US State Dept Presser

State Dept Press Briefing on Feb 1, 2023

25 Min
State Dept Press Briefing on Feb 1, 2023

Vedant Patel, Principal Dy Spokesperson of the State Dept held a press briefing on Feb 1, 2023. He fielded a wide range of questions. His answers to questions on India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are however brought upfront.


2:03 p.m. EST

MR PATEL:  Good afternoon, everybody.    I have a few things for you at the top, and then I’m happy to proceed with the normal press briefing.

Two years ago today, Burma’s military regime seized power from a democratically elected government, flagrantly rejected the will of Burma’s people, set the country on a disastrous path that has killed thousands and displaced over 1.5 million people, and reversed the hard?fought democratic progress the country achieved over the last decade.

Today, the United States is imposing sanctions on six individuals and three entities linked to the regime’s effort to generate revenue, procure arms, including the senior leadership of Burma’s ministry of energy, Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, and Burma’s air force, as well as an arms dealer, and a family member of a previously-designated business associate of the military. We are also sanctioning the Union Electoral Commission, which the regime has manipulated and deployed to advance its flawed election.

It is clear that the regime’s planned election will not be free or fair, while the regime continues to kill, detain, and force possible contenders to flee, and continues to inflict brutal violence against its peaceful opponents. These so-called elections, held under these conditions, will only serve as a trigger for further violence and instability.

The United States will continue to promote accountability for the military’s atrocities, including through the support to the UN’s Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. We will also continue to support other international efforts to protect and support vulnerable populations, including Rohingya.

We welcome the actions taken by our allies and partners, including Canada – the UK, who also took action today – to urge the regime to end the crisis, and we look forward to building our cooperation with the UN, ASEAN, and international community to increase diplomatic and economic pressure against the military and in support of a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Burma.

I also want to share that today the United States announced the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Honiara, less than one year after Secretary Blinken announced our intent to open it.

For more than 50 years, the United States and the Solomon Islands have worked together to tackle major challenges facing our shared Pacific community. The opening of the embassy builds on the U.S. efforts not only to place more diplomatic personnel throughout the region but also to engage further with our Pacific neighbours, connect U.S. programs and resources with needs on the ground, and expand on people-to-people ties.

The embassy will be a central part of future engagements with the Solomon Islands.

With that, Shaun, I don’t know if you want to —


MR PATEL: — take us away.

QUESTION: Could I follow up Burma?


QUESTION: The sanctions, I guess, announced yesterday as well – they target the oil and gas industry, but the major state-owned business itself, the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. Is there any talk about sanctioning it as an entity as a whole or is that a step too far?

MR PATEL: Shaun, what I would say is that we’re certainly not going to preview additional next steps or preview our actions, but what we are going to do is that we’re going to continue to promote accountability for the military’s atrocities, including through the UN independent mechanism that I mentioned, and we also continue to support other international efforts to protect and support vulnerable populations. And we’re going to continue to support the pro?democracy movement and its efforts to advance peace and genuine multiparty democracy in Burma.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MR PATEL: Nazira, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Yesterday, about Tom West, U.S. representative to Afghanistan, perhaps. He is in Pakistan and he met with a military high official member about Afghanistan, Afghanistan girls, Afghanistan women situation. And then he go to Germany, I think, and then to Switzerland. I need to get about a straight conclusion. Do you think that it’s going to be effective in – to the current situation in Afghanistan?

MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things. We are in regular communication with Pakistani leadership and discuss a range of vital matters. Special Representative Tom West was of course there to talk about some of these issues as it relates to the situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. Government has been, of course, reviewing our approach and our engagement with the Taliban in the context of their increasingly draconian edicts targeting and discriminating against women and girls in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. On Bangladesh. Critics of the Bangladesh ruling government are again being targeted as vehicles carrying a renowned civil society member and rights activist, Rizwana Hasan, came under attack by the ruling party activist. As you know, the Assistant Secretary Donald Lu recently visited, and he had a meeting with her. Meanwhile, a leading Bangladeshi book publisher, Adarsha publisher, known for its works by dissident writers, has been banned from the country’s largest book fair for criticizing ruling prime minister and her father. They cannot allow the publisher access to the book fair. There are reports that the same publisher is being obstruct to open its pavilion in another book fair in India state, West Bengal. So what is your comment as we are recently seeing that assistant secretary and the (inaudible) here very much engaged on Bangladesh and asking for free, fair, and credible elections?

