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Secretary Antony J. Blinken On PBS Frontline

Interview as aired

QUESTION:  I want to ask you about the end of September of this year[1], when Russia had been being pushed back, but there were a lot of signs that Vladimir Putin, that Russia were not backing down.  There was nuclear threats, mobilization, and then on September 30th the announcement of annexation.


QUESTION:  When you’re watching that, how concerning is it?  What are you thinking at that moment in the end of September?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s all very concerning because what we saw at the end of September was Vladimir Putin doubling and tripling down on the aggression with the mobilization, with the purported annexation of Ukrainian territory, with the loose talk about nuclear weapons.  He actually chose a moment to do that when the entire world was gathered in New York at the United Nations for the General Assembly.  And it was a further aggression not only against Ukraine, but an aggression against everything people were in New York to talk about – the United Nations Charter, the basic principles that try to keep peace and security.

So it was of course very concerning because it showed, at least at that point, that President Putin had not taken the lessons of the experience in Ukraine, which is that the idea that he would erase its identity, its independence, and subjugate Ukrainians to the will of Russia, had failed and would fail.  So we’re looking at this, and it’s I think evidence that unfortunately, tragically, this is likely to continue for some time, because Putin had not yet digested the fact that Ukraine was not going to give up on its independence and its sovereignty, and the international community was not going to give up on Ukraine.

QUESTION:  As far as the danger of this moment, somebody told us that in some ways it might have been more dangerous than the Cold War because of the unpredictability.  There wasn’t a doctrine or committees, Soviet committees that were determining the policy.  I mean, how much is the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin, of the Russian Government a danger in that moment?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Unpredictability, miscalculation, miscommunication is always something that we’re focused on and concerned about.  It’s why it’s important to be as clear as we possibly can about what we see and what we’re going to do to make sure that, to the best of our ability, at least, there isn’t miscommunication that leads to miscalculation.  But these are fraught periods, and the most important thing is to be as clear as we possibly can be.

And by the way, that was true from the very start.  Everything that we said to the Russians in advance of the aggression as we saw it mounting that we would do, we’ve done.  I don’t think there can be any doubt about President Biden saying what he thinks and then doing what he says.

QUESTION:  Let me ask you one more question about that speech, because it’s sort of a remarkable speech that he gives because so much of it is about the West, is about the United States.  He’s invaded Ukraine, but the speech is about the West, is about the United States.  I mean, it almost – it almost seems like Vladimir Putin sees a conflict between – this as a conflict between the United States and Russia.  Is that accurate?  Is that how he sees it?  Is that how you see it?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s not, but Putin would like to make it that way or at least make it seem that way, because he needs to be able to further justify what he’s doing to his own people.  And broadening it into some kind of conflict with the United States, with the West, with NATO – take your pick – serves his purposes.  But this is fundamentally about one thing: it’s about his aggression against Ukraine; his efforts to erase its sovereignty, its independence; his efforts to subsume it into Russia.  That’s what he’s actually acknowledged himself, and that has failed.  And so now he needs to somehow justify what’s happening, justify the horrific sacrifices that Russians are making on his orders by broadening the aperture, making this about something bigger.

QUESTION:  So let’s go back to the administration coming in, and we spoke to you in 2017 after the Obama administration, and this is a new time when you are coming in.  How are you evaluating Russia, the threat from Vladimir Putin as you’re coming in to the administration this time?  How are you and the President informed by what you experienced before and seeing how things have changed?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, when we’re coming in, remember that there is a lot going on that’s having a profound impact on the lives of our fellow citizens, starting with COVID and hopefully getting ahead of COVID, starting an economic recovery to bounce back from COVID.  We have an existential climate crisis on our hands.  And we are trying to make sure that we can put our focus, our efforts, our resources on dealing with that.  And in that sense, no one is looking for conflict, for confrontation with Russia, even as we knew well that it can make a lot of trouble.  Many of us had experienced that as part of the Obama-Biden administration.

But the first focus was on trying to determine whether we could have a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia so that we could actually focus on what people want us to be focused on and need us to be focused on in terms of making their lives a little better, a little bit safer, a little bit healthier.  Very early in the administration, the President extended the New START strategic arms control agreement because it was in our interest to do that.  And of course we had engagements with President Putin, with Russia, including leading up to the summit that they held in Geneva.  But it was really about testing a proposition: whether Russia was prepared to have the more stable, predictable relationship so that all of us could focus our time, our efforts on resources, on things that our citizens needed us to be focused on and cared about.

