Jeffrey Prescott: We would welcome a legitimate pullback of Russian forces from Ukraine’s border, but we have not yet verified that this is the case

В інтерв’ю із Заступником Посла США в ООН Джефрі Прескотом розглядаємо позицію кабінету Президента Байдена щодо останніх маневрів російського війська на кордоні України.

  • Джефрі Прескот: Ми б вітали законний відхід російських військ від кордону України, але ми ще не бачимо доказів цього.
  • Президент Байден все ще сподівається що загрозу нападу Росії на Україну можна вирішити дипломатичним шляхом.
  • Якщо президент Путін все-таки прийме рішення про вторгнення в Україну ˗ наслідки лише послаблять Росію, не посилять.
  • Основні принципи статуту ООН і сучасного світового порядку: не можна посувати кордони військовою силою, не можна зупиняти іншу країну вибирати свій шлях у міжнародних відносинах.
Jeffrey Prescott

Розмова Петра Рибчука (PR) та Ірени Яросевич (IJ) із Заступником Посла США до ООН Джефрі Прескотом (Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeffrey Prescott)

PR:The front-page news of this morning is “Russia pulls troops”, “Moscow ready for talks”, “NATO Chief expressed cautious optimism”. Have you got any intelligence briefings not in the news yet, should we declare victory and say that US diplomatic efforts, the news push and personal Biden-Putin talks prevented the war.

JP: First of all, thanks for having me and I’m glad we’re getting a chance to talk today. I guess what I would say is, we are actively working to achieve a diplomatic resolution to de-escalate this crisis. That’s our main objective. That’s what the President has been focused on. And we would welcome a legitimate pullback of Russian forces from Ukraine’s border, but we have not yet verified that this is the case. And what we said yesterday, and the day before, the situation remains true at this moment, which is that President Putin and Russia remain in a position to invade Ukraine at any moment, should he choose. He still has more than 100,000 troops at Ukraine’s border and has ramped up troop movements even over the last few days. And what President Biden made clear to President Putin on Saturday is that the US is committed to diplomacy and we hope that he will choose to pursue that path.

We’re ready either way, and that’s why we’ve been engaging so carefully and completely with our allies with the government in Ukraine and with partners around the world to address this crisis in real time.

PR: Can we say that Putin is the Alpha and Omega of the decision to start or not to start the war? Or Putin has a circle of advisers who are pushing him to advance on Ukraine?

JP: I won’t get into the internal workings of the Russian decision making process, but I think from our perspective this is ultimately President Putin’s decision whether to attack, whether to pursue this path of escalation or whether to pursue diplomacy. And if President Putin does make the decision to further invade Ukraine, our basic statement on our position has been clear, that the consequences will only weaken Russia, not strengthen it. So we’re actively working to reach a diplomatic solution. We may remain engaged with the Russian government. You’ve seen that happen at multiple levels over the last few days. We’ve also seen some additional announcements today. But we’re very clear eyed about the steps Russia is taking on the ground in plain sight, which has been up to this point – surging troops and equipment to the borders of Ukraine.They’re in a position where they can invade at any time. 

President Biden was very clear with President Putin that if he undertakes a further invasion of Ukraine, the United States, together with our allies and partners, will respond decisively to impose severe costs on Russia. So that’s what we are focused on at the moment. We do hope that Russia chooses the diplomatic path, but that’s up to President Putin.

PR: Question to you as a UN diplomat. Does the UN have any real tools to stop, to prevent future Russian acts of aggression against Ukraine?

JP: What we’re doing is taking advantage of every diplomatic channel and every diplomatic tool we’ve got, every venue that we can identify, to try to pursue a diplomatic approach here. That is why you saw last week the UN Security Council – the premier forum for addressing matters of international peace and security – take up exactly this issue. We wanted to make it clear to the international community, to the world’s powers on the Security Council – come together to address  the full implications of the threat that Russia’s build up of troops on Ukraine’s border is imposing. Not just for Ukraine – obviously important for Ukraine – but for the core tenets of the UN charter and the modern international order. 

