US State Dept Presser

State Dept Press Briefing Mar 14 2023

14 Min
State Dept Press Briefing Mar 14 2023

The US State Department held a press briefing on Mar 14, 2023

Some Excerpts

QUESTION:  I have two things, both on Russia…

One – the first one – is your colleague John Kirby at the NSC said a little bit earlier that you guys, i.e., the State Department, were going to be in touch with the Russians over this drone incident over the Black Sea. Has that happened? What – if it has, where did – who spoke to who? Was the Secretary involved at all? I realize – I think he’s just landed or about to land in Ethiopia.

And then secondly, on the GEC report, why today? Was there any specific reason for releasing this report today? Thanks.

MR NED PRICE: Thanks very much, Matt. I’ll take your questions in the order you offered them.

First, this wasn’t exactly your first question, but let me start by saying that we have engaged at high levels with our allies and partners in the first instance to brief them on this incident and to let them know what we know, just about as soon as we were learning of the details.

To your more proximate question, we are engaging directly with the Russians – again, at senior levels – to convey our strong objections to this unsafe, unprofessional intercept which caused the downing of the unmanned U.S. aircraft. As to the particulars, we are summoning the Russian ambassador to the department, where we will convey this message. In Moscow meanwhile, Ambassador Tracy has conveyed a strong message to the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.

On your second question regarding the GEC report, as you know, Matt, disinformation routinely springs from the Kremlin and its information organs. We are releasing this bulletin now to set the record straight, including because we expect the Russians to release another so-called report full of lies and disinformation in the coming days. The bulletin we have just described describes the types of disinformation on biological weapons deployed by the Kremlin in a failed attempt to justify its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Russians have pushed this false narrative for decades in an effort to create mistrust in the peaceful global efforts and public health institutions that counter these very biological threats. So as we are preparing for the Russians to repeat these lies, we wanted to be sure to repeat the truth.

We will go the line of Jennifer Hansler, please.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks, Ned. Following up on Matt’s questions, can you say – you said you are summoning the ambassador, so he has not been summoned yet. Who will he meet with here at the State Department?

And then are you asking for any assistance from allies in retrieving the drone? My understanding is the – it has not been retrieved by the U.S.; it’s not in the U.S.’s possession at this point. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Jenny. We are in the process of summoning the ambassador. I would expect that that high-level engagement will take place with the ambassador later this afternoon, where the ambassador will hear directly from senior officials about our strong objections to what was clearly an unsafe and an unprofessional intercept on the part of a Russian aircraft. As for efforts to recover the craft, that’s a question I will leave to my colleagues at the Department of Defense.

Let’s go to the line of Alex Raufoglu.

QUESTION:  . On the drone incident, can you say it was a clear Russian aggravation against the United States and allied nations of Ukraine?

And also, moving away from the situation over the Black Sea for a moment, two developments happened around Wagner today. Russian parliament voted to censor Wagner critics and Lithuanian parliament labeled Wagner Group a terrorist organization and urged the other countries to do the same. Judging from the department’s tweet from yesterday on Wagner, when do you think is the best time to add the mercenary group to the FTO list? Thanks so much.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Alex. On your first question, we’re not in a position to speak to what the Russians intended to do. We’re not in a position to speak to what their motivations may have been. We are in a position to speak to what happened, and what happened was an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre on the part of a Russian aircraft, a maneuver that was also tinged with a lack of competence that caused the U.S. military to need to bring this unmanned craft down. That is the result, again, of these Russian actions. We can characterize them, but we can’t characterize the motivations. In a sense, however, the motivations matter much less than what actually transpired, and that’s what we’re speaking to today.

When it comes to the Wagner Group, Alex, as you know, we have used a range of authorities to pursue the Wagner Group. We have used designations. We have used sanctions. We have designated the Wagner Group a transnational criminal organization. And we have encouraged countries around the world to treat the Wagner Group with the same severity and the same level of priority that we do. Our work with countries around the world on Wagner to counter its malign influence and its malicious efforts wherever we can is ongoing. Countries around the world have their own authorities. Each of those authorities is going to be unique to the country in question. It’s up to the country in question to determine whether a particular authority is relevant to the Wagner Group. And in this case, one of our partners was able to establish a fact pattern that according to their own legislation – which is different from ours – allowed them to take this step.

