Via Teleconference

11:07 A.M. EST
MODERATOR:  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks so much for joining.  As a reminder for these calls, these are on the record, and we’ve got no embargo here.
We’ll kick it off to Kirby at the top for a few words, and then we’ll take your questions. 
MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, everybody.  I just want to take a couple of minutes here at the beginning to draw your attention again to events in Ukraine over the weekend, in particular how Ukrainian troops were forced to withdraw from the city of Avdiivka in the eastern part of Ukraine — and that happened on Saturday; I think you all know that — because they practically ran out of supplies, including artillery ammunition.
For many months, we’ve talked about how Russia was trying to take Avdiivka as part of its offensive in the east.  I talked it from the podium just a few days ago last week, and we talked about how Russia had suffered thousands and thousands of casualties in the process.  For months, Ukraine had been able to keep the Russian attacks at bay, until they started to run out of ammunition, particularly with respect to artillery — the kind of ammunition that they needed to prevent those Russian forces from reaching Ukrainian defensive lines and overrunning those positions.
Let’s be clear about this: Ukraine’s decision to withdraw from Avdiivka wasn’t because they weren’t brave enough.  It wasn’t because they weren’t well-led enough.  It wasn’t because they weren’t trained.  It wasn’t because they didn’t have the tactical acumen to defend themselves and to defend that town.  It was because of congressional inaction.  And we’ve been warning Congress that if they didn’t act, Ukraine would suffer losses on the battlefield.  And here you go — that’s what happened this weekend.  And that’s what’s at stake here in Ukraine if we can’t get the supplemental funding and get the kinds of arms and ammunition into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers as soon as possible.
On Friday, now, we also got the horrific news that Aleksey Navalny died in a Russian prison.  As you heard the President say, Mr. Navalny had courageously stood up to the corruption, the violence, and all the malicious activity that the Putin government had been doing. 
Whatever story the Russian government decides to tell the world, it’s clear that President Putin and his government are responsible for Mr. Navalny’s death. 
In response, at President Biden’s direction, we will be announcing a major sanctions package on Friday of this week to hold Russia accountable for what happened to Mr. Navalny and, quite frankly, for all its actions over the course of this vicious and brutal war that has now raged on for two years.
One of the most powerful things that we can do right now to stand up to Vladimir Putin, of course, is to, again, pass the bipartisan National Security Supplemental bill and support Ukraine as they continue to fight bravely in defense of their country.
And with that, I’ll take some questions.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our first question will go to Zeke Miller with the AP.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Thanks, John.  First off, on that sanctions package, can you give us any indication of what might come with that and how it will be different in any way from the barrage of sanctions that the U.S. and allies have put in place on Russia since the invasion of Ukraine?
And then, secondly, on Ukraine, has the loss of Avdiivka sort of changed the trajectory of the conflict?  You know, can Ukraine make up the ground that has been lost by the delays in supplying?
MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Zeke.  On the sanctions package, as you know, we don’t get ahead of sanctions announcements in terms of any great detail.  But I think what you’ll see in this package that we’re going to be announcing Friday is a set of sanctions, a regime that not only is designed to hold Mr. Putin accountable for now two years of war in Ukraine, but also specifically supplemented with additional sanctions regarding Mr. Navalny’s death. 
That’s, unfortunately, about the most — the amount of detail I can get into right now.  We’re always careful before we announce sanctions.  But, again, I would say, stay tuned, look to Friday, and we’ll have more to say about that. 
On Avdiivka, I think, taking a step back, I mean, why have the Russians been trying to get Avdiivka?  Largely because they want basically a hub — a logistics and operational maneuver hub in the Donbas area, specifically in Donetsk.  And that’s why they’ve been trying to get Avdiivka.  They believe that it will give them a stepping-off point, if you will, to conduct further operations in the Donetsk and even in the Luhansk areas. 
Now, whether they’re capable of actually doing that, we’ll see.  I mean, they have struggled with logistics and sustainment command and control since the very beginning of this conflict.  It’s not likely that they’ve sort of reached some breakthrough capability here in terms of sustaining their troops on the battlefield.  But that’s ostensibly what they were trying to achieve by getting Avdiivka. 
