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Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Fareed Zakaria of GPS, CNN

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, pleasure to have you on.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s great to be with you, Fareed.

QUESTION:  Tell us what you can sense of what is going on in the counteroffensive that Ukraine is managing – attempting with Russia.  So far the reports seem to be, it is very slow and very tough going.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, Fareed, put this in perspective.  In terms of what Russia sought to achieve, what Putin sought to achieve, they’ve already failed, they’ve already lost.  The objective was to erase Ukraine from the map, to eliminate its independence, it sovereignty, to subsume it into Russia.  That failed a long time ago.  Now Ukraine is in a battle to get back more of the land that Russia seized from it.  It’s already taken back about 50 percent of what was initially seized.  Now they’re in a very hard fight to take back – to take back more.

These are still relatively early days of the counteroffensive.  It is tough.  The Russians have put in place strong defenses.  But I’m convinced that with the equipment and support they’ve received now from more than 50 countries, with the training that their forces have gotten – and many of the forces who have gotten that training have not yet been put fully into this fight – and maybe more than anything else, with the fact that unlike the Russians, the Ukrainians are fighting for their land, for their future, for their country, for their freedom – I think that is the decisive element and that’s going to play out.  But it will not play out over the next week or two; we’re still looking, I think, at several months.

QUESTION:  So if you look at what the Ukrainians are up against – these are minefields, then trenches, then Russian artillery – one of the reasons that it’s proving so difficult is that they have no airpower.  If the U.S. Army were to do this, the United States would have massive airpower, lots of bombing, clear the way, make it possible for the troops to then move forward.  Why not give the Ukrainians the F-16s that they are asking for?  Because that will make this counteroffensive much more effective.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Fareed, at every step along the way – in fact, going back before the Russian aggression when we saw the storm rising, and we made sure, going back to Labor Day before the war, Christmas before the war, that they started to get on their hands the equipment they would need if the Russians went forward: Javelins, Stingers.  They have that on hand.  They were able to repel the attack against Kyiv.  They were able to save their country from being taken entirely by Russia.  Every step along the way ever since, we’ve worked to try to get them what they need when they need it.

But it’s not just the equipment itself.  It’s the training.  It’s the maintenance.  It’s the ability to use it in combined arms operations.  All of that takes time.  If a decision were made to actually move forward on the F-16s tomorrow, it would be months and months before they were actually operational.

QUESTION:  But then why not make the decision so that they can get them?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So this is what we’re working on now, because, as I said, it’s not enough to give them F-16s; they’ve got to be trained.  The training program is moving forward with a number of countries.  All of that is happening.  But I’m not a military expert.  I think you’ve heard Chairman Milley, Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, speak to this.  We believe that what they have and what they’ve been trained on is what they need to be effective, including dealing with the Russian mines.  But it is hard going.

QUESTION:  But they feel differently.  When I talk to Ukrainians, they say there’s a pattern here.  Every time we ask for something, we’re first told you can’t have it, you’re not yet ready for it, you don’t have the training for it, and then from HIMARS through cluster bombs, eventually we get it but we get it late and why not have given it to us earlier if you’re trying to make a difference on the battlefield.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So if I were in the shoes of our Ukrainian friends and partners, I’d probably be saying exactly the same thing.  And President Zelenskyy has been extraordinary as a leader and in trying to galvanize the international community along with us to provide them what they need.  But the other thing is this:  There are 50-some-odd countries in this coalition in support of Ukraine.  Lloyd Austin has been leading this process on the military side.  And different countries do different things at different times, and it all complements each other.

So for example, we have certain munitions that we’ve provided to the Ukrainians, including the HIMARS; other countries have provided some munitions that have a longer range because as the Russians move back their command and control, as they move back some of their supply depots out of range in some cases of what we’ve given them, the munitions that other countries are providing as part of an organized coalition are allowing the Ukrainians to hit them.  They’ve had some significant success.

So our military leaders are using their best expertise possible to help determine what it is that can be most effective for the Ukrainians, how quickly can it be deployed, how effectively can they use it.  That will continue and the process on the F-16s is moving.

