Secretary Antony J. Blinken Roundtable with Journalists

MR PRICE:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Thanks very much for joining.  This is Ned Price with the Department of State.  We’re very pleased to see so many of you on screen today and we’re really gratified to have the opportunity.  As you know, this will be an on-the-record (inaudible) to speak with Secretary Blinken.  He’ll have some opening remarks and then he’ll go into taking your questions.

With that, I’ll turn it over to the Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Ned, thanks very much.  Hey, good afternoon, everyone.  It’s good to either – to see some of you, to see names for those I can’t see, and really wanted to thank you for joining and getting together this afternoon.


QUESTION:  I think you’re muted, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Oh, all right.  Sorry about that.  So let me start again with apologies.  Two years into this, we’re still having challenges with Zoom and the like, but anyway, I was just saying first it’s – really appreciate everyone coming together this afternoon.  I was making a bad joke about how, when you usually talk to a secretary of state, it’s probably about elections, not necessarily about geopolitics.  But there’s a real reason that I was looking forward to getting together with this group.

One of the things we’ve been trying to do at the department is really connect up what we’re doing to the actual lives of our fellow citizens, and to connect with them in ways that we might not normally connect with them, and particularly to connect with them through the main institutions where they actually get their news, get their information, and that’s you all.  So that’s a big piece of it.

Second, there’s kind of this mystery or mystique about foreign policy as being something that is happening halfway around the world and that doesn’t have a real bearing necessarily on the lives of our fellow citizens.  Now, of course – and I’ll come to this – Russia-Ukraine has been dominating our papers and our screens for the last few weeks, but in the normal course of business, it’s not something that’s necessarily readily apparent.  But to us it is, and it’s something that we really want to continue to have a conversation about.

First, one of the principles that we’ve been inspired by, animated by, is that when we’re not engaged in the world, when the United States is not leading, at the table, in the room, then one of two things: either someone else is and doing things in a way that may not actually advance the interests of the American people or the values that we hold, or maybe no one is and then you tend to have vacuums and chaos and that usually has a way of coming back and biting us.  At least that’s the lesson that we take from our history.  So we think and we’re trying to help fellow citizens understand why just being out there and engaged as the United States is important.

And then there’s a second part that’s so important to that, at least from our perspective, is when we’re thinking about the things that are really having an impact on the lives of our fellow citizens, not a single one of them can be effectively addressed by us either going into a corner of our own or acting on our own.

And so when you think about it, if you’re concerned about climate change, well, we’re 15 percent of global emissions, so even if we did everything right at home, we’re still not dealing with the 85 percent of emissions that are coming from other countries.  We have to be working with them and that’s why we spent so much time not only getting back into the Paris Agreement, but working through many, many efforts to try to move things forward and getting other countries to lift their ambitions and do things even as we’re doing things.

If you care about COVID, we keep learning this the hard way:  No matter what we do at home, if we’re not also helping to ensure that the world is vaccinated, we know what’s going to happen.  We’re going to get another variant that may come back and bite us and maybe do it in a way that defeats the vaccines that we have.  So there’s a real premium on being out there and working with the world to try, even as we’re doing what we can at home, to make sure that other countries are doing the same.

And then this technology that’s dominating our lives and that’s allowing us to get together today, all of the emerging tech that is literally shaping people’s lives, we can’t shape the way it’s used by ourselves.  There are rules that go with it.  There are norms and standards that go with it.  And increasingly, those are shaped not just by us, but by other countries around the world and international institutions, et cetera.  And again, if we’re not in there doing it and leading it, all of those rules and norms and standards that go with how technology is actually used in terms of privacy, in terms of security – all of those things will happen in a way that escapes our own efforts to shape it and may come back and be harmful to our own citizens.

So I can go across the board, but most of the big things that are really affecting people, we need to be engaged with others, we need to be engaged with international institutions.  That’s the best way to advance what we’re trying to do in the interests of Americans around the world.  And that’s why it’s really important for me to try and for all of my colleagues to try to connect the dots to what we’re doing around the world to what people are actually experiencing in their own lives.  And of course, I think people have known that for a long time when it comes to economic issues and particularly when it comes to trade.