It will not change in the aggregate the kinds of defensive works and the defensive operations that the Ukrainians are going to be capable of conducting.  In fact, it was a wise decision by President Zelenskyy to withdraw so his troops did not get encircled so that he could preserve them and the precious resources that they have.  And it is precious, by the way. 
But it remains to be seen whether or not the Russians are going to be able to achieve the sort of overarching strategic goal of taking Avdiivka. 
What we can say for sure is that if the Ukrainians aren’t better supplied, if they don’t get a relief from the shortage of ammunition that they are suffering right now, this could — this move on Avdiivka could actually have a larger effect on the fighting in the east and the amount of territory that the Russians might be able to get over time.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to Missy Ryan.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Hey, John.  Thanks for doing this.  I wanted to check in on the artillery issue that you mentioned that is driving some of the problems for the Ukrainian forces.  You know, I know you guys have said many times that the Congress needs to approve the supplemental request, but I’m wondering, if that does not happen, is the administration considering providing additional artillery from U.S. stockpiles without the replenishment funds?  As you know, there is PDA authority remaining.  Would the administration be willing to take that hit at some point if the Ukrainians really need it and there isn’t movement from Congress?  Thanks.
MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Missy.  We need the supplemental funding.  We absolutely have to have the supplemental funding to be able to continue to support Ukraine.  The replenishment authority is important.  Because we have provided so much, we’ve got to be mindful of our own stocks for our own national security purposes. 
Now, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what we might or might not do, because we’re focused on actually getting the supplemental bill passed.  That is the answer to being able to provide Ukraine with the resources that it needs for this very kinetic fight.  And it is not like these guys are dug in over the winter.  I mean, you’ve just seen over the weekend, it’s a very kinetic fight.  They need these — they need those resources, and we need Congress to do its job and pass that supplemental bill. 
And, you know, to your other question about the existing PDA and the importance of it — yes, there’s existing authority left, but without the replenishment authority, as I said, it’s not cost-free in terms of our own national security needs.  And we have obligations around the world that we need to be mindful of as well.
MODERATOR:  Next up, we’ll go to Steve Holland.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Hey there, John.  Just a bit more on Navalny.  How hard is it going to be to determine how he died?  Is the U.S. making an independent effort to try to determine how he died?  Have you asked Russia for details?  Anything on this at all?
MR. KIRBY:  Our embassy has been engaged, Steve, as you would expect them to.  But, you know, it’s difficult to get to a point where you can be confident in what the Russians would say about his death. 
We all want — would love to know exactly what happened here, not setting aside the fact that regardless of the actual scientific answer, Mr. Putin is responsible for it.  But absent some credible investigation into his death, I mean, you know, it’s hard to get to a point where, you know, we can just take the Russians’ word for it. 
So, clearly, we’re calling for complete transparency by the Russian government for how he died.  And we’ll continue to do that.
Q    And secondly, John, one of the suggestions that came out of the weekend TV shows was declaring Russia a state sponsor of terrorism to be able to increase the amount of pressure on the Russian government.  Is that being considered at all at the White House?
MR. KIRBY:  We’ve put an awful lot of pressure on Russia, Steve, over the course of the last couple of years specifically.  And as I think you’ll see on Friday, we’re going to ramp up that pressure on Russia.  But I don’t have anything to announce or to speak to with regard to the state sponsor of terrorism designation. 
Q    Thank you. 
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next up, we’ll go to Vivian Salama.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Thanks, Eduardo.  Hi, John.  I wanted to ask you about the U.N. Security Council vote that just happened.  The U.S. was the sole veto to the Algerian plan calling for an immediate ceasefire.  You know, increasingly, it seems the U.S. is isolated in its position that now is not the time, where most other countries felt like it should happen right away. 
And so, I’m curious, you know, does the White House — you know, what is the White House’s position with regard to sort of this isolation in the world and its persistent support of Israel and the Hamas — and the hostage negotiations?  You know, at some point, do you feel like you’re going to have to embrace the calls for an immediate ceasefire if you’re not able to make headway on the other issues, including the hostages?  Thanks. 
