2:44 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
MR PRICE: Hello. Okay. A couple elements at the top, and then I will take your questions.
The Russian Government’s unprovoked, unjustified, and brutal invasion of Ukraine continues to dominate the attention of the world. It was in this context that Secretary Blinken traveled to Europe, where he worked in service over the past few days of two primary objectives.
First, to ensure that we continue to do everything we possibly can to support Ukraine, its people, and its territorial integrity in every way we can. He stood with his Ukrainian counterpart on Ukrainian soil and reaffirmed that support. And we spoke to our humanitarian system – assistance for Ukrainians in Ukraine and for more – and for the more than 2 million Ukrainians who’ve been forced to flee their homes because of this Kremlin aggression.
Second, to ensure that we are sending a clear signal to Moscow that it will continue to pay a steep price and that our commitment to the defense of our allies is ironclad. It is clear that the transatlantic partnership is united in strengthening our security assistance to Ukraine, united in increasing our assistance to the people of Ukraine, and united in our efforts to impose costs on the Kremlin for waging this war of ongoing – this ongoing war of choice.
Putin’s military plan to quickly capture Ukraine, it is clear now, has failed. So he’s now turning to a strategy of laying waste to population centers to try to break the will of the people of Ukraine, something he will not be able to do. Just yesterday we saw reports of Russian air strikes hitting a maternity hospital in Mariupol. We’ve all seen the abhorrent images from that strike, and the fact that we would even need to put the terms “maternity hospital” and “Russian strike” in the same sentence speaks to the level of brutality that the Kremlin is inflicting on the people of Ukraine.
Civilian deaths are multiplying, as is the destruction of civilian infrastructure. Russian forces now encircle multiple Ukrainian cities after having destroyed much of their critical infrastructure, leaving people without water, without electricity, without access to food and medicine. Putin’s relentless bombardment, including of civilians trying to flee for their lives, prevents people from safely escaping the inhumane conditions that the Kremlin has created. We continue to call on the Russian Government to allow civilians to safely depart the cities and towns of Ukraine that are besieged by Russian forces.
Russia’s brutality will make effective long-term control of Ukraine impossible. The Ukrainian people have made clear that they won’t stand for it. Putin can take a town. He can capture a city. But it is already clear that he will fail in his effort to take the country of Ukraine and its people.
We will continue to back the people of Ukraine in their fight for their country, through security, economic, and humanitarian assistance, and by uniting the international community to hold Putin accountable through devastating sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and other measures. As Vice President Harris noted today, the United States Congress has committed $13.6 billion in humanitarian aid and security assistance to support Ukraine and its people.
We’ve imposed massive consequences on Putin and his cronies for their aggression. The severity of these unprecedented measures is already having a dramatic impact. The ruble has gone through the floor. It is close to worthless, literally worth less than a penny. Russia’s credit rating is a junk status. Its stock market remains closed, and we’ve seen more than 300 companies halt or exit their operations in the Russian market.
Putin could choose to cut his losses, extricate himself from this strategic morass by seeking to negotiate in good faith a diplomatic agreement with Ukraine. President Zelenskyy, for his part, has expressed interest in that, and we have told the Ukrainian Government in no uncertain terms that we stand ready to support any diplomacy it wishes to pursue. But, as we’ve always said, we will not push them into concessions. Instead, the Kremlin continues to spread outright lies, such as the allegation that the United States and Ukraine are conducting chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine, and their baseless claim that bombing a maternity hospital is quote/unquote “fake news.”
This is from a government that is now using many measures to hide the truth from its own people. The Kremlin viciously targets journalists, and floods the internet and airwaves with disinformation, both around the world and at home in Russia. Many people in Russia have no idea what their government is doing right now in Ukraine. They may think they’re liberating Ukraine, not destroying it. They don’t know the extent to which their fellow countrymen, their husbands, their sons, their brothers, are coming home in body bags, if the Russian Government bothers to bring them home at all.
The response to the Kremlin’s war has been unity among world leaders, in Europe, in people gathering around the world to protest President Putin’s war of choice, including thousands of people in Russia and Belarus coming out to protest peacefully.
In the end, we know that Russia will be weaker, not stronger, for launching this war, and already the international community, including NATO, is stronger and more purposeful than it has been in any recent history.
Before we take your questions, one additional note at the top. Tomorrow, on Friday, March 11th, the State Department has the honor of hosting the Eighth United States-African Union Commission High Level Dialogue. These regular meetings are important to advance cooperation between the United States and the African Union Commission and its member states on shared global and regional priorities.
The High Level Dialogue brings together U.S. Government and African Union Commission stakeholders to advance our shared global priorities of democracy, climate and energy, and global health security, as well as U.S.-Africa collaboration on trade and investment, peace and security, and governance as well.
The United States has shown a longstanding commitment to enhancing global health security via our partnership with the African Union Commission and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We will underscore our expanding engagement by signing a Memorandum of Cooperation with the African CDC during this Dialogue.
We are pleased to welcome AUC Chairperson Moussa Faki, accompanying commissioners, and the entire delegation.
The United States has an unwavering and longstanding commitment to Africa. We are proud of our partnership with the commission and the people and governments of Africa. We look forward to constructive engagement this week to further our common objectives and to the steady work ahead.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. That’s a lot to go through. I’ll be as brief as I can.
