USA

Department Press Briefing – May 20, 2022

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Beyond preemptively apologizing for the limited time I’ll have with you today, I don’t have anything at the top beyond wishing everyone a Happy Friday, and we’ll turn to your questions.

Operator, do you mind repeating the instructions to ask a question?

OPERATOR: Yes, and once more, as a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. My question is about the Summit of the Americas. Ned, you a week or so ago said that once the invitations went out, you would have more to say. And now that the invitations have gone out as of Wednesday, could you talk a little bit about this – what appears to be a widening threat to boycott, what it says about the U.S. role and influence in this hemisphere that it can’t get everybody to a summit, and then the wider criticism that we’re hearing about the organization being chaotic and that it’s taken this long to get the list together – the invitation list together, this long – the agenda is still vague. Some people are saying the U.S. is sort of missing an opportunity here to really make a splash on its – on the U.S. – Biden administration’s policy towards Latin America. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Tracy. Lots of assertions there, not many of which I would agree with, but let me start with this: The first tranche of invitations for the summit did go out yesterday. As is standard in the case of summits, we’re still considering additional invites and we’ll share the final list of invites once all invitations have gone out. We certainly understand the speculation you alluded to about who will receive an invite or who will attend – that’s understandable. It’s understandable in part because this would be the first since – summit of this sort since its inauguration in 1994 that we’ve been able to serve as host, and the first time since 2015 that a U.S. president will participate.

We’ll plan to work through a variety of questions by engaging directly with the countries of the region. The President has engaged with his counterparts; the Secretary has had a number of calls with his counterparts as well. He’s also engaged with special advisor for the summit, former Senator Chris Dodd. He has been traveling throughout the hemisphere, and also speaking with leaders from the region.

For the summit itself, our agenda is to focus on working together when it comes to the core challenges that face our hemisphere, that face our neighbors. We’re a region that’s still recovering from COVID-19. We’re a region that has endured economic shocks that are generating unprecedented levels of migration – not just to the United States, but also to Mexico and Central America. We’ll talk about shared challenges like climate change as well.

So, there’s a lot to talk about. We are confident that there will be robust participation. We’re confident that the summit will bring together thousands of people to focus on some of the most important and, again, shared challenges and opportunity – opportunities that face our hemisphere. In addition to heads of state and representatives of government, we also look forward to welcoming civil society stakeholders, young leaders, CEOs, business leaders from across the hemisphere, making this summit the most inclusive to date.

With that, why don’t we go to Shaun Tandon, please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) doing this. If you don’t mind, I’ll try to be brief on a couple of different unrelated things. North Korea – the administration has been saying for a number of days now that there’s a risk of a nuclear test. Do you have anything new on that? Is there anything new in the messaging you might have to North Korea about repercussions, if any, if they go ahead with this?

On China, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is – has confirmed a trip next week to China. Civil rights groups are critical of this, saying she could be seeing a Potemkin village. What – does the United States have an assessment of whether the trip is appropriate at this point, whether be useful, whether the Chinese will be giving access?

And just finally, briefly, Brittney Griner – I was wondering if there’s any update. I know the Secretary spoke to her wife recently. Do you have any more updates on the case there? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Sure, let me start with that last question first. I do have an update to offer. I can confirm that a consular officer visited Brittney Griner in detention yesterday, on Thursday, May 19th. The consular officer found her continuing to do as well as could be expected under these exceedingly challenging circumstances. But again, our message is a clear and simple one. We continue to insist that Russia allow consistent and timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees. One-off visits are not sufficient, and we will continue to call on Moscow to uphold its commitments under the Vienna Convention for consistent and timely access as well.

When it comes to China and the visit of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to the PRC, what I’ll say is that we are deeply concerned about the upcoming visit. Our understanding of the planned restrictions that she will be subjected to during the visit – based on that, we have no expectation that the PRC will grant the necessary access required to conduct a complete, unmanipulated assessment of the human rights environment in Xinjiang. The high commissioner, we believe, must act, and be allowed to act, independently; and the high commissioner must report objectively and factually on the human rights situation.

A credible visit to the region would feature unhindered, transparent, and unsupervised access to affected communities of the high commissioner’s choosing, as well as timely, candid, and complete reporting of the visit’s full findings. We have repeatedly made our concerns known to the PRC and to the high commissioner, and for months we and others in the international community have called upon the high commissioner to release a report drafted by her staff detailing the situation in Xinjiang. Despite frequent assurances by her office that the report would be released in short order, it remains unavailable to us, and we call on the high commissioner to release the report without delay and not to wait for the visit to do so.

