WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. State Department held a press briefing on December 6, 2021, touching on subjects ranging from air travel testing requirements, boycott of 2022 Winter Olympics in China, Russian agggression, and more.
Department Press Briefing – December 6, 2021
12/06/2021 06:43 PM EST
Ned Price, Department Spokesperson
2:11 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Just one item at the top, and we will look forward to taking your questions from there.
A quick update on air travel testing requirements. Starting on December 6 – today – all air travelers aged two and older, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, are required to show a negative Covid-19 test taken within one day of their departure to the United States.
This policy applies to all air travelers – U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and foreign nationals alike.
The tighter testing timeline provides an added degree of public health – public health protection as scientists continue to assess the Omicron variant.
Foreign nationals traveling to the United States, with only limited exceptions, must also be fully-vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination status prior to boarding their flight to the United States.
President Biden has promised to take every measure necessary to keep the American people safe and to defeat the pandemic, and these are steps recommended by U.S. Government medical experts and the COVID-19 Response Team.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks. You feeling all right? You sound a little hoarse.
MR PRICE: I actually sound worse than I feel, so if that’s any consolation. But no.
QUESTION: Well, maybe for you. (Laughter.) I don’t know. Some big game over the weekend that you went to see or –
MR PRICE: No, it – I wish. I wish I had a more exciting excuse. I think lack of sleep during the trip last week is the primary consideration.
QUESTION: Gotcha. Can I just start with a very quick question on the – what the White House, your colleague at the White House announced today on the – in terms of the Olympics?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: This is being presented everywhere as a diplomatic boycott, but in fact it’s not really that, is it? Because U.S. diplomats will be at the Games assisting with the athletes and with the – with others who – other American citizens who may be there?
MR PRICE: Matt, you are welcome to call it whatever you would like, but –
QUESTION: I’m not calling it. I’m —
MR PRICE: I’m – you or anyone. I’m not – I don’t mean to single out you, but people are able to call this what they like. For our part, what we announced today is that we will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, as well as other human rights abuses.
Now, of course that does not modulate at all our support for Team USA. We will be behind them 100 percent. We will be cheering them on. But of course, we will not have any official or diplomatic representation that would send a signal that these Games represent anything akin to business as usual in the face of these ongoing atrocities, crimes against humanity, and the ongoing genocide.
QUESTION: So – okay, so then you’re saying that there will be no support for Team USA from the embassy or from DS, people coming – there will not be anyone from the State Department or any other agency flying over to Beijing to assist with this?
MR PRICE: So, of course, our top priority anywhere around the world – even when we have profound disagreements and take profound objection to what may be going on in certain countries – is the safety and security of the American people. And so, we do intend to provide consular and Diplomatic Security services to ensure that our athletes, coaches, trainers, staff associated with the U.S. Olympic team, that they are secure, that they have access to American citizen services, that we provide as a routine matter of course to all Americans overseas. But this is a separate matter from official diplomatic representation at the Games.
QUESTION: So – of course. So – but despite the fact that the President or the First Lady or the second – the Vice President or the Second Gentleman won’t be – or anyone else will be there, about how many U.S. diplomats do you think will be deployed to assist with the – with Team USA?
MR PRICE: I don’t have an estimate to offer, at this time. Obviously – we obviously –
QUESTION: A rough number. Going back to looking at previous Olympics, whether there has been a diplomatic boycott or not, about how many are we talking about? One hundred, two hundred?
MR PRICE: Matt, I don’t have those historical figures at my fingertips. What I can tell you, though, is that of course we do have a large mission in China, given the expansive and consequential nature of this bilateral relationship. So, on any given day – today included – we do have a number, a large number of Americans on the ground in Beijing and elsewhere throughout China who can support American citizens, who can provide those American citizen services. You are correct that with major events like this, that presence does typically increase. But today I don’t have any update to provide other than to reiterate that, as you heard from my colleague at the White House, we will not have any diplomatic or official representation at the Games owing to the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
QUESTION: Fair enough. But you will have diplomats at the Games, right?
MR PRICE: We will, of course, have diplomats in China.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. No, at the Games.
QUESTION: In principle —
MR PRICE: Matt, this is really arguing over semantics here. It’s —
QUESTION: On that —
QUESTION: No, it’s – it’s frankly not. I want to know if that – if your decision not to send anyone means that there is not going to be any support. And what you’re telling me is that there will be support —
MR PRICE: We of course will provide American citizens services support to our athletes, coaches, staff.
QUESTION: Okay, that’s all.
MR PRICE: Yes, Francesco.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that.
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: As you know, many in Congress – and not only in Congress, the Secretary’s predecessor – were calling for much more tough stances like total boycott of the Games, even by U.S. athletes. And is – does this diplomatic boycott mean that this is it or that – will there be other measure to – other forms of boycott? Do you support calls by some in Congress to prevent U.S. entities to sponsor events at the Olympics? Is there anything else going to be to confront what you called a genocide in Xinjiang?
MR PRICE: Well, so what we have announced today, of course, is the lack of any diplomatic or official U.S. representation at the Games. I also want to be clear that this of course is not the totality of the steps we have taken, of the steps we have spoken to, in response to the ongoing genocide and other crimes against humanity that are ongoing in Xinjiang. And of course, this has been a priority since the earliest days of this administration. Even before he was sworn into his current office, Secretary Blinken made clear his – the fact that he agreed with the determination that was put forward by the previous administration that what was, and is, transpiring in Xinjiang constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.
