January 25, 2022

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Efi Koutsokosta of Euronews

20 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Stockholm, Sweden

CMR

QUESTION:  So Secretary, thank you very much for this interview, but let me go straight forward to the current hot topic, which is, of course, Russia.  You said there is evidence for Russian plans over invading Ukraine.  So how close we are to military confrontation?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, we don’t know President Putin’s intent.  We don’t know if he’s made a decision to take renewed aggressive action against Ukraine.  But what we do know is that he’s putting in place the capacity to do so and to do so on short notice.  And that’s very, very concerning, and not just to us – it’s concerning to many partners throughout Europe.  I was just at the NATO summit before coming here to the OSCE, and that concern is widespread.

And so it’s been very important for me and for us to communicate very clearly to Russia the mistake that it would be to commit renewed aggression against Ukraine, the serious consequences that would result, and our conviction that whatever differences there are are best resolved through diplomacy, particularly through implementation of the Minsk agreements that have never been implemented.

QUESTION:  But you just had a meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s right.

QUESTION:  Do you have any indication of his intentions now?  What was the mood?  And do you have any messages that there is a de-escalation coming?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We had a very direct, candid conversation, as we usually do.  No polemics, very, very professional, very straightforward.  And I shared with him – because it’s important to be able to share this directly, to communicate directly, not simply through television or through press releases, but to talk face to face – because I wanted him to understand the concerns that we have, the consequences that would result if our concerns are realized by Russian aggression, but also our conviction that the best path forward is diplomacy, is for Russia to de-escalate, to pull back its forces, and to engage meaningfully in implementing the Minsk agreements.

QUESTION:  But can you say that you’re closer now to a breakthrough or de-escalation?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  What I can say is this:  Foreign Minister Lavrov will report back to President Putin.  I am, of course, doing the same with President Biden.  I expect that the presidents will speak in the near future and we’ll move on from there, but the first and most important thing is to just be very clear and very direct about how we see this, what our concerns are, what we’re going to do, and what we would prefer to do, which is to reinvigorate the diplomacy and finally resolve the occupation of these territories in Ukraine.

QUESTION:  So are there any concrete plans for a meeting between the two presidents?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  My expectation is that they will speak in the near future.

QUESTION:  When you say “near future” —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I don’t want to put a date on it.

QUESTION:  Okay.  But you warned for severe consequences if, finally, Russia invades Ukraine.  What do you mean with that, and how far are you ready to go?  Are you ready to go beyond economic sanctions?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  What I’ve said and what we’ve said is that there would be high-impact economic consequences.  I think the universe of those consequences is well known to Moscow, and I hope that President Putin factors that into his calculus.  At the same time, the United States, other countries have been working to make sure that Ukraine has the means to defend itself and, of course, if there are any threats to the NATO Alliance, we’ll make sure that we continue to strengthen our own defensive capacities.

But I also put an emphasis on the word “defensive.”  NATO is a defensive alliance, not an aggressive alliance.  We’re here for the protection and security of our members, but also to help partners like Ukraine defend themselves if they’re at risk of aggression.  So that’s what we’re focused on.  But I think, again, what’s most important for Russia to understand is that actions have consequences.  Those consequences are real, they’re not in Russia’s interests, and having a conflict is in no one’s interest.

Let me just add this:  President Biden, when he spoke to President Putin in Geneva some months ago, said that our strong preference in the United States is to have a stable, predictable relationship with Russia.  Russia moving aggressively again against Ukraine would move it exactly the opposite direction of stable and predictable.  I don’t think that’s good for any of us, but the President was equally clear if Russia chooses to act recklessly, we’ll respond.

QUESTION:  But you just referred to sanctions, and I will tell you that the EU and United States have already sanctions in place.  So what makes you believe that this time sanctions will work?  Because Putin doesn’t seem to change course.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, again, many of the things we’re looking at I think would have a very high impact and are things that we have not done in the past, that we’ve refrained from doing.  And Russia is well aware of what the universe of the possible is when it comes to that, and I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION:  You don’t want to be more concrete on what you’re planning to do?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  (Laughter.)  Not in public.

