Antony J. Blinken

Remarks to the Press Following NATO Ministerial

delivered 1 December 2021, Riga, Latvia,

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


Secretary Blinken: Good afternoon, everyone. A short while ago, the NATO foreign ministers finished our final session. And I want to start by thanking our Latvian hosts for doing a wonderful job in bringing us all together, in hosting the alliance for two very productive days.

This meeting came at a critical time. In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up planning for potential military action in Ukraine, including positioning tens of thousands of additional combat forces near the Ukrainian border. The Lukashenka regime in Belarus has callously exploited the desperation of thousands of migrants to provoke a crisis along Belarus’s borders with Latvia, Poland, and Lithuania. Three months after Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan ended, the alliance remains focused on the fight against terrorism, including ISIS-K. And we’re pressing ahead in writing a new Strategic Concept for NATO to make sure the alliance is prepared for emerging threats in a changing world.

So here in Riga we discussed these topics and more. Secretary General Stoltenberg did a remarkable job leading our discussions, as he has done leading the alliance these past years. And he just covered a lot of ground in his own press conference, so let me just speak briefly to four key issues before taking questions.

First, on Russia and Ukraine. We’re deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine. The plans include efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, as well as large scale military operations.

Now, we’ve seen this playbook before, in 2014 when Russia last invaded Ukraine. Then, as now, they significantly increased combat forces near the border. Then, as now, they intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor to justify pre-planned military action. We’ve seen that tactic again in just the past 24 hours.

And in recent weeks, we’ve also observed a massive spike – more than tenfold – in social media activity pushing anti-Ukrainian propaganda, approaching levels last seen in the leadup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Now, we don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide. So despite uncertainty about intentions and timing, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course.

The United States has been engaging intensively with allies and partners on this issue, and directly with President Putin. President Biden convened the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany on the situation in Ukraine at the G20 meeting in Rome a few weeks ago. Then, at the President’s direction, CIA Director Burns traveled to Moscow to convey our concerns, our commitment to a diplomatic process, and the severe consequences should Russia follow the path of confrontation and military action. We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past.

Following my own meetings with President Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Kuleba last month, other senior State Department officials have been enegaging with Ukrainian partners, with NATO Allies, and with the Russians. And I came here to Riga to consult and coordinate with our Allies, and it is evident they are as resolute as we are. I heard that loud and clear in our discussions yesterday and today from virtually all NATO members, and in direct consultations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

We are prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine. NATO is prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank.

My consultations will continue tomorrow at the OSCE foreign ministers meeting, where I’ll also meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The United States remains unwavering in our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and committed to our security partnership with Ukraine. And just as we’ve been clear with Moscow, we’re also urging Ukraine to continue to exercise restraint. Because again, the Russian playbook is to claim provocation for something that they were planning to do all along.

Diplomacy is the only responsible way to resolve this potential crisis. The most promising avenue for diplomacy is for Russia and Ukraine to returnt to dialogue in the context of the Minsk agreements, which aims to end the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. President Putin said recently, and I quote, “There is no alternative to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.” President Zelenskyy has also reiterated Ukraine’s continued commitment to Minsk.

The United States reaffirms our support for diplomacy and for implementing the Minsk agreements. We call on all sides to restore the ceasefire to July 2020 levels. And we urge Russia to de-escalate, to reverse the recent troop buildup, to return forces to normal peace-time positions, to pull back heavy weapons and forces from the line of contact in eastern Ukraine, to refrain from further intimidation and attempts to destabilize Ukraine internally, and to leave plans for further military action behind.

That’s how we can turn back from a crisis that would have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for our bilateral relations with Moscow, for Russia’s relations with Europe, for international peace and security.

Second, on Belarus. In light of the destabilizing actions taken by the Lukashenka regime, the North Atlantic Council has suspended cooperation with Belarus. The United States is preparing additional sanctions in close coordination with the European Union and other partners and allies. We call on the regime to immediately stop using migrants as political weapons. We will hold the regime accountable for its ongoing disregard for democracy, for human rights, for the rule of law.

