QUESTION: Joining me now to talk about all this is Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Thank you so much for joining me. Let’s start with that new British intelligence that the Russian Government is planning to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine. Does the U.S. agree with that view?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Dana, I can’t comment on specific pieces of intelligence. But we’ve been warning about just this kind of tactic for weeks, and we’ve spoken to that publicly. And just last week we sanctioned four agents of Russia, Ukrainians in Ukraine, seeking to destabilize the government. So this is very much part of the Russian toolkit. It runs the gamut from a large conventional incursion or invasion of Ukraine to these kind of destabilizing activities in an attempt to topple a government. And it’s important that people be on notice about that possibility.
QUESTION: Does this intelligence make it more likely, in your view, that Putin is going to invade?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I don’t think it speaks to whether it’s more or less likely. I think it speaks to the fact that, as always, Russia develops lots of different options for doing things, including in Ukraine, and this is one of them, and it’s something that people have to be aware of.
Similarly, we’ve warned about the possibility of so-called false flag operations; that is, Russia manufacturing a provocation and then justifying anything it does in terms of responding to this manufactured provocation.
There’s been a lot of focus, rightly, on the fact that Russia has concentrated so many forces on Ukraine’s border, and with the history of 2014 in our minds and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine then, we’re rightly focused on that. But it’s also important that people understand there are a range of things that Russia could do, could be preparing to do, and we are prepared to deal with all of them.
QUESTION: I want to get to those other potential options that Russia has in a moment. But broadly, you mentioned the troops. It’s 127,000 Russian troops now near the border. How much power, in all honesty, does the U.S. really have to stop Russia?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve given Russia two paths. There’s the path of diplomacy and dialogue, the one that I engaged in with Foreign Minister Lavrov just last week in Geneva, but there’s also a path of its renewed aggression and massive consequences that we have been building now for many weeks. And it’s not just us that’s saying it. The G7, the world’s leading democratic economies, have been clear about that. The European Union’s been clear about that. NATO’s been clear about that.
And as we’re doing that, we’ve provided more defensive assistance, military assistance, to Ukraine last year than at any time in the past. I just authorized, myself, the provision of American-origin military equipment that’s with third countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – to get to Ukraine. And we are in intense, regular, constant communication, consultation, with allies and partners to make it very clear that these massive consequences will follow.
So basically, at this point, Dana, the choice is Vladimir Putin’s and the paths are clear. Diplomacy, dialogue, seeing if we can build collective security in a way that is good for everyone, is clearly the preferable path, but we’re prepared either way.
QUESTION: So you mentioned the diplomatic talks. You just met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Russia is awaiting your written answers to several key questions. What are the specific, concrete answers there? And what is the specific off-ramp here for Russia? Is the will – the U.S. willing to say, for example, Ukraine won’t be joining NATO anytime soon and/or that the U.S. won’t put strategic weapons in Ukraine?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There are a number of areas where I think it would be possible for us to address each other’s concerns about the – about security in Europe in a way that is good for everyone – Europeans, Americans, and Russians.
QUESTION: Can you give me an example?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So we’ve talked about this in the past and in recent days and weeks. Arms control, greater transparency, risk reduction, the placement of missile systems, things of that nature. At the same time, I was very clear with Foreign Minister Lavrov, as we’ve been, that there are certain basic principles that we’re not by one iota going to compromise on, including, for example, NATO’s open door, the right of countries to choose with whom they’ll associate, which alliances they’ll join.
But we’ve also, as – in looking at this, we want to make sure that even as Russia has shared its concerns with us, we and our allies, because we’ve been in very close coordination on this, make clear our concerns with the actions that Russia has been taking, and we look to see if we can address any of these concerns on a reciprocal basis. That’s what diplomacy’s all about. That’s what the dialogue’s all about.
But one thing is equally important: Even as we engage in diplomacy and dialogue, something that I do for a living, it doesn’t take the word “no” out of your vocabulary. And as we’re doing it, we’re building up our defense, we’re building up our deterrence, to make sure that Russia understands that if it doesn’t follow the diplomatic course, if it renews its aggression, there will be very significant consequences.
QUESTION: Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is calling for the U.S. and others, Europeans, to put sanctions in place now, to do it proactively and not reactively. He said, quote, “Today our partners are saying that war may start tomorrow if there is a powerful escalation on the Russian side, and then there will be powerful sanctions applied. The question is: Why are you not introducing sanctions now rather than wait until after the escalation?” What’s your answer to that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first of all, Dana, as I said, we are not waiting. We are doing a lot right now. And as I mentioned, besides build – the United States taking the lead in bringing countries throughout Europe and even beyond together in putting together massive consequences for Russia if it takes renewed aggressive action in Ukraine, as I mentioned, we’re providing and last year alone provided more military assistance to Ukraine than at any year in the past. We have been going against those inside Ukraine trying to destabilize the government. So we’re taking concrete action. When it comes to —
QUESTION: But you’re not imposing the sanctions?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So when it comes to sanctions, the purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression. And so if they’re triggered now, you lose the deterrent effect. All of the things that we’re doing, including building up in a united way with Europe massive consequences for Russia, is designed to factor into President Putin’s calculus and to deter and dissuade them from taking aggressive action, even as we pursue diplomacy at the same time.
QUESTION: Do you see any scenario in which more U.S. service members become involved here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: One of the things that we’ve been very clear about besides the massive economic financial consequences that would befall Russia if it further commits aggression against Ukraine is the ongoing, continued buildup of defense capacity in Ukraine and, equally, continuing to build up NATO’s defensive capacities, including on the so-called eastern flank, the countries near Russia. And the Alliance is looking at very practical and important measures that it would take in the event of further Russian aggression.
QUESTION: So you mentioned different kinds of aggression. Let’s talk about one specific potential. Russian-backed forces currently occupy part but not all of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Would seizing or recognizing the entire Donbas region qualify as an invasion and result in the crippling sanctions that you’re threatening?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: If a single additional Russian force goes into Ukraine in an aggressive way, as I said, that would trigger a swift, a severe, and a united response from us and from Europe. And again, there are other things that Russia could do that fall short of actually sending additional forces into Ukraine, and again, across the board we’re prepared with Europe for a swift and calibrated and very united response. We’re looking at every single scenario, preparing for every single one.
QUESTION: President Biden said an invasion would be the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War II. Why?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: He’s exactly right. And again, this underscores why this is so important not just for Ukraine, not just for Russia, not just for Europe and the United States, but for the world, because what’s at stake here, Dana, are some very basic principles of international relations that have been established since two world wars and a cold war that have kept peace and security: principles like one nation can’t go in by force and change the borders of another; principles like one nation can’t dictate to another its policies, its choices, including with whom it will associate; a principle like the fact that you cannot now in the 21st century purport to exert a sphere of influence to try to subjugate your neighbors to your will. If we allow those things to go forward and stand with impunity, then that opens a Pandora’s box that countries well beyond Europe will see and maybe decide to act on.
QUESTION: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, you’ve got a lot on your plate. We appreciate your time and look forward to talking to you again soon and obviously hoping that things work out in a way that is on the diplomatic front, as you’re talking about. Thank you so much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Dana, very much.