Deputy to the U.S. Representative to the United Nations Jeffrey Prescott’s Interview with JJ Green of WTOP’s Podcast “Target USA”

Jeffrey Prescott
Deputy to the U.S. Representative to the United Nations
Washington, D.C.
February 16, 2022


QUESTION: All right. Would you, for the record, give us your name, title, and organization, please?

MR. PRESCOTT: Yes, Jeff Prescott, Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the UN.

QUESTION: All right. Would you explain what it is that you do? Your job.

MR. PRESCOTT: Sure. So, I’m the Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I’m actually based in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is a member of President Biden’s Cabinet, and as such sits around the policymaking table with the other principals in the Biden Administration as part of the national security policymaking process. And I represent her as a deputy to that process, and so help across the U.S. government, what we call the interagency process, as we look at the hardest national security issues we’re dealing with day in and day out and try to formulate a response to recommend to President Biden to take to address those issues.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about Ukraine. That’s why we’re here. Can you clarify for us what your team and the Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield see when they look at what’s taking place on the borders of Ukraine and look at the U.S.’s and the UN’s responsibilities to deal with it? What exactly do you see?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, right now we see a very significant threat. The – Russia has put more than 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine. They have specialized capabilities available. We think there’s a very distinct possibility that President Putin will order an attack on Ukraine, further invade Ukraine. We know that that could take a number of different forms. We know it could happen at any time. It could happen tomorrow; it could happen in a few weeks. They’ve continued to surge troops and equipment to the – equipment to the borders of Ukraine and really put themselves in a position where they could invade at any time. So that’s why we see this as a very serious situation.

Now, we have made clear there are two paths available here. There’s the path of conflict and confrontation – Russia very well could take the decision to further invade Ukraine; there’s also a path available for diplomacy. And you’ve seen that work on a number of levels. Obviously, the German chancellor is here in Washington this week. You’ve had the President on the phone with European leaders, including President Macron yesterday, who is also engaging with Russia. You’ve seen very high-level diplomacy – more than 200 senior-level meetings across the U.S. Government with counterparts in Europe, in Ukraine, in the OSCE and other European security institutions, and of course up in the UN. And just last week, on Monday, the United States called for an open meeting in the UN Security Council to address this buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine and the very clear threat to international peace and security that that buildup represents. And you had the vast majority of the UN Security Council, the world’s powers, coming together to talk about that threat, but also to make clear the international consensus around choosing a path of diplomacy rather than a path of war.

QUESTION: The Russian side at that meeting last week seemed to be antagonized and tried to block that meeting. They were unsuccessful, obviously. It took place and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield called them out for what they were doing, which is what you just explained. We haven’t seen much change since then. That’s just publicly. Has anything changed that we don’t know about?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, the Council meeting last week we saw as a very important moment to put a spotlight on what Russia is doing, on what we’re seeing, and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield laid out some of the declassified intelligence that we’ve – of what we’re actually seeing on the ground, including the buildup – the very alarming buildup of forces in Belarus, which we understand could continue to surge to more than 30,000 Russian forces there poised, potentially, to threaten Ukraine’s capital.

It’s because of this alarming buildup and the surge of forces, including more than 2,000 railcars that we’ve seen flowing forces from across Russia to the Ukrainian border, that we called this session and called out what Russia is doing. But we also wanted to make clear and have the international community make clear that there is a path of diplomacy available here.

So, we don’t know exactly what Russia is going to choose to do. What we do know is that we’ve offered out a very clear path of diplomacy, and we’ve also gotten ourselves prepared, along with our allies, for either eventuality. And so we’re ready one way or the other, and we’ve made clear with our allies that if Russia does further invade Ukraine, there’ll be a swift and severe response, a unified response, and that’s what this diplomacy has been all about behind closed doors. And we’ve also laid out for Russia a very clear path to address some of the concerns that they’ve raised in terms of their security, the concerns that we have and that our European allies have in terms of our security, and the concerns that Ukraine has about their sovereignty and their security. And we’ve laid all of that out for Russia as well.

So, there’s a very clear diplomatic path, and we’re also prepared with our allies were Russia to choose the other path.

QUESTION: Mr. Prescott, as someone who’s covered the United Nations for close to 30 years and the international incidents and situations, activities, elements, all of the parts of the UN mission that it was set up for, one of the things that’s been consistent over that time, at least in the last decade or two, are people who have been asking questions about whether the UN is effective in doing what it does. I’m not saying that’s my opinion. My view is, as a journalist, just to ask these questions.

