U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Michael Carpenter spoke with VOA’s Russian service Monday to discuss the situation along the Russia-Ukraine border.
Carpenter said the allies and its partners are trying “to see if the Kremlin is interested in pursuing a diplomatic solution to this crisis, to seeking to de-escalate the situation along Ukraine’s border, which is very dire.”
Here is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in Washington and French President (Emmanuel) Macron is in Moscow. What are your expectations from these negotiations, and what could be the result of these massive diplomatic efforts?
U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter: Well, I think you’re right. It’s a massive diplomatic effort. We’re trying, with our allies and partners, to see if the Kremlin is interested in pursuing a diplomatic solution to this crisis, to seeking to de-escalate the situation along Ukraine’s border, which is very dire. The military buildup is really unprecedented. And so, naturally, we’re consulting very closely with allies and partners. We are here at the OSCE. We are at NATO. We’re doing it bilaterally, telegraphing to (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin that there will be intense repercussions, both in terms of sanctions, in terms of export controls, in terms of military force posture, if he invades Ukraine, but also holding out hope for the potential for a diplomatic solution, as well.
VOA: How united is the West now in its response to Russian aggressive actions? We saw Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visiting Putin quite recently.
Carpenter: Well, I think if you step back and look at the entire NATO alliance, I think we’re actually extremely united in an unprecedented way. When we launched a discussion of the crisis in European security here at the OSCE on January 13, really every state spoke out in support of a dialogue, which could be read as a condemnation of Russia’s position. Russia was really alone, and so I think they’re seeing that also in terms of the fact that we’ve had the North Atlantic Council, the European Council, as well as the G-7 (Group of Seven), all speaking in the same language about massive and unprecedented consequences in the event of a Russian military escalation. So, I don’t know that President Putin was counting on this, but the West is in fact very united right now.
VOA: How confident is the United States that Russia is in the final stages of preparing for an invasion of Ukraine? And what is that confidence based on? Can the United States convince OSCE partners of the reality of this threat?
Carpenter: Well look, here’s what I can tell you, that we have well over 100,000 combat-ready troops on the border. We have all of the equipment that would be necessary for invasion that is in place. And by that I mean attack helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, munitions supplies, medical supplies, engineering — all of the enablers that you would need to launch an invasion within a matter of days. And so, when you look at that military capability, you can’t just sit back and wait to see what happens. You have to be prepared, and you have to rally allies and partners to respond in the event that there is an invasion. At the end of the day, I can’t tell you what is in President Putin’s mind. I can’t tell you whether he will invade or not and when he might do it. But what I can tell you is that that capability is of extreme concern.
VOA: What mechanisms does Washington have within the OSCE that it could use now? Because we have the U.S. Helsinki Commission, we have very strong bipartisan statements on Russia from this commission, and we have you as a representative of the executive branch. So, what mechanism can you use?
Carpenter: What we are trying to do is to sharpen the choices for the Kremlin to present them with. On the one hand, a set of very severe consequences if they choose to act militarily, as I said: sanctions, export controls, substantially beefing up NATO’s force posture on the eastern flank. You’re already seeing it in terms of the fact that we’ve had now approximately 3,000 U.S. troops deploying to the European theater on a temporary basis. But if Russia invades Ukraine, a lot of other things are potentially on the table, as well. And then at the same time, holding out that option for diplomacy, including here at the OSCE, on things that the Russians have said in the past, that they do care about, things like deconfliction risk reduction, potentially even new forms of conventional arms control and transparency. If they’re interested in those things, then the OSCE is the place where we can develop the actual instruments, potentially even legally binding agreements, if we get far enough. That would satisfy our concerns and the Russian concerns. But right now, we’re in the process of elaborating these two sets of options and hoping very much that the Russians choose the option of diplomacy.
VOA: You just mentioned binding agreements. What is off the table?
Carpenter: Well first of all, any sort of agreements in terms of military transparency, confidence-building, reciprocal restraint — all of those would need to be negotiated and adhered to by all of our allies and partners. So, nothing about Europe without Europe. You’ve heard the various officials say that in the past as very much our mantra. Second of all, anything we do we’re not going to compromise on the core principles of the European security order, which means no acceding to spheres of influence, no ability of one state to dictate what sort of alliances another state gets to choose. None of that. So first, principles are going to be kept intact. But as I said, there is certainly room for confidence-building, risk reduction, new forms of conventional arms control if we get that far.
VOA: You’ve been studying in Russia for a very long time, both as an official and as an expert. Why do you think Vladimir Putin needed to create this crisis?
Carpenter: Well, I can’t tell you. As a U.S. official, I can’t speculate on what President Putin is thinking. What I can tell you is that there was this massive buildup in April, followed by an even more comprehensive, I would say buildup right now, which has all the hallmarks of a potential invasion of Ukraine. Why is President Putin doing it this time? Is it to seek concessions? Is it to try to escalate the situation militarily to Russia’s advantage? We don’t know. But we have to act from the premise that he may escalate militarily, and therefore, we have to telegraph that the costs that would result from that would be strategically catastrophic for Russia. So that both the Russian leadership and the Russian people understand that if this path is chosen — and let’s again, God forbid, that we go down this path — but if it is chosen, those repercussions and consequences will be massive.
VOA: Yesterday’s statement by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that the Belarussian army will act jointly with the Russian army, what does this mean for you? How does it change the perspective on the situation? Belarus is a member of OSCE, as well.
Carpenter: Yes, Belarus is a member of the OSCE, and in the past, they have said repeatedly that they would never allow their country to serve as a launching pad for an invasion of a neighbor. And so, that language you’ve just cited has shifted a little bit, which is of extreme concern. We expect that there could be as many as 30,000 Russian troops deployed to Belarus, together with short-range ballistic missiles and other types of equipment that, in fact, would serve as a launching pad for a potential invasion. So, we’re watching the situation very closely. It’s very concerning what the Belarusian Ministry of Defense has said, with regards to the purpose of these exercises, frankly, doesn’t square with the reality on Belarus’ southern border, which is that there is no threat whatsoever from Ukraine. So, I think it deserves to be watched very, very closely.