Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
QUESTION: Hello. I’m Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of our union is having Cold War flashbacks.
The U.S. is entering a series of urgent meetings with Russia this week at one of the most precarious moments with that nation since the fall of the Soviet Union. On Monday, U.S. officials will meet with their Russian counterparts in Geneva in an attempt to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine, which Russia appears poised to invade with nearly 100,000 troops stationed on the border of Ukraine and the ability to quickly mobilize twice that many. Following the bilateral meetings in Geneva, representatives from NATO will meet with a Russian delegation in Brussels.
The stakes of these meetings are incredibly high. The U.S. is warning of steep sanctions if Russia moves forward to invade, and there are already concerns the Russians are not remotely entering the negotiations in good faith.
Joining me now to discuss is Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Secretary Blinken, thanks so much for joining us. Let’s start on these talks beginning tomorrow in Geneva. President Putin demanding that the U.S. pull some troops back out of Eastern Europe and rule out expanding NATO to include Ukraine. Are either of those on the negotiating table?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Neither of those is on the table, Jake, but here’s where we are. There are two paths before us. There’s a path of dialogue and diplomacy to try to resolve some of these differences and avoid a confrontation. The other path is confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine. We’re about to test the proposition about which path President Putin’s prepared to take.
We have important conversations between us starting tomorrow, as well as at NATO, as well as at the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. We’re going to listen to Russia’s concerns. They’re going to have to listen to our concerns. If they are proceeding in good faith, we think we can make progress in addressing concerns on both sides that would reduce tensions and deal with improving security. We’ll do that in close coordination with European allies and partners. We’ve made very clear to Russia that there’s going to be nothing about Europe without Europe. But ultimately, this is up to President Putin to decide which path he’s going to follow.
QUESTION: It seems unlikely Putin will withdraw troops or take at least some of them off the border without some concessions by the U.S. You’ve already said that those two that I mentioned up top are off the table or not on the table. What about moving heavy U.S. weaponry out of Poland, moving it further west? Or what about moving missiles? What about limiting the scope of U.S. military exercise? Are any of those on the table?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, first, Jake, I don’t think we’re going to see any breakthroughs in the coming week. We’re going to be able to put things on the table. The Russians will do the same – both directly with us at NATO, at the OSCE – and we’ll see if there are grounds for moving forward.
But here’s what I can say: First, any progress that we’re going to make is going to have to happen on a reciprocal basis, by which I mean if the United States and Europe are taking steps to address some of Russia’s concerns, Russia will have to do the same thing. Second, nothing’s happening without Europe. And third, it’s hard to see making actual progress as opposed to talking in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head. So if we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation, Russia pulling back from the threat that it currently poses to Ukraine.
QUESTION: So you didn’t rule any of those out, which doesn’t mean you’re going to do them, but just they’re not off the table as the earlier items you said were.
So let me just ask you, going forward, if those concessions are a possibility, you must – among possibilities, you must be worried about creating a precedent in which Putin at any moment can throw 100,000 troops on a border and threaten to invade a country until the U.S. gives him at least some of what he wants – the very scenario you referred to when you said Russia had a gun to Ukraine’s head.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, it’s – Jake, it’s exactly the opposite. First of all, why are we here? We’re here because repeatedly over the last decade, Russia has committed acts of aggression against neighbors: Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine in 2014, and now the renewed threat about Ukraine today. Second, there are large principles at stake that go to the fundamentals of international peace and security: the principle that one country can’t change the borders of another by force, the principle that one country can’t dictate to another its foreign policy and the choices – and its choices including with whom it will associate, the principle that one country can’t exert a sphere of influence to subjugate its neighbors.
All of that is on the table. That’s exactly why not only are we standing up, but we have rallied countries not just in Europe, but indeed beyond to make it clear to Russia that this aggression will not be accepted, will not be tolerated, will not stand, so that the choice is Russia. It’s also not about making concessions. It’s about seeing whether, in the context of dialogue and diplomacy, there are things that both sides, all sides can do to reduce tensions. We’ve done that in the past. We did it with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that unfortunately Russia has violated and the previous administration pulled out of. We’ve done it in the context of the Conventional Forces in Europe agreements, including, for example, having confidence-building and transparency and other measures put in place on the way exercises take place. And those are certainly things that can be revisited if – if Russia is serious about doing it.
