actually was and what it was not.
QUESTION: And the pre-positioned teams, when do you suggest they were pre-positioned? Is it going back months, I mean, or was this a more recent sort of deployment?
MR PRICE: Well, this was something that we made public several weeks ago now. So several weeks ago we said that information available to us indicated that Russia had already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine.
QUESTION: Was it recent at that point? Because if they had come across just a few weeks ago, that would be a Russian aggression across the border, which you’ve warned time and time again would result in severe consequences.
MR PRICE: Ben, you know that the sort of hybrid activity that we’ve been pointing to, much of it has been going on since 2014. Obviously, we’re very attuned to any Russian aggression against Ukraine that may take place in this atmosphere given the heightened tensions.
QUESTION: Could you in any way describe your level of confidence at – which you have not suggested – at how far along in the planning this is, at some level of planning in terms of their possible operations?
MR PRICE: The fact, Andrea, that we are able to go into such detail, the fact that we are able to do that with confidence, because we would not be saying this otherwise, suggests that this is something that is – this planning at least, this contingency planning, is well underway. We wouldn’t be making this information public were we not confident in the underlying details and confident in the allegations that we put forward.
QUESTION: Is this in any way connected to the previous report, as another phase of the previous report, the previous report – excuse me – that the British put out that was then confirmed to have come originally from American sourcing?
MR PRICE: This is all part of – part and parcel of a broader effort. I’m not going to speak to how various streams of intelligence, now declassified information, may or may not stitch together. But what we know is that Russian military and intelligence entities for some time now have been engaged in this type of activity. We know that it was a very similar set of tactics that they undertook in 2014 as a means by which to fabricate a pretext for the invasion that took place some eight years ago. So that is part of – that certainly is part of the concern.
The other element of the concern is not only the historical aspect of it, the fact that we have seen this before, but the fact of what we are seeing now, what we are picking up now – through means that, of course, we can’t get into, but that has produced information available to us in which we are confident.
We know that – similarly that Russian military and intelligence entities are engaged in a broad disinformation and propaganda effort. This includes malign social media operations, the use of overt and covert online proxy media outlets, the injection of disinformation in television and radio programming, hosting of conferences designed to influence attendees into falsely believing that Ukraine, not Russia, is at fault for heightened tensions in the region, the leveraging of cyber operations to deface media outlets and conduct what are known as hack-and-release operations.
To give you one example, we know that the Russia’s – that Russia’s Federal Security Service, or the FSB, directly tasks and influences proxy media outlets – for example, NewsFront – to publish content that denigrates Ukraine and falsely depicts it as the aggressor. Articles written by this and other outlets as a result have made their way not only to pro-Kremlin proxy outlets but also official Russian state media outlets, like RIA Novosti, and others. You know that the other week we put out a great deal of information on Russia’s disinformation and propaganda efforts. This has been long-running, but we also know that this type of activity has accelerated in recent weeks, which further fuels our concern.
To give you just one example, during December, a couple months ago, Russian language content on social media covering the narratives that we’ve talked about – the lie that Ukraine is the aggressor, the lie that it is Russia that is being threatened – increased to an average of nearly 3,500 posts per day. That was a 200 percent increase from the daily average just the month before. And it was the month before that we had seen a similarly large spike.
So we are quite concerned by all this, we’re concerned by the specifics, but we’re also concerned by the broader trends that, to us, are reminiscent in many ways – many disturbing ways of what we saw in 2014 and what we fear we may be seeing a replay of now.
QUESTION: With all of the diplomacy that is underway – Macron and others as well as what the Secretary may be doing with Foreign Minister Lavrov – do you see a longer timeline? Because the White House notably did not use the word “imminent” in terms of an invasion. Has that perspective changed at all?
MR PRICE: So I think there has been some confusion around this because we’ve always been consistent that insofar as we know, Vladimir Putin has not made a final decision. So until and unless he makes a final decision to invade, this will not be imminent.
What we do know and what our concern is, is that Russia has undertaken these steps, including the amassing of 100,000 forces along Ukraine’s borders, the dispatch of thousands of troops – up to 30,000 forces into what should be the sovereign, independent country of Belarus, undertaking this sort of disinformation and propaganda activity.
All of this puts Moscow in a position to be able to move swiftly in a very aggressive way against Ukraine if it so chooses. That has always been our position, or at least I should say that has been our position in recent weeks, as all of these ingredients have come together.
QUESTION: Yeah. Also on Russia, the Russian foreign minister met with his Chinese counterpart and China expressed understanding and support for Russia’s position regarding the U.S. and NATO. They’re talking about coordinated positions between China and Russia. Is this concerning to you that there is this kind of new alliance seeming to be forming in opposition to U.S. policy interests around the world?