That brings me – and I want to – really want to open it up for any questions that people have.  That brings us to what is dominating the news cycle right now, and that’s Russia-Ukraine.  I think people are moved by what they’re seeing on their iPhones, on their TVs or reading about in their newspapers, because on a human level, it’s very powerful.  We’re seeing one very big country commit a war of aggression against a neighbor that’s done nothing to, in any way, deserve that.  And we see the human suffering that’s going on before our very eyes and that moves a lot of people.  We see the flood of refugees.  This is now the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.  That’s how many people are on the move as a result of this aggression.  We see it in the buildings destroyed and lives blown apart by the bombs and rockets and mortars.  And we see it in the women, the kids who are being so directly affected.

So I think it’s touching people, but one of the things that we tried to also underscore and underline is that as much as this is about what’s going on in Ukraine, it’s also about something bigger, which is why we’re so invested in it.  Because what really happened over the last century is we went through a couple of world wars, both of them ultimately drew the United States in, and we tried to do everything we could – after the second one – to put in place some basic rules and understandings to make it less likely we’d ever see another one.  And all of the things that happened back in the late 1940s and early 1950s about standing up the United Nations and standing up the international financial institutions, standing up NATO – all of these things were really about making sure that we had some basic understandings about how countries relate to one another that made it a little less likely that there would be conflict, that there would be war, and that we’d get drawn into something again.

One of the key – obviously, the key things was the United Nations, the Security Council.  The Security Council and the five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, the UK, France – were – is charged with one mission above all, above all others.  The responsibility each member has is to do everything possible to maintain international peace and security.

So here we have one of the permanent members of that Council not only not maintaining international peace and security, but exploding it by attacking another country, and attacking some of the basic principles that are at the heart of the United Nations Charter and these international understandings that were designed to prevent wars from happening again, like states deserve to have their sovereignty respected; like they need to have their territorial integrity respected; one country can’t simply go in and change the borders of another by force, or dictate to it its choices, its future, its policies, with whom it’s going to associate.

So all those things are in play.  And in our view, at least, if we are not standing strongly for them, and if we’re allowing them to be challenged with impunity, it risks opening a Pandora’s box, not just in Europe but around the world.  That makes conflict and war and chaos more likely and, ultimately, affects – will affect us in profound ways.  We’ve seen the effect already of this war that is in Ukraine, that it’s having on everything from gasoline prices to food prices.  And we know also that it is taking us away from doing many of the things that we need to do on climate, on COVID, you name it.

So these things are, in a world that has become more and more interconnected over many years, they’re inescapable.  And so we have a real interest in trying to shape them to the best of our ability in ways that don’t come and bite us.

And that brings me back to where I started and where I’ll finish, which is it really does start with American engagement, with American leadership.  One of the main responsibilities that we were given by President Biden when we started this was to try to revitalize, re-energize, reinvigorate our alliances and partnerships by actually showing up, rolling up our sleeves, working with our partners, listening to them, consulting with them, and just doing that day in, day out, relentlessly on the phone, in person, by video, building cooperation and habits of working together.

And we did a lot of that.  We really made that investment.  And I think we see now that it pays off in the crunch.  We’ve done more with our European partners cooperatively in dealing with the Russian aggression in Ukraine than I think anyone expected, and certainly more than we’ve seen in many years.  And that means the burden is shared, the results are there, and we’re more effective.

But it doesn’t just happen by itself; it happens because we make these investments in time and resources and energy to build these relationships and to be able to work together effectively.

So…the end of the day, that’s part of the story that we’re trying to tell, that we want to tell.  And one of the ways I think we can most effectively do that is by talking to you, because you’re how so many people in our country are getting their stories, hearing what’s going on.  That’s the narrative, and you’re the ones who are delivering it and, in many ways, shaping it.

