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Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Editor in Chief Matt Murray At The Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit

MR MURRAY:  Secretary Blinken, thank you very much for joining us when you’re a little under the weather.  I think you’ve got a bit of a cold.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I’m rebounding Matt but great to be with you.  Good to see you all.

MR MURRAY:  It’s great to have you here.  I also want to make sure I welcome our audiences who are joining us on Twitter, wsj.com, and YouTube.

So we have a lot to get to.  Let’s start with Ukraine.  The day started today with two explosions that happened deep in Russian territory, which is the latest indication that the Ukrainians seem capable of striking deep inside Russia.  Can you tell us anything about what happened, and how do you feel about it from the American point of view when the Ukrainians do things like that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Matt, I’ve obviously seen those reports.  I don’t have anything further to add to it, except this:  Every single day we are seeing explosions across the entirety of Ukraine as Russia tries to take out its energy infrastructure.  That’s the current reality in Ukraine.  That’s what’s happening, as I said, quite literally every day.

MR MURRAY:  And I do want to talk about that, but I just – I want to – just to stick to this point for a minute, we reported today that the U.S. has modified the HIMARS a bit to prevent some long-range firing.  Clearly there’s a U.S. concern of escalation.  You’re trying to manage, work with the Ukrainians.  But how concerned in general are you even as the situation plays out – we’ll talk about Ukraine in a second – about the escalation risk at this point?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Our focus is on continuing to do what we’ve been doing, which is to make sure that Ukraine has in its hands what it needs to defend itself, what it needs to push  back against the Russian aggression, to take back territory that’s been seized from it since February 24th, to make sure as well that it has the support economically and on a humanitarian basis to withstand what’s happening in the country every single day.  That’s our focus.

MR MURRAY:  And let’s talk about the Ukrainian objective for right now.  I think a few months ago, if I remember right, I heard you and Jake Sullivan were talking at that point that part of what needed to happen for the Ukrainians was to get as much land as possible before the winter arrived to try to maximize their position on the battlefield.  So winter is now here.  The Ukrainians obviously have made great gains.  From here on out, what’s the Ukrainian objective ultimately in terms of territory?  Is it really realistic to think about the Ukrainians pushing back in Crimea?  What do you – where are they right now?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The first and most important thing is this:  As the President has said consistently, for us the number one principle is nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.  And that means that fundamentally Ukrainians are making the decisions about where they want to go – where they want to go, when they want to get there, how they want to do it, but with our support and the support of dozens of countries around the world.

To flip the question for a second, let’s look at what Russia has been trying to do because that will also tell you where Ukraine is trying to go.  First, Russia tried to, in effect, erase Ukraine’s identity as an independent country, to subsume it back into Russia.  That was Putin’s self-described number one objective.  That’s failed and it won’t succeed.  Then they engaged in a land grab to get as much as they could in eastern and southern Ukraine.  That, too, is now failing, as we’ve seen the Ukrainians since the summer push back in an increasingly effective way.

So the current objective is to take the war to the Ukrainian people.  Putin is directing his ire and his fire at Ukrainian civilians, trying to take out the energy infrastructure, to turn off the heat, the water, the lights, especially as Ukraine heads into winter.  So the primary challenge now for Ukraine is to resist that and of course to continue what they’re doing, which is to get back the land that’s been seized from them.

MR MURRAY:  And I do – and I do want to talk about the Russians.  But just to push on this point a bit —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Mm-hmm.

MR MURRAY:  — the support in America, I think, has been strong.  I think the administration is happy with the strength of that support.  The alliance has held together well, as we’ll discuss.  But when you – when you indicate the Ukrainians can – are really the ones to set the agenda, does that suggest open-ended U.S. commitment for Ukraine no matter where they want to go, even if that means going to Ukraine?  Can we afford and support to do that?  Or realistically is there some limit here, and do the Ukrainians know that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Fundamentally they have to make these decisions and they have to make sure that they’re making informed decisions based on what their capacity is, what it can be, to achieve their objectives.  But it’s fundamentally up to the Ukrainians.  We’re committed to supporting them.  Not just us.  I just —

MR MURRAY:  And up to the end of wherever they want to take it, you’re —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I just came back from NATO meetings in Romania and before – and on the margins of that, the G7 meetings.  The President of course has had many.  And I can tell you that the commitment to Ukraine, to helping Ukraine defend itself, to helping Ukraine deal with the Russian aggression, to helping Ukraine get back territory that was seized from it, to supporting it on a humanitarian basis, to support it economically – that commitment is strong, it’s robust, and it’s Europe, and it’s countries well beyond Europe, too.

