Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Good to see you all. Happy Tuesday. One element at the top, and then I will look forward to taking your questions.
We’ll start with Russia today and the decision by Russian authorities to add imprisoned opposition figure Aleksey Navalny and eight of his allies to the registry of so-called “extremists and terrorists” is disturbing. Russian authorities already have effectively criminalized one of the country’s remaining independent political movements with their earlier designation of Navalny-affiliated organizations as, quote/unquote, “extremist.” This latest designation represents a new low in Russia’s continuing crackdown on independent civil society.
We urge Russia to cease the abuse of, quote/unquote, “extremism” designations to target nonviolent organizations, to end its repression of Mr. Navalny and his supporters, and to honor its international obligations to respect and ensure human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Russian people, like all people, have the right to speak freely, form peaceful associations to common ends, exercise religious freedom, and have their voices heard through free and fair elections.
Mr. Navalny remains imprisoned on politically fabricated grounds. We have been consistently clear about that. We call again for his immediate and unconditional release.
With that, happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks. I want to start with Russia, but not with Navalny. A couple things, but they’ll be brief. One, do you have any timeline now? The White House punted to you guys when they were asked when the written response was going to be sent to Moscow. Do you —
MR PRICE: So what I can tell you, Matt, today is that the response has not yet been transmitted to Moscow, but I can assure you that once the response is sent, we will let you know. So stay tuned.
QUESTION: So – and you’ll also be giving it to us as well, so we —
MR PRICE: We will let you know, so stay tuned.
MR PRICE: We will let you know on a timely basis.
QUESTION: All right. Samely, yesterday I believe you said something about how over the course of the past week or 10 days or so, in terms of formulating what the response is going to be, that you are consulting with NATO Allies, European partners and allies. And I just wanted to know, does that include Ukraine? Have Ukrainian officials been consulted about what this response is going to be and are you taking into account their concerns or considerations in the document?
MR PRICE: Yes and yes. We have been consulting extensively with our allies and our partners, and of course when it comes to the latter category, that includes Ukraine. We have not only informed them and given them a preview of what will be in this report, but we have actually explicitly solicited their feedback and incorporated that feedback into our report. So there will be no surprises. There will be no surprises for NATO; there will be no surprises for our European allies; there will be no surprises for our Ukrainian partners.
MR PRICE: We have been also very clear with all of you, because you have heard us consistently say what the areas where diplomacy and dialogue may prove fruitful and viable and the areas that are just non-starters.
I take it from your questions that there’s a perception that we have been less transparent than – or might be less transparent than the other side, than the Russians in this case. What I would say is that the Russians have held out one criterion, and that is their demands when it comes to NATO and open door, and we’ve been very clear about that.
But we have also been very clear about specific areas, whether it’s the placement of offensive missiles, whether it is transparency, whether it is exercises, whether it is broader arms control measures, where, if done on a reciprocal basis, there is the potential to enhance collective transatlantic and broader security. Those are areas where we’ve been very clear that we’re willing to engage in dialogue. We have been consistently transparent with all of you, just as we have conveyed this very clearly and consistently to the Russian Federation.
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, there wasn’t any implication in my question, but let me just ask this. I mean, is there going to be anything in there that the Russians aren’t already aware of that are your positions?
MR PRICE: You will have to ask the Russians when they see the response.
QUESTION: Because it sounds as though there won’t be anything in there that’s a surprise, which means that it’s kind of a document that is kind of a dead letter, right?
MR PRICE: Well, look, if you’re pointing to the fact that we have been very clear both in public and in private with the Russian Federation, with the Russian Federation in the Strategic Stability Dialogue, with the Russian Federation in Secretary Blinken’s meeting with his counterpart Foreign Minister Lavrov last week, with the Russian Federation in the context of the NATO-Russia Council, with the Russian Federation in the context of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, yes we have been very clear about the areas where we believe dialogue and diplomacy has the potential to enhance our collective security.
We’ve also been very clear about the areas that, for us, are just non-starters. For us that would be fundamental violations of the founding principles of NATO and other foundational security instruments that have protected, enhanced, promoted unprecedented levels of security, stability, prosperity for the past 70 years.
So you will have to ask the Russians for their response once they see our written report. But you are correct in one regard – we have been very clear and consistent about areas where diplomacy and dialogue may be fruitful and areas where we are sincerely and steadfastly interested in engaging in that diplomacy, and areas where for us it’s just non-negotiable.
QUESTION: Last one. This morning one of your colleagues over at the White House on a background call said that if it gets down to the point where you’re going to impose sanctions, quote, “we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.” And I’m just wondering, is that a wise thing to do, to start at the very top, so that the only thing more that you could do would be to – would be some kind of military action?