QUESTION:  But was there a debate going into that summit about whether to have it, and what was the calculation that was made in agreeing to have the President meet with Vladimir Putin?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I don’t – there wasn’t a particular debate about having the summit.  We also have very vigorous discussions about all of our policies.  It’s something the President looks for and expects and wants.  But for the President, for the administration, this was about a couple of things: first, there’s no substitute for face-to-face communication just to make sure that there’s no ambiguity, no misunderstanding, no miscalculation as a result.

And President Biden was determined that President Putin hear from him exactly why the President says what he says, why he does what he does, and what Russia could expect depending on the direction that it took.  And this was an opportunity – an important opportunity – to share directly with Putin that our preference was for a more stable, predictable relationship, but we would be prepared either way.  And if Russia chose to act aggressively, if it chose to take actions in one way or another that were dangerous and destabilizing, we’d respond; but our preference was more stability, more predictability.  And having Geneva was an opportunity to share that directly face-to-face with Vladimir Putin.  And then, as the President said, we’ll see.  We’ll know over the next six or nine months, he said right after the meeting with Putin, what course Russia decides to take; but either way, we’re prepared.

QUESTION:  And how did that meeting go?  Because we’ve heard reports about other meetings with other presidents, like President Obama where he sort of has a list of grievances, and he sort of dismisses –what’s the chemistry between the two of them?  What is that meeting like?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I’m not sure chemistry is the word I’d use, but the meeting in Geneva started with just four people: of course, the two presidents, I was there with my Russian counterpart, the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.  And there was a very detailed, vigorous, but I would say also very professional, conversation between the two presidents.  Part of it was sharing more broadly their – for President Biden, his own world view and what we were focused on and what we wanted to do.  Part of it, as I said, was sharing our preference for a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia; but also making very clear that if Russia chose a different path, we would respond.

But I think the tone of the conversation was professional.  It was direct.  There were not a lot of polemics, not a lot of extreme arguments, but it was very clear where we had our differences.  President Biden made very clear where we saw things differently, and so did President Putin.  And I think after that initial session of almost a couple of hours, really between the two of them there was a broader discussion where we brought in colleagues on both sides.  But this was really setting the table for what would be a test over the coming months about which direction Russia wanted to go in, and to make sure that President Putin heard directly from President Biden what our preference was but also what we’d be prepared for if Russia chose the wrong path.

QUESTION:  But what you were hearing from President Putin in that meeting was not a clear warning about what was going to happen within a year?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  No.  In fact, there was certainly no warning about Ukraine.  And on the contrary, President Biden made clear in the meeting to President Putin our commitment to Ukraine, our commitment to its sovereignty, to its independence, to its territorial integrity.  There had been, prior to the meeting, an initial massing of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border back in the spring.  Those forces had been pulled back.  But that was something that had gotten our concern in the moment, and it was important, as President Biden did, to make clear our commitment to Ukraine so that, again, Putin would understand that and factor that into his thinking.  But there was certainly no warning from President Putin about what he intended to do.

QUESTION:  Well, it’s not the first meeting that Biden has had with Putin.  There’s a famous meeting in 2011 —


QUESTION:  — where he goes to Moscow, and he writes about it in his autobiography, and that he said to Putin, “You don’t have a soul” —


QUESTION:  And he says “now they understand each other.”  Can you tell me what happened in that meeting and how it informed President Biden today, what he would have taken from that previous meeting that he’d had?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I was there with then Vice President Biden at the meeting just outside of Moscow with President Putin, then actually Prime Minister Putin.  In fact, in that particular moment Medvedev was, quote/unquote, president and Putin had become prime minister.

But I think it was very useful to President Biden because he had a further appreciation of how Putin approaches these meetings, his style, his tone, the – almost the – almost total lack of emotion that he brings to these conversations, but also the importance of being able to speak to – to speak directly and clearly.  And he has – as you said, there – there was a moment when they were in Putin’s library, and then Vice President Biden said to him, “I’m looking you in the eyes and I can’t see your soul.”  And Putin said, “Good, we understand each other.”

So it’s a good way and an important way to take stock of someone, and I think that and other engagements that they’ve had is something that had helped inform the President’s approach to the meeting in Geneva, and for that matter to the overall relationship.

QUESTION:  I mean, and the message he’s sending to Putin in a moment like that is what?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The message that he’s sending is let’s not – we’re not here to kid each other.  We’re here representing our countries, representing our interests, and we need to speak clearly.  We need to speak directly.  And that’s what – something that President Biden values, and I think he wanted to make sure that then Prime Minister Putin and Vice President Biden that they understood each other.