MR PRICE: I’d make two points. First – and this is something we discussed a very days ago, but Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to speak to Foreign Minister Wang of the PRC last week, and as part of that conversation the Secretary and the foreign minister discussed the tensions that are result – the result of Moscow’s needless provocations and military buildup and the potential implications of a Russian incursion or invasion into Ukraine. This is an eventuality that poses risks not only to Ukraine, to Europe, to the United States, but well beyond that, including to the PRC. The global security and economic risks posed by further Russian aggression would be enormous and they would have consequences not only on Ukraine, Europe, the transatlantic community, but on the PRC as well.
The second point gets to some of the measures we’re taking in an effort to deter what could be additional Russian aggression, and that’s the economic and financial consequences that we have said would befall the Russian Federation if there were – if this was to go forward. Similarly, those would be massive on the Kremlin. If Russia thinks that it will be in a position to make up some of those consequences, to mitigate some of those consequences by a closer relationship with the PRC, that is not the case. It will actually make the Russian economy in many ways more brittle. If you look at, for example, where the major inputs to foundational technologies come from, they still come from the West. If you deny yourself the ability to transact with the West, to import with the West – from Europe, from the United States – you are going to significantly degrade your productive capacity and your innovative potential.
Putin knows that this would be of massive consequence to his country and to his economy. This – a closer relationship with the PRC, a closer relationship between Russia and the PRC – is not going to make up for that; it is not going to account for that.
One final point. We have – and when I say we I mean collectively, the United States and our allies and partners – we have an array of tools that we can deploy if we see foreign companies, including those in China, doing their best to backfill U.S. export control actions, to evade them, to get around them. I wouldn’t want to speculate on what those tools are, but we do have tools that can address that, and that would seek to account for that.
QUESTION: But you said a closer relationship with China would actually make their position – Russia’s position more brittle. How would it do that?
MR PRICE: Because it would make the Russian economy dependent on one economy, or much more dependent on one economy. This is a recipe for catastrophe for the Russian economy if Putin thinks that the measures we’ve talked about won’t have the bite, won’t have the consequences that we’ve warned about. And no partnership can account for the massive economic toll that we’ve talked about given the financial tools that are available to us, the sanctions tools that are available to us, and the export control actions, among others, that we’re in a position to take.
QUESTION: But you said Secretary Blinken spoke to Foreign Minister Wang and tried to make this case, but it sounds like from what they’ve said today, they have not taken that on board. Do you – are you concerned that the Chinese don’t agree with what you’re arguing here.
MR PRICE: I would leave it to the PRC to characterize their position. I think what you have heard publicly from the PRC, including in the context of the UN earlier this week, is that the PRC – like us, like just about every other country around the world – would prefer to see a diplomatic solution to the crisis that Russia has needlessly provoked.
QUESTION: Ned, before we leave Ukraine, when was the last time the Secretary spoke to the foreign minister, his – the Ukrainian foreign minister?
QUESTION: Okay. But not since the – not this week, in other words?
MR PRICE: I’m not aware of a call this week, but we do regularly engage with our Ukrainian counterparts at many different levels.
QUESTION: All right. And then one – just one last thing. I’m not buying into Russian propaganda, but I’m also not going to buy into an —
MR PRICE: I’m not asking you to.
QUESTION: — accusation – yeah, you are. You’re saying the proof is that I just said it. So let me just appeal to you on behalf of all of us, and the American people and the people of the world, and the Russian people and the Ukrainian people: One piece of evidence to suggest that the Russians are planning to use crisis actors to stage a false, mass-casualty event to use as a pretext. Just one piece, okay? And not you or Kirby or Jen or Jon Finer or Jake saying, “This is what is so,” and then you turning around and saying, “Well, because we said it, it’s a fact.”
MR PRICE: So let me —
QUESTION: One piece of —
MR PRICE: Let me make —
QUESTION: One piece of verifiable evidence.
MR PRICE: Let me make – let me make a couple of broad points, and I acknowledge this will probably be unsatisfactory to you in the moment. But here’s what I think you know, what I certainly know, what everyone here knows: There are 100,000 Russian troops encircling Ukraine right now, approaching Ukraine’s borders, close to the borders. There are thousands of Russian troops, with the potential for some 30,000 Russian troops to stream into Belarus. All of these forces are positioned, could well be positioned if Putin makes that decision, to engage on Ukraine in a coordinated assault. We also know that the Russians have resorted to these tactics in the past, have developed a remarkably similar playbook in 2014: amassed troops, engaged in 2014 – it is a historical fact – engaged in disinformation and propaganda to paint Ukraine as the aggressor, fabricated a pretext for an invasion, and went in.