MR MURRAY:  Okay.  I’ll get to the – let’s talk about Russia now.  And to be clear, I think on the weekend you even described their actions as barbaric in terms of their targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure.  Is that – is that the core Russian strategy now?  Is this – did they fail on the battlefield, and now the core Russian approach is to go at civilians, civilian areas, in hopes of, what, eroding the war?  Do you expect them to make a strong presence on the battlefield again at some point, or has – is this a fundamental shift in – a shift in their strategy?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, keep in mind the battlefield is still there.

MR MURRAY:  Understood.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And it’s still acute.  But in a sense what they’ve tried to do is extend it to the entire country and focus on civilians, not just the Ukrainian military.  So we have these front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine; there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of movement since the very significant recapture of Kherson by the Ukrainian forces.  So yes, the strategy is to try to take it to the Ukrainian civilians and, in effect, to get them to cry uncle.  It’s not going to work

Now, having said that, there is tremendous suffering that’s going along with that.  And when you’re seeing, again, as you’re heading into winter – Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, called this the weaponization of winter – that’s the effort made by the Russians now.

But there’s something else happening.  Just as we’ve been working in a very effective and coordinated fashion with dozens of countries to make sure that we were getting the Ukrainians the defensive equipment that they need, the weapons that they need to defend themselves, we’re doing the same thing on the energy side of the equation – working in a coordinated way through the G7 in coordination with the European Union, in coordination with the World Bank, EBRD and others – to try to make sure that they have the resources as necessary to repair and to replace the components of their electric grid that are being destroyed by the Russians.

MR MURRAY:  In real time, as fast as you can?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  In real time, yes, as fast as we can.

MR MURRAY:  How do you assess the Russian military right now?  There are some rumors of another, maybe even a bigger mobilization coming in January.  How strong or weak are they at this moment?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I think others can opine on that with greater expertise than I can – Lloyd Austin, Mark Milley, and others.  But I think what we’ve seen is this.  We’ve seen a massive mobilization in the summer, 300,000.  Not all of that has actually been fully mobilized, probably about a third.  But what happens?  You get forces that are barely trained, poorly equipped, not winterized, who are thrown into this mix.  And it’s terrible, but they’re also not, generally speaking, particularly effective units.

Even as they mobilized or in the midst of mobilizing 300,000 people, there is another side of the story.  Since February 24th, well over a million Russians have left their country – some to escape potential mobilizations, others because this is not generally what they want to live with.  That is terrible for Russia and for its future.  These tend to be among the most educated and contributing members of society, particularly to their economy.  They’re gone.  That’s going to have a devastating impact on Russia going forward.

MR MURRAY:  And that raises a question that I know you’ve been asked a hundred times.  I think I might even have asked you this once or twice, which is – but we’re now almost a year in, so maybe the answer has changed.  Is there still any off-ramp for the Russians?  Is there any even whisper of negotiations or any kind of discussion that could lead to negotiations right now that could somehow resolve the situation for the moment?  Is there anything that you see out there?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, in a sense there’s always an off-ramp and it’s very simple:  President Putin started this war; he could end it tomorrow.  That’s the —

MR MURRAY:  Yeah, but realistically, though.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, so —

MR MURRAY:  He’s in a situation where that’s not – it doesn’t seem to be a realistic option in his mind.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  President Zelenskyy has said, we’ve said, others have said, that at some point this will end and it will end almost certainly with diplomacy, with a negotiation.  But what I think we have to see is a just and durable peace, not a phony peace.  And by that, I mean this:  If Russia doesn’t succeed in its current gambit of trying to, in effect, get the Ukrainian people to throw up their hands – and again, they won’t succeed.  I think the resilience of Ukrainians has been extraordinary, and fundamentally the reason that they won’t succeed is the Ukrainians are fighting for their land, for their country, for their future; the Russians are not.  And that’s the biggest difference maker of all – with some significant help.