MR PRICE: Let me take a step back and answer that question this way. First, you have heard from us consistently – you’ve also heard this consistently in the category of things we’ve been consistent about – that if any Russian forces move across the Ukrainian border, if there is a renewed invasion, it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response not only from the United States, but also from our allies and partners. We have spoken consistently about the fact that that swift, severe, and united response will be unprecedented, that it will entail measures that we intentionally eschewed in the past, including in 2014 when Russia last invaded Ukraine.
But it also will be unprecedented in its approach, and this is the point that you were getting to, Matt; it’s the point that one of my colleagues made this morning. My colleague said that – and you quoted it partially – “the gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.” We have —
QUESTION: Yeah. My question is this: So if you’re at the top of the escalation ladder and something else happens, you don’t have any further to climb on the ladder; you either fall off, or I guess maybe you jump onto the roof if the ladder is attached to something.
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, I – I –
QUESTION: But I don’t understand what – is it really – is it smart to start at the – by going all-out with nothing left in reserve? I mean, are you saying that whatever you guys – should it become necessary, that whatever you guys will impose in terms of sanctions can’t be topped?
MR PRICE: You have to recall —
QUESTION: Because if they can be, and if there are steps that you’re not going to take, then you’re not starting at the top of the escalation ladder.
MR PRICE: A couple points. One: You have to recall what this is about, and what’s at stake here. If this swift, severe, and united response goes into effect – and let me be clear, we hope it need not have to; we hope that dialogue and diplomacy can help us find a way out of this, help us find a way to de-escalation and ultimately to a peaceful resolution of this Russian aggression. But if we get there, what we will be talking about is renewed – a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. And the stakes of that, as we talked about yesterday, are important in the context of Ukraine of course, a close partner of the United States, a sovereign, independent country itself, and that of course is important to us.
It’s important beyond Ukraine as well. The, what should be, inviolable rules of the rules-based international order would come under assault. They would be undermined. They would be potentially eroded if the international community were not to take drastic steps to show Vladimir Putin, to show the Russian Federation that this is not the kind of action that can be tolerated in the 21st century. These are the kinds of actions that we sought to relegate to the dustbin of history after the Second World War. And if Vladimir Putin thinks that he – renewed aggression won’t be met with a severe, swift, united response, he would be wrong.
There’s another point here that I think is important, though. Even in the current phase, even in recent weeks, we have seen financial markets price in a greater risk premium into Russian financial assets amid the increasing movement of troops. It is not just us that is warning of this swift, severe, and united response. Financial markets, private sector actors are taking note. The Russian ruble recently hit its weakest level in over a year versus the dollar, and it’s the worst performing emerging market currency so far this year. Russian sovereign borrowing costs in terms of the 10-year bonds, they have increased to their highest levels since 2016. Russia’s stock market has sunk to its lowest levels in a year.
But the other point – and market participants know this – is that what we’re seeing now is nothing compared to what would befall the Russian Federation, the Russian economy if Russia’s invasion were to go forward.
To your point, Matt, I just want to be clear about this: This is not about – this is not about – this is not about punishment. This is, right now, about deterrence. We are seeking to do everything we can in the after – in the prelude to what could be additional Russian aggression to deter a further Russian invasion of Ukraine. That is why it behooves us to be crystal-clear with the Russian Federation, with Vladimir Putin, about the severe costs and consequences that would befall him, that would befall his country if he were to go forward with this. It doesn’t do us any good to pull punches, to be ambiguous, to be obscure in terms of what we’re talking about. And for more than two months now we’ve tried to be very clear about that.
QUESTION: A couple things. France’s Macron said today that he will be talking to Vladimir Putin on Friday. Is that helpful? Does that undercut the U.S.-Lavrov talks, or any talks at a higher level where mixed messages could be conveyed? Germany, to my knowledge, based on what German officials are saying, have not yet authorized the Estonian transfer of artillery. Is the delay in making that decision tantamount to banning, by not getting it there, potentially?
MR PRICE: Tantamount to?
QUESTION: Is that tantamount to not approving it because of the delay?
And the Ukrainians are saying – Zelenskyy said to his people nothing is imminent, you can sleep, don’t pack your bags, don’t worry. How does that – how do you synchronize that with the warnings from the White House that an invasion could be imminent, could come at any time? Is there a disconnect between us and the Ukrainian Government in terms of our approach? There are reports, in fact, from the ground that Ukrainians feel left out of the diplomacy despite all of your – the Secretary’s visit last week and all of your arguments that nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.
MR PRICE: Let me try and take those in order. First, on the French proposal to engage in dialogue and diplomacy with the Russian Federation. I would remind everyone precisely what we heard from NATO, from the OSCE, from our European allies: their very positive, very warm reaction to the fact that the United States in full consultation with NATO, with the OSCE, with our European allies, with the Ukrainians as of a couple weeks ago planned to sit down in the context of the Strategic Stability Dialogue, the engagement that our Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led in Geneva. They have been very supportive of our bilateral engagements with now, more recently, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and they have been supportive for I would say primarily one reason. And that one reason is the fact that we have done all of this in full coordination —
QUESTION: But then —
MR PRICE: — in full consultation with them. And two —
QUESTION: But that said, just to that point, just this week Macron said that the EU should have its own conversations with Russia.
