QUESTION: Good morning and welcome to the Capehart podcast on Washington Post Live. I am Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post.
President Biden faces more than a few challenges on the world stage: China, North Korea, Russia, Ukraine, and the increasing worry that Russia will invade Ukraine. Diplomacy is at the heart of Biden’s efforts to forestall conflicts and project American power around the world. Where a lot of that plays out is at the United Nations. Joining me now is the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Ambassador, welcome back to Capehart.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hi, Jonathan, how are you? Delighted to be here with you.
QUESTION: I am great. Thank you so much for coming back to the podcast but also for coming back now. There is so much breaking news to get to in this interview about Ukraine. Let’s start with the news that hit just moments before we came on, and that is Secretary of State Antony Blinken is headed to Ukraine this week. Do you know what precipitated the Secretary of State’s previously unplanned travel to the country?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, Jonathan, President Biden told all of us who are his diplomats that he wants to put diplomacy first, and our most important diplomat is Secretary Blinken, and he is using his platform to engage with all of our partners, including the Ukrainians. And while you may not have known about this in advance, it has always been on his agenda to engage with the Ukrainians on a regular basis as I have engaged with them in New York and with all of our partners in New York. We’re putting diplomacy at the forefront of all of our engagements to address this issue, and we want to be able to engage with the Ukrainians on this. Secretary Blinken and President Biden both said we’re not going to have discussions with the Russians “about you, without you.” This is part of our diplomatic engagement and it’s not unusual.
QUESTION: No, I mean, I understand that the Secretary of State has been engaging with the Ukrainians out of public view, but this – this will be face to face. So, we shouldn’t read anything into this face-to-face meeting this week, especially given the news that we all woke up to this morning that the Russians have been withdrawing personnel from their diplomatic outposts in Ukraine, and some are viewing that as potentially a prelude or a sign that an invasion is imminent.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, certainly we will continue to engage with them on the diplomatic front, and any actions that we’ve seen that the Russians have taken that may indicate that they’re moving forward will cause us to ramp up our efforts as well in terms of our engagements with our partners. So again, the Secretary’s trip to Ukraine, announced this morning, is part of that ramp-up of engagement.
QUESTION: Another story, or at least nugget within stories, about what’s happening over there is the news that – the Russian military exercises in neighboring Belarus. And one of the concerns is that those military exercises could end up resulting in a permanent Russian presence in Belarus, and the concern behind that is that it would make it possible for the Russians to race over the border from the north, from the south from Crimea, and from the east. What’s the concern the United States has about those military exercises?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think we’re concerned about the exercises, but we’re also concerned about the buildup on the border with Ukraine. All of those signal to us that the Russians are looking at Ukraine in an aggressive way. So, it’s not just one action; it’s the accumulation of actions and the intensity of their actions that have caused us to raise our concerns about the situation and to encourage others to address the situation very, very aggressively.
QUESTION: As you mentioned, there are a hundred and six – you were talking about the massive troop buildup on the border with Ukraine, but there are 106,000 Russian troops, 1,500 tanks near its border. As we sit right now, how close is Russia to invading Ukraine?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s a question that only the Russians can answer for you. But their actions show to us that they are making moves that would suggest that they have plans to invade Ukraine. And we will continue to engage with them diplomatically and hopefully discourage them from taking that extraordinarily aggressive step. But should they decide to take that step, they know what our response will be. President Biden has made clear to President Putin that we will respond aggressively, and we are working with our allies who will support efforts to engage aggressively with the Russians on this.
So, our hope is –
QUESTION: And I want to – yeah.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: – over the course of the next few days that our diplomatic approach will work.