This morning in Warsaw, the Vice President said, among other things, that she supported investigations into potential war crimes by the Russians in Ukraine. And then a little while ago your ambassador to the United Nations actually came out and flatly said that the Russians had committed war crimes in Ukraine. So I’m curious, what is the – presumably these weren’t personal opinions being offered, but I don’t know, so I want to make sure. Does the administration, one, believe that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine? And two, are you pushing for an investigation, a war crimes investigation? And if you are, by whom? Because we all know well the U.S. – well, Russia’s not a member of the ICJ, neither is Ukraine, and the United States certainly isn’t, either. So are you looking at an ad hoc kind of tribunal, or what’s the – or is it just too early to —
MR PRICE: We absolutely, Matt, are supportive of efforts to document and to investigate reports of potential war crimes in Ukraine. The fact is that we’ve seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians, which would under the Geneva Conventions constitute a war crime. In the elements at the top, I spoke to the strike at the maternity ward in Mariupol. We’ve seen strikes hitting schools, other hospitals, residential buildings. Civilian buses, cars, ambulances have been shelled over the course of this brutal conflict. We’ve seen reports of civilian death toll in Ukraine numbering from the hundreds to the thousands. We are appalled by the brutal tactics that the Russian Federation, the Kremlin has employed in prosecuting this war of choice.
We’ve spoken to our support for efforts to document what may in the end amount to war crimes. The International – you named a couple of them. The ICJ is one such venue. We supported an effort at the UN to establish a commission of inquiry into the same – into this same area. The ICC itself has made an announcement that it will open an investigation into the situation, and we do welcome that. We do welcome Prosecutor Khan’s announcement, in particular the prosecutor’s focus on preserving elements of alleged atrocity crimes and his commitment to full respect for the principle of complementarity.
Here’s the thing. We are not only going to document; we are not only going to support these appropriate international investigations, we’re not only going to support the efforts of individual nation states, but working together with the international community we are determined to hold responsible anyone who may be – may have engaged in such human rights abuses, atrocities, even war crimes. We will do that, again, through any number of fora. Criminal prosecutions are one possibility. But to every political leader sitting in Moscow to every Russian commander on the ground in Ukraine, to every Russian service member on the ground right now, our message has been clear: If you take part, order, or are party to such crimes, such war crimes, such abuses, such atrocities, we will do everything we can to hold you accountable with every tool at our disposal.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you the broader question, especially as it relates to the ICC? You’re welcoming this investigation by the ICC prosecutor. You haven’t always welcomed investigations of the ICC, that ICC prosecutors have gone into. In fact, under – in the previous administration, an investigation into potential war crimes in Afghanistan was met with actual sanctions of ICC staff, and the U.S. has consistently warned the ICC not to take up cases involving Israel. So given that neither Ukraine nor Russia is a member of the ICC, and that for the ICC to take up a case involving a non-member would require a UN Security Council vote, which is doomed since the Russians will veto it, where exactly do you think that justice is going to come from here?
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, not only is neither Russia nor Ukraine a state party to the Rome Statute, neither are we —
QUESTION: I know. That’s —
MR PRICE: — as you know. And the concerns we have over the ICC’s assertion of jurisdiction in certain circumstances, those remain. Those have not gone away. But at the same time —
QUESTION: So those concerns relate only when they’re – when the U.S. is being – you have those concerns only if the U.S. is being investigated, or Israel?
MR PRICE: The United States, as we’ve spoken to, has the capability, has the wherewithal to conduct independent, thorough investigations. So our concerns over the ICC’s assertion of jurisdiction in some areas, those do remain. But we recognize the meaningful role that the ICC can play in promoting accountability for atrocities, and we have supported and will continue to support the ICC’s efforts in certain cases.
QUESTION: Ned, you talked – you and others in this administration have warned that you expect Russia to double down, there’s going to be more civilian casualties. I just want to ask you – for example, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’s worried that Russia might use chemical weapons. Does the United States share that concern?
MR PRICE: Well, we have spoken to this concern in recent hours, and those concerns are predicated on a couple elements. First, we know the history here. We know the track record of the Kremlin. This is a government that has used banned chemical weapons on its own people in the past. They have done so on Russian territory, they’ve done so on British soil; they have supported the brutal Assad regime, which itself has used banned chemical weapons on its people. So we know what this government will resort to, can resort to, has resorted to in the past.
But the other element that gives us a good deal of concern is what we know about the Kremlin’s tactics, especially its disinformation tactics. In recent weeks, we have seen once again indications of what a psychologist might call projection of the Russian Government accusing others – in this case, whether it’s Ukraine, the United States – others of, baselessly, planning to do what it itself may be planning to do.
QUESTION: Let me interrupt you there. Have you guys seen any intelligence, any indication, anything from the ground, from their military deployments to suggest that there is – this fear is warranted?
MR PRICE: Well, we do have this concern, and we have this concern for at least a couple reasons, and I’ve spoken to two of them: Moscow’s track record in this regard and also the increasingly concerning rhetoric that may be construed as, once again, Moscow projecting onto others what it has intended to do all along. The fact is that as this crisis built up, as Moscow built up its forces, we have seen them engage in this type of rhetoric, in this type of disinformation previously. We’ve seen the false flag operations. We’ve seen the pretextual provocations that Moscow put forward. So there are a number of elements that undergird our concern for this, and it’s something we’ll be watching very closely.
QUESTION: And can you give us a sense of the kind of scenarios the U.S. is looking at right now? Is NATO being sucked into war one of them, and how prepared are you for that?