We’ve put in place a number of financial sanctions. We’ve put in place a number of visa restrictions. We’ve put in place a number of export restrictions. We’ve enacted a withhold release order for goods that may be coming in from supply chains using forced labor. We’ve put out a business advisory. We have hosted a number of UN side events. We have ourselves galvanized joint multilateral statements with the international community. And I think that last point is quite important because it speaks to one of the core strengths of our approach.
When the United States speaks, when the United States takes action, the world listens. But when we speak and when we take action with the world at our side, as we have consistently done in the context of Xinjiang – whether it’s in the context of the sanctions we announced together with some of our closest allies and partners in March, whether it is in the context of the G7 communique that had quite strong language put forward on the genocide and crimes against humanity ongoing in Xinjiang that came together in June – we have done this consistently. And I think that really is a hallmark of the approach we have taken vis-à-vis the PRC. It is not just the United States taking these actions, but we are often acting in concert, in close coordination with our partners and allies, which obviously will inevitably carry greater consequence and have more impact.
QUESTION: Just a – sorry.
MR PRICE: Sure. Go ahead, Francesco. Sorry.
QUESTION: Just another follow-up. You were mentioning the international community, and how much you consult with them on that. And over the last six months when we were asking you would you do any kind of boycott, you were saying we will consult or coordinate with our partner and allies. Is there any other country who is going to take the same stance as you are doing today?
MR PRICE: Well, we have routinely consulted with our partners and allies about the human rights abuses, including the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. And I think that consultation, that regular consultation, you see it reflected in many of the steps that I just enumerated – the actions, the statements that we have put out together.
Look, when it —
QUESTION: But for the boycott, are you confident you will not be alone on this —
MR PRICE: When it comes to representation at the Games, this is a sovereign decision that each country needs to make. We fully expect that other countries will announce their decision in the coming days and weeks. The Games are a few months away now, so I expect we’ll be hearing more from other countries. But this is a sovereign decision that each country needs to make. We came to our —
QUESTION: Are you confident that other countries will do the same?
MR PRICE: We came to our decision based on the human rights abuses, including genocide and other crimes against humanity that are ongoing in Xinjiang. What we know today is that there are many countries around the world, including many of our closest allies, who share these concerns. And you don’t have to take my word for it; you can see their concerns reflected in some of the statements that we have put out together, including in the G7 communique that was issued in June. So, I fully expect you’ll be hearing more from other countries, but I will let other countries speak to their sovereign decisions when it comes to representation at the Games.
QUESTION: Actually, that was my question, with regards to the Olympics. I have a question on Russia, but I don’t know if you want to take other —
MR PRICE: Anything else on the Olympics?
QUESTION: Can I just ask two more quick questions on the Olympics?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: First, China said it will take resolute countermeasures once it was first reported that this diplomatic ban was going forth. Are you guys concerned at all that this could turn into a tit for tat that isn’t actually based on the substance of the genocide and what is actually going on in China?
MR PRICE: Look, I don’t have a reaction to the PRC’s reaction. That itself would get into a cycle. What I will say is that our approach is predicated on these genuine concerns that we have. Our concerns and the approach that we announced today is substantive, it is real, it is concrete. I don’t want to try and preview, try and divine what we might see or hear from the PRC going forward. That is up for them to say.
QUESTION: And then just one other thing. American companies that are backing the Games, sponsors and the like, is there any message to those companies? Or are you allowing them to go forth with their business interests front and center?
MR PRICE: Well, we have done – we have gone to extraordinary lengths to send unambiguous messages to the international community, and that includes the private sector, about the concerns that we have with the human rights abuses that are ongoing in Xinjiang. We have done that by speaking out very publicly, by enacting sanctions, by moving forward with withhold release orders, with other steps that the Department of State, the Department of Treasury, the Department of Commerce, the White House, and others have put forward in response to what we have seen take place and what we have seen ongoing in Xinjiang.
So, the private sector has at its fingertips – and this includes American companies – a large volume of information of the concerns that the United States has put forward, that we have put forward together with our partners and our allies. And it is up to them to make their own decisions about their practices in relation to what we have very clearly said is ongoing in Xinjiang.
QUESTION: But that’s a general message. What is your message to them about the Olympic Games, specifically? Do you want them to join the Biden administration in boycotting these Games?
MR PRICE: We want the private sector to be fully cognizant and to operate with full information, with regard to what is transpiring in Xinjiang. It is not, in this country, unlike other countries, the role of the government to dictate the practices that the private sector should adopt. But what we have done is put the private sector in a position to operate with full information, and we have engaged behind the scenes with the private sector as well. So again, it’s not for us to dictate, but it is for us to make sure they’re operating with a full sense of the information.
QUESTION: One more on that?
