Deputy to the U.S. Representative to the United Nations
February 15, 2022
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeff Prescott, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations,* welcome to our screen, sir.
DEPUTY JEFFREY PRESCOTT: Thank you for having me.
QUESTION: I would like to start by asking you, of course, concerning the Ukrainian crisis. Is Russia really de-escalating as some reports are suggesting? Does the United States have proof of this de-escalation?
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, we’d like to see a de-escalation, but I have to tell you we have not verified that that is taking place at this moment. We’ve been very clear that the United States, our allies are seeking a de-escalation here. We’re seeking the path of diplomacy. But it’s really up to Russia and President Putin whether to choose the path of diplomacy or the path of confrontation. And what we’ve seen over the last number of weeks, including just over the last few days, is a continued movement of Russian forces towards the border of Ukraine, not away from the border of Ukraine.
So, we have been clear that President Putin at this moment has all of the forces necessary to initiate at any moment a further invasion of Ukraine, and we’re fully prepared for that. We’re also fully prepared to engage in diplomacy, which is why you’ve seen President Biden speak to President Putin, to speak to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, to speak and be in constant touch with our European allies. We’re pursuing diplomacy relentlessly, including at the United Nations in New York. But it’s really up to Russia whether to pursue – which of these paths to pursue, and we’re ready either way.
QUESTION: Reports are talking about possible cyber attacks against Ukrainian agencies such as the defense ministry, the army, the largest banks. Your take on this matter?
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, I don’t have any specific information on these attacks to share at the moment, but what I will say is we have been warning for a number of weeks that cyber attacks could be a part of the Russian playbook here. We could see disinformation, misinformation, and even false flag attacks to try to create the pretext for a further Russian invasion of Ukraine. So that’s the Russian playbook. We know it well. The people of Ukraine, unfortunately, have lived with it now for a number of years. So we’ve called this out. We’ve spoken transparently about what we’re seeing, the kinds of plans we’ve been seeing, because we want the world to know what could happen here and potentially to see it happening in real time.
So we’re going to have to take a hard look at what’s happening on the ground at the moment. We’ve made it very clear that we want to pursue diplomacy, but we’ve also made it equally clear that we’re prepared if Russia chooses to further invade Ukraine to work in a united way with our allies on a swift and severe response. I don’t think it’ll be in Russia’s interest to pursue this path, but we’ve made clear that it could happen at any time.
QUESTION: President Putin described the situation in east Ukraine as genocide. Some are saying this is possibly a pretext for an invasion. Your reaction, Mr. Ambassador?
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, we’ve said that that kind of rhetoric, that kind of claim is the type of information that we would expect to see coming out of Russia in advance of further aggression or provocation. So this is the kind of thing that we have said we’ll be looking for and that we have seen from Russia for a number of years. We’ve said clearly that there is an established diplomatic channel – the Normandy Format discussions, the Minsk process – to address the situation in eastern Ukraine. We’ve been also very clear that we’re going to stand with Ukraine in defending their sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that Russia should really come to the table if they want to work this challenge out in a diplomatic way.
So we’re ready for that diplomatic path. We’ve put very serious proposals on the table. But we’ve also said very clearly that Russia has more than 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine; it’s prepared and has the capability to begin an attack at any time, to begin a further invasion at any time; and if Russia chooses to do that, we will be prepared with a swift and severe response. So we’re ready either way. It’s really up to President Putin to decide what to do here.
QUESTION: We hear reports and see reports that the expected Russian invasion of the Ukraine is to be conducted on the 16th of February, according to intelligence reports. Is the Administration still of the view that the invasion is to take place tomorrow, Wednesday, the 16th of February?
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, that’s really up to President Putin. It’s not up to us. We’ve said that Russia has the capability. We’ve seen information that suggests that this kind of plan is in place, and we’ve been sharing all the information that we have, as much as we can, with the public so that everyone in the world is aware of what could happen. And we’ve been sharing intelligence with our partners and of course with our Ukrainian partners as well. Our allies in Europe are aligned with us on this. We’re prepared for what happens either way.
I do have to say a Russian invasion – further invasion of Ukraine – would be devastating I think in humanitarian terms, obviously in the human toll, but would also cause a significant cost to Russia as well. This is really going to set back Russia’s strategic position in a very significant way. You already see over the past weeks and months of this crisis. You see NATO becoming more united and stronger. You see Russia more isolated on the world stage. Just last week in the UN Security Council, we had an open session where you had almost a unanimous view at the Security Council that the path of diplomacy is better than the path of confrontation. I think you will see if Russia moves forward with this, it’s more isolated on the world stage. And to be honest, I don’t think that China is going to come to the rescue here. I think China is just as concerned about violations of sovereignty as well.