MR PATEL: Sure. Let me say a couple of things. As it relates to your first question, the United States will not hesitate to speak out publicly in support of those everywhere who are fighting for recognition of their human rights and dignity. Around the world, democracy and respect for human rights are foundational to peace, economic prosperity, and stability. These values are inextricably linked.

What I will say to your second question about the publisher, we continue to highlight the importance of democratic principles, such as the freedom of expression, as human rights that contribute to strengthening our democracies.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Just on Bangladesh?

MR PATEL: Oh, sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Similar to that, but as you – as you probably know, the Bangladeshi Government said it blocked, I think, nearly 200 websites for anti-state material, as they describe it. Do you have any comment on that? Is that at all a concern to the United States?

MR PATEL: Of course, any kind of censorship or blocking of information channels like that would be of deep concern. I’ve not seen that specific report, but we’ll see if we can get you some more specifics on that.

QUESTION:  Yesterday U.S. and India agreed to cooperate in advanced technology, including in the military field. What does this mean against China and Russia? And will the four countries in Quad in the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan, Australia, also proceed with military cooperation? What do you think?

MR PATEL:  As you so noted, yesterday, with National Security Advisor Doval in Washington, he had the opportunity to, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, to kick off the inaugural U.S.-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, which will elevate and expand our strategic technology partnership and defence industrial cooperation. The two sides discussed opportunities for greater cooperation in critical and emerging technologies, co-development and co-production, and ways to deepen connectivity across our innovation ecosystems. We also expanded our defence cooperation with joint development and production, and this will focus on projects related to jet engines, munition-related technologies, and other systems. I will let our colleagues at the White House and National Security Council speak further about this meeting.

QUESTION: Brazil. Bolsonaro, I understand —


QUESTION: I’m guessing you’re probably not going to say much about this, but Bolsonaro has – through his lawyer has applied for an extension of six months staying in the United States. I know visa records are usually confidential, but —

MR PATEL: They indeed are.

QUESTION: — but there is a precedent – I mean, even just recently the Secretary put sanctions on – visa restrictions on people from Nigeria for election interference. Is there any concern that Bolsonaro having political activities here could be of concern to the United States, especially in light of what happened in Brazil?

MR PATEL: I appreciate your question, Shaun, but, again, as you so note, visa records are confidential, so I’m just not unfortunately able to get into this.

QUESTION: Staying with Brazil?

MR PATEL: Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, and I want to switch topic, go to the Palestinian issue.


QUESTION: On the Secretary’s trip – now, Secretary Blinken reiterated while he was there that the U.S. policy seeks to ensure equal measures to freedom and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians – among many other things that he said, but he also said that. My question is, what is the U.S. plan to effectuate such a goal?

MR PATEL: Well, Said, let me say a couple of things. President Biden has been clear that Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve equal measures of freedom, dignity, justice and prosperity. And the negotiated two-state solution is the only way to achieve a lasting peace. The President and the Secretary have also been very clear that the U.S. understands the opportunity for negotiations is not necessarily ripe. And we are currently focused on de-escalating the current tensions, improving the daily lives of Palestinians, and creating the necessary conditions for future negotiations. You saw the Secretary speak to a great deal of this over the course of this trip.

We also believe that it is also among the parties themselves to effectuate this goal and to move this goal forward, and you saw the Secretary speak to that on his travels as well.

QUESTION: I understand, but I mean, this is like – the President himself said last summer this is not in the foreseeable future or it’s far away, the state. In the interim, I mean, what should be certain application of these measures of equality? For instance, should the Israelis reduce their checkpoints? Should they allow more people to move about the West Bank? Should they stop their raids into the camps and so on? Should they stop seizing land for settlements and so on? I mean, these are things that are the kind of measures one would take in the preparation or the process to achieve such a goal.