So with what we know from eight years ago, with what we have seen – you and I both have seen, everyone has seen – with what we have heard eight years ago, in the ensuing eight years, and in recent weeks, it seems to me that it should not be outlandish that the Russians may be engaging in this activity again.
QUESTION: Well, okay, fine, but not being outlandish doesn’t mean that you have any proof that it’s happening —
MR PRICE: The second point – the second point —
QUESTION: — or being planned. Hold on, Ned. You can’t just – all of that may very well be true, probably is true, okay? But it doesn’t provide any evidence of what you’re alleging now, which is that they’re planning this mass – fake mass casualty event with, quote/unquote, “crisis actors,” which is something that in the U.S. we rarely hear outside of the kind of nutty conspiracy theory crowd.
MR PRICE: Well, to be to be clear we’re not alleging what the United States is doing. This is information available to us of what the Russians are up to.
QUESTION: No, no, but that’s —
MR PRICE: I understand your point, but I just want to —
QUESTION: You do? Because, I mean, you’re treading into serious waters here. And if you can’t provide any evidence other than, “Well, I said so and so it’s a fact,” that’s a problem.
MR PRICE: Matt, there’s a second point. This is derived from intelligence, intelligence in which we have confidence —
QUESTION: Well —
MR PRICE: — in which we have confidence, otherwise —
QUESTION: The same confidence you had in WMD in Iraq? I mean, what —
MR PRICE: Otherwise – otherwise – otherwise we would not be making it public in the way we are. But here’s the other point: Intelligence and evidence, these are two separate things. It is no —
QUESTION: But you’re saying it’s a fact and that you have proof, and then you can’t offer any proof to show that it’s a fact. I’ll drop it, but I think we should move on.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah. You said that you have measures in case companies from China and elsewhere try to backfill Russian orders. I mean, can you offer any more detail on what that would mean? And has the Secretary expressed that possibility to Foreign Minister Wang or others in the PRC?
MR PRICE: In the conversation the other day with his PRC counterpart, there was an extended discussion of the potential implications of Russian aggression against Ukraine. We have been – without speaking to that conversation specifically, we haven’t been shy as well in speaking to the potential implications of the measures that we and our allies are prepared to enact if Russia does move forward with a further invasion of Ukraine. So whether it’s the PRC, whether it is an economy in Europe, whether it’s any country around the world, the implications of that are pretty clear. Those allies and partners that are working with us directly on this package of sanctions and other economic measures, they certainly have a deeper level of insight. But even countries that are not as engaged in this have a good idea based on what we’ve said publicly and the information that in many instances we’ve conveyed privately.
QUESTION: Let me just follow up on the question of the video. First of all, what does the existence of this level of operational planning mean for the prospects of diplomacy going forward? And is the U.S. considering and has it threatened any form of retaliatory information operations of its own against Russia?
MR PRICE: What it means in terms of diplomacy is for us, the door to diplomacy remains open. This is contingency planning that the Russians are undertaking. We know what – at least we assess what – Putin and the Russian Federation are seeking here is optionality. And we’ve consistently said that we have no information to indicate that Putin has made a final decision to invade or not to invade.
So until that decision is made, until Russian aggression goes forward, for us, the door for diplomacy remains open. We still want to be able to find a resolution to this through diplomacy and dialogue. That doesn’t mean that we’re not simultaneously moving down the path of defense and deterrence. We absolutely are. Just as the Russians are giving themselves optionality, we too are lending ourselves a degree of optionality by ensuring that whichever path Putin chooses, the path of aggression or the path of diplomacy, that we, too, will be ready.
QUESTION: And would information operations be part of that optionality?
MR PRICE: Look, I’m not going to speak to that. I think as a general matter, we have made the point that the best antidote to disinformation, the best antidote to information – to propaganda is information. That is precisely why you have heard us, not only today but with the previous elements we have declassified and put forward, we have sought to do a couple things – to deter the Russians from taking these courses, from pursuing these paths, but also again, in the event they choose the path of aggression and invasion, to lay bare that this was the plan all along. So I think when you look at what we’re doing, we are using information to combat the disinformation, the propaganda, that we’re seeing emanate from Moscow.
QUESTION: Can you tell us more about the initiative at NATO that Anne Neuberger is leading with our allies to better defend against a cyber attack?
