State Dept Presser July 26, 2022

Ned Price, State Department Spokesman held a presser on July 26.

Some excerpts  

QUESTION: Okay, can I ask you about the cases of two American citizens? One, Shireen Abu Akleh. Can you bring us up to date on the Secretary’s meeting with her family members, which may still be going on, I guess, so (inaudible). And then the second one is Brittney Griner, who was back in court again today.

MR PRICE: Sure. So let me start with the family of Shireen Abu Akleh. I can confirm that Secretary Blinken is meeting today – at this very moment, in fact – with the family of Shireen Abu Akleh. As you know, the Secretary has spoken to her family on a number of occasions now, and during the most recent call he invited her family to meet with him here at the State Department in Washington.

I suspect you’ll see something from the Secretary following the meeting, but I can tell you that the Secretary is deeply appreciative of the opportunity to meet with Shireen’s family. Not only was she an American citizen, she was a reporter whose fearless pursuit of the truth earned her the profound respect of audiences around the world.

He’ll use the opportunity to underscore for Shireen’s family our deepest condolences on her tragic death and to reiterate the priority we attach to accountability – something we continue to discuss with our Israeli and Palestinian partners as well.

QUESTION: Can we turn to Americans detained in Russia?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. With Brittney Griner’s hearing today, obviously the administration has been very clear that they’re working to get her home. But would you say that there are active discussions with the Russians to come to some sort of deal to get her home right now?

MR PRICE: I would say that we have made the case of Brittney Griner, we have made the case of Paul Whelan, an absolute priority, and we are working actively, quietly behind the scenes to do everything we can to see that their wrongful detentions come to an end as quickly as possible.

Of course, not going to detail exactly what it is that we are doing, but of course, there has to be and there is engagement with Russian authorities on both of these cases, just as we are discussing with relevant authorities around the world the cases of Americans who are wrongfully detained and who have been separated from their families for far too long.

As we do that, we are working closely with the families. We are meeting with them. We are having conversations with them. Our consular officers around the world are providing all possible support to Americans who are wrongfully detained.

In the case of Brittney Griner, as you know, she had another court appearance today. Our chargé, the senior-most embassy official currently in Moscow, was present in the courtroom, as was another senior official from our embassy. They had an opportunity to see Brittney Griner, to speak to her, to check in on her welfare. She confirmed that she is doing okay, under the circumstances, and we have routinely conveyed those discussions back to the family, to Brittney Griner’s wife in this case. We’ll continue to do that.

QUESTION: And would you say that you guys are satisfied with the Russian engagement on these cases? You said there has been engagement, but are you satisfied with the degree to which there has been engagement?

MR PRICE: We are never going to be satisfied until Brittney Griner is back with her wife, until Paul Whelan is back with his family, until wrongful detainees around the world have been released from custody. So we don’t look at this in terms of satisfaction; we look at this through the lens of doing everything we possibly can to see to it that these individuals are reunited with their families as quickly as we can.

QUESTION: It seems like Josep Borrell has called the end of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. In his opinion piece in The Financial Times today, he says that he has – he tabled a proposal, taking into consideration the steps both sides have to take, because he doesn’t think there is any more room for compromise. Is his proposal fully acceptable to the Biden administration?

MR PRICE: Well, I’ll start with something you’ve heard before from us, and that is that we’re not going to negotiate in public. What I can say is that we are reviewing the draft understanding on mutual return to full implementation with the JCPOA that the high representative shared with us, as well as with Iran and the other JCPOA participants. We will share reactions we have directly with the EU.

But as we’ve said already – and this is something you heard as recently as yesterday – there’s been an outline of what we believe to be a good deal on the table since March that we have been prepared to accept. And we understand that this new text that Mr. Borrell referred to, it’s the basis for – its basis is that draft that has been on the table since March. We are studying the changes that have been proposed by the EU; we’ll respond to them in short order. And we hope that Iran finally and ultimately decides to seize the opportunity that has been before it for some time now.

