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Secretary of State Blinken says Russia will face consequences if it invades Ukraine


Deadlock - that seems a fair word to sum up where things stand after days of diplomacy on the crisis at the Ukraine border. Some hundred thousand Russian troops are lined up there. An army of diplomats has been frantically trying to find an off ramp, some way to de-escalate and avert war. Talks have played out this week in Geneva, then Brussels and today Vienna. But today, the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, told NPR there is, quote, "a real danger for renewed armed conflict in Europe."

JENS STOLTENBERG: They say that if we don't exactly accept as they demand, there will be what they call military technical consequences for us.

KELLY: So where do things go from here? A question I want to put to America's top diplomat. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joins us from the State Department.

Secretary, welcome. Good to speak again.

ANTONY BLINKEN: It's great to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Though the readouts are pretty bleak. We just heard there the view from NATO. On the Russian side, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov is calling the talks unsuccessful. Did Russia give any ground? Are you walking away from these talks with anything?

BLINKEN: We've had an intense week of diplomacy, both directly between the United States and Russia at NATO, as you just said, also just today at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. And we have shared with the Russians our deep concerns about the actions they're taking, not only with regard to Ukraine but more broadly. They've shared their concerns. We've given each other I think a fair bit to consider. Our plan now is to go back and consult very closely with our allies and partners. I suspect that they will be doing the same thing in Moscow. And we're prepared to take this in either direction.

KELLY: My question again, though, did Russia give any ground?

BLINKEN: It's not - it wasn't a question of giving ground. We were not expecting breakthroughs. This is not a negotiation at this point. It really is putting their concerns on the table, putting our concerns on the table. We've said a few things that the president's been very clear about throughout. One, in all of this, we are doing nothing about allies and partners in Europe without them. So we're in very close consultation, coordination with them. Second, we've said nothing will happen unless it's on the basis of reciprocity, by which I mean if we're going to do anything to address any legitimate Russian concerns, they have to do the same thing when it comes to our concerns. We've now had an ability to share directly those concerns. The third thing, though, is that if there's actually going to be progress, Mary Louise, it's not going to happen in an environment of escalation with a gun to Ukraine's head. So we're going to need to see some meaningful de-escalation if there is actually going to be concrete progress. Russia has to internalize all of this. We're doing the same thing. We'll consult closely now in the days ahead with our partners and see where the Russians are, but we have given them two paths.

KELLY: If anything though - if anything though, the messaging out of Moscow today seems to be raising the stakes, a refusal today to rule out sending military assets to Cuba and Venezuela if the U.S. and our allies don't back down.

BLINKEN: There is constantly a tremendous amount of bluster. We've also heard different things from the Russians. So it's a little unclear exactly where they are. We've heard other spokespersons talk about...

KELLY: After a week of talks it's unclear exactly where they are.

BLINKEN: It is. They - we've heard some of them talk about positive nuances, but we want results. Well, actually, we feel exactly the same way. And if there are going to be results, it's going to be in the context of de-escalation. But, look, we've been very clear with Russia throughout this. There are two paths, and they can decide which path to follow. There is a path of diplomacy and dialogue, and we're committed to that. We believe that it's the best way forward. It's the most responsible way forward to deal with differences and the situation in eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, if they choose confrontation, if they choose aggression, we're fully prepared for it. We've spent weeks, indeed months now, working in very close coordination with allies and partners at the G-7, the EU, NATO to prepare for Russian aggression and to make very clear that there'll be massive consequences if that's the path they pursue.

KELLY: You've used that phrase a lot in recent days - massive consequences. Now that these talks are behind us, can you elaborate on what that looks like?

BLINKEN: First of all, it's not just my phrase. It's a phrase that was used by the G-7. These are the world's largest democratic economies, by the European Union and by NATO, which means that it is the common position of all of us. Second, I'm not going to telegraph the specificity what we would do except to say that when it comes to sanctions, when it comes to economic and financial measures, as well as measures to as necessary reinforce Ukraine defensively, reinforce NATO defensively, we are planning and putting together things that we have not done in the past. And I think Russia is well aware of many of the things that we would do if they put us in a position where we have to do them.

KELLY: Why not telegraph with specificity? Isn't the whole point of a warning to telegraph exactly what you're prepared to do?

