Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
QUESTION: And joining me now is the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Mr. Secretary, let’s start with what you just heard Clarissa reporting on, learning that troops from Russia and Belarus will continue those joint exercises there, past their planned end dates. What does that tell you? Does it make you more concerned about an invasion?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It does. And it tells us that the playbook that we laid out, I laid out at the UN Security Council last week about Russia trying to create a series of provocations as justifications for aggression against Ukraine, is going forward. We’ve seen that over the last few days. Now they’re justifying the continuation of exercises – “exercises,” in quotation marks – that they said would end now, the continuation indefinitely of those quote/unquote “exercises” on the situation in eastern Ukraine, a situation that they’ve created by continuing to ramp up tensions. Meanwhile, they’ve been escalating the forces they have across Ukraine’s borders over the last months from 50,000 forces to 100,000 to now more than 150,000. So, all of this along with the false flag operations we’ve seen unfold over the weekend tells us that the playbook that we laid out is moving forward.
QUESTION: So, you mentioned the false flag operation. You have that. You also have, as Clarissa talked about, a kindergarten hit by a shell. And you have a cyber attack that’s already happened. Ukraine is reporting dozens of ceasefire violations. Is Russia’s plan to invade already in motion?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It – as we’ve described it, everything leading up to the actual invasion appears to be taking place. All of these false flag operations, all of these provocations to create justifications – all of that is already in train. But you heard President Biden say this the other night: We believe President Putin has made the decision, but until the tanks are actually rolling and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward. President Biden is prepared to engage President Putin at any time in any format if that can help prevent a war. I’ve reached out to my Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, to urge that we meet next week in Europe. The plan is still to do that – unless Russia invades in the meantime.
QUESTION: Ukrainian President Zelenskyy called for the U.S. to impose sanctions now. He did that in Munich yesterday. I want you to take a listen:
“(Via interpreter) What are you waiting for? We don’t need your sanctions after the bombardment will happen, and after our country will be fired at or after we will have no borders and after we will have no economy or part of our countries will be occupied? Why would we need those sanctions then?”
And he called on you at the very least to make a list of specific sanctions public. What’s your response?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we’ve been in very close contact with President Zelenskyy and his entire team. The Vice President in Munich met with him. They had a very good meeting in which the Vice President reiterated all the support that we’ve been building for Ukraine over many months, including in the last year alone more support for defensive lethal military equipment in that one year than in any previous year. Economic support – I announced a loan guarantee for Ukraine of a billion dollars just a week ago. And we have rallied others to do the same thing.
When it comes to sanctions, we have built, with European partners and allies, a massive package of sanctions. The G7 countries in Munich came together, reiterated that there would be massive consequences for Russia if it pursues this aggression. The purpose of the sanctions, in the first instance, is to try to deter Russia from going to war. As soon as you trigger them, that deterrent is gone. And until the last minute, as long as we can try to bring a deterrent effect to this, we’re going to try to do that.
As to laying out in detail what the sanctions will be, two things. First, Russia generally has a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do, but we don’t want to lay out the specifics in advance because that would allow Russia to try to plan against them. So, we have very clearly – and the G7 could not have been more clear – a massive package that will unfold rapidly in unison between the United States and Europe and other countries beyond Europe.
QUESTION: And Mr. Secretary, it seems as though we’re hearing two competing notions. On the one hand, you’re saying and the President – President Biden said clearly Russia has decided to invade. And then on the other hand you’re saying we don’t want to impose sanctions because that would get rid of a deterrent. So, which one is it? And especially given the fact that you have the Ukrainian leader with hundreds of thousands of troops on his border being told that they’re going to – Russia is going to invade at any minute, leaving his country going to a forum on the world stage in order to have that kind of platform to plead with you please impose sanctions now, how is the answer not yes?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, we’ve already imposed sanctions. We’ve sanctioned various —
QUESTION: More sanctions.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First, we’ve imposed – as I said, Dana, we’ve imposed sanctions already on actors in Ukraine who are working for Russian security forces and trying to destabilize the country. And again, and I – look, I understand where President Zelenskyy is coming from. But these things are not at all inconsistent, because as President Biden said, while we believe President Putin has made the decision that the die is cast, until that die actually settles and until the tanks are actually moving, the planes are actually flying, the bombs are actually dropping, we’re going to do everything we can with diplomacy and with deterrence and dissuasion to get President Putin to reverse the decision that we believe he’s made. And part of that is making very clear what he risks in terms of sanctions.