MR PATEL: Said, over the course of the Secretary’s travel he made clear that the United States will continue to oppose unilateral steps that worsen tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, including but not limited to settlement expansion, legalization of illegal outposts, a move towards annexation of the West Bank, disruption of the historic status quos on Jerusalem’s holy sites, demolitions and evictions, and incitement of violence. We continue to oppose those things that we think, like I said, will not advance a negotiated two?state solution.


QUESTION: And lastly —


QUESTION: — I just wanted to ask about Gaza. OCHA said that the situation in Gaza is unlivable. I mean the – the blockade that has gone on now for 16 years makes life in Gaza – despite efforts by Egypt and others and so on to alleviate the suffering, the suffering is increasing tenfold and eightfold and so on. You have any comment on that? Should – has the time come to lift that siege?

MR PATEL: Said, we are committed to working with the UN and other international partners to provide humanitarian assistance and other international support in a manner that benefits the Palestinians but does not benefit Hamas. And while meeting with President Abbas over the course of this trip, Secretary Blinken announced $50 million in U.S. funding towards UNRWA. This is in addition to 344 million the U.S. provided to UNRWA in 2022, which supports the provision of health care, emergency relief to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Palestinian children and families. And we also call, of course, on donors to contribute as well.

In addition to the $940 million in assistance we’ve provided the Palestinian people to date, we’re finding innovative ways to spur greater and more inclusive economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza. This means supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs, expanding access to 4G, increasing the supply of renewable and reliable energy. And we also reaffirmed our commitment to bolstering independent media with Palestinian civil society leaders. Working with Congress, we intend to make up to $2 million available to support journalists in the region, including Palestinians.

One thing that I also wanted to note, Said, if you’ll allow me the opportunity, and since you asked the ambassador this question, I just want to take a second and clarify the United States position on this – and Ned has spoken to this before; so has the Secretary. It is a historical fact that Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war. As we have said it then, it continues to be a U.S. position that the West Bank is occupied. This has been a longstanding position of previous administrations of both parties over the course of many, many decades.

QUESTION: Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with CNN, he didn’t commit it to – he didn’t commit to two-state solution. He said he would not call it like this, and he said – he didn’t commit to that. How do you characterize his statement yesterday? I believe you saw it.

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to characterize his comments from here.

QUESTION: Can I just ask about Iran?

MR PATEL: Go – let me – and then I’ll come back to you, Nike. I promise.

Camilla, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. The Secretary said that he had discussed deepening cooperation to confront and counter Iran’s destabilizing activities. Should we understand that as something different from what already exists in terms of cooperation between the United States and Israel, given the nuclear talks have stalled or have been described as Iran having killed the talks from the U.S. side? Or is it the same as usual?

MR PATEL: I wouldn’t interpret that as new policy. You have seen us, over the course of this entire administration, talk about Iran’s malign activities, not just across the world but in the region more broadly. And of course, when it comes to combatting some of Iran’s destabilizing and malign activities, including work to ensure that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon, of course Israel is an important regional partner and ally in the fight against Iran’s activities in the region.


QUESTION:   Protests are still ongoing; arrests are ongoing still in Iran, especially now, many Sunni clerics are criticizing the regime and how they are suppressing the people. There’s been – some of them have been arrested. Is the United States in general doing anything at the United Nations to take any actions in any international fora in this regard?

MR PATEL: Guita, we have not hesitated to take action as a country through our own designations, through designations in multilateral fora, and through designations with our allies and partners to hold the Iranian regime accountable. I certainly don’t have any actions to preview or get ahead of, and of course we’ll let our colleagues at the UN speak more to any – about any UN processes. But I think what you should take away here, Guita, is that we will not hesitate to use the tools in our toolbelt to hold the Iranian regime accountable.

QUESTION: Last week, we talked about the report that the Iranian navy is trying to establish itself in the southern and central part of the Western Hemisphere by sending naval ships and, as you were talking about, Brazil and the Brazilian president coming here to the U.S., docking there sort of maybe as a base or whatever and then being present in the Panama Canal. Is – what else is – what is the U.S. doing, except for monitoring?

