QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you for joining us here tonight. I want to get right to what was reported late today from Russian state news, reports that those Russian separatists in those two regions inside Ukraine that Vladimir Putin declared as independent, that those separatists have now made a formal appeal to Vladimir Putin for military help in, quote, “repulsing Ukrainian aggression,” accusing Ukraine of genocide. This was announced in the middle of the night in Moscow. And you’ve been saying all along the U.S. has been predicting that there could be some sort of manufactured plea for help here, that Putin might then use it to send in Russian troops. Is that what we’re witnessing here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, I’d say this is exactly that. This is right out of the Russian playbook, to manufacture a provocation as a justification for invading Ukraine. And this is part and parcel of what we predicted all along.
QUESTION: Secretary, I wanted to ask you about what we heard from John Kirby over at the Pentagon late today. When pressed, what has the U.S. seen inside eastern Ukraine, has the U.S. seen Russian forces move into the Donbas region, he said that we certainly believe that additional Russian military forces are moving into that region but we can’t confirm the numbers, the capabilities, but that we certainly believe that’s happening.
So just to be clear tonight, the U.S. believes Russian forces have moved into eastern Ukraine. Can you shed any more light on the numbers? What do we know right now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, I can’t give you light on specific numbers. But what I can tell is this: Everything we’ve seen over the last 24 to 48 hours has Russia putting the final touches on having its forces in place across all of Ukraine’s borders – to the north, to the east, to the south – to be ready for a full-on invasion.
QUESTION: We know they’re assembled on the borders, though. He made it sound like they’ve begun to push in. Is that your belief, too?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve certainly seen the presence of Russian forces inside of – inside of Ukraine.
QUESTION: We all watched as Vladimir Putin suddenly declared those two regions independent, then sanctions from President Biden; 24 hours ago, President Biden telling the American people that the invasion was beginning, and then we saw more sanctions. Now tonight Putin giving every signal that he’s now moving forward. So are the sanctions working here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, the sanctions are designed to do two things. And first of all, we’ve spent a lot of time working with allies and partners to build the sanctions to be able to act in unison, to be able to act quickly, which is just what we did yesterday with significant sanctions against major Russian financial institutions, their ability to raise money around the world for their projects, and critically, the step that Germany took in close coordination with us to end this pipeline, the so-called Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have been a cash cow for Moscow going forward, $11 billion project that’s now on the ice.
But the sanctions are designed, in the first instance, to try to deter Russia from taking further aggression, from engaging in a massive invasion of Ukraine beyond the steps that they’ve already taken; but if that doesn’t succeed in deterring them, to make it very clear that there are going to be massive consequences, and to punish them for the actions they take.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. sanction Putin —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: All of that is in place.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. sanction Putin directly?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: As Russia – if and as Russia escalates, we will look at every other step to do the same ourselves.
QUESTION: You don’t need me to tell you this. We all know that Russia has been sanctioned before. Putin just told the Russian people this week that the West is going to sanction us. So if sanctions don’t work here, are there any non-economic moves President Biden can take?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First, the sanctions that we have, not only the ones we’ve already initiated based on Russia starting its invasion of Ukraine but the ones we have in reserve if they actually continue down this path, are unprecedented, and not just from us, in coordination with our European partners, with partners around the world.
Second, beyond that, we’ve made very clear that we’re going to do a number of things that Russia is not going to like, including reinforcing the NATO defensive alliance, including right near Russia’s borders to make sure we’re protecting allies and partners, as well as doubling down on our support to Ukraine. Security, economic, political, diplomatic: All of that will be forthcoming. All things that President Putin says he wants to prevent will be happening.
QUESTION: But bottom line: If sanctions don’t work, is there anything else President Biden can do here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, if there is any opportunity for diplomatic engagement in – if Russia demonstrates that it’s actually serious about that, which unfortunately it’s doing just the opposite, we’ll certainly pursue that. But we’ve said all along that we’re prepared for this either way. We’re prepared to try to avert this diplomatically, through dialogue. We’re also prepared if Russia decides to choose the path of aggression because ultimately, they get a vote. President Putin gets a vote. And if his vote is for aggression, we’re fully prepared for that.
QUESTION: With just a few seconds left here, we appear to be in the 11th hour here. Do you still believe there’s a diplomatic path?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Until you hit midnight, there always is, and we’ll – we’re certainly looking for it. But it requires Russia to demonstrate that it’s serious about diplomacy. Every step that it’s taken in recent days is moving in exactly the opposite direction.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you for joining us here tonight.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, David.