US State Dept Presser

State Dept Presser, Feb 10, 2023

14 Min
State Dept Presser, Feb 10, 2023

The US State Dept Principal Dy Spokesperson, Vedant Patel held press briefing on Feb 10. And answered questions on the Ukraine war, China’s L’affaire Balloon, and Turkey-Syria earthquake amongst other issues.

Some Excerpts

MR PATEL: Hey everybody, good afternoon and thanks so much for joining us today over the phone. I have a couple things off the top, and then happy to dive into your questions.

So first, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Africa, Peter Lord, traveled to Sudan and joined special envoys and representatives from France, Germany, Norway, and the UK and the European Union in support of the people of Sudan and their demands for a civilian-led transitional government to restore Sudan’s democratic transition. During their joint visit, the envoys and representatives met with a broad range of Sudanese actors, including civilian and military signatories to the framework political agreement, civil society, resistance committees, and representatives of some parties that have not yet come into the framework political agreement process.

They urged Sudanese parties to conduct inclusive dialogue based on the framework political agreement and to put aside narrow political interests to reach a final political agreement to advance Sudan’s democratic transition under civilian leadership. They acknowledged that the door remains open for additional groups to participate in the framework political agreement process, whose aim is to realize the Sudanese people’s continued calls for freedom, peace, and justice.

Additionally, today, in coordination with the United Kingdom, the United States took actions against corrupt actors in Bulgaria. The Department of Treasury sanctioned five former Bulgarian Government officials for their extensive involvement in corruption in Bulgaria, as well as five associated entities, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The Department of State also imposed visa restrictions on three of these individuals for involvement in significant corruption under Section 7031(c) of the Annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act.

Concurrently, our partners in the United Kingdom sanctioned three Bulgarians under the UK Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regime. Those designated today engaged in corrupt acts, enriched themselves at the expense of the Bulgarian people and the stability of Bulgarian democratic institutions.

And lastly, the Russian Federation has yet again unleashed a massive barrage of ballistic missiles and Iranian drones against even more infrastructure, including targeting thermal generation stations and not just transformer stations. Today’s missile attack also included hydroelectric stations. These strikes against entire power plants that heat millions of homes and lights thousands of city blocks, offices, hospitals, and schools – these are essential structures that make a cold winter survivable for millions. This is a deliberate targeting of infrastructure that keeps Ukrainians alive in winter.

Today is yet another reminder that Russia seeks the full destruction of Ukraine. They literally want to bring darkness to Ukraine. Right and wrong are stark and clear in this situation. Nearly one year since the Kremlin launched its full-scale assault on the people and very idea of Ukraine, the international community must reject Russia’s despicable, murderous behavior and make clear where they stand. There is right and there is wrong, and Russia is wrong.

And with that, we’re happy to take your questions. Operator, if you want to repeat the instructions on how folks can ask questions.

OPERATOR: Once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad.

MR PATEL: Great. Let’s first go to the line of Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal.

OPERATOR: Will, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Can you hear me?

MR PATEL: Yep. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Happy Friday. I wanted to ask about Moldova. The prime minister has resigned, the government’s collapsed, and this comes at a time when President Zelenskyy of Ukraine has warned that Russia is trying to destabilize (inaudible) and a cruise missile appears to have flown over Moldova. So I’m wondering, is this – what does the State Department think of this? Is this a dangerous spot for Moldova right now? And did Russian influence contribute to the government shakeup? Thanks.

MR PATEL: Thanks, Will, for your question. Let me say a couple of things. First, we respect the decisions of the leaders of Moldova, and we look forward to continuing to work with the government and the people of Moldova to address current challenges. Specifically on your question about a missile crossing into Moldova, the Moldovan Ministry of Defense confirmed that a Russian missile overflew Moldovan territory, and the Moldovan foreign ministry called in the Russian ambassador. Moldova’s Government has repeatedly called out Russia for its violation of Moldovan airspace in its unjustified and barbaric war against Ukraine.

And lastly, in October of last year, we took action to counter the Government of Russia’s persistent malign influence campaigns in Moldova by imposing sanctions on nine individuals and 12 entities. And as we said when we announced those sanctions, Russia has for years supported influence and destabilization campaigns in Moldova, which often involve weaponizing corruption to further its goals. While the Russian Federation pushes its narrative by supporting influence agents, it simultaneously takes advantage of corruption to advance its own interests.

Next, let’s go to the line of Camilla Schick with CBS News.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) very much. Happy Friday as well. Just following up on Will’s question, have you – do you have anything about reports that a missile also flew over Romanian airspace – a Russian missile – or whether, according to the State Department, those reports are false? And one on the Nicaragua prisoners released yesterday. We heard someone from the State Department addressed the media at the hotel next to Dulles Airport where the prisoners had been flown to. Just wondered if you had any kind of readouts or information on what that State Department representative said yesterday. Thank you.