But one of the things that you can imagine is the Russians trying to find an off-ramp that would be a phony off-ramp, by which I mean, oh, let’s have a ceasefire, let’s just freeze things in place, get a frozen conflict, never negotiate about the territory that they have seized and continue to hold; rest, refit, regroup, reattack.  I think it’s important —

MR MURRAY:  So you’re not – that is – you’re saying that’s not something the U.S. could really support?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think —

MR MURRAY:  I mean, in Korea you had a ceasefire in a sense.  You never really – any kind of —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Again, fundamentally, fundamentally, this is up to the Ukrainians.  But I think – and you’ve heard President Zelenskyy put forward a 10-point proposal for how this can move forward, and Zelenskyy himself has said diplomacy and negotiations will be at the end of this.

What’s happened as he was saying that?  He put this before the G20 just a few weeks ago.  As he was saying that, Putin doubled and tripled down on what he was doing in Ukraine.  So the point is this:  Unless and until Russia demonstrates that it’s interested in meaningful diplomacy, it can’t go anywhere.  If and when it does, we’ll be the first to be ready to help out.

MR MURRAY:  When we talk about barbaric acts, when you talk about the Russians attacking the civilians and use quite strong words about it, there’s a lot of things that have been said that are sort of a predicate for war crimes here.  So at the end of whenever that resolution moment comes, how do we deal with all these acts, all these things that the administration and Ukrainians say are atrocities?  And how can the world possibly manage that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, it’s very important that there be accountability for what’s happened.  What’s happening right now is that in a variety of ways the information, the evidence, is being collected for war crimes.  The Ukrainians are doing it themselves.

MR MURRAY:  Heading toward indictments?  Heading toward something The Hague can —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I don’t want to prejudge where this is going, but it’s important that this information be collected.  It’s important that Ukraine be able to, as necessary, prosecute these things.  But we’re also supporting the efforts of the International Criminal Court to collect evidence and information.  There’s been discussion of some kind of independent court or tribunal being established.  I think all of that’s on the table, and at some point it’s going to be very important that —

MR MURRAY:  It’s on the table.  That sounds like it also could be part of negotiations, potentially.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I don’t want to prejudge it, but all I can say is this:  Accountability for what’s happened is very important.

MR MURRAY:  Okay.  We do talk to the Russians, I know, on and off, and I just want to quickly ask before I go on.  There continue to be persistent rumors about Brittney Griner coming home, some deal.  Can you give us any update on negotiations on that situation?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Matt, what I can say is this:  As I think is well known, we put a significant proposal on the table some months ago now, and since then we’ve had other conversations, other engagements, and we are constantly looking at how we can bring Americans who in one way or another are being arbitrarily detained, whether it’s in Russia or anywhere else, to get them home.  That’s one of my number one responsibilities.  In Russia, Brittney Griner, you’ve got Paul Whelan.  But again, this is happening in countries around the world, and it is a constant effort on the part of the State Department, on the part of the government, to find ways to bring them home.

So we’ve been engaged with them.  Other than that, I don’t think it’s useful for me to get into details.

MR MURRAY:  Okay.  Let’s talk about another side effect of the war, which is our relations with the Europeans.  You spent the day with the Europeans, I think.  President Macron was here last week.  The mood music was very, very positive, but he and others in Europe do seem rather concerned about not just their own energy situation but about the Inflation Reduction Act, the idea that it’s going to suck a lot of resources away from Europe.  The President has suggested he’s open to modifying how we apply that to address the concerns, but he didn’t give any details.  Can you elaborate on what the administration might do here?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, the first thing to say is this:  On just about all of the issues that matter most – we’ve just been talking about Russia and Ukraine; we may have – probably have a word or two about China at some point – but across the board, what I’ve seen over the past couple of years is a growing and ever-deeper convergence between the United States and Europe, including the European Union, on these issues.

And one of the things that we established to help build that convergence is this Trade and Technology Council.  Met for the third time today, and Gina Raimondo, Katherine Tai, our colleagues from the European Commission Vestager and Dombrovskis – we met and we continue to build that convergence.

MR MURRAY:  And what did you hear from them?  What did they say to you?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So what we heard from them – two things.  First, I think there’s a recognition that the Inflation Reduction Act represents the single biggest commitment to dealing effectively with climate change that we’ve ever seen, and that that actually advances a shared objective because both the United States and the European Union want to move in that direction and we need to have the resources to do it.  The IRA does exactly that.