MR PATEL: Well, Guita, I will say that we have seen the reports and aware of the claims by Iran’s navy. And we do, as you said, continue to monitor for any Iranian plans of naval activities in the Western Hemisphere. What I will say is largely in line with what I said previously. We continue to have a number of tools in our toolbelt available to hold the Iranian regime accountable. We, of course, are not going to preview sanctions, but we will continue to vigorously enforce our sanctions. And what I’ll say is that anybody doing business with a sanctioned entity risks exposure to designation themselves. We also continue to vigorously push for implementation of UN Security Council resolutions.

QUESTION: The U.S. Treasury has sanctioned a Chinese company for providing satellite imageries of Ukraine to Wagner Group’s combat operation for Russia. So as the Secretary of State Blinken is preparing his meetings in Beijing, what is the U.S. message to PRC and is it still the State Department’s assessment that PRC Government is not providing any material or security assistance to Russia?

MR PATEL: Our assessment hasn’t changed, Nike. We are closely monitoring the situation, as we have been. And we continue to communicate to China the implications of providing material support to Russia’s war against Ukraine. We’ve also continued to be clear in public and in private with any country that, as it relates to the conflict of Ukraine, Russia is very clearly, publicly violating Ukrainian territorial integrity and Ukrainian sovereignty, and we’ll continue to raise that wherever we can.

QUESTION: And Chinese President Xi Jinping may visit Moscow in February by invitation from the Russia. Do you – how close are you watching this potential visit and what – do you have anything on the diplomatic relations between China and Russia?  

MR PATEL: So, I will let these two countries speak to their own bilateral relationships. But again, on the situation broadly, we continue to monitor and pay close attention. The PRC has made its alignment with Russia clear through its rhetorical support of Russia’s war, its support for Russia in multilateral fora, as well as the amplification of Russian disinformation. But I’ll let these two countries speak to their own multilateral – bilateral relationship.

QUESTION: NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg met with the South Korean President Yoon Sun Yeol in South Korea a couple days ago to ask for arms support to Ukraine. If South Korea provides weapons to Ukraine, how do you think it will affect the Korean peninsula?

MR PATEL: Well, Janne, what I will say is that it is, of course, in each country’s independent, sovereign decision to offer security assistance to any other country. Obviously as it relates to Ukraine, the United States has had a pretty clear track record of providing security assistance to our Ukrainian partners. That will continue to persist. I will of course let the South Koreans speak to their own efforts as it relates to our Ukrainian partners, but what I can say broadly is that, of course, South Korea is an important ally and partner in the Indo-Pacific as it relates to a variety of shared priorities between the Republic of Korea and the United States as well.

QUESTION: The President ruled out the idea of sending F-16s to Ukraine. If other countries that possess F-16s decide to send on their own, will the United States give its consent of your – or your green light to that?

MR PATEL: Alex, I’m just not going to get into hypotheticals, and I am going to let the President’s comments speak for themselves. But the one thing that I want to reiterate, much like Janne’s question since you’ve given me the opportunity, is that the United States is sending a significant number of weapons and equipment to Ukraine to help with its battlefield needs. That of course includes artillery, ammunition, armoured vehicles, air-defence capabilities. And we’re in regular contact with our Ukrainian partners, and I expect we’ll have more to talk about when it comes to continued security assistance. But I don’t want to get ahead or get into any hypotheticals here.

QUESTION: But what would you say to critics that say, hey, you always get to the right place with decisions like tanks, HIMARS, but it always takes too long?

MR PATEL: Alex, we have been steadfast in our continued security assistance for Ukraine. We have done so quickly, we have done so efficiently, and we have done so at a steady clip dating back to even prior to February 24th.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PATEL: Anything else on Russia or Ukraine before we move? Go ahead.