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: When did you notify Beijing about this decision if you did notify them? And would you – would the State Department prefer to have an ambassador in place for the Games, Ambassador Nick Burns or – at moments like this? Do you think that’d help – how important do you think that is? It’s a diplomatic boycott or whatever you want to call it, as Matt points out, but there could be incidents that arise in it and —
MR PRICE: So, this decision was rolled out over the past couple days. We’ve notified relevant stakeholders, but I don’t have specifics to offer publicly in terms of what that entailed. To the general point, we absolutely would benefit – and I’m using the “we” in an expansive sense – the United States would benefit from having in place a Senate-confirmed ambassador in Beijing and other capitals around the world.
Look, the point about our relationship with Beijing is worth emphasizing here. This is the most consequential bilateral relationship we have. It is a complicated relationship. It is a relationship that requires engagement to ensure that this competition – which at its core we want to make sure is fair. We want to make sure the American people, American companies are operating on a level playing field, but to ensure that this competition doesn’t veer into conflict. It’s about establishing those guardrails to ensure that this remains competition and to ensure that that competition is flat for the American people, for our partners, and for our allies around the world. And so yes, we would absolutely benefit from an ambassador in Beijing. We would tremendously benefit from an ambassador as talented, as experienced, as respected as Nick Burns.
QUESTION: But he’s a Red Sox fan.
MR PRICE: (Laughter.) For those who couldn’t hear, Matt maligned his sports preferences, but that’s neither here nor there. Nick Burns is someone in whom the President has full confidence, as you saw from his nomination; someone in whom the Secretary has full confidence, someone the Secretary knows well, and we would absolutely benefit from having soon-to-be, hopefully, Ambassador Burns in place in Beijing.
But the point remains across the board: No other country in the world, whether it is an ally, whether it is a competitor, whether it may be an adversary, would handcuff itself in the same way that we have handcuffed ourselves when it comes to our diplomatic representation around the world. We are grateful to have in this department a number of extremely capable and talented chargés around the world who have been called upon to take on the role of essentially ambassador in this vacuum that is before us.
But no other country would handcuff themselves in this way. It does not further our national security interests. It does not further our foreign policy interests. It certainly does not further any sort of progress on the very, I would say, narrow issues that certain members of Congress have flagged and have put forward when trying to explain what I would say is the inexplicable: their unwillingness to allow the United States to operate with its full team on the field.
So, this is something we are treating as the utmost priority, an utmost priority here at the department, because it is and has to be a priority for this department to have our full team on the field, to have everyone we can in place, working for, fighting for, protecting the interests and the values of the United States and the American people.
Barbara. Or I – let me move around a little bit. Yes, please.
QUESTION: Sure. This is the —
MR PRICE: Oh, sorry. Did you have a follow-up?
QUESTION: Well, I just wanted to bring up the question on Russia, if nobody has anything.
MR PRICE: Anything else on Beijing? Okay.
QUESTION: I do, but I’ll go back to it at the end.
MR PRICE: Okay. Russia, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. So, a senior administration official has said that President Biden is going to tell President Putin that there will be very real, genuine, meaningful, and enduring costs if Russia decides to invade Ukraine. I wonder if you could say anything further about what makes you at all confident that this would have any impact when previous rounds of sanctions have not.
And secondly, there was a question about Russia’s demands for a legal agreement regarding the limiting of the NATO expansion, to which Mr. Blinken and White House officials have said that the U.S. consistently supports the principle that every country has the sovereign right to make up its mind about this. But seldom is mentioned the fact that the U.S. actually promised the Russians in 1990 that they would not expand to the east. James Baker: “Not one inch eastward.” So how do you reconcile that with your response to the concerns of the Russians?
MR PRICE: So, let me start with your first question. We have been very clear, and Secretary Blinken was very clear in public during several press avails he had last week in Latvia and Sweden as well. We have been crystal clear in private at the NATO summit, at the OSCE ministerial in Stockholm about the concerns we have with Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine that has taken on different forms, including, of course, these military – this military activity alongside Ukraine’s borders, the misinformation, the disinformation, the propaganda, much of which has profoundly disturbing echoes of 2014.
We’ve also been clear – and we’ve heard from our allies, our NATO Allies including, that we believe there is an opportunity, a window before us to resolve this diplomatically, chiefly through full implementation of the Minsk agreements. That is our priority. That is where we wish to invest our efforts. At the same time, we have been clear that if Moscow shows no interest in investing in a diplomatic offramp, that the United States and our partners – and we heard this loud and clear from our NATO Allies in Riga last week – that we would be prepared to implement measures that we have not implemented in the past. Specifically, should Russia follow this path of confrontation and military action, we have made clear to Moscow that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of what we have called high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past.
And it’s that last clause that I think gets to your question. These are measures that we have very intentionally bypassed in the past, given the impact they would have on Russia. And but of course, if Russia chooses to – if Russia chooses to fail to de-escalate, if Russia chooses to move forward with any plans it may have developed to continue its military aggression or to aggress militarily upon Ukraine, to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, its independence, its territorial integrity, we and our allies would be prepared to act. We would be prepared to act resolutely.
That is one of the key messages that Secretary Blinken delivered to Foreign Minister Lavrov when they saw each other in Stockholm late last week. It is one of the key messages that President Biden is preparing to deliver to Vladimir Putin tomorrow when they see each other via video link. So, there should be no ambiguity about our willingness to do this, and we have made that very clear in public and in private at every turn.
Remind me of your first question?