MR. KIRBY:  Well, look, we just weren’t able to support a resolution today that was going to put sensitive negotiations in peril.  And that’s what we believe this resolution would do.  We are in the midst — in fact, Brett McGurk is traveling to the region as we speak to have meetings in Cairo tomorrow, and then follow-on in Israel the next day, specifically to see if we can get this hostage deal in place, which calls for a temporary ceasefire, calls for a humanitarian pause of an extended nature to get all those hostages out.  And to vote for this resolution today could very well put those negotiations at risk. 
You know, you talk about isolation.  I think the American people, and I think most of the people around the world, would love to see those hostages home with their families.  And if we just voted and went along with this resolution, the chances of doing that would be greatly reduced. 
So we’re comfortable with the approach that we’re taking.  We all want to see this conflict end, but it’s got to end in a way that keeps the Israeli people safe from any future attacks by Hamas, that doesn’t leave Hamas in control, and doesn’t take the pressure off Hamas to release all those hostages, let alone the humanitarian assistance, which needs to continue to get in and increase volume.  And that could happen if we can get this deal in place. 
We are at a very delicate time right now, Vivian, with these discussions going on, and we’re still hopeful that we can get this over the finish line.  This resolution — this was not the time for that kind of resolution.  As our U.N. Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said: “A vote today was wishful but it was irresponsible.”
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next up, we’ll go to Patsy.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Thanks, Eduardo.  And thanks, John.  So, just to follow up on Vivian’s question, I think the U.S. is also proposing a draft U.N. resolution to oppose a ground offensive in Rafah.  This was perhaps going to be seen in a difficult way by Israel. 
As you know, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that bending to international pressure to delay offensive in Rafah is the same as telling Israel to lose the war against Hamas. 
So this is another instance where the Prime Minister is pushing against what President Biden wants.  Can you help us understand this?  Is the President losing patience with the Prime Minister?  Yeah, just help us figure this out. 
And then I have a follow-up on Russia.
MR. KIRBY:  Well, as you know, he talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu not long ago, and we’re going to keep those discussions going. 
Again, Brett will be in Israel the day after tomorrow.  I have no doubt that he’ll also have an opportunity to talk about what’s going on in Rafah and reiterate our concerns about the current circumstances and what a major ground offensive in Rafah could look like under the current circumstances without due appreciation for and planning for, in a credible way, the safety and security of the more than million people that are down there.  And that has not changed.  President Biden hasn’t changed on our view of that.  Brett will certainly convey that when he’s in Israel. 
This is — we — absolutely nothing has changed about our desire to see the threat from Hamas eliminated in terms of the Israeli people.  We don’t believe that Hamas leadership should be able to get off scot-free here after what happened on the 7th of October.  And we certainly understand the right and responsibility of the IDF to eliminate that threat to their own people. 
We’re still solidly in support of that.  This isn’t about wanting Israel to do anything but to succeed against the threat against Hamas.  But it also comes with the desire to have that success.  For any major military, there comes an obligation — an added obligation to make sure that you’re looking after the safety and security of innocent people that are in harm’s way.  And again, we’ve been very, very consistent about that.
Q    And on Russia, Yulia Navalnaya is calling on Western countries, including the U.S., not to recognize the result of the presidential elections in Russia next month.  Is this something that the administration would consider?
MR. KIRBY:  I don’t have anything for you on that.
Q    Thank you. 
MODERATOR:  Next up, we’ll go to Justin Gomez.  You should be able to unmute yourself. 
Q    Hey, John.  Good morning.  Yesterday, the President said he’d be happy to meet with Speaker Johnson to discuss Ukraine aid.  Can you just explain what changed, now that the President said he’s open to sitting down with him?  Last week, the White House was questioning, kind of, what the point of a meeting between the Speaker and President Biden would be.  And some of his previous requests were denied when he asked the White House for this meeting.  So, can you just kind of give some insight into why the President is now open to that?