BLINKEN: Again, I think the Russians know quite well many of the things that are being discussed, being elaborated, being put together. But the question now really goes to Moscow and what path they choose. We've made clear how we think this would most responsibly play out. We remain fully committed to that. But we're also fully prepared if they choose aggression.

KELLY: I asked Alexander Vindman earlier this week - Alexander Vindman, the retired Army lieutenant colonel, former National Security Council - asked him where he rates the chances that Putin really will invade in these coming weeks. On a scale of one to 10, he put it at eight. How about you?

BLINKEN: I'm not going to - I'm not going to rate it. Let me say this. One of the things that President Putin is very good at is keeping his options open. And I suspect that that is a part of what he's doing now, looking to see what may work, what won't. And it may well be that he's not fully decided on what he's going to do. We have, I think, an important responsibility to help shape his thinking and again make very clear from our perspective what the options are, what the consequences will be of the options that he could pursue. And when it comes to diplomacy and when it comes to dialogue, there are opportunities, I think, to address concerns that we all have about security in Europe and to make meaningful progress in ways that potentially could answer some Russian legitimate concerns and answer critically the many concerns that we and the Europeans have. Alternatively, as I said, if he chooses renewed aggression against Ukraine, that's going to have consequences, too. He has to factor all of that in. We can't make those decisions for him. We can certainly make clear what the results will be from one path or another.

KELLY: If I'm hearing you right, you're basically saying the ball is in Putin's court, that he knows where the U.S. and U.S. allies are, but that feels like a really worrying place to be with 100,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border.

BLINKEN: Well, it really goes to the point that we are where we are precisely because Russia has taken these actions of massing forces on Ukraine's border and creating itself by its actions a crisis. We have in a very coordinated, deliberate way over the last couple of months put in place a very clear response to the actions that Russia is taking. It's at Russia's initiative that we're in this situation. We've now put together a very strong coalition of countries in Europe and even beyond through the G-7 to respond, to shape the - President Putin's calculus and the choices that he makes. We - ultimately, we can't make those choices for him. We can just lay out in very stark terms what the consequences will be from the choices he makes.

KELLY: Secretary, we just have a minute left, but in the moments we have left, let me turn us briefly to Iran. I want to put to you a question I put to you last year. Is U.S. policy still that Iran must not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon?

BLINKEN: It is, and it will remain so.

KELLY: Which prompts a follow-up - how do you stop them? Because indications are Iran is closer than ever to threshold capability to build nuclear weapons, that they could now be as close as a month.

BLINKEN: Well, unfortunately, we had stopped them. The nuclear agreement that was reached some years ago by the Obama administration put Iran's nuclear program in a box. And one of the worst decisions made in recent American foreign policy was to walk away from that agreement. And as a result, we are in a challenging situation. We're far from getting a new and so-called better agreement. That hasn't happened. Iran has moved forward with its program in increasingly dangerous ways and far from curving their malign activities throughout the region. Those have only increased. So we have to deal with that, and we are. We still believe that if we can get back in the weeks ahead, not months ahead, weeks ahead, to the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, that would be the best thing for our security and the security of our allies and partners in the region.

But, Mary Louise, we're very, very short on time. The runway is very short. They are - Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. And at the same time, they're making advances that will become increasingly hard to reverse because they're learning things. They're doing new things as a result of having broken out of their constraints under the agreement. So we have, I think, a few weeks left to see if we can get back to mutual compliance. That would be the best result for America's security. But if we can't, we are looking at other steps, other options, again, closely coordinated with concerned countries. And...

KELLY: You said a few weeks left. My last question - what happens after a few weeks? What is the U.S. prepared to do to ramp up pressure on Iran to get back into the nuclear deal?

BLINKEN: Well, these are exactly the options that we're working on with partners in Europe, in the Middle East and beyond. And every everything in its time, but this has been the subject of intense work as well in the past weeks and months. And, again, there too we're prepared for either course. But it's clear that it would be far preferable for our security, for the security of allies and partners, if we can get a return to compliance. But if we can't, we will - we'll deal with this in other ways.

KELLY: Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the line there from the State Department.

We appreciate your time. Thank you.

BLINKEN: Thanks, very good to be with you.

KELLY: And you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
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