QUESTION: Oh, this promise by James Baker that they would – there would not be any – not one inch eastward of movement of NATO towards Russia in the 1990s and how you would respond to that now when the administration says that they don’t take into account Putin’s request for a legal agreement regarding the limiting the expanding of NATO.
MR PRICE: Well, look, we have been clear, as have past administrations of both parties, that NATO has an open door, and we are committed to the open door policy that was put forward in Bucharest that NATO should remain an option to aspirants when they are ready and able to meet the commitments that are spelled out, as well as the obligations of membership that are spelled out; meaning specifically that they are able – able and willing – to contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.
We’ve reaffirmed this on a number of occasions. The United States has during this administration and in the – in previous administrations. In the 2021 NATO Summit communique we made clear that we support Ukraine’s right to decide its own future. No one else should have a veto over what NATO decides to do, what a country like Ukraine seeks to do, that Ukraine specifically has the right to decide its own foreign policy course free from outside interference. This is a very core tenet of the rules-based international order that the United States has protected and defended, and promoted around the world. It’s not unique to the border demarcations between Russia and Ukraine. We’ve talked about this in other contexts as well, including most notably perhaps in the Indo-Pacific context. It’s a —
QUESTION: So, you contend that Mr. Baker made a mistake in making that promise, or the U.S. Government doesn’t consider that a promise broken, or at least it understands why the Russians would be responding to it?
MR PRICE: This has been longstanding policy of the United States going back administrations. It’s been longstanding policy of NATO for years now going back and most acutely reflected in Bucharest. So, this is not a new pronouncement we have put out.
I want to also be clear about one other thing. NATO is a defensive alliance. It is defensive in nature. It’s defensive in orientation. The idea that NATO or an aspirant country like Ukraine could pose a threat to Russia, I think as Secretary Blinken said last week, it would be laughable were the situation not so serious.
So again, we have heard some of the same chatter from Moscow, chatter that to us sounds awfully pretextual, sounds an awful lot like what we might have and what we did, in fact, hear in 2014 in advance of Russians’ previous military incursion into Ukraine. We know this is part of the Russian playbook, and we know it because we’ve seen it before. We know it because we’ve heard it before. We also know it because we’re detecting it. As I – as the Secretary said last week, we have seen social media postings with disinformation and misinformation increase by more than tenfold, in recent weeks. And again, our concern – and this is reflected in, I think, your question and some of what we’re hearing emanate from Russia – is that there will be an attempt to fabricate some sort of pretextual justification for Russia and Russian forces to do what perhaps has been intended all along.
So, right now, we believe that there is a window of opportunity for us to engage diplomatically as we’ve done with our NATO allies, to engage diplomatically with our Ukrainian partners, but also to engage diplomatically with the Russians. And we’ve done this already at senior levels. Of course, we’ve already engaged President Putin on this. President Biden will speak to him tomorrow. Secretary Blinken last week spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov as well.
QUESTION: But Ned —
QUESTION: I wanted to move on to —
QUESTION: Hold on a second, just really brief. I think that her – what Barbara’s making the point about Jim – James Baker’s comment about not one more – is not necessarily Ukraine in the future, but the fact that NATO has already expanded eastward after that promise was made – Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Baltics. And you might say that NATO is a defensive alliance, but the Russians – you can believe them, whether you want to or not, but they don’t see it that way. And they look at —
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: And they look at what – NATO operations in Serbia, NATO operations in Libya, and not – as not being defensive in nature. So, just to make that point that it is not necessarily Ukraine that’s here; it is the past.
And then, just the one thing that I hope you can answer is: Is the Secretary speaking with President Zelenskyy today?
MR PRICE: So, on that, the Secretary, as I was walking out here, was on the phone with President Zelenskyy. He, as President Biden announced, is speaking to President Zelenskyy in the run-up to the conversation between the two presidents tomorrow.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. The President is speaking to President Zelenskyy?
MR PRICE: Secretary Blinken is speaking to President Zelenskyy. Sorry if I misspoke.
QUESTION: No, no, no, no. I just wanted to make sure.
MR PRICE: The President said this morning that Secretary Blinken would be speaking to President Zelenskyy.
QUESTION: Oh okay, he did. All right. Sorry, I didn’t know that.
MR PRICE: But let me make one other point about your point and your question, Barbara and Matt. We are supportive of increased transparency, of dialogue between Russia and NATO. If there is misunderstanding about what NATO is, what NATO seeks to do, what NATO is doing, we certainly support engagement, we support dialogue, we support transparency, because we don’t want there to be any ambiguity about what this alliance stands for and what this alliance is resolutely opposed to. So, if that would be a means by which to increase some level of trust and confidence between Moscow and Moscow and NATO, we would be in support of that.
Tomorrow, that’s precisely why President Biden will be engaging President Putin. Because we believe there is no substitute for leader-level engagement, high-level engagement, the kind of engagement you’ve seen between the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov, that you saw between President Putin and President Biden in June in Switzerland, and what you’ll see tomorrow as well.
QUESTION: Thank you. I want to go to the Palestinian issue, but in all fairness, NATO has not always been defensive, as Matt pointed out, in Serbia and Libya and other places. Anyway —
MR PRICE: In all fairness, NATO has never been offensive towards Russia.