The high commissioner’s continued silence in the face of indisputable evidence of atrocities in Xinjiang and other human rights violations and abuses throughout the PRC, it is deeply concerning, particularly as she is and should be the leading UN voice on human rights. The United States remains gravely concerned by the genocide and crimes against humanity that PRC authorities are perpetrating against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. And we call on the PRC to immediately cease committing these atrocities, release those unjustly detained, and allow independent investigators full and unhindered access to the region. We’ll continue to work closely with our likeminded partners and the international community to urge an end to these atrocities and provide justice to the many victims.

When it comes to the DPRK, we’ve spoken for several weeks now about our concerns for additional provocations. We’ve seen multiple tests of ICBM systems. We’ve seen additional tests of ballistic missile technology. We remain concerned that the DPRK may attempt to undertake another provocation during the course of the President’s visit to Northeast Asia or in the days following. That could include an – another ICBM test. That could include a test of a nuclear weapon. Of course, the President is in the region. He is in the region to send a message of solidarity with our partners, to send a message that the United States is there and will be there for our allies and partners to provide deterrence, to provide defense for our treaty allies in the region – of course, the ROK and Japan, both of which the President will have an opportunity to visit in the coming days – and to make very clear that we’ll respond decisively to any threats and any aggression. And, of course, our cooperation bilaterally – and in the case of the ROK and Japan, trilateral – is an essential ingredient to the way in which we will approach – what are shared security concerns in the region and beyond.

With that, let’s go to Missy Ryan, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Not sure if you guys can hear me or if you have to unmute to be unmuted, but just wondering, Ned, if you could give us an update on the discussions in NATO about the ongoing troop presence in Eastern Europe. There was a record today from CNN that’s saying that there would be a ongoing presence of 100,000 troops in Europe. And that is something that – that seems like it would be something as – sort of a forerunner to the decisions that are going to be locked in or out in Madrid. Any comment on that would be helpful. Thanks.

MR PRICE: Missy, I’m confident these discussions will continue, especially as we look forward to the NATO Summit in Madrid next month. These are conversations that we’ve been having within Alliance both since and before President Putin’s decision to further invade Ukraine on February 24th.

Before that invasion, we were clear that we would do a few things if President Putin’s aggression went ahead. We made clear that we would provide unprecedented levels of security assistance to support our Ukrainian partners so that they could effectively defend their freedom, defend their democracy, defend their country from what was then the potential of Russian aggression. We made clear that we would impose severe consequences on the Russian economy, on the Russian financial system. But to your question, we also said that we would reinforce and take steps to reassure the Alliance, the member states of the Alliance, and particularly those on the eastern flank of the NATO Alliance, and that’s what we’ve done.

We have – there are now some 100,000 U.S. service members on the European continent. That number has risen in recent weeks precisely because we are fulfilling the pledge that we made prior to Russian – prior to Russia’s invasion. But we will continue to speak to questions of force posture, both in terms of NATO forces and in terms of U.S. deployment as an alliance and bilaterally and multilaterally with our Allies and partners in Europe, in the weeks ahead – especially as we look towards the summit in June.

Let’s go to Alex Raufoglu of Turan.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Happy Friday. I have two questions, one on Russia. Russia’s supply of natural gas to Finland will be cut tomorrow morning, both Finnish and Russian energy companies confirmed today. Can I get your reaction to this latest attempt of Kremlin’s wielding natural gas flows as a weapon and its implications, if possible, for the region?

And secondly on Armenia and Azerbaijan, Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev will be in Brussels this weekend and they’re going to meet for the third time since last December. What is your expectation of the current ongoing negotiations process? Thanks so much.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much. I think you put it well in your first question. You said Russia’s latest attempt to weaponize energy, and the fact is that this is not the first time Russia has attempted to weaponize energy. What we are doing is to work with our allies and partners to see to it that, going forward, Russia won’t be able to do this in a way that holds hostage countries in the region and around the world who have a reliance on Russian energy sources. So, in many ways, what we’re seeing from Russia is not surprising precisely because they have done this before. They have done this before, in the context of Ukraine in 2014; they have done this before in the context of Ukraine, more recently; and of course, we’ve seen them make these threats and follow through with actions in the aftermath of Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine on February 24th.