MR PRICE: So this is – I will, in the first instance, leave it to colleagues at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to speak about those efforts. But this is part and parcel of our efforts to be prepared for any contingency that arises. You’ve heard us speak to this broadly in terms of our preference for diplomacy and dialogue, the defensive and deterrence moves that we are taking, whether it is providing defensive security assistance to the Ukrainians, whether it is reinforcing our NATO Allies on the eastern flank, whether it is engaging with conversations with partners and allies around the world on energy supplies to mitigate the potential implications in energy markets, but also when it comes to cyber, because we know that again, the Russians have a long playbook. It is a playbook with many options in it; it’s a playbook that they have turned to in the past to resort to a variety of tactics.
We know that cyber has been one of those tactics. They’ve deployed it against Ukraine; they’ve deployed it against countries much further afield, including the United States. So it is only prudent for us to be prepared for an eventuality in which the Russians, once again, reach for this tactic. Our goal, again, in all of this is to deter this. Our goal, again, in all of this is to see to it that these actions don’t emerge from the Russian Federation. But if they do, we are going to extraordinary lengths to be prepared.
QUESTION: But in terms of shoring up defenses, is there an initiative to reach out to American businesses so that if there is malware it doesn’t quickly move through the supply chain? I mean —
MR PRICE: I will allow the White House and DHS and CISA and others to speak to this. But public-private partnership is really at the heart of our efforts to defend, to harden networks against cyber attacks. We know that this is something that the federal government alone cannot do. We have known that for some time. I think if you speak to my colleagues in these other departments and agencies you will hear a great emphasis on the role of public-private partnerships.
QUESTION: One more about the video. When did you get this intelligence? Is this brand new? Or is this something that you’ve known about for some time?
MR PRICE: Again, I think this comes in the context of the escalating tensions. This comes in the context of our concerns for potential renewed Russian —
QUESTION: Since the last announcement of the false flag operation – is it since then?
MR PRICE: So I’m – again, I’m not in a position to offer additional detail on what is still intelligence-derived information. What I can say is that this information was acquired in the context of the escalating tensions, and that is a cause of our profound and growing concern.
QUESTION: Let me change the subject to Yemen. Today Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that – he asked Biden administration to put more pressure on Houthis to stop the next attack. In terms of this pressure, you have talked about sanctioning top leaders, Houthi top leaders, and then you said that Biden administration is reconsidering redesignating the group as a terrorist group. Can you update us on both aspects of this? And also, if that possible, to connect that to what has been happening in Vienna? Because he pinpointed that Iran basically is responsible for the latest two ballistic missiles were launched to Abu Dhabi.
MR PRICE: So in terms of the Houthis, I don’t have an update for you in terms of the review of their status. As you know, the President in his press conference last month said that the decision was under consideration. Obviously, I don’t want to get ahead of those – of any such policy deliberations. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop us from holding Houthi leaders accountable for these types of attacks. And we’re not going to relent in using all appropriate tools, including sanctions and designations of Houthi leaders and of entities who are involved in military offensives that are threatening civilians and regional stability, that perpetuate the conflict, against those who commit human rights abuses or violate international humanitarian law, or those who exacerbate the humanitarian crisis or seek to profit from the suffering of the Yemeni people.
And we know that there are Houthi leaders who have done precisely those things. We have held many such Houthi leaders to account using these authorities. And again, we are not going to relent in doing so.
At the same time, we do remain committed to doing all we can, as effectively as we can, to address the humanitarian emergency that continues to afflict Yemen. This is a country where, according to most estimates and many analyses, the site of the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. More than 16 million Yemenis are suffering from food insecurity. And so as we seek to engage in diplomacy to bring about an end to the civil war, because we know a diplomatic resolution to the civil war will be the best antidote to the levels of instability, levels of violence, the humanitarian catastrophe, we are continuing to do all we can in the interim to provide and to encourage the world to raise its ambition to provide for the long-suffering Yemeni people.
What’s going on in Vienna is squarely focused on one thing and one thing only, and that is Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, as you know, poses a range of challenges to the United States, to our partners and allies in the region and beyond. One of those challenges is its provision and its support for proxies, for terrorist groups, for other destabilizing actors in the region, including the Houthis. And so we are focused on that. We are focused on that using a number of tools. What we’re focused on in Vienna is bringing about once again – seeing if we can bring about once again a nuclear deal that imposes permanent and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program and that verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Just staying on Yemen for a second, I mean, it’s been about I guess four months now – correct me if I’m wrong – that there’s been U.S. employees, although they are local, but U.S. employees detained by the Houthis. This morning Special Envoy Lenderking mentioned that there were five former employees, but then he said they are employees. We haven’t had any really clarity on how many are detained, what’s the status on that. I mean, it sends a pretty strong signal to anybody that would like to work for a U.S. embassy abroad that it’s been almost four months and the U.S. hasn’t been able to get these guys and girls out.