This kind of goes to the heart of the rules that we’ve all agreed to live up to: that you can’t change borders by force, you can’t force another country to choose its own relationships, that you can’t invade another country. So we’ve been pursuing diplomacy at every venue available. But one of the reasons we wanted to have this open session in the Security Council is to have Russia in a position where it had to answer questions from the world, and hear, essentially a united message from the world’s powers that the path of diplomacy is preferable to the path of confrontation. And we think we saw that in the UN last week, and it’s a message we are continuing to pursue in our diplomacy in New York and our diplomacy in Europe, and around the world.

PR: Not really a diplomatic question, but… If Putin had militaristic intentions three years ago, would President Trump be so forceful against Russia as President Biden is today.

JP: I’m not going to get into the politics of this, but what I would say is that President Biden has pursued a path here that has put us in a position where we are united with our allies, especially our allies in Europe. You’ve seen us working relentlessly diplomatically with our NATO allies, with the European union and our European partners. You’ve seen us taking steps collectively both to prepare for a response if Russia were to choose to further invade Ukraine, to provide support frankly to Ukraine, including the fact that we’ve provided more military assistance in the last year then ever at any point in history. More than $650 million dollars in deliveries that have been continuing just over the last few days. And we’ve provided more than half a billion dollars in development and humanitarian assistance over the past year. 

And last night we just announced our intent to provide an additional loan guarantee if necessary to Ukraine to help with their economies. So we’re really ramping up our support and we’re getting together with our allies to essentially force a serious question for President Putin to answer. Which is, are you willing to choose a path of diplomacy? A serious conversation about concerns that Russia has that we have.  Or is Russia going to decide to pursue this confrontation? We’re ready either way. And that’s all we can do is get prepared and that’s what we’ve been doing with our allies. So I feel very confident that President Biden has put us in a position that we can act in a  united and swift way if Russia were to decide to further invade Ukraine.

IJ: Just to follow up on a few of the UN based questions. I agree with you. The special session was a brilliant strategic move. I don’t know that the world fully appreciated how interesting that was. But by UN standards that standoff between the US and Russia was quite stark. What do you think in general and your reaction to the comment that Ukraine is being treated as a proxy in Russia’s war against the West,  in particular against the United States. What are your thoughts on that?

JP: I would say that our diplomacy at the UN has really been focused on sharing – and the reason why we had this session openly, we had an open session in the Security Council, (and) potentially the reason why Russia tried to stop that session from happening, and the council had to vote to hold that meeting – one of the reasons we wanted to do that, was so that we could lay out what we’re seeing on the ground. The full scope of the build-up of Russia’s forces on Ukraine’s border, the unprecedented nature of that build up, and the threat that that poses to Ukraine, but also, more broadly to the principles of the UN charter. This is a real threat to international peace and security. That’s the role of the Security Council. And we wanted to be able to bring Russia to a forum where it had to answer for that escalation, and that’s exactly what we accomplished in that session.

Now there’s no question that Russia has a veto at the Security Council, but we’ve seen before, and we saw this in 2014 as well, the UN is a very good venue for bringing the world together to see clearly what the facts are and to ask other countries to answer to those facts. And so that’s what we’ve been using this venue for to this point but, at the same time, we are committed to pursuing every potential diplomatic path possible to resolve this crisis. And we’ve made that clear at the UN, as well as across the board. That’s why you see Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield in New York meeting with her counterparts from Europe, from her Ukrainian counterpart on a regular basis, from our closest allies around the world, from all the members of the Security Council to provide them the latest intelligence what we’re seeing on the ground, to provide them with information about how we’re planning to respond if there’s further aggression and to make sure that the UN is ready to respond if necessary if Russia were to further violate the UN Charter.

IJ: The United States is actively pursuing direct negotiations with our European and NATO allies. How is the US Permanent Mission participating? Are there parallel efforts? What is the feedback loop towards official policy? Have you been meeting/speaking with Ambassador Kyslytsia, Ukraine’s UN representative – what is the nature of your conversations?