So with that, let me stop talking at you and start listening.

MR PRICE:  We’ll now take questions.  If you have a question, feel free to unmute yourself or raise your hand, either digital or real.

Yeah, Liz, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hey, Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for doing this.  I had a question basically about how President Biden is approaching this moment, this kind of perilous moment.  I think we’ve – you mentioned what people back home are hearing, and I think they do hear from some lawmakers that they feel like President Biden is acting too scared of Putin, that in some of the moves on the jets, for example, that he’s being too cautious.  And President Biden has this long history dealing with Putin on this issue of Ukraine and in general.  So I’m wondering if you could speak at all to how he views Putin, like, as sort of an adversary in this moment and if that’s informing any of that caution that we’re seeing.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Sure, thanks.  Let me say a couple of things.  First of all, there may be a natural tendency sometimes to look at something that we’re not doing, which of course jumps over what we are doing.  And let me start there because it’s important.

Well before the aggression that Russia committed took place, we saw this coming; we worked very hard to try to keep it on a diplomatic track, dialogue, avert this aggression.  But even as we were doing that, we were preparing for the possibility and, increasingly, the likelihood that Russia would reject diplomacy and dialogue and pursue the aggression.  And so well before they went in, over the previous year, President Biden provided more security assistance to Ukraine in that year than in any previous year.  And as a result, the Ukrainians had in their hands when the Russians came in the very kind of equipment that has been incredibly effective in dealing with planes attacking from the air, tanks firing from the ground, missiles and rockets, et cetera.  All of that stuff – the anti-air equipment, the anti-armor equipment – much of that was already there because he had made that commitment and followed through on it.

Similarly, we said for months that if Russia committed an act – this act of aggression, there would be massive consequences, including unprecedented economic sanctions.  And I think some folks thought, well, that sounds good but what are we really going to see if it happens.  I think we’ve demonstrated that when we said there would be massive consequences, there were, there have been.  As a result of these sanctions, done in an unprecedented way in terms of their coordination with other countries, we’re basically seeing Russia’s economy in a freefall.  The ruble is through the floor.  Russia’s credit rating is junk status.  The stock market’s been closed for three weeks.  We’ve seen an exodus of virtually every leading company, brand, firm from Russia over the last few weeks such that basically in the space of a few weeks, 30 years of Russia opening to the world and creating greater economic opportunity for our people has vanished as a result of President Putin’s terrible actions.

So all of that’s happening, and of course we remain the leading provider of humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians, whether in Ukraine or those who have been forced to flee.  So when it comes to the things that are making the Ukrainians most effective in dealing with this onslaught from Russia, we’ve been providing it, and you heard the President yesterday describe in some detail another $800 million in security assistance and everything that that actually translates into.  So that’s really important.

The Pentagon, when they looked at this, we – there’s a lot of talk about the airplanes.  And by the way, President Zelenskyy is, as I think we’ve all seen, extraordinary and his leadership is both inspiring and genuinely heroic because he’s remained right in harm’s way leading his people.  And if I’m in his shoes, I’m going to be doing – I’m going to be asking for everything that I can possibly get.  I totally understand that.  We have to make judgments and determinations about what makes the most sense when it comes to the airplanes, for example.  The Pentagon made a determination that these would actually not be the most effective things that Ukraine could get, that what is effective is exactly what we’re doing and doing even more of, which are these anti-air and anti-armor systems that are actually shooting down planes and destroying tanks and armored vehicles.  That’s what’s working.

Second, I’d just say this:  We obviously have an incentive in trying to end this war as quickly as possible, not expand it, including to places beyond Ukraine.  And at the end of the day, all of us, every single one of us, except for one person, can – has the freedom to say oh, we should do this, that, or the other thing, and in very good faith, but only one person bears the ultimate responsibility for making that decision, for deciding, and with the responsibility of what is in the interest of the United States and our people, and that’s the President.  The buck stops there.  So I can advise something; Senator X can advise something, Congressman Y, a newspaper columnist, whatever.  But ultimately the responsibility, the burden of the decision falls on the President, and he is best placed to make the judgment about what’s ultimately in the interest of the American people.  That’s how he’s looking at it.

