ANTONY J. BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE
HYATT REGENCY HOTEL
MAY 6, 2021
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s great to be with you.
QUESTION: Thank you for being here. First of all, Vladimir Putin had said he would withdraw; he has not. U.S. officials say there are 80,000 troops still on the border; he’s left his tanks and artillery, a continuing threat to Ukraine. What is your message to Vladimir Putin?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Andrea, I’m really here in Ukraine with a message for the Ukrainian people and for our Ukrainian partners. And a big part of that message is our commitment to Ukraine’s independence, its territorial integrity, its sovereignty. We stand with them, including against any aggression from Russia. And also a strong message that we stand with them as they work to make progress on reforming their democracy, on making it stronger, on actually having a government that delivers for the Ukrainian people.
That’s the message I’m bringing. President Biden wanted me to come here as soon as I could to send that strong message. He’d already had a very good conversation with President Zelenskyy on the phone a few weeks ago, but now we’re here, showing up in person, and delivering the same message.
QUESTION: Regarding the military threat, though, will the U.S. defend Ukraine if Vladimir Putin invades?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So what we’ve seen, Andrea, is that there was a massive buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border – more forces, Russian forces, deployed to the border than at any time since 2014 when Russia invaded, took over Crimea and eastern – parts of eastern Ukraine and Donbas. Some of those forces have pulled back, but significant forces remain. Some of the heavy equipment has been pulled back, but other heavy equipment remains, and they can turn that around fairly quickly. What we’re doing is making clear our commitment to helping Ukraine defend itself with security assistance, with advice, other allies and partners are doing the same, and also making clear that as happened after 2014, the international community is resolutely against any Russian aggression, reckless actions in Ukraine. There have been longstanding sanctions on Russia as a result of the actions it took. And I hope that we don’t see any more.
QUESTION: You’ve also made the point that corruption is a threat to Ukraine’s national security. Yet just before you arrived here, the government fired the head of the state-owned gas company. Doesn’t that show that Ukraine has not proved that it can reform?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, they’re kind of flip sides of the same coin. Ukraine has aggression coming from outside, from Russia, but also inside in terms of corruption that potentially eats away at its democracy, oligarchs who are advancing their own interests instead of the interests of the Ukrainian people. And so we’re – we’ve had detailed conversations with our Ukrainian counterparts about the efforts they’re making to reform. They’ve taken some good steps, but there are other areas where real progress is needed, which they acknowledge. Corporate governance is one of them. So is making sure that the judiciary is reformed. So is making sure that there’s a truly independent anticorruption board, something we helped establish way back in 2015.
All of those things are vital, but the reason they’re vital is because this is how you make sure that the government is actually delivering for the people and not for some special interest, also because corruption is a tool that Russia uses to try to erode Ukrainian sovereignty from the inside.
QUESTION: The U.S. has now decided, under great pressure from around the world, to waive patents on vaccines, to try to improve access to vaccines in less developed countries. Do you have any concerns? As the critics say, this will affect supply chains and that we could face shortages ourselves back in the U.S.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Andrea, we wanted, first and foremost, to make sure that we were able to vaccinate the American people. And as you know, we’ve made remarkable progress on that. But we also know that none of us are going to be fully safe until everyone is, that is that around the world we get as many people vaccinated as possible. And here’s why: If the virus is replicating anywhere, it could be mutating, and if it’s mutating with a new variant, it could come back here and bite us even after people have been vaccinated. So we have to get ahead of that, and we have to get ahead of it around the world.
That’s why we’re leaning into looking at everything we can do to make available any excess vaccines that we have. The President made the announcement on the AstraZeneca vaccines that we’re not using that we will begin to make available. And the patent waiver is also one possible means of increasing manufacture and access to vaccines. We’re looking at other things, too.
But the main thing is we have to speed this up. On the current trajectory, if we don’t do more, if the entire world doesn’t do more, the world won’t be vaccinated until 2024. We can speed this up and get that done, I think, in a much shorter time. And if we do, we’re all going to be better off.
QUESTION: Now, you have said that China is behaving more aggressively than at any time before, both at home and abroad. What are you prepared to do about it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, when it comes to China, we’ve been very clear that we’re not trying to contain China or hold it back, but we are determined to uphold the so-called rules-based international order that we’ve invested so much in over so many decades and that has been good for us and good for the world, and I think even good for China. So when anyone takes actions that undermine their word, when they don’t play by the rules, when they renege on commitments, whether it’s in the commercial area, whether it’s on human rights, or anything that undermines that order, we’re going to stand up and defend it. And what I’ve heard in conversations with countries around the world is they’re determined to do the same thing.
QUESTION: What are you prepared – what can you do about Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Uyghurs?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve, I think, shown a few things already. One is that we’re much stronger and more effective when we’re working with likeminded countries. And I think our voices have been heard much more strongly and together. We’ve taken actions together, including sanctions. We are taking other initiatives, including, for example, when it comes to the atrocities being committed against Uyghurs, trying to make sure that countries are not supplying any equipment or technology that could be used to repress people in China, or that we’re not buying products that are made with forced labor. There are a number of very concrete steps, but the first and most important step is to speak up, speak out.
QUESTION: Afghanistan. The decision’s been made. The President made the decision, despite the military arguing against it or advising against, I should say. Are you prepared for the consequences, the worst case, which many of the President’s own advisors are warning about, which is the Taliban will take over? Is American going to stand by, stand back if the Taliban withdraw all the rights of women and girls that have been so hard-fought over the years?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, if any future Afghan state does that, it will be a pariah and it will not have any support from the international community. And that’s something that has to be in anyone’s thinking to your question.
