Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Olena Removska of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Kyiv, Ukraine

Hyatt Regency Hotel

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, welcome to Ukraine.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you for your time.  In April, we witnessed a buildup of Russia troops close to Ukraine’s border and even annexed Crimea.  Russia called it snap checks.  What lessons did the United States make from these so-called snap checks?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think the number one lesson is the absolute need to remain extremely vigilant against the possibility of reckless actions, aggression from Russia, directed at Ukraine.  You’re exactly right.  This was the largest concentration of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border since 2014, since Russia first invaded.  And so we’re very focused on that.  So are many other countries.  They’ve expressed not only their clear concern but their solidarity with Ukraine in standing against these actions.

Now, we’ve seen some of the forces pull back, but many still remain.  We’ve seen some heavy equipment pulled back, but a lot also remains.  And Russia has the capacity, on pretty short notice, to take further aggressive actions.  So we are being very vigilant about that, watching it very carefully, and also making sure that we’re helping Ukraine have the means to defend itself, defend its sovereignty, defend its territory.

QUESTION:  This situation raised a question in Ukraine society in:  What could Ukraine’s partners do in case of new invasion of Ukraine, yes, from Russia?

So I would ask you, as the representative of the Ukraine strategic partner, what would the United States do in this situation?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, the most important thing to do is what we’re doing, which is to make sure that that doesn’t happen, that Russia does not make a very unfortunate decision to engage in any further aggression or reckless actions when it comes to Ukraine, which is exactly why we have spoken up very clearly when we saw this concentration of forces, why we’ve worked closely with all of our leading partners around the world, including at NATO and the European Union, so that everyone was very focused on this and was making it very clear to Moscow that we were looking and watching very carefully, and that if any action was taken, it would not be without consequences.  And at the same time, we’re working very closely with our partners here in Ukraine, as I said, to make sure that they have the means necessary to defend Ukraine, defend its territory, defend its people.

QUESTION:  Regarding the means, two recent statements made by Ukraine’s top politicians, Ukraine will request air defense system and anti-sniper attacks and U.S. should deploy Patriot missiles in Ukraine.  Is the United States considering any of this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, we, of course, will look at any and every request.  And the main thing is that our Pentagon, our Defense Department, is the main partner for Ukraine.  And it is, as we speak, looking at what additional assistance, beyond the very significant assistance that we’ve already provided, including equipment, would be helpful to Ukraine right now.  That’s a very active consideration.

QUESTION:  Considering the fact that the threat is still there – yeah, you mentioned that there are still Russian troops in the annexed Crimea and close to Ukraine’s borders – does the United States consider an option of excluding Russia from SWIFT payment system?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I don’t want to get into hypothetical questions about what we might do in the future.  Let me just say simply that when it comes to trying to deter aggression or respond, we will consider every reasonable option.  Because as I said, we’re determined that this not – that there will – that it’s clear that there would be consequences in different areas.

But let me also say this, because it’s important:  We would prefer a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia and, indeed, President Biden has made that clear to President Putin.  But just as important – and we’ve been very clear about this – if Russia takes, continues to take reckless or aggressive actions, whether it’s with regard to Ukraine or anywhere else where our interests or our partners are being challenged, we will respond, not for purposes of escalating, not for purposes of seeking a conflict, but because these kinds of actions cannot go unanswered.  They cannot happen with impunity.  And so I think it’s very clear that there would be consequences.

But my sincere hope is that Russia understands that our preference would be for a more stable, predictable relationship, but ultimately that is up to Russia, by its actions or non-actions.

QUESTION:  Russian President Vladimir Putin in his recent address warned the West regarding – warned from crossing redlines.  Are there any uncrossable redlines for the United States towards Russia?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We don’t speak in terms of redlines.  It’s – what is clear is this, and this goes back to 2014 in many ways:  There are two things at stake when it comes to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.  First and most important, what’s at stake are the rights of the Ukrainian people and their sovereignty, the integrity of their territory, their democracy.