Second, I think a recognition that there are immense benefits flowing from it for everyone, whether – whatever side of the Atlantic you’re on.  Having said that, we know that the Europeans have concerns about specific aspects of the IRA.  Those concerns were raised when it first became law.  We almost immediately established a task force between the United States and the European Union to work through those concerns.  When President Macron was here, he and President Biden discussed them, and what the President said was this:  We will work to address through this task force the concerns that you have, to see where we can do things that will effectively address them.

The conversation we had today, among other things, touched on the electric vehicle tax credit.  It touched on the commercial vehicle tax credit.  It touched on how we can work better together on critical minerals.  And I’m confident, based on those conversations and based on the work of the task force, that we will be able and relatively quickly get to a place that addresses some of these concerns.

MR MURRAY:  And share some thoughts on modifications and where you’ll go?  I mean, that’s coming out of —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I don’t want – yeah, and I don’t want to get ahead of those conversations.  But those conversations are active and we’re committed to working on it.

MR MURRAY:  Okay, you ruined my surprise on China, but let’s talk a little bit about China.  I can’t tell if the COVID protests have died down entirely.  I don’t know if you have a view.  But in general, what do these protests tell the White House about Xi Jinping’s popularity at home right now?  What did you learn from them?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, it’s hard for us and in a sense not appropriate for us to opine on what’s going on internally in China, other than to say this:  Whether it’s China, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s anywhere else, we stand strongly for the proposition that people should be allowed to voice their opinions, to protest peacefully, to make known their views, and that governments should not take actions —

MR MURRAY:  Well, and it’s interesting because in both those cases it’s hard to tell, but it does seem that the governments have responded in some ways to both of those.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There are indications of that, but I think it is a little bit too soon to tell.  It appears that China has relaxed some of its COVID protocols.  And on the Iranian side of the equation, there have been reports of the disbandment of the morality police, although we’ve seen contrary reports.

But the other thing I’ll say is this about China:  We want China to get COVID right.  It’s profoundly in our interest that that happen.  It’s in the interests of the Chinese people first and foremost, but it’s also in the interests of people around the world.  So we want them to succeed.

We’ve seen the dramatic impact that the slowing of China’s economy, as a result in part of the shutdown for COVID, is having not just in China but around the world.  That’s in no one’s interest.  So our hope is that they find a way to move forward and move forward in a way that addresses the challenge.

MR MURRAY:  We’re about a month out, I think, from when the President and Xi Jinping met in Bali.  You’re heading to China I think early next month as a kind of a follow-up trip.  The meeting seemed in some ways just aimed at putting a floor under relations right now.  Have you seen any change, any shift, any development since that meeting?  Any progress in the relationship, do you think, overall?  What are you seeing?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, this is – this is a process.  But it’s very important for us, as you say, Matt, to have a floor under the relationship, to make sure that we have lines of communication that are active across different levels of the government, to make sure that we’re being very clear with each other about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  And it’s not just important to us.  It’s important to countries around the world.

One of the things that I hear again and again as I’m traveling around is an expectation from countries around the world that China and the United States responsibly manage this relationship.  We’re determined to do that.  We’re determined to stand up very clearly and strongly for our own interests and values.  There’s no surprise.  At the same time, it’s important to us to see if we can find ways to cooperate on issues that affect both of our countries, but also affect countries around the world, whether it’s climate, whether it’s global health, whether it’s macroeconomics.

We’ll see if we can do that, but the most important thing is to make sure that we’re responsibly managing the relationship.  We’re in an intense competition.  We don’t want it to veer into conflict.