QUESTION: So in today’s action, the sanctioning – the sanctions – sanction-evasion network supporting Russian military-industrial complex. There are several South Cyprus-based companies in that sanction designation. As far as I remember, the United States lifted arms embargoes on Cyprus as part of their commitment to crackdown on money laundering and keeping distance with the Russian military and defense sector. And we still see that Cyprus, like, five companies – we’re talking about five companies in that designation. Still, despite lifting of this arms embargo, we still see that the Greek Cypriot side is the safe haven of money laundering and also evasioning of Russian sanctions. Can you – are you ready to reconsider the lifting of embargoes on Cyprus? And what’s your thought on —

MR PATEL: I have new – I have new – no new policy to announce today. Today’s action was about designating individuals and entities across multiple jurisdictions who are connected to a sanctions evasion network supporting Russia’s defense sector, including prominent arms dealer Igor Vladimirovich Zimenkov. It has become increasingly difficult for Russia’s military-industrial complex to resupply the Kremlin’s war machine, forcing it to rely on nefarious suppliers such as the DPRK and Iran. Today’s actions were also taken in part of the U.S. commitment to Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs Task Force, a multilateral effort to identify and seize the assets of Russian proxies around the world.

QUESTION: Do you still – do you still assess the policy decision to lift the embargoes on Cyprus, south Cyprus, is correct?

QUESTION: State Department yesterday announced that Russia is noncompliant with the New START Treaty. So, what happens now?

MR PATEL: Well, as I said, Russia – as we said yesterday, Russia is not complying with its obligations under the New START Treaty to facilitate inspections on its territory. And its refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control.

There is a clear path for returning here. All Russia needs to do is to allow inspection activities on its territory, just as it did for years under the New START Treaty, and meet in a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission. There is nothing preventing Russian inspectors from traveling the United States and conducting inspections.

QUESTION: Has there been any effort to reach out to the Russians since that announcement was made?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific diplomatic engagements to read out, Camilla, but the path here is very, very clear and very straightforward. The Russian Federation, all they need to do is to allow inspection activities on its territories, just as it’s done for years.

QUESTION: The Israeli prime minister told CNN today that they have very complex relations with Russia, and he does not want to provoke any possible confrontation with Russia, especially over Syria. He said that we share the skies and all these things. Does that mean that Secretary of State Blinken during his visit did not succeed in sort of pushing the Israelis toward a more pro- or proactive in terms of support to Ukraine?

MR PATEL: Said, I am not going to characterize the prime minister’s comments. But what I will say is that Secretary Blinken, to his counterparts and to leaders around the world – the United States has had a consistent message as it relates to Russia, which is that Russia is – it is incumbent on Russia to cease its aggression and to remove its troops from Ukraine’s soil to achieve a just and durable peace. And that continues to be the message that we convey as it relates to the conflict in Russia and Ukraine.

QUESTION: Yeah, on Sudan. You issued a statement on this, but to what extent were you surprised by the release of Abdel-Ra’uf Abuzaid? And what’s your message to the Sudanese Government?

MR PATEL: We are aware of those reports, of the release of Abdel-Ra’uf Abuzaid by the Sudanese Government. Our embassy is engaging with government officials to obtain more information, and we’re seeking clarity about the release of the individual convicted of killing John Granville and his Sudanese colleague. The convicted killer was designated a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the U.S. in 2013, and we are expressing our deep concern over the January 30th release of this individual. We’re troubled by the lack of transparency in the legal process that resulted in his release, and we’re just continuing to seek more information.

QUESTION: Did you ask the Sudanese Government to bring him back to prison?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific diplomatic requests to offer, Michel. But this is something that our embassy personnel are engaging on and monitoring very closely.


MR PATEL: Go ahead. I’ll come back to you after that. Go ahead.

You had your hand up, sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, Vedant, I wanted to ask the ambassador about this. Lavrov is expected to visit Sudan on February 8th, I believe. So do you see any connection between the release of this detainee and this visit? And what do you make about this visit, about Russia footprints in the continent, especially after his visit to South Africa as well?

