Flag

An official website of the United States government

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability
42 MINUTE READ
December 22, 2023

Secretary Antony J. Blinken holds an end of year press availability from the press briefing room at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., December 20, 2023. (Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy)
Secretary Antony J. Blinken holds an end of year press availability from the press briefing room at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., December 20, 2023. (Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy)

 

 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, good morning, everyone.

QUESTION:  Good morning.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  When President Biden took office, he promised to deliver for the American people by reinvesting in America’s greatest sources of strength.  And since day one, that’s exactly what we’ve done.

We’ve done it here at home by making historic investments in our competitiveness, in our military, in our infrastructure, in our technology, in our manufacturing base.  We’ve also done it around the world, revitalizing and re-energizing our unmatched network of alliances and partnerships.

In 2023, we continued to show that this strategy is working.  In a year of profound tests, the world looked to the United States to lead and that’s just what we did.  It was also a year when our friends and partners took significant – at times even unprecedented – steps to share with us the responsibility of leadership.

As we head into 2024, we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who share our vision for a free, open, prosperous, and secure world, because that’s what delivering for the American people demands.

First, we will continue to rally countries around the world to support Ukraine’s freedom and independence and to ensure that Russia’s aggression remains a strategic failure.  Putin has already failed to achieve his principal objective in Ukraine: erasing it from the map, subsuming it into Russia.

It’s been a hard year on the battlefield, but, once again, Ukrainians have done what no one thought was possible:  They stood toe to toe with one of the world’s biggest militaries, they conceded no territory despite multiple Russian offensives, and they pushed Russia’s navy back in the Black Sea and opened a corridor to allow them to export their grain and other products to the world.

Russia is weaker militarily, economically, diplomatically.  NATO is bigger and stronger and more united than at any point in its nearly 75-year history.  This year, we added our 31st member of NATO – Finland.  And Sweden will join soon, bringing even greater potency and capability to our defensive alliance.

International support has been critical to Ukraine’s success.  Europe has contributed more than $110 billion to Ukraine compared to about $70 billion from the United States.  So we have with Ukraine and in Ukraine maybe the best example of burden sharing that I’ve seen in the time that I’ve been engaged in these issues.

Just last week, the European Union also agreed to start accession talks with Ukraine.  Japan, Korea, Australia, others in the Indo-Pacific, they’ve stepped up too, from helping rebuild Ukraine’s energy grid to providing major military and humanitarian assistance.  Like us, they know that supporting Ukraine is vital to showing would-be aggressors everywhere that we will stand up to those who seek to redraw borders by force.

Our support hasn’t just helped Ukrainians.  Ninety percent of the security assistance that we provided to Ukraine has been spent here in the United States, benefiting American businesses, workers, communities, strengthening our nation’s defense industrial base.

President Putin has boasted in recent weeks that – and I quote – “Ukraine has no future.”  He thinks his strategy of waiting us out while sending wave after wave of young Russians into a meat grinder of his own making will pay off.  On one and only one point, I agree with Putin: America’s ongoing support is critical to enabling Ukraine’s brave soldiers and citizens to keep up their fight, to ensure that Russia’s war remains a strategic failure, and to continue helping Ukraine move toward standing strongly on its own two feet militarily, economically, and democratically.  Putin is betting that our divisions will prevent us from coming through for Ukraine.  We have proven him wrong before; we will prove him wrong again.

Second, we will continue to engage with China from a position of strength.  Our partnerships in the Indo-Pacific have never been stronger.  In 2023, the President held his historic summit at Camp David with Japan, the Republic of Korea, cementing a new era of trilateral cooperation.  We’re working with the United Kingdom and Australia to produce nuclear-powered submarines.  We launched new comprehensive strategic partnerships with Vietnam and Indonesia, a new Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, new trilateral initiatives with the Philippines and Japan, new embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga.  We’ve deepened our partnership with India.  We’ve elevated cooperation through the Quad with India, Japan, Australia.

The United States is more closely aligned, more closely aligned than ever, with the G7, with the EU, with other allies and partners on the challenges presented by Beijing.  And we’re working together to address them.  We’re deepening cooperation and coordination between NATO and our Indo-Pacific allies.  These efforts have allowed us to engage more effectively when tackling areas of concern, like China’s coercive trade and economic practices, peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the East and South China Seas, and human rights.