So we’re determined to support Ukraine, and we are.  We’re determined to exert extraordinary pressure on Russia, and we are.  But the most important thing is he’s got to do all that, making a judgment about what’s fundamentally in our interest, and that’s how he’s proceeded.

QUESTION:  And on that point of his insight into Vladimir Putin?

MR PRICE:  Liz, we’re just going to move around, and if we have time we’ll come back.  But we’ll go to Ashley Murray.

QUESTION:  Hi, Secretary Blinken.  Thank you so much for your time.  I have two questions.  First is I understand – you just explained and I’ve read that the U.S. is the leading provider of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.  But I’m wondering if you can comment on the U.S.’s possible plan or anything in the works to extend that to other countries surrounding Ukraine as they face the refugee crisis flooding over the borders, and possibly even to Europe beyond the eastern flank.

And then secondly, many of the persons and entities on the sanctions list now, specially designated persons and banks, Russian banks – we’re also (inaudible).  Can you comment on how these (inaudible) round would do anything (inaudible) they’re more effective?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So Ashley, I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get the second part of your question about the sanctions and the different entities.  Could you repeat it, because you were breaking up a little?

QUESTION:  So sorry.  Why these (inaudible) of sanctions would be more effective than the ones announced in 2014 or even some in 2018.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Got it.  Thanks.  Got it.  Thank you.  So with regard to the humanitarian assistance piece of this, the supplemental funding that Congress has provided, which is very, very significant and powerful – we got about $13.6 billion – of that about $4 billion goes to humanitarian assistance for Ukraine.  But that includes, significantly, not just assistance that we’re trying to get into Ukraine to help Ukrainians who are still there but also to help Ukrainians who have been forced to flee to the neighboring countries, as well as helping those countries sort of support the burden that they’re bearing of taking in so many people as refugees, for however long that lasts.

So there’s significant resources going to that, that are going to neighboring countries to help them, that are going to organizations like UNHCR to support the work that they’re doing directly.  And as we’re doing that, we’re also working – I was on, for example, a call today with my counterparts from the G7 countries.  These are the world’s leading democratic economies, and so it’s France, it’s Germany, it’s the UK, it’s Italy, it’s Canada, it’s Japan, as well as the European Union.  And one of the things we’re talking about today is how we can effectively channel our resources to support countries, particularly the neighboring countries that are bearing such a burden – Poland, little Moldova, Romania, others.  And we’re very focused on doing that and making sure they have the resources they need.

We’re also looking when it comes to refugees about what we can do ourselves and talking both to UNHCR about that, looking what we can do in a sort of coordinated way with these other leading countries to try to deal with some of the burden that refugees will pose to these countries.  So more on that in the days to come, but already a big chunk of our assistance is actually going to neighboring countries.

On the sanctions piece, what’s different this time is – there are a number of things that are different, but first and foremost, I think what you’ve seen take place with the sanctions on virtually all of the leading Russian financial institutions, the banks and others, have been devastating to their ability to do business.  The sanctions on the central bank have meant that even though Russia built up a lot of reserves, they’ve been unable to use those reserves to prop up the ruble.  They can’t go and buy rubles abroad because they’re sanctioned, and the value of the currency has plummeted.  As I mentioned, the stock market’s been closed for three weeks as well.

The elites that we’ve sanctioned, well, not only are we preventing them from doing things, but we’re – much more aggressively than we’ve ever done in the past – actually going after them. And there is a whole task force that was set up with other countries to freeze and seize their assets – the mega yachts, the fancy apartments, the sports cars – in ways that they’re going to feel very directly.  Many of them are finding it impossible to do business with anyone anymore.

