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Biden administration is offering to negotiate with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The Biden administration is making a big push to resolve the crisis over Ukraine diplomatically. The U.S. ambassador to Moscow delivered a paper to Russia's Foreign Ministry today, setting out a path for negotiations. But it falls short of what Russia has been demanding, and it may not be enough to head off a Russian invasion of Ukraine. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The paper delivered today comes in response to a lengthy set of proposals from Russia that would reshape post-Cold War European security structures. Russia wants, among other things, guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken says that's not on the table.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: I can't be more clear. NATO's door is open, remains open, and that is our commitment.

KELEMEN: Blinken says there are, in his words, some positive things in that paper, which the State Department is not releasing publicly. The U.S. is willing to open negotiations with Russia on a number of Moscow's concerns.

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BLINKEN: The placement of offensive missile systems in Ukraine, military exercises and maneuvers in Europe, potential arms control measures, greater transparency, various measures to reduce risks - all of these things would address, I think, mutual concerns, including concerns stated by Russia.

KELEMEN: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says it's time for serious negotiations on all those topics. NATO also delivered a paper to Russia with an invitation for more talks.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: There's no secret that we are far apart and that there are some serious differences between NATO and Russia.

KELEMEN: But that's precisely why it is important to talk, he says.

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STOLTENBERG: And try to identify political solutions where we can agree to prevent a new armed conflict in Europe, which will, of course, be extremely serious and something we all have to try to prevent.

KELEMEN: Stoltenberg says tensions are rising with more Russian troops not only in and around Ukraine but also in Belarus. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed the fears raised by the NATO secretary general.

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SERGEY LAVROV: (Non-English language spoken).

KELEMEN: You know, I've long stopped paying attention to his statements. He's really lost touch with reality, Lavrov said. The foreign minister has accused NATO and the U.S. of hysteria, saying Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine. Secretary Blinken says he expects to hold further talks with Lavrov soon.

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BLINKEN: The ball's in their court. We'll see what we do. As I've said repeatedly, whether they choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue, whether they decide to renew aggression against Ukraine, we're prepared either way.

KELEMEN: His deputy, Wendy Sherman, says there's every indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin will decide to use force in the end, and that could be any time, she says, between now and mid-February.

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WENDY SHERMAN: The Beijing Olympics begin on February 4, the opening ceremony, and President Putin expects to be there. I think that probably President Xi Jinping would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine. So that may affect his timing and his thinking.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is trying to affect his thinking by putting 8,500 troops on notice that they could be sent to NATO countries near Russia. President Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine, though the U.S. continues to send defensive weapons to Kyiv and is preparing new sanctions should Russia attack.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All right. For more on this, let's turn to State Department spokesman Ned Price. Good to have you with us again.

NED PRICE: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So we just heard Michele Kelemen describe the diplomatic effort to resolve this without military conflict. But after months of efforts at diplomacy, tensions have increased, not decreased. So at this point, what would a realistic diplomatic off-ramp actually look like?

PRICE: Well, Ari, this is the off-ramp that we have pursued for some time now. This is the off-ramp knowing that there are two paths. There's the path of dialogue and diplomacy, and that's the path that we far prefer in terms of what we would like to see, knowing that it's the only responsible way to defuse and de-escalate this crisis that Vladimir Putin has needlessly precipitated.

But there's also the path of defense and deterrence, and that is a path that - even as we are pursuing dialogue and diplomacy, that is the path that we've continued to walk and continued to build up in conjunction with our partners and allies. When it comes to dialogue and diplomacy, you saw today, you heard today that we moved forward with the next step, and that was the delivery of a response in Moscow by our ambassador of a written response to the Russian Federation.

SHAPIRO: And does that written response go meaningfully beyond what's been on the table for the last month of negotiations that the Russians have basically called a waste of time?

PRICE: Well, Ari, you are right in the sense that we have been very clear about what may be on the table and what clearly is not on the table. In terms of the latter category, there are certain inviolable principles - principles that have undergirded stability, peace, security and prosperity of not only Europe but the broader world since the end of World War II. There are certain tenets, like the fact that each and every country should be allowed to determine its own foreign policy, to determine its own alliances and partnerships. That is not going to be on the table.

As it applies to NATO, it's never going to be up for us or any other country to say that NATO's door is closed. NATO's door will always be open. We will always protect that. But there are some areas where we do think that there is potential for dialogue. And you heard about some of those - the placement of missiles in Europe, broader arms control measures, ways to increase transparency and stability. That...

