January 25, 2022

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinksi, and Willie Geist of Morning Joe on MSNBC

20 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

QUESTION:  U.S. officials serving at diplomatic missions in Geneva and Paris are suspected to have been afflicted with the ailment known as Havana syndrome.  The Wall Street Journal reporting this morning the suspected attacks were reported internally last summer to officials at those posts and eventually to the State Department in Washington.  At least one of the officials was evacuated back to the U.S. for treatment.  People familiar with the incidents tell the paper at least three Americans serving in Geneva were suspected to have been afflicted.

Joining us now, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and thank you very much for being on this morning.  I think we should start right there.  What more do we know about Havana syndrome and at least what the United States, what our government is doing to try and to get to the bottom of it and to protect diplomats serving abroad?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first of all, good morning, Mika, Joe, everyone.

QUESTION:  Good morning.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Great to see you, great to be with you.  We are working overtime across the entire government to get to the bottom of what happened, who is responsible, and in the meantime to make sure that we’re caring for anyone who’s been affected and to protect all of our people to the best of our ability.

We’ve got the Intelligence Community, we got the Defense Department, we got the State Department, our scientists all trying to get to the bottom of this.  To date, we don’t know exactly what’s happened and we don’t know exactly who is responsible.  But I’ve met with employees of the department around the world who have said they’ve been affected.  I’ve heard them.  I’ve listened to them.  You can’t help but be struck by how these incidents have disrupted their lives and their well-being.  We’re doing everything we can to care for them.  We have a program with Johns Hopkins to get the best possible care to anyone who has been affected.  I was out there visiting just before Christmas.

But Mika, our determination is to do everything we can to get to the bottom of this, and meanwhile, to protect our folks and to care for them.

QUESTION:  So given the lack of answers as we’re searching for where this is coming from, does the United States validate that this is some sort of attack on our diplomats?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There is no doubt in my mind that people have been directly and powerfully affected.  I’ve talked to them.  I’ve listened to them.  I’ve heard them.  I’ve seen them.  But we’ve got to get to the bottom of exactly what happened and who might be responsible, and that’s what we’re determined to do.  And as I said, we’ve got virtually the entire government working on this at the President’s instructions.  We’re not there yet, but we will get there.  We will figure this out.  Meanwhile, we have to do what we can to protect people and, as I said, care for them.

QUESTION:  Media reports have suggested since this story’s broken that Russia may be involved.  Do you have any evidence of that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Joe, what I can tell you is this:  We’ve raised this with the Russians, but we still don’t have a determination of who may – of who is responsible.  So we’ve made clear that if they are responsible, or for that matter, anyone who is responsible will suffer severe consequences.  But I don’t – I want to be very clear we don’t yet have a determination.

QUESTION:  And where are we right now with the talks with Russia regarding Ukraine?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So we’re in the midst of these very important and intense conversations with the Russians.  We’re doing that directly with them bilaterally between the United States and Russia.  We just had meetings at NATO with Russia.  We’re having meetings at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that brings together 57 countries, including Ukraine, including Russia, including us.  And the jury’s out on which path Vladimir Putin is going to choose.  Is he going to choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue to resolve some of these problems or is he going to pursue confrontation and aggression?

But Joe, just to take a step back for one second, why should people care about this?  Because I know that some of our fellow citizens are wondering about that.  It seems to be half a world away.  Why are we standing so strongly for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, its sovereignty, its independence faced with Russian aggression?

It’s because of this:  It’s bigger even than Ukraine.  There’s some basic principles that are at stake here, basic principles that really go to international peace and security: principles like one nation can’t simply redraw the borders of another by force; that one nation can’t dictate to one of its neighbors its choices, its people’s choices about their policies, about with whom they’ll associate; that one nation can’t just say that it’s going to exert a sphere of influence, a throwback to the last century, and subjugate its neighbors to its will.

If we allow that to stand with impunity, that will undermine the entire international system, other countries will hear the message, they’ll act similarly, and that’s a recipe for tension, for conflict, for war.  We want to avoid that, and that means standing strongly against it, it means bringing other countries together, which we’ve been doing for the last two months to stand against it, to make clear to Russia that there will be massive consequences if it engages in this aggression.

My strong hope is that Russia will take the path of diplomacy and dialogue.  We’re prepared to that, we’re leaning in to do that, but we’re prepared if they don’t.

QUESTION:  What are those massive consequences that they would face?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Joe, I’m not going to telegraph the details of what we’re planning, but let me say this:  First, when it comes to massive consequences, it’s not just me, it’s not just us saying it.  The G7, the leading democratic economies in the world, came together and made clear there would be massive consequences.  So did the European Union.  So did NATO.  And together, we are putting together very significant sanctions – financial, economic, and others, things that we have not done in the past.  At the same time, we’re looking at shoring up even more the defenses of Ukraine if necessary, as well as NATO’s defenses.