MR PRICE: Well, our overriding objective is to bring this conflict to a close, to save lives, to do all we can to bring this conflict to an end. As a complementary objective, we are doing everything we can to see to it that this conflict does not expand, that this conflict does not cost even more lives, that this brutal conflict that Russia is waging against Ukraine does not become a war between Russia and a much broader set of countries or a broader bloc.
So we are supporting our Ukrainian partners. We are providing them with massive amounts of security assistance, precisely what it is they need to defend themselves, and I think we have seen in the fact that Putin’s forces have been largely stalled in parts of the country is a testament to the effectiveness of the will, the willpower of the Ukrainian people, who are taking on these forces with security assistance that the United States, that our NATO Allies and others have provided to them.
QUESTION: You do realize that’s not what I asked. Are you guys actively looking at a scenario where NATO is involved, is sucked into this?
MR PRICE: Humeyra, we are always looking at contingencies, but in this case we are doing everything we can to ensure that, in the first instance, this conflict comes to a close as quickly as we – as it can be achieved in order, chiefly, to save lives and to ensure – to do everything we can to see to it that this conflict doesn’t expand beyond what it already entails.
QUESTION: So you were mentioning looking at everything the Ukrainians need to fight and to resist. One of the things they are asking for and they say they need is aircrafts and jets. After the back and forth with Poland over the last few days and since the Secretary was in Poland just a few days ago, have – has the U.S. made a final determination that the risk-benefit of a NATO country sending aircrafts, combat aircrafts to Ukraine, is not in favor of sending them? Are you ruling out that a NATO country should send aircraft, combat aircrafts to Ukraine? Or are you still looking at other ways to do that and to transfer planes to them?
MR PRICE: Francesco, we have been consistently responsive to Ukraine’s security needs. That is reflected in the massive amount of security assistance we have provided to our Ukrainian partners in the past year, more than $1 billion over the last year. More than $250 million has been delivered to our Ukrainian partners in the last several days alone. On top of that, we are grateful to the U.S. Congress, and you heard from the Vice President today there’s now a package that has passed the House of $13.6 billion, about half of which would be destined for security assistance for Ukraine.
So as part of our desire to be responsive to Ukraine’s request, when our Ukrainian partners made a request for planes, we said we would absolutely look into it. You heard from the Department of Defense yesterday that the department has and vocalized two primary concerns. The first concern is that aircraft are not principally what our Ukrainian partners need at the moment, and that is the case for a couple of reasons. When you look at the destruction that the Kremlin has wrought over parts of Ukraine, much of that is due to missiles, much of that is due to rocket fire, much of that is due to artillery. These are not weapons that airplanes are best suited to take on. We also know that the Ukrainian air force has several squadrons of fully mission-capable aircraft. Their – Russia’s air presence is formidable, but their effectiveness has been limited due to Ukraine’s strategic, operational, and tactical ground-based air defense systems. These are surface-to-air missiles. These are MANPADS.
So what you heard from the Department of Defense yesterday is that we will continue to provide our Ukrainian partners with the surface-to-air systems that they need to take on the threat that they face from Russian missiles, from Russian rockets, from artillery. We’ve been doing that already. We’re determining what more we might be able to do to effectively equip our Ukrainian partners to take this on.
But there’s a second consideration that you also heard the Department of Defense speak to yesterday, and this gets back to Humeyra’s question. The IC, the Intelligence Community, produced an assessment that the provision of planes in this manner – the fighter jets that you referred to in this manner – could be viewed by Moscow as escalatory. It is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to bring this conflict to a close, to save as many lives as we can, and to do everything we can to see to it that this conflict does not expand, that this does not become a broader war between Russia and other countries or blocs of countries.
So we will continue to provide our Ukrainian partners with the assistance they need. Individual countries are going to continue to make their sovereign decisions in terms of the assistance to provide. But what the Department of Defense did say yesterday is that the provision of Polish planes by way of a U.S. and NATO air base, by way of the United States, is not something that we’re in a position to do at this time.
QUESTION: Two things. First, on the issue of war crimes, you said we have seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians which would, under the Geneva Conventions, constitute war crimes. You referenced the attack on the maternity ward. Then you went on to say that these need to be investigated, you support investigations. When you say we’ve seen very credible evidence that under the Geneva Conventions would constitute war crimes, what is the difference —
MR PRICE: We’ve seen very credible —
QUESTION: — the distinction you’re making?
MR PRICE: We’ve seen very credible reports.
MR PRICE: Part of the reason why we welcome the prosecutor general of the ICC’s announcement of the investigation into the situation in Ukraine is the focus on the preservation of evidence. And so we want to see evidence preserved. We are and will be in the process of marrying reports with evidence from the ground, and if we determine, if the international community determines that war crimes have been committed, that atrocities have been committed, that human rights abuses have been committed, we absolutely will hold the perpetrators accountable, whether they sit in Moscow or whether they’re commanders on the ground in Ukraine.
QUESTION: Now – and I take what John Kirby, your colleague, said, and all of the reasons that you just outlined about the Pentagon’s objections to the fighter planes, the way it was constituted, and why they’re not necessary, and why the anti-aircraft defenses would require creating that airspace by attacking and taking out Russian and anti-air force.
But the very point that you just made about what the IC has concluded, that delivering the planes could be viewed by Russia as an escalatory measure and as an act of war, that question was put to President Zelenskyy by my colleagues at Sky News last night, overnight. And he said: What could be worse? What could be worse than what is happening right now to Ukraine? Why are we so concerned about Russia’s – I mean, Russia had said that sanctions are an act of war. So just because Vladimir Putin declares something is an act of war is not necessarily – and certainly not, according to President Zelenskyy – a reason not to do it.