QUESTION: Is there a timeframe within which both sides have to answer?

MR PRICE: I think you saw in the op-ed that Mr. Borrell published today he didn’t allude to a timeframe. We are going to be swift in our review of the proposal that he put forward. We know that time is of the essence. But again, we also know that Iran’s nuclear program has galloped forward in such a way that the parameters of the mutual return to compliance that have been in the offing for several months now is to us, to our national interest, far preferable than where we are today. So we are going to continue to pursue a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA for as long as it’s in our interest to do so. That remains the case.

QUESTION: On Tunisia, now that there’s a projected outcome, what is the U.S. view of the referendum?

MR PRICE: Well, we note the outcome that has been reported by the Independent High Authority for Elections, or ISIE, and civil society election observers. The referendum has been marked by low turnout. That is something that we do note. A broad range of Tunisia’s civil society, media, and political parties have expressed deep concerns regarding the referendum. And in particular, we note the widespread concerns among many Tunisians regarding the lack of an inclusive and transparent process and limited scope for genuine public debate during the drafting of the new constitution. We also note concerns that the new constitution includes weakened checks and balances that could compromise the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. With legislative elections scheduled for the end of the year, we continue to stress the importance of respect for the separation of powers and an inclusive and transparent electoral law that enables wide participation in those elections.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) can I ask your comment on upcoming Erdo?an-Putin meeting in Sochi, both in terms of PR element of it, also but just the fact that Putin is being allowed to meet with a world leader, let alone a NATO member, another time?

MR PRICE: I’ll need to defer to our Turkish allies to speak to the intent and any agenda for President Erdo?an’s potential travel. What I can say is that our Turkish allies have been instrumental in working to secure the grain deal that was signed last week, and of course the onus is now on Moscow to standby and to uphold the commitments that it has made. Turkey has been an important mediator, has sought to play a role mediating between the parties more broadly in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine. We’ve said consistently that we support all efforts to bring Russia’s aggression to an end that are coordinated fully in the first instance with Ukraine but also with the United States and our allies and partners.

QUESTION: I know you also responded to some of Lavrov’s comments yesterday when I was in the room. But Russia says explicitly that it actually seeks some regime change in Ukraine. I was wondering – Lavrov today even repeated the same statement. That’s an apparent reversal from their wartime messaging. What is your comment on that?

MR PRICE: Well, it is a messaging reversal. I’m not sure that is a policy reversal. It’s a messaging reversal, and that’s – you’re – you are right. Before February 24th, we heard consistently the lie from various Kremlin officials that this was about some perceived threat from Ukraine, from NATO, from the United States. We called all of that a lie at the time.

And since then, but especially in recent days, the Russians have been doing as good a job of anyone of debunking their own disinformation and their own lies. Refer to what Sergey Lavrov said yesterday – and you alluded to this – he called President Zelenskyy and his government in Kyiv a quote/unquote “unacceptable regime,” making clear that this was not what Russia purported it to be just the previous week. He admitted that Russia’s quote/unquote “geographical goals” go well beyond the Donbas to include Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, other sovereign regions of Ukraine.

It hasn’t just been Foreign Minister Lavrov. It wasn’t all that long ago, as Secretary Blinken has pointed out on a couple of occasions now, that President Putin spoke – compared himself to Peter the Great, noted that when Peter went to war with Sweden, he was simply looking to take back what Peter thought belonged to Russia. President Putin went on to note that Russia is again looking to take back what is theirs. So repeatedly senior Russian officials have put to the lie just about everything that we heard from them prior to the invasion. They have made clear in doing so this is not a defensive operation.

This is, in fact, what it always appeared to be, and that is a war of territorial conquest. That’s why it’s so important that countries around the world stand not only with Ukraine – stand with Ukraine to help it defend it’s sovereignty, it’s territorial integrity, it’s independence, but also to stand with the rules-based international order that for decades now, since the end of World War II, has made clear that we cannot reside in a world where might makes right, where large countries can bully the small ones, where a country’s foreign policy can be dictated by any other country.