MR PRICE: And just as our partners and allies have welcomed our coordinated consultative engagements with the Russian Federation, we would certainly welcome dialogue and diplomacy that could serve to de-escalate in which the Russian Federation engages in good faith. We would be behind anything that would serve to de-escalate tensions in a genuine way. That is precisely why we have engaged multilaterally and also bilaterally – again, in full consultation and coordination with our partners and allies – with the Russian Federation.
There are two paths. You’ve heard us say this before. There’s the path of diplomacy and dialogue; there’s the path of defense and deterrence. We are pursuing both paths simultaneously, knowing that we have to be ready for either decision that Vladimir Putin makes. If – and we know the fact that our allies and partners are engaged in diplomacy and dialogue. To us that’s a good thing. But it is incumbent in all of this on the Russian Federation to take steps to demonstrate that dialogue and diplomacy are viable, that they are a means to an end. This is not talking for the sake of talking. This is talking, sitting down in a principled, clear-eyed way, in an effort to de-escalate tensions and peacefully resolve what the Russian Federation has needlessly provoked. We’re engaged in that. Our allies and partners are engaged in that. We’re engaged in that together, multilaterally, through NATO and the OSCE.
When it comes to our German allies, we talked a bit about this yesterday. We were in Berlin last week and the Secretary had an opportunity to speak to Chancellor Scholz, had an opportunity to meet with Foreign Minister Baerbock. The foreign minister was asked almost precisely this very question standing next to Secretary Blinken, and she spoke in detailed terms about the important forms of support that our German allies are showing to our Ukrainian partners. And I say “our” because they are close partners of both the United States and Germany, not to mention all of the NATO Allies.
So different allies are contributing different elements to this effort to reassure, to reinforce, to deter further Russian aggression. The key is that all of these forms of support are reinforcing. So whether it is the fact that the United States for our part has provided more than $650 million in security assistance in the last year, the most – more than in any previous year in history; whether it is the fact that Secretary Blinken himself has expedited and authorized the third-country transfers that you have spoken to; whether it is the reinforcements that my colleague at the Pentagon has spoken to in recent days – we are making important contributions not only to the defensive security needs of Ukraine, but also to the reassurance efforts when it comes to NATO’s so-called eastern flank. Our allies are very much doing the same. Different allies are contributing in different ways in a way that is mutually reinforcing.
And then finally your question about what we’re hearing from our Ukrainian partners. Look, I would make the point that now is not the time for panic; now is the time for preparation. That is precisely what we’re doing. We have been clear about our concerns. We have been clear about the depth of those concerns. You all know why; you all know our reasoning. That reasoning is clear given what we’re seeing on Ukraine’s borders; what we’re seeing in what should be an independent, sovereign country of Belarus with the Russian military buildup there; what we’re seeing with preparations for potential hybrid operations. All of this is cause for concern, but certainly no one is calling for panic.
QUESTION: But just to follow up, because precisely I didn’t get an answer on Germany, different countries participate in different ways. Is it helpful if Germany prevents Estonia from helping to arm Ukraine? Or does it undermine the unity of the alliance?
MR PRICE: The alliance is united. There is no question about this. The alliance is united. You have heard this in the form of communiqués and statements from the alliance itself. You don’t have to take my word for it.
QUESTION: Statements are one thing, but why would Germany stop artillery from going to Ukraine from a third country?
MR PRICE: Countries – countries have different authorities, different norms, different traditions. This country – what I can speak to is what we’re doing, and what we are doing is providing unprecedented levels of defensive security assistance to our Ukrainian partners in a way that we’ve done in the past, just on a scale that is unprecedented.
QUESTION: Did the U.S. object to them not – to them imposing this ban, if they do? Has the U.S. asked them to not interfere?
MR PRICE: We have had in-depth conversations with all of our NATO Allies about the deterrent measures that we are prepared to take, about the response – the swift, severe, united response – that we are prepared to take. Our NATO Allies know precisely what we are doing, the steps that you’ve just – many of the steps you’ve just heard me detail in terms of our provision of defensive security assistance to Ukraine, in terms of the reinforcements that we are making and prepared to make to NATO’s eastern flank. Different NATO Allies are contributing in different and meaningful ways.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just to follow up on Andrea’s question on Macron’s engagement, you’re saying that everything you have done was made in coordination with your partners and allies. Would you say that Macron talking with Putin is done in coordination with the U.S.?
MR PRICE: Look, the level of coordination between our French allies and the United States has been excellent. I think our French allies would say the same. As you know, there, even in recent hours, have been very high-level discussions. So this conversations, this – these consultations have been constant and consistent. So we feel that we have a good sense of what the alliance, what our allies are doing, and we know that we’ve been fully transparent with our allies and partners.