You did – you’ve done this. You’ve had these meetings. You told Russia about this diplomatic opportunity, and they do what they continue to do and have done for years. And then there is this issue with China. Over the weekend or the last few days, China is seeming to side with Russia, and they routinely have blocked many things – humanitarian activities or interests of the UN – China I’m talking about – they seem to have put themselves, gotten together to try to undermine the work of the UN.

So, can the UN actually make a difference in this case?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, you put your finger on a number of very important issues, and I think we should kind of take them up one by one. There’s no question that the UN Security Council in particular is designed to play the premier role in addressing issues of international peace and security, precisely the kind of issues that we were debating last week when it comes to Russia’s buildup of forces in Ukraine. But it’s also true that it’s the place where the world’s powers come together to debate and hash out these issues, and by nature of the different countries arrayed around the table, including, as you say, Russia and China, we’re obviously not always going to agree and we’re not going to change our position just because there is that disagreement.

So, what we have used as part of our diplomatic toolkit, we have the opportunity to go to the Security Council not just after a crisis has begun, but also in a preventive way, to call the world’s powers together and to ask some tough questions, and to do so at times behind closed doors, but at times in an open forum, which is what you saw last week. And so, Russia really was put on the spot. They had to – first of all, they tried to block the meeting, as you said. They were unsuccessful in doing that and then had to answer some questions about why do they have 100,000 forces arrayed on Ukraine’s border, what are their intentions, and what about the fundamental building blocks of international security that the UN Charter and the UN fundamental principles represent, which is territorial integrity, sovereignty of each nation, the idea that you can’t change borders of a country by force.

Now, just because those principles are there, they’re in the UN Charter, every country has signed up to uphold them, does not mean that the UN can enforce those principles directly. But it is a forum where we can come together and argue and point out the facts, lay out the facts, and let the world know what’s going on. And that’s exactly what we were doing last week.

Now, that’s just one tool that we have in our diplomatic toolkit. You also see us talking directly to Russian officials, including the President with President Putin when it’s appropriate. You also see us working very closely with our European allies, with our NATO Allies in the NATO construct, in the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. You also see us working essentially in any diplomatic venue available, including the ones where Ukraine can talk directly to their Russian counterparts through the Minsk process and the Normandy format. All of these different mechanisms are designed to open up a path of diplomacy and to try to avoid a confrontation.

But we’re also working bilaterally and multilaterally with our allies to make sure that we’re prepared were Russia to further invade Ukraine despite all of this diplomatic activity. We’re ready for that as well.

QUESTION: I’ve spoken with, as recently as today, the head of NATO in Estonia and with top diplomats and officials in other countries over the last nine days, and there is legitimate concern. Not saying any country in particular – Latvia, Lithuania or Poland have expressed fear to me – but I’m saying there is legitimate fear in that part of the world that this situation could get out of hand, even out of – even out of Vladimir Putin’s hands. I mean, there are those that have told me that he’s looking for a way out of this. Do you buy that?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, I think there certainly is a way out available. I can’t pretend to get into President Putin’s mind and understand why he ordered this dramatic buildup in the first place, why he seems to have put into place the forces necessary for a significant invasion of Ukraine were he to choose to do that. We have been working over the last few weeks to lay out exactly that offramp to identify a set of security concerns that Russia says that they’re focused on, lay out some concerns that we have, and propose a serious diplomatic conversation to address those concerns. You’ve seen that there’s a paper that the United States put together in consultation with our allies that lay out some of those topics and some of the issues that we’re willing to engage on in a serious way.

So there really is a path here for a diplomatic approach, but it’s also hard to ignore the fact that troops continue to flow to the border of Ukraine, that we’ve seen the kind of forces available that would allow a very significant invasion of Ukraine were Russia to choose to do so, and that it could happen at any time. And that’s why we’re also clearly preparing with our allies for that eventuality.

Now, there’s no question that part of that preparation is making sure that our NATO Allies are fully protected. We have a sacred obligation under Article 5 of the NATO agreement to protect and defend all of our NATO Allies, and that’s why you saw the President making some changes in our force posture in Europe, working with our Allies to bolster those defenses, particularly for those eastern flank, frontline states that are of particular concern. So, we’re doing that in very close consultation with our NATO Allies. There’s a full set of contingencies available were Russia to further invade Ukraine and ways in which we’ll have to think about and further protect our NATO Allies from any threats that they may face.

