U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE on the Russian-Ukrainian Crisis

US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Michael Carpenter, spoke with VOA’s Russian service on Monday to discuss the situation along the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Carpenter said the allies and their partners were “trying to see if the Kremlin is interested in seeking a diplomatic solution to this crisis, in seeking to defuse the situation along the Ukrainian border, which is very serious.”

Here is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and conciseness.

VOA: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in Washington and French President (Emmanuel) Macron is in Moscow. What are your expectations of these negotiations, and what could be the outcome of these massive diplomatic efforts?

Michael Carpenter, US Ambassador to the OSCE: Well, I think you’re right. It’s a huge diplomatic effort. We are trying, together with our allies and partners, to see if the Kremlin is interested in pursuing a diplomatic solution to this crisis, in seeking to defuse the situation along the Ukrainian border, which is very serious. The military build-up is truly unprecedented. And so, naturally, we consult very closely with our allies and our partners. We are here at the OSCE. We are in NATO. We are doing this bilaterally, telegraphing (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin that there will be intense repercussions, both in terms of sanctions, in terms of export controls, in terms of military posture, if he invades Ukraine, but also raising hopes for the possibility of a diplomatic solution, too.

VOA: How united is the West now in its response to aggressive Russian actions? We have seen Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visit Putin quite recently.

Carpenter: Well, I think if you step back and look at the whole NATO alliance, I think we’re actually extremely united in an unprecedented way. When we launched a discussion on the crisis of European security here at the OSCE on January 13, really all the states came out in favor of a dialogue, which could be read as a condemnation of the Russian position . Russia was really on its own, and so I think they also see it in terms of the fact that we had the North Atlantic Council, the European Council, as well as the G-7 (Group of Seven), all s speaking in the same language about the massive and unprecedented consequences in case of Russian military escalation. So I don’t know if President Putin was counting on this, but the West is actually very united right now.

VOA: How convinced is the United States that Russia is preparing for an invasion of Ukraine? And what is this trust based on? Can the United States convince the OSCE partners of the reality of this threat?

Carpenter: Well here’s what I can tell you, we have well over 100,000 combat ready troops on the border. We have all the equipment that would be needed for the invasion in place. And by that I mean attack helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, munitions supplies, medical supplies, engineering – all the tools you would need to launch an invasion in days. And so when you look at this military capability, you can’t just sit back and wait to see what happens. You must be prepared and you must rally allies and partners to react in the event of an invasion. In the end, I can’t tell you what’s on President Putin’s mind. I can’t tell you whether or not he will invade and when he might. But what I can tell you is that this ability is extremely concerning.

VOA: What mechanisms does Washington have within the OSCE that it could use now? Because we have the US Helsinki Commission, we have very strong bipartisan statements on Russia from that commission, and we have you as a representative of the executive. So what mechanism can you use?

Carpenter: What we’re trying to do is narrow down the choices the Kremlin has to present to them. On the one hand, a set of very serious consequences if they choose to act militarily, as I said: sanctions, export controls, substantial reinforcement of NATO’s force posture on the eastern flank. You can already see it in the fact that we now have approximately 3,000 American soldiers temporarily deployed in the European theater. But if Russia invades Ukraine, many other things are also potentially on the table. And then at the same time maintaining that option for diplomacy, including here at the OSCE, on things that the Russians have said in the past, that they care about, things like deconfliction risk reduction, potentially even new forms of conventional weapons control and transparency. If they are interested in these things, then the OSCE is where we can develop the actual instruments, potentially even legally binding agreements, if we go far enough. This would address our concerns and Russian concerns. But right now we are working out both sets of options and very much hope that the Russians choose the option of diplomacy.

VOA: You just talked about binding agreements. What’s not on the table?

Carpenter: Well, first of all, any kind of agreements in terms of military transparency, confidence building, reciprocal restraint – all of these agreements should be negotiated and respected by all of our allies and partners. So, nothing about Europe without Europe. You’ve heard the various officials say that in the past that was very much our mantra. Secondly, whatever we do, we are not going to compromise on the fundamental principles of the European security order, which means there is no access to spheres of influence, no capacity of one state to dictate the type of alliances another state can choose. None of that. So first of all, the principles will remain intact. But as I said, there is certainly room for confidence building, risk reduction, new forms of conventional arms control if we go that far.

VOA: You have 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 US official, I cannot speculate on President Putin’s thinking. What I can tell you is that there was this massive buildup in April, followed by an even more comprehensive buildup, I would say right now, that has all the hallmarks of a possible invasion of the Ukraine. Why is President Putin doing it this time? Is it to demand concessions? Is it to try to aggravate the situation militarily to Russia’s advantage? We do not know. But we must act on the premise that it can escalate militarily, and therefore we must telegraph that the resulting costs would be strategically catastrophic for Russia. For the Russian leadership and the Russian people to understand that if this path is chosen – and again, God forbid, that we follow this path – but if it is chosen, these repercussions and consequences will be massive.

VOA: Yesterday’s statement by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that the Belarusian army will act jointly with the Russian army, what does this mean for you? How does this change the outlook on the situation? Belarus is also a member of the OSCE.

Carpenter: Yes, Belarus is a member of the OSCE, and in the past they have repeatedly said that they would never allow their country to serve as a launching pad for an invasion of a neighbor. And so this language that you just quoted has changed a bit, which is extremely concerning. We predict that there could be up to 30,000 Russian troops deployed in Belarus, as well as short-range ballistic missiles and other types of equipment that would, in effect, serve as a launching pad for a possible invasion. We are therefore monitoring the situation very closely. It is very worrying what the Belarusian Ministry of Defense has said, with regard to the purpose of these exercises, frankly, does not correspond to the reality on the southern border of Belarus, that there is no no threat from Ukraine. So I think it deserves to be looked at very, very closely.

Christi C. Elwood