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U.S. Ambassador to the UN on latest diplomatic efforts in Ukraine-Russia crisis

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has not been getting much sleep. Early today, she briefed reporters to convey, as she put it, the gravity of the situation in Ukraine. She said that overnight, after a bunch of conversations with the White House, the National Security Council and the State Department, she asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to come to New York today to speak directly to the Security Council to make clear to the world that the U.S. is doing, quote, "everything, everything we can to prevent a war." So Blinken came. Here's part of what he said today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We have information that indicates Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians. And here today, we are laying it out in great detail with the hope that by sharing what we know with the world, we can influence Russia to abandon the path of war while there's still time.

KELLY: While there's still time. Well, we go live now to the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York, across the street from the U.N., to speak with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. Ambassador, welcome.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. It's great here.

KELLY: We're glad to have you with us. What is the latest U.S. assessment of how much time, of how likely, how imminent a Russian invasion might be?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, we have been very clear that everything that Putin needs on the ground is there for an imminent invasion of Ukraine. What that means in terms of time, we can't say. It depends on Putin himself. This is...

KELLY: But if I had been talking to you 24, 36 hours ago, we might be having a little bit of a different conversation. It looked like...

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don't think so.

KELLY: ...Maybe things might be turning a corner. No?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I don't think so. We have not seen any evidence that the Russians are pulling troops, despite what they have said themselves in the press. They still have 150,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. They are still engaged in a disinformation campaign to undermine the Ukrainian government. And they are still threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine and the lives of untold people.

So I think it's the same that we've seen. And we're prepared for the eventuality of an invasion, but we are going to continue to lean in aggressively on the diplomatic front and try to find a way forward.

KELLY: OK. So let me just run through a couple points. One, it sounds like you just confirmed the current U.S. estimate stands at more than 150,000 forces and growing, not shrinking, at Ukraine's borders.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That's correct.

KELLY: OK. It sounds like this assessment is based on, you know, what you can see of those troop movements, also based on intelligence. We just heard Secretary Blinken say, quote, "we have information," and he gave a good bit of it today. He gave a good deal of detail at the U.N. today on how the U.S. expects things may unfold. He talked about Russian bombs dropping across Ukraine, about cyberattacks. And he said Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets, including the capital, Kyiv. Am I right to hear that what the U.S. is currently expecting is a full-on military assault?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Everything that we see on the ground now points in that direction. But Russia still has a choice to choose diplomacy and to choose sitting at the negotiating table to work out their security concerns and the security concerns of the Ukrainians. So yes, everything is in place for that kind of attack. And we think we need to be open and transparent with the world, with the Security Council, with American citizens so that we can be prepared for such an attack. But truthfully, if this doesn't happen, we feel that would be the greatest story here.

KELLY: Yeah. I have to push you, Ambassador, on the question of U.S. credibility because the U.S. has been warning - President Biden has warned that an invasion might be imminent. The U.S. was warning it could come yesterday, that was the day. It did not. But why should the rest of the world trust America's word on this now?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We never warned it was going to necessarily happen yesterday. What we've been saying...

KELLY: U.S. officials briefed that yesterday, Wednesday the 16, was the earliest it might begin.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes. We briefed that it could happen any day, and we still believe it could happen any day. But it's in President Putin's hands on what day it will actually happen. I'd like to think that our diplomacy, our exposure of this has delayed their planning.

And we're going to keep leaning in and keep pushing to delay their moving in this direction and hopefully come to the negotiating table. As you heard, Secretary Blinken invited Foreign Minister Lavrov to Geneva to sit down over the negotiating table. And we hope that they accept that and accept diplomacy over confrontation.

KELLY: I was going to ask, have you heard back from Russia on whether they will accept that invitation?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have not heard back.

KELLY: OK.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The letter went out today, and we got the letter this morning from the Russians, their response to the security letter that we sent to them. So we're hopeful that they will accept this invitation. It's the only way forward.

KELLY: One more question on these U.S. warnings. I hear you arguing, look, the U.S. warned. Russia didn't attack. That means diplomacy is working so far. But it's not just Russia that says these warnings amount to something like hysteria. It's Ukraine. You've seen President Zelenskyy of Ukraine saying this drumbeat of warnings from the U.S., from Western media, that it will only create panic and that it is tanking his economy, that investors are fleeing, to which you say what, ambassador?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I say that we have had intense discussions with the Ukrainians. And the Ukrainian ambassador was in the Security Council and gave a strong statement today warning the Russians of these attacks. So the - President Zelenskyy has to speak to his citizens in the terms that he needs to speak to his citizens. But we've had very, very intense discussions with him. I've had discussions with the Ukrainian permanent representative ambassador here in New York, and we're on the same sheet of music here.

KELLY: You said diplomacy is the way forward. Russia again said today U.S. proposals so far have not addressed their core concerns. What diplomacy is the U.S. offering? Where might these talks - if Sergey Lavrov accepts Secretary Blinken's invitation, where might they go beyond the U.S. message saying, don't invade, don't invade or there will be consequences?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The negotiating table will determine where we go in the talks and how we address their security concerns, our security concerns, our European allies' security concerns. I can't preview what we will offer on the table or what they will accept at the negotiating table, but I know that sitting at the negotiating table, we can find a way forward that will not lead to the loss of thousands of lives and a humanitarian crisis