QUESTION: I’m Mike Eckel with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Kyiv. Joining us now on the line is the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Mr. Secretary, thank you for being with us today.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Very good to be with you. Thank you.
QUESTION: There seems to be a divergence between Washington and Kyiv about the urgency of the Russian threat. The White House spokeswoman the other day said, quote, invasion is “imminent.” Ukrainian President Zelenskyy meanwhile has said repeatedly essentially don’t panic. And during your meeting with Mr. Zelenskyy earlier this month, he appeared to complain that the U.S. was exaggerating the threat and playing up the possibility of a major escalation. So what is it? Is invasion imminent, and if it’s not, then why is the U.S. being so loud and alarming in its public statements, and why is it evacuating U.S. citizens and diplomats from Kyiv?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first of all, of course President Zelenskyy is right, no one should panic, and no one is. We’re looking at the facts, we are acting in a very deliberate way, and we’re doing everything we can to make clear to Moscow that it has two paths before it: the path of diplomacy and dialogue to resolve differences peacefully, or the path of aggression, if that’s what it chooses, and the massive consequences that will flow from that. And for each path, we’re fully engaged and we’re fully preparing. What we can see is this: We can see a massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders – the south, the east, the north – that is larger than at any time since 2014. And we’re aware of plans to double the size of those forces on very, very short notice, as well as efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within.
So we have to do everything that we’re doing based on the facts, based on what we’re seeing, to make sure that we’re prepared either way. We’re doing that in very close consultation and coordination with the government in Ukraine as well as with allies and partners. I was just in Kyiv, as you know, and had very good meetings with President Zelenskyy, with my counterpart and friend the Foreign Minister Kuleba, and we’re in virtually daily contact on this.
QUESTION: Last night in Moscow, Ambassador Sullivan gave Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grushko the formal U.S. written response to the Russian ultimatums. Among other things, the U.S. response reportedly includes a demand that Russia pull out forces not only from Ukraine, but also from Transnistria and from Georgia. The Kremlin has already made clear its displeasure. So tell us: What’s in the U.S. response to the Russians?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So two things there. First of all, I’ve heard a variety of initial responses from different people in Russia to the paper that we shared with them, as well as to the paper that NATO shared with them. But the response that counts is President Putin’s response, and to the best of our understanding, according the Russians, these papers are on his desk. And we’ll look forward to his response, which I’m sure will be conveyed through Foreign Minister Lavrov and others in the days ahead. That’s what matters most.
We’ve been very clear about the papers that we shared with Russia yesterday. We have listened to the concerns that they’ve raised. We have shared very profound concerns of our own, as well as those of allies and partners throughout Europe, about actions that Russia has taken and continues to take that threaten security throughout the Euro-Atlantic area. And we put forward some areas and broad ideas about how we could – if Russia meaningfully engages on a basis of reciprocity – how we could actually strengthen collective security for everyone. And so the question really now is what path will President Putin choose. Will he choose to engage on what I think is a meaningful path forward on diplomacy to see if we can enhance collective security, or will he renew Russia’s aggression against Ukraine? Either way, we’re prepared.
And I do – and I apologize because I realize I didn’t answer all of your first question, including about the drawdown of some personnel from our embassy. My number one responsibility as Secretary of State is to look out for the wellbeing, the safety, the security of the folks who work for us and their families. And as you know, in most of our posts around the world, our team go there with their families, with children, with spouses. And the vast majority of the people we asked to come home were family members and many children of the folks who are working for us in Kyiv. And I did that as a prudent step just to make sure that if conflict happens, which could happen on short notice with little warning, that we had made sure that people were out of the way and protected.
But we maintain a very robust embassy fully capable of supporting and working with our partners in Ukraine across all the areas that were working on: economic, security, diplomatic. It remains and it’s functioning very well.