But what’s also at stake are some very important larger principles that actually have effect well beyond Ukraine, and those principles include that the notion of having a sphere of influence is a concept that was – should have been retired after World War II.  We don’t accept the principle of spheres of influence.  The principle that another country cannot simply change the borders of its democratic neighbor by force; the principle that another country does not have the right to tell a country what its policy should be, with whom it can associate.  Those are principles that are at play here in Ukraine by Russia’s actions.  But they’re also relevant to many other parts of the world.  And if we allow those principles to be violated with impunity, then that is going to send a message not just to Russia; it’s going to send a message in other parts of the world as well that those – the rules don’t matter, that countries can behave any way they want, that might makes right.  That is a recipe for an international system that falls apart.  That is a recipe not for cooperation, but for conflict.  And it’s a very bad recipe that we are determined to stand against.

QUESTION:  We at Radio Liberty are also under pressure in Russia.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Our Moscow bureau is almost at the edge of being closed because of this foreign agent law in Russia.  You already expressed concern on this regard, but how do you think is there a real chance to influence the situation?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We just had – as you know, I’m sure – World Press Freedom Day.  And we spent some time talking to journalists from around the world who are operating in countries where they are under – they’re under threat.  Their rights to practice journalism, to do so safely and openly, are being challenged by many different countries.  And unfortunately, we see that of course in Russia and we see that directly with regard to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

And what I can tell you is that the United States stands strongly with independent journalism.  It is the foundation of any democratic system, holding leaders accountable, informing people, informing citizens.  It’s very, very basic.  And I think that countries that don’t do that, that deny freedom of the press are countries that don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves or in their systems.  What is to be afraid of in informing the people and in holding leaders accountable?

So we’re going to stand – everywhere journalism and freedom of the press is challenged, we will stand with journalists and with that freedom.  And by the way, I’m on the receiving end sometimes of reports and commentary and articles that I may not appreciate in the moment.  But I will do everything I possibly can to stand up for the right of journalists to do their jobs, because the job that you do is profoundly important to the lives of our citizens.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  One last question:  Approximately 100 Ukrainian citizens are now in jail in Russia.  I mean, those people in Ukraine considered to be political prisoners; most of them are Crimeans, and one of these Crimeans, Oleksiy Bessarabov, yesterday addressed personally to you.  He’s now in jail in Russia, but he asked you and the management of the United States to influence somehow the process of the release of political prisoners, Ukrainians in Russia.  Do the United States have any opportunity to do this?  Because there were no exchange between Ukraine and Russia since last spring.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  As a general matter, we are very concerned about the practice that some governments engage in of arbitrarily detaining the citizens of other countries, holding them hostage, or having political prisoners.  And this is something that we’re working with many other countries around the world to take a stronger stand against.  At the same time, if we have opportunities to engage another government on people that it’s holding illegally, we will certainly do that.  So if there’s an opportunity, we’ll take it.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Thank you for your time.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Good to be with you.