QUESTION: Right. So you say the U.S. will respond with massive consequences to any Russian aggression in Ukraine. President Biden has ruled out U.S. unilateral troops on the ground. What sanctions is the U.S. willing to impose, and are U.S. troops as part of a NATO or international force on the table?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, when it comes to consequences, it’s not just us who has been saying this. The G7, the leading democratic economies in the world, made clear there would be massive consequences for renewed Russian aggression. So has the European Union, so has NATO. And we have been working very closely with all of these countries in recent weeks to elaborate those, to come to agreement on the steps that we would take together in the event of renewed Russian aggression, including things that we’ve not done in the past in the face of previous Russian aggression: economic, financial, other measures. I’m not going to telegraph the details, but I think Russia has a pretty good idea of the kinds of things it would face if it renews its aggression.
Second, we’ve made clear that we will continue to provide and supply Ukraine with defensive military equipment to be able to defend itself. And it’s also clear that in the event of further Russian aggression, NATO is going to have to further reinforce its eastern flank. And you know Jake, what’s interesting about all of this is that President Putin talks about lots of things he’s concerned about —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — and yet the very actions he’s taken have precipitated much of what he says he wants to prevent. Back in 2014, before Russia invaded Ukraine, 25 percent of Ukrainians supported Ukraine joining NATO. Now it’s about 60 percent. Similarly, after 2014, NATO felt compelled because of Russian aggression to put more forces and more equipment on its eastern flank close to Russia. So it’s President Putin’s actions that are precipitating what he says he doesn’t want.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There’s now an opportunity – if he takes it – through dialogue, through diplomacy to see if we can address any legitimate Russian concerns as well as address many concerns that the United States and Europe have over Russia’s conduct.
QUESTION: Right. Beyond this military buildup on the Ukraine border, Russian-led troops are now intervening in violent protests in Kazakhstan. They also stepped in after recent Belarus elections and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said a few years ago that what he believes drives Putin is a desire to restore the old Soviet Union. Do you agree?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think that’s right. I think that’s one of President Putin’s objectives, and it is to re-exert a sphere of influence over countries that previously were part of the Soviet Union. And as we’ve said, that’s unacceptable. We can’t go back to a world of spheres of influence. That was a recipe for instability, a recipe for conflict, a recipe that led to world wars. We’re not going back to that.
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you the invasion is likely – do you think an invasion of Ukraine is likely?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I can’t tell you whether it’s likely or not. I can tell you this: We’re committed to dialogue and diplomacy to see if we can resolve these challenges peacefully. That is by far the preferable course; it’s by far the most responsible course. But equally, we’re prepared to deal very resolutely with Russia if it chooses confrontation, if it chooses aggression. We’ll see. It is now up to President Putin to decide which path he wants to follow. We’re prepared, again —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — starting this week to talk through all of this, to hear their concerns, for them to hear ours, to see if we can make progress.
QUESTION: So Kazakhstan’s president is publicly saying that he gave an order, quote, to “open fire,” to “kill without warning” the protesters in the street. President Biden said in October that your administration, quote, “put human rights back at the center of our foreign policy” and, quote, “No U.S. president should stand by when human rights are under attack.” They’re under attack in Kazakhstan. At least 164 people were killed during protests this week.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, and I condemn that statement, and if that’s the national policy, condemn that policy, the shoot to kill.
Look, I spoke to my counterpart in Kazakhstan just a couple of days ago. The authorities in Kazakhstan should be able to deal with the challenges that they’re facing peacefully, to make sure that the rights of those who are protesting peacefully are protected, to protect the institutions of the state and law and order, but to do it in a way that is rights-respecting. We have real questions about why they felt compelled to call in this organization that Russia dominates. We’re asking for clarification on that. But what’s imperative now is that all of this be dealt with in a peaceful manner that respects the rights of those who are trying to make their voices heard.
QUESTION: All right. Secretary Antony Blinken, thank you so much. Really appreciate your time today.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Jake.