MR PATEL: On this specific release, I will reiterate that we are, through our embassy, working with government officials to try and obtain more information. I don’t want to draw any more conclusions beyond that. What I will echo is what I said to Said’s question, which is that to countries around the world, including on the African continent – and the ambassador spoke to this a great deal – we have been very clear about that in the context of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia is infringing on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. And our message in public and private continues to be the same, which is that the Russian Federation needs to cease its aggression and remove its troops from Ukrainian soil.

Go ahead in the back.

QUESTION: About Russian sanctions, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson is going to visit Türkiye tomorrow and the next day to meet with Turkish officials, and according to the Treasury readout, he will convey to his counterparts about institutions operating in permissive jurisdictions risk potentially losing access to G7 markets. Are you in touch with the Treasury about this meeting and do you have any comments on the status of Türkiye’s compliance with Russia sanctions?

MR PATEL: I will let our colleagues at the Treasury Department speak to that. That’s – obviously involves travel of one of their senior officials, so I will just let them follow up with you on that —

QUESTION: And on Türkiye, another question, if possible.

MR PATEL: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Today the German and British consulates in Istanbul closed after the Netherlands did the same thing following threats to Westerners related to recent Qu’ran burning stunts in European cities. A U.S. security alert also updated two days ago and still continues. Are we in touch with Turkish officials? Is there any updates about the intelligence sharing or how long will the security alert stay in effect?

MR PATEL: So what I will say is that, first and foremost, the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul remains open, and I will of course let the foreign ministries of these other countries speak to their own operating status as it relates to their missions in Türkiye. But to widen the aperture a little bit, the U.S. State Department has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas, and earlier this week – or over this weekend, rather – the U.S. Mission in Türkiye issued security alerts to inform U.S. citizens of possible attacks by terrorists against places of worship and diplomatic missions in areas foreign nationals frequent, especially in specific neighborhoods. Turkish authorities are investigating this matter, and would refer you to them to speak to more.

QUESTION: Follow-up on —

MR PATEL: Go ahead in the back. I’ll come back to you, Alex.

QUESTION: On Iran, the Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian – Abdollahian, after his meeting with the Qatari foreign minister, he said that we’ll see what Tehran has to say with a message from the world powers regarding the JCPOA. And after that, Iranian media reported that the top Qatari officials said that the message was from the U.S. Have you sent any message to the Iran regarding JCPOA? If say so, what was the message?

MR PATEL: I think I have been very clear from this podium a number of times, and so I will say it again, that the JCPOA has not been on the agenda for months. It is not our focus. The Iranians killed the opportunity for a swift return to full implementation of the JCPOA back in September when they turned their backs on a deal that was on the table approved by all. Since September, our focus has been standing up for the fundamental freedoms of the Iranian people, standing with the Iranian people, and countering Iran’s deepening military partnership with Russia and its support for Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. sent a message to Iran?

MR PATEL: Again, as I said, the JCPOA has not been on the agenda for months. It is not our focus.

Alex, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry, Vedant, you just said “killed” the opportunity. So it is dead and buried, the JCPOA? There’s no chance of going back to the negotiating —

MR PATEL: Said, we have – your question is rooted in a hypothetical. We of course have —

QUESTION: You just said killed the opportunity.

MR PATEL: We of course have said – we of course have long said and continue to believe – and it’s the belief of this administration – that Iran should never obtain a nuclear weapon, and we continue to believe that diplomacy continues to be the best mechanism to work through that. But as the specific question about the JCPOA, it has not been on the agenda for months.


QUESTION: Said’s question really – the Iran one – I’ll leave it for another day. Two questions, particularly on Russia-Türkiye. There are reports that U.S. leans on Türkiye to end Russian flights with American-made Boeings. Are you in a position to confirm those reports?

MR PATEL: American-made what?

QUESTION: Boeing. Boeing planes.

MR PATEL: I don’t have anything to offer on that. I haven’t seen that report, Alex, but —

QUESTION: On the South Caucasus, the Secretary just made an announcement this afternoon. He appointed – basically, Ambassador Reeker was replaced with, if I’m not mistaken, a non?ambassador career diplomat, Louis Bono. I was wondering if he is going to carry the same badge, because I read through the statement; I didn’t see much about his job. Basically the role is really outlined, but I did not see the name of Minsk Group or chief negotiator. Is it still the same job?