QUESTION: Russia announcing that it will no longer participate after 2024 in the International Space Station. How does the United States feel about this? Does it have the confirmation that this is the case? How will it affect the space (inaudible)?

MR PRICE: We’ve seen Russia’s statement that it plans to leave the International Space Station after 2024. It’s an unfortunate development, given the critical scientific work performed at the ISS, the valuable, professional collaboration our space agencies have had over the years, and especially in light of our renewed agreement on space flight cooperation. I expect NASA will have more details for you.

QUESTION: Do you hope that they’ll revisit this or do you think – is that something that’s underway in negotiations to – or any sort of discussion about this with —

MR PRICE: I understand that we were taken by surprise by the public statement that went out. I’m not aware of – I’m not aware that discussions on this front have started yet, but would need to refer you to NASA for that.

QUESTION: I know that you don’t like to talk about history, but since you’ve mentioned the relation to Peter – Peter the Great and Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin, given that Peter the Great also was the one who opened up Russia to the West, went on a grand tour of Europe, built Russian – what was then the modern Russian navy, do you find it at all jarring that they would pull out of a scientific thing like the ISS now given their – given President Putin’s apparent desire to be seen as a modern-day explorer?

MR PRICE: I will leave that to the Russians to speak to their motivations. Here I will just note that the United States and Russia, we have cooperated on space exploration for years now, over the course of decades. We obviously – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has obviously changed our relationship fundamentally, but there are still aspects of our relationship, including our joint pursuits in science, joint pursuits in safety, people-to-people ties, that we would like to see preserved, and the Russians are sending a contrary signal here.

 QUESTION: Ned, anything on the Turkish killing of the SDF’s second in command? MR PRICE: We’ve called for an immediate de-escalation in northern Syria. We believe it’s crucial for all sides to maintain and respect ceasefire zones to enhance stability in Syria and work towards a political solution to the conflict.

QUESTION: And Ned, so in just the past month, an estimated 18 SDF members have been killed by Turkey. So is there anything else that the U.S. can do apart from just calling on your ally to cease the hostilities? Because if Turkey continues at this rate, you may run out of partners soon. So a no-fly zone – that’s something that the SDF have been kind of floating, the idea of a no-fly zone. Is that something that you guys can support or is that a —

MR PRICE: We continue to have these discussions with key partners and allies. We continue to have these discussions with our Turkish allies. We’ve made clear to them in private what we’ve made clear in public, and this is something that we reiterated again last week, the deep concerns we have about the potential for renewed military activity in northern Syria – in particular its impact on the civilian population. We have made clear our specific concern that any renewed offensive of this sort, any broader offensive of this sort, could set back the significant gains that the coalition has made against Daesh in recent years. It could have humanitarian implications on the civilian population in the region, and it would certainly not be in the interest of the political process pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

QUESTION: South Korean Government official said that there is a possibility North Korea will conduct its seventh nuclear test on the occasion of Korean War Armistice Day, which is tomorrow, the 27th of this month. So is the State Department concerned – sharing this concern or discussing about this matter with South Korean Government? And does the U.S. still assess that North Korea will conduct its nuclear test soon?

MR PRICE: Our concerns regarding the potential for a seventh North Korean nuclear test have not abated. We have spoken publicly to these concerns for a couple of months now. You have heard assessments that our ROK counterparts have made public that the DPRK regime has conducted all necessary preparations for a potential nuclear test. That has not changed. We have continued to be very clear in our public statements, but also working closely with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and well beyond, to make clear that any additional nuclear test that the DPRK conducts would carry tremendous costs. And we’ve been working with allies and partners in New York, capitals in the Indo-Pacific, and around the world to send a very clear message to the DPRK regarding this.

QUESTION: If I could ask you on the same topic – is the State Department reviewing to update the U.S. North Korea policy as South Korea is crafting its roadmap for their own North Korean policy that is known as the “audacious plan,” which is including the measures to implement economic cooperation with North Korea and provide security guarantees for the country?