QUESTION: What do you call —
MR PRICE: NATO —
QUESTION: What do you call their interference in Libya? What do you call their interference in Libya?
MR PRICE: I think Libya and Russia are – and we can —
QUESTION: No, I’m just saying that —
MR PRICE: We can have a separate conversation about the —
QUESTION: No, it’s a different conversation, I agree.
MR PRICE: — the NATO mission in Libya. But to call – to say that Russia and Libya are synonymous, I’m not sure that is something that – in fact, I’m quite confident that’s something this department would not —
QUESTION: Okay, all right, let me move on to the Palestinian issue, if I may, okay? I want to as you what is the status of the reopening of the Jerusalem consulate. Where are we?
MR PRICE: We have been very clear in terms of our position on this. I don’t have an update to offer.
QUESTION: Why not? Why not have a, let’s say, on this date, next March 21, whatever it is, we will – we shall reopen this Jerusalem embassy? What stands in making a statement like this, pointing out a time when the consulate is likely to reopen?
MR PRICE: This is something that we’re working on, Said. It’s something that we’ve spoken to. We have been quite clear about our position. But again, I just don’t have a tactical update to provide.
QUESTION: Okay, let me also ask you about the visa waiver for Israeli citizens. What is the status of the Israeli – the waiver for Israeli citizens? And how does Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Americans work into this waiver?
MR PRICE: I think we’ve spoken to this before in the context of a high-level Israeli delegation that was here in Washington, D.C. a couple months ago. We continue to support steps in the bilateral relationship that support both the American people and the Israeli people, and one such step, we believe, is working together towards Israel fulfilling the requirements that are laid out in the Visa Waiver Program. This is a determination that the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, is authorized to make, and the Secretary of Homeland Security in consultation with Secretary Blinken will be in a position to determine when a country has met all of the requirements that have been set out by the Visa Waiver Program. So, in the course of those requirements, we take a look at the totality of the conditions, of conduct, of actions. And all appropriate factors will be weighed.
QUESTION: And lastly, it’s been reported in the Israeli press that Secretary Blinken spoke with Prime Minister Bennett, and basically told him to cut it out on expansion of settlements and so on. Could you share the content of that conversation with us, whether there was really a stern kind of a rebuke or statement by the Secretary of State on the issue of settlements?
MR PRICE: Well, we issued a readout of this call last week. We made clear that they had an opportunity to discuss Israeli —
QUESTION: But this is my first opportunity to ask you about —
MR PRICE: Well, no, of course. They had an opportunity to discuss Israeli-Palestinian issues, regional issues – of course, Iran among them – as well as COVID-19. Secretary Blinken I believe was asked about this in Europe last week. He characterized it as a good conversation, but our position when it comes to settlement activity is clear and it has not changed. We continue to believe that it’s critical for Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from steps that exacerbate tensions and that otherwise undercut efforts to advance a negotiate – a negotiated two-state solution.
QUESTION: So, Germany is becoming a new government, and with our new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who is a longstanding opponent towards Nord Stream 2, I wonder what the expectations are from Secretary Blinken, especially given the situation in Ukraine, to finally kind of stop this project.
MR PRICE: Well, your incoming foreign minister, a longstanding opponent to Nord Stream 2, is going to have a counterpart here who is a longstanding opponent to Nord Stream 2, so in that sense they will share that view. We’ve had an opportunity to discuss Nord Stream 2. We’ve had an opportunity to discuss a whole suite of issues related to Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine and the potential that Russia might seek to use other tools at its disposal to attempt to destabilize or to intimidate or to coerce Ukraine.
And, of course, we look at Nord Stream 2 in that context. It’s precisely why we worked with the Merkel government so concertedly over the course of many months to arrive at the joint statement that together our countries put out in July, I believe it was. More than just words on a piece of paper, it was a very comprehensive plan that laid out the ways in which Germany committed to supporting Ukraine’s energy independence, supporting Ukraine’s energy transition, and to taking steps that – and to take steps that would make very clear to Moscow and to anyone else that if the Russians attempted to weaponize energy, if they attempted to exert influence over Ukraine using Nord Stream 2, they would be prepared to take steps, including at the national level, including sanctions in response to that.
So, we’ve continued to discuss these issues with our German allies, with our Ukrainian partners, and I fully suspect we’ll have another opportunity soon to discuss it with our German counterparts.
QUESTION: Follow-up: Might this part – might this be part of the conversation tomorrow with President Biden and President Putin, Nord Stream 2 and possible sanctions? Might this come up?
MR PRICE: I will let the White House characterize, I imagine after the call, what was discussed. But as you heard from the White House earlier today, the agenda, of course, will include Russia and Ukraine, it will include other issues like strategic stability, it will include Iran, it will include other bilateral issues as well. But I expect the White House will be speaking to the call after it takes place.
QUESTION: So, Secretary Blinken and you were recently in Latvia, right – I hope the trip went well.
MR PRICE: Very well.