MR. KIRBY:  Look, I think, as we’ve said, we have sat down and discussed this with Speaker Johnson and other congressional leaders, including at the White House several weeks ago, the importance of this supplemental funding.  And that was, of course, before the Speaker got exactly what he wanted and then decided that he didn’t want it, which was a bill that included billions of dollars additional for border security. 
It is — we are at a critical time, as I said in my topper.  The Ukrainian troops on the battlefront are literally running out of ammunition and having to give up defensive positions to the Russians — defensive positions, by the way, that they’ve been holding and holding well — because they’re having to make the impossible decisions on the battlefield of whether they’re going to fire this or fire that and who they’re going to shoot at and how many bullets are going to — or artillery shells they’re going to use. 
We’re at a critical time.  And I believe that the President’s comments and willingness to have another conversation with the Speaker reflect the sense of urgency that we all believe we’re in and, frankly, we believe Congress should believe we’re in, instead of being on vacation.
MODERATOR:  Next question, we’ll go to Hiba Nasr.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Thanks, Eduardo.  Good morning, John.  I go back to that Security Council resolution, the draft you introduced.  You said in the draft that this draft underscores its support for a “temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable.”  I know you went through what you want to see before seeing a temporary ceasefire, but I’m asking here about the time factor — I mean, to what extent this is important to you.  And my second question — and if you can elaborate a little bit about what do you mean by “practicable.”
The second thing: I will ask about the Lebanese front.  Yesterday, the Israelis hit inside south Lebanon.  It is 50 kilometers far from the border.  This time we’ve seen the rules of engagement changing.  Is the risk higher on the Lebanese front?  Thank you.
MR. KIRBY:  I’m going to ask you to repeat your second question in a minute, as I didn’t quite get all of it. 
But, look, when we talk about “as soon as practicable,” we mean in the context of what we’re trying to get done with this hostage deal.  We are, again, in very sensitive negotiations that we hope will bear fruit soon to be able to get these hostages out and get an extended pause in place. 
And we just don’t believe — we still don’t believe that a general ceasefire, meaning a permanent ceasefire, that this is the right time for that — a ceasefire that leaves Hamas in control and alleviates any responsibility for them to release the hostages. 
Again, where we’re at right now in time and space, we believe the approach that we’re taking is the best option to getting those hostages home, to getting aid increased, and frankly, getting the violence down for an extended period of time — more than one week; it could potentially be up to six weeks if we’re successful.  That’s what we mean by “as soon as practicable.” 
And I’m sorry, can you repeat your second question?  There was a garble, and I think I missed the gist of it. 
Q    Yes.  My second question: Yesterday, the Israelis hit Hezbollah infrastructure in a location 50 kilometers far from the southern borders, which indicate a change — a big change in the rules of engagement.  Is the risk higher on the Lebanese front?  And what are you trying to avoid further escalation, especially that there’s a difference between your approach and the French approach toward Lebanon?  Thank you.
MR. KIRBY:  I can’t speak for anybody’s approach but ours.  And I wasn’t tracking that particular event. 
But just in general, our approach remains the same.  And this has been really an approach shepherded by Amos Hochstein, who has, as you know, done quite a bit of diplomacy on this particular issue.  But we don’t want to see a second front open up.  We don’t want to see the conflict widen and deepen.  We don’t want to see the fighting that has occurred between Hezbollah and Israeli Defense Forces up in the north continue; we certainly don’t want to see it become more aggressive. 
I can’t speak for the IDF and what they will or won’t do as a result of this most recent event that you talked about.  But I can just tell you that we’re going to continue our conversations with our Israeli counterparts, continue our conversations with Lebanese counterparts as well, about not letting the tensions up there boil over to the point where it truly does deepen and widen the conflict in a way that could alleviate any kind of pressure on Hamas.  And I think I’ll just need to leave it at that.
Q    Thank you.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to Nadia.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Thank you, Eduardo.  Good morning, John.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but the U.S. position regarding Rafah — that you do not mind an Israeli operation unless or except that if the Israelis give you a feasible or practical solution to evacuate civilians, which we’re talking about one and a half million — is this the case, or actually you are adamantly against any military operation?  And whether the Israelis have given you any plan that you consider actually workable.