But step back for just a second. We have to remember why we went there in the first place, and that was because of 9/11. We went there to get the people who attacked us on 9/11 and to make sure that it couldn’t happen again from Afghanistan, and we succeeded in that effort. And in fact, that Osama bin Laden was brought to justice 10 years ago. We’ve been there for 20 years.
But even as we’re withdrawing our forces, we are not disengaging from Afghanistan. We’re going to continue strong support, economic development assistance, humanitarian, support for their security forces. We’ve trained over the years well over 300,000 Afghan Security Forces. Other countries too are going to remain engaged.
And finally, everyone has to now I think make some new calculations. That starts with the Taliban. It has to it has to decide whether it wants to plunge the country back into a civil war, or whether it wants some kind of recognition and to be an accepted actor in the international community. It has to decide that. Countries around Afghanistan have to decide what they want and whether they’re going to use their influence to try to keep Afghanistan moving forward, or whether they are not going to do anything and again, potentially allow a civil war that’s going to have devastating consequences for them as well as for the people of Afghanistan.
Everyone now is, I think, focused on this. We’re also focused on the diplomacy, trying to see if the Taliban will engage with the Afghan Government to try to come to a political resolution of the conflict that’s been going on for so long. So we are very focused on this, and including sustaining the programs that we put in place for women and girls.
QUESTION: Is time running out for Iran deal with the Iranian elections around the corner next month? And would you accept anything, even an interim deal, without first getting the American prisoners out?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So we’ve been engaged in talks – as you know, indirect talks – in Vienna. They’re starting up again now at the end of this week. And what we don’t know is whether Iran is actually prepared to make the decisions necessary to return to full compliance with the nuclear agreement. They unfortunately have continued to take steps that are restarting dangerous parts of their program that the nuclear agreement stopped, and the jury is out on whether they’re prepared to do what’s necessary.
Regardless of that, we are resolutely focused on Americans who are being arbitrarily detained or being held hostage in Iran or anywhere else, so —
QUESTION: Is there any – any new hope?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: All I can tell you is I work on that, our team works on that virtually every day, and unfortunately around the world, because there are cases in a number of places. When I first got on the job, one of the first things I did was to meet virtually with the families of every American abroad who is being arbitrarily detained or is being held hostage, and this is a huge problem that I think increasingly you’re going to see countries take a stand against. Canada, which has two of its citizens being arbitrarily detained in China, has been helping lead an effort, and I think you’re going to see more and more countries coming together to make it clear that this practice is totally unacceptable. And if countries engage in it, there are going to have to be consequences.
QUESTION: Your grandfather was a refugee. He came from around here. (Inaudible) had roots, yet the President initially kept the Trump refugee cap, historically low refugee cap. Did that damage the President’s reputation around the world?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No. The President is making good on the commitment that he set, that he made, to make the United States once again the leading country in the world for giving refuge to those who are fleeing oppression.
QUESTION: Only after an outcry from Capitol Hill.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, what happened was we made – the President made the commitment and then, as we looked at what was actually needed to be done, what was necessary in terms of turning around a system that had been broken in recent years, it turned out there was even more damage done than we knew. And on top of that, of course, we had challenges from immigration on our own border, some – the same office that deals with refugees also deals in part with the immigration problem, and the President wanted to make sure that before we followed up on a promise that he had made that we could actually deliver on it. So we needed to take some time to make sure that the resources were in place, the people were in place, the programs were in place to actually receive refugees coming in. And once he was satisfied that we could actually do that, then we moved forward with his commitment.
QUESTION: And I’ve been talking about people here in Ukraine. The fallout from what happened with Donald Trump and with Giuliani with the pressure, with the smear campaign against Joe Biden, with the removal of the U.S. ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch – that fallout is still pervasive against the U.S., against our reputation, the role model we’re supposed to be. How much damage was done? And how do you rebuild morale at the State Department and also around the world for what America represents?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Andrea, we’re – we are fully focused on this moment and on the future. And I think what you’re seeing today by our presence here today, what you’re seeing in the President’s engagement with President Zelenskyy is a reinvigoration, a reaffirmation of our support for Ukraine, our partnership with Ukraine, our determination to make sure that its security is upheld and also that it continues to move forward with the reforms that are so necessary for the well-being of its people. So that’s what we’re focused on.
QUESTION: And not the fact there’s a parallel State Department and rogue players here in this country?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I am focused on the State Department that I’m incredibly privileged to lead for some period of time right now, and I can tell you that what I’m seeing, what I’m finding in the department itself and in all the missions around the world is people incredibly engaged in re-engaging the United States, revitalizing our partnerships, our alliances, re-engaging in these multilateral institutions. And there’s – there are two big reasons for that.
One, virtually all of the challenges that we face that actually have an impact on the lives of the American people – the pandemic, climate change, the disruptive impact of new technologies that are changing people’s lives in so many ways – we can’t deal with any of them unless we’re working with other countries. Even the United States – acting alone, we can’t do it as effectively as when we’re working with others. So there’s a real lean-in on diplomacy. That’s how we work with other countries.
And second, we know and the people in the department know that if we’re not engaged, then someone else is likely to be in our place, and maybe not in a way that is good for the American people. Or maybe no one is, and then you may have chaos before you have anything else.
So I’m finding that the men and women of the State Department, the Foreign Service officers, civil servants are incredibly energized about American engagement, American diplomacy. They’re leading the charge. The President has asked them to lead our foreign policy. Diplomacy first. That’s what we’re doing, that’s what they’re doing, and they’re incredibly energized about it.
QUESTION: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. Thank you (inaudible).
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s great to be with you. Thanks, Andrea.