MR PRICE: What should also send a very strong signal is that we have been and we will be unceasing in our efforts to secure the release of our Yemeni staff in Sana’a. As you heard from the special envoy, there are several who remain detained, and we are going to continue to be unceasing, unrelenting in our diplomatic efforts to see them released.
You mentioned Special Envoy Lenderking on NPR this morning. He also noted the fact that – the fact that the Houthis continue to hold these individuals, local – our local Yemeni staff as well as UN local staff. It is an indication to us that the Yemenis – that the Houthis, excuse me, haven’t quite made the determination to make peace. They have not quite made the determination to the path of diplomacy. That is what we are going to continue to press for, to press for a diplomatic path, a diplomatic resolution to this, knowing that the levels of violence, the levels of instability, the humanitarian catastrophe – all of that is fueled by the ongoing civil war, which we are committed and working with the UN special envoy, with our partners in the region and others, to seeing come to an end.
QUESTION: How many U.S. employees are being detained right now?
MR PRICE: We’ve made reference to several. I just don’t have additional detail to share.
QUESTION: I have questions on North Korea.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Okay. Last month you said that you have a number of tools in your arsenal. I assume that pushing for additional sanctions at the Security Council was one of the tools you had. But as we know, that attempt was blocked by Russia and China, so what other tools do you have?
Also, there will be a meeting tomorrow at the Security Council on North Korea, so what do you expect to achieve?
And I have another one, but I’ll let you answer first.
MR PRICE: So in terms of tools, you raise the specific tool of our sanctions authority. Last month, in January, we imposed sanctions on eight DPRK-linked individuals and entities for supporting the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile-related programs. We are continuing and we have continued to be in touch with our allies and partners on – as well as the UN on further steps that can be taken.
I think you know that Special Representative Kim has recently engaged his Japanese and ROK counterparts on this very question. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, our ambassador to the UN – you’ve heard from her that she is deeply engaged on the challenge and the threat to international peace and security that the DPRK poses in New York at the UN.
But all the while, another important tool is our diplomatic efforts. And right now even, as we have made clear we have no hostile intent – we are open to diplomacy – we have not yet received an affirmative response from the DPRK, but that has not stopped us from continuing to coordinate closely with the ROK, with Japan, with other partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific and beyond to find ways to promote our objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
MR PRICE: I am not at the moment, but I suspect, given that he just spoke to —
QUESTION: Okay. I know he spoke to the Japanese and Wendy has been in touch with her people, and Sung Kim has been in touch with her counterparts, and there’s this council meeting —
MR PRICE: That’s right. There were conversations by the Secretary just yesterday —
QUESTION: But you would expect – would you say that perhaps within the next week that there would be additional discussions?
MR PRICE: I don’t know why you would be pick that timeframe, but that’s – it’s very possible.
QUESTION: Well, next couple days.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Also, the U.S. has been releasing joint statement condemning North Korea with five or six countries. But I wonder why only these five to six countries. I mean, Japan, for example, which is not a Security Council member, but they joined, but not South Korea. And among Security Council members, India, Mexico, and Norway did not join the statement. So does this mean that you need to rebuild the diplomatic coalition when responding North Korea?
MR PRICE: Look, I would leave it to individual countries to describe their decision to sign on or not to various multilateral statements that have emanated on the challenge of North Korea. We know that North Korea’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear weapons program – it poses a threat, not only to our deployed forces in the region, not only to our regional allies, but beyond that. It poses a threat to international peace and security, and its provocations are broadly destabilizing. And so we know that countries around the world share our concern. We’ve heard that publicly. We have also heard that privately as well.
I think our approach is distinguished from the previous administration’s approach in a number of ways. I think one of those ways is our focus on working closely with partners and allies. And so this is work that we began in earnest in the very outset of this administration. I think it’s work against which we’ve made good progress, but we’re continuing to engage day-in, day-out with allies, with partners, with a broad coalition of countries in an effort to promote our overriding objection, and that’s the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
QUESTION: Okay. Lastly, this question is from my colleagues from VOA Turkish Service. The Ukrainian defense minister said that Turkey and Ukraine will press ahead with a plan to build drones in Ukraine. Is the Biden administration concerned about the sale and use of Turkish drones in the region?
MR PRICE: So what I will say on that is that we know – I think as you alluded to – that President Erdogan is visiting Kyiv. And that defense cooperation between a NATO Ally like Turkey and Ukraine, we think that that bolsters regional stability and Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. As you know, we ourselves have provided unprecedented levels of defensive security assistance to Ukraine. We have authorized our NATO Allies to provide U.S.-origin equipment to our Ukrainian partners. And we broadly encourage partners and allies to provide security assistance to Ukraine to resist further Russian aggression and to deter a potential Russian invasion.