And second, I don’t know if you’ve seen this report, but there is a report that was published today that a pro-Israeli group that is linked to the White House are basically targeting journalists at the Washington Post who are writing or perceived as writing stories that are pro-Palestinians or pro-civilians or exposing the Palestinian suffering in Gaza. 
So how can the White House ensure that journalists have the right to do the duties — fulfill the duties without any harassment from any groups, whether it is a lobbyist or especially somebody who’s linked to the White House?  Thank you.
MR. KIRBY:  On your second question, let me take the question, Nadia.  I’m not aware of —
Q    I can send you the article.  Sure. 
MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, please do.  We’ll take a look at that. 
Obviously, we would take seriously any effort designed to stifle, intimidate, or pressure reporters to do their jobs a certain way.  We believe in freedom of the press, and would not counsel or approve of any effort by anybody to interfere with freedom of the press and journalistic endeavor. 
So, please do send it to me, and we’ll take a look at that.  But that’s the first I’ve heard of it. 
On your first question: Nothing has changed.  We don’t believe that — well, let me put it a different way.  We believe that any major operation in Rafah, under the current circumstances, without a credible and operable plan to look after, to ensure the safety and security of the more than million people — and you’re right, I’ve seen estimates of up to a million and a half innocent Palestinians that took refuge in in Rafah because of the fighting up north — would be a disaster.  We have conveyed that privately to our Israeli counterparts.  Again, Brett is on his way to Israel here later this week.  I’m sure he will carry forth that same message.
We would not support such an operation unless there was a credible plan for the safety and security of all those innocent people that, again, moved as requested to the south because of fighting in Khan Younis and, earlier still, in Gaza City.  And they need to be looked after.  Their safety and security need to be fully and carefully considered before major military operations should be conducted in Rafah.
Now, we understand that there are Hamas leadership — in fact, full Hamas units — that are now operating in Rafah, mixing among the civilians, trying to find refuge there.  That’s classic Hamas conduct, and that’s inexcusable.  And Israel has a right to go after them, of course, but they also have an obligation, as I said earlier, to minimize any harm to civilians.  And that’s what we want to see.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will go to Emily Goodin.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Thank you, Eduardo.  Thank you, John.  I wanted to ask about reports of this U.S.-Russian ballerina, Ksenia Karelina, who has been held in Russia and charged with treason.  Just wondered what you guys were hearing and tracking there.
MR. KIRBY:  I don’t have a whole lot I can offer here.  I can tell you that we at the White House and, of course, the State Department, we’ve been aware of the reports of the arrest of a dual U.S.-Russia citizen.  And we are trying to get more information and to secure some consular access to that individual. 
Out of respect for privacy, we’re not really able to comment a whole lot more than that.  I hope you can understand that. 
The last thing I’d say is I want to reiterate our very strong warnings about the danger posed to U.S. citizens inside Russia.  So if you’re a U.S. citizen, including a dual national, residing in or traveling in Russia, you ought to leave right now if you can.  Just depart immediately.  And that’s clearly stated in our travel advisory for Russia.  And obviously, it goes without saying, if you’re a U.S. citizen or you have a U.S.  passport, and you haven’t traveled to Russia but you’re considering going, we obviously urge you not to do that.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ve got time for a couple more questions.  Next up, we’ll go to Asma.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Hey, thanks, John.  And thanks, Eduardo.  I had a quick question.  And I know this has been asked in a few different ways, but if I can try again, John, because I still don’t have a clear sense of what the U.S. position is on Rafah at this moment. 
Is there the sense that the Israeli military has offered you all any credible alternative or credible, you know, civilian pathway out?  I think that’s the question a few of us have asked in different ways, which is: Is it the position that you do not want to or that you see an alternative vision where it is plausible to go into Rafah?  And have you at all seen any plans that suggest that is possible?
MR. KIRBY:  Okay, thanks.  I’m sorry if I’ve been less than clear, so I’ll try it again.  And if it still doesn’t scratch the edge, let me know. 