At the same time, our efforts to restore high-level diplomacy, starting with my trip to Beijing in July, have allowed us to take practical steps to reduce the risk that competition veers into conflict, as well as to make progress on issues that matter in the lives of our fellow citizens.  That was on full display when President Biden met with President Xi last month and made tangible progress on issues that matter, that matter to Americans as well as to people around the world.

We secured China’s cooperation on using the flow of precursor chemicals that are fueling the synthetic drug crisis.  We’re restoring military-to-military communications at all levels to reduce the possibility of miscalculation and conflict.  And we’ve agreed to discuss risks and safety around artificial intelligence.  I look forward to continuing these discussions in the year ahead.

Third, we will keep shaping and leading coalitions to solve the problems that demand working together with others for the good of our people and for people around the world.  That’s exactly what we did in 2023, rallying coalitions of governments, businesses, civil society, regional and multilateral institutions to tackle food insecurity; to promote secure, safe, trustworthy AI systems; to fight the synthetic drug crisis; to stop the scourge of governments that arbitrarily detain foreign nationals for leverage; to mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars to build physical, digital, clean energy, and health infrastructure across developing countries, including some of the most fragile ones.

At the same time, we championed reforms to make the international system more inclusive, more effective, more responsive to advancing these issues, from the World Bank to the G20, which will now have the African Union as a permanent member.

On every one of these priorities and on many others, delivering for the American people means improving the lives of people around the world.  The reverse is also true.  Leading on these global challenges is good for Americans.  When we help reduce the flow of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, we’re not only tackling the number one killer of Americans aged 18 to 49, we’re addressing a scourge that hurts families around the world and rooting out the criminal organizations that profit from their suffering.

When we rally democratic partners and allies to build clean energy infrastructure in countries that can’t afford to build it on their own, we’re preserving our shared planet and creating new opportunities for American workers, American businesses, American investors.  When we team up with other countries to hold accountable and deter governments that arbitrarily detain foreign nationals as political pawns, we can apply more effective pressure to bring our fellow citizens home and we make people in all nations less vulnerable.

Fourth, in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, we will continue to focus intensely on our core priorities: helping Israel ensure that what happened on October 7th can never happen again, bringing the conflict to an end as quickly as possible while minimizing the loss of life and the suffering of civilians, getting the remaining hostages back home to their families, preventing the conflict from spreading, and once and for all breaking the devastating cycle of violence and moving toward durable, lasting peace.  We continue to believe that Israel does not have to choose between removing the threat of Hamas and minimizing the toll on civilians in Gaza.  It has an obligation to do both and it has a strategic interest to do both.

We’re more determined than ever to ensure that out of this horrific tragedy comes a moment of possibility for Israelis, for Palestinians, for the region to live in lasting peace and lasting security; that out of this darkness comes light.  Realizing that possibility will require all parties to make tough choices about the steps that they’re willing to take, including the United States.  We will test this proposition with the urgency and the creativity that it deserves and that America’s interests demand.

This is the spirit that has long animated President Biden in the face of seemingly intractable conflicts.  As vice president, he helped oversee the end to the Iraq War.  As President, he ended the longest war in America’s history in Afghanistan.  He helped secure and later extend a truce in the Yemen conflict.  He’s bringing that same focus to bear right now.

Across every one of our priorities, America has been more effective because of the steps we’ve taken to build a stronger, a more agile, a more diverse State Department.  There too we continued the effort in 2023.  In partnership with Congress – and I’d note this department participated in 106 hearings this year, which by our count is a record – we secured new authorities to rapidly fill critical staffing gaps in crises.

We established a new bureau to elevate and integrate work on global health security across our diplomacy.  We added hundreds of positions to the department’s training float.  We created dozens of new courses and professional development opportunities.  We established a global pay baseline for locally employed staff.  We boosted access to student loan repayment programs, expanded positions for eligible family members, among many other steps we’ve taken to invest in the department’s greatest resource, its people.

As you’ve heard the President say, we are at an inflection point for our country and for the world.  What we do – what we fail to do – in this moment will have profound consequences for decades to come.  The stakes could not be clearer.  If we want to deliver on the issues that affect the lives of the American people, we have to keep investing in ourselves, in our network of allies and partners, in our ability to solve global challenges.  And to do that, we need Congress to pass the President’s additional national security funding request.