QUESTION: Forty percent of the population of Latvia are Russian-speaking, and spokeswoman of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, often condemns the discrimination of Russian-speaking population, eradication of education in Russian languages, and persecution of journalists. A recent case is the case of journalist Yuri Alexeev, who was sentenced for one and – one year and two months for – which seems to be a politically-motivated case. So, State Department often criticizes countries like Russia, China, and Belarus for violation of human rights, so the question is: Is State Department ready and willing to apply the same standards on U.S. allies and partners, like Latvia is, as it applies to other countries, and ready to criticize them in case of violation of human rights and put aside those double standards?
MR PRICE: Well, our standards are not subjective. Our standards are universal in their applicability, and they’re universal in the way we apply them. And so, whether the country is a friend, whether it is a competitor, whether it is somewhere in between, our standards are our standards and our values are our values. And when it comes to Latvia, we are very fortunate that we share common values with Latvia. Next year, I believe, will mark 100 years of a diplomatic relationship with Latvia – never recognized Soviet occupation of Latvia, stood with the Latvian people during the darkest days of the Cold War – and Latvia has emerged from those dark days of the Cold War as a leading voice in Europe for many of the shared interests and the shared values that unite us. I’m not familiar with the details of that case. But if we have a reaction, we’ll be sure to pass it on to you.
QUESTION: And – I’m sorry to interrupt – dozen other journalists are being under investigation right now in Latvia.
MR PRICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: There’s a report just come out on a missile attack over Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I wonder if you have anything on that. It’s only just come out.
MR PRICE: I saw very initial reports as we were – as I was coming out here. Of course, we have made very clear that we stand with our Saudi partners who have for quite some time endured terrorist attacks by the Houthis in Yemen. I don’t have a specific reaction to the report you mentioned, just because I don’t have the full information in front of me. But, certainly, we have seen a pattern at play where the Houthis have demonstrated through their actions on the ground, including their offensive against Marib, through their continuing attacks against Saudi Arabia, including attacks that have the potential to inflict grievous harm on civilians in Saudi Arabia, that – at the current moment, they are the obstacle to diplomacy. They are the obstacle to finding a resolution to this conflict, and if it turns out that what we’ve seen, the reports we’ve seen over the past hour or so are another Houthi attack against our Saudi partners, of course we will condemn that in the strongest terms, just as we reiterate our support for the security and the safety of Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to Yemen broadly, as you know, our special envoy is working closely with his UN counterpart, Hans Grundberg, to do all we can to secure a ceasefire, to address urgent humanitarian and economic priorities, to restart the political process. And we’re – he’s doing so, they are doing so leveraging the unprecedented international consensus we have helped to build on Yemen. The United States has helped to bring together the region and countries beyond. But it is – frankly, it is also the case that the Houthis and their reprehensible activity, their reprehensible behavior, have helped unite the world against them, to demonstrate to the world that, at least at the present, they are not interested in diplomacy. They do not appear interested in peace.
It is our goal to change that, working with our Saudi partners, working with the Republic of Yemen Government, working with other partners in the region, including Hans Grundberg in the UN, to jumpstart this diplomatic process, to see to it if we can put in place a ceasefire, to see to it if we can increase humanitarian access to the people of Yemen. Because after all, it’s the people of Yemen who are suffering the most and who are suffering the most primarily from what we have seen from the Houthis – from their ongoing offensives, from their unwillingness to allow sufficient flows of humanitarian aid into parts of the country that continue today to represent and to entail the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe by many analyses and by most estimates.
So, this is something we continue to treat as a priority, and we’ll update you as we have a —
QUESTION: And yet, after that whole spiel there, you still think it was a good idea to take them off the FTO list?
MR PRICE: Matt, we do not make any apologies for —
QUESTION: I’m not asking you to make an apology. You still think it was a – you still think it was the right idea? I mean, you say you want to put pressure on them to change, and yet that would seem to be one lever of pressure that —
MR PRICE: The —
QUESTION: — was there and has been removed.
MR PRICE: The blanket – the blanket designation was not centered solely on the Houthis. It implicated the people of Yemen that I was just referring to.
MR PRICE: We don’t make any apologies for seeking to improve the lives and the welfare of the people of Yemen, who are resident in a country that represents the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe in terms of hunger, in terms of deprivation, in terms of access to food, to water, to other basic supplies and essential services.
MR PRICE: What we have done, rather than enact a policy that in some ways was punitive against an entire people, we instead have enacted targeted sanctions against individual Houthi leaders holding those who are responsible for some of these actions, including the actions against our Saudi partners, responsible for their reprehensible conduct.
QUESTION: Okay. Do you have anything to say about the apparent release of several other – several more of the abductees in Haiti?
MR PRICE: Well, I understand the missionary group in question has released a statement, and we can confirm that three of the hostages were released. This is something that we continue to treat with the utmost priority ever since these individuals were taken captive.
QUESTION: This is – today? You’re talking this most recent —
MR PRICE: That’s correct. That’s correct. And so, of course, a number of U.S. citizens remain hostage in Haiti. We’re continuing to work at the highest levels with the Haitian Government, continuing to work as an interagency and together with our Canadian partners to do everything we can to see to it that the remaining hostages are released as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Can I —
QUESTION: She can go. She – I think she was raising her hand. But I have two more, but I think you’ll only need one word to answer both of them, so —
MR PRICE: I look forward to that.
QUESTION: A question on Afghanistan.