And then we’ve seen something extraordinary that is not the direct result of the sanctions, but has been incredibly powerful, and that is this exodus of virtually every leading company from Russia.  I mean, if you – I had a document that a few days ago was probably eight or nine pages long – it’s probably almost double that by now – with this list of everyone from McDonald’s to Apple to Coca Cola to Toyota to Netflix to MasterCard and Visa to you name it.  And that is actually having a very dramatic impact on Russians in their day-to-day lives – not something any of us do or see with any joy or pleasure, not at all.  But we have to maximize the impact that we’re having on Putin and his decision making, and that’s one way to do it.

Last thing I’ll say on the sanctions is that one of the things you’re going to see have an impact over time are the export controls that we put in place with other countries to deny Russia the technology that it needs to modernize critical industries – defense, aerospace, energy exploration. And as a result, they will not be able to modernize, to develop these sectors in ways that will help their economy advance or help strengthen their strategic interests or position.  That’s going to be felt increasingly over time.  And then to the extent that they are a supplier of such equipment and technologies to other countries, those countries are not going to be interested in taking stuff that is increasingly outdated and ineffective.

So there’s a huge immediate impact, and an impact that’s going to build over time for as long as this goes on.  Of course, the purpose of all of this is not to have these things in perpetuity.  The purpose of the sanctions is to change their conduct, along with everything else that we’re doing. And so that’s what we hope happens.  But I think by just about any objective measure, the sanctions themselves are unprecedented when you go through each and every one of them, and the impact they’re already having is unprecedented – look at every metric of the Russian economy and you can see that things are going through the floor.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) Secretary.  Thank you for doing the call.  When you talk about sanctions and the impact, obviously, as you put it, they have had an impact but they haven’t been able to deter Putin from invading, from targeting civilians, hospitals.  And you’ve talked about now the possibility of chemical weapons being used.  What you have on the table that could either deter him or that you could do beyond what’s already been done to increase the punishments if he does use chemical weapons?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So, of course, you hope that the prospect of sanctions – of economic measures – will prove to be a deterrent and actually prevent the aggression that you’re trying to prevent.  And certainly, as we worked on these for many months and coordinated these with allies and partners and made very clear that there would be massive consequences, our first hope was that that would help deter the aggression.  It didn’t.  So now there are two things that are in play.  One is – we’ve demonstrated that when we said there would be massive consequences, there are.  That’s being felt more and more each day.  And so at some point, that price, that burden, that impact may have the effect of stopping what Putin has started.

But ultimately, I think what is really having an impact there is the extraordinary resistance, courage, bravery of the Ukrainian people, supported by us and many other countries, in terms of the impact that they’re having on this Russian onslaught.  And we’re seeing that virtually everything happening on the ground in Ukraine is not going according to Putin’s plan – far from it.  And, again, you’re all seeing it, reporting it pretty much every day.  The cumulative impact of all of that – the pressure being brought to bear and the resistance that is having a powerful impact on the invading forces – that at some point in time we hope will push Russia to do something different.  The problem is it’s not flipping a light switch.  It does take time for them to reassess, calculate their interests, and to see that what they’re doing is profoundly not in their own interest.

So I think that will build.  That’s why I was saying earlier that we also have to, I think tragically, be prepared for this to go on for some time, because it – again, it’s not like flipping a switch.  It accumulates, the pressure builds, the consequences build, and ultimately, countries have to reckon with that and change what they’re doing as a result of that.

So that’s where we are, and it’s unfortunately a process, not a – not something that’s automatic.

MR PRICE:  Jerry, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, thank you for doing this.  It’s very helpful.  I have kind of a multi-pronged question about the refugee crisis.  First of all, I’m wondering what your sense is, at this point in time, whether there will be large numbers of Ukrainian refugees who would like to resettle in the U.S., what your approach to that may be, whether it’ll be through the UNHCR process or something else, and whether they’ll be going to the kind of metro areas that have been very welcoming over time to refugees, such as Buffalo.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Couple of things on that.  First, just to emphasize, this is already the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II just in terms of numbers.  And I think there’s every expectation that it’s going to grow.  And so we’re well north of 2.5 million people at this point, not to mention those who are displaced within Ukraine.  And as long as this goes on, the brutality continues, more and more people will leave.  That’s the situation we’re dealing with now, but it’s also the expectation that we have going forward.