QUESTION: Okay, and I want to talk about the potential U.S. response, or responses, if the Russians do invade. But I do want to talk about some of the aggressive action – a few more aggressive actions that the Russians have taken. Within the last – within the last five days, on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki accused the Russians of a, quote, “false flag” operation that the Russians were engaging in to make it look like the Ukrainians are being aggressors as a pretext for Russians retaliating. But at the same time, on that same day, Ukrainian government entities were hit with a cyberattack with some of the – some of the government websites being hit with a warning that read, quote, “Be afraid and expect the worst.” That cyberattack came just a day after talks broke down between the Russians and the West. How alarming was that cyberattack to the United States?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, look, we – I don’t agree that talks have broken down. We are continuing to engage with the Russians. You know that it was announced this morning that Secretary Blinken spoke with Foreign Minister Lavrov. So, we’re still talking to the Russians, but we’re also watching their actions and we’re watching their actions very, very closely. The cyberattack that took place over the weekend is being looked at and analyzed to see where that cyberattack came from. We know that the Russians will use other tactics to undermine a country, and so we’re expecting these kinds of actions to take place. The misinformation, the disinformation that the Ukrainians themselves are initiating actions against Russia – this is all part of their playbook. We understand it quite well. But we know and they know that we’re watching closely, and they know what to expect should they take any aggressive move toward invading Ukraine.
QUESTION: Well, it’s interesting you say that the two sides – the talks are still going on, that folks are still talking. On January 13th, Russian officials indicated they might abandon the diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation. One senior Russian diplomat said talks are approaching, quote, “a dead-end.” Judging from your answer, the United States doesn’t see it that way, does it?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we’re not going to give up until they take an aggressive action. We’re still going to keep pushing them. We’re going to keep our foot on the accelerator on this so that they understand that they have two options: they can opt for de-escalation, they can opt for dialogue, and they can opt for diplomacy; or they can take the alternative route, which would be an aggressive action against Ukraine, and our response will be strong to that action.
QUESTION: Okay, so then let’s talk about what the U.S. response would be. There are economic sanctions that could happen. How aggressive would the United States be on sanctions, on economic sanctions? Would the United States go so far as to freeze the bank accounts not just of prominent Russians and people who are close to Vladimir Putin, but to freeze Vladimir Putin’s accounts also?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, Jonathan, we’ve said that we will apply sanctions to the Russians, and they know what those sanctions will entail. I’m not going to advance what our playbook will be in terms of who we will apply those sanctions to and when we will apply those sanctions, but the Russians know to expect them, and they know the impact that they will have on the Russian economy.
QUESTION: And then the next question is – and I think a lot of Americans are wondering this – that if indeed the Russians do invade Ukraine and do so militarily with some of the hundred-plus-thousand troops, with some of the tanks, hundreds of tanks that they have over there, will the United States, will NATO send the military in to help protect Ukraine, defend Ukraine?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’ve provided Ukraine close to $1 billion in military support to help them to prepare for such an eventuality, and we are also having discussions with our NATO partners and other allies on how we will respond once the Russians or should the Russians take such an action. But again, this is not something that I can preview for you to help the Russians prepare for responding to our action.
QUESTION: Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Advisor, said the United States was ready for further talks, but also said, quote, “We have been very clear with Russia on the costs and consequences of further military action or destabilization. So, we’re ready either way.” So, given that quote and given what you just said, the United States is prepared to do anything and everything, including military action?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re prepared, as you quote from Jake, to take the necessary actions to respond to Russian aggression, including in New York at the Security Council where I will be leading efforts to bring this before the Council. If the Russians make the decision to invade Ukraine, this is an attack on the entire UN Charter. It is an attack on peace and security around the globe. And this is something that we will address also in the Council and the Russians should be prepared for that. We have already had discussions with various colleagues and allies in New York. They are aware of our position, and they know to expect that should Russia make this move that we will come to the Council, and we will come quickly to the Council.