QUESTION:  Which means they will get F-16s?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, I believe that they will, and the important focus is on making sure that when they do, they are properly trained, they’re able to maintain the planes and use them in a smart way.

QUESTION:  Do you think it could be part of the Russian strategy to try to wait for the election of 2024, hope that Donald Trump comes into the White House, and they can cut a deal with him?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, again, everything we’ve put in motion and that many other countries are taking a lead role in, that will happen irrespective of what happens in any given election in any one of our countries.  There is now a long-term program in place that will make sure that Ukraine has the —

QUESTION:  But the U.S. is providing 75 percent of the assistance.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Actually, the – if you look at the burden-sharing on this, between the United States, Europe, and other partners – Japan and others – it’s actually quite remarkable.  Other countries have stepped up in ways that we haven’t seen before.  On the security side, we’re the number-one provider.  But others have done a lot.  But if you look as well on the economic side, the ability to make sure that Ukraine has direct budgetary support, more is actually coming from Europe and others than from us.  Humanitarian assistance – the refugees who have been housed in – throughout Europe and are able to work, send their kids to school – all of that collectively has been a remarkable demonstration of countries coming together and assuming their responsibilities.

(Break.)

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, when I travel around the world, particularly when I talk to Asian diplomats, I get a message about U.S.-China relations, which is they’re wondering where this is going, whether there is now a kind of an ongoing ratchet effect or tit-for-tat – the United States puts certain kinds of restrictions on China; China will then respond – or is there a possible stable equilibrium that we are arriving at?  In other words, as one Asian diplomat said to me, what I’m trying to understand from the Americans is, are they done or is this just going to continue and continue?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Fareed, I’d say two things.  First, we are working to put some stability in the relationship, to put a floor under the relationship, to make sure that the competition that we’re in doesn’t veer into conflict, which would not be in our interest, their interest, or anyone else’s.  And that starts with strengthening our lines of communication – talking, engaging, working through, as best we can, our profound differences, and at least being clear about them so that there are not misunderstandings of intent, and at the same time looking to see if there are areas where we can cooperate.

There’s a clear demand signal that I’m hearing around the world, everywhere I go, that each of us – the United States and China – will responsibly manage this relationship, because of course that has an impact not just on us but on countries around the world.  That’s exactly what we’re doing, and I think China’s heard that demand signal as well.

So I had hours of conversation with my Chinese counterparts when I was in Beijing.  Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary, was there, did the same thing.  John Kerry was just there.  Jake Sullivan’s been engaged.  And all of this is a process of trying to at least put some stability into this and to see if we can be very clear both about our differences and where we can cooperate.

Now, we have been very clear and I was very clear with my Chinese counterparts we will continue to do and say things that China will not like, just as they’re going to continue to do and say things we won’t like.  The test for us is whether we can manage our way through that to make sure that we sustain these lines of communication, that we continue to talk, and that we work on, as I said, both dealing with the differences and seeing if we can cooperate.  That’s the way we’re approaching it.  I think it’s the responsible thing to do.

QUESTION:  I mean, you’re talking but there is no evidence on climate, on nuclear arms, on defense developments.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It starts – it starts with talking.  We weren’t doing a lot of talking before.  Now we are.  We have different groups that are engaged or about to engage on discrete issues that are problems in the relationship where I believe we can, I think, get to a resolution.  At the same time, there are a number of areas where it’s clearly in our interest to see if we can find ways to cooperate.  We’re starting to talk about that.

Now, these are early days.  The proof will be in the results.  But my own sense is there’s a recognition that if we’re each going to play the game of holding each other to sort of clearing the field, erasing the board before we do anything, we’re never going to get anywhere.  And the demand signal on them to engage responsibly is strong, is clear, is loud from around the world.