Now, I understand all of the military arguments against it. But I’m just saying, from President Zelenskyy’s viewpoint, this has become a cause. And he is – and so it’s echoed by all the people we interview on the ground there: “We want the fighter jets.” How do you deal with that? What could be worse than what’s happening to their country?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: Because by the time – by the time you get to some sort of negotiated compromise, or Putin backing down, this country will be destroyed.
MR PRICE: Look, we have the utmost respect and admiration for President Zelenskyy. The courage, the bravery, the determination, the grit that he has demonstrated – in many ways, he is the personification of the Ukrainian people, a people that have stood up to this Russian aggression in ways that are inspiring. And not only inspiring, but effective. And if – you heard this from Secretary Blinken – if any other world leader were in President Zelenskyy’s shoes, I’m sure we would be hearing the same requests.
It is incumbent upon us in the international community to continue to do everything we can to support our Ukrainian partners, to provide them with the defensive weaponry that they need to defend themselves. It is equally incumbent upon us to do everything we can, again, with our partners and our allies around the world to bring this conflict to a close as quickly as we can.
Now, clearly, we aren’t going to be able to bring this conflict to a close as quickly as anyone would like – certainly not as quickly as our Ukrainian partners would like, not as quickly as we would like, of course. But in our efforts to do so, we also have to be mindful of steps that might provoke, that might expand this conflict, that might make it even more deadlier, that might implicate even more countries and more populations. And so that’s what we’re doing.
You raised President Putin’s statement that sanctions, that other elements would be akin to an act of war. Of course, we take a close look at rhetoric. What matters to us are actions. And the judgement I mentioned from the Intelligence Community, I can assure you that that judgement is based on more than public rhetoric alone. So the Intelligence Community, using everything at its disposal, has reached a conclusion that Moscow could well see the provision of this type of asset as escalatory.
Now, that is not dispositive, in terms of what we would do. But that, coupled with what we’ve heard from our colleagues at the Pentagon, that there are other, more effective systems – namely, these surface-to-air systems – that would better safeguard, better protect our Ukrainian partners from rockets, from missiles, from artillery, from the very threats that they face, that is what has compelled us to this conclusion.
QUESTION: But the point is – and her point, I think also is – that you guys don’t really – I mean, you – they want both. They say that they need both the surface-to-air stuff and the planes. And we’re now – you’re now – the U.S. Government is now in the position of having told Zelenskyy no, when he was begging repeatedly for the Nord Stream 2 sanctions to be imposed before any kind of invasion, and the other sanctions – not to be used as – not to be used as a deterrent threat, but to actually impose them before he did anything. You said he’s asked for a no-fly zone. You said absolutely not. And now he’s asking for jets, and you’re saying no again.
MR PRICE: Matt, I —
QUESTION: So do you know better than him? Is that the —
MR PRICE: What I’m saying – first of all, I don’t quite understand your Nord Stream 2 analogy, because —
QUESTION: Well, the —
MR PRICE: No, because within hours of the Russian invasion moving forward, Nord Stream 2 was off the table.
QUESTION: Yeah, but he wanted it —
MR PRICE: Nord Stream 2 is a hunk of steel at the bottom of the sea.
QUESTION: Yes, but he – for months he wanted those sanctions, that to be imposed.
MR PRICE: And had we imposed —
QUESTION: And you guys kept saying —
MR PRICE: Had we imposed sanctions on Nord Stream 2, had we disrupted that transatlantic unity that we worked over the course of months – really, since day one of this administration – to achieve, had we imposed those sanctions on Nord Stream 2 ourselves, unilaterally, I would —
MR PRICE: — bet a strong sum that Nord Stream 2 would not be taken off the table today.
QUESTION: Okay. And you may be right. We’ll never know, but you may be right.
But the point is that Zelenskyy has asked for all three of these things, and you’ve said no to all three of them – at least at the time that he made them – and you’re still saying that you respect their opinion and their position. So it’s just a little bit unusual.
Do you support – would you still support any NATO country sending planes to Ukraine on their own?
MR PRICE: Individual NATO Allies, individual countries are going to make sovereign decisions on what is in the best interest, what they deem to be in the best interest.
QUESTION: So you’re not opposed to any country sending planes —
MR PRICE: That would be a sovereign —
QUESTION: Just —
MR PRICE: That would be a sovereign decision. What we are talking about was the arrangement by which planes would be transferred to, in this case, Ramstein Air Base, and they would pass through our possession and into —
QUESTION: Okay, so that’s the only thing you don’t – you’re opposed to having anything to do with it.
MR PRICE: As you’ve heard, the Department of Defense has concluded that there are other systems that we have provided, and may be in a position to provide even more of, that would be more effective for our Ukrainian partners in taking on the threats that they face.
President Zelenskyy called the Georgian Government immoral position – I am quoting them – regarding the Russian invasion, as well as the – Georgia’s decision to block the charter flight scheduled to bring the volunteers from Georgia to Ukraine. And Zelenskyy recalled the Ukrainian ambassador from Georgia based on that.
Also, Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili said flat out that Georgia will not join any sanctions coming from the West, and that he called those sanctions ineffective.
Also, Georgian Government finalized a deal with Moscow, and now Georgian dairy products will be exported to the Russian Federation.