QUESTION:  What’s the first moment that you realized this is serious, that Russia might really be contemplating an invasion?  What’s that like?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, two things happened.  First, we’d seen in the spring of 2021 we’d seen this massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders, but then those forces were pulled back.  Then, some months later as we got into the fall, we saw forces returning to the border area.  That in and of itself was troubling and disturbing, but on top of that we got information that actually explained Russia’s thinking and laid out its plans.  And it was in that moment when a combination of seeing the forces deployed and then having from the information we’d gotten real visibility on what Russia was actually thinking and what they were planning, that’s when we really saw the storm rising and heading in Ukraine’s direction.  Putting those two pieces together was critical.

QUESTION:  I mean, that must have been an amazing moment.  Do you real that this could be the defining foreign policy conflict of this administration.  I mean, are the stakes that obvious that early?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I don’t think people were thinking in terms of what’s going to be a defining moment.  That’ll be for historians to judge and for everyone to be able to reflect on when they’re no longer in these jobs.  No, what we saw was this storm rising, heading in Ukraine’s direction, and the tremendous damage that that could do, first and foremost to Ukraine, to Ukrainians, but potentially in unleashing all sorts of forces that could lead to wider conflict as well as being a direct aggression against the very foundation of international relations.

I mean, we talk in abstract terms about these principles established after the Second World War to try to make sure that we wouldn’t have another world war, where there has to be a basic respect for a country’s borders, for its independence, for its sovereignty.  You can’t just go around changing another country’s borders by force or invading them.  Otherwise if you do – and that happens with impunity – a Pandora’s box is opened and we’re going to have aggression and conflict around the world.

So we saw these twin threats – a threat to Ukraine itself, a threat to the international system – if this was allowed to go forward.  And that galvanized a rather extraordinary action on the part of the administration to bring this to the world, starting with our allies and partners, to make sure that they, too, understood what was coming, to do everything we could to prevent it, to avert the Russian aggression, but also to make sure we were prepared if Russia went ahead nonetheless.

QUESTION:  What’s the message that’s delivered to Vladimir Putin?  I understand there’s a video conference with – between the two presidents.  There’s later telephone calls.  What was President Biden saying when he was speaking directly to Vladimir Putin in that run up, in that December-January timeframe?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The President’s saying a few things.  He’s saying:  First of all, we see what you’re doing, what you’re planning, what you’re plotting.  If there are serious issues of – that go to your security that are motivating what we’re seeing, we can talk about them.  We have our own issues with things that you’re doing more broadly that are threatening to our security or to European security, and we are willing to work through diplomacy and dialogue to see if we can resolve those.  But if you reject diplomacy, if you reject dialogue, and if you go ahead with what we’re seeing, you need to understand the costs and consequences to Russia will be severe, and you need to know that I mean what I say.

QUESTION:  And in those communications with Russia, is – are they saying: we’re serious about this?  Because publicly there’s a – we’re doing training exercises; we’re not planning an invasion.  Are they communicating: there’s things we want and we’re very serious about this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  They’re denying.  They’re denying any imminent aggression against Ukraine.  They’re saying that: that’s not what we’re doing, not what we’re planning, but we do have real concerns about our security, and we do see, allegedly, threats or challenges posed by you, by other countries, by NATO.  And our response is, the President’s response is:  We have our own concerns, but the thing to do then is to talk about them, to engage in diplomacy, to engage in dialogue.

And in fact, that’s what happened.  We started a direct conversation with Russia over their claimed concerns.  We had a dialogue between NATO and Russia and this organization called the OSCE, which brings basically all of the countries of Europe together, including Ukraine, initiated a similar dialogue with the Russians to test the proposition.  Was this genuinely about security concerns that Russia said it had or was that simply a smokescreen as it prepared for the aggression and it was going to move forward irrespective?

QUESTION:  Based on the intelligence you had, did you think they were lying to you?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Oh, yes.  Well, look, there’s a long history of this.  Any of us who’ve been through the experience of Russia’s aggression in 2014 against Ukraine, the initial invasion in which they seized Crimea and went forward with their annexation, and they seized a part of eastern Ukraine – throughout that entire process, Russia, Putin had a clearly adversarial relationship with the truth.  And they would say things – he would say things in conversations with President Obama, with Chancellor Merkel, and others at the time that were flat-out lies, which we knew, and he would deny things that we could see.

So the going-in proposition is that you’re unlikely to get the clean, clear truth.  But because we had such extraordinary visibility and extraordinary information, we knew in real time when Putin was saying something that was in contradiction with what was actually happening.