SHAPIRO: There are obviously carrots and sticks here, and you mentioned that the U.S. is working with allies. Are there any promises from Germany? For example, will Germany stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project if Russia invades Ukraine?

PRICE: Well, Ari, I'd make two points here. No. 1 - gas is not currently flowing through Nord Stream 2, and that's important because it means that Nord Stream 2 right now is not operational. It is leverage for us. It is leverage for Germany. It is leverage for the trans-Atlantic community because gas is not flowing. To be clear, it is not leverage for Vladimir Putin. Second point - and I want to be very clear - if Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward, and we want to be very clear about that.

SHAPIRO: I wonder whether the U.S. actually has enough leverage here. You've talked about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. There has been a order to prepare 8,500 troops for potential deployment. You know, Secretary Blinken said it remains up to Russia how to respond. We are ready either way. But the question is, are these preparations the U.S. is making actually likely to deter Russia, which has at least 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border?

PRICE: Well, there's only one person who can decide whether this is the path of dialogue and diplomacy that we pursue or it's the path of defense and deterrence, and that's Vladimir Putin. We have done everything we can to signal in meaningful and sincere ways that dialogue and diplomacy is what we prefer just as we continue down that path of defense and deterrence. And you raise some of the elements that we've done in that latter path.

We have provided in the last year more than $650 million in defensive security assistance. That's almost 300 tons in defensive security assistance to the Ukrainians. More deliveries are on their way as we speak.

We've authorized our allies to provide U.S.-origin equipment to the Ukrainians as well. You've heard from the Department of Defense that they're putting on notice 8,500 servicemembers at a heightened state of readiness, and we have talked extensively, Ari, about the swift, the severe, the united response that the United States and our allies would enact were Russia to go forward with their aggressions (ph).

SHAPIRO: But President Biden has also been very clear that U.S. troops are not going to enter Ukraine, and the U.S. talked a lot about defense and deterrence when Russia illegally annexed Crimea almost a decade ago. The U.S. passed sanctions, kicked Russia out of the G-8, expressed condemnation. The military did not get involved, and today, Crimea remains under Russia's control. If Russia invades Kyiv, what would make the outcome any different?

PRICE: I'll make a couple of points here. No. 1 - we've been clear that the measures we are talking about now would go well beyond what we enacted in 2014 in response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine then. These were measures that were intentionally avoided in 2014 because of the severity they would have. No. 2 - typically, a response like this starts out gradually and builds up - builds up if the country in question does not change its behavior.

We are reversing that here. We are going to start at the top of the escalation ladder, meaning our sanctions, our response will be severe. We've talked about sanctions. We've talked about export controls. We've talked about a variety of measures that will enact a very high toll on the Russian Federation.

On top of all of that, you have heard us speak to the defensive security assistance that we are providing to Ukraine but also what we are doing to reassure and to reinforce NATO's eastern flank. All of this, Ari, builds up to a sense of defense and deterrence, the likes of which we have not done before, we've not even contemplated before.

SHAPIRO: And so will you expand on something that President Biden said yesterday? He said that if Russia does invade, it would change the world. How so?

PRICE: Ari, the president was making the point that Ukraine and Russia - this is important in and of itself. Ukraine is important in and of itself as a U.S. partner, a close U.S. partner. But this is really bigger than Ukraine. If Russia were to go forward, this would really upset the rules-based international order that, as I mentioned before, has been the guarantor of unprecedented levels of stability, of security and prosperity, not only in Europe after World War II but around the world, to include the other side of the world in the Indo-Pacific. Russia - we are trying to be very clear - cannot itself unilaterally violate those rules that should be inviolable, rules like...

SHAPIRO: And so do you see the U.S. role as a world leader being on the line here? If the U.S. and NATO are not able to counter Russian aggression towards Ukraine, does that shift the geopolitical balance of power in the world away from this post-World War II order and towards something different?

PRICE: Ari, this is not about the United States versus Russia. This is not about the United States and Ukraine versus Russia. This is about the international community, our extensive set of allies and partners, the NATO alliance, our allies and partners around the world, standing up to protect these rules that, once again, should be inviolable, to send a message to Moscow that what Moscow may have contemplated, what Moscow may intend is not acceptable, and it will not stand.

SHAPIRO: That is State Department spokesman Ned Price. Thank you for speaking with us today.

PRICE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "SU-BO'S MENTAL MELTDOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.