QUESTION: And just —
QUESTION: So the coordination and communication is better than it was over AUKUS? (Laughter.)
MR PRICE: Was that a question or was that a jibe?
QUESTION: Just a quick one on – the President said during his press conference – he kind of acknowledged that Ukraine is not going – it’s not very likely that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the next upcoming years. Is this an acknowledgment you’re ready to put in written – in your written response, just saying we don’t shut the doors, but it’s not likely that Ukraine is going to join in the upcoming future?
MR PRICE: Francesco, we’ve consistently made the point when we talk about the foundational, inviolable principles, one of them when it comes to European security is the right of sovereign nations to choose their partnerships and alliances in any way that they see fit. It is written into NATO’s charter that countries can aspire to join the alliance. Of course, there are a set of membership requirements.
QUESTION: It’s not what I’m asking.
MR PRICE: Those membership requirements are clearly spelled out, clearly delineated. It is the obligation and responsibility of each aspirant country to be in a position to fulfill those requirements, but NATO’s door must always remain open to those aspirant countries that fulfill those requirements.
QUESTION: That wasn’t my question. My question is are you ready to take the quote from President Biden in his press conference, “the likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely” – are you ready to take that quote and put it in written – in your written response?
MR PRICE: An open door is an open door. That door will always be open. We’re not going to take any move; we’re not going to say anything that would —
QUESTION: The President just did.
MR PRICE: I don’t think the President did. I think the —
QUESTION: No, he – I mean, he said that.
MR PRICE: The President said exactly what I reiterated just now, that NATO accession is predicated on a set of requirements that each aspirant country must fulfill.
QUESTION: Just because we’re focused on this written response right now, I know you aren’t going to preview exactly what this is going to say, but for our expectation purposes, will this written response speak in broad terms that you have already made very public about the ideas that the U.S. sees for the U.S. and Russia potentially working together on strategic stability and the like? Or will it have specific ideas, specific proposals that are on the table for negotiation’s sake?
MR PRICE: I think the answer to that is both. We’ve been very clear about the areas in which there may be some utility and where progress can be achieved when it comes to enhancing transatlantic security, when it comes to enhancing collective security, when it comes to addressing some of the concerns that Russia has put forward. And so in the discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov, in the discussions with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, in the discussions at NATO, in the discussions with the OSCE, there have been broad high-level discussions about various principles, including the principle we’ve just discussed here. But then there have also been more tactical discussions, discussions about the placement of missiles, discussions about reciprocal steps vis-à-vis exercises, about confidence-building measures, about transparency, about broader arms control.
So the universe in which we can engage diplomatically, or at least in which we can engage diplomatically and potentially achieve some progress – we’ve outlined what that universe looks like. The Russians know that. We’ve done that together with our allies and partners, and the written response will do that as well.
QUESTION: Sorry. Just so – so you say you’ve outlined that, right? So are we expecting that there should be a bit more filled into the outline in this written response than we have seen publicly?
MR PRICE: The – what the written response will reflect is what we have said, and that is the fact that there are certain areas that for us are non-starters, and there are other areas where dialogue and diplomacy has the potential to enhance collective transatlantic security and also account for some of the concerns that Russia has made. I don’t want to get ahead of a report that – a written response that we haven’t formally transmitted yet.
But again, we have been entirely clear about what those universes are, where that Venn diagram of Russia’s stated concerns, our stated concerns, the concerns of NATO, of our European allies, of our Ukrainian partners – we’ve been clear that there is an overlapping element of that Venn diagram, and that’s what we’re talking about here in terms of pursuing dialogue and diplomacy on the path towards de-escalation and hopefully, a peaceful resolution of this needless Russian aggression. That is a proposition we’re prepared to continue to test. We’ll have to see what – how the Russians respond, what the next steps might be. But the next step will be transmitting that response to the Russian Federation.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just to be clear, your answer to Francesco was no, you will not be including a characterization of the likelihood or not of Ukraine joining NATO. You’ve said open doors, and open doors, and open door, and —
MR PRICE: So I would say a couple things. One, an open door is an open door. Two, our response to the Russian Federation was drafted and is being drafted in full consultation and coordination and transparency with our European allies and Ukrainian partners. But it is a U.S. response, so it is not for the United States to speak to NATO’s posture in any written response that we put forward. So I think for a couple reasons that is not the kind of thing I would expect to see in any written response from the United States.
QUESTION: Okay. When you talk about it not yet being transmitted, are you also saying it’s not yet fully drafted, even though – because you keep saying that you’re consulting still, even though you also are saying that it’s everything we already know and have said. So you are still drafting, as well as not having —
MR PRICE: It – I don’t want to characterize its state of completion. I will say that Secretary Blinken was clear that it will be transmitted this week, so I would just say stay tuned.
QUESTION: It will be a State Department response or —
MR PRICE: It will be a U.S. Government response.