QUESTION:  But Russia is wary of Ukraine joining NATO.  So will the United States support Ukraine’s joining NATO?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The NATO Alliance at the Bucharest summit many years ago now made clear that its door is open, including to Ukraine, including to Georgia, other countries that are interested in membership if and when they meet the requirements of membership.  And this goes back to the founding of NATO and the Washington Treaty that made clear that the alliance’s doors would be open to those who sought to join and, again, could meet the criteria.  So we’ve reaffirmed that again at the at the most recent meeting of NATO: NATO’s door is open.

But this does not represent a threat to Russia because, again, I emphasize: ours is a defensive alliance.  It’s a transparent alliance.  It is not directed against Russia; it’s not a threat to Russia. And in fact, unfortunately, the only aggressive actions that we’ve seen in the Euro-Atlantic area in recent years have been Russian aggression against Georgia and then against Ukraine.  And we don’t need to see a repeat of that in Ukraine again.

QUESTION:  But is Russia the biggest threat for Europe and the West?  Because we’ve seen also rising tensions along Europe’s borders, in particular with Belarus —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yes.

QUESTION:  — and what they’re using as a hybrid attack with thousands of migrants being forced towards Poland, Latvia, Lithuania.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s right.

QUESTION:  So do you think that really Russia is now the biggest threat for Europe and the West?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, by its actions, including some of the actions that it’s taken in the past as well as the threat of actions that we’re seeing in Ukraine, it poses a real problem, and it does not need to be and should not be that way.  And again, it goes back to what President Biden said to President Putin:  we would welcome more stability and predictability in the relationship, but acts of aggression move in the wrong direction.

We’re also working together in areas where our interests overlap.  For example, in my conversation today with Foreign Minister Lavrov, we talked about Iran and our mutual interest in seeing that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.  We’re actually working together well with European partners as well as with China in the talks in Vienna.  We’re working together as well in the Caucasus where we both have an interest in Azerbaijan and Armenia resolving in a lasting and durable way the differences over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as their larger relationship.  So I think we have to be able to do – to work on things together where it’s in our mutual interest, but things like renewed aggression on Ukraine make that very, very difficult.

QUESTION:  Just one last question, because in a few days President Biden will host a virtual Summit for Democracy aiming at defending democracy against —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s right.

QUESTION:  — authoritarianism.  But two NATO Allies will be missing; it’s Turkey and Hungary.  Do you consider these countries as a lost cause?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So first, the Summit for Democracy – not for democracies – is about two things.  It’s about renewing and reinvigorating democracies that are in many ways under challenge, in some cases from within, in other cases from without.  And so we’re bringing countries together virtually in support of renewing democracy at home and taking concrete measures to do that, but also looking at how we can be more supportive of democracies that are under challenge around the world.

Because what we’re seeing right now, unfortunately, is something of a democratic recession. There’s been backsliding on democracy around the world, including in Europe, over the last decade.  And as a result, one of the profound challenges and conflicts of our time is that between autocracies and democracies, and democracies need to demonstrate that they can deliver and produce real results for their people.  That’s what this summit is all about.

QUESTION:  But is Turkish-American relations, for example, still at an all-time low?  Has anything changed?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We have a very important relationship with Turkey.  It’s a NATO Ally.  And it’s not a secret that we also have differences, but we’re working through those differences.  We’re also working to deepen cooperation in many areas.  I met with my counterpart the foreign minister just the other day on that.  President Biden met with President Erdogan some weeks ago.  And we are committed to working through the differences that we have and working to strengthen the alliance that we have as members of NATO.

QUESTION:  Well, Secretary, thank you very much for your time and for being here with us.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  Good to be with you.