And lastly, Moscow published a list of countries a few days ago – unfriendly list, as they called it – and Georgia was excluded from that unfriendly list. You know, like, bearing in mind that 20 percent of Georgian territory is still occupied by Russia.
And my question would be – and also the 30 years of diplomatic relations between U.S. and Georgia – my question, I guess, would be what would be your reaction of the silence coming from the Georgian Government in light of those facts that I just laid out?
I might have one follow-up on that. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Well, I will say, when it comes to Georgia, that few countries understand to the same extent the potential implications and consequences of Russian aggression than a country like Georgia, a country that in 2008 was itself invaded by Russian forces. There are many Georgians who, of course, still harbor stark memories of that. And I can only imagine there are many Georgians who are standing – many Georgians in the government and private citizens who are standing in solidarity with their counterparts in Ukraine.
More broadly, I think what we’ve seen over the course of the past several weeks has been a tremendous – in some ways unexpected – amount of unity within the international community. I think perhaps the best illustration of that is what happened in the UN General Assembly just last week, when 141 countries spanning the globe came together to condemn this unprovoked, premeditated, unjustified war against Ukraine, and to call for it to come to a close. To – 141 may just be a number. But this is a collection of countries that the UN system sees only rarely.
In 2014, when Russia last aggressed against Ukraine, last invaded Ukraine, 100 countries signed on to the resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning that act. In 2016, when Russian forces were bombarding the Syrian town of Aleppo, 122 countries came and signed on to the condemnation of that action. The fact that 141 countries in – across the globe have spoken to this speaks to the fact that we are working and we are speaking with one voice.
To the effectiveness of the sanctions, I think it is hard to argue with their effectiveness. And you can look at any number of metrics regarding the toll that they have taken on the Russian economy. I have spoken to the fact that the ruble is now virtually worthless, literally worth less than a penny; the flight of international companies from Moscow; the fact that the Russian central bank has doubled its interest rate, something that would be unsustainable over the longer term; the fact that inflation is rising as a result; the fact that the Russian stock market has remained closed for days now, presumably as a means to prevent capital flight.
There are any number of additional metrics we could talk to in terms of the effectiveness of the sanctions. I think what can’t be argued is that these measures lack teeth, that they lack strength, and I think you can see, in terms of the Russian economy, the strength that they carry.
QUESTION: And very lastly, the fact itself that Zelenskyy is recalling the ambassador from Tbilisi, and the fact that the prime minister of Georgia is calling those sanctions ineffective, do you think that is a concerning signal coming from Georgia, the country that is still occupied by Russia?
MR PRICE: We are calling on all countries to stand up for not only the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, and the independence of Ukraine – really, what is at the center of this conflict – but to stand up for the broader principles that are at the heart of the rules-based order that have undergirded 70-some years of unprecedented levels of stability, of security, of prosperity the world over.
The same principle that Russia violated in 2008, when Russian forces invaded Georgia, is the same principle that Vladimir Putin is violating today: the idea that borders should be inviolable; that big states, big countries, big nations cannot bully small countries, small nations; the idea that might does not equate to right. All of these things are at stake, and so that’s why, whether in Europe, whether in the Indo-Pacific, anywhere in between, we have called upon countries the world over to stand with Ukraine, and to stand with these broader principles.
QUESTION: On diplomacy, you said that you will support any diplomatic pursuit by Ukraine. Does that include maybe their decision to swear off membership in NATO at any time ever? If they do declare that, would you support that?
MR PRICE: Said, this is really at the heart of this conflict, and it goes back to what I was just saying to your colleague. The principle that we have stood up for and that the international community has stood up for is that each and every country should have the right, the sovereign right, to determine its own chosen foreign policy, its own chosen path, with whom it associates, the alliances that it belongs to. So these are going to be sovereign decisions of the Ukrainian Government and no one else.
QUESTION: You will support them if they say we will never be members of NATO —
MR PRICE: We will support – we will —
QUESTION: — we will acknowledge Russia’s interest in Crimea and the Donbas region and so on?
MR PRICE: This is what’s at stake. It is the ability of independent countries to make sovereign decisions. That’s what we support.
QUESTION: On the issue of weapon proliferation, or the support of the weapons and maybe volunteers and so on flooding Ukraine with all kinds of weapons from all kinds of sources, does that concern you for the future? Could we see a situation similar to what we see in Syria, or what we saw in Syria or Yemen or anything like this?
MR PRICE: Right now, Said, what we see is the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military standing up against an aggressor, standing up against an invading army that has sought to rewrite international borders, that has sought to remove Ukraine’s sovereign rights, and really its sovereign identity. So right now we are supporting the Ukrainian Government, we’re supporting the Ukrainian people in their ability to do just that.
QUESTION: Okay. So here’s unqualified support for the Ukrainians to resist this Russian invasion and so on, and to – and for any occupied people to resist their occupier. Does that extend to other places, like for the Palestinians, and maybe the Iraqis, and other places? Do they have the right to resist a military occupation?
MR PRICE: Said, self-defense is a principle that belongs to all countries.
QUESTION: Right, and so it does belong to people who are under military occupation, including –
MR PRICE: It belongs to –
QUESTION: — including the Palestinians, right?
MR PRICE: — all countries. All countries have the right to self-defense.