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: The Crisis Group today released a report with some of the statistics that we’ve already heard about projections that up to 1 million children could face death through starvation in the coming winter months. They also put out recommendations today suggesting what the U.S., Europe, and other international institutions could do to keep Afghanistan from imploding without endorsing the Taliban itself. And other humanitarian groups say humanitarian aid to Afghanistan is like a Band-Aid at best, and that unless there is aid beyond humanitarian assistance, millions of people will die. So, they’ve been saying the same thing.
So why not resume assistance that’s been cut off, or for the so-called “humanitarian-plus” initiatives? For example, salaries for doctors and teachers and even U.S. aid programs to supply hospitals with electricity, at least in the coming months.
MR PRICE: Well, we share – and we have been very vocal about many of the concerns that you just enumerated from these outside groups – we’re very concerned, as you’ve heard from Tom West, as you’ve heard from others in the department, about a humanitarian situation in Afghanistan that only seems to be deteriorating. This is the result of many things. Years of war, drought, and of course, the Taliban’s forced takeover of the country and the continued absence of a functioning financial system – all of them have come together in this confluence and have produced a severe humanitarian crisis that we are witnessing now.
Even – I think the fact is that even before the Taliban took over in Kabul, Afghanistan’s economy – it was impaired by many structural impediments. The Afghan people were left to rely on international aid and international assistance for some of their basic services. International aid, I believe it is, funded 75 percent of the Afghan – of Afghanistan’s public expenditures, and represented about 40 percent of the country’s GDP.
In the lead-up to the Taliban takeover, we were very clear that if they pursued a military path, they would be making a choice that would in many ways complicate our ability to continue to provide the same level of assistance that the United States and the international community had delivered in the past. And the Taliban heard that same message from many of our partners in the international community.
Now, in the midst of this, as you alluded to, we have continued to be the most generous humanitarian provider for the Afghan people. So far, we have provided nearly $474 million in Fiscal Year 2021. We provided more than $4 billion since the United States engaged in Afghanistan in 2002. We’ve taken other steps that would help facilitate the provision of services and aid to the Afghan people. As you know, the Treasury Department has issued licenses to make clear that the United States is not standing in the way of humanitarian assistance and humanitarian aid for the Afghan people. It sends a signal – a very explicit signal – to countries around the world, to NGOs, and others that the United States is supportive of aid and services to the Afghan people who have long been suffering, even prior to the Taliban takeover.
Our assistance is providing life-saving services in many ways. It’s providing life-saving food, shelter, water, medical care to Afghans in need. Our partners on the ground, they remain operational, and they have been able to make good use of some of the $474 million that we provided in this fiscal year alone. Right now, for instance, our partners are conducting winterization assessments in 23 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and they plan to begin related relief commodity distributions in the weeks ahead. We previously have spoken to the health care that our funding is providing, the food and nutrition support that our humanitarian aid and assistance is providing.
So, the United States is – has stepped up. We continue to call upon the international community to do more of the same in some cases, or to do the same in the case of other countries, including those in and near the region who have yet to provide the sort of meaningful support that the Afghan people need. We have demonstrated our commitment not only through word, but also in deed, and we will continue to call upon the international community to raise its ambition when it comes to the level and scale of humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people.
And then one final point on this: In our engagement with the Taliban, we have made very clear to them, and we made clear to them before they took over Kabul, and certainly after, including last week when Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West met with a senior Taliban delegation, that we would be looking to the Taliban’s conduct in key areas, and that includes in human rights, that includes in terms of their counterterrorism commitments, that includes in terms of providing safe passage to Americans, LPRs, and to others who wish to leave the country. And it includes in terms of a government that is inclusive and representative of the people of Afghanistan, that those criteria among others would really form the backbone of what we are or are not able to do with any future government of Afghanistan. That in no way changes the decisions that the Taliban makes, in no way changes the decision that we will make in terms of our humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
But if the Taliban are looking for a deeper relationship with the international community, including the U.S., it’s their conduct that we will look to in terms of devising what that might look like.
QUESTION: So, all right. Just – winterization assessment? It’s December, Ned. It’s Afghanistan.
MR PRICE: Matt, these have been ongoing.
QUESTION: It gets cold.
MR PRICE: These have been ongoing.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, but boasting about this now is something that you’re doing for – winterization assessments for people who live in very cold conditions when —
MR PRICE: This was not a boast. This was not a boast.
QUESTION: Okay. All right.
MR PRICE: It was descriptive in terms of the kinds of services provided.
QUESTION: Am I correct in thinking that nothing really has changed much in your position or your understanding of where the Iran talks are or where they will resume, if they do resume, from the call that was done on Saturday? I just —
MR PRICE: That’s right. That’s right. It’s —
QUESTION: Okay. So, everything is the same as it was on Saturday?
MR PRICE: That – there has been no change.
MR PRICE: For us, it is much less important about when they resume, but how they resume.
QUESTION: All right. And then —
MR PRICE: And importantly, that the Iranians return to Vienna prepared to negotiate in good faith with the other members of the P5+1.
QUESTION: Okay. And then just lastly, on the – back on the Olympics “diplomatic boycott,” quote/unquote, you said in your response I think to Kylie’s question that the U.S. does – that the U.S. Government does not have the ability to tell private sector organizations what to do, but that’s not the case. In fact, in 1980, the U.S. Government told the U.S. Olympic Committee that it couldn’t send athletes to the Moscow Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, correct?
