NATO is ready to strengthen its eastern flank if Russia attacks Ukraine – assured US ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith in an interview with the TVN24 correspondent in Brussels, Maciej Sokołowski. As she added, “Vladimir Putin has no veto power over NATO enlargement.” She also referred to the planned talks between the Russian president and Joe Biden and the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border.
TVN24 correspondent in Brussels Maciej Sokołowski talked to the US ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith about the situation around Ukraine, the threat from Russia, strengthening the eastern flank of the Alliance, the upcoming conversation between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin and the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Maciej Sokołowski: Are you afraid of the effects of the steps Russia has been taking in recent weeks? How serious is the situation, and should we all feel concerned?
Julianne Smith: Yes, we should be concerned. We saw the intelligence material which is very disturbing, we passed it on to our allies, we discussed it exactly a few days ago in Latvia. I cannot go into detail in this conversation, but I can say that we see Russian attempts to destabilize Ukraine from within. We also see a very large gathering of military forces at the border with Ukraine, indicating that Russia is getting ready to take action and possibly enter Ukraine. We heard Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken talk about the difficult situation, President Biden, our allies and the Secretary General of NATO, and I think you can say that after the Riga meeting we were all concerned.
What is the most disturbing information at the disposal of the United States? My guess is that it’s not just about the sheer number of soldiers and equipment at the border?
We pay attention to two things. Gathering forces at the border is already worrying in itself, but there are also reports that Russia is trying to destabilize the situation in Ukraine internally. The use of disinformation has also increased significantly in the past two weeks, which is also a concern for us.
What could be the primary and ultimate goal of Vladimir Putin? What if all this military mobilization is just a way to force President Biden to recognize Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe? In order to avoid an armed conflict, would the United States agree to Russia’s call for guarantees that NATO will not expand eastwards?
First, it is difficult to say exactly what Putin’s intentions are. Nobody can say anything about it with great certainty. What we can be sure is that the United States believes that the question of future NATO enlargements remains a matter between two sides. One of them has thirty NATO allies, and the other is a country interested in joining the Alliance. The decision as to whether or not a country will join NATO lies between them, and Russia has nothing to do with it. Putin has no veto over future rounds of NATO enlargement. I believe that what is most important at this point is what the Allies collectively say, that we are all defending Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity.
Last week, in both Riga and Stockholm, I heard many times that Russia will pay a lot, that the price for invading Ukraine will be very high. But what will be the price Putin will pay for a possible invasion?
As Secretary Blinken has already said, the United States is analyzing all sorts of very severe economic measures that could be reached if Russia decides to enter Ukraine. This was what was communicated directly to the Russians during the meeting between Secretary Blinken and the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs (Sergey) Lavrov. I also suspect that the same message will be passed on by President Biden directly to Putin.
I will just ask about this virtual meeting. Ambassador, one of Putin’s ambitions is to reaffirm Russia’s status as an international player and a global force, not a local force. Don’t you think Moscow is achieving one of its intermediate goals by talking about the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian government and bypassing the Normandy format, and instead by talking directly to the American president?
Please see that President Biden does several things at the same time. His team is very clear about the serious consequences that will face Russia if it decides to attack Ukraine. But it’s also true that President Biden is trying to de-escalate and is focusing on diplomacy. It is important that this conversation takes place with Putin. As you know, I worked directly with President Biden, they know President Putin personally, they first met about 10 years ago. President Biden has dealt with Europe and Russia for a large part of his career, knows the region in depth, does not need additional lessons about the history of this place, main characters and American priorities. So I am calm about this conversation, because no one is better prepared to discuss with President Putin than President Biden.
So I will repeat the question, perhaps the most important today. How much is the West ready to implement Putin’s ambitions to avoid a military conflict?
Allies in Riga have gathered to send a clear signal that NATO is ready to strengthen its eastern flank if Russia invades Ukraine. And that we all support the independence and integrity of Ukraine. It was perfectly clear at the Riga Council, I was there and you were there, and I felt unity and coherence at that moment. It is very important that we met in person at this time in this Council of Ministers.
One more point. Over the past few months, the Belarusian regime has used migrants to put pressure on NATO’s borders. Do you think this is part of a wider Russian campaign to destabilize the West? Or is it a smokescreen to distract attention from preparations for an operation in Ukraine?
We have seen Russia play before, and it is typical that Russia uses incidents elsewhere to distract the West from what Russia wants to do elsewhere. I would not be surprised at all if it turned out that what is happening on the border of Belarus and Poland, as well as Lithuania and Latvia, is a kind of an attempt to divert our attention from what is happening on the borders of Ukraine. We are concerned about taking advantage of people and sometimes pushing them across the border. NATO was clear, and the White House was also clear, condemning Lukashenka’s tactics.
Will President Biden raise the subject of the Belarusian border during the conversation with Vladimir Putin?
There are a few things to discuss and I think President Biden will want to discuss security in the region with Russia. Several different issues regarding strategic stability in the region will be discussed.
Main photo source: tvn24