QUESTION: Here with me now is Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Thank you so much for joining me today. This march, within 120 miles of Moscow. Prigozhin then abruptly stopped, turned around yesterday afternoon. What happened? Why?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Dana, we don’t have full information, obviously, and it’s too soon to tell exactly where this is going to go. And I suspect that this is a moving picture and we haven’t seen the last act yet.
But we can say this. First of all, what we’ve seen is extraordinary, and I think you see cracks emerge that weren’t there before – first, in having Prigozhin raise front and center, questioning the very premises of the Russian aggression against Ukraine to begin with – the argument that somehow Ukraine or NATO posed a threat to Russia – and a direct challenge to Putin himself.
So think about it this way. Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv, Ukraine, thinking they were going to take the city in a matter of days, erase the country from the map. Now they have to be focused on defending Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making. So this raises lots of profound questions that will be answered, I think, in the days and weeks ahead.
QUESTION: I understand this is very much a moving and a fluid situation. One thing that Senator Marco Rubio said – he is, of course, a top Republican on the Intelligence Committee – he says that top military officials in Russia may have been replaced in order to get Prigozhin to back down. Have any top – many top – any top military officials – forgive me – like the defense minister been ousted, as far as the U.S. knows?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We haven’t seen that yet. But again, I think we’ll see this unroll further in the days and weeks ahead. There’s no secret to the fact that Prigozhin was very much a critic of the military leadership, the minister of defense, the head of the armed forces. So how this now unfolds in terms of personnel, all of that, remains to be seen.
We are intensely focused on Ukraine and making sure that Ukraine continues to have what it needs to defend itself, to take back the territory that the Russians have seized over the past 16 months. And we’re very focused on maintaining the unity of purpose and action that has been a hallmark of Ukraine’s success to date. The President brought together not only the national security cabinet yesterday, but brought together leaders from among our key allies and partners. He instructed the rest of us to fan out to engage all of our allies and partners to make sure we were closely coordinating and keeping the focus where it needs to be: on Ukraine, on the efforts that they’re making to take back the territory that Russia’s taken from them.
QUESTION: I understand that. But just staying on Vladimir Putin for a minute, do you believe that this is the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I don’t want to speculate about that. This is, first of all, an internal matter for Russia. What we’ve seen is this, though. We’ve seen this aggression against Ukraine become a strategic failure across the board. Russia is weaker economically, militarily. Its standing around the world has plummeted. It’s managed to get Europeans off of Russian energy. It’s managed to unite and strengthen NATO with new members and a stronger Alliance. It’s managed to alienate from Russia and unite together Ukraine in ways that it’s never been before. This is just an added chapter to a very, very bad book that Putin has written for Russia.
But what’s so striking about it is it’s internal. The fact that you have, from within, someone directly questioning Putin’s authority, directly questioning the premises that – upon which he launched this aggression against Ukraine, that in and of itself is something very powerful. It adds cracks. Where those go, when they get there, too soon to say. But it clearly raises new questions that Putin has to deal with.
QUESTION: You talked about Ukraine, of course. Ukraine did launch simultaneous counteroffensives against several Russian fronts while all of this was happening. What is your understanding of the latest on the ground in Ukraine, and will they be able to take advantage of the chaos on the battlefield? How much is the U.S. and U.S. allies, NATO, leaning into the chaos in order to take advantage?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So these are early days for the counteroffensive. It’s going to play out over weeks, maybe even over months. The Ukrainians have in hand what they need to be successful. It’s challenging. It’s a tough terrain. The Russians have put in place lots of defenses over the last months in anticipation of this counteroffensive. But it is progressing.
And to the extent that Russia is now distracted, that Putin has to worry about what’s going on inside of Russia as much as he has to worry about what he’s trying to do – not successfully – in Ukraine, I think that creates an additional advantage for the Ukrainians to take advantage of. But regardless, they are pressing forward. They have a clear plan. They’re pursuing it.
QUESTION: Well, and the Ukrainian foreign minister – I know you heard this – he says it’s time for the U.S. and others to put the foot on the gas, give Ukraine everything it needs to finish this. Is that going to happen?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I spoke to my friend and counterpart Dmytro Kuleba just yesterday. We speak – we speak pretty regularly. And throughout, we have worked to make sure that the Ukrainians have what they need when they need it to do as well as they possibly can on the ground. We’ll continue to do that. We’re relentlessly focused on this. There’s tremendous unity of purpose and unity of action among dozens of countries that, through the President’s leadership, we’ve brought together and kept together, and we’ll continue to do that.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, Russia has nearly 6,000 nuclear weapons, the largest stockpile in the world. This situation really revealed that this very large nuclear power is facing some major instability. Are you confident that the nuclear weapons are secure? And more broadly, how concerned are you about Russia being unstable right now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Anytime you have a major country like Russia that has signs of instability, that’s something of concern and something that of course we’re very focused on. When it comes to their nuclear weapons, we’ve seen no change in their posture and we’ve made no change in our own posture, but it’s something, of course, we’re looking at very, very carefully.
QUESTION: On Vladimir Putin, last year the President said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Is that still the American position?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: These are decisions for the Russian people, and this entire chapter is an internal matter. It obviously has profound repercussions outside of Russia, including potentially in Ukraine. But fundamentally, this is a Russian matter. It’s not our business. It’s not our purpose to choose Russia’s leaders. That’s up to the Russian people, and we have no beef with the Russian people. On the contrary, what is one of the many, many tragedies of what Putin has done in Ukraine is what it’s done to the Russian people. And you really have to ask, how has this in any way improved the lives of Russians? Of course it hasn’t; it’s made them worse. But these are questions that the Russians have to resolve for themselves.
QUESTION: I have to ask you about China. You just went to Beijing last week. It was an attempt to smooth frayed relations with China. Two days later, President Biden called Xi Jinping a dictator, which angered China so much that they issued an official diplomatic reprimand to the U.S. ambassador. Was the President wrong to call Xi Jinping a dictator?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Dana, it’s very clear that when it comes to China, we are going to do and say things that they don’t like; they are going to do and say things that we don’t like. If you look at what comes out of the Chinese foreign ministry every day about the United States, you’d hear plenty of that.
But the purpose of the trip, at the President’s instruction, was to try to bring a little bit more stability to the relationship, to demonstrate that we’re committed to managing it responsibly – which really is an obligation for us and an expectation that countries around the world have – and to be able to deal very directly with our differences.
There’s no secret about those differences. There’s no secret about concerns we have about democracy, about human rights, about some of the actions that China is taking around the world. And being able to have better, stronger, sustained lines of communication – it means we can talk about these differences directly. We can work through them where we can, but at the very least avoid misunderstandings, avoid miscalculations. That’s the fastest way to go from the competition we’re in to a conflict we want to avoid.
So I think on those terms the visit was positive. And again, one of the things I told the Chinese is that we’re going to continue to do things and to say things that you don’t like.
QUESTION: Do you – do you believe —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Just as you’re going to do the same. And we’ll work through them.
QUESTION: Do you believe that Xi Jinping is a dictator?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The President speaks clearly. He speaks candidly. I’ve worked for him for more than 20 years. And he speaks for all of us.
QUESTION: Okay. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, thank you so much for joining us this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good to be with you, Dana.