Here’s who benefits if Congress passes this supplemental: our fellow citizens, our businesses, our workers, our allies and partners, people around the world who are looking to the United States to lead.  Here’s who cheers if we fail: Moscow, Tehran, Beijing.  If we come up short, it won’t be our adversaries and competitors who stopped us.  It will be ourselves.

Before turning to you for some questions, let me just say this.  I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of you, to thank our press corps, those present in the room and those outside who may be listening in.  This has been an extraordinarily dangerous year for press around the world.  Many killed, many more wounded, hundreds detained, attacked, threatened, injured – simply for doing their jobs.  And yet you’ve persisted.  You’ve stayed at it.  And I am immensely grateful for that.

To all the reporters here today with whom I’ve clocked a few miles this past year, your relentless efforts to ask tough questions, often multipart, and get accurate, timely information to people around the globe, is a true public service.  It’s vital that we continue – you continue – to do that because it’s so important to everything that all of us care about: informed, engaged citizens; truth; accountability; democracy.  And you do it in a way that humanizes people in an ever more dehumanized world.  So I’m profoundly grateful to you for the work that you do, even if I don’t always show it.

With that, happy to take some questions.

MR MILLER:  Matt.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Matt.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Happy Holidays.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  I know that this is intended to be a kind of 30,000-foot view, year-end review.  But I have to ask you about two issues of the day, pressing issues of the day.  One, what can you tell us about the deal to – that’s been struck with Venezuela to release detained Americans?  And two, at the UN Security Council right now, if there hasn’t been another delay, but – or soon, there will be a vote on this Gaza – Israel-Gaza resolution.  What will it take or what does the United States need to see in such a resolution for it not to veto it?  And if that can’t be done and you end up vetoing it, are you not concerned that the number three priority that you mentioned in your opening, the coalition building, will be damaged, very badly damaged?  The U.S. is already isolated on the – internationally on this issue, and another veto won’t – or are you not concerned that another veto will further isolate you?  Thanks.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Matt.  So on Venezuela, let me say first this, and you’ve heard me say this before:  We have no higher priority than doing everything we possibly can to bring our fellow citizens out of harm’s way, to make sure that they’re safe and secure if they get into trouble in one way or another overseas, including if they’re arbitrarily detained.  And as you know, we have secured the release over the past couple of years of nearly three dozen Americans who were arbitrarily detained.  That is work that continues every single day in any place around the world where Americans are being wrongfully imprisoned or detained.

So this has been a priority for us broadly.  It’s also been a priority when it comes to Venezuela.  And we want to make sure that our fellow Americans are released.  We are also focused on political prisoners in Venezuela and trying to ensure their release.

So what I can say in this moment is this:  We have a lot of work going on on both of those fronts right now, and we hope to have some good news to share probably later today.  But for now, that’s what I can share with you.

On the UN Security Council vote, you’re right, this is going on as we gather here.  We continue to engage extensively and constructively with a number of countries to try to resolve some of the outstanding issues in this Security Council resolution.  The purpose of the resolution, as stated by the countries that put it forward, is to facilitate and help expand humanitarian assistance that’s getting into Gaza, and we fully support that.  In fact, the United States from day one has, I would argue, done more than any other country to make sure that that could happen.

My first trip to Israel and to the region after October 7th, we focused on getting an agreement to start getting humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and a few days later that started with the opening of Rafah.  That was necessary but very much insufficient.  We’ve been working ever since to expand that.  Just in the last couple of days, you’ve seen, again as a result of work that many of us have done over the last several weeks, Kerem Shalom opening so that not only are goods inspected at Kerem Shalom, which increases the capacity of the ability of – to get goods into Gaza, but now goods are going directly from and through Kerem Shalom into Gaza.

In addition, we have commercial products going in, not just humanitarian assistance.  We’ve made sure that we have a sustained delivery of fuel at levels that the humanitarian community tells us are necessary to make sure that desalination plants, sewage systems, telecoms, trucks, hospitals can be powered and function.  And of course, we continue to work on this every day – for example, making sure that once assistance gets into Gaza, it can actually move around and be distributed safely and securely with predictable routes, times, access.

