The following is a transcript of an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that aired on “Face the Nation” on June 25, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is one of the many top Biden administration officials who has been monitoring the events of the last two days. And he joins us from the State Department. Good morning to you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: Morning, Margaret.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you tell us who in the Biden administration has been in touch with Russian leadership?
SEC. BLINKEN: Well, I instructed my own team at the President’s behest to engage with the Russians, first and foremost, to make sure that they understood their responsibilities in terms of protecting our own personnel, ensuring their safety and well-being, as well as any American citizens in Russia. So a number of people have engaged to make sure that the Russians got that message.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is the U.S. ready for further unrest in Russia, and the scenario that Vladimir Putin does not remain in power?
SEC. BLINKEN: Margaret, this is an unfolding story. And I think we’re in the midst of a moving picture. We haven’t seen- we haven’t seen the last act. We’re watching it very closely and carefully, but just step back for a second and put this in- in context. Sixteen months ago, Russian forces were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, thinking they’d take the city in a matter of days, thinking they would erase Ukraine from the map as an independent country. Now over this weekend, they’ve had to defend Moscow, Russia’s capital, against mercenaries of Putin’s own making. Prigozhin himself in this entire incident has raised profound questions about the very premises for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the first place, saying that Ukraine or NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which is part of Putin’s narrative. And it was a direct challenge to Putin’s authority. So this raises profound questions. It shows real cracks. We can’t speculate or know exactly where that’s gonna go. We do know that Putin has a lot more to answer for in the- in the weeks and months ahead.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But is the U.S. prepared for the potential of the fall of the Putin government? And is their nuclear stockpile, the largest in the world, secure?
SEC. BLINKEN: We always prepare for every contingency in terms of what happens in Russia. It’s an internal matter for the Russians to figure out. Of course, when we’re dealing with a major power, and especially a major power that has nuclear weapons, that’s something that’s of concern, something we’re very focused on. We haven’t seen any change in Russia’s nuclear posture. There hasn’t been any change in ours, but it’s something we’re going to watch very, very carefully.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Vladimir Putin is appearing on television this morning. But it appears to have been pre-recorded. Do you know the whereabouts of Vladimir Putin right now? Is he in Moscow?
SEC. BLINKEN: I don’t want to- I don’t want to speculate on that, or what information that we have. Again, we’re watching that- that carefully. I think one of the things this- this tells you is that we still don’t- don’t have finality in terms of what was actually agreed between Prigozhin and Putin. I suspect that we’re going to learn more in the days and weeks ahead about what- what deal they struck. Our focus is relentlessly on Ukraine, making sure that they continue to have what they need to defend themselves, to take back the territory that Russia seized. The President brought together not only the national security cabinet yesterday, he brought together the leaders of our key allies and partners. He instructed all of us to do the same. We have tremendous unity of purpose and unity of action when it comes to supporting Ukraine. And that’s where our focus is.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But as you just said, Prigozhin drew into question the very premise for Vladimir Putin’s war. So do the Wagner fighters return to the fight in Ukraine? Do we know?
SEC. BLINKEN: Too soon to tell what’s going to happen to the Wagner forces, whether they go back to the fight. And it was extraordinary that they were moving out of Ukraine and into Russia. But it’s too soon to tell whether they’re going to go back into the fight as Wagner, whether they get integrated into regular Russian forces. What this means for Wagner in other parts of the world. I mean, keep in mind, both Putin and Prigozhin are responsible for committing terrible acts in Ukraine against Ukrainian civilians. But also, in the case of Wagner, in country after country in Africa, wherever Wagner is, death and destruction and exploitation follow. But all of this is likely to unroll in the in the coming days in the coming weeks. To the extent that it presents a real distraction for – for Putin, and for Russian authorities, that they have to look at – sort of mind their their rear even as they’re trying to deal with the counter offensive and Ukraine. I think that creates even greater openings for the Ukrainians to do well on the ground.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, as you just indicated, Yevgeny Prigozhin has a footprint that goes from Africa, to Syria to Ukraine. Do you have any idea where he is right now?
SEC. BLINKEN: I can’t get into what we know or don’t know, through- through- through intelligence. It’s something that we’re looking at, and that we’re tracking. But for us, the most important thing is to do exactly what the president did yesterday, which was, even as he brought people together, to share whatever information we had about what was going on inside of Russia to make sure that our focus remains in supporting of the Ukrainians and making sure that they do as well as they possibly can. When it comes to the counter offensive.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, one of the things Prigozhin did was directly undermine the Russian military leadership. Do we know who is in charge of the Russian military right now? And how could Vladimir Putin agree to any changes in the leadership of his military and still look like he’s in charge?