QUESTION: I just want to ask – you and your colleagues sometimes talk about diplomacy and dialogue on the one side, defense and deterrence on the other. But – and with President Putin kind of deciding in the middle like some kind of Magic 8-ball or something. But we’re seeing signs on the ground. You mentioned the MOEX stock exchange, the rubble weakness. We’ve seen troops going into Belarus. We’ve seen NATO directing troops towards its eastern flank. Does that mean that the scope for diplomacy has narrowed?
MR PRICE: What it means is that we haven’t seen the de-escalation that is necessary if diplomacy and dialogue is to prove successful. We’ve been very clear that, as we always are, that there is not a precondition for dialogue and diplomacy, but there is a precondition for that dialogue and diplomacy moving in the right direction and moving towards the end state that we hope to see, and that precondition is de-escalation.
QUESTION: Is it moving in the right direction or the wrong direction? I mean, things rarely stand still in this world.
MR PRICE: Well, I don’t think that we’ve seen any concrete indications of de-escalation just yet.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR PRICE: Anything else on Russia, Ukraine? Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. You were talking about the unity among allies. I wonder if you wanted to respond to the Croatian President Milanović, who said Croatia would in no way be involved in this crisis if it’s escalated, and they specifically said they will recall Croatian troops from NATO deployment. So is there real unity among your allies on this?
MR PRICE: I think you have seen the unity that has been expressed in formal statements from NATO, from the G7, from the OSCE, from the European Commission that speaks to the unity that we have forged, not in recent days but really in – over the past couple months. This is something that we have been hard at work at since we first started speaking to this in early November, if I recall. This is something that, as our – as the information picture has developed, we have consistently shared information with allies and partners.
We have engaged with our allies and partners in any number of fora both in person – whether it was last month at the G7, whether it was at the NATO ministerial, whether it was at the OSCE – we have done so over the phone as well, video conferences. Well over 100 engagements as of earlier this month with our European allies and our partners as well – of course, including Ukraine – and that extends to last week when we were, again, in Kyiv. We had an opportunity to meet with President Zelenskyy, had an opportunity to meet with Foreign Minister Kuleba. And that engagement has continued since. Of course, the Secretary has had an opportunity to speak to the foreign minister after his meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov to back-brief him on that engagement because, again, we are operating with a core principle in mind. And that is nothing about without – nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, about Europe without Europe, about NATO without NATO.
QUESTION: But specifically on Croatia are you concerned that countries are signing up to formal statements when – and then on the other side making these kinds of comments that they don’t actually support those —
MR PRICE: What I can point to are the formal statements that NATO Allies have signed for.
QUESTION: Are you not concerned at all that – if the commander in chief of a country is then saying something completely opposed to what they’ve signed – supposedly signed up for?
MR PRICE: Documents are a physical manifestation of the commitments that that the allies have made. I can point you to those documents.
QUESTION: And if it comes to Jon Finer – Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer has said that NATO will make decisions about possible troop movements. You’ve talked about there’s no daylight on the sanctions response. But what about on potentially deploying NATO troops? Are you concerned that there isn’t the same level of unity perhaps when it comes to that military aspect on the eastern flank, not on Ukraine?
MR PRICE: The Alliance has been very clear just as the United States has been very clear about our commitment to reassure to reinforce the eastern flank, certainly if there is renewed aggression, if there is a military invasion. But as you heard us say yesterday, we’ve never said that, even in the absence of that, we wouldn’t take prudent steps to provide that reinforcement and reassurance. But I will leave it to the NATO Alliance to speak to the specifics of those plans.
QUESTION: Thank you. A couple of questions on both the diplomatic and deterrence piece. The Baltic States, of course, announced last week that they will be providing anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons, and Secretary Blinken emphasized that he approved this. Do you think that’s an adequate upgrade of Ukraine’s anti-aircraft defenses, or are you considering any other more substantial reinforcements?
MR PRICE: Well, what you’re referring to is part and parcel of a much larger effort on the part of various countries around the world, including many in the NATO Alliance, to provide additional defensive security assistance to Ukraine. You’ve heard me say this already today, but for our part, the United States has provided more than $650 million in the last year in defensive security assistance, more so than any previous year – the $200 million in additional security assistance that was approved last month, I believe the second delivery of which arrived overnight in Kyiv. So you can speak to what our Baltic allies are doing, you can speak to what other European allies are doing, you can speak to what the United States is doing, and the totality of that is – should send a clear signal to the Russian Federation or any other aggressor that Ukraine’s partners are providing and prepared to provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself.
QUESTION: Right. I just – I’ve heard questions – should we expect more Stingers to go to Ukraine than the batch announced and – or even Patriots? Anything to – obviously there’s an imbalance of air – Russian air capability.
