Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs at a Joint Press Availability

7 Mar

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvian Foreign Minister

Riga, Latvia

FOREIGN MINISTER RINKĒVIČS:  (Via Interpreter)  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  And indeed, today I had the honor to welcome my U.S. counterpart here in the National Museum of Latvia, Mr. Blinken.  When we met last time in December, when the foreign ministers of NATO countries met here in Riga, we couldn’t have imagined we would meet so soon again.  It is always, of course, a big pleasure to meet with our American friends, but we are currently meeting in very grave circumstances, and we discussed a broad range of issues – of course, primarily our support and assistance to Ukraine.

I reassured my American colleague of Latvia’s commitment to continue providing all kinds of support and help in close cooperation with our allies and the United States of America.  We also talked about more efficient ways of countering Russian aggression.  We also discussed potential timing of sanctions.  But sanctions are not – not only have to be imposed, but they also have to be efficient.  We agreed on exchange of information to identify all oligarch properties, all accounts, all properties, all assets, all kinds of real estate, and movable property.  And transatlantic bonded cooperation is absolutely essential in this regard, and we will continue working with our colleagues in the EU as well as in the United States on further sanctions.

We also talked about further reinforcement of the eastern flank of NATO, reinforcement or strengthening of the regional security of Baltic countries.  I would like to thank the United States, Canada, Spain, other Allies, who are already contributing to our security and have contributed additionally to our security more recently.

Of course, looking at the most recent developments, we are very happy about the permanent presence of U.S. forces here in Latvia.  We have no illusions about Putin’s Russia anymore.  I don’t really see any reason, any good reason, to assume that Russia might change its policy.

Before I hand it over to my colleague, I would like to also underline that we – NATO also supports journalists and media, media in Russia and Belarus, who represent free, independent media, not only by helping them leave their country and also facilitating their work here or outside Belarus and Russia.  It is important to make sure that Russian residents, Russians living in other countries, have access to impartial information, unbiased information, and not from Russian propaganda channels.  And we also agreed to cooperate on that as well.

That is as far as my introduction goes.  Now I’d like to hand it over to Antony Blinken.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Edgars, thank you very, very much.  And to be – it’s always good to be back, but I wish it was under different circumstances.  We remember well the extraordinary job you did, Latvia did, in hosting us and hosting our NATO colleagues.  And that spirit very much is (inaudible) all the work we’ve been doing together in recent weeks, particularly the work that’s been made necessary by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

I should note that we’re here now in what is the 100th anniversary year of diplomatic relations between the United States and Latvia.  When we were here (inaudible) NATO (inaudible), I reflected at the time on how strong the partnership between our countries has grown, especially in the last 30 years, since Latvia’s independence, rooted in a shared commitment to democracy, to human rights, to the rule of law.  And I said that while those principles could feel a little bit abstract at times, we were seeing serious challenges to them by autocratic governments that were seeking to erode the international rules-based order that is so essential to peace and security.  Well, that abstraction has become, unfortunately, three months later a very powerful reality.  And any question of how vital it is that we protect those values I think has been put to rest.

Since Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine began, hundreds of civilians have been killed, hundreds more wounded.  As it is today, more than 1.5 million people, mostly women and children, have had to flee Ukraine, flee their homes.  Many more people are trying to flee, but they cannot get out of besieged areas.  In the last several days, more strikes have killed and wounded civilians as they try to leave the cities that are being surrounded by Russian forces.  Women and children, the elderly, wounded civilians, people with disabilities, are trying to escape cities where there’s no heat, no electricity, relentless bombardment, and where they’re running out of food and medicine.  And there continue to be reports of attacks by Russian forces on agreed-upon humanitarian corridors.

We’ve seen scenes like this before in Europe.  Every Russian has lived or learned about the horrific siege of Leningrad during World War II, in which that city’s civilian population was systematically starved and intentionally destroyed over nearly 900 days, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths.  That siege affected millions of Russian families, including President Putin’s, whose one-year-old brother was one of the many victims.  Now, Russia is starving out cities like Mariupol.  It’s shameful.  The world is saying to Russia:  Stop these attacks immediately.  Let the food and medicine in.  Let the people out safely, and end this war of choice against Ukraine.

Latvians who lived through decades of Soviet occupation understand deeply how wrong this is, and how the world must defend Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign, democratic country, free to choose its own future.  Latvia has done just that.  It quickly provided security assistance to Ukraine, including Stinger missiles, anti-tank weapons, small arms, ammunition, protective gear, medical supplies.  And the Latvian people have stepped forward as well with an outpouring of humanitarian donations, a pledge to welcome more than 10,000 refugees from Ukraine into their homes and into their communities.

Latvia and the United States, together with our allies and partners, will continue to stand with Ukraine.  We’re surging our security assistance to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself.  We’re increasing humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people, both those still inside Ukraine and those who have had to flee.  We’re raising costs on the Kremlin, and all who aid and enable it, for continuing this war.