MR PATEL: Thanks for your question, Camilla. First, we maintain close contact and communication with our Moldovan partners and Romanian allies. At this time, we have no indication of a direct military threat by Russia against Moldova or Romania. And more broadly, we support Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as its constitutionally guaranteed neutrality.

On the question you – on your second question about the prisoner release in Nicaragua, I don’t have a specific update for you on their activities here in the United States, but I’m happy to check and get back to you. But broadly what I would say is the White House, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, HHS, USAID, and others continue to coordinate logistics for the transfer of political prisoners. HHS will coordinate logistics on evaluating the health conditions of the prisoners upon arrival, and our department is generally coordinating logistics for the arrival in partnership with USAID.

Next, let’s go the line of Jenny Hansler with CNN.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Can you hear me?

MR PATEL: Yep, go ahead.

QUESTION: Awesome. Thanks, Vedant. Have there been any conversations between U.S. and Chinese officials in the wake of the surveillance balloon being shot down, and are we any closer to perhaps the Secretary rescheduling his Beijing trip? What conditions still need to be met?

MR PATEL: Thanks for your question, Jenny. I don’t have any updates to provide beyond Ned and others speaking about this a great deal earlier this week. I have no new calls or diplomatic engagements to read out. And as the Secretary and others have said, the trip will be rescheduled for when conditions allow, and I don’t have any travel updates or scheduling updates to provide beyond that.

Next, let’s go to the line of Shannon Crawford from ABC News.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question about the payload. Officials believe from that balloon that they’ve discovered the payload. Does the State Department anticipate that if indeed it’s recovered and officials can analyze perhaps where the parts of the balloon, the other equipment that was being carried by the balloon over the United States, that might put the State Department closer to being able to take action against the companies that supported the PLA’s surveillance mission? Will that move the ball forward in any way?

MR PATEL: Let me say a couple things to that, Shannon. First, as you know, there is an ongoing operation to recover the balloon’s components. We’re analyzing them to learn more about the surveillance program, but I certainly don’t want to get ahead of that process and would refer you to the entities involved in the recovery.

More broadly though, the United States sent a clear message to China that its violation of our sovereignty was unacceptable. We made that clear by shooting down this balloon, protecting our own sensitive intelligence, and maximizing our ability to track the balloon and recover the payload to get more information on the PRC’s program. The United States is also exploring taking action against PRC entities linked to the PLA that supported the balloon’s incursion into U.S. airspace. And we’ll also look at broader efforts to expose and address the PRC’s larger surveillance activities that pose a threat to our national security and to our allies and partners. Our approach to China is clear: We are in competition, but we are going to keep our lines of communication open. And we have a very good and clear track record of that.

Next, let’s go to the line of Alex Raufoglu.

QUESTION: Hi, Vedant. Happy Friday. Can you hear me?

MR PATEL: Yes, sir. Go ahead. Happy Friday.

QUESTION: Okay, awesome. Thanks so much. Two questions. Just to clarify on Romania, has the Secretary or anyone at the leadership level been in touch with Romanian leaders – or also Moldovan, of course. As you know, Romanian side says that Russian missile just barely bypassed their borders. Do you have better sense of what exactly happened today? And briefly on Armenia-Azerbaijan, you probably have seen the latest comments from your Russian counterpart Zakharova today lambasting the Washington and Brussels peacemaking efforts in the South Caucasus, saying that it seeks to derail the implementations of trilateral agreements that they signed with Azerbaijani, Armenian leaders.

My question is: As you know, this is not the first time they do that, but this also comes prior to Lavrov trying to put together another meeting after Putin personally attacking the U.S. – Washington’s efforts, peacemaking efforts. Do you vouch – do you support Russia-led meetings at this point? Thanks so much.

MR PATEL: Thanks, Alex. First, I don’t have specific diplomatic engagements or any calls to offer you obviously on what I said, which is that we are in close touch with our Moldovan and Romanian counterparts, but don’t have any specifics to share beyond that. We of course are in touch with them on a number of issues, and we’re continuing to monitor and pay close attention to the situation.

Beyond the – your second question – look, quite broadly, promoting peace in the South Caucasus remains an enduring priority for not just this administration, but by Secretary Blinken, in particular, as evidenced by his direct outreach and engagement on these issues directly with leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan. And this is something that we are going to continue to stay focused on. As it relates to Russia, they have taken – the (inaudible) fact is that Russian aggression and unilateralism has undermined a number of lines of efforts, undermined a number of prospects for productive work in the Minsk Group format.

And the U.S. remains firmly committed to engagement on any and all avenues for the promotion of peace, whether that be bilaterally, whether that be through mechanisms within the EU, whether that be via the OSCE. And like I said, promoting peace in the South Caucasus remains an enduring priority for us.