When it comes to other tools that we may use, Alex, our task is always to look at the facts, as the Wagner Group is perpetrating its malicious activities in Ukraine, in Africa, in other parts of the world, and apply them to the laws as they are written in this country. That is what has allowed us to use a range of sanctions authorities, of designations, and to designate the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

QUESTION: Okay. I have two questions today, both on North Korea. Yesterday, you said that the U.S. would much rather be engaging in dialogue and diplomacy with North Korea instead of being in a position to reaffirm the security commitment that you have with ROK and Japan. The question yesterday for this answer was about the joint military exercises between the U.S. and the ROK. So I’m wondering if there is a possibility that you would tone down the exercises when and if North Korea decides to engage in diplomacy or even stop launching missiles.

My second question – do you mind if you – go for the first one first?

MR PRICE: Sure, sure. Go ahead with your second question.

QUESTION: Sure. My second question: The UN Panel of Experts on North Korea in their last year’s report said that North Korea uses its territorial waters as ship-to-ship transfer areas, so – transferring illicit items such as coal or oil. And VOA so far this year has found more than 30 ship-to-ship transfer cases on the west coast of North Korea via satellite imagery. So what is your comment on this, the fact that North Korea continues evading sanctions? I mean, how can you, I mean, stop them?

MR PRICE:  On your first question, it unfortunately is a purely hypothetical question. It’s an academic question, because we have been clear and consistent in conveying publicly and through all channels available to us that we are prepared and willing to engage in constructive diplomacy with the DPRK towards what is the goal we share with our allies and partners of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And I say it’s hypothetical and academic because at every turn the DPRK has failed to engage meaningfully on these offers. But were that to be the case, were the DPRK to take us up on this, we would look to see if we could devise practical steps that could help to advance what is that longer-term objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

I’m not in a position today to say whether any of the exercises you refer to would be implicated as part of those practical steps. We’re always going to have an ironclad commitment to the security of our treaty allies, including the ROK and Japan in this case. We’re always going to remain committed to the extended deterrence that we afford to our treaty allies. But the practical, specific steps that we may be in a position to take with the DPRK, were it to engage – that would be the subject of dialogue and diplomacy, the very dialogue and diplomacy in which the DPRK has refused to engage.

When it comes to ship-to-ship transfers, as you know, Jiha, we routinely designate additional actors in the DPRK or entities in or working on behalf of the DPRK for its efforts that are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions or other forms of international law. In addition to finding new targets, much of our work is focused on sanctions enforcement, and so when we have an opportunity to identify activity that seeks to circumvent the sanctions that are on the books, whether they’re U.S. sanctions, where – whether they are UN sanctions, we look to go after those evasion networks. And there’s a good example of the United States just within recent days going after a large evasion network that is responsible for providing billions of dollars’ worth of support to the DPRK regime. Whether that’s in the form of ship-to-ship transfers, whether that’s in the form of overland transfers, regardless of the form, we are going to look for the activity and look to devise ways that we can counter it.

Let’s go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk.

QUESTION: I was just wondering what kind of a response Ambassador Tracy received when she raised this with the Russian foreign ministry. How would you describe that?

And also, this is not the first time that U.S. has been flying drones over that airspace. This has been the case for over a year. Do you have any assessment on why this incident has taken place now?.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Humeyra. You’ saw from the statement from European Command earlier today a reaffirmation of the fact that we fly, we sail, we operate everywhere international law allows. And when it comes to this region, U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa routinely fly aircraft through Europe over sovereign territory and throughout international airspace in coordination with applicable host-nation and international laws. Of course, this unmanned craft was downed – forced to go down, I should say, in international airspace in what was a brazen violation of international law. And so we are conveying in strong terms our objections to this.

