Transcript: Secretary of State Antony Blinken on “Face the Nation,” Feb. 19, 2023
The following is a transcript of an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that’s scheduled to air Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in Germany attending the Munich Security Conference. Mr. Secretary, I know you just met with your Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, who has publicly said the U.S. response to the spy balloon was ‘absurd,’ ‘hysterical,’ and an ‘effort to divert attention away from domestic problems.’ Was he that dismissive to you in private?
SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: Margaret, I don’t want to characterize what he said, I can tell you what I said. I made very clear to him that China sending a surveillance balloon over the United States, in violation of our sovereignty, in violation of international law, was unacceptable, and must never happen again. We also had an opportunity to talk about what’s happening here in Munich, the focus of the conversation of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and concerns that we have the China’s considering providing lethal support to Russia, in its efforts in Ukraine. And I was able to share with him, as President Biden had shared with President Xi, the serious consequences that would have for our relationship. Finally, it was important for me to underscore that we believe having lines of communication, engaging in direct diplomacy, is very important. We have a responsibility to manage our relationship in a responsible manner. That’s part of what this evening was about.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Does that mean their defense minister will pick up the next phone call from Secretary Austin instead of refusing it?
SEC. BLINKEN: Well, it’s one of the things that we talked about. The importance of having lines of communication, including military-to-military lines of communication. It’s vital to making sure that there aren’t miscommunications, misunderstandings, especially if you’ve got a crisis or some other situation on your hands. And so I tried to impress upon my Chinese counterpart the importance of having those contacts, including military-to-military.
MARGARET BRENNAN: A senior Pentagon official said last week that President Xi Jinping was caught by surprise by the surveillance balloon and that he doesn’t trust his own military. Did the left and right hand of the Chinese government not know what was going on?
SEC. BLINKEN: I can’t speak to that, Margaret. But what I can- what I can tell you is this. It doesn’t matter in the sense that China is responsible for this action. And ultimately, as the leader of the country, President Xi is responsible. It’s one of the reasons it was important for me on behalf of President Biden to share directly with the most senior Chinese foreign policy official, the very clear determination that this must not happen again.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, if Colin Kahl, this Pentagon officials’ comments are accurate, that would raise the risk of miscalculation if China doesn’t have control over its own military. That’s why I wanted you to clarify that.
SEC. BLINKEN: So Margaret, I can’t again- I can’t speak to the- the Chinese views on this. I can only imagine that China must be in the process of trying to draw its own lessons from this incident. And of course, we’re not the only- the only ones concerned, Chinese use these surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across five continents. So one of the things I’m hearing here in Munich, is real concern about the surveillance balloon program. I suspect the fact that it’s been exposed by us is going to have to cause China to take another look at this.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I’m going to come back to what you mentioned in terms of providing support to Russia. There is open-source reporting that Chinese companies are providing surveillance equipment to that mercenary group, the Wagner group fighting in Ukraine. Does the U.S. consider this to be providing military support to Russia?
SEC. BLINKEN: We’ve been concerned from day one about- about that possibility. In fact, if you go back to the very first conversations that President Biden and President Xi had about Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, just a couple of weeks into the war, President Biden shared with with President Xi our deep concern about the possibility China would provide lethal support to Russia to- to Russia in this effort, as well as engaged in the systematic evasion of sanctions. And the reason for that concern was just weeks before the aggression, you’ll remember that President Xi and President Putin had a meeting in which they just talked about a partnership with no limits. And we were concerned that among those- among the lack of limits would be Chinese support for Russia in the war. We’ve been watching this very closely. To date, we have seen Chinese companies and of course, in China, there’s really no distinction between private companies and the state. We have seen them provide non-lethal support to Russia for use in Ukraine. The concern that we have now is based on information we have that they’re considering providing lethal support, and we’ve made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Lethal support, what would that entail? What do you think–
SEC. BLINKEN: Weapons. Weapons.
MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s ammunition, that’s–
SEC. BLINKEN: Primarily weapons.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Primarily–
SEC. BLINKEN: There’s a whole gamut of things that- that fit in that category, everything from ammunition to the weapons themselves.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Iran is also accused of providing more weaponry to Russia here. So they are–
SEC. BLINKEN: That’s right. We’ve seen Iran provide–
MARGARET BRENNAN: They are building an alliance.
SEC. BLINKEN: We’ve seen Iran provide drones that Russia is using in Ukraine to attack civilian infrastructure, to kill civilians. This is something that’s been going on for months. We’ve been working to expose that, to take action against it, to sanction it. There’s an increasingly noxious relationship between Russia and Iran. And it’s actually a two way street. Not only is Iran providing this- this equipment to Russia, but Russia is also providing military equipment to Iran, including, it looks like, sophisticated fighter planes. That’s something that looks like it may be happening, which would make Iran an even greater threat, if it acquires that technology. So this is something that we’ve been talking about with allies and partners around the world. That relationship is a growing concern.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And that would make them party to this conflict directly. In other words, this isn’t just a war between Russia and Ukraine.
SEC. BLINKEN: Well, what we’ve seen with Iran is that the malicious activities that it’s engaged in, through – throughout the region, and it’s been engaged in for years, we now see that expanding out to other parts of the world, and particularly in this case, to Russia’s war against Ukraine. And that’s, of course, a real concern. We’ve also seen them targeting opponents of the regime, including in the United States, as you know, some individuals were arrested just a short while ago for trying to assassinate an Iranian journalist in New York, who opposes the regime.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So from your conversation with your Chinese counterpart, do I understand that usually, when you say it’s a direct conversation, that’s “diplo-speak” for it didn’t go very well? It was pretty heated? Or did you make plans to visit Beijing in the near future?