So you’ll see a more isolated Russia, which is why we have been in favor of pursuing a diplomatic path rather than the path of escalation. But that choice is now in Russia’s hands.
QUESTION: The Security Council is scheduled to meet on Thursday the 17th of February. Can we realistically expect anything tangible from this meeting?
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, when the Security Council meets in an open way, it’s a chance for the world’s powers to come together and put, in this case, Russia to the question: Why do you have 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border? Why are we seeing these provocative steps happening in real time? And what will the international community do to uphold the fundamental principles of the UN Charter that basically say you can’t invade another country, you cannot change borders by force. Sovereignty and territorial integrity – this is the foundational principles of the UN system. And I think what you saw last time the Security Council met is many countries, the world’s powers, saying we should choose a path of diplomacy. And I think this time that Russia has called this session, I think you will see a number of countries pointing out these fundamental principles as well.
So it’s an opportunity for Russia really to answer questions about why they have this buildup on Ukraine’s border, and to hear the world say clearly that a diplomatic path is better than a path of war.
QUESTION: If the invasion takes place, sir, what would be the role of the United Nations? And can you give us a sense of what to expect here from the UN, the sort of flurry of diplomatic, humanitarian activities, maybe some –
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, I would say a couple of things about that. First of all, we’ve been pursuing every diplomatic path available to try to de-escalate this crisis, and the UN is one of those venues that we have available. So that’s why you’ve seen a flurry of activity in Europe, with our NATO Allies, in the OSCE, the European security forum. And you’ve also seen that in the UN Security Council. And were Russia to invade Ukraine, I think you would see Russia further isolated on the world stage. As I said, you would see the United States and our allies pursue a swift and severe response. We have sanctions already ready in conjunction with our allies. Russia will find itself economically and diplomatically isolated, and there will be severe consequences coming out of the international community. And I think you’ll see that reflected in the debate at the United Nations as well.
QUESTION: Has the United Nations failed? They always speak about preventive diplomacy to prevent the eruption of conflicts. In this case, have they –
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, look. I think you saw the Security Council speaking, as I said, with an almost united voice that the diplomatic path is appropriate, and holding up the fundamental principles of the UN. I think that that united voice is extremely important going forward. But as I said, we’ll pursue diplomacy in every venue possible. But we’re also ready and prepared if Russia decides to further invade Ukraine.
QUESTION: Is there still time for diplomacy, as you see it?
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, our view is that diplomacy is the only way to de-escalate this in a way that genuinely seeks to resolve the security concerns that Russia says that it has, security concerns that the United States, our European allies, and Ukraine have also put forward. We’ve laid out some very serious proposals to pursue on the diplomatic path that’s available for Russia to choose. But we’ve also been continuing to point out the escalation at the border, Russia’s 100,000-plus troops at the border, the full capability to conduct an invasion at any time. So all we can do is get prepared, and we’re prepared either way.
QUESTION: You talk about diplomatic efforts and diplomatic dialogue. Russia has been pressing for a set of security guarantees from the West and from the Ukraine that the Ukraine will never, never join NATO. Do you think that this could be a basis for diplomatic solutions or dialogue between you and the Russian Federation?
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Well, that’s not up to the United States. That’s really up to our NATO Allies and to Ukraine. And we’ve made clear and NATO has made clear that the “open door” policy is in place, that no country has the right to tell another country what its arrangements, security arrangements, should be, and I think we’ll continue to pursue that path and continue to act based on that set of principles.
So you’ve heard us. You’ve heard NATO Allies say that very clearly. I think you’ve seen statements from Ukrainian leaders and others about the prospects of NATO membership in the near term. There’s a real basis for a diplomatic conversation. We laid out, in a paper that I think is available – at least it seems to be available – publicly, a number of areas in which we’re prepared to engage on security concerns the United States has. We know that NATO has put forward some ideas, security concerns that Russia has said it has, and security concerns that NATO Allies and the United States have. There’s a very rich diplomatic menu available for a serious discussion.
But to be honest, that discussion has to take place in – if it’s going to take place in a serious way, it has to take place in an environment of de-escalation. And so far, we have not been able to verify any steps towards de-escalation have taken place.
QUESTION: Ambassador Jeffrey Prescott, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations,* we thank you for your insight and hope that diplomacy wins the day in the end. Thank you, sir.
DEPUTY PRESCOTT: Thank you.
*Deputy to the U.S. Representative to the United Nations