Next, let’s go to the line of Leon Bruneau with AFP.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. Two things, please. One, could you just clarify on this Moldova issue? You said – confirmed that a missile overflew Moldova, but at the same time you said that you didn’t perceive that there was a threat. Could you – neither for Romania. Could you clarify that, please? And then secondly, I wanted to ask you about the aftermath of the earthquake in Syria. The Syrian Government today approved the delivery of aid to areas outside its control, to the rebel held northwest. Do you welcome that decision? And is there any scenario where you would accept to coordinate USAID with the Syrian Government if that were to come to be? Thanks.

MR PATEL: Sure, Leon. First, I will just – I don’t have a clarification to offer than – beyond what I said previously, which is that Moldova’s own ministry of defense confirmed that a Russian missile overflew Moldovan territory. The Moldovan foreign ministry in turn called in the Russian ambassador, and Moldova’s government broadly has repeatedly called out Russia for its violation of Moldovan airspace over the course of its unjustified war against Ukraine. And as I said, we remain in close contact and communication with our Moldovan partners and our Romanian allies, and continue to believe that at this time we have no indication of a direct military threat by Russia against Moldova or Romania.

Specifically, as a follow-up to your question about – can you repeat your question on the earthquake, Leon?

OPERATOR: Leon has exited the queue.

MR PATEL: That’s okay. I think I remember what he asked about. Sorry, give me one second.

Sorry about that. So broadly, what I would say, Leon, is that we of course, since this tragic earthquake took place on Monday, have been advocating for the quick ease and flow of as much humanitarian aid as possible to help assist with the search and rescue and address the very challenging and complicated circumstances on the ground. Broadly, though, the U.S. Government has humanitarian partners working in every governorate in Syria, including in regime-controlled areas, and we have instructed our partners to use existing funds to reach populations in all affected areas, including regime-controlled areas. And we stand ready to provide additional support once assessments are complete and humanitarian appeals are issued.

And I want to emphasize that U.S. humanitarian assistance goes to the conflict-affected people in Syria, not to the regime. And on a related note, U.S. sanctions in Syria do not target humanitarian aid. Our sanctions have longstanding authorizations that allow for humanitarian assistance. And since the start of the Syrian crisis 12 years ago, we have worked with humanitarian and financial institutions to update and clarify those authorizations so aid reaches the people who need it. This administration is committed to removing impediments to humanitarian access around the world, including in Syria.

Next let’s go to the line of Hiba Nasr with Asharq News.

OPERATOR: One moment.


OPERATOR: You may proceed.

QUESTION: Yes, can you hear me?

MR PATEL: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Hi, Vedant. Thanks for taking my question. I want to follow up on Syria. Yesterday, the Treasury Department issued a license that gives also humanitarian access to Syria. Can you elaborate a little bit on that? Because we need to understand what’s allowed and what’s still sanctionable.

MR PATEL: Sure. Let me make it pretty crystal clear: No sanctions have been lifted. In the moment of emergency, the Treasury Department took action to issue this general license to avoid any confusion in order to maximize assistance to those in need. The general license is sending a message to anyone who wants to engage in earthquake relief that U.S. sanctions will not stand in the way. The U.S. is amplifying and formally spelling out in writing what has always been true, that we want as much humanitarian assistance as soon as possible to reach as many people in Syria. Our sanctions have always allowed humanitarian assistance, and our goal is to promote and expand assistance, given the urgent circumstances from the earthquake.

Next let’s go to the line of Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera News.

QUESTION: Follow-up question on the Nicaragua former prisoners. Is this a one-off situation, or is the U.S. Government expecting the Nicaraguans to release more political prisoners and expect the U.S. in turn to allow them to gain humanitarian parole in the U.S.? And if so, what does the State Department think this could do in terms of improving relations on a long-term basis with Managua? Thank you.

MR PATEL: Thanks, Rosiland. We have consistently pressed publicly and privately for the release of individuals imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms in Nicaragua, and the Government of Nicaragua made its own decision to release these individuals. The United States facilitated their transport and entry into the United States. So I don’t have any specific actions to preview or anything like that but wanted to reiterate that.

Next let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham with Voice of America.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PATEL: Yep, go ahead.

QUESTION: All right. Hi. Thank you very much for taking my question. I have two questions on North Korea. North Korea on Wednesday unveiled a solid fuel ICBM, and many experts believe that it can hit the U.S. mainland. As you know, there is a growing skepticism in South Korea about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. So as North Korea has or will soon have ICBMs with enough range to hit the U.S. mainland, I would like to ask you if you need to modify or change your defense posture or extended deterrence at some point.

My second question: The South Korean Government imposed sanctions on North Korea against 11 North Korean hackers and hacker groups. What is your comment on this? Also, does the United States have any plans to designate these individuals and groups who are not sanctioned by the U.S., who are only sanctioned by South Korea? Thank you.