MR PRICE: So what I would say is that the second installment, I believe, of that – of the deliveries associated with the 200 million that was approved last month in December by President Biden, those deliveries will continue in the coming days and coming weeks. You saw that there were pictures and imagery broadcast of that delivery overnight, and I expect you’ll be hearing more about subsequent deliveries of defensive security assistance in the days and weeks to come. We’ve provided some details of that. I believe last weekend we spoke to 200,000 pounds of ammunition that was provided to our Ukrainian partners. But we’re, of course, not detailing all elements of that defensive security assistance we’re providing.
QUESTION: On the diplomatic side, the French have talked about sort of reviving the Normandy Format or – to some extent. Do you see the implementation of Minsk 2 as a diplomatic off-ramp from this threat of new – of a new invasion? And would that require Ukraine to move towards some kind of special status for Donbas before recovering control of its border there?
MR PRICE: Minsk is an important roadmap; it’s an important ingredient. We see full implementation of the Minsk accords as an important way forward.
It’s also a fact that there is one country that has been the primary violator of the Minsk agreements, and that one country is Russia. You heard Secretary Blinken in the OSCE in Stockholm last month delineate almost line by line the various elements of those agreements that the Russian Federation has not lived up to. In all of our engagements with Russia, the United States, our NATO Allies, we have made clear the importance of full implementation of the Minsk agreements, and again, there is one core violator of those agreements.
QUESTION: So your Pentagon counterpart said yesterday that the U.S. is ready to send more capabilities to the eastern flank countries independently of NATO if they need it. He said that. And all these countries have been pretty open about their desire for an increased U.S. presence, so does that mean that it’s basically a done deal? And when might we expect a decision?
And second, if I may, the Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka felt necessary recently to stress that he will not allow any occupation of Belarus, presumably by the Russian forces that are coming, which, of course, prompted concerns that this is, in fact, what might happen. And there have been concerns about that. Are you concerned about such a scenario of Russian forces occupying – basically occupying Belarus?
MR PRICE: So to start with your first question, I know my Pentagon counterpart and predecessor has spoken to this in recent days. He’s spoken to the number of service members at a heightened state of readiness and contextualized the fact that this order will ensure that they are a heightened preparedness to deploy and provide support, should they be called upon. But he was also clear that they have not been activated for deployment. These are the types of decisions that will be made as an alliance, as the full NATO Alliance, so I would defer to my Pentagon counterpart and to NATO to speak to the next steps.
QUESTION: But – so I may – he also said that the U.S. might send additional capabilities independently of that NATO response force, if there’s a need, and he said that the U.S. is open to provide that. So is that – I mean, Baltic states and Poland have been pretty open that they want this increased presence.
MR PRICE: I will leave it to my Pentagon counterpart to speak to potential deployment of service members. They’ve spoken extensively to this yesterday and in recent days.
When it comes to Belarus, we have been clearly voicing our concerns with the military buildup in what should be an independent, sovereign country. Russia’s surging of troops into Belarus is a cause for deep concern. That surge, as I alluded to a moment ago, threatens Belarus’s sovereignty; it undermines its status in some ways as an independent country. We also know that Belarus has been an increasingly destabilizing actor in the region. You need look no further than the Lukashenka regime’s attempts to cruelly weaponize the flow of innocent migrants, the migrant crisis that the regime orchestrated.
And the other point I would make is that, just as we’ve been clear with the Russian Federation about the severe costs that would befall them were this to move forward, in recent days we’ve also made clear to Belarus that if it allows its territory to be used for an attack on Ukraine, it would face a swift and decisive response from the United States and our allies and partners. We would – if an invasion were to proceed from Belarus, if Russian troops were to permanently station on their territory, NATO could well have to reassess our own force posture in the countries that border Belarus.
But to your question, the permission structure that the Lukashenka regime has provided to Vladimir Putin to station a large number of Russian troops on what should be sovereign Belarusian soil – that is an affront to Belarus’s sovereignty. It is another indication that this is a regime that has little regard for its own people, little regard for the state, and the most regard for the survival, the welfare of the regime itself.
QUESTION: Can I —
MR PRICE: One more question on Russia/Ukraine? Sure.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. have any indication that Russia will refrain from invading Ukraine during the Beijing Olympic, which is February 4th to 20th? One will argue like why Russian President Putin want to upset Chinese President Xi Jinping at a time when they need each other much more than in 2008.
MR PRICE: That’s a question that is better posed to Vladimir Putin. It is not up to us to try to divine, try to predict what he may or may not do. It is, however, a simple historical fact, as Secretary Blinken alluded to a couple days ago, that a previous Summer Olympic Games, I was – it was, if I recall, did not prevent Vladimir Putin from going into another independent country. So I think all that says you’ll have to ask Vladimir Putin.
QUESTION: One would argue, because in 2008 Chinese leader Hu Jintao has a different relationship with Putin, and now is – Xi Jinping is in power. He has a different relationship with Putin and that many things have changed, so would you – you just said that it’s not a time to panic. Is there any indication diplomacy will prevail during that period of time?