Third, on Afghanistan. Three months after the end of NATO military operations in Afghanistan, our work together continues. For 20 years, NATO made sure that Afghanistan could not again become a safe haven for terrorists to threaten our countries and our people. That’s why we went there in the first place. No attacks on allies or partners originated in Afghanistan during that time, and together we decimated al-Qaida’s capacity to attack any of our countries or people from Afghanistan. Now, NATO remains fully committed to the fight against terrorism worldwide and will use all our capabilities to aid in that fight.

I also took the opportunity to thank NATO Allies and partners again for all the contributions that they made to the end of Operation Resolute Support and the successful evacuation of more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan. From providing military bases for transit to setting up temporary housing facilities for Afghan evacuees and their families to stepping forward to welcome those families to new permanent homes, NATO Allies and partners did whatever it took to get the job done.

For our part, the United States has facilitated the departure since September 1st of 470 U.S. citizens, 417 lawful permanent residents, and other Afghans at risk. Around 83,000 Afghans have arrived in the United States to start new chapters in their lives. And together, as an alliance, we’re discussing and tackling many of the challenges that remain, from humanitarian concerns to the security situation.

Fourth, the new Strategic Concept for NATO. The work that we’ll do on that Strategic Concept between now and the summit next year is vitally important for modernizing our alliance, making sure that it’s able to address challenges we’ll face in the future, fostering unity among the Allies as we navigate an increasingly complex and unpredictable security environment. I think as you know, the current Strategic Concept, the one that we’re operating under now, dates to 2010, when Russia was considered a partner, China was not mentioned, and the alliance did not yet account for new challenges like cyber threats and the climate crisis.

I again want to commend Secretary General Stoltenberg for leading this process so effectively. We’ll do our part to help produce a Strategic Concept that reflects the world that we live in and the unique strengths that the alliance brings to bear on that world, because the United States is deeply committed to NATO. It’s critical to our security. It’s built on shared values. It’s a powerful force for stability in Europe and North America. And at a moment when many democracies are facing serious challenges and the international rules-based order is increasingly under threat, NATO must remain strong; it must remain united. President Biden has made revitalizing America’s alliances, starting with NATO, a number-one priority. And our commitment to the security of our Allies and to Article 5 – an attack on one is an attack on all – is ironclad.

And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.

Mr. Price: We have time for three questions. We’ll start with Humeyra Pamuk of Reuters.

Question: Thank you. Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.

Secretary Blinken: Good afternoon.

Question: You’ve just warned Russia of economic consequences, but what exactly are those measures? Will the U.S., for example, go as far as cutting off Moscow from the global financial system? And since Russia has already been sanctioned and weathered those sanctions, what makes you think that Putin will be deterred by today’s warning?

And super-quickly, if I may add, Russia said today it was ordering U.S. embassy staff who have been in Moscow for more than three years to leave by end-January. What is your response? And isn’t this diplomatic row and already tense relations setting you up for a rather challenging meeting tomorrow with your counterpart, Sergey Lavrov? Thank you.

Secretary Blinken: Thank you. Well, first, let me say that we’ve already demonstrated in the 10 months or so of this administration that we can and we will respond to harmful Russian actions: SolarWinds, election interference, repression against Mr. Navalny, and others. Should Russia follow the path of confrontation when it comes to Ukraine, we’ve made clear that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we have refrained from pursuing in the past.

I’m not going to spell those out to you today, but what I can tell you is this: We’ve shared our thinking with allies and partners, and I found a tremendous solidarity across the board in a determination and willingness to pursue strong measures if Russia invades Ukraine and commits renewed acts of aggression. We’ll be working closely with allies and partners in the days and weeks ahead to flesh out the details. We will be in lockstep with our allies on this. And again, should Russia reject diplomacy and reinvade Ukraine, we will be prepared to act.

It’s very important that, again, Russia understand that any of the actions that it’s contemplating will have serious consequences. Equally important, we are making sure that – Allies are making sure that Ukraine has the means to defend itself, and at the same time, the alliance will look at what it needs to do in the event of further Russian aggression to shore up its own defenses.