Since Russia’s invasion, actually well before Russia’s invasion, we began working very closely – as I mentioned before, with our allies and partners around the world, including those partners in Europe that are reliant on Russian energy. And we’ve done this with two timeframes in mind. In the short term, we have sought to ensure that there is adequate energy supply available to our allies and partners, in part by tapping various strategic petroleum reserves – our own, a million barrels a day over the course of six months is what President Biden has committed to; other allies and partners around the world are doing the same. We’re working with those same partners to see to it that energy is shipped and available to countries that may find themselves vulnerable to Russia’s manipulation in the near term.

Of course, this is not only a near-term challenge. There is a longer-term dimension to this as well, and our goal is to see to it that countries in Europe and countries well beyond, including countries that have been reliant on Russian energy for decades, are and will be in a position to lessen that reliance over time. In the case of Europe, in the aftermath of President Biden’s visit to Brussels last summer, we established with our European Union counterpart, the U.S.-EU Energy Council, to discuss these very issues, how we can work together to see to it that in the years to come Russia is not able to use energy as a weapon in the same way.

Let’s go to Humeyra Pamuk, please.

Oh, I’m sorry, I – you asked a second question about Armenia and Azerbaijan. Before we go to Humeyra, let me just spend a moment on that.

We very much welcome the dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We remain committed to promoting a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for the South Caucasus region as part of that. We do urge this dialogue to continue and for the parties to intensify their diplomatic engagements to make use of existing mechanisms for direct engagement, and in an effort to find comprehensive solutions to all outstanding issues related to and resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and – to normalize their relations through the conclusion – excuse me – conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement. We are there to support this process. We remain ready to assist Armenia and Azerbaijan with these efforts, including in our capacity as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group.

We’ll go to Humeyra Pamuk, please.

QUESTION: A question on the NATO issue. While the dispute is officially between Turkey, Sweden, and Finland, American officials have said if there is anything they can do to be supportive, they’ll do it. And it’s no secret that Turkey has a number of asks from Washington. I’m wondering if the U.S. is willing to entertain any of these to solve this issue. Some of those would be expediting the F-16 sale or expediting the smaller F-16 package, or lifting any of the S-400-related sanctions. Basically, if there is anything you’re prepared to do beyond expressing your support and having consultations with Turkey.

Second question is: Israel said they’re holding an operational inquiry into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, but they’re not launching a criminal probe for now. Is the United States satisfied with that? Can you say if the Biden administration is committed to making sure that there will be accountability for her killing? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Humeyra. On your first question, you raised a series of bilateral topics of conversation and potential topics of conversation between the United States and Turkey. The question of Turkey’s approach to the NATO accession of Finland and Sweden, that is not a bilateral question between the United States and Turkey; that is a question before Turkey as a member of the NATO Alliance, and between and among Turkey and other members of the NATO Alliance.

For our part, you heard President Biden say this yesterday when he greeted his Swedish and Finnish counterparts at the White House. You heard Secretary Blinken make this same point in Berlin last week when he attended the NATO ministerial. But we strongly support NATO’s “Open Door” policy, the right of each country to decide its own future, its foreign policy, its security arrangements. And when it comes to Sweden and Finland, two countries that have now made that decision for themselves, we are proud to offer the strong support of the United States for their applications.

The President yesterday called them two great democracies, two close, highly capable partners to join the strongest, most powerful, defensive Alliance in the history of the world. These are countries that have been longstanding partners of the United States in terms of security, in terms of our economic integration, in terms of the important ties that bind us to the region as well.

As you know, we did have an opportunity to meet with – Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to meet with his Turkish counterpart yesterday in New York City. Turkey is a longstanding, valued NATO Ally. We understand Turkey’s longstanding concerns, and will continue to work together in our efforts to end the scourge of terrorism. For their part, Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey. But we’re also talking to Turkey about this issue. Yesterday the Secretary had a good, constructive conversation with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. I’m not going to go into the full details of that engagement, beyond saying that we remain confident that Turkey’s concerns will be addressed and that we’ll be able to reach consensus as an Alliance on the accession process for Finland and Sweden. We’ve heard strong allied support for their applications, and we look forward to quickly bringing them into the strongest defensive Alliance in history.