MR PRICE: Is there any indication that —
QUESTION: That Russia will refrain from further military escalation?
MR PRICE: That’s a question you’d have to pose to Russia.
QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Yesterday you started – you open up the briefing condemning the Houthis’ attack on UAE and Saudi Arabia. And you said that putting them back on the terror list is under review. Can you just explain to us what does under review mean? It’s just like you want to see them more engaged in terrorist attack? Is it a legal issue? What does it mean? And some reports indicating that both the Pentagon and the CIA are actually agreeing that they should be put back on the terror list because they threat international water, world economy, et cetera. So what does under reviews means?
MR PRICE: Well, under review just means that it’s something that we are taking a close look at internally within the U.S. Government to determine what would best serve our national security interests; what would best serve our desire to be a partner to Saudi Arabia, to the UAE, to other countries that are threatened by these Houthi attacks; what would also allow us to best serve our interests in bringing an end to this civil war in Yemen that has not only wrought horrific violence and instability across the country, but has led to a humanitarian catastrophe. If I recall, there are more than 16 million Yemenis who are suffering from food insecurity. And so we’re taking all of this and more into account as we determine the next best steps.
We will continue to work with our allies and partners in the region especially to promote accountability for the Houthis, for those Houthi leaders that have been behind these terrorist attacks. We have done this in recent weeks, in recent months using a variety of tools, including sanctions. I would venture to guess you will see additional steps on our part to hold to account those Houthi leaders who are responsible for these reprehensible attacks.
As I said yesterday, we’re not going to relent in designating Houthi leaders and entities involved in military offensives that threaten civilians, that threaten regional stability, that perpetuate the conflict – those who are responsible for some of the human rights abuses or the violations of international humanitarian law – or that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis. When you talk about the humanitarian crisis, there is one actor that is primarily responsible for the suffering of the Yemeni people, the widespread suffering of the Yemeni people. And that is the Houthis.
So we are using every appropriate tool – and we will continue to use every appropriate tool – to hold the Houthis to account.
QUESTION: Okay, I have two more questions on Iran. The former prisoners who have been held in jail in Iran went on hunger strike in Vienna, as you know, and Robert Malley issued a statement – they wanted basically to make sure that the release of U.S. hostages in Iran is precondition to negotiation with the Iranian regime. The Iranians said they’re adamant that that’s not going to be linked. So despite your commitment to that, how you going to deal with the fact that Iran refused to discuss the release of the prisoners and give assurance to their families that you’re doing everything to make sure that they are released?
MR PRICE: So let me spend a moment just on Barry Rosen, one of the former embassy hostages you referenced. And you heard us welcome the end of Mr. Rosen’s hunger strike, and we applaud his heroic efforts to secure – to help secure the release of all foreign and dual nationals held by Iran. This is a challenge that continues to have, to your question, our full attention. Barry Rosen, his colleagues, they are – they’re heroes. And that’s why Special Envoy Malley met with Mr. Rosen in Vienna and will of course meet with him again at any time to hear his important perspective, to hear his thoughts. We are deeply moved by his commitment to the release of those American citizens and third-country nationals who are wrongfully detained in Iran. It’s a commitment that we completely share.
You heard from the special envoy that we are continuing to pursue separate indirect talks with Iran to secure the release of those who are unjustly held by the regime. You have heard us make the point that it would not serve our interest, it certainly would not serve the interests of the Americans and third-country nationals who are unjustly held in Iran to tie their fates to a proposition that is, at best, uncertain. And that is the proposition of a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. That is a proposition that is, at best, uncertain. We want the return of Americans and these third-country nationals to be a certainty. That is our goal: to bring them home, to reunite them with their families. And so, of course, we do not want to have anything unnecessarily stand in the way. So we’ll continue to treat these issues as separate as we strive to secure their release.
QUESTION: Okay. And one more on Iran. Is there any division within the negotiation team in Vienna? And is Mr. Nephew or – in agreement with your policy or does he disagree that – the way you’re handling imposing the sanction on Iran, the way you want to implement is different than that of Rob Malley and others?
MR PRICE: Well, I’m fortunate to say that Richard Nephew is still a member of the State Department team. He no longer serves as the deputy special envoy for Iran, but as you know, a year into an administration, personnel moves are common. Of course, we’re not going to get into the specifics —
QUESTION: In such a sensitive time it’s common for them to leave when they’re negotiating a deal that is hinged on getting back to this agreement?
MR PRICE: Well, look, I’m not going to comment on the specifics of any decision of someone to take a step back from a particular account, but you’ve seen across the administration that especially at this time, a year into the administration, there have been a number of personnel moves across a variety of fronts, including on high-profile issues.