And it’s why countries are coming together to figure out what we can do, both individually but also collectively, to help care for, welcome, support those who are refugees – either by supporting other countries that are taking them in or taking people in ourselves.  That’s – and so a lot of work is going into addressing that right now, making sure the resources are there, making sure that the lead organizations like UNHCR are where they need to be and have the support that they need to have, et cetera.

What we’re seeing right now – but this is likely to change at some point, but – as the numbers grow bigger – right now the strong desire of most people leaving is to stay as close to Ukraine as they can, and certainly to stay within Europe, for a couple of reasons.  One is, I think as you know, the people leaving now are almost all women and children.  Adult men, men between the ages of 18 and 60, are asked to stay in Ukraine to fight for their country.  And so the women and children who are leaving and separating from husbands and sons and brothers, they want to stay, if they can, as close at hand as possible in the hopes that they can be quickly reunited and in the hopes that the war will end quickly and they can go home.  Second, many Ukrainians have family, relatives in Europe, and once you’re in Europe, you have a fair bit of freedom of movement.  And so their second impulse is to get together with family and others in Europe itself.

Having said that, given the numbers that we’re looking at, there is almost certainly going to be an interest, a demand on countries far from Europe – including the United States – to take people in.  In the first instance, we have the referral process that I know you’re familiar with, where someone goes to UNHCR, seeks refugee status, and then people get referred to us.  But that’s a lengthy process, and what we’re looking at is whether there are more near-term steps that we can take that would help do our part in bringing people to the United States – for example, family reunification.  This is one of the things we’re looking at right now.

I expect that we’ll have more to say about that in the coming days as we really plunge into this, but we’re determined to do our part in showing that we’re a place of refuge and welcome as well, and particularly because there are such strong Ukrainian American communities here, I know that people would be very welcoming.  But more in the coming days.  For now, we’re focused on helping countries that are already taking in refugees, supporting UNHCR, and looking at some near-term ways that we can do things like family reunification.

MR PRICE:  Yvonne, go ahead.  Yvonne, I think you’re still on mute.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much for doing this, Secretary.  What is the State Department doing to try to allow for Brittney Griner to meet with consular officials in Russia?  Why have requests for such a meeting been denied thus far?  And can you give us a sense of what difference such a meeting would make?  Separately, can you give us a sense of what her condition is?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  So we – whenever an American is detained anywhere, our job, our responsibility, our determination is to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to help them, to defend their rights, and to see what assistance, if any, they need.  And that’s anywhere in the world where this happens in one way or the other.

In Brittney’s case, in the first instance, we weren’t talking about it with any specificity because there were privacy concerns that we needed to respect.  Now, what I can tell you is that we’re in very active contact with her team, with – literally with the WNBA, as well as with her lawyers and other representatives.  We are and have been seeking consular access because we want to see firsthand how she’s doing.  We want to make sure that we know that she’s okay.

And this is, by the way, required under international law.  The Russians are required to give us that access.  They have not; it has been denied.  So we are working very hard on getting it, on being able to get access to her, to hear directly from her how she’s doing, and to make sure we’re doing everything we can to see to it that her rights are being respected and upheld in the Russian system and in terms of international law.

So it’s a work very much in progress.  I wish I had something positive to report in terms of actually getting access.  To date we’ve not been able to do that.

MR PRICE:  All right, seeing no other hands, want to thank everyone for taking part in this.  We do want to make this a regular occurrence, and even when the Secretary isn’t available, please do know that you can come to us at any time.  I think you all know how to reach our – me and our press office.  If you don’t, we’re happy to pass along that information, but thank you all very much for taking part and we look forward to seeing you again before long.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, everyone.  Appreciate it.  Good to be with you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.