QUESTION: One of the things you talked about a little bit earlier on was this intelligence or this understanding of this movement of troops and forces, Russian forces and troops, and you talked about a train, seeing trains moving resources, military resources across Belarus to position them. And back to my question a little earlier about – I didn’t really go into this question; I kind of pivoted away to did you buy whether or not Putin was looking for an offramp. But the second part of that or the earlier part of that was there are people in Eastern Europe that are legitimately afraid that what’s taken place here, because of what you’ve said – and we’ve seen this evidence – trains moving equipment, troops moving, I mean from as far away as 11 time zones moving towards Ukraine’s border. In a world of terrorism, which is something else that I cover, it’s pretty clear that you don’t have to launch an attack to just – like, just to instill fear in a population. How is the UN going to deal with this, this fear now that maybe this will happen to us later on if – even if Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, there’s definitely a reason to be concerned, which is part of why we’ve been trying to put out as much information as we have about what we’re seeing, including declassifying intelligence as much as possible. And of course, there’s always a fine line between protecting sources and methods, but also making sure that the public, that our partner countries have real-time information about what we’re seeing and the threats that are out there.

Part of that has been the Russian buildup on Ukraine’s border, as we’ve talked about. Part of that has also been the information that we’ve gathered over the last several months that suggests Russia is preparing for not only an invasion of Ukraine, but to also use a false pretext to justify an attack. And that’s evidence that we’ve also tried to make public over the last week as it’s become available to try to prevent or deny Russia the opportunity to use lies or disinformation to justify an invasion, to essentially claim that Ukraine started it and therefore they are responding. It’s straight out of a playbook that we’ve seen before. JJ, you’ve done a lot of reporting on Russia’s efforts in this regard over the past number of years. We’re trying to avoid a war here, and we’ve seen these kinds of operations in the past, disinformation, kind of false flag operations, sowing confusion in order to justify military action. And we saw some of that in 2014 against Ukraine as well.

So, Ukraine understands these methods, understands this playbook. We do as well, and that’s part of why we’ve been talking so much about these plots – both to let people know to kind of sound the warning bell, but also make it harder for Russia to execute these kinds of plays.

QUESTION: How does this help the other countries, though, in Eastern Europe that fear they may be next?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, part of it is getting ready. And so, what we’ve been doing with our closest allies is coordinating very closely to make sure that if Russia goes down this path – again, we would prefer to have a diplomatic outcome. We’ve offered up a very clear and credible diplomatic pathway here. But if Russia decides to further invade Ukraine, we have a very full, swift, severe, and unified response that we’re prepared to execute. And we’ve been working very closely with our allies, including these frontline states, to understand what they should be on the lookout for, to understand what we will all need to collectively do to respond, and to make sure that Russia pays a price both economically, in terms of diplomatic isolation. And of course, we’ve continued to give Ukraine defensive military assistance, lethal assistance over the last number of weeks and months – almost more than half a billion dollars over the past year – along with our allies, helping them prepare to defend themselves as well.

So, there’s a full-spectrum response here that we’ve been able to work on because we’ve had the kind of information and intelligence that we can share with our allies and both give them a sense of how important this is to focus on, but also collectively roll up our sleeves and begin to put that game plan together.

QUESTION: We see what you show us. I mean, in some cases we get lucky and get a source with some credibility to share something that you may not have shared already. But you’ve declassified a bunch of stuff. And I might add, some of that material has made it into the hands of larger media outlets but hasn’t trickled down to the rest of us. So, we’ve kind of gotten it second and third hand. It would be good if we could figure out a way to get some of that at the same time these other folks do, but the thing that I’m getting at here is: So, we know what we know, however (sic) means we use to get it or it is provided to us, but there has to be a lot more going on that we don’t know about. And I want to ask you without putting you on the spot and asking you to reveal things you can’t and shouldn’t, but can you give us a sense of what it is we don’t know about, what it is we should be thinking about that we’re not talking about? Because news is not what people are talking about around the water cooler. It’s what we don’t know about. It’s our job to find out.

So, are there things that we should be paying attention to as we look at this situation that we’re not?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, it’s a great question, and obviously I’m constrained in the level of detail that I can go into. What I would say is that we’ve really tried to, consistent with protecting sensitive sources and of course protecting the ways in which we gather intelligence around the world, we’ve really tried to make as much available to the public as possible because we do know that there’s value in exposing what we’re seeing, the kinds of operations that we think Russia is putting together, and using it as deterrence to try to persuade Russia from not taking that path.

