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Russia would face consequences over Ukraine if diplomatic path fails

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, how does the United States view the crisis today? We've called Jon Finer. He is President Biden's deputy national security adviser. Mr. Finer, welcome to the program.

JON FINER: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: We've heard the warnings of past days from the U.S., but, of course, as time passes, you get more information. What are Russia's latest moves on the ground that you know of? And what is the latest U.S. assessment of President Vladimir Putin's likelihood of ordering an attack?

FINER: Well, Steve, I think the president has been quite clear that at this point, we believe that Russia could take military action on Ukraine at any time. That doesn't mean it's going to be today or tomorrow. But we've entered a window now in which Russia has enough forces massed along the border of Ukraine and now increasingly in the nation of Belarus, as well, where they could take the actions that we've been concerned about for many months at this point. Despite public claims by the Russian government that they have no intention of doing so, we continue to see forces moving to that region, combat ready and combat equipped. And so we are continuing to be quite concerned and making clear there is a diplomatic path if Russia chooses it. But if they don't and they go down the path of another military invasion of Ukraine, we will be ready with pretty severe consequences.

INSKEEP: Jon Finer, I think you may have just made a little bit of news there. I want to be sure of it. When there were 100,000 Russian troops around, analysts pointed out, that sounds like a lot, but it's really not enough to invade a pretty good-sized country. You're saying that they've now entered a window where they have sufficient forces nearby that they could launch this attack at any time?

FINER: Well, you can decide if it's news or not. We've been saying for some time at this point, though, that they have entered the period in which they could launch an attack on Ukraine. And, you know, I think that has been the case for some time now. And it is why we are increasingly concerned about the necessity and the urgency of the diplomatic effort that we've been trying to launch.

INSKEEP: Why do you think Ukraine's president has downplayed this threat slightly? I don't want to overstate this, but he's downplayed it a bit and talked of this as more of a psychological move by Russia.

FINER: Well, you'd have to ask the Ukrainians about the way in which they're choosing to message this. I will say that we are very much aligned with the government of Ukraine. The - President Biden has spoken three times in recent weeks with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. Our national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has probably spoken 10 times with his Ukrainian counterpart during that same period. Our embassy in Kyiv remains day in, day out deeply engaged with the Ukrainian government, you know, in a full way on every one of the issues that they face. And, you know, our strong sense is that we are increasingly converging around a common assessment of what Russia may do and increasingly focused on preparing for that eventuality and that outcome should they choose to go down that path.

INSKEEP: Well, let's figure out what Russia is doing now. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said over the weekend he's seeking clarification from NATO. And this is complicated, really nuanced. But it's a matter of war and peace, so let's chase this down. Lavrov says he's seeking to clarify whether NATO stands by this agreement that they signed some years ago that countries should freely choose their own security arrangements. But also, they shouldn't secure themselves at the expense of another country's security. Does NATO, in fact, stand behind the idea that NATO should not be doing things that threaten other countries?

FINER: So, Steve, one of the things we've been very clear about from the beginning of this crisis is that we do not think that the most constructive way to try to find a path forward is to negotiate our positions in public. The Russians have taken a...

INSKEEP: Oh, sure. I'm not asking - I know you'll negotiate with them directly. But I'm asking as a matter of fact, does NATO stand behind the idea that you shouldn't be threatening other countries,

FINER: The United States and NATO stand by all of the commitments that we have made collectively in a range of kind of foundational agreements about European security. And we believe that the negotiations and the discussions with the Russians should proceed from the perspective of getting back to those fundamental principles. But by the way, those principles include nations respecting other nations' borders and sovereignty. And it is our view that in recent years, frankly, it is Russia that has posed the greatest threat to those fundamental principles. It is Russia that has now multiple times sent military forces into neighboring countries.

INSKEEP: Sure.

FINER: It is Russia that today is massing troops on the borders of a sovereign member of the United Nations, Ukraine. So we will probably engage in the days to come early this week with our Russian counterparts to take these conversations forward. But beyond that, I don't think I want to get too far into the substance of those discussions. We believe they're better held in private.

INSKEEP: Understood. Let me just try to figure out how you see Russia's point of view here. In recent years, there are 14 countries that used to be under Russia's influence that are now inside NATO. NATO has expanded eastward. In terms of democracy, that's obviously a big advance, though not quite all of those countries are very democratic, but they're more open than they were. Does Russia have any reason to feel backed into a corner by all of this?

FINER: So I'd say a few things about this, Steve. One is that NATO is fundamentally a defensive alliance. You mentioned in an earlier segment of this broadcast the prospect of NATO countries deploying forces to the eastern flank countries. Those deployments are fundamentally in response to what Russia has done. The massing of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and now in Belarus, which borders three NATO countries, is destabilizing and is threatening to NATO countries. And so any deployments by NATO would only be defensive, would only be reassuring to our partners and allies, would have no offensive intent vis-a-vis Russia. And so again, I come back to the fundamental notion of what caused this situation that we're in today. And what caused the situation that we're in today is Russia's decision to deploy so many forces to the bordering countries and then the need for Ukraine and NATO countries to respond given the threat that they may face.

INSKEEP: And one other question along these lines - granting you're going to do your negotiating in private, I'm just trying to understand how you see the situation. NATO has made no move in years to admit Ukraine, although the United States is on record saying it'd be a nice idea. NATO's not moving in that direction, and Russia doesn't want Ukraine to join NATO. Do you see some room for some nuanced compromise in that Vladimir Putin is demanding that NATO not do something that NATO seems not to have any plans to do anyway?

FINER: I guess what I'd say about that, Steve, is one of the other fundamental principles that we stand behind 100% is for countries to be able to choose who they associate with. That is another one of the foundational principles that has led to a much higher degree of security across Europe than was ever the case in a previous era, one of the principles that came into play in the aftermath of World War II. And so whether that is Ukraine or any other country in Europe, we will stand for their sovereign right to decide what alliances they choose to make, what countries they choose to associate themselves with. And it is not for Russia or any other country to dictate that to the Ukrainians.

INSKEEP: A few seconds left. We've heard from Ukrainians on the ground who've talked about democracy and the value of democracy to them. Do you believe the United States has done enough to preserve that democracy?

FINER: You know, Steve, the United States has provided a tremendous amount of support to the government of Ukraine, much more intense support since 2014, when Russia first began militarily intervening in Ukraine. That's included a high degree of economic assistance. It's increasingly included...

INSKEEP: About 5 seconds.

FINER: ...A significant amount of security assistance in response to the fact that Russia has not stopped its aggressive actions in parts of Ukraine and again is now broadly threatening much more of the country with its deployments.

INSKEEP: Jon Finer, deputy national security adviser, thanks so much. It's a pleasure talking with you on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.