QUESTION: So, Ambassador, on that point, I mean, you talk about the Council – you’re talking about the Security Council, where Russia has veto power just in the same way that the United States does, and China does. So, what exactly can the Security Council do when the potential offender, the person or the entity that makes – gives the reason for the Security Council to meet and to come up with actions, has a veto – has veto power over what the Security Council can actually do in response?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, in 2014, when the Russians invaded Crimea, we brought a resolution before the Council and we got 13 votes for, one abstention, and the Russian veto. Russia was isolated, and they saw and felt the isolation, and that would be the purpose of coming before the Council. Of course, they will veto any resolution that involves them, but they will be totally isolated and they will be on the defensive.
QUESTION: So then, okay, so the United – I’m sorry, the United Nations passes a resolution. Is there anything more the United Nations, and particularly the Security Council, can do if/when the Russians roll over that border?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We can expose what they do when they roll over the border. They use their disinformation campaign not just in Ukraine and around the globe, but they use their disinformation campaign at the Security Council, and we can expose their actions and publicize their actions in the Security Council.
QUESTION: There is a bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators that were in – that was in Ukraine. Do you have – can you give us a readout of how those meetings went?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Unfortunately, I didn’t get a readout from their visit. But I can tell you that I know that they expressed our strong support for Ukraine, for Ukraine’s independence, for Ukraine’s sovereignty and for their ability to defend themselves.
QUESTION: Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that Russian officials, quote/unquote, “hinted” that Moscow could place nuclear missiles close to the U.S. coastline, which could reduce after-launch warning times to five minutes. That’s a provocative hint. What’s your reaction? What’s the United States reaction to that news?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, the Russians are pulling every straw out of the basket that they can pull out to intimidate us into allowing them to take this action. We – they know that if they take such an aggressive action against the United States that, again, they can expect a response, and that response will be a strong response.
QUESTION: And is it safe to assume that that provocative hint is related to the cool reception Russia got to its demand that NATO drastically scale back its presence near Russia’s borders in Eastern Europe?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Again, I know that they’re trying to respond in a way to intimidate the world, but we’re not going to allow ourselves to be intimidated nor will we allow Ukraine to be intimidated into compromising its own security.
QUESTION: You know, Ambassador, a lot of the actions taken by Russia – aggressive actions, as you’ve I think accurately called them, from this provocative hint to the troops on the border, tanks on the border, the cyberattack that just happened on Ukraine – it makes me wonder how much of what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing, how much of what Russia is doing is related to what’s happening here in the United States. And I’m not asking you this question to get you into a conversation about politics, but I’m wondering how much does the President’s standing here at home – the low approval ratings that he has, what’s going on, the tussle that’s happening in the Senate with the President’s domestic agenda from Build Back Better to voting rights – how much of that do you think is playing into Russian’s calculations in terms of how far they can push in terms of these aggressive actions and questioning whether the United States is at a weak point and so “we can do this,” or the President is at – President Biden is at a weak point and therefore distracted and won’t follow through on the consequences that you and Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken have been talking about for weeks?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I can’t analyze the motives of President Putin or what is playing into his calculus or the aggressive stance that he’s taken. But the President and this administration has a lot to be proud of. We have exerted our leadership globally. We have exerted our leadership multilaterally. Our leadership in the UN is as strong as it’s ever been, and our leadership and our respect around the globe is equally strong. If Putin is calculating that he can pressure the President because of the challenges that the President is working diligently on here in the United States, I think it’s a miscalculation to be very, very frank with you. It’s an extraordinary miscalculation because at this moment in time, we are forging forward aggressively to address the challenges that we’re facing here in the United States; we’re addressing the COVID pandemic; we’re addressing issues related to the economy; and we’re pushing back hard to fight for issues related to voting rights. But at the same time, we have not taken our eyes off what is happening internationally and globally, and it does not in any way affect how we will respond to an aggressive action by the Russians.