And Joe, what’s really almost ironic about the situation is this:  Everything that President Putin has done over the last years has been to precipitate what he says he wants to prevent before Russia seized Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014.  Maybe a quarter of Ukraine’s population supported Ukraine joining NATO.  Now it’s about 60 percent.  NATO itself had to position more forces and more equipment closer to Russia, which Russia says it doesn’t want, after Russia went into Ukraine.  Spending in NATO on defense went up after President Putin went into Ukraine.  And of course, before that, Georgia, Russian forces in Moldova against the will of the government.  So everything that President Putin is doing is going exactly against the direction he says he wants to go in.

QUESTION:  Well, and we hear Finland and maybe another country wants to join NATO now.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s right.

QUESTION:  Is that something the United States would consider?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, NATO’s door is open, and if countries want to join it’s their sovereign right to decide that they’d like to be a member.  And of course, if they meet the criteria and NATO’s members all agree, yes, NATO’s door is open.  That’s a fundamental principle, one that the Russians are trying to get us to backtrack on.  We will not do that.

QUESTION:  I was going to ask, at the end of the day, does this really all come down to the United States taking Ukraine and NATO taking Ukraine off the table for admittance into NATO? Is that – they go back to something that James Baker supposedly said back in, I think, ‘89.  Is that what this comes down to?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, that is largely what it comes down to.  And if that’s what it comes down to, we’re not going to agree, period.  NATO’s door is open; it will remain open.  It’s a fundamental principle of NATO itself.  It’s in its founding treaty.  It’s in virtually every agreement that we sign with Russia since the end of the Cold War.  Secretary Baker was clear that there was no such commitment, and so was Mikhail Gorbachev, the president at the time.  So that’s simply not on the table.

And here’s the other thing, Joe.  The Russians complain about the threat from NATO, but NATO didn’t invade Ukraine, Russia did; NATO didn’t invade Georgia, Russia did; NATO didn’t leave forces in Moldova against the will of its people in government, Russia did.  So if there is a challenge to European security, it’s not coming from NATO.  It’s coming from Russia.

Now, there are ways to address this diplomatically, through dialogue.  We put on the table ideas in our conversations with the Russians at NATO, with the NATO secretary general – we’ll do the same thing today at the OSCE – about how we can together, reciprocally, improve security with the United States and Europe, taking steps matched by Russia.  We’ll see if Russia is prepared to engage on that.  If it is, if it does, then I think we can resolve this peacefully without conflict.  And that’s clearly preferable for everyone.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, Michael Steele here.  Let’s shift to Afghanistan.  You had the Taliban this week basically calling on the world for aid as Afghanistan gets into a very, very rough winter, where it’s estimated close to a million people could suffer or even die.  What is the administration’s response to that, and sort of gathering partners from around the globe, working with the United Nations and others to address this particular issue?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, Michael, I’m deeply, deeply concerned about that.  And even as we are determined to hold the Taliban to commitments it’s made about the way it treats its people, about combating terrorism, about making sure that it’s upholding the rights of its people, we also want to make sure we’re doing everything possible to help Afghan people who are in need.  And you’re right; the situation is dire.

We remain the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.  At the same time, our Treasury Department has just issued licenses to make it clear to countries and entities around the world that they can provide that assistance without fear of U.S. sanctions.  We’ve made sure that a fund that used to exist for the Afghan government before the Taliban, to support it, that some of its monies that remain in that fund could be used for humanitarian assistance.  We’re working with NGOs, with the UN to get that aid to the Afghan people.  I want to find ways, if we can, to get some more liquidity into the economy in ways that don’t go to the Taliban, but do go to people, into their pockets, so they can provide for themselves.

We’re very focused on this with the UN, with the World Bank, with countries around the world. We want to make sure that, to the best of our ability, the Afghan people don’t suffer.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, good morning.  It’s Jonathan Lemire.  Great to see you again.  Wanted to shift focus to North Korea.  They had sort of gone quiet for a stretch during the height of the pandemic but have had a series of missile tests in recent weeks, including one just a few days ago.  The U.S. has levied some sanctions against them.  Please tell us more about those.  But also bigger picture, how concerned are you right now by this more aggressive posture by Pyongyang, firing these ballistic missiles near South Korea?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  You know, Jonathan, some months ago, we made clear that we were prepared to engage the North Koreans, to sit down with no preconditions, to see if we could find a way forward with them at the table toward the total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  We’ve made clear that we have no hostile intent toward North Korea, and we’ve waited to see if they are prepared to engage.  Unfortunately, not only has there been no response to those overtures, but the response we’ve seen, as you pointed out, in recent weeks has been renewed missile tests, something that is profoundly destabilizing.  It’s dangerous, and it contravenes a whole host of UN Security Council resolutions.

So not only are we sanctioning North Koreans, we are deeply engaged both at the UN and with key partners – like South Korea, like Japan – on a response.  I think some of this is the North Korea trying to get trying to get attention.  It’s done that in the past; it’ll probably continue to do that.  But we are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea.

QUESTION:  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, thank you very much for coming on the show this morning.  We look forward to having you back.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Mika.  Thanks, Joe.  Great to be with all of you.

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