MR PATEL: Thanks for your question. Let me start with the second one first. First and foremost, certainly, we’re not going to preview any actions, and the United States continues to have a number of tools at its disposal to hold the DPRK accountable for the long list of destabilizing and malign activities that it takes part in. As it relates to sanctions imposed by the Republic of Korea, I would refer you to their government to speak more specifically and broadly on those.

On to your first question, though. Let me be clear on this: We have not parsed words in this department or in this administration about the DPRK’s ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction program and the destabilizing factor that it poses, not just in the region but across the world. And our goal remains the same, which is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And we are prepared to – we have another – a number of tools in our tool belt available to hold the DPRK accountable, but I’ll also note that the U.S. is prepared to engage in diplomacy towards that objective as well.

I will let our Pentagon colleagues speak about specific nuclear posture or preparedness or anything like that. I don’t have any updates to offer on that from here, but I will close with that the United States and the Republic of Korea continue to pursue the shared objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And we believe the only effective way to reduce nuclear threats on the peninsula is by curving – curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. We have continued to reach out to the DPRK to engage in serious dialogue on this matter and have received no response.

Let’s next go to the line of Poonam Sharma.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PATEL: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. My question is about Ethiopia. It’s from a colleague of mine. The crisis in Tigray was contained in a relatively small region with no more than 6 percent of the nation’s total population, but today it involves the entire Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Recently the church has made clear that it’s prepared to sacrifice its leaders and followers and will not submit to the Oromo tribalist renegades and the prime minister threat. So what is the – what can the United States do to help stop the unfair treatment of the Orthodox Church before things get out of control and lead into a civil war?

MR PATEL: Thanks so much for your question. So we have spoken about this a great deal, but I will reiterate that earlier – late last month, Secretary Blinken spoke with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy regarding the significant progress to date on implementation of the November 2nd cessation of hostilities, including the ongoing withdrawal of Eritrean troops from northern Ethiopia. The Secretary welcomed this development, noting that it was key to securing a sustainable peace in northern Ethiopia, and urged access for international human rights monitors. The Secretary affirmed the commitment of the United States to support the African Union-led peace process in northern Ethiopia. He also had the opportunity to express the department’s continued engagement and close attention to this matter, and it’s something that we’ll continue to remain deeply engaged on.

We’ve got time for one or two more questions. Let’s next go to Dilge Timocin with Voice of America.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. Do you have any updates about the U.S. efforts in Türkiye regarding the earthquake? Is there any new deployments in progress?

MR PATEL: Thanks for your question. We are ramping up our assistance in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that killed more than 22,000 and rising by the hour in Türkiye and Syria. This earthquake was one of the worst in the century, and our hearts are with all of those impacted. Yesterday, as I’m sure you saw, the U.S. announced $85 million in urgent humanitarian assistance to help millions of people in Türkiye and Syria.

We remain in close contact with our Turkish allies. Secretary Blinken had the opportunity to speak yesterday with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu along with the fact that earlier this week President Biden had the opportunity to speak with President Erdogan.

Specifically in terms of some of the specific ways that we’re supporting, a Disaster Assistance and Response Team is on the ground in southern Türkiye. Two of our most highly trained urban search and rescue teams are conducting operations in support of Turkish rescue efforts in one of the hardest-hit areas. These teams have nearly 200 personnel, they have specialized equipment, emergency managers, hazardous materials technicians, engineers, paramedics – all of these are on the ground. And today, USAID’s DART search and rescue team is expanding their operational reach with the support of helicopters which will allow search and rescue crews to quickly access more remote areas and continue to look for trapped survivors as well.

Let’s go to Janne Pak, next question.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PATEL: Yep, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant, for taking my questions. Deputy Sherman – I mean Deputy Secretary Sherman and South Korean, Japanese vice foreign ministers meeting soon, and what topics will be discussed? And are you going to discuss North Korea’s ransomware, cyber-attacks? Thank you very much.

MR PATEL: Thanks so much for your question, Janne. I don’t have any specific engagements to – or scheduling updates to offer, so certainly won’t get ahead of that process, but want to of course express our support for our partners in the Republic of Korea and Japan who have been – who have been valuable partners as it relates to our – through our three shared goals of a free and open Indo-Pacific and our continued efforts to combat the destabilizing and reckless activities of the DPRK in the region as well. But I don’t have any specific meetings to offer yet.

Oh, I’m sorry, that is actually – we actually did announce this meeting. My apologies. Sorry about that. Deputy Secretary Sherman will host the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral meeting early next week. She’ll have the opportunity to meet with the Japanese vice minister and the Republic of Korea’s first vice minister. They will discuss a number of issues, including plans to enhance trilateral security cooperation in the region and the world as well.

With that, everybody, thanks so much for joining the daily press briefing, and we’ll talk to you all soon.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:44 p.m.)