QUESTION:  One of the most sensitive issues, of course, is the military side, nuclear weapons, Taiwan.  It seems it’s going to be very difficult to do this because there is not going to be much engagement with China’s defense minister since he’s currently under sanctions.  Henry Kissinger met with him.  Why not lift the sanctions so that you can have straightforward military-to-military talks to try and alleviate some of these tensions?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, as a practical matter, those sanctions don’t prevent the minister from engaging or us engaging with him, so there’s no practical impediment.  It is a political decision, in effect, for China to decide whether or not he should be engaged.  It’s something —

QUESTION:  Would you engage with somebody if you were —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s – it’s something that each system, each country has to ask to decide for itself.  We’ve made very clear that we think it’s a responsibility to have these military-to-military contacts, to have this dialogue, especially to avoid any miscalculations, any misperceptions of what we’re each doing.  So we’ll see where China comes out on this.  It’s not —

QUESTION:  But U.S. is not going to lift the sanctions on him?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  All I can tell you is that we believe that this part of the conversation is important.  It would be good to resume it.  China has to decide whether it’s prepared to do that.

QUESTION:  Let me ask you about Iran.  President Biden campaigned saying he’d be back in the Iran deal.  You did not do that.  You tried to search for a longer, better deal.  It’s gone nowhere.  At this point Iran is days, by some estimates, away from the capacity to enrich, which puts it on a path to weaponize – the potential to weaponize.  You used to criticize Donald Trump for leaving Iran that close.  Isn’t it a fair criticism of you and your administration you haven’t managed to do anything to shorten that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Fareed, first, it was a terrible mistake to pull out of that agreement because we had Iran’s nuclear program in a box.  It’s now – you’re absolutely right – gotten out of that box.  In terms of —

QUESTION:  But then why not just have gone back into it?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s exactly what we sought to do.  And we worked, engaged intensely – and not just us, our European partners, the UK, Germany, France, and actually China and Russia as well – to see if we could get back into mutual compliance with the JCPOA, with the nuclear deal.

QUESTION:  Well, but to be fair, you asked for new conditions.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Actually, no, we – fundamentally, of course, there had been some developments and some changes since the time we got out of the deal and the time we were trying to get back in it.  But fundamentally, what we – what we tried to do is to get back into the existing agreement with some modest modifications.  An agreement was on the table.  Iran either couldn’t or wouldn’t say yes.  We’re not about to take any deal.  Of course it has to meet our security objectives; it has to meet our interests.  So we made a very good-faith effort to get back into compliance with them; they couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.

We’re now in a place where we’re not talking about a nuclear agreement.  We are very clearly making it known to them that they need to take actions to de-escalate, not escalate, the tensions that exist in our relationship across a whole variety of fronts.  We’ll look to see if they do that.  Maybe we’ll have an environment where we can get back into a conversation about their nuclear program.  Right now we’re not in it, but of course, we’re not standing around doing nothing.  We are continuing to work out, to develop, to flesh out every possible option for dealing with the problem if it asserts itself.

Keep in mind, of course, that the fissile material, which is what the deal was designed around, is one critical piece.  Weaponization, actually having an explosive device, is another.  To the best of our judgment and that of many others, they have not pursued that work in a number of years.  If they were to restart that part of the program, too, and these two things came together, then it would become an even more urgent problem.  But we are working across a whole series of lines of effort to push back on them, to make sure we have a strong deterrent, to make sure we have the appropriate pressure, and then to see if we get back to an opportunity where we can work on a nuclear deal.

We continue to believe strongly that diplomacy is the best way to resolve this problem, that compared to all the other options, it’s the one that can produce the most sustainable, effective result.  But that doesn’t mean that the other options aren’t there and, if necessary, we won’t resort to them.

QUESTION:  Meanwhile, are you trying to restrain Prime Minister Netanyahu from launching some kind of military intervention?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We are in very close contact and coordination with Israel, just as we are, actually, with a number of other countries that are deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program as well as its many other destabilizing activities in the region.  Countries have to make their own decisions about their national interests, their national security.  We obviously share views, share information, seek to work together.  But fundamentally, Israel will make its decisions about its national security.

QUESTION:  Mr.  Secretary, pleasure to have you on.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  Great to be with you.

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