QUESTION: U.S. officials – and you just now alluded to it – keep saying that they don’t know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has made up his mind whether to start a new war or use military technical measures or to let diplomacy work further. For longtime Russia reporters like myself – I’ve been covering Russia for 20 years now – and for Kremlinologists this rings a little bit hollow. I think the U.S. may have a very good idea what the Kremlin endgame is here. What is the Kremlin endgame?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I really do wish that I knew, and I maintain that the only person who can tell you what the Kremlin endgame is is President Putin. I don’t think anyone else knows, and he may not even know at this point, because what he’s done in the past and what I believe animates the way he approaches things is to create as many options as possible, and they run the gamut.
And you just alluded to some of them. Russia has in place or has the ability to have in place very quickly a massive number of forces that could engage in a conventional, wide-scale aggression against Ukraine from the south, from the east, from the north, even from the west. It also has in its toolkit many other means of trying to advance its stated interests in Ukraine, including hybrid methods, cyber attacks, fomenting coups, false flag operations that try to create a provocation as justification for whatever it’s already planning to do.
So we really don’t know, first of all, what Russia will do. We don’t know whether it will do any of these things. But all we can do is base our own actions on the facts as we’re seeing them, as well as on history, because back in 2008 Russia went into Georgia. In 2014 it seized Crimea and invaded the Donbas, challenges that continue to this day. And now it’s massed very significant forces on Ukraine’s borders. Those are the facts that we have to go by.
But as I said, whatever Russia chooses to do, whether it’s to engage as we would strongly prefer in diplomacy, in dialogue, or whether it commits renewed acts of aggression in any of these different ways, we’re prepared.
QUESTION: Best as we can tell, the outcome from yesterday’s Normandy Format meeting was that the sides agreed to meet again in two weeks, which seems like a good sign. More diplomacy means less war, theoretically. But also, it seemed like there was a lot of talking past one another, disagreements about fundamental interpretations of the Minsk Accords – what it contains, what the procedures are. And here we are, what, five or six years after they were signed and we can’t even agree on what the basic parameters of the accords and how to implement them. What does the U.S. really think about the Normandy Format going forward?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, the Minsk Accords remain the best way to resolve the problems in the Donbas, and it is the best means by which to deal with this diplomatically, to ultimately get Ukraine’s borders back in the east, as well as to make sure that the lives of people can move forward in the Donbas, which have been interrupted, disrupted, and worse by the conflict that’s existed since Russia went in and destabilized the entire area in 2014.
But you’re exactly right that the agreements have to be implemented. They have to be implemented in good faith. I don’t think there’s actually any real mystery. The requirements elaborated through basically three iterations of the agreements are clear. There are questions of sequencing in some cases, where it’s not spelled out. That has to be worked out. But if you go back and look at what was required of both Russia and Ukraine under the Minsk Accords, I think it’s fair to say that while neither side has implemented everything or started to implement everything required, by far, Russia has reneged on its commitments to a much greater extent than Ukraine has. It’s implemented virtually nothing required of it in the agreements.
So look, I think there are ways to move this forward. I think the Normandy Format remains a good one with France and Germany convening and bringing Russia and Ukraine together. But ultimately, we can’t compel the Russians to implement the agreement in good faith. It’s up to them to decide whether to do so. If they’re prepared to do that, we are fully prepared to support the effort, to facilitate it, to help move it along, if that’s useful.
But I think it remains the right way to try to move things forward, and I know that Ukraine has put forward a number of ideas, including creative ideas about how to move Minsk forward in terms of sequencing, in terms of the process. There are some near-term steps that could be taken to build confidence in the process. We do have a ceasefire of sorts in the Donbas that is not a hundred percent but has been an improvement; prisoner exchanges now, allowing people to move back and forth over the line of contact. That would be, I think, a meaningful confidence-building measure, would really improve people’s lives, because Ukrainians are separated from their loved ones as a result of this. And that would be a good basis, I think, upon which to try to move forward on all the other requirements of the agreement.
This is fully solvable if countries act in good faith. I know Ukraine is prepared to do that. The real question is whether Moscow is.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being with us today.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Mike, thanks. Thanks very much. Really appreciate it.