So that’s – it’s a very important aspect of what we’re doing. We’ve been able to do some of this with our closest allies behind closed doors to give them more information, to compare notes, because, frankly, a lot of our allies are gathering some of the same information. I think one of the reasons why what we’re seeing on the border of Ukraine is so credible is not just the information we have been putting out, but the fact that so many news organizations and fine reporters across the board have been able to confirm this using their own sources. And so, we see this happening in real time, and the kind of warnings that we’ve been posing to the public, we’re beginning to see as Russia puts this potential invasion force together those kinds of pieces come together in exactly the way that we’ve been predicting. And that’s why – that’s been very helpful, I think, in focusing ourselves and our allies around both preparing for this possibility, but also laying out a very credible diplomatic offramp should Russia choose to take it.

QUESTION: Are there some things that are in plain view, though, that we should be looking at instead of trying to keep up with the – I’m saying the American public should be focused on instead of trying to keep up with just what the news tells us. One of the things that the U.S. Government has said repeatedly over the last – certainly the last four to five years is that we should have, Americans should have – do their own homework. So, you hear something, you read something, you see something – go verify it. So, the question I’m getting at here is that, are there other things that we should be looking at, and besides what we know? And I understand your restraints on talking about that secure – well, important classified information.

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, I guess on this I would just say I have seen a number of news reports in major publications, and I know you’ve done some reporting on this as well. There’s both a history here. We’ve seen a play – we’ve seen this playbook before, and obviously Ukraine has felt this now for a number of years going back to the original Russian invasion in 2014. So, there is some of this that you can verify by looking at the past. We’ve seen a playbook like this before and we’re sort of calling it out as we see some of these pieces come together. But we’ve also seen a lot of what we have been saying verified by news organizations and by other countries around the world. And so I would urge those who are interested in and worried about this issue to continue to look for those credible news sources and to kind of follow this story as it develops.

I would say what we’re focused on kind of day in, and day out is both understanding changes on the ground, what’s happening, but also laser-focused on sharpening this key choice, these two paths that Russia has available to it. Obviously, this path of confrontation, which, as I’ve said, could come at any time; but also, to really lay out a credible diplomatic path, an offramp if you will, that Russia could take in order to resolve this peacefully and address very real security concerns that they say that they have and that we know that we have.

So that’s what we’re focused on kind of day in and day out here.

QUESTION: Well, Jeff, thank you for your time. Anything you want to add that I haven’t asked you about that you think is important?

MR. PRESCOTT: Well, look, I know you’re going to be staying on this story. I do think that the diplomatic engagements over the next few weeks, there’s a kind of choreography that you’re seeing where you see regular calls between the President and our closest allies in Europe, with the French, the Germans, with the United Kingdom, with the European Union. We’re doing all of this, including far-flung allies all over the world – everyone is focused on this issue and focused on the enormous consequences that a Russian invasion could have not just for Europe but for these fundamental principles at the United Nations that we started this conversation talking about – about changing borders by force, or territorial integrity and sovereignty. And I think there are going to be some hard questions for other countries, including China, if they sort of stand by and allow this invasion to take place.

So that’s part of why we’ve spent time at the UN, at the Security Council, just making sure everyone’s clear on the principles that are at stake here, everyone’s clear on the facts of what’s happening, and that we’re all prepared for a unified and swift and severe international response if Russia is to take this path.

QUESTION: Just one quick follow-up. We’ve been focused on what happens between now and the end of the Olympics, and some people may have the false idea that after the Olympics are over, there might be an attack or maybe Russia might not be doing anything at all. But it seems to me it’s pretty clear we don’t know when, or when this might happen. It could be tomorrow, as you say, or in November. Right?

MR. PRESCOTT: That’s exactly right. There’s a very distinct possibility that Putin will order an attack here. We know that it could take a number of different forms. It could look very differently depending on the way that they decide to move forward. It could happen tomorrow. It could happen in a few weeks. It could happen right after the Olympics. There are a number of options available, and they continue to surge troops and equipment to the borders and to put themselves in a position where they really could invade at any time.

But that’s why we have been working so intensively with our allies and partners to unite them, to flow defensive support to Ukraine, to reinforce our allies on the eastern flank, and to prepare this package of strong and severe economic measures that would be imposed in the event of Russian aggression, and to also lay out that alternative path of diplomacy. We don’t have any reason to believe that President Putin has made a decision on whether or not to move forward, but that’s why we’re working to develop both this path of deterrence that I’ve been laying out, but also a path of diplomacy. And we’re ready either way.

QUESTION: Mr. Prescott, thank you very much. I appreciate your time today. And please let Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield know we appreciate what she’s doing and look forward at some point to engaging.

MR. PRESCOTT: Will do. Thank you so much.