Finally, on your question into – regarding the investigation on the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, we reiterate the administration’s call for a thorough and transparent investigation to determine the circumstances of her killing. Investigating attacks on independent media and prosecuting those responsible are of paramount importance. We urge countries around the world to pursue accountability for attacks on journalists anywhere. And we’ll continue to promote media freedom and to protect journalists’ ability to do their jobs without fear of violence, threats to their lives or safety, or unjust detention. So again, we’ve been clear that there must be a transparent and credible investigation of Ms. Abu Akleh’s killing, and that any such investigation must include accountability.

Let’s go to the line of Laura Kelly, please.

QUESTION: How concerned is the U.S. over Turkish military flights over Greek islands, and how do those actions impact NATO’s stability?

And if I could ask a second question, the Anti-Corruption Foundation headed by Aleksey Navalny has compiled a list of 6,000 Russians that it wants the U.S. and allies to sanction in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Are you aware of this list they have compiled, and is it likely to be considered for another round of sanctions against Russia?

Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much. So, on your second question, Mr. Navalny’s organization has consistently put forward proposals. We take a look at – we take a look at what we receive and information available to us, but also information that is available in the public realm. We very much appreciate the efforts on the part of organizations, like Mr. Navalny’s, to shine a spotlight on corruption, to shine a spotlight on injustice, to shine a spotlight on repression in Russia and around the world. And so, of course, we will take a very close look at what they have put forward as we continue to hold to account the Russian Federation for its invasion of Ukraine, for its human rights abuses, for corruption, and other offenses when it comes to Russia’s conduct.

On your first question on Turkish overflights, we encourage all countries to respect the sovereign airspace of other countries and to operate state aircraft with due regard for the safety of navigation of civil aircraft. Where disagreements exist over the limits of a country’s territorial airspace, we urge coordination and discussion, not provocative actions that could lead to deadly accidents. As a matter of principle, we encourage all states to resolve maritime delimitation issues peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Let’s go to Cindy Saine.

OPERATOR: I don’t show Cindy on any longer. Please, go ahead.

MR PRICE: Okay. Let’s go to Joseph Haboush, please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) to ask, over the last week we’ve seen the Secretary of Defense speak to his Russian counterpart, and then I believe yesterday we saw General Milley also speak with his Russian counterpart. Are there any plans or is there any will to have a conversation between Secretary Blinken and his counterpart Lavrov? Is there – or are there any updates on the U.S. trying to open a line of communication there? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Joseph. So, we discussed this earlier this week in the last briefing, so let me briefly recap. As you know, prior to the February 24th Russian invasion of Ukraine, Secretary Blinken was at the forefront of the effort to attempt to forestall what may well have been an inevitability the whole time. But Secretary Blinken traveled around the world, met with his Russian counterpart. Deputy Secretary Sherman met with her Russian counterpart. Both of them took part in phone calls in an effort to prevent what has since taken place.

We have demonstrated time and again that we believe in the power of dialogue and the effectiveness and the usefulness of open lines of communication. But we also believe that there needs to be the potential for any such engagement to have a constructive outcome and to advance the ultimate and overriding objective. And of course, in this case the ultimate and overriding objective is a diminution of violence in Ukraine leading an end to this brutal war of aggression – a brutal war of choice, against the people, the government, and the state of Ukraine.

It is, in our assessment, not the time at the moment for a high-level call between Secretary Blinken or other seniors at the department precisely because we have seen no indication just yet that the Russians are serious about engaging in a constructive dialogue that could help to advance the prospects for a diminution of the violence or ultimately putting this conflict to an end. If we feel that a conversation has the potential to do that, has the potential to save lives, of course we won’t hesitate to do that.

In the meantime, I don’t have to tell you because you’ve seen the readouts. You’ve seen our travel around the world, including to be with our allies and partners in Europe that the Secretary has been leading the diplomatic effort to provide support to our Ukrainian partners, to provide security assistance to them, to provide economic assistance to them, and to provide humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian people. He’s been leading the effort to hold Russia to account for its actions in Ukraine and its actions against its own people, and he will continue to engage with our allies and partners, including as we look to the Madrid summit next month to convene the NATO Allies.

We’ll go to Kylie Atwood, please.

QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thanks for doing this. Quick question on a report yesterday from The Wall Street Journal about the Biden administration weighing the possibility of waiving Belarus potash sanctions to get Lukashenko to allow a corridor from Ukraine to Lithuania to get that grain out of Ukraine. I know you guys don’t preview sanctions, or sanctions relief for that matter. But would the administration consider any form of sanctions relief if Russia, or Belarus for that matter, were to come to some sort of agreement to essentially entice them to get this grain out of the country?