Finally, as I said, we continue to believe that there is a diplomatic path forward, and that is by far the preferred path. We are certainly not looking for conflict. And that diplomatic path forward lies in the Minsk agreements that were reached in 2014 and 2015 but that have not been implemented, principally because Russia has reneged on its commitments. But both parties, Ukraine and Russia, have made commitments under the Minsk agreements. If both actually implement them and hold to them, then there is a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine and the Donbas, and we strongly urge Russia to follow that path, and at the same time, now to pull back from what it is doing, to remove the buildup of forces from the borders, to restore the ceasefire to where it was in July 2020, to stop the destabilizing and provocative actions that it’s engaged in.

And I’ll certainly share that with Foreign Minister Lavrov tomorrow, just as we’ve already shared that at the highest levels with our Russian counterparts. We’ve said, President Biden has made clear to President Putin that our strong preference would be for a stable and predictable relationship. Russia’s actions toward Ukraine go in exactly the opposite direction, and we urge them strongly to reconsider.

Mr. Price: Alex Marquardt, CNN.

Question: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Would Russia actually need to carry out some sort of military action in order to face the serious – these serious consequences? Or is there a level of intervention, some of which you just described in terms of their disinformation campaigns, which would trigger some of these consequences? And though you said you won’t go into some of the detail today, what level of detail will you give to Foreign Minister Lavrov tomorrow?

And if I may just ask you to respond to some comments that President Putin made today. He said that he will insist on an elaboration from the U.S. and Allies of an exclusion of further NATO advancement in the east and deployment of weapon systems in the immediate vicinity of Russia. If you could respond to that.

Secretary Blinken: Sure. Thanks, Alex. Again, I’m not going to spell out today the specifics. We will at the appropriate time share that with Moscow so that they, again, understand fully what’s at risk, what the consequences would be if they commit further aggression against Ukraine, and at the same time we will work through all of the details with our partners and Allies, again, who are – who have a shared conviction that the Russians must not engage in these actions, as well as a clear, shared commitment – certainly one I heard directly from France, from Germany, and the United Kingdom – to make sure that there is a price to be paid and real consequences for any actions that Russia might take. And again, the purpose of this is to dissuade Mr. Putin from making the wrong decision when it comes to aggression on Ukraine.

I saw the statement that you referred to and, quite frankly, it’s perplexing because the idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia is – would be a bad joke if things weren’t so serious. NATO itself is a defensive alliance. We’re not a threat to Russia. We don’t have aggressive intent toward Russia. Every step that we take is designed to make sure that we have in place effective defensive measures to protect the members of the alliance, as well to help our partners have in place the defensive needs so that they can properly defend themselves against aggression. That is the purpose of the alliance. And the idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia or, for that matter, that NATO represents a threat to Russia is profoundly wrong and misguided.

Mr. Price: Our final question will go to Thomas Gutschker from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Question: Thanks a lot, and good afternoon. My question is not on Ukraine but on disarmament, which was also on your agenda of this meeting. The incoming German government intends to join the Conference of Parties at the – or for the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, much as the government – much like the government in Norway, which has taken a similar decision. So my question to you is: How do you assess that in view of an alliance that continues to rely on nuclear deterrence? Thank you.

Secretary Blinken: Thank you. Let me say a few things on that. First and most important, we the United States are committed to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That’s what’s been at the heart of the global nonproliferation and disarmament effort for now more than 50 years. We also very much understand and share the desire to advance nuclear disarmament goals. We are committed to those goals, and we’ve demonstrated that by actions that we’ve taken over many years, including in the efforts to pursue disarmament with Russia – most recently, again, with the extension of the New START agreement. But we do not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons because, simply put, it will do nothing to help us achieve those goals.

To put a finer point on it, seeking to ban nuclear weapons through a treaty that does not include any of the countries that actually possess nuclear weapons is not likely to produce any results. Our position on this issue has spanned administrations. It’s shared by all the other nuclear weapon states and our NATO Allies as the alliance reiterated during our summit in June, and other allies covered by our nuclear umbrella.

We welcome the German coalition’s announcement that they plan to remain part of the NATO nuclear sharing agreement. We stand ready to work with all countries on tangible and verifiable measures to reduce strategic risk and enable real progress on nuclear disarmament. That is the objective. And to be clear, and I just want to emphasize this, we don’t for a minute question the motivations of TPNW supporters, but we simply don’t believe that the treaty will aid in actually meeting the objectives that we share.

Mr. Price: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you, everyone.

Secretary Blinken: Thanks, everyone.

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