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    Nonprofit hospitals must satisfy three sets of requirements to obtain and maintain a nonprofit tax exemption (see figure). Requirements for Nonprofit Hospitals to Obtain and Maintain a Tax-Exemption While PPACA established requirements to better ensure hospitals are serving their communities, the law is unclear about what community benefit activities hospitals should be engaged in to justify their tax exemption. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) identified factors that can demonstrate community benefits, but they are not requirements. IRS does not have authority to specify activities hospitals must undertake and makes determinations based on facts and circumstances. This lack of clarity makes IRS's oversight challenging. Congress could help by adding specificity to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). While IRS is required to review hospitals' community benefit activities at least once every 3 years, it does not have a well-documented process to ensure that those activities are being reviewed. IRS referred almost 1,000 hospitals to its audit division for potential PPACA violations from 2015 through 2019. However, IRS could not identify if any of these referrals related to community benefits. GAO's analysis of IRS data identified 30 hospitals that reported no spending on community benefits in 2016, indicating potential noncompliance with providing community benefits. A well-documented process, such as clear instructions for addressing community benefits in the PPACA reviews or risk-based methods for selecting cases, would help IRS ensure it is effectively reviewing hospitals' community benefit activities. Further, according to IRS officials, hospitals with little to no community benefit expenses would indicate potential noncompliance. However, IRS was unable to provide evidence that it conducts reviews related to hospitals' community benefits because it does not have codes to track such audits. Slightly more than half of community hospitals in the United States are private, nonprofit organizations. IRS and the Department of the Treasury have recognized the promotion of health as a charitable purpose and have specified that nonprofit hospitals are eligible for a tax exemption. IRS has further stated that these hospitals can demonstrate their charitable purpose by providing services that benefit their communities as a whole. In 2010, Congress and the President enacted PPACA, which established additional requirements for tax-exempt hospitals to meet to maintain their tax exemption. GAO was asked to review IRS's implementation of requirements for tax-exempt hospitals. This report assesses IRS's (1) oversight of how tax-exempt hospitals provide community benefits, and (2) enforcement of PPACA requirements related to tax-exempt hospitals. GAO is making one matter for congressional consideration to specify in the IRC what services and activities Congress considers sufficient community benefit. GAO is also making four recommendations to IRS, including to establish a well-documented process to ensure hospitals' community benefit activities are being reviewed, and to create codes to track audit activity related to hospitals' community benefit activities. IRS agreed with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Jessica Lucas-Judy at (202) 512-9110 or lucasjudyj@gao.gov.
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  • Sexual Harassment: VA Needs to Better Protect Employees
    In U.S GAO News
    According to data from the most recent Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey in 2016, an estimated 22 percent of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees, and 14 percent of federal employees overall, experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace from mid-2014 through mid-2016. VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace, but some aspects of the policies and of the complaint processes may hinder those efforts. Misalignment of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Director position: VA's EEO Director oversees both the EEO complaint process, which includes addressing sexual harassment complaints, and general personnel functions. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this dual role does not adhere to one of its key directives and creates a potential conflict of interest when handling EEO issues. Incomplete or outdated policies and information: VA has an overarching policy for its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of its employees. However, some additional policies and information documents are not consistent with VA's overarching policy, are outdated, or are missing information. For example, they may not include all options employees have for reporting sexual harassment, which could result in confusion among employees and managers. Delayed finalization of Harassment Prevention Program (HPP): VA has not formally approved the directive or the implementing guidance for its 4-year-old HPP, which seeks to prevent harassment and address it before it becomes unlawful. Lack of formal approval could limit the program's effectiveness. VA uses complaint data to understand the extent of sexual harassment at the agency, but such data are incomplete. For example, VA compiles information on allegations made through the EEO process and HPP, but does not require managers who receive complaints to report them to VA centrally. As a result, VA is not aware of all sexual harassment allegations across the agency. Without these data, VA may miss opportunities to better track prevalence and to improve its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment. VA provides training for all employees and managers, but the required training does not have in-depth information on identifying and addressing sexual harassment and does not mention HPP. Some facilities within VA's administrations supplement the training, but providing additional information is not mandatory. Requiring additional training on sexual harassment could improve VA employees' knowledge of the agency's policies and help prevent and address sexual harassment. In June 2020, GAO issued a report entitled Sexual Harassment: Inconsistent and Incomplete Policies and Information Hinder VA's Efforts to Protect Employees (GAO-20-387). This testimony summarizes the findings and recommendations from that report, including (1) the extent to which VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment of VA employees, (2) how available data inform VA about sexual harassment of its employees, and (3) training VA provides to employees on preventing and addressing sexual harassment. GAO made seven recommendations in its June 2020 report, including that VA ensure its EEO Director position is not responsible for personnel functions; require managers to report all sexual harassment complaints centrally; and require additional employee training. VA concurred with all but the EEO Director position recommendation, which GAO continues to believe is warranted. For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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