The fact is, and I think the broader context here, is that the previous administration – we’ve been clear about this – left us with a terrible set of options. The maximum pressure campaign was an abject failure. Everything that it promised, the opposite ended up coming true, whether it was promises of a better deal; whether it was promises of a subdued Iran, a cowed set of proxies and terrorist affiliates; whether it was putting the brakes on Iran’s nuclear program; whether it was bringing together the world to bring about maximalist demands on Iran. Across all of those areas, the opposite came true.
We inherited an Iranian nuclear program that was galloping ahead, that has continued to gallop ahead, and an Iranian nuclear program that was not subject, unfortunately, to the most stringent verification and monitoring regime ever negotiated, and a verification and monitoring regime that was working, and verifiably so – working according to the State Department, working according to our Intelligence Community, working according to the IAEA, working according to our allies and partners. So having inherited a very difficult and challenging – terrible, even – set of options, we’ve set about a path that we believe is in our national security interests, and that is a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. It’s a path that, up until now, has been, in our estimation, the best way to once again put those stringent, permanent, verifiable limitations on Iran’s nuclear program.
But we’ve been equally clear that there will come a day – and there will come a day soon – when the nonproliferation benefits that the JCPOA promised in 2015 and that were implemented in 2016 will be watered down and eroded by the advancements that Iran has made, since the last administration left the deal, in its nuclear program. So right now, we are still seeking to achieve a mutual return to compliance, but we’re weighing all options and weighing alternatives.
QUESTION: A quick one on Iran, very quickly. What happened since yesterday and the – when the foreign minister – Iranian foreign minister said they were open to direct talks? Have you reached indirectly out to them saying okay, you’re open, we’re open, let’s do this now and just meet?
MR PRICE: Well, I wouldn’t want to speak to anything like that, but it would not take us reaching out for the Iranians to know precisely where we are and what we have long preferred. We’ve been very clear, just —
QUESTION: Yeah, I mean, but just to organize an actual meeting.
MR PRICE: Well, we – again, we have been open to sitting down directly with our allies and partners, with the Iranians, since this began last April, I believe it was. So it is up to the Iranians to make good on that statement. We do believe that it would be more productive to engage directly with Iran when it comes to JCPOA, when it comes to other issues. It would also enable more efficient communication, and that is what we need especially at this moment, when we have precious little time left in an effort to try and salvage or to effect a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
QUESTION: So nothing else happened since yesterday on that front?
MR PRICE: Nothing else to announce.
QUESTION: Could I go to Egypt real quick?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: So back in September the Secretary made this designation that he was going to withhold or you would – the U.S. was not going to spend this 130 million foreign military financing unless Egypt met certain conditions. Couple hours ago, several Democratic congresspeople wrote to the Secretary asking him not to certify that those conditions have been met, and I don’t know if that – such a determination has been met, but I do know that just a few minutes ago you guys announced $2.5 billion in arms sales to Egypt. Is any of that 2.5 billion part of the 130 million in foreign – I mean, that – 2.5 billion is astronomically more than 130 million, right?
MR PRICE: So, Matt, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that we don’t comment on congressional correspondence. We don’t have anything new to announce when it comes to the FMF and the decision that was made in September that you referenced. What I can say now is that we may have more to say in the coming days, but what you’ve already heard us say remains the case, that we remain committed to engaging with our Egyptian partners on human rights. We have consistently emphasized that our bilateral relationship would be strengthened by tangible improvement in respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
QUESTION: So you can’t say whether this 130 million is part of the 2.5 billion?
MR PRICE: If we have anything to add on that, we’ll get back to you.
QUESTION: All right. Well, then, I just want to – what is the point of holding – withholding 130 million in foreign military financing when you’re just going to turn around and sell them 2.5 billion in weapons?
MR PRICE: Matt, if we have anything to add on that, on the report you’re referencing, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: It’s a – report? It’s an announcement from PM.
MR PRICE: Let you know.
QUESTION: Can I —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Have you guys made any progress on human rights in the last year?
MR PRICE: We have spoken to steps that have been welcome, that we have welcomed, but this is a dialogue that is ongoing and we’ve consistently made the point that, as we have seen progress on individual cases, that additional progress across the board would only serve to strengthen our relationship. Our relationship with Egypt is fundamentally important across any number of realms when it comes to regional security, when it comes to counterterrorism, and so, of course, we would like to see that relation – that relationship strengthened even more. And one way to do that is additional progress on human rights.
MR PRICE: Well, you have heard us speak to our approach to the DPRK. It is a policy that was formulated in the early days of this administration that we developed in close coordination with our allies and partners, especially the ROK and Japan. We have had a number of engagements with them in the trilateral format, knowing the importance of trilateral cooperation when it comes to that ultimate goal, and that’s the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
We have also been very clear about our intent: number one, we have no hostile intent. We harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We are open to dialogue. We are open to diplomacy. We think dialogue and diplomacy is the most effective means to help us reach that overarching goal, and that’s the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
If you’re referring to the reports overnight, we are still assessing with the ROK and Japan those reports. I don’t have any further details to add at this time, though.
Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 4:17 p.m.)