And then my second question is just a bit of a throwback here, something we haven’t talked about in a while, but the State Department concluded their Afghanistan withdrawal review, as I understand it, back in March or April. And I’m just wondering when the State Department plans to present those findings, at least the unclassified portion of it, speaking to kind of transparency and the fact that you guys said you would reflect upon the lessons that could be learned. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Kylie. So on your first question, of course, we had an opportunity over the past couple days in New York City to discuss the issue of food security and food insecurity owing to longer-term challenges like climate change, but also owing to in many cases what is the proximate cause of food scarcity and the rise in commodity prices, and that is Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

It is very simply that the Government of Russia, using food as a weapon in this case by blocking the exports – the export of foodstuffs from Ukraine’s ports, the Kremlin has sought to deflect responsibility for its actions by blaming sanctions for disruptions to the global food system. This is patently false. Our sanctions on Russia specifically exclude food and fertilizer.

On the other hand, it is very clear that it is President Putin’s unjustified, his unprovoked, his brutal war against Ukraine that has put millions around the globe at risk of food insecurity and whose effects are felt thousands of miles away by many of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. And so when we think about what would be the most effective means by which to alleviate the challenge of food insecurity, of course, that would be for the Kremlin to end this senseless war; to see them let farmers safely plant, harvest, tend to their fields; to let ships loaded with essential food commodities and related goods to sail freely; and essentially, to stop weaponizing the flow of food and foodstuffs from Ukraine and from Ukraine’s ports.

In terms of the broader issue, no country has done more than the United States to seek to address that, and Secretary Blinken was able to convene dozens of high-level officials, including many of his counterparts, on Wednesday and Thursday of this week in the UN General Assembly but also in the Security Council to discuss this very issue. This is something that the UN secretary-general has focused on as well. We support his efforts to persuade Russia to end its unprovoked, unjustified war, and his efforts to see to it that Ukraine is able to export its agricultural products unhindered to once again help feed the world.

When it comes to Belarus, we sanctioned Belarusian state-owned potash producer Belaruskali and its primary exporting arm in coordination with our transatlantic allies in 2020. This was to impose costs on the Lukashenka regime following the fraudulent 2020 elections and the regime’s ensuing crackdown on peaceful protests and human rights – peaceful protests and human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is the Lukashenka regime that uses these state-owned enterprises to enrich and to sustain its repressive regime. And until the regime ends its support for Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, we’ll continue to take all appropriate actions to disrupt its military’s – its military and financial capabilities through targeted sanctions, including the actions taken against Russia.

So as you alluded to at the top, we don’t preview potential upcoming actions, but sanctions will remain a key tool in our efforts to address global security concerns as well as human rights abuses in Belarus and other areas of concern for the United States.

On Afghanistan, you are right that we did launch a review, an after-action review, covering the couple years before the military withdrawal from Afghanistan late last year. We are reviewing the findings of that review, and we’ll let you know when we’re at a point to potentially say more on that front.

We have time for one final question. Let’s go to Ali Harb.

OPERATOR: At this time, I don’t show Ali Harb in queue.

MR PRICE: Okay, let’s go to the line of Shannon Crawford.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Just a quick question about the family of Paul Whelan. They’ve put out a statement saying that State Department representatives have told them they need to make more noise or be a squeakier wheel to get the attention of the administration, or perhaps to prove that Paul’s case deserves action. Can you comment on this?

MR PRICE: Thank you for the question. We know that each of these cases deserve action, and we are taking action in each and every one of these cases. It is accurate, it is true, that we don’t often speak publicly to what we’re doing behind the scenes, but Secretary Blinken is committed to seeing to it that this department, including the office of our special envoy – special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, is doing everything we potentially can to see the safe and effective release of Americans who are unjustly or wrongfully detained or held hostage around the world.

We remain in regular contact with the families of those held hostage or wrongfully detained. We are absolutely grateful for their partnership and feedback, and we continue to work to ensure that we’re communicating and sharing information in a way that is useful to families. One of the most vital sources of information to us is that communication with the families. There is no one that knows the context, that knows the background, that knows the history of any particular case better than the families and the loved ones of those who are held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world. It’s why it’s so vitally important to us that we continue that coordination and that communication, even as we are often taking steps that we don’t speak to publicly to ensure that we are doing everything we can to effect the safe release of Americans who are wrongfully detained or held hostage.

Thank you very much, everyone. We will see you back at the department next week. In the meantime, have a good weekend.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)

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