We’re also bolstering our shared defense.  We and our NATO Allies are prepared to meet any threat.  President Biden spoke to the American people just a few days ago in his State of the Union address, and he made clear again something he’s affirmed repeatedly:  We will defend every inch of NATO territory against aggression coming from anywhere at any time.  Our commitment to Article 5 – an attack on one is an attack on all – is ironclad.  The President has called it sacrosanct.  And no one – no one – should have any doubt about that.

NATO activated our defense plans for the eastern flank for the first time in history, giving the Supreme Allied Commander Europe authority to deploy the NATO response force as needed.  Many Allies have increased their troop presence and contributed additional equipment and capabilities to this effort.  President Biden ordered the deployment of an additional 7,000 U.S. troops to Europe, and moved forces already in Europe to NATO’s eastern flank, including to Latvia.

We now have more than a thousand U.S. soldiers here in Latvia.  We’ll continue to rotate our forces to Latvia and the Baltic region to train alongside the NATO-enhanced forward presence battle group led by Canada in partnership with Latvia’s armed forces.  And we deployed F-35 strike fighter jets to the region to augment NATO’s enhanced air policing mission.

We’re also working with Latvia and multi-partners on security in other realms: cybersecurity to protect critical infrastructure against malicious actors, and energy security so that Latvia’s energy supply is not dependent upon Russia.

Latvia hosts the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, a critical resource in this time of information warfare, something Edgars and I talked about, and we’re working together to support independent media to push back against disinformation, including by helping young people to be able to identify it.  Our collaboration in these areas is, quite simply, more important than ever, and I look forward to continuing that.

This is my second stop in a visit to all three Baltic countries.  Over the past 30 years, the Baltics have formed a democratic wall that is now standing against the tide of autocracy that Moscow is seeking to push further into Europe.  And my message on behalf of the United States to the people of Latvia, to all of the Baltics, is that the United States is more committed than ever to standing with you as our democracies rise to the challenge of this moment.

It’s very moving to see the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag in this city, in Lithuania where I just came from, on public monuments, homes, schools, businesses.  The incredibly brave and resilient Ukrainian people will fight for as long as it takes for their country.  I know and they know that they can count on the support of Latvia, the United States, and many countries in Europe and around the world.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  You will be needing your interpreting —

(Via interpreter) Now we move to questions and answers and Latvian Television, Ina Strazdina.

QUESTION:  (Via interpreter) Thank you for this opportunity.  Ina Strazdina, Latvian Television.  I would like to ask Mr. Rinkēvičs, first of all:  You already mentioned this – the possibility of having troops in Latvia, standing.  Have you discussed it with Mr. Blinken, the possibility to increase the troops here in Latvia, and have permanently deployed American soldiers here in Latvia?  And what was the answer given to you?

And the question to Mr. Blinken, closing the skies.  This is what Ukraine is demanding very intensively.  NATO has provided its explanation that it would complicate the situation even more, turning this into large-scale war.  But you have also said that the countries have been given green light to give planes to the states.  And Poland was mentioned, that you had offered substitute fleet to Poland if it offered its planes to Ukraine, but the answer is not clear.  What would be the practical solution to this, practical assistance to Ukraine in defending its sky?

FOREIGN MINISTER RINKĒVIČS:  (Via interpreter) I have to say, thank you for the question.  Indeed, we discussed the matter of how to reinforce the presence of NATO forces and also of the United States as part of NATO here in the region.  And I underscored that I would like to have permanent solutions to this thing.  This situation is developing.

And of course, my colleague – because it wouldn’t be right to re-tell the opinion of the United States’ Secretary of State, he will state his (inaudible) himself (inaudible) the ministry of foreign affairs and defense are preparing for NATO summit in Madrid, preparing the new strategic concept, responding to the changing in the situation.  We are going to work on what Antony said to have effective protection of all NATO states, what with the measures that would be needed, and the presence should be as long as it is necessary while, of course, as constant Putin’s regime is, as constant this presence is going to be, and even beyond it, perhaps.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, and I very much agree with what Edgars has said.  Just a couple of things in response to questions.

First, as I noted, we have and NATO has already significantly reinforced the eastern flank, including right here in Latvia with the addition of forces, with the addition of equipment, with the addition of the F-35 strike fighter planes.  We’re doing this in close partnership with NATO Allies.  Canada, of course, is playing a lead role here in Latvia.

We also are on a regular basis reviewing our global posture, and that will continue.  And of course, as we do that, we have to factor in the latest developments, including this aggression from Russia.  So all of that will factor into our thinking, into our decisions about what we do going forward.  And of course, we’re working all of these issues within the NATO Alliance.  That’s vital as well.

Second, it’s very important to note everything that has been done, and continues to be done, to help the Ukrainians defend themselves.  Over the last year, the United States has provided more than a billion dollars in security assistance to Ukraine.  Just within the last couple of weeks, President Biden created the authority to provide an additional $350 million in defense support to Ukraine.  And within a week, most of that – about 70 percent – is already in the hands of Ukrainians, being used very effectively against Russian aggression.