So, my question is this: Was there a calculation made in this administration that what’s going on in Xinjiang now is less bad than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979?
MR PRICE: We are – look, first of all, I don’t want to say that this is apples and apples. This is – this is not 1980.
QUESTION: Well, no, but it is a private sector – and it’s a private sector – I know it’s not 1980, yes, and that – thank God it’s not 1980 for many reasons. But that was an instance where the U.S. Government told a private sector organization what it could do. And you said that you can’t tell private sector organizations what to do as it relates to China, and —
MR PRICE: My point, Matt, was this is not a command economy. We have a vibrant private sector. We have a private sector that’s going to make its own decisions. Our goal in all this —
QUESTION: Well, it’s not a command economy until you guys decide that you want to make it a command economy.
MR PRICE: I don’t —
QUESTION: Well, you’re – there’s all sorts of stuff that – and I won’t get into it because it’s political, but I’m talking about foreign policy-wise, you can tell companies that they can’t do business in a certain place. If you want to.
MR PRICE: Look, —
QUESTION: You can tell the International Olympic Committee that it can’t – or the U.S. Olympic Committee, sorry – that it can’t send athletes to a certain country to participate in the Olympic Games, or at least you have in the past. (Phone rings.) Whoops, sorry.
MR PRICE: Kylie posed the question in the context of private sector U.S. companies. I was responding in the context of private sector U.S. companies. But again, this is not 1980. What we announced in 1980 was something distinct from what we’re talking about today.
What we’re talking about today is an approach that we believe is appropriate given the human rights abuses, including the ongoing genocide that is taking placing in China, in Xinjiang. But it is also something that doesn’t punish our athletes who have trained in many cases for years and whom we look forward to cheering on, hoping they will return —
QUESTION: So are you suggesting that the Carter administration or that President Carter made a mistake in boycotting the —
MR PRICE: I’m not offering an opinion.
QUESTION: In boycotting the Moscow Olympics because he punished American athletes?
MR PRICE: I am not offering an opinion on the decision – on a decision that took place 41 years ago.
QUESTION: When you were —
MR PRICE: How old was I in 1980?
QUESTION: Ned, could I ask a question on UAE very quickly?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Tahnoun bin Zayed, the national security advisor for the emir, the president of the United Arab Emirates, is in Tehran today or was in Tehran today. He spoke about a new page in relations. There’s also a great deal of diplomatic activities going on, that MBS will be going, I guess, to Qatar and all these. What is your – what kind comment do you have on all these diplomatic acrobatics and so on?
MR PRICE: We believe in diplomacy. We believe in dialogue. We believe in dialogue and diplomacy that further the goal of de-escalating tensions across the region. If it helps to achieve that goal, it’s something we certainly support.
QUESTION: Do you think that when the UAE says “I want a new chapter with Iran” in the midst of at least stalled now, but Vienna talks and so on, does that in any way hinder it or help it?
MR PRICE: Well, what I think is most critical in terms of the JCPOA context and the Vienna talks context are sanctions enforcement. And what we’ve been very clear is that our sanctions remain in place. They will remain in place unless and until we’re able to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
What you’ve talked about is separate and apart from that. If we can de-escalate tensions across the region, bring the region back from what several years ago looked like it could have the potential to veer into conflict, we believe that’s a good thing even as we continue to use the full array of tools in our toolkits to pressure – to apply appropriate pressure on the Iranian regime in furtherance of limiting and putting those verifiable and permanent limits back on its nuclear program.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you. Quick last question. Yeah.
QUESTION: One quick one on Ethiopia. Despite what you guys have been sort of saying about all sides needing to seek diplomatic solutions, political solutions rather than conflict, the government has announced that it’s retaken some cities, so obviously fighting is still sort of intensely going on. And there was a joint statement that you put out and specifically mentioned the reports on widespread arrests of ethnic Tigrayans. I wondered, sort of beyond this joint statement, which is, you know, a strongly worded statement, but – and it says this likely constitutes violations of international law, are you sort of considering specific sanctions over these mass detentions over the sort of ethnic aspect of what’s happening in Ethiopia?
MR PRICE: Well, as you saw in the joint statement we issued today, we and many of our close partners issued, as you said, a strong call, a strong condemnation against the conduct that we’ve seen. We call on the Government of Ethiopia to cease its mass detentions on the basis of ethnicity.
I don’t want to preview steps we’re preparing or prepared to take. Right now, our focus is on calling on the Government of Ethiopia to cease this practice. But I think, Simon, as you know, we have a number of tools in our toolkit, including an executive order that was promulgated a couple months ago, that would allow us to respond to human rights abuses if and when we deem appropriate. We’ve already employed it in the context of the Eritreans, but it is an executive order that has broader potential applicability if we deem it to be appropriate.
In the meantime, to all parties our message is and remains very clear: What we are seeking is an immediate cessation of hostilities, negotiations without preconditions leading to a national dialogue, unhindered humanitarian access for all those in need regardless of their ethnicity or geography, and an immediate end, as I just said, to human rights abuses and to violations as well.
Thank you very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:10 p.m.)