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Without a dedicated entity with defined responsibilities to lead antifraud initiatives, including the process of assessing fraud risks to UI programs, DOL may not be strategically managing UI fraud risks. GAO recommends that DOL designate a dedicated entity and document its responsibilities for managing the process of assessing fraud risks to the unemployment insurance program, consistent with leading practices as provided in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework. This entity should have, among other things, clearly defined and documented responsibilities and authority for managing fraud risk assessments and for facilitating communication among stakeholders regarding fraud-related issues. DOL neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. DOL also has not comprehensively assessed UI fraud risks in alignment with leading practices identified in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework. 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For example, officials in one state said that FEMA at one point had deemed the provision of personal protective equipment at correctional facilities as ineligible for reimbursement in their region but that states in other regions had received reimbursement for the same expense. These inconsistencies were due to, among other things, changes in policies as FEMA used the Public Assistance program for the first time to respond to a nationwide emergency. FEMA officials stated that it was difficult to ensure consistency in policies as different states and regions are not experiencing the same things at the same time. FEMA is likely to receive applications for reimbursement for a larger number of projects than it estimated earlier in 2021, given the surge in COVID-19 cases this summer. To improve the consistency of the agency’s interpretation and application of the COVID-19 Public Assistance policy, GAO recommends that FEMA further clarify and communicate eligibility requirements nationwide. GAO also recommends that FEMA require the agency’s Public Assistance employees in the regions and at its Consolidated Resource Centers to attend training on changes to COVID-19 Public Assistance policy. The Department of Homeland Security—which includes FEMA— agreed with both of these recommendations. Loans for Aviation and Other Eligible Businesses Treasury has executed 35 loan agreements with certain aviation businesses and other businesses deemed critical to maintaining national security. These loans have totaled about $22 billion of the $46 billion authorized by the CARES Act for loans and loan guarantees to such businesses. As directed by the CARES Act, Treasury required certain loan recipients to provide financial assets, such as warrants that give the federal government an option to buy shares of stock at a predetermined price before a specified date, to protect taxpayer interests. According to Treasury officials, it is likely that, if the airline industry continues to recover and borrowers do not default, the warrants could have higher values than the predetermined price Treasury would have to pay to act on them. Treasury has not exercised any of the warrants for stock it received from nine businesses, nor has it developed policies and procedures for determining when to act on the warrants to benefit the taxpayer. GAO recommends that Treasury develop policies and procedures to determine when to act on warrants obtained as part of the loan program for aviation and other eligible businesses to benefit the taxpayers. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. Payroll Support Assistance to Aviation Businesses As of September 2021, Treasury had made payments totaling $59 billion of $63 billion provided for the Payroll Support Programs to support aviation business. These payments were to be used exclusively for the continuation of wages, salaries, and benefits. Similar to Treasury’s requirement for loans for aviation and other eligible businesses, Treasury required certain Payroll Support Program recipients to provide warrants, as allowed by the CARES Act. As of September 2021, 14 recipients had provided a total of 58 million warrants. As Treasury continues to hold these warrants for stock purchases, the warrants may increase in value as the airline industry recovers. Treasury has not exercised any of the warrants for stock it holds in the 14 businesses, nor has it documented policies and procedures to guide when to act on the warrants to fulfill the statutory purpose to provide appropriate compensation to the federal government. GAO recommends that Treasury develop policies and procedures to determine when to act on warrants obtained as part of the Payroll Support Program to provide appropriate compensation to the federal government. Treasury agreed with this recommendation. COVID-19 Testing Use is increasing for antigen tests, one of two types of COVID-19 diagnostic and screening tests for which HHS’s Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorizations. These “rapid” antigen tests typically have a turnaround time of about 30 minutes or less for results, compared with 1 to 3 days for molecular tests, the second type of test HHS authorized. Antigen tests can be conducted at doctors’ offices or in homes or other settings; some antigen tests can be conducted without a prescription. Since June 2020, HHS has worked to encourage and improve the reporting of antigen testing data to local, state, and federal health officials. However, HHS officials told GAO reporting of antigen test results is incomplete, which prevents