A few days ago, the President made a request of our Congress for emergency aid of $10 billion.  And that $10 billion, which I believe Congress will provide very quickly, will go to additional security assistance for Ukraine.  It will go to humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, both inside Ukraine and outside.  And it will go to further efforts to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank.

So all of that is ongoing.  And as Edgars said, what we are focused on is what can we do to continue to help the Ukrainians be as effective as possible in what they’re doing, which is defending their country against this Russian aggression.  That’s what we’re focused on and our military experts are focused on.

I’ve talked about and the secretary general of NATO has talked about the question of the no-fly zone before.  And just to be clear and to repeat where we are: our efforts are all in the direction of ending this war as quickly as possible, ending the suffering as quickly as possible.  And what we don’t want to do is to widen it, and to widen it to our own countries, to our own territory.  The no-fly zone, to be very clear about what that involves, is – that means that if a Russian plane violate the zone as declared, we shoot them down.  And that runs the considerable risk of creating a direct conflict between our countries and Russia, and thus a wider war, which is in no one’s interest, including in the interest of the Ukrainian people.

But – and I want to repeat this very clearly – when it comes to any aggression of any kind against NATO territory by Russia or anyone else for that matter, we are absolutely committed to the defense of that territory – every square inch.  President Biden has made that repeatedly clear that as well.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  Wall Street Journal, William Mauldin.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for doing this.  For Minister Rinkēvičs, you mentioned effective protection is needed for Latvia and the Baltic countries.  What constitutes effective protection?  Did you ask for any to – any new types of military hardware or other support?  And did that include anti-aircraft systems?  And did the U.S. seem willing to provide it?

I also wanted to ask Secretary Blinken:  You have upcoming meetings with Foreign Minister Lapid of Israel, with President Macron of France.  What role does Israel play, especially in any possible mediation or engagement with Russia, during this conflict?  And do you have any message to send to Russia other than the general need to de-escalate or stop fighting in Ukraine?

And then just to clarify one thing you said earlier in Vilnius, you mentioned more permanent basing of troops here.  Does that mean there is a decision or there isn’t a decision to base troops permanently here in the Baltics countries, specifically?  And – because there was a little bit of ambiguity with that, and so I’m just very curious.  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER RINKĒVIČS:  Thank you very much.  I’ll answer in English.  Well, yes, indeed, we discussed the further steps when it comes to providing additional protection.  And we see the need and we are also learning from what is happening in Ukraine.  We are seeing what Russians are doing and we understand that we need to bolster our air defense.  That’s absolutely clear.  We also feel that we need to bolster our coastal defense, cyber defense.  And we are discussing and talking not only with the Secretary of State, but also with the Secretary of Defense.  We see the willingness to work with us, and to look into the needs.  And of course, that requires some process, but I’m pretty confident that there is understanding about the need to work together and to address some of those issues.

But let me also mention another thing that is equally important than defense, and that’s energy.  I think that what we all understand that we need to work, and it is not only Latvia or Lithuania or Estonia – that’s entire European Union, Europe as a whole.  We need to work to reduce dependency on Russian gas and oil.  We discussed at some length and detail also what could be done.  And I say that here, the United States can play a critical role, and we are willing to continue.  And this region is connecting from Russia, the Russian electricity grid, and connecting to European electricity grid.  Some work is being done.  And also that means, of course, reducing dependency of gas.  But here we need a bit wider effort through LNG, through renewable energy issues.

So I would put now military defense and energy defense on an equal footing, and also the cyber defense, so three areas.

QUESTION:  Did you ask for anti-aircraft assistance from NATO?

FOREIGN MINISTER RINKĒVIČS:  We do work on those issues, yes, we do work.  But I think that we will not go into details before there are more substantial efforts.  And we are working through NATO and with our partners on some additional needs that we see we need.  And I’m very glad that both NATO and our partners are addressing those challenges seriously.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Will, first, on the last part of your question, just to be clear – and I’m sorry if I wasn’t before, earlier today – as I said and as I just mentioned again now, we’re on a regular basis reviewing the global posture of our forces, to include of course here in Europe.  And we have to factor in any developments, any changes in the threat – and we will do that.  And when it comes to questions such as permanent basing, these questions come up and we’ll certainly look to answer them in the context of doing the review of our of our posture.  But just to be very clear, no, there’s no decision of that kind.  I was just saying that this is a question that’s come up, and we’ll, in the context of doing reviews of our posture in Europe and elsewhere, be looking at that.

Second, with regard to the meetings, I’ll – I’m not going to get ahead of them.  I’ll let them more or less speak for themselves, once I’ve had the chance to actually compare notes with my friend Yair Lapid later this evening here, and then with President Macron tomorrow in France.  But I think there is – there’s certainly no change in our message to Moscow, our message to Russia, to President Putin:  End the war.  End it now.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary of State, Your Excellency Minister, dear media representatives.  This concludes our press conference.