State Department team works to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are both in Munich this morning to attend a security conference, and later today, President Biden is expected to speak with several trans-Atlantic leaders about the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukraine border. This, as the State Department warns that Russia is laying the groundwork to justify an attack on Ukraine. Speaking at a U.N. Security Council meeting yesterday, Secretary Blinken listed various ways Russia could create a pretext for war.
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ANTONY BLINKEN: It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians or a fake - even a real - attack using chemical weapons.
FADEL: Blinken acknowledged U.S. intelligence hasn't always been right or even real but says this time is different.
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BLINKEN: I'm mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out. But let me be clear - I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one.
FADEL: On the line now is State Department spokesman Ned Price, who's currently with Secretary Blinken in Munich Thank you so much for joining us.
NED PRICE: Thanks for having me.
FADEL: So we just heard Secretary Blinken detailing an array of possible Russian moves that could serve as a pretext for military action. What's the strategy behind talking about this so publicly?
PRICE: Well, Leila, our goal in all of this is to prevent a war. And the stakes right now couldn't be higher in these circumstances. That's because - and that's why we're pulling every conceivable lever at our disposal and ensuring that we're leaving nothing on the field in this diplomatic effort. So when you talk about our strategy, in our minds we have two choices with the information we have available to us, including this intelligence information. We could, on the one hand, keep it to ourselves and, in the aftermath of a potential Russian invasion, wonder if there was more we could have done with it. Or we could do what we're doing now. We could put it out there for the entire world to see, for the entire world to hear. And we've been doing that for two reasons. In the first instance, as I said before, we want to be able to do everything we can to deter, to prevent a further Russian invasion of Ukraine. And there's a chance that this strategy could affect Vladimir Putin's decision-making calculus.
FADEL: Let me ask you about that.
PRICE: If we're not able to do that...
FADEL: Let me just ask you about that.
FADEL: We've heard the Kremlin say it's not planning to stage an attack. It accuses the U.S. of hysteria, warmongering, megaphone diplomacy. Are you at all concerned that the U.S. strategy might backfire and push Putin into a very public corner, making it harder for him to back down?
PRICE: Leila, we've been on this urgent diplomatic mission for months now, really since November, when we first started talking publicly about the threat of renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine. You heard this most clearly yesterday. You referenced what the secretary said before the U.N. Security Council. And the message really boils down to this for the Russian Federation - prove it. Prove you don't plan to invade Ukraine. The secretary put that very question to the Russian representative yesterday. And we made that challenge because it's been our assessment for some time now that Russia is, in fact, preparing to invade Ukraine. We still believe that's the case. Our concern has really only grown in recent days.
But look; you don't have to take our word for it. Elements of this are clear for the world to see. More than 150,000 forces are arrayed along the border. If Russia changes course and our warnings were for not, great. If people later want to accuse us of hysteria, say that we were going overboard, we'll accept that. We'll accept that gladly. We're not looking for credit, Leila. We're looking to prevent a war.
FADEL: But are you worried that the strategy could backfire?
PRICE: Look; we are, as I said before, pulling every lever at our disposal. And we think that by employing this strategy in the first instance, optimally, we've been able to - or we might be able to - affect Vladimir Putin's decision-making calculus. If we're not able to do that, if the Russians go ahead with what they may have planned all along, at the very least we will have put a spotlight on this. We will have demonstrated to the world that the Russians were never serious about diplomacy, that this was a foregone conclusion on the part of the Russian Federation, and what the Russians may well be saying now and in the coming days about the pretext, the reason why they supposedly, ostensibly, had to go into Ukraine was entirely, completely a lie.
FADEL: President Biden said yesterday that the chances of Russia invading Ukraine are very high. Ukraine's defense minister said just this morning that, quote, "we estimate the probability of a large-scale escalation as low." So what is causing the difference here? The U.S. saying very high, the Ukraine saying low - why?
PRICE: Well, look; we are speaking to the information that we have available to us, and that information, again, that you need not have access to classified intelligence to see and to understand, is quite concerning. So what we are doing...
FADEL: Does Ukraine have access to that information?
PRICE: We have been sharing information and intelligence with our Ukrainian partners, with our European allies, regularly. We have been sharing that in a comprehensive way. So we're working from the same sheet of music. We are on the same page with our Ukrainian partners in the sense that we're not trying to instill panic. We're not trying to stoke hysteria. What we're doing is trying to enact prudent preparations. We're doing that in terms of our diplomacy, making clear that we remain ready, willing to engage in diplomacy with the Russian Federation. But we're making sure we're equally prepared if Vladimir Putin chooses this other course...
PRICE: ...The course of escalation and invasion.
FADEL: So like you say, the U.S. says it's open to diplomacy but has rejected any talks on Russia's core demands, chief among them that former Soviet countries, including Ukraine, are kept out of NATO. So why not talk about them if it might save, by your government's estimation, in the face of a Russia invasion, some 50,000 lives, if it would stop the displacement of millions of people?
PRICE: Well, Leila, we want to talk. It is precisely why we're prepared to meet next week in Europe, provided there are no invasion. It's precisely why we sent a document to the Russian Federation spelling out these specific areas for discussion, which, if negotiating in good faith, could help to address some of our collective security concerns. It's precisely why we're taking a close look at that Russian response, which you just referenced, in which we just received yesterday. We've been clear throughout that there are some areas where we think these good-faith discussions could work to our security benefit, to the security benefit of the trans-Atlantic community and could help to address some of the stated concerns of the Russian Federation.
At the same time, Leila, there are core fundamental principles that really are at the heart of the rules-based international order that have undergirded unprecedented levels of stability, security, prosperity over the course of the past 70 years. These are things like, big countries cannot bully small countries. Countries should be free to choose their own foreign policy path.
PRICE: Leila, those are just not things we're prepared to negotiate.
FADEL: State Department spokesman Ned Price. Thank you so much.
PRICE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.