And secondly, is it the Secretary’s concern that the sides, Azerbaijan and Armenia, are sleepwalking towards another war?

MR PATEL: So, Alex, let me say a couple of things. First, broadly, I think you know this – you’ve covered this issue closely – this is something that is of deep importance to the Secretary. It’s something that the department is paying close attention to. Secretary Blinken in particular, as you know, had the chance to speak with both the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. So this is something that we’re going to continue to remain deeply engaged on.

On the subject of Mr. Bono, he is the lead for U.S. engagement to promote peace and stability for the South Caucasus. And he also represents the United States in the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair format, as his predecessors have in this role. Specifically, what I will say, though, about his qualifications – as I just said, this is an enduring priority for the Biden administration. And Mr. Bono is a senior leader in the department with significant experience working on challenging and complex issues. And he has the personal confidence of Secretary Blinken and this department in taking on this new role.

QUESTION: Do you have any announcement on – of trip, upcoming trip for him?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any trips or travel to preview yet for you.

QUESTION: Do you have a new tool that he’s going to use, or is it the same badge, same tools?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any new policies to announce today, Alex. But again, this is of course something that we’re going to continue to pay close attention to and focus on.

 QUESTION: Two clarifications, please. The president of Türkiye said a while ago that his position on – on Finland is positive, but he’s not positive on Sweden. So, what is the American position on this? Do you accept this new position by Türkiye, or you want both countries at the same time to be members of NATO?

MR PATEL: Let me speak a little bit about this. Secretary Blinken has spoken about this previously. There has been a process and a process that has been ongoing involving Türkiye, Finland, and Sweden. That process has been productive in addressing some of the concerns that Türkiye has raised about its own security, and both Finland and Sweden have taken significant steps to address those concerns.

Let me be very clear. Finland and Sweden are ready to be NATO Allies; both are ready to be NATO Allies. Both are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and NATO’s Enhanced Opportunity Partnership. Their militaries work seamlessly with Alliance forces, and we are confident that NATO will formally welcome Finland and Sweden as members very soon.

QUESTION: The results of last Sunday election in Tunisia announced yesterday, and it has shown that 90 percent of the voters didn’t participate. The reason was, as explained, that the president has put all the power in his hand. And this number is unheard of. Did you have any comment? Did you issue any statements on it or did you have any comment?

MR PATEL: So the United States remains committed to the longstanding U.S.-Tunisia partnership. The second round of parliamentary elections that took place over the weekend is another step in the important and essential process of restoring the country’s democratic checks and balances. But as we noted back in December, low voter turnout reflects the need for government to engage in a more inclusive process going forward to further expand political participation. And we’re going to continue to support the Tunisian people’s aspirations for a democratic and accountable government that protects human rights and fundamental freedoms, including free expression, and preserves space for civil society as well.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any, let’s say, criticism or whatever —

MR PATEL: I think you’ve just heard me —

QUESTION: — for the president?

MR PATEL: I think you’ve just heard me say that the low voter turnout is – reflects the dire need for the government to engage in a more inclusive path going forward. So I would reiterate that.

In the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’ve got a follow-up on that Sweden-Finland question, because over the past couple of weeks I posed these questions to you and your colleague, Mr. Price. When the United States says that they are ready to join NATO, that’s kind of a verdict, a judgment on the U.S. side that they are ready to join NATO. But the disagreement between Stockholm and Ankara still persists, as Ankara says that according to Article 5 of that trilateral memorandum, some of those steps that they should have taken in the past eight, nine months regarding eliminating terrorism has not been met.

And over the weekend we heard from Sweden’s chief NATO negotiator, and it’s not hearsay. He made his remarks to Swedish public radio. He said: Unlike Finland, we have a larger share of funding for the PKK from Sweden. These are often multitaskers in their field – extortion, financing weapons and drugs exists in this field. And they are still yet to pass a legislation in the Swedish parliament regarding these terrorist activities. So how is it possible still in Washington to say that they are ready to join NATO? Because that’s kind of interpreted in Europe and also in Washington that there is a directive that is given to Ankara. Can you please clarify that? Because even Stockholm are saying that they are not ready, actually, to join NATO.