I can only speak to what we are doing and what we are conveying. I am going to leave the Russians – leave it to the Russians to characterize their response. But Ambassador Tracy did convey a strong message on behalf of the department earlier today to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION:   I have a couple of questions for you. As of right now, we are almost exactly two weeks away from President Biden’s second democracy summit, and taking a look at the promotion of it on the State Department website, there’s very thin information about what exactly the Biden administration and State Department are doing in terms of the democracy summit. Could you speak to the second democracy summit, and also let me know if any elements of it are going to be weaved into Secretary Blinken’s trip while he is in Africa? And also, do you have any idea whether since Vice President Kamala Harris is planned to be in Zambia, and where Zambia is also going to be a co-host, might that element be threaded in?

And then, to what extent might press freedom and journalists being a pillar in democracy be part of your public diplomacy planning? Please just let us know what is going on with the second democracy summit. We’re not hearing anything from the State Department about the second democracy summit.

Thanks, Ned. I may have a follow-up question.

MR PRICE: Thanks, Pearl, and I very much appreciate the question. I can assure you, you will be hearing additional concrete details as the second democracy summit approaches in the coming days, but let me say a couple things. First, as you alluded to, we will co-host the second summit for democracy with the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Zambia later this month. It will take place on March 29th and 30th. Similar to the first summit, world leaders will gather in a virtual plenary format. What will be new this year will be in-person and hybrid events held in host countries, including here in the United States.

This – we believe this co-host format really reinforces the notion that democratic renewal is a truly global and truly shared effort, and we look forward to partners coming together at the second summit to report on progress in implementing the over 750 commitments made at the first summit to support a meaningful declaration of our collective priorities that address the challenges of our time, and to recommit to strengthening that democratic resilience globally.

Pearl, this summit is taking place on March 29th and 30th, but democracy and the underlying principles are on the agenda every single day in everything that we do. So as the Secretary is traveling this week in Ethiopia and Niger, he will have an opportunity to stress and to speak to some of the very principles that will be on full display during the democracy summit later this month. Human rights are always on the agenda. Universal rights, more broadly, are always on the agenda. And one of those universal rights is the freedom of expression, is freedom to access information; press freedom is part and parcel of all of that. And we demonstrate that and recommit ourselves to that in a number of ways. When the Secretary is in Ethiopia and Niger, you will see him take questions from journalists in both places, including from Ethiopian journalists and Nigerien journalists when he is in Niamey. We bring a press corps with us everywhere we go. That itself is a very tangible and real demonstration of the commitment we have to press freedom and to holding ourselves accountable, making sure that the Secretary is always surrounded by those who can ask the tough questions of him.

So you are very much going to see these themes as the Secretary is in Africa this week, just as you see these themes as the Secretary has travelled to dozens of countries around the world and as we look to the summit that will take place in Washington later this month.

Let’s go to Tetsuo Shintomi.

QUESTION: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is going to visit Japan on this Thursday and meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Are you welcoming two leaders’ meeting in terms of U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation? And also, is U.S. planning any diplomatic engagement with ROK and Japan during President Yoon’s two-day visit?  

MR PRICE:  Yes, we very much welcome the upcoming meeting between the leaders – between the leaders of the ROK and the leaders of – and the prime minister of Japan. This is part and parcel of the announcement that we heartily welcomed earlier this month, when those two countries issued the historic announcement that bilateral discussions between them to resolve sensitive historical issues had concluded. At the time, we encouraged the ROK and Japan to build on this step to continue to advance those bilateral relations, and the meeting between the president of South Korea and the prime minister of Japan will be a tangible manifestation of the efforts on the part of these two staunch allies of the United States to advance their own bilateral relationship.

We applaud those efforts because we always appreciate seeing our allies working collectively and constructively with one another, but also because in this case the three of us have what is to us and we think to both the ROK and Japan an especially important trilateral relationship. We, of course, engage bilaterally across a number of issues with both countries, but it’s a trilateral relationship that in so – in some ways allows us to be all that more effective when it comes to the core challenges that we face in the Indo-Pacific and in some ways even beyond. Whether it is the challenge posed by the DPRK, whether it is other elements of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific, whether it’s the shared challenges that all countries around the world face, like a warming climate or COVID, our cooperation in all of these areas has been important to us and important to the ROK and Japan as well.