So we have been at the forefront of all of these efforts, and we want to make sure that the resolution in its – in what it calls for and requires actually advances that effort and doesn’t do anything that could actually hurt the delivery of humanitarian assistance, make it more complicated.  That’s what we’re focused on.  We’re engaged, as I said, in very good faith with other countries.  We’ve been working this intensely.  I’ve been on the phones about this for the last couple of days.  Linda Thomas-Greenfield, of course, in New York has been leading our efforts.  So I hope we can get to a good place.

To the last part of your question, let me say this.  Look, what I have seen from day one is that countries throughout the region as well as countries around the world want to work with us and are looking for American leadership in this crisis – even countries that may disagree with us on certain issues that have come to the fore.  That’s been a common refrain.  I’ve been not only in the region multiple times and traveled to not just Israel but to virtually all of our Arab partners and others, including Türkiye.  We’ve been on the phones constantly, including this week, with all of our Arab partners.  And the common refrain is they are looking for American leadership, and we’re working to provide that.

MR MILLER:  Michele Kelemen, all the way in the back.

QUESTION:  I am way in the back.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Hi, Michele.

QUESTION:  Just real quickly on Gaza:  How would you characterize the talks on a new hostage deal for a pause?  Is that imminent?  Are you making progress on that?  And then more broadly, we end this year with much of the world blaming the U.S. and Israel for – or seeing it as America’s war also.  It’s hurting America’s image in the world.  There is a stalemate in Ukraine, and no new aid package.  The fighting goes on in Sudan.  I wonder if there is anywhere that you’re rethinking strategy or have some ideas on how to change dynamics on any of those conflicts.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Michele.  On the question of hostages and a pause, this is something we’d very much like to see happen.  As you know, we were instrumental in getting the first humanitarian pause that facilitated the release of 110 hostages.  Israel has been very clear, including as recently as today, that it would welcome returning to a pause and the further release of hostages.  The problem was, and has been, and remains Hamas.  They reneged on commitments that they made during the first pause for hostage releases, and the question is whether they are in fact willing to resume this effort.

But certainly it’s something that we would welcome, I know that Israel would welcome, and I think the world would welcome.  So we’ll see what they choose to do.  We remain very actively engaged in seeing if we can get a pause back on and hostages moving out again of Gaza.  That’s something we’re on every single day.

More broadly, I think what’s important to always remember is that virtually none of the challenges we’re dealing with are like flipping a light switch and you suddenly get total success in the course of a day, a week, a month, even a year.  It’s almost always a process and a constant effort to get to a better place.

We were talking about Ukraine a short while ago – very important to put this in context.  As I said at the outset, if you look at where we were in February of 2022 and where we are now, well, February 2022, when the Russians went in, most people were predicting that they’d make very quick work of Ukraine, and Putin would succeed in his goal of erasing it from the map and subsuming it into Russia.  That has failed, and it’s failed first and foremost because of the courage of the Ukrainian people, but also because of the leadership we provided in making sure, with dozens of countries around the world, that Ukraine had what it needed to succeed in repelling the Russian aggression.

And now we’re engaged in an effort to help Ukraine stand on its own two feet democratically, militarily, economically – not only dealing with the current challenge that Russia continues to pose but setting it up for the long term.  And a lot of very important and good work has been done and continues to be done on that.

Militarily, we have 30 countries around the world now that are helping – including the United States – that are helping Ukraine build a future force, one that can deter aggression and defend against it if it comes in the future.

We’re extensively engaged on trying to bring much more private sector investment and activity into Ukraine so that it can thrive economically, and we’re having some real success there.  And that creates a virtuous cycle where investment comes in, the tax base goes up, and increasingly Ukraine can pay for itself.

And, of course, we’re working to deepen democratic reforms and help Ukraine combat corruption, which is necessary for getting that investment to flow, and also for Ukraine to be a strong democratic state going forward.  And as I mentioned, we just had the EU open accession talks.  Now, all of that takes time; all of that takes effort.  But we’re in a place where not only have we helped Ukraine repel this Russian aggression, but as I said, we’re putting it in a place where it can stand on its own, stand strongly on its own, and succeed and thrive in the future.

When it comes to – you mentioned Sudan.  We’ve been actively engaged there as well in trying to end the horror of the in effect civil war between two military groups, the SAF and the RSF.  And as recently as about a week ago, we helped get an agreement that the two leaders – Burhan and Hemedti, generals – would meet and commit to a ceasefire.  Now, that still has to happen, and we’re pressing to make sure that it does.  But this is the product of day-in, day-out work by our diplomats as well as many others around the world, including the African Union, IGAD, and other partners.