We’ve been consistent that we understand Israel has a right and responsibility to go after Hamas.  We understand that there are Hamas units and Hamas leaders who have migrated down to Rafah as a result of the fighting in Khan Younis.  We understand that those Hamas leaders and those units are in many ways embedding themselves in and around the civilian population, hiding behind human shields as they have done in the past.  Classic Hamas behavior.  That makes it difficult, as it has made it difficult for the Israelis, to fight against Hamas since the attacks of October 7th. 
It is an even more difficult challenge for Israel given the sheer number of Palestinians that are trying to find refuge in Rafah and have been forced down to Rafah as a result of the fighting farther north — somewhere between a million and a million and a half people.  That is a lot when you’re talking about a strip of land that’s only 12 miles wide. 
So we do not support major operations in Rafah that do not properly account for a credible plan — and include a credible plan to care for the safety and security of those million-plus people finding refuge in Rafah.  We would not support operations that put those people at greater — at deliberate and greater risk. 
Now, hopefully that’s clear.  We certainly support going after Hamas.  We certainly support decapitating their network and eliminating the threat.  But with that, particularly in an environment like Gaza, comes an added burden by the Israeli Defense Forces to reduce civilian harm. 
I am not aware of the existence of a credible plan to do that at this time or that has been presented to us.  I’m sure that when Brett is in the region, he will have an opportunity to talk to the Israelis more about what their plans. 
I did see comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu that he ordered his military leaders to come up with such a plan.  Again, I am not aware that any plan has been completed and/or presented to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  I’m certainly not aware of any presentation to us on what that would look like. 
But we do not support operations in Rafah, under the current circumstances, without a credible plan to deal with the safety and security of the people there. 
Did that make it clearer?
Q    Yes, thank you.  That was helpful.  Thank you. 
MR. KIRBY:  Yes, ma’am.
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our last question will go to Jacob Magid.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q    Hi, thanks for doing this.  So, on that: President Biden, on — I think it was Friday — talked about the reasoning that he doesn’t want Israel to go into Rafah being about while the negotiations are ongoing.  And you haven’t mentioned that as the main reason.  I just wanted to clarify: Is that because he kind of spoke off the talking point that it’s not — that it’s really just about the plan issue?  Or is that also part of the calculus, that we don’t want the Rafah operation to take place until we’ve reached some sort of deal or if the negotiations fall apart? 
I also just wanted to clarify — because, I mean, I have spoken to Israeli officials that have said there has been a plan that was presented and that we’re talking about moving those in Rafah to just north of Khan Younis, south of Wadi Gaza, that there is space there, that they have plans. 
I mean, Netanyahu ordered this plan publicly over a week ago.  It’s kind of hard to imagine that no plan has been presented.  Is it possible that there has been; it’s just that you don’t want to talk about it publicly?
MR. KIRBY:  As I said, I’m not aware of a plan that we’ve had a chance to look at and examine.  But I can’t speak for the Israeli Defense Forces and what planning they’ve actually done and if they’ve planned — if they’ve presented it to the Prime Minister.  I said I wasn’t aware, which is an honest answer.  I’m not aware.  That doesn’t mean that they haven’t done that (inaudible).
And again, our principal concern here is that, under the current circumstances, without properly accounting for the safety and security of those refugees, we continue to believe that an operation in Rafah would be a disaster.  And obviously, we’re working very hard on trying to get a hostage deal in place.
As I said, Brett is heading to the region — he’ll be in Egypt tomorrow and then Israel the next day — with that being a principal focus of his efforts to try to get that hostage deal in place. 
And as I said earlier, many times in this gaggle, we are in a sensitive moment here and believe the President was referring to the sensitivity of the moment that we’re in and how hard we’re trying to get this over the finish line.
Q    So it’s not a condition that, like, the negotiations have to be over for the Rafah operation to take place?
MR. KIRBY:  I think I’m just going to leave it the way I did. 
Q    Okay.  Thank you. 
MODERATOR:  Thanks, everyone.  That’s all the time we have today.  We’ll do this again soon.

11:41 A.M. EST

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