MR PRICE: When this administration first came into office, we spent several months conducting our own policy review, taking a look at what the prior administration had done vis-à-vis the DPRK, what previous administrations had done vis-à-vis the DPRK, what had worked but, unfortunately, more of what has not worked over the course of decades when it comes to the DPRK and specifically its WMD program.

So we undertook a comprehensive review. The policy that resulted from that is the policy that we have articulated publicly and the one that we’ve pursued for the better part of almost two years now. It is a policy that believes that dialogue and diplomacy and engagement are the best courses by which we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We’ve made clear as a result of that policy review that we harbor no hostile intent towards the DPRK. In fact, we have made clear our willingness to engage in dialogue with the DPRK to determine how we might be able to move forward with that diplomacy. Unfortunately, those requests, those invitations have gone substantively unanswered.

QUESTION: And any comment on the clashes between the Libyan military factions in Tripoli and Misrata?

MR PRICE: This is something that is highly concerning to us. We urge all groups to refrain from violence. Ambassador Norland, our special envoy, spoke with Abdulhamid Dabaiba and Fathi Bashagha on Sunday. Both committed to finding ways to de-escalate the situation and to prevent further loss of life. We believe that the recent clashes demonstrate the urgent necessity for Libya’s political leaders to immediately embrace an agreed-upon path to elections which can install a truly legitimate, unified government to serve the interests of all Libyans.

QUESTION: And one on Hizballah secretary general, who issued a new threat against Israel over the maritime dispute and said: if the extraction of gas from Karish begins in September before Lebanon gets its rights, we will have a problem. Will this threat affect the U.S. mediation and what about this deadline, September deadline?

MR PRICE: We’ve seen these reports. We don’t respond to threats, but we do remain committed to facilitating negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to reach a decision on the delimitation of the maritime boundary. Progress towards a resolution can only be achieved through negotiations by the two governments. We welcome the consultative and open spirit of the parties to reach a decision, a final decision which has the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for both Lebanon and Israel as well as for the region, and we do believe that a resolution is possible.

QUESTION: Any update on special envoy – or Advisor Hochstein travel to Lebanon?

MR PRICE: I don’t have any travel to speak to, but he has engaged – remained engaged with the parties since his last travel to the region.

Simon.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: I wonder if you have any update of – the last week’s developments with the Ukrainian prosecutor general being dismissed, and particularly from a U.S. point of view, does that change your position in terms of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group that was working closely with the prosecutor? Is that still – is that sort of still in action?

MR PRICE: Sure. Let me make a couple of broad points and then I’ll come to the issue of the prosecutor general.

Broadly, as you know, for – over the course of months we have rallied the world to respond to Ukraine’s – excuse me, to respond to Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine. Ensuring a secure and stable Europe and protecting the international rules-based order, that is profoundly in our national interest. But beyond the external threat that Ukraine faces from Russia, Ukraine, like many other governments around the world, continues to face another threat to its long-term success as a sovereign, independent, democratic, and prosperous country, and that’s corruption. Corruption must be combated even as Ukraine defends itself against Russia’s war of aggression. Russia’s war against Ukraine poses an external threat, but corruption poses an internal threat, and the threat that corruption poses can be corrosive to democracy, to sovereignty, to the freedoms that the people of Ukraine so desperately wish to retain.

So even as we support Ukraine by providing security assistance, we will support sustained efforts in Ukraine to increase transparency, to strengthen democratic institutions, independent anti-corruption infrastructure, and the rule of law, while building resilience against corruption. In June, Ukraine took a major step forward in its European aspirations when the EU granted it candidate status, but Ukraine knows it still has work to do even as it continues to face Russia’s brutal attacks. And together with our partners and allies, we’ll continue to stand with our Ukrainian partners as they stand up to all threats, external and internal, to their chosen democratic path, and we’ll continue to stand with Ukraine in its ongoing efforts to advance democratic and human rights reforms.