SEC. BLINKEN: It’s “diplo-speak” for saying it was very important to speak very clearly, very directly, about the deep concerns we have. The concerns that we have about this surveillance balloon, and the entire program, the concerns we have about the possibility that China will provide lethal material support to Russia and its war effort against Ukraine–
MARGARET BRENNAN: But there was no apology?
SEC. BLINKEN: And it’s important that- again, don’t want to characterize what they said, although it’s safe to say there was no apology. But again, it’s also important, and this is why it was also useful to have this meeting this evening, also important to have these direct lines of communication, to make sure that- that we are talking to engage in diplomacy. We have to manage this relationship responsibly. We have to make sure that the competition that we’re clearly engaged in, does not veer into conflict, into a- into a new Cold War. It’s not in our interest, I won’t speak to theirs, but it’s not in ours. But at the same time, we will very resolutely stand up for our interests. We will resolutely stand up for our values. That’s what we’ve been doing over the last couple of years and that’s what we’ll continue to do.
MARGARET BRENNAN: In terms of Russia’s war, 97% of its military is already engaged in this fight in Ukraine, according to the UK, but they have substantial airpower they haven’t tapped into yet. Do you see evidence that Russia is preparing an aerial attack on Ukraine?
SEC. BLINKEN: Russia’s losses have been horrific. You’re right that 90- 97 percent or so of their ground forces have been engaged in this war, which is extraordinary. And the losses to date have been horrific. Public figures suggest 200,000 casualties, that is a combination of those killed, and those wounded. The destruction of their war machine itself, the tanks, the armored vehicles, the missile launchers, etc, has also been extensive. In terms of airpower, they tried some of this early on. Ukraine’s air defenses were actually successful in shooting down a lot of Russian aircraft. So they backed off of using aircraft. That doesn’t mean that they won’t try to do that going forward. But at least to date, Ukraine has had air defenses that have allowed it to pose such a threat to Russian aircraft that they haven’t really been flying.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So do you see a change in the U.S. position to greenlight other countries to provide fighter jets to Ukraine? Do you expect any policy change when President Biden visits Poland in the days to come?
SEC. BLINKEN: Margaret, what we’re focused on is trying to the best of our ability to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs, when it needs it, to deal with the challenge it faces in the moment. And all along, we’ve been very clear that we shouldn’t fixate or focus on any particular weapons system, because it’s not just the weapon system. You’ve got to make sure that the Ukrainians are trained to use it, you’ve got to make sure they have the capacity to maintain it, because if they’re not trained to use it, it’s not going to do them a lot of good. If they can’t maintain it and it falls apart in a week, it’s not going to do them a lot of good. And so, some of these weapons systems of one kind or another, are highly sophisticated, things that they haven’t used in the past, we’ve got to make sure that- that they have the capacity to use them and use them effectively–
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’re talking about U.S. jets there, it sounds like, versus- versus the Soviet-era jets–
SEC. BLINKEN: Well, I’m talking about any- any–
MARGARET BRENNAN: that Poland has, for example, that could be transferred, that they’ve offered to transfer–
SEC. BLINKEN: I’m talking about any sophisticated piece of military equipment that the Ukrainians haven’t had practice using in the past. But the other thing is this, we’re also very focused on the here and now and the months to come. Right now, what’s going on is this. The Russians are engaged in an offensive along the eastern front, and they’re putting a huge amount into it and they are suffering terribly for that effort, as I said, losing a huge number of forces, using- losing a huge number of pieces of equipment. And the Ukrainians are doing everything that they can with our assistance to withstand that, and they’re doing that very, very well. But in the months ahead, we fully anticipate that Ukraine will engage in its own counter offensive. And what’s vitally important is that they have what they need for that counter offensive, not what they may need in a year or two years. We’re working on that too, but the focus now has to be on what would they be able to use right now to defend themselves against the Russian offensive, and to engage in their own offensive to take back more of the land that was seized by Russia by force.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I’m going to ask you, lastly, about this designation of crimes against humanity that the Vice President announced. She cited horrific things like a four-year-old girl being raped by Russian soldiers, thousands of Ukrainian children being taken from their families, to say that this constitutes legally crimes against humanity. President Biden has already used the term genocide. Is the State Department working on a genocide determination?
SEC. BLINKEN: We will, as always, look at every legal possibility when it comes to going after the atrocities that Russia is committing in Ukraine. The determination that- that we made crimes against humanity that the Vice President announced today is unfortunately, starkly clear. And we’ve seen that almost from day one. We saw it in Bucha, when the Russian tide receded, we saw what was left in its wake, and it’s horrific. And we continue to see it across the country, the fact that they’re targeting civilians, targeting civilian infrastructure, so that people freeze to death, don’t have the lights on.This practice that, as a parent, is almost impossible to fathom, of literally seizing Ukrainian children, sending them to Russia, sending them to centers, there are about 43 of them that we found. There was a project undertaken by Yale University with our support that has documented this, to 43 centers in Russia and some in Ukrainian territory that Russia now holds. Some of these places are closer to Alaska than they are to Ukraine. Separating them from their families and then having them adopted by Russians. This is in and of itself, horrific. It also speaks to the fact that President Putin has been trying from day one to erase Ukraine’s identity, to erase its future. That’s what’s going on, and that too, is a crime against humanity.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Some of what you described is consistent with the statutory basis for the Genocide Convention. So I’m hearing what you’re saying as you are potentially looking at that?
SEC. BLINKEN: We will look at every possible determination, but we’re going to follow the facts, and we’re going to follow the law. These are very serious determinations, and we will engage in them very seriously.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary Blinken, thank you for your time today.
SEC. BLINKEN: Good to be with you. Thanks, Margaret.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you.