JP: It’s a really good question. And it kind of goes to the fundamental role that the US government provides, the way we operate when we’re working on a complicated diplomatic challenge like this. Or a complicated security challenge like this. And that is to say we have through the White House a coordination function at the National Security Council where President Biden’s cabinet is meeting on a regular basis to consider this issue. And of course Ambassador Thomas Greenfield is a member of President Biden’s Cabinet. And there’s a group of the kind of number two at the Cabinet agencies called the Deputy’s Committee that I sit on that also meets regularly to address all aspects of this crisis. But what we’re doing is essentially sharing information across the US Government in real time. 

Of course, many other countries are doing the same thing. So when Ambassador Thomas Greenfield is talking to her counterparts in New York, they’re all armed with the latest information about the conversations that are happening in Europe, that are happening at NATO, that are happening in the OSCE, and that are happening bilaterally including with Ukraine. So, we keep close tabs on how this is going. We’re using every channel available to try to pursue diplomacy. But we are also clear-eyed at what is possible here as well, which is – Russia has put the forces in position that if President Putin makes the decision at any time, they can further invade. And the consequences of that would be devastating

And you know, maybe one note to close on. One of the things we’ve been doing and saying very clearly over the last few weeks and months is that this is a very serious situation. Conflict could happen at any time. And so we’ve been crystal clear to Americans who may still be in Ukraine that they should depart as soon as possible. We can’t predict the future and exactly what’s going to happen. And as I say, we’re trying to pursue a diplomatic path, but the risk is high enough and the threat is immediate enough that it would be prudent for any Americans who are still in Ukraine to leave as soon as possible. And so that’s what we’ve been encouraging folks to do. Obviously, we stand ready to help with that, but there’s some serious risk for remaining in Ukraine given the seriousness of this situation. So, that’s one message we’re also trying to get out, to let people know that this is really the time to leave if they have not already.

IJ: The focus has been on military invasion. Yet speaking with our sources in Ukraine, the bigger fear, that let’s say your average Ukrainian has, is not that their village is going to get bombed. Because territorially, they believe, it will be impossible for Russia to take over all of Ukraine. They’re afraid of things like the entire electronic network going down. They’re afraid of threats against school children. 387 have already been reported that their school is going to be blown up. What is the diplomatic response to non-conventional warfare? Which is basically, what this is. How is that, how is Russia being told and how is that being monitored? And what are the reactions to if they do not invade but insist on continuing to break Ukraine and Ukraine’s sovereignty?

JP: It’s one of the reasons we have been so relentless in providing information about what we’re seeing in real time. Fundamentally what we’ve been trying to do. We know the playbook, we know the different techniques that Russia has used in the past and will continue to use, and as we’ve received information suggesting that we may see some of that happen in real time, we’ve been providing that information to our partners, to our allies, to Ukraine and Ukrainian officials, also to the public.

So, we’ve made that very clear, we’re not going to give Russia the opportunity to conduct any kind of surprise to spring something on Ukraine and the world in this situation. And that’s why we’ve been putting out for the world as transparently as possible, as plainly as possible, what we’ve been seeing. 

That includes information about threats to cyber security, that includes potential false flag operations that we’ve talked about extensively. We’ve talked about different parts of the playbook. And one of the real concerns we have, and one of the reasons why we’ve been so crystal clear to American citizens in particular, is that they should try to leave Ukraine, if they can.

We think that if Russia decides to invade – the beginning of that could involve operations that would disrupt communications, lines of communication, not just electronic communications, but also literally the different pathways to leave the country. And so, that’s a serious concern that we have and one of the reasons we’ve been talking about the need to evacuate to, to leave Ukraine as quickly as possible. 

But that’s something we’re watching for. We’re going to continue calling it out, and again, it’s just part of the overall approach that we have here. We’ve laid out a clear path of diplomacy. 

And then there’s a message of deterrence. We’re ready, and we’re ready with our allies to react swiftly and severely if Russia decided to eschew this path of diplomacy and choose instead the path of confrontation. So, we’re ready either way, and ultimately, this is President Putin’s decision what to do. We will be watching closely for what happens. But we’re prepared one way or the other. Thank you.