At the same time, we strongly advocate for the appropriate use of defense equipment in accordance with the laws of armed conflict and in a manner that avoids civilian harm.
QUESTION: I have a question about pandemic preparedness. Two years before the pandemic broke out, the State Department released some cables that suggested that Wuhan Institute of Virology was carrying out some risky research and the security wasn’t great. I just wonder to what extent today State Department and embassies around the world continue to monitor for such threats, and how important you consider the need for such sort of precautions right now.
MR PRICE: Pandemic preparedness, what we are doing to detect and to prevent outbreaks from becoming epidemics, epidemics from becoming pandemics. That is part and parcel of our global health security strategy. We know that from experience, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s Ebola, whether it is the outbreak of any other infectious disease or virus that the most effective means to combat it is to do so early on, is to do so at the source before it has spread far and wide.
QUESTION: Would you monitor specific labs in foreign countries perchance they were carrying out risky research?
MR PRICE: I know that we partner – I can say that we partner with a number of countries around the world on pandemic preparedness, share best practices as appropriate with countries around the world, share practices when it comes to safeguards, when it comes to disease detection and surveillance around the world. It’s certainly a priority.
QUESTION: I’m going to ask you about Afghanistan. There was a briefing this week on the Hill, as you know, and some criticism afterwards. There is a Senate Republican report that Senator Risch put out, which is broadly critical of the evacuation and the planning. Let me posit that you successfully evacuated 120,000 people after the fall of Kabul, which is an extraordinary number, so I’m putting that out there. Okay? But we’ve since seen the George Packer reporting in The Atlantic as well as the Axios deputies’ notes from an August 14th deputies’ meeting at the White House, which is the day – only hours before Kabul fell that night.
So let me ask you about how late the planning was done, because from quotes from that memo, which no one has denied, the planning was just starting to get Afghan translators out, local embassy personnel out, highly vulnerable Afghan civil society leaders. The document reads in part, “Embassy Kabul will notify LES,” locally employed staff “to begin to register their interest in relocation to the United States and begin to prepare immediately for departure.” And we know that locally employed staff were not notified when the embassy shut down and the other staff were evacuated. Kabul fell that very night. Why wasn’t that done sooner?
As well, another quote: “All departments and agencies will transmit their priority populations to be considered for relocation as P1/P2 referrals.” That’s very early on, at the very last moment. And the question is: With the planning, with the deadline approaching from the spring on, why wasn’t there – despite the COVID outbreak in the Kabul Embassy, why wasn’t there more planning, outsourcing some of that paperwork for SIVs, the P1 and P2s? Why weren’t P1 and P2 categories established earlier? Why was it done so close to when it was impossible to get these others out, many of whom are still there?
MR PRICE: Okay. So there’s a lot in that question. There’s a lot in that report that we would take issue with.
Let me start by saying that no single document – not going to speak to the specifics of a purportedly leaked document – but no single document is reflective of the totality of months and months of work and planning on any issue.
QUESTION: Let me just press you there, Ned. I’m sorry, but it says begin to query the population of locally employed staff. It doesn’t say we’ve been doing this. All of these quotes refer to initiating the planning.
MR PRICE: So that is —
QUESTION: At a deputies meeting, which is the highest —
MR PRICE: It is – that is not an accurate rendition of what happened. Let me – let me —
QUESTION: Well, it’s – these are quotes.
MR PRICE: Let —
QUESTION: And no one has denied the legitimacy —
MR PRICE: Let me give you some context as to what did happen, and in order to do that, you really have to back up to January of last year. We, as you know and I think you alluded to —
QUESTION: You inherited nothing.
MR PRICE: — we inherited – you said nothing, but yes, it was a program, an SIV program that had been in many ways intentionally starved. It was a program that was basically at a standstill. It was a program that had not conducted a single interview in Kabul since March of the previous year, March of 2020. After taking office, we surged resources and staff in order to issue nearly 8,400 SIVs in the first year of this administration. And since August 30th, since the end of the U.S. military mission, we have brought about 3,500 U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and SIV holders and their immediate families out of Afghanistan. We are prepared to bring out thousands more this year, as operational and security conditions permit, in collaboration with our partners.
You also referenced this, but of the 124,000 individuals – these were U.S. citizens, these were Afghans, these were other foreign nationals that we successfully evacuated and relocated out of Afghanistan – more than 76,000 Afghans have already arrived in the United States to be resettled. We, of course, as you heard me say before, continue to work expeditiously to bring more Afghans out and to welcome more of our Afghan allies and their families to their new lives here in the United States.