We’ve talked about Israel and Gaza.  Let me just say this.  We believe that, as we’ve said from the outset, Israel has not only a right but an obligation to defend itself and to try to make sure that October 7th never happens again.  Any other country in the world faced with what Israel suffered on October 7th would do the same thing.  We’ve also said – and we’ve been very clear – that how Israel does it matters and matters tremendously.  And there, too, we’ve been very deeply engaged with them to maximize protections for civilians, to maximize humanitarian assistance, to minimize harm to people in Gaza.

One of the things that’s striking to me is that, understandably, everyone would like to see this conflict end as quickly as possible, but if it ends with Hamas remaining in place and having the capacity and the stated intent to repeat October 7th again and again and again, that’s not in the interests of Israel, it’s not in the interests of the region, it’s not in the interests of the world.

And what is striking to me is that even as, again, we hear many countries urging the end to this conflict, which we would all like to see, I hear virtually no one saying – demanding of Hamas that it stop hiding behind civilians, that it lay down its arms, that it surrender.  This is over tomorrow if Hamas does that.  This would have been over a month ago, six weeks ago, if Hamas had done that.  And how could it – how can it be that there are no demands made of the aggressor and only demands made of the victim.

So it would be good if there was a strong international voice pressing Hamas to do what’s necessary to end this.  And again, that could be tomorrow.

MR MILLER:  Leon.

QUESTION:  I have a follow-up – sir.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Oh, there you are, Leon.  I was looking for you.  Right there.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  (Laughter.)  Sorry.  I am sorry to insist on this a little bit.  I mean, I know you’ve just given answers.  But I mean, you’ve – you’re very careful obviously publicly as to what you say on the Israel-Gaza conflict, Hamas conflict.  You mentioned far too many Palestinians have been killed.  You’ve mentioned a gap between the intent and the result.  So I’m wondering at this point and stage, that gap appears – to me, at least, or to observers – to be widening.  And to what extent are you going to – going to allow that to widen even more?  In other words, is there a red line for you in a sense regarding Israel’s response to Hamas?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Leon, what I’d say is this.  It’s clear that the conflict will move and needs to move to a lower-intensity phase, and we expect to see and want to see a shift to more targeted operations with a smaller number of forces that’s really focused in on dealing with the leadership of Hamas, the tunnel network, and a few other critical things.  And as that happens, I think you’ll see as well the harm done to civilians also decrease significantly.  We’ve said all along – and we have these conversations almost every day – that it is vitally important how Israel conducts its operations, again, with a focus on protecting civilians, minimizing harm to them, maximizing assistance getting to them.

And the last couple of months have been gut-wrenching when you see the suffering of men, women, and especially children in Gaza.  That affects each of us – well, let me speak for myself.  It affects me very, very deeply, which is why we’re so intent on seeing this through to completion quickly, effectively, and doing everything possible to minimize the harm to those who are caught in a crossfire of Hamas’s making.

And again, I come back to this basic proposition.  There seems to be silence on what Hamas could do, should do, must do if we want to end the suffering of innocent men, women, and children.  It would be, I think, good if the world could unite around that proposition as well.

MR MILLER:  Courtney.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Hi, Courtney.

QUESTION:  You touched on this with respect to Ukraine, but there’s growing concern internationally that further delays or outright denial of U.S. and EU assistance to Ukraine could lead to a Russian victory, perhaps in 2024.  The administration has said that there are no additional funds to draw upon absent congressional passage of the supplemental funding request.  So realistically, I mean, how long can Ukraine hold out without additional Western support?  Is it weeks?  Is it months?  And what is the long-term strategy?  I know you talked about it being a difficult year given the struggle to regain much of the territory that Russia has seized.  Thanks.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So Courtney, thanks.  First, to emphasize something that that you said, other than the supplemental request that the President has made of Congress, there is no magic pot of money that we can draw from.  The assistance, the support that we have designated for Ukraine, that is running out; it’s running down.  We are nearly out of money that we need, and we’re nearly out of time.  I can’t put a precise date on it, but that’s the direction that this is moving in, which underscores the urgency of getting this supplemental budget request through.