SEC. BLINKEN: Now, those are- those are great questions. And I think we’ll get the answers in the- in the days and weeks ahead. It’s too soon to say with any- any certainty what the final chapter in this particular book is going to be. The- The Rising Storm of Prigozhin, inside of Russia is something that many people have seen over- over months now. Direct challenges to the leadership to the military leadership, powerful criticism of Russia’s conduct of its aggression against Ukraine, and now, questioning the very premises of the- the war. Prigozhin himself saying that Ukraine and NATO did not pose a threat to Russia, which is, you know, been part of Putin’s narrative. These create more cracks in the Russian facade. And those cracks are already profound. Economically, militarily, it’s standing in the world, all of those things have been dramatically diminished by Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. He’s managed to bring Europe together, he’s managed to bring NATO together, he’s managed to get Europe to move off of Russian energy, he’s managed to alienate Ukrainians and unite Ukraine at the same time. So across the board, this has been a strategic failure. Now, you introduce into that, profound internal divisions. And there are lots of questions he’s going to have to answer in the weeks ahead.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Is there a possibility of civil war?
SEC. BLINKEN: I don’t want to speculate on that. These are fundamentally internal matters for the Russians to- to figure out, it’s not our place to do that. It is our place to make sure that Ukraine continues to have what it needs to defend itself, and to take back the territory that Russia sees from it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Will President Biden reach out directly to Vladimir Putin? Has the CIA director reached out to Russian intelligence?
SEC. BLINKEN: Margaret, I’m not gonna get into any diplomatic contacts that we- we may have or have had, I can tell you that, on my instruction, on the President’s instruction, we had some engagement with the Russians over the weekend to make sure they understood their responsibilities when it comes to looking out for the safety and security of our personnel in Russia. Very important that we do that, and we did that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about Beijing. I was there with you earlier this week. And I listened to you pick every single one of your words very carefully. And then on our way home, President Biden called Xi Jinping a dictator with economic problems, who didn’t know what his own military was doing by flying the spy balloon over the United States. How much did that hurt the work you did?
SEC. BLINKEN: Margaret, one of the things that I think you heard me say during the trip, and after the trip is the main purpose was to bring some greater stability to the relationship. We have an obligation, and I think China has an obligation to manage that relationship responsibly, to make sure that the profound differences we have don’t veer into – into conflict. But one of the things that I said to Chinese counterparts during this trip was that we are going to continue to do things, and say things that you don’t like, just as you’re no doubt going to continue to do and say things that we don’t like. And if you look at what comes out of the Chinese Foreign Ministry –
MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you saying that was a strategic remark?
SEC. BLINKEN: — on a daily basis, you’ll hear that. The President always speaks candidly, he speaks directly. He speaks clearly, and he speaks for all of us. But the entire focus of what we’re doing is to make sure that even when we’re expressing our differences, by action, or by words, just as they’re doing the same thing. We continue to work through that, to build our lines of communication, because we have a responsibility. And we especially have a responsibility to make sure that the competition we’re in doesn’t veer into conflict, I think we’ve now put in place a better path to do just that. And we’ll see that over the next weeks and months.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You also said that Chinese officials assured you they won’t provide legal assistance to Russia, but that Chinese companies are. According to US Treasury, Chinese companies have also done business with the Wagner group. Have you reached out to the Chinese about trying to gauge what is happening on the ground inside Russia now?
SEC. BLINKEN: Again, I can’t get into any diplomatic context that we may or may not have had. But, you’re exactly right, that when it comes to the visit, the Chinese did reiterate to us, as well as to many other countries that they have not and will not provide lethal military assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine. I also raised the concerns that you said about Chinese companies providing that kind of support and pressed them to be vigilant about that. I’m sure they’re making their – their own assessments about what’s happened inside of Russia in recent days. And as – as our contacts continue to unfold, as we have stronger and more sustained lines of communication, one of the things that we said we need to talk about is the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. It’s something we spent some time talking about when I was in China. I would expect those conversations to continue.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary Blinken, thank you for your time this morning.
SEC. BLINKEN: Thanks, Margaret. Good to be with you.