Beyond those shared interests, though, the trilateral relationship is so vitally important because the United States, the ROK, Japan, we have shared values. And at the core – at the center, I should say – of those shared values is an enduring belief and a vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. That’s the vision that we have long worked bilaterally with the ROK on, bilaterally with Japan on, and it’s a vision that we would like to deepen our cooperation on a trilateral basis with the ROK and Japan going forward.

We’ll go to Samira Gharaei.

QUESTION:  So let’s go to my question. It’s about Roger Carstens’ trip to Doha. We heard about it yesterday, the start – he started yesterday. Are you proceeding with a deal with Iranians? Can you give us more details about the purpose of this trip? Is it done?

MR PRICE:  Roger Carstens has traveled to Doha. He is there primarily to attend the Soufan Forum. It’s a gathering that brings together a number of stakeholders from around the world, and that’s primarily what he’s engaged in in Doha.

Of course, when it comes to Americans who are wrongfully detained around the world, whether that’s in Iran or anywhere else, we are working relentlessly in every possible way to see their prompt release. Samira, you know well that we have conveyed from the earliest part of this administration to the Iranian regime the priority we attach to seeing the release of the three Americans who continue to be wrongfully detained in Iran. It’s not productive for us to speak to the particulars of what precisely we are doing or contemplating as part of that, but our commitment to do everything we can to see their release is firm and it is steadfast, and we are working on it all the time.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. I need to – can I ask another one, please?

MR PRICE: Quickly, sure.

QUESTION: Yeah. I just wanted to ask about a wrap-up about your Iran policy, because during the last two years, we did not see any dual nationality or American citizen getting released, JCPOA talks have gone nowhere and reached a dead end, and Iranians have started one of their biggest movements against the Islamic Republic and they are still upholding it. How do you judge the U.S. Iran policy after you are finishing your job as a spokesperson?

MR PRICE: Samira. Look, of course Iran poses a number of challenges, and we’ve always been clear-eyed that those challenges are difficult, they are – they are complex; they cross into many different realms. But I think when you take a look at each one of those realms, you have seen us work with allies and partners in ways that meaningfully protect our interests and promote our interests.

When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, of course this is one of those core challenges. But I think when you look at where we are now as opposed to where we had been or where the previous administration had been, we are now united with our European allies. When this administration came into office, for far too long it had been the case that it had been the United States that was in some ways diplomatically isolated and we were sitting on opposite sides of the table from what should have been our closest allies. We quickly fixed that, and we now come to this challenge alongside the E3, in this case, our close European allies – the French, the Germans, and the Brits as well – working in lockstep.

Now, you know, Samira, that the Iranian regime has not been true to its word when it said early on in this administration that it sought a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. It has consistently proven itself unable or unwilling to do so, and the JCPOA is no longer on the agenda. But what very much is on the agenda is working with our European allies, other allies and partners in the Middle East, and other parts in the world to do what we can to counter this program, to impose additional pressure on Iran in response to its intransigence and its continued advancements when it comes to its nuclear program.

You look at other areas, Samira, and the challenges that Iran has posed – from the funding of terrorist groups and proxies to its other malign capabilities – we have enacted sanctions; we have enacted designations as well. We’ve worked with our partners in the region to help bolster their defensive and deterrent capabilities to, in the first instance, protect themselves from the type of cross-border attacks that Iran has in many ways supported and even fueled, but also to helping them deter such attacks in the first place. Baquer Namazi, of course, is – has been reunited with his family. We are working steadfast, as I said a moment ago, to do everything we can to bring home the three Americans who remain wrongfully detained in Iran.

 We’ll go to Michel Ghandour.

QUESTION: (Inaudible). First, any comments on the Syrian president’s visit to Russia today?

MR PRICE: Michel, I don’t have any particular comments on that. Of course, these are two countries that have long been aligned. These are two countries that have long cooperated together, much to the detriment of the Syrian people, of the people in the region. So it’s of course no surprise to see high-level engagement between these two countries.

All right. Okay, we will conclude there. Many thanks to all of you who were able to join today. If you weren’t able to ask a question, you know where to find us, and we’ll be happy to take your questions offline. Thank you all very much. Talk to you soon.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)

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