We have made a real investment in Ukraine’s future, in its freedom.  And it would – makes no sense to me that we would now renege on that investment, having already done so much and having already put Ukraine in a position where it can not only survive but actually thrive going forward.  And we have a very clear plan, as I said, to make sure that Ukraine can stand on its own two feet – militarily, economically, democratically – so that these levels of support and assistance will no longer be necessary.  But we have to help Ukraine get through the next period of time, get through this winter, get through the spring and summer.

I’m also focused on the fact that they have their own plans to continue not only to deter the Russian aggression, but to continue to take back territory that was seized from them by Russia.  As you know, they’ve taken back more than 50 percent of the territory that Russia took in February of 2022, and that’s going to be an ongoing effort.  But the most important thing is, as I said, making sure that we get Ukraine to a place where it can stand on its own feet.  And we see that, it is there before us, but we have to continue to provide the support to get them to that place.

And I want to emphasize two things again, because it bears repeating every single time.  One, this is not just the United States alone doing it.  It’s the United States and dozens of other countries with better burden sharing than I’ve seen in any other crisis that I’ve been involved in over 30 years.  I mentioned this before.  We’ve provided about $70 billion to Ukraine over the last couple of years – our allies and partners, more than $110 billion.  So they are more than picking up their share of the burden.

Second, as I mentioned before, virtually all of the security assistance that we’ve provided Ukraine and the security assistance that would be in – that’s in this supplemental budget request, that gets invested right here in the United States.  That’s where it’s spent.  And that not only helps procure the weapons that Ukraine needs; it provides good jobs here in the United States.  It builds our own defense industrial base.  So in many ways, this is a win-win for us, and it’s why I would hope Congress acts and acts quickly.  And again, as I said before, we know who will be happy if, for whatever reason, this budget request does not go through, and they’re sitting in Moscow, they’re sitting in Beijing, they’re sitting in Tehran.

MR MILLER:  The last question, Olivia.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Matt.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  You just told us here, as you’ve often said before, that there’s no higher priority for the United States than bringing home Americans who are wrongfully or arbitrarily detained overseas or being held hostage.  Dozens of American families right now are living through another holiday season, entering another new year without their loved ones by their side.  Cases are lingering in Russia, China, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, many other countries that I know you know well.  So what is your message to those families right now struggling to share in the joy of news of some Americans being freed, and some feeling increasingly hopeless and increasingly left behind by their own country?

And if I may specifically ask you on known cases in Russia, where Vladimir Putin appeared last week to be holding the door open to some kind of deal, saying the American side must hear us and make a decision that will satisfy the Russian side as well.  Have the Russians made a counteroffer for the release of Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  My message to Americans who have their loved ones being arbitrarily detained someplace around the world is twofold.  One, we’re with you, the President is with you, and he is working for your every single day to bring your loved ones home.  And second, do not, do not, do not give up hope, because we have demonstrated time and again that even when something seemed hopeless, it wasn’t.  We’ve brought more than three dozen Americans who were being arbitrarily detained back home to their families over the last three years.  And each and every one who comes home should be a message of hope to those who remain detained and to their families and loved ones that not only is it possible, it’s happening.  It happens.

So it’s, of course, one thing for me to say that.  It’s another thing if you’re a member of one of these families that has a loved one being detained who have to live through that every hour of every day – the uncertainty, the not knowing.  None of us can fully put ourselves in their shoes, but I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with the families of those who are arbitrarily detained, held hostage.  And for me and for the President, this is not – these are not names on a piece of paper; these are not numbers.  They’re real people, real families whose lives have been torn apart by the arbitrary actions of other governments or groups.  And remembering, as I do every day, that we’re talking about real people, real lives, real families – that’s what motivates us to do everything possible to bring them back.

With regards to Russia and Evan, Paul Whelan, all I can say is this.  We’re very actively working on it.  And we – we’ll leave no stone unturned to see if we can’t find the right way to get them home and to get them home as soon as possible.  I can’t get into any more details than that, you’ll understand why, but it’s very much a focus of our actions, activities.  Thanks.

MR MILLER:  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks everyone.  May I wish you a very Happy New Year, holiday season.  I hope we won’t have occasion to see each other during this period, but you never know.  And for those who are joining our next Middle East trip, which leaves in a few hours, see you then.  (Laughter.)  Thanks.