QUESTION:  I understand that you’re also communicating with President Zelenskyy and trying to warn Ukraine about what your intelligence – what does a conversation like that – what is it like to tell a president that his country is imminently in danger?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, a few things were going on.  We had this – so we had this information in the early fall, and President Biden thought it was essential to, in the first instance, share it with core allies and partners as well as with the Ukrainians.  And first, there was an extraordinary meeting on the – in Rome, in October of that year, where the President brought together the French president, Macron, the then-British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Chancellor Merkel of Germany, who was outgoing and brought along with her the incoming chancellor, Olaf Scholz.  And we were in a small room on the margins of the – this G7 meeting in Rome, and with a handful of us in there – I was there with President Biden, with the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – and we laid out for our colleagues what we were seeing, what we were – what we had picked up.

And this was a big a big eye-opener.  And it galvanized work among initially those four countries – France, the UK, Germany, and the United States – both to try to make sure we had – we were making every effort to prevent this, but also making every effort to prepare for it if Russia went ahead nonetheless.

A few days later we were in Glasgow for the COP, and – the climate summit.  And it was at that point that I shared with President Zelenskyy the same information, sitting in chairs just the two of us in a small room, just a couple of feet from each other.  And it is a pretty sobering thing to share with the leader, with the president of another country, our deep concern that his country may be on the brink of being invaded.

QUESTION:  You rally the allies – this is in the run up to the invasion – you warn Russia, and yet at the end of February he orders the invasion.  He goes and gives a speech that’s very similar to the one in September where he talks about the West and the United States.  I mean, at that point, as you’re watching the invasion, do you feel like there was something you could have done to prevent what happened?  Or was this a decision that was – that you weren’t going to have been able to prevent?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, ultimately, I think this was a decision that Putin had basically made and we were very unlikely to actually be able to stop.  But it was absolutely essential that we try everything possible to stop it, to prevent it.  That’s why we engaged so seriously in the diplomacy, in the dialogue.  We had to test the proposition that maybe there was a way to get him off of this course.  Because we didn’t want this war.  No one wanted the war.  The Ukrainians didn’t want the war.  Countries in Europe didn’t want the war.  No one around the world wanted the war, especially as they’re feeling the consequences of the Russian aggression.

The only person who wanted it was Vladimir Putin.  And we had to find out if the rising storm was genuinely because there was some security concern that Russia had that could be addressed in a way that also addressed our own interests and our own concerns, or whether this was an inexorable path to war and that’s where Putin was going.  And we tested that proposition.  We engaged intensely with the Russians directly, with NATO, with the OSCE.  Others did too, all in coordination, very close coordination.

And I had a moment with Lavrov the foreign minister.  We were meeting in January, so just a few weeks before the invasion.  And after our meeting with our teams, I pulled him aside and said to him:  Look, you need to tell us what is going on.  Is this really about your practical security concerns or is this about the theological, the view that Ukraine is not its own country, and that your president is determined to erase its independence, erase its identity, and subsume it into Russia?  If it’s the former, we need to keep on with the diplomacy, we need to keep on with the dialogue, because there are ways that we can address this together and address the many concerns that we have about Russia’s threats to security in Europe and beyond.  But if it’s about the latter, if it’s about the theological, the philosophical that Ukraine’s not its own country, then we have a fundamental problem, and you need to know that you’re going to suffer severe consequences for anything that you do.

We had worked very hard to bring other countries along with this, not only in the diplomacy and in the dialogue, but also to prepare.  And one of the big advantages that we had in this aggression – as opposed to 2014, when Russia first went into Ukraine – is we had time because of all the information we had to actually build the response.  And as we got into the end of the year – and again, we became more and more convinced that this is where Russia was going – we were able not only to share that information with allies and partners, but actually to build a response, to bring countries together and agree in advance that if Russia went ahead with the aggression we would support Ukraine in very material ways, we would impose severe consequences and costs on Russia, and we would take the steps necessary to harden our own defensive alliance, NATO, in case the Russian aggression went beyond Ukraine and was aimed at any NATO country.  And that’s exactly what we did.

And it was very important that, in the last weeks of the year, coming together, for example, with the G7 countries, the leading economies, democratic economies in the world, we were able to say as a group publicly that if Russia went ahead with the aggression there would be severe costs and consequences and unprecedented sanctions.  And that language, which was really important for the clarity and showing unity of purpose, was picked up – after we got agreement on it with the G7 countries – was picked up by NATO, it was picked up by the European Union, it was picked up by other countries.  We wanted to make it as clear as possible to Russia what it risked if it went ahead, in the hopes that maybe this would deter them, but also if that didn’t happen, if Russia went ahead nonetheless, that we would be able to react, respond immediately.  And that’s exactly what we did.