MR MURRAY:  Well, the biggest risk there is probably Taiwan, so let’s get a couple quick questions and we can turn to questions from the audience in a second.  But is it a good idea for a Republican speaker of the House to go to Taiwan after Speaker Pelosi went a few months ago?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, what’s happening here and what’s happening with Taiwan, at least in my judgment and our judgment, is this:  We would like to see the status quo preserved.  And by status quo, I mean this:  For decades, the United States and China have actually responsibly managed the challenge of Taiwan, and we’ve managed it through the “one China” policy, the three communiques, the Six Assurances, the Taiwan Relations Act.  And at the heart of that is an understanding that the differences between Taiwan and Beijing are going to be resolved peacefully and that we have a strong stake in security and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

MR MURRAY:  You say peacefully, but you also have said recently, I believe, that you think the Chinese have moved up their timetable for Taiwan.  It seems to me that several secretaries of state have said to me pretty directly one way or another, they think the Chinese are determined to remerge with Taiwan, or merge with Taiwan, either peacefully or unpeacefully, that that is the goal.  Is it – do we fundamentally believe, the United States, that come hell or high water that’s what they want to do here?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think what we’ve seen in recent years is China moving away from an understanding that the status quo is what needs to be preserved, and to exert increasing pressure on Taiwan to move things in the direction that China wants to take them.

MR MURRAY:  Can you move the – can you move the Chinese back on that, do you think, from these (inaudible)?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, one of the things that’s important is this, is again, as I’m going around the world and talking to many other countries, this stake in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait – it’s not just a profound interest that we have, it’s a profound interest of virtually every country around the world.  Why?  Fifty percent of the container traffic in the world goes through the strait every single day.  If you’re looking, of course, at microchips and semiconductors, the vast majority of those chips are produced right now in Taiwan.  If there were to be a crisis – which is, of course, the very thing that we want to avert – the impact on countries around the world, the impact on the world economy could be devastating.

So I think what China is hearing from other countries, not just us, is that there shouldn’t be a crisis.  There should not be —

MR MURRAY:  And you think they’re getting – you think they’re getting that message?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There should not be unilateral steps to change the status quo.

MR MURRAY:  So you think that they are getting that message, though?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, certainly I’m hearing this from other countries, and I suspect that China is too.

MR MURRAY:  And you – sorry, but to come back to it:  Is it a good idea for a Republican speaker of the House to go to Taiwan, then, now?  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, Congress is an independent, co-equal branch of government.  (Laughter and applause.)

MR MURRAY:  Okay.  Fair enough.  I do want to take a question, but you mentioned Iran.  I still have to get to a couple of quick things.  I have to ask very quickly – you mentioned the protests.  Realistically, is the nuclear deal on life support at this point?  I mean, I think technically it’s open, but I don’t think anything is happening.  The Iranians are talking about enriching more uranium.  When do you – when do you call it?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, two things.  First, taking a step back, when the nuclear deal was in force, the so-called JCPOA, it succeeded in its objective, which was putting Iran’s nuclear program in a box.  And it’s very unfortunate that we pulled out of that deal, which has allowed Iran to use it as an excuse to get back out of the box.  When the deal was in force, Iran was making good on its commitments.  That’s not just me saying it; it’s independent international experts.  In fact, it’s the State Department under the previous administration.  When the deal was in force, Iran’s breakout time – that is the time that would be required for it to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon – had been pushed beyond one year.  Now it’s a matter of weeks.  So in and of itself that’s a very unfortunate development.

Having said that, I think the world’s focus right now is very much on the protests that are going on in Iran ever since the killing of Mahsa Amini.

MR MURRAY:  And what do they tell you about the stability of the government right now?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think what they tell us is this:  They tell us that the Iranian people want to be able to speak up and speak out about the issues that they care about; they tell us that the regime is afraid to let that happen and is repressing their efforts to do just that, to be able to say where they want the country to go, to be able to say what they want to wear.  And that to me is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Having said that, I’m not going to make any predictions about where this goes.  We haven’t had diplomatic relations with Iran for a long time.  Our own visibility and understanding of the country, the society, is as a result less than it might be.  But fundamentally this is about the Iranian people.  It’s not about us.  One of the big mistakes that the regime makes is – when it sees protests is saying, whether it believes it or not, that they’re being instigated by the United States, by some outside power.  That’s a profound misunderstanding of their own people and their own country.  So the question now is to what extent the regime responds to the needs, the aspirations, the desires of their own people.

MR MURRAY:  Okay, Secretary Blinken.  Everybody, I’m afraid we’re out of time with that, but I had felt like we had to get there, so I really appreciate your candor and being here.  Thank you very much.  I want to thank our audiences twitter and wsj.com too.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thanks, Matt.  Thank you all.  (Applause.)