QUESTION: You know, John Bolton, former national security advisor under Donald Trump and a former UN ambassador, wrote in The Washington Post in an op-ed, quote, “Even if President Biden is serious, Putin may not believe it, based on past U.S. performance, including the United States’ recent Afghanistan withdrawal. The risks of miscalculation are high.” Madam Ambassador, how much does the withdrawal from Afghanistan loom in the background, do you think?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we ended a 20-year war. The President committed to doing that, and he followed through on that commitment. It was a challenging withdrawal, but I can tell you that I have met with our Afghan allies who are here in the U.S., including just as recently as yesterday, and people are proud of the support that the U.S. government has provided to them and proud of their relationship with the U.S. government. This was a situation that we found, and the President fixed it, and while it was – it was challenging, we concluded a war that has been on the shoulders of the American people for more than 20 years.
QUESTION: All right, Madam Ambassador, we’ve got about six minutes left and I want to quickly try to go around the world. China. Next month the United States will not send government officials to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Should other nations in the UN follow the U.S.’s lead?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we have made our position clear. We will not send a diplomatic representation to China to represent the United States at the Games. We’ve not discouraged our athletes from participating. We think, as a true leader, we need to raise our concerns about the human rights violations that are being committed in Xinjiang and the attacks on democracy in Hong Kong, and we can’t just sit in this event and ignore those situations. True leadership requires that we raise these concerns publicly. How other countries proceed is up to those countries, but we hope that should those countries attend that they will not shy – be shy to raise these concerns with the Chinese.
QUESTION: Okay, three more countries to get to. North Korea. North Korea has launched six ballistic missiles since September 2021, which is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. I understand another resolution either is in the works or has been passed. What good are new sanctions when the North Koreans don’t abide by previous sanctions or previous reprimands?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We will continue to ramp up the pressure on the North Koreans. Their attacks are a violation of Security Council resolutions. As you may have seen last week, I went before the press, supported by other colleagues, to raise our concerns. We had an intense discussion about this in the Security Council, and we are likely to have another such discussion over the course of this week.
QUESTION: Ethiopia. You served as Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs in the Obama administration. How concerned are you about the situation in Ethiopia?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I am very – on a scale of 1 to 10, I am at a 10 in terms of my concerns about the situation. When I was Assistant Secretary, we saw Ethiopia as one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, and now we are in a situation where Ethiopians are in a major crisis of fighting against each other, and we’re seeing massive human rights violations, humanitarian concerns as well. My hope is that we will get to a ceasefire. As I’ve said previously, there are no good guys on either side. We need to make sure that the victims of this conflict find a way to peace, and I’m hoping that we see some of those actions taking place over the course of the next few weeks toward a ceasefire, the AU efforts under President Obasanjo and regional partners will bring this country to a peaceful conclusion of this conflict.
QUESTION: Two more questions. Back to Ukraine and Russia and the talks. What are you hearing from European allies? Are they fully backing the United States? Is the Alliance unified when it comes to dealing with what’s happening between Russia and Ukraine?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The Alliance is unified. We have engaged very, very closely with our European colleagues, both in Brussels, in their capitals, but also in New York to ensure that we are unified in our response to the Russians. And it is that unity that I know the Russians are very, very concerned about.
QUESTION: And final question, Madam Ambassador. We just celebrated the holiday for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are in a – in quite a moment in this country when it comes to what he marched and died for. Just in your personal capacity, I would love as we close out, with less than a minute left, your reflections on Dr. King, his legacy, and our country right now.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, being able to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King is an extraordinarily important event for our country. What he led the fight toward, the legacy that he has left behind is so, so powerful. And I’ve thought about, as we look at what is happening across our country – I grew up in the South, as you know. I grew up in Louisiana. I remember the first time my mother voted, and it was a hard-won battle to get the right to vote. And that battle continues, and we won it before and we will win it again, and we will just keep pressing forward until we bring the importance of voting rights to a conclusion that allows for everyone to have the right to vote. We cannot sit on our laurels and not keep pushing forward. And Martin Luther King gave us the strength to do that.
QUESTION: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, thank you so much for coming back to “Capehart” and to Washington Post Live.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s great to be here, and happy belated New Year.