That’s why we’re reiterated so strongly this weekend with the world’s leading democratic economies, the G7. We’re going to use every tool that we can to try to get him off the course that he’s on. If that doesn’t succeed, if he goes forward nonetheless with the invasion, then the world is very clear that it’s going to come down on him and Russia very, very hard.
QUESTION: What are the chances that Vladimir Putin is bluffing?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There is always a chance, but every indication that we’ve seen, every move that he’s made that has followed the play that we laid out for the world to see in front of the United Nations Security Council, he is following the script almost to the letter. So, I think while there’s always a chance, everything we’re seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion. We will do everything we can to try to prevent it before it happens. But equally, we’re prepared, if he does follow through, to impose massive consequences, to defend – to provide for Ukraine’s ongoing defense, and to bolster NATO.
And here again, what is remarkable about this is President Putin will have precipitated everything he has sought to prevent, because all of this has only reinforced NATO, reinforced its solidarity, its commitment, and indeed reinforced NATO on its eastern flank. I was just in Munich with all of the leaders of our European partners, and I think all of us who’ve been doing this for many years have never seen a time when NATO has been more unified and is, I think, going to further demonstrate that if Putin follows through with the invasion.
QUESTION: President Zelenskyy also said yesterday that Ukraine’s economy is just getting crushed. The head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, says that the U.S. should also be ready for this standoff to stretch out for months perhaps while Ukraine’s economy collapses. What do you make of that scenario, and would Putin face consequences for that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First, that’s a possibility as well, and it’s exactly why we announced a billion-dollar loan guarantee just last week. That’s on top of previous loan guarantees we’ve provided to Ukraine, for a total of $4 billion to shore up its economy.
At the same time, the Europeans are doing the same thing, both on a direct country-to-country basis but also the European Union making available to Ukraine, also a couple of weeks ago, a credit facility of more than a billion dollars. We’re also helping Ukraine work directly and closely with the IMF to shore up its economy, to pursue reforms, to make sure that it’s able to stand on its feet economically.
QUESTION: But would Putin face consequences if that is ultimately what he does, he just chokes the economy there?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We are very focused, with all of our allies and partners on ensuring that Russia does face consequences for the actions that it takes, to include actions that would involve squeezing Ukraine going forward.
QUESTION: Before I let you go, you mentioned that you did accept a meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That’s going to happen this coming week. Given that President Biden says President Putin has decided to invade, is the meeting for sure going happen, number one, and do you have kind of a “Hail Mary” offer for Russia to avoid war?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I reached out to Foreign Minister Lavrov about a week ago suggesting we meet in Europe next week, and he came back and said yes. I went back and said: okay, the meeting’s on, provided Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine in the interim. So, it all depends on what Russia does in the coming days. If it doesn’t invade, I’ll be there. I hope he’ll be there too. And I will do everything I can to see if we can advance a diplomatic resolution to this crisis created by Russia and its aggression against Ukraine.
We’ve put on the table a number of ideas that we can pursue that would strengthen security for Russia, for the United States, for Europe, if we engaged in them on a reciprocal basis. So, there are things that we’re prepared to do if Russia is also prepared to take steps. That’s the conversation I’d welcome having with Foreign Minister Lavrov, but it depends entirely on whether Russia invades or not.
QUESTION: Very busy day and week ahead. Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary, for joining me this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Dana. Good to be with you.
QUESTION: Thank you.