When the last administration freed thousands of Taliban fighters, undermined the Afghan government, withdrew troops with no plan to – as to what to do next, and dismantled our refugee programs and starved, in some ways, this SIV program, I don’t recall hearing much criticism of that. When we took office, as I alluded to, we got to work rebuilding the refugee resettlement program that had been starved of resources, to revitalize the SIV program that had gone some 300 days without a single interview in Kabul, and we began contingency planning for a number of scenarios.
It was not by accident, Andrea, that we were able to evacuate these 124,000 individuals from Kabul in the span of a couple of weeks in August, including the tens of thousands of Afghans, not to mention our own citizens, lawful permanent residents, and third-country nationals. To give you a broader context beyond this raw number, by mid-August of last year, we had accelerated SIV processing starting early in the Biden administration. March of 2021, we were doing about a hundred – we were processing about a hundred SIVs per week. By August, some six or so months later, it was a thousand, and I think that gives you a flavor of the resources and – the resources we surged and the priority we attached to it.
QUESTION: Do you think that’s enough? (Inaudible) —
MR PRICE: Andrea, we would always – we would always like to do more. But as you know, this is a statutorily defined – meaning defined by Congress – program that has 14 laborious steps, 14 steps that are time-consuming. And it is a program that was never designed to take place in the context of an evacuation. So of course we would like to accelerate that further, but we’ve always had to operate within the statutorily defined – that is to say congressionally mandated – requirements.
Second, we pre-positioned military assets that ultimately allowed us to secure and operate Kabul’s airport and facilitate these 100,000, 120,000-plus evacuations by August 31st. We did so under extraordinarily challenging circumstances. Third – and this is something where this building took the lead – we swiftly and nimbly built a network of almost two dozen locations around the world that hosted tens of thousands of Afghan guests, while we ensured that they were appropriately vetted and that they did not and would not pose a threat to American communities, before they were resettled in the United States. In the early summer before all of this, before the evacuation, we launched Operation Allies Refuge, and we worked with Congress to pass legislation that gave us much needed authorities to quickly relocate our Afghan allies.
So we did all of this. Of the 120,000 individuals, about 10,000 were U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and SIV holders. In September and August, we built the capacity and have since welcomed the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees to their new homes. None of this happened by accident. None of this would have happened if, as certain documents, certain reports suggest, this all started in August or this all took place in the summer.
QUESTION: So why was the memo written that way if they weren’t being launched as (inaudible)?
MR PRICE: I can’t speak to why one memo of presumably thousands and thousands of documents that this administration produced on Afghanistan in our first seven months in office.
QUESTION: It was one memo on the day Kabul fell —
MR PRICE: It —
QUESTION: A deputies’ meeting at the White House, in the Sit Room. It’s a pretty significant document.
MR PRICE: Andrea, again, I’m not in a position to comment on a specific leaked document, but no document can tell the full comprehensive story of what we did, what we were able to do. And what I’ve just done is try and give you a flavor of that. There’s much more that we can go through to talk about how it was that we were able to evacuate 124,000 individuals, take them to third countries, vet them to ensure that they were appropriate for resettlement here in the United States, bring them to the United States, process them upon landing in the United States, place them on military bases in some cases for final stages of medical screening, work with refugee resettlement agencies, and finally, welcome these new guests, our new neighbors, to their communities here in the United States.
None of this would have happened were this last minute as – whether it is a single document or a single report might suggest.
QUESTION: Ned, I’m sorry. Somewhere near the halfway point of that forest of an answer that you just gave, you said you don’t recall much criticism of the previous administration. Really? Are you serious?
MR PRICE: I am —
QUESTION: Come on. You don’t recall much criticism of the previous administration’s policies, foreign policies in general but specifically on Afghanistan? Ned, my God, you were one of the people who was criticizing the administration. How – where do you get this from?
MR PRICE: Matt, I’ll make the point that this report —
QUESTION: And in fact —
MR PRICE: — emanated from the minority SFRC. I am not sure that we heard criticism of that approach during the last administration.
QUESTION: Right. Oh, this memo came from the NSC, I thought.
MR PRICE: SFRC.
QUESTION: Maybe a position —
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: A Senate report. I’m sorry. He had —
QUESTION: Oh. No, but the memo that she’s talking about was from – was an NSC or —
MR PRICE: No, the question was about a congressional report.
QUESTION: No, I questioned both.
QUESTION: Both, right? Okay, can I ask a completely unrelated question?
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: The Secretary – has he already met with de Mistura or is that —
MR PRICE: It’s this afternoon.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, in terms of Western Sahara, I just want to know – I presume that the policy has not changed, everything is the same, but I just want to ask specifically about the consulate, the plans that the previous administration had to open a consulate in Western Sahara and if those plans are proceeding. Or is that something that is not being talked about with de Mistura?