MR PATEL: We – our assessment is that they are ready to join NATO. They are ready to be NATO Allies. Both, as I just said, Sweden and Finland are partners of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and NATO’s Enhanced Opportunity Partnership. These are two countries whose militaries work seamlessly with NATO Alliance forces already. And what I will also say in reflection to the top of your question, we acknowledge Türkiye’s legitimate security concerns, but we also appreciate the tangible actions both Finland and Sweden have already taken to address those concerns. This of course is a process; that process continues to be underway. And we look forward to welcoming NATO – welcoming Sweden and Finland into NATO very soon.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that, please?


QUESTION: So if the progress in implementing the trilateral memorandum varies between the two aspirants to NATO, why wouldn’t it be possible that we consider separate approval timelines for two countries? Why the United States is trying to mention two countries together and taking – having them all together into NATO instead of having one by one?

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get too into the weeds of this process. This process has been ongoing, and you have seen the United States do its part in – as it relates to the responsibilities that we have as a NATO member. We, of course, through our Congress, approved the accession of both of these countries, and we’re going to continue to let this process play out. But we, of course, have been very clear that Finland and Sweden are ready to be NATO Allies.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: There seems to be a bipartisan consensus forming on the Hill about designating – in support of designating the Wager Group as a terrorist organization. Would this be helpful in the Sudan and also in Ukraine and elsewhere around the world, in Russia as well, given their horrible activities? What is – do you have a – I know the State Department in the past has worried that this might interfere with some humanitarian organizations, their work. Is this still an ongoing concern, or is there a greater consensus now that we need to designate them and – for what they are?

MR PATEL: I’m not going to preview any specific actions, but if you look at Wagner’s track record, it’s clear that they are a criminal organization, a transnational criminal organization. They are motivated by things that are evocative of criminal organization, things like profit, not necessarily for status or reputation or things like that.

But one thing that I want to be very clear about – and you saw us speak to this last week – is that countries that experience Wagner Group deployments within their borders find themselves poorer, weaker, and less secure. And that is why you saw the United States take a number of actions last week, a number of designations, to hold the Wagner Group accountable.

QUESTION: Mostly on the same topic, but a little different – slightly different.

MR PATEL: Sure, Alex. And then we probably have to wrap up.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Do you have any comment on the so-called bounty offers that we have been hearing from Russia coming from, well, so-called independent organizations, but it’s definitely encouraged and supported by the Kremlin, against the U.S. tanks and other weapons?

MR PATEL: What I would say, Alex, is that I’ve seen that reporting as well. But I think it’s important to remember here that, in the context of Ukraine, it is, again, the Russian Federation that is illegally and unlawfully on Ukrainian soil, violating Ukrainian territorial integrity, violating Ukrainian sovereignty.

And so what the United States is going to do is continue to do everything in our power to hold the Russian Federation accountable and to support our Ukrainian partners. That, of course, includes through security assistance, but that also includes continuing to take actions against the Russian Federation and holding them accountable.

QUESTION: Are you willing to —


QUESTION: Would you be willing to designate those organizations as terrorist organizations, if they pursue these – what they say they do?

MR PATEL: Alex, I think we’re just – we’re getting into hypotheticals here.

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

MR PATEL: Final question.

QUESTION: Yeah. You ask many times Türkiye to return this Russian S-400 to Moscow. Will you sanction Türkiye for this? Can you tell us if your position change since Türkiye refused to send back the system? Or do you still asking Türkiye to send the S-400 to Mr. Putin? Thank you.

MR PATEL: So we have imposed sanctions on Türkiye because of that. Our position has not changed. The, obviously, S-400s would – continues to have them in violation, and that’s why we’ve imposed sanctions under CAATSA 231 in December of 2020 on Türkiye.

All right. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:03 p.m.)