When it comes to the prosecutor general, we continue to monitor the situation closely. We join the people of Ukraine in emphasizing the importance of transparently appointing a highly qualified and truly independent successor as prosecutor general. The independence and impartiality of the prosecutor general is vital to ensuring the integrity of accountability efforts in Ukraine. The judicial system must be fair, impartial, independent to ensure that both victims and the accused receive justice. And the recent final selection of the specialized anti-corruption prosecutor was an encouraging sign, and we look forward to a swift appointment. And we hope that this momentum continues with, again, the selection of an independent prosecutor general who meets high standards of professional ethics as well as personal integrity. And our assistance and advisories program – excuse me, our assistance and advisory programs support these strategic reform initiatives.

We’ll continue to provide robust support for the work of the office of the prosecutor general, for reform efforts, just as we will continue to work with the office of the prosecutor general as an institution in the interim on the important efforts through the ACA, together with our international partners, to hold Russians accountable for the crimes that they have committed in the conduct of this war.

QUESTION: And on the corruption piece, obviously the U.S. has pledged a lot of money, a lot of – as well as the weapons and arms that are going there. There’s a lot of humanitarian support. Have you gotten any – have you got any evidence that – since you say Ukraine has work to do, like, that some of that money may be being lost to corruption? Or is there – do you have a way of knowing whether it has been?

MR PRICE: Well, we know that oversight of these funds is critical. It is something that we have baked into the provision of these funds. In addition to the extensive accountability and transparency mechanisms built into the use of funds in our foreign assistance, the funding package we requested from Congress – we requested and that Congress approved – included millions of dollars to support additional oversight measures, including additional funding for existing inspectors general, and the supplemental legislation also contained provisions explicitly calling for the DOD IG to review the use of security assistance funds and to provide a written report of that review to Congress. So it’s something we’re paying very close attention to.

QUESTION: Do you have any comments on China’s most recent comment that – on Speaker Pelosi’s potential upcoming trip to Taiwan?

MR PRICE: I don’t. We don’t get in a habit of taking part in a back and forth with our Chinese counterparts, in this case with my MFA counterpart. What we have said on this still stands. It’s my understanding that the Speaker’s office has not announced any travel, and our approach to Taiwan has not changed in any way.

QUESTION:  South Caucasus. I have seen your readout on the Secretary’s calls yesterday to President Aliyev and Pashinyan. There’s one line that I see that you’re – correct me if I’m wrong – three or four times since January. The Secretary reiterated his offer of assistance in helping and facilitating the process to both sides. Does that mean the previous offers have been turned down?

MR PRICE: No, it doesn’t mean that. It means that we’ve been able to achieve what we think is a degree of progress, and through continued engagements and diplomatic conversations with our Armenian, with our Azerbaijani partners in this case, we think we can continue that momentum. So the Secretary obviously has had a number of calls with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership, but there are a number of people, senior officials in this building who have engaged with their counterparts at all levels to continue this momentum and to continue to offer our assistance in the issues as we seek a long-term, comprehensive peace.

QUESTION: But there’s one caveat, though, which is the Minsk Group. Yesterday, President Aliyev’s office issued a statement. There was no reference to Minsk Group. If you’re an average Azerbaijani, you will see your president is lambasting Minsk Group every other day. And then you have the State Department readout referring to the very Minsk Group as a possible, let’s say, way to go. My question is: There’s clearly a mismatch here in terms of how you see and how the Azeri Government sees it.

MR PRICE: We’ve made clear in our statements, including, I believe, in the readouts yesterday, that the United States stands ready to assist these two countries and our likeminded partners in whichever way, whichever format is most effective. We have been a co-chair of the Minsk Group since 1994, but as we’ve demonstrated, we’re also willing to engage bilaterally with the countries to help Armenia and Azerbaijan find that long-term, comprehensive peace.

Thank you all very much.

(The briefing concluded at 2:55 p.m.)