Philip T. Reeker, Acting Assistant Secretary Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
MR PRICE: Thanks, everybody, for joining. Good afternoon. Welcome to this call previewing Secretary Blinken’s upcoming travel to Brussels, Belgium, for which we are departing in just a few short hours here.
We announced the trip this morning. Just a reminder: This call is on the record, but it is embargoed until the call is completed. We have with us today Acting Assistant Secretary Phil Reeker of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Ambassador Reeker will give you a sense of this travel, an overview of it, and then he will be happy to take your questions. I will say that our time is not unlimited, unfortunately, as we’re headed to the airport quite soon, but I’ll turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Reeker to begin. Go ahead.
AMBASSADOR REEKER: Hey, thanks very much, Ned. Happy to join you today. As you know, as Ned’s just made clear, Secretary Blinken is going to travel to Brussels, arriving there tomorrow, April 13 through 15. And the Secretary is taking advantage of this opportunity to join the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, in consultations with our closest allies on a wide range of priorities. Obviously, it’s an opportunity for Secretary Blinken to reiterate and highlight our commitment to revitalizing ties with NATO, which is a critical partner on important U.S. foreign policy goals, including, of course, upholding the rules-based international order that Secretary Blinken has talked about.
He’s expected to emphasize, as he did in March, that NATO and the Transatlantic relationship are based on a foundation of shared values, and that’s what’s brought us more than 70 years of peace and prosperity. Obviously, this is a chance to make good on our pledge to consult with our closest allies and partners. The administration is very committed to re-engaging with multilateral institutions. That includes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as we demonstrated last month at the NATO Ministerial, and putting our values at the forefront of our foreign policy, which will reinvigorate our core sources of strength with our allies and partners.
There are, of course, a number of new and evolving challenges we currently face alongside our NATO Allies. And as the Secretary has always indicated, when we work together to counter these challenges, to deal with them, we are both stronger and more effective. The Secretary has, of course, pointed out as well that we have to adapt to the new challenges and be able to respond with agility. And this kind of consultation, particularly when we have this opportunity to do it jointly with the Secretary of Defense, is a great way to do that.
The Secretary will continue the important engagement with our allies on these issues that we dealt with at the NATO ministerial in March, as well as the multilateral and bilateral meetings we had on the margins of those engagements. That includes confronting malign state actors and other mutual threats that we have. And so in Brussels this time as well, the Secretary will have an opportunity to have bilateral and multilateral meetings – some perhaps in person, others virtual and hybrid form, given our continuing observation of COVID protocols. But a real chance to engage closely again with European partners and discuss cooperation on a lot of key issues and shared challenges.
I’ll just add that, as the Secretary has pointed out many times and the President as well, multilateralism and this kind of coordination with allies and partners in Europe is the cornerstone of our approach to all the major challenges we face. And I think we’ve made this very clear already through many engagements that we’ve done both bilaterally with European partners and with the EU, and, of course, with NATO, as I mentioned.
So this trip signals, again, our commitment to continue this kind of engagement, and we’ll continue to work closely with European partners and uphold our democratic principles and shared values for the benefit of all.
Why don’t I stop there, and Ned, I’ll turn it back to you for questions.
MR PRICE: Great. We have time for a couple questions here. We’ll go to the line of Matt Lee.
AMBASSADOR REEKER: You there, Matt?
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Are you there?
AMBASSADOR REEKER: Yes. I can hear you.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) I’m doing fine. In terms of Ukraine, what exactly can you guys do or what are you looking to do? How do you amp up – if you’re that concerned about a potential invasion, what can you do to forestall that?
AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well, let me say, Matt, on the issues that we’ve been following in Ukraine, we really continue to be concerned by the actions Russia has taken to escalate tension with Ukraine. There are very clear and credible reports of Russian troop movements. We can see this in Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders, and attacks by Russia-led forces at the line of contact in eastern Ukraine.
I do want to note that we commend Ukraine for its ongoing restraint in the face of Russia’s provocations. These sort of destabilizing actions have undermined the tenuous ceasefire agreement that was brokered by the OSCE back in July of 2020. At the same time, Russia has had a disinformation campaign blatantly designed to falsely blame Ukraine for what are the Kremlin’s own actions. So we’re monitoring the situation closely, coordinating with Ukrainian officials, with allies and partners.
You’re probably aware that NATO will hold a NATO-Ukraine council meeting on Tuesday. The North Atlantic Council permanent representatives will host the foreign minister of Ukraine, and they will be able to reiterate there that we need to see restraint and refraining from escalatory actions. And that’s been the call we’ve made to Moscow, and we will continue to use this opportunity to discuss with allies what we see, to hear from – obviously, the foreign minister will be at NATO himself, and the Secretary should have an opportunity to see him, perhaps later in Brussels.
And I’d just point out as well that at OSCE in Vienna, they continue to have a series of engagements very much seized with concern over the Russian activities. So a good opportunity to consult with our partners and allies on this concerning activity that the Russians are carrying out in the region.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to the line of John Hudson.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks a lot. I was wondering, in the Secretary’s meetings in Brussels, is he going to be bringing the Biden administration’s plan for Afghanistan and bringing that to NATO leaders, sort of comprehensive plan?
AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well, John, as you know, obviously, we discussed Afghanistan during the NATO Ministerial. It’ll be an opportunity again to follow up on that, as we pledged to do, very much in keeping with the overall approach, which was in together in Afghanistan, adjusting together there, and leaving together. I think everybody’s aware of the May 1st discussions. I don’t have anything to preview on that per se, but it is an opportunity with Secretary Austin there and Secretary Blinken to again engage with the secretary general of NATO himself, Jens Stoltenberg, and also with allies and partners in various fora to continue with our pledge to consult on Afghanistan and next steps there.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to Andrea Mitchell, please.
QUESTION: Hi, Phil. If I may follow up on John, regarding Afghanistan, we’ve been told, the White House has said that the President will be announcing something before May 1st. So is it logical that this would be the final in-person consultation with NATO? And when you – well, since all the discussions have been in together, adjust together, out together, should we assume that the timetable that they are briefed on would lead to NATO adopting a similar timetable? And could you address —
AMBASSADOR REEKER: Well —
QUESTION: Could you address whether the talks so far have addressed – any of the interim talks that Ambassador Khalilzad has been holding have substantively and positively addressed, or made any progress, I should say, on the concerns that many have for the rights of women being preserved under an interim rule or after U.S. withdrawal?
AMBASSADOR REEKER: Thanks, Andrea. On Ambassador Khalilzad’s talks and conversations, I’ll have to leave that to him. I haven’t had a chance to discuss personally with him. Obviously, he’s in regular contact with the Secretary and keeping updated on those discussions. And clearly I can’t preempt the White House or the President, but the opportunity here is for Secretary Blinken, along with Secretary Austin, who was already traveling, as you’re aware, and will be in Brussels, to both engage with their counterparts and with NATO on the latest thinking in that regard.
And so while I can’t offer any particular announcements, the focus here is using this opportunity to have these kinds of close consultations and coordination with our NATO Allies and other partners, and do that through a variety of formats. It’s great that they can do some of this in person. Obviously, there’ll be others in – that they can coordinate with virtually. And so again, while I don’t have any announcement to share, I can assure you that, as I’ve said before, any plans will be orderly and informed by this kind of consultation with partners and allies.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a couple final questions here. Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Why did the Secretary felt obliged to go back to Brussels in person so soon after his previous visit there just a few weeks ago? Among Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Iran, which one is your top priority, and what do you aim to achieve?
And then to follow up on Matt’s question on Ukraine, because I haven’t heard an answer, what is the United States prepared to do if Russia goes ahead with a fresh offensive, because sanctions and joint statements which have been some of the existing tools that U.S. has been deploying have not so far been successful in leading to a behavior change on behalf of Moscow. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR REEKER: There’s quite a few questions packed in there. I’ll try to remember them all even as I’m trying to remember what I have to pack to join the trip here. Look, the opportunity arises – some would suggest you cannot consult and coordinate enough in diplomacy. This is what diplomacy is about. As you know, it’s been challenging because of limitations to travel and receiving visitors here and making additional bilateral visits.
We did have a very successful trip last month to NATO for that ministerial. And all of the sidebar meetings in different formats that the Secretary was able to have, those were very much welcomed by NATO Allies, by other partners, and this is just an opportunity to do that with the added bonus of taking advantage of Secretary of Defense Austin being there as well. So it’s a chance to sort of continue some of that in a location where we have access to more of our partners in the same time zone for these couple of days and really coordinate and consult, again, as closely as we can.
On Ukraine, look, I think the Secretary himself was very clear. What we see right now, and he spoke to this over the weekend, is the real concerns about Russia’s actions on the borders of Ukraine. There are more Russian forces massed on those borders than at any time since 2014 when Russia first invaded Ukraine in violation of all its commitments under OSCE charters and international rules and laws. And so that’s why we’ve been in very close contact and close coordination with allies and partners in Europe. All of us are sharing those concerns. And again, this will be an opportunity to discuss that in a focused way. And again, I think as the Secretary said, as the President has been quite clear: If Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, there will be costs. There will be consequences to that.
What we’re focused on now is discussion and meeting with our allies and others who are equally concerned, and we’re using the tools like OSCE in Vienna also this week to try to address those concerns and see de-escalation by Russia in terms of not only the military threat, but also this disinformation and the rhetoric that’s flowing.
MR PRICE: We have time for a quick final question from Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Thanks very much. I’m just curious, do you have an assessment for why Russia is massing its troops and tanks along the border? Do you think is a prelude to an invasion? Has the State Department or do you have thoughts about why this is happening now?
AMBASSADOR REEKER: I certainly do, but I’m afraid, Nick, I’m not going to necessarily share those kinds of things with you. We watch the situation very carefully, very closely. As I mentioned, as the Secretary has addressed and others, and that’s why we want to consult also with our allies, our partners, including the Ukrainians on the situation and continue to stress that Russia should take steps to act responsibly, to cease this kind of military buildup and become a better actor.
MR PRICE: We’ll need to leave it there. Thank you very much, Ambassador Reeker. Thank you very much, everyone, for joining. We will I’m sure have an opportunity to speak to you and hear from many of you on the road. Talk to you from Brussels. Thanks very much.