QUESTION:  When you ask Sergey Lavrov, how does he respond to that question?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  He wouldn’t – he wouldn’t address it.  He tried to deviate.  He tried to dodge it.  But he wouldn’t – he wouldn’t address it.  And we had another moment in just – very shortly before the invasion by Russia on February 24th, where we decided at the last minute to go to New York, to go to the United Nations Security Council and to make one last attempt to bring to the world everything we saw coming, and we did it in detail, I was able to say to the Security Council, here’s what’s going to happen over the next couple of weeks.  Here are the things that Russia is going to do to try to create justifications and excuses, false flag operations.  Here are the steps they’re going to take.  We laid it out in detail in front of the United Nations Security Council.  And then I was able to say to the Russian representative at the Security Council, this is your opportunity.  This is your opportunity not to say, “We have no plans to or we have no intention of invading Ukraine.”  This is your opportunity to tell the world you will not invade Ukraine.  And he couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.

QUESTION:  did your understanding of Vladimir Putin change?  Because the President’s rhetoric becomes very different.  He says he’s a war criminal and a murderous thug, I think.  Did your understanding of who you were up against change?  And how did it change the way that the administration responded to the invasion?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I don’t think anything changed in our understanding of who we were up against in President Putin.  This was known to President Biden and to many of us for a long time.  I think what we saw play out was the Achilles’ heel of autocracies, and that is that there is no one in an autocratic system who is either able or willing to speak truth to power.  Because we knew that there were people around Putin who thought this was an incredibly dangerous course to follow, but they wouldn’t or couldn’t tell Putin.  And the profound danger in such a system is that it’s the will and whims of one – of one person that make all the difference.  And that again underscores why it was so important for President Biden to communicate directly with Putin, as he did throughout, but it also is a constant challenge because it really is this one person.

So – but I don’t think it changed anything in the sense that we knew what we were dealing with going in.  But what we were able to do immediately, because of all of the planning, the preparation, the work that we did to bring countries around the world together on this, was as soon as the Russians pushed the button on the invasion, we acted.  We acted in defense of Ukraine with a massive effort to get into the hands of the Ukrainians the weapons that they needed to defend themselves.

In fact, that was an effort that began well before the aggression, to make sure that the Ukrainians were prepared.  If you go back to Labor Day, to September of 2021, the President did an initial what we call drawdown of U.S. defense equipment to give to the Ukrainians, and then he did another very significant one just before Christmas.  So this is months before the invasion.  The result of that was that when the Russians came in and went at Kyiv, the Ukrainians already had in their hands the very tools that they needed to fend off this Russian aggression: the Javelins, the Stingers, the anti-tank, the anti-air systems that they were so effective in using.  First and foremost it was their courage, their determination; but the fact that we again helped them prepare made a huge difference in making sure that Russia could not take over the country, and indeed, they got pushed out of – out of Kyiv and pushed back to the east.

But then this machinery kicked in with allies and partners who were also providing support to Ukraine, but also the most consequential sanctions and export controls that have ever been deployed, that are having costs on Russia that were both immediate but also are building and building and building over time.  The longer this goes on, the heavier those costs will be.  And it’s going to make it very, very hard for Russia to modernize its defense sector, to modernize its energy extraction sector, to modernize its country.  This is the path that Putin has taken the Russians down.  But that path is a path that we helped define by the work that was done before the Russian aggression and then was actually carried out once they went in.

QUESTION:   This man that you’ve defined who’s in charge of the country, who’s the one you are dealing with, who is willing to double down in a losing situation, whose troops have committed war crimes and indiscriminate firing at civilian infrastructure, who’s threatening nuclear – all of this.  I mean, is Vladimir Putin somebody who you can work with, who can resolve this conflict in Ukraine?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Fundamentally, this is going to be up to Putin and what he decides, and all that we can do is make sure that we are doing everything possible to shape the environment in which he’s making those decisions – through our support to Ukraine; through our pressure on Russia; through our efforts to bolster our own alliance; through the work that we’re doing to bring the world around; through the work that we’re doing to deal with the second and third-order effects of the Russian aggression, for example, on rising food prices that people are feeling around the world, rising energy prices that people are feeling around the world.

That’s what we can do most effectively.  It’s what we’ve done to date very effectively.  But ultimately, we can’t decide President Putin’s policies for him.  We can’t decide what he will do or what he won’t do.  What we can do is have a profound effect on how he calculates the costs and consequences of his actions.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  Good to be with you.

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-on-pbs-frontline/

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