MR PRICE: Matt, we are consulting with the parties on the best way forward. I don’t have anything to add.
QUESTION: So is it – basically it’s still on hold on this?
MR PRICE: We are consulting with the parties on the best way forward.
QUESTION: Just two questions on Lebanon. Senior Advisor Hochstein’s out in the region. I mean, with so much going on, especially in terms of Ukraine and Russia, for him to be out there, I mean, is pretty significant. Is there – I mean, do you guys believe that there is an imminent breakthrough in terms of reaching a solution to the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel?
And just a second one on Lebanon as well. The top Republicans in the SFRC and in the House Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Secretary Blinken. I know you don’t comment on congressional affairs, but they’re asking him or asking the Biden administration to reconsider support for energy and electricity deals from Egypt and Jordan to Lebanon via Syria due to Caesar Act – potential Caesar Act sanctions. Is this something that the Secretary is willing to reconsider support for?
MR PRICE: So let me start with your first question on the Israel-Lebanon maritime border. This is a decision for both Israel and Lebanon to make. We stand ready to facilitate negotiations on the maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon, and we strongly support efforts to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. You referenced Senior Advisor for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein. He is continuing to work diligently with the two governments, and that does include visits to the region. As appropriate, we’ll update on his travels and on his visits.
When it comes to the various energy deals in Lebanon, we do welcome regional efforts to help address Lebanon’s acute energy crisis and its implications for the stability of the Lebanese state. The lack of fuel and the lack of power in Lebanon continues to threaten the delivery of critical services like health care, like water, to the Lebanese people.
While we understand the delivery of electricity must necessarily transit the Syrian grid, it’s important to underscore our robust sanctions regime against the Assad government remains fully in force. We have not lifted, we have not waived, any Syria-related sanctions in this case or in any other case. We remain in contact with the governments of Jordan, governments of Lebanon to gain a fuller understanding of how this arrangement will be structured and financed, and to ensure it is in line with U.S. policy and address any potential sanctions concerns. We do remain in contact with relative – relevant governments in the region to gain this more complete understanding. Meanwhile, we’re working closely with OFAC, Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, to ensure compliance with the U.S. Syria sanctions program.
QUESTION: The last part of that, you mentioned Jordan and Lebanon but you didn’t mention Egypt. Is there a reason? Is that – is the gas deal – I mean, is there more of a holdup on that?
MR PRICE: We’re also in contact with the Government of Egypt to learn more about the details of this agreement.
Yes, in the back.
And secondly, how do – how the U.S. sees India’s stance in UN Security Council on issue of Ukraine?
MR PRICE: I will leave it to our Indian partners to discuss their stance in the UN Security – in the UN on this particular issue. I know that we have been in touch with literally dozens and dozens of countries around the world, including our Indian partners, on our concerns regarding Russia’s military buildup, its unprovoked potential aggression against Ukraine. These are conversations that we’ve had at many different levels.
As I was saying in a different context earlier, Russian aggression against Ukraine, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, would have implications for the security environment well beyond that neighborhood. Whether it is the PRC, whether it is India, whether it is countries around the world, the implications would be far-reaching, and I think there’s a broad understanding of that.
QUESTION: And to the first question?
MR PRICE: What was your first question?
QUESTION: Your ties with India, has it been impacted because of the tensions with Russia?
MR PRICE: No. We have a relationship with India that stands on its own, that stands on its own merits.
QUESTION: Can I ask one more? You must have seen the Beijing Olympics in which they used a soldier who had – who was engaged in – on the border clash with India. They have been chosen (inaudible); however, there’s raised objections to it. How do you see that?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?
QUESTION: A Chinese soldier who has engaged in border clashes with India last year, in recent past, was part of the inaugural ceremony in Beijing’s Olympics.
MR PRICE: When it comes to the broader issue of India-China border situation, we continue to support direct dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the border disputes. We have previously voiced our concerns of Beijing’s pattern of ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors. As we always do, we stand with friends, we stand with partners and allies, to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific.
Final question, Simon.
MR PRICE: We’ll have a readout for you of that session. We’re just not going to be in a position, as we usually are not, to detail the identity of these individuals. Many of them are – have concerns for their own privacy, potentially for their own security, so we’re just not able to go into the participants.
QUESTION: The description of them is pro-democracy activists. Does – is that intended to distinguish them from the shadow government, the National Unity Government?
MR PRICE: These are individuals who have worked in different ways to attempt to place Burma back on the path to a democratic transition.
Thank you all.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:16 p.m.)