HHS from using antigen testing data for COVID-19 surveillance. HHS is taking additional steps aimed at improving reporting of antigen test data. For example, officials told GAO that HHS will continue to make enhancements to data reporting by building reporting methods into the testing process, such as for testing in schools and workplaces. HHS is also considering surveillance approaches to supplement or enhance current surveillance efforts. For example, HHS is exploring wastewater surveillance approaches, which provide data that can complement and confirm other forms of surveillance for COVID-19 and an efficient pooled community sample that is particularly useful in areas where timely COVID-19 clinical testing is underutilized or unavailable, according to HHS officials. Worker Safety and Health The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) faced challenges in enforcing workplace safety and health standards during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agency has not assessed lessons learned or promising practices. According to inspectors from area offices, they faced challenges related to resources and to communication and guidance, such as a lack of timely guidance from OSHA headquarters. GAO recommends that OSHA assess—as soon as feasible and, as appropriate, periodically thereafter—various challenges related to resources and to communication and guidance that the agency has faced in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and take related actions as warranted. The Department of Labor—which includes OSHA—partially agreed with this recommendation. Advance Child Tax Credit Payments ARPA temporarily expanded eligibility for the child tax credit (CTC) to additional qualified individuals by eliminating a requirement that individuals must earn a minimum amount annually to be eligible. ARPA also temporarily increased the maximum amount of the CTC from $2,000 per qualifying child to $3,000 or $3,600, depending on the child’s age. As required by ARPA, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Treasury are responsible for issuing half of the CTC through periodic advance payments, known as advance CTC payments. IRS reported disbursing more than 106 million advance payments totaling over $45.5 billion as of September 25, 2021 (see figure). Dollar Amount and Count of Advance Child Tax Credit Payments, by Month, as of Sept. 25, 2021 IRS is conducting and planning several outreach efforts to increase the public’s awareness of advance CTC payments. However, IRS and Treasury have not developed a comprehensive estimate of individuals who are potentially eligible for advance CTC payments and the agencies have not set a participation goal. Such an estimate would enable Treasury and IRS to measure the tax credit’s participation rate, providing greater clarity regarding populations at risk of not receiving the payments. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, estimate the number of individuals, includingnonfilers, who are eligible for advance CTC payments, measure the 2021 participation rate based on that estimate, and use that estimate to develop targeted outreach and communications efforts for the 2022 filing season; the participation rate could include individuals who opt in and out of the advance payments. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Child Nutrition Child nutrition programs administered by the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) supply cash reimbursements to schools or other programs for meals and snacks provided to eligible children nationwide. In fiscal year 2019, before the pandemic, the four largest programs—the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program—along with other child nutrition programs, received $23.1 billion in federal funds. During a typical year, two of these programs—the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program—subsidize meals for nearly 30 million children in approximately 95,000 elementary and secondary schools nationwide. As of July 2021, FNS officials were unable to provide a plan showing how FNS intends to comprehensively analyze lessons learned during the pandemic, such as from operational and financial challenges. Further, according to FNS officials, while the School Meals Operations study—launched in spring 2021—is surveying school districts and state agencies that administer the federal child nutrition programs, the study is not gathering local perspectives directly from child care centers and day care homes or other local program sponsors that are not school districts. As a result, FNS may miss opportunities to identify lessons learned and will lack comprehensive information to aid its future planning. GAO recommends that the Department of Agriculture document its plan to analyze lessons learned from operating child nutrition programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. This plan should include a description of how the department will gather perspectives of key stakeholders, such as Child and Adult Care Food Program institutions and nonschool Summer Food Service Program sponsors. The Department of Agriculture—which includes FNS—agreed with this recommendation. Why GAO Did This Study As of September 23, 2021, the U.S. had about 43 million reported cases of COVID-19 and about 699,000 reported deaths, according to CDC. The country also continues to experience economic repercussions from the pandemic. Six relief laws, including the CARES Act, had been enacted as of August 31, 2021, to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. 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