QUESTION: Just going back to Ukraine for a minute, during the meeting between Lavrov and Kuleba, apparently a Putin-Zelenskyy meeting was discussed. Would – I mean, the U.S. has said now is not the time for diplomacy, but would you guys support it if both sides agreed that their leaders —
MR PRICE: A meeting between President Putin and President Zelenskyy?
MR PRICE: We would support our Ukrainian partners in the diplomatic overtures, the diplomatic initiatives that they wish to take part in. That does not mean that we would have necessarily high hopes at the moment.
Before the meeting in Antalya today, Foreign Minister Kuleba said that he had low expectations for what the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov could achieve. It’s unclear to us – it may be unclear to our Ukrainian partners – that even those low expectations were met. We’ve heard from Foreign Minister Kuleba in his public comments after meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov that what the Russian Federation continues to purport to seek is a surrender of Ukraine.
Now, clearly, that is not something that can be achieved or solved or addressed through diplomacy. And our concern in all of this – and this is a concern that predates the start of the invasion, and we actually spoke to this before the invasion began – is that the Russian Federation is taking part in something you might call and what the Secretary has called the pretense of diplomacy, going through the diplomatic motions, sometimes theatrically, sometimes at high levels, as you really invest – and in this case, the Russian Federation invests – its resources, its efforts not in the machinery of diplomacy, but in the machinery of war. That is what we saw prior to the invasion. It is our concern that what we’re seeing now continues to be a little more than a procedural pretense with Foreign Minister Lavrov – prior to that, lower ranking officials – taking part in these diplomatic gatherings.
The challenge for Russia, though, is really twofold. First – and I’ve mentioned this before – Vladimir Putin’s war effort is not going according to plan, unless of course it was his plan to meet stiff resistance from the Ukrainian people, for his convoys to be bogged down, for his soldiers to be encountering heavy losses. I do not suspect that was his plan. The other challenge that President Putin now faces is that his economy is in a freefall. We’ve spoken to the metrics; I don’t need to go into that again. But not only is his economy in a freefall, his financial system is flailing, but perhaps even more importantly, his strategic positioning in the world now – and certainly going forward – it is similarly diminished.
So in our estimation, the status quo, in some ways, is not tenable for Moscow. So even if it is engaging in little more than the pretense now, the pressure it’s encountering on the battlefield, the economic dire straits that it’s in back at home, it is our – it is certainly our hope that those forces will combine and it will push the Russian Federation to the negotiating table in a way that actually involves good faith, in a way that actually involves a genuine effort and desire to bring this conflict – to diminish the violence, and ultimately to bring the conflict to a close. We haven’t seen that yet, but we will continue to mount pressure on the Kremlin, on President Putin, until we do.
QUESTION: Is there a reason to believe that Putin would come to the table in good faith now, if he were to meet with President Zelenskyy? I mean, you say that everything they’ve done is a pretext, so is your expectation that said meeting possibly would also be not actual efforts towards a diplomatic end?
MR PRICE: It would entail a change of course. Of course, we wouldn’t rule out a change of course, but we would need to see the Russian Federation show up with a different disposition.
QUESTION: Okay. And just one more on U.S. diplomacy. Beyond what you guys are saying publicly to Russia, are you getting any private messages to Russian officials, either directly through our diplomats that remain at the embassy or through a third party? Are you clearly stating what you’re saying publicly to them privately as well?
MR PRICE: Well, I will say this. There are a number of countries around the world who have engaged the Russian Federation, including at senior levels. As you know, on our way home from Europe last week, we stopped in Paris and —
QUESTION: This week.
MR PRICE: Sorry, this week. These days are a blur. Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to meet with President Macron. A large part of that discussion was President Macron’s engagement with President Putin, with France’s engagement with the Russian Federation. We had a chance in Europe to meet with Foreign Minister Lapid of Israel. As you know, Prime Minister Bennett was recently in Moscow. A large portion of that meeting was dedicated to comparing notes and to hearing from our Israeli partners what they had heard in turn from the Russians. Chancellor Schultz and other Germans have engaged with the Russian Federation. President Biden today spoke to President Erdogan of Turkey, and of course, Turkey hosted today’s ministerial-level meeting between Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Kuleba.
So all of these diplomatic efforts are being well coordinated with us. We have very good visibility and insight into what these efforts entail, what our allies and partners have heard – or not heard, as the case might be from the Russian Federation. And in turn, our allies and partners have a very good idea of where the United States is, and should they need to convey anything about the United States, that is at their discretion.
QUESTION: Okay. So there’s no US direct contact to Russia right now?
MR PRICE: It – as you know, there was a meeting on the books between Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov a couple of weeks ago now. We determined at the time that under the present conditions – and those strategic conditions have not changed – that the time was not ripe for engagement between the United States and Russia in this regard.
QUESTION: One last question. Has Ambassador Sullivan met with anyone in Russia, any Russian officials, in recent weeks?
MR PRICE: It’s the job of an ambassador everywhere to meet with the host government, so that work continues.
QUESTION: You mentioned the Israeli prime minister visit to Moscow and so on. Are you somewhat disappointed in this sort of timid condemnation by Israel and, in fact, the absence of a position by the Palestinian Authority, on the invasion of Ukraine? Meaning, are they – the Palestinians claim that: we’re too little; we don’t have a government; we don’t have all these things. But they do have some sort of a moral weight on the issue of occupations and so on. Are you in touch with them? Have you spoken to them to – whether they would issue a statement? Are you also a bit disappointed in the Israelis?
MR PRICE: When it comes to our Israeli partners, again, a large part of the conversation that we had with Foreign Minister Lapid just a couple days ago now was focused on Ukraine. Our Israeli partners made very clear to us that they stand in stark opposition to the naked use of force, naked aggression against a sovereign state. They’ve made – they made that very clear in private. They’ve made that very clear in public.
When it comes to other countries, to other entities that may have been or may be guarded or may not have made such a clear statement, look, we’ve said before that now is not the time to sit on the sidelines. Now is the time for every country, every entity, every bloc, every alliance around the world to make clear whether they stand on the side of the very principles that have been at the heart of our international system over the better part of a decade, or whether those principles that they may have claimed to espouse are entirely hollow.
Countries around the world need to make that clear. This is not a time for equivocation; this is not a time for ambiguity. We have been heartened by the fact that the vast majority of the world’s countries have stood up, some of them in a form – in the form of a UN General Assembly vote, some of them by exercising their voice on the world stage, some of them through other forms – have stood up to clearly and starkly condemn this. And we are encouraging countries, entities, alliances, blocs around the world to do just that.
QUESTION: Thank you. Karl Doemens, RND Germany. I have two questions, if I may. First, you spoke about the Kremlin lies on the chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine. However, there are reports about a lab in the Ukraine – I’m sure you noticed that Tucker Carlson yesterday had a big segment in his show about it, and also some —
MR PRICE: I didn’t catch it.
MR PRICE: I did not catch it.
QUESTION: Okay. Anyway, so there are reports about a lab which is funded by the U.S. Could you explain what the goal of this lab is in contrast to what the Kremlin obviously says? And second, do you have any comment on the meeting between former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Putin right now in Moscow?
MR PRICE: Between the former chancellor and Vladimir Putin? So to be very clear, the United States Government does not own or operate biological laboratories in Ukraine, full stop. Just as we have done in countries around the world, experts have assisted Ukraine at times with laboratory safety issues. But that is the extent of the activity. Ukraine is in full compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. It is in full compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Of course, the same cannot be said of Russia. Russia has an active biological weapons program. It’s in violation of the BWC. As I mentioned before. Russia has previously employed some of these very chemical agents against dissidents and perceived enemies of the Ukrainian Government.
We want to – we know that the best antidote to disinformation is information, and that gets back to some of the questions we’ve spoken to in this briefing already. It’s part of the reason why we went on record pretty vigorously yesterday with our concerns, with our concerns pushing back on the propaganda, on the disinformation that we’re seeing, in the first instance, emanate from Russia, from Russian state media, from Russian officials. And we want to do everything we can to ensure that that disinformation isn’t parroted by those who may be unwitting or who may have a different agenda.
When it comes to the former German chancellor and his engagement with President Putin, we wouldn’t have a comment on the activities of a private citizen.
QUESTION: Did you have any knowledge of the – of his trip?
MR PRICE: It’s not something we would typically comment on, nor is it something we would typically coordinate. It’s the actions of a private citizen.
QUESTION: Yes. Can we switch to Asia?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So South Korea elected its next president yesterday, but days into the presidential election, North Korea launched two missile tests on March 4th and February 26th. Is that U.S. read that those launches are targeted to – are aimed at influencing the presidential election of South Korea? And what’s the U.S. plan to prevent further escalation of North Korea?
MR PRICE: Well, let me first say that – and you heard this from the President last night – but we congratulate President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol on his election. The alliance between the United States and our ally in the Republic of Korea – along with our economic ties, the close friendship of our people, it is and remains the linchpin for peace, for security, for prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
We are, to your question, Nike, committed to the defense of the ROK, and we look forward to working with President-elect Yoon to deepen cooperation on key global challenges. That includes climate. It includes COVID-19, deepening our economic ties, our supply chains, but also it, of course, includes deepening our cooperation on some of the security challenges that we both confront. And at the top of that list, when it comes to the Indo-Pacific, is the threat that is posed by the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs of the DPRK.
I wouldn’t want to speak to possible motivation of any DPRK ballistic missile launches. This is something, of course, that the DPRK has done fairly consistently over the years. In recent months too, we’ve seen a spate of these launches. But whether any particular launch or series of launches was – had a particular motivation in mind, this is not something I would speak to.
QUESTION: Were those ICBM launches?
MR PRICE: We – these are ballistic missile launches, and we’ve been clear that we condemn the ballistic missile launch. This launch, like the other launches earlier this year, it’s a clear violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions. It demonstrates the threat that is posed by the DPRK’s illicit weapons of mass destruction program, its missile program. These are threats that really strike at peace and security within the Indo-Pacific and beyond. That is why we have stood resolutely with the international community, called on the DPRK to abide by the Security Council resolutions, to refrain from further provocations, and to engage in substantive and sustained dialogue. Our commitment to our treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan, Republic of Korea – it is ironclad. We will continue to work closely with them on the type of pragmatic, practical steps that we believe can help achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That remains our goal.
QUESTION: Can you be more – I’m sorry. Can you be more specific what exactly U.S. is going to do to prevent more launches or escalation from North Korea? What steps?
MR PRICE: Well, as we have said previously, we will continue to hold the DPRK accountable for its flagrant violations of UN Security Council resolutions. We’ve imposed a number of sanctions and designations on the regime in recent weeks alone. The UN Security Council has taken up this challenge with urgency. All the while, we have continued to reach out to the DPRK. We’re committed to pursuing a diplomatic approach to this challenge. We’ve made very clear that we have no hostile intent towards the DPRK, and we are prepared to meet with the DPRK. We have extended this offer. It is up to the DPRK to determine whether they wish to engage in this serious and this sustained diplomacy that we think can address security challenges and help achieve our ultimate objective of a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thanks, Ned. Can you update us on what is happening? I think we had the impression last week that we were probably looking at an arrival at a deal this week. And second, the former vice president told Israeli Hayom – Vice President Pence – that, “We will tear up any new nuclear deal with Iran.” Do you have any comment on that?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a comment on that. I wouldn’t have a comment on the remarks of a private citizen.
When it comes to Iran and negotiations in Vienna, you’ve heard us say that there has been significant progress. We remain close to a possible deal. It’s really down to a very small number of outstanding issues. But the reason these particular issues are outstanding is because they are among the most difficult ones. I’m reminded of a former president who had a sign on his desk saying, “Hard things are hard.” These are hard issues, and they’re outstanding for that reason.
Now is the time for all parties to show seriousness. We continue to believe that we can and should be able to reach a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA in the coming days. But there is little time that remains because of the advancements that we’ve seen over the course of recent months and over the course of the past couple of years in Tehran’s nuclear program.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that the Russians might actually spoil arrival at a deal?
MR PRICE: Look, we are at the final stage of what has been already an 11-month negotiation. There’s very little time remaining to test the proposition as to whether we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. We’ve urged all parties – and of course that includes the Russian Federation – to focus on resolving the final remaining issues so that we can achieve our shared objective. That is an Iran that is permanently and verifiably barred from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. That is not only our objective; the Russian Federation was and is a party to the P5+1. Russia was there when the JCPOA was negotiated and consummated in 2014 and 2015. It is manifestly in our interest, it is manifestly in the interest of our close European allies, it is also – happens to be manifestly in the interest of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation to see to it that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Ned, when you say (inaudible), did you guys actually engage with Russia on this last demands that they tried to impose last week, last Saturday?
MR PRICE: So Rob Malley remains in Vienna. He has had a chance to meet with the envoys, his fellow P5+1 envoys, to continue discussions. We’ve made it very clear privately – we’ve also made it very clear in the context of the P5+1 in Vienna – that the new Russia-related sanctions are wholly unrelated to the JCPOA and should not have any impact on a potential mutual return to compliance with it or its ultimate implementation. We also have no intention of offering Russia anything new or specific as it relates to these sanctions, nor is anything new required to successfully reach an agreement on a mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: Are these Russian new demands one of the main roadblocks to achieving an understanding? Do you include that in the very small number of outstanding issues?
MR PRICE: There are a small number of issues. I will let the Russian Federation speak to what it is that they are seeking. But I will just say we urge all parties, including Russia, to focus on resolving this very small set of issues to determine whether or not we can achieve a mutual return to compliance.
QUESTION: Ned, (inaudible) Palestinian issue very quickly. Last week there was – witnessed a spike in deadly assaults by the Israeli army on Palestinian youth, mainly. A number of them died, maybe a half a dozen. And the British consulate general came out and expressed her concern and called on the Israelis for restraint and so on. Do we expect, like, Ambassador Nides to say something similar or to caution the Israelis against such a spike or such a use of deadly force?
MR PRICE: You’ve heard from any number of individuals in this administration, including from Ambassador Nides, that we believe it’s critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions, that undercut efforts to advance what remains our desired outcome. That is a two-state solution. That certainly includes the – this violence of all types.
Thank you all very much.
MR PRICE: I’m sorry, any further —
MR PRICE: Well, first on Venezuela, let me first reiterate what has been the big news, and that is that we – and welcome news – and that is that we gladly welcome the return of U.S. citizens Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Alberto Fernandez from Venezuela. Their release would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of individuals in this building and throughout this administration. Of course, those efforts were led by Special Envoy Carstens, our special envoy for Hostage Affairs.
Even as we celebrate the return of these two Americans, we are going to continue working every day to bring home every U.S. national held hostage or wrongfully detained in the world, including those who remain to this day wrongfully detained in Venezuela. We’ve said this before – we have said this in unison with our allies and partners around the world – that the practice of wrongfully detaining third-country nationals represents a threat to the safety and security of everyone traveling, working, living abroad. We oppose this practice anywhere; we oppose this practice everywhere.
So one of the purposes of this visit was to ensure the health and well-being of U.S. nationals detained by the regime in Venezuela and to press for their release. Of course, we’re able to welcome – we were able to welcome home two of them, but it – certainly the delegation sought the – to ensure the health and well-being of all those detained. We also noted Maduro’s statement that he is willing to return to negotiations with the opposition’s Unitary Platform, which we believe to be an important and a positive step. We continue to believe that Venezuelan-led comprehensive negotiations, may represent the best mechanism available to restore Venezuelan democracy and the rule of law. And that’s why we support the Unitary Platform’s goal of immediately resuming negotiations with the Maduro regime to restore free and fair elections, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, as well as respect for human rights in Venezuela.
The other big element of the delegation and the other element that they pressed was the need to make progress on the democratic aspirations of the people of Venezuela. We will continue to press that case. We will continue to do everything we can with Juan Guaido and the Unitary Platform, but also through other channels, to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people.
Thank you all.
QUESTION: Do you still recognize Guaido as the president of Venezuela?
MR PRICE: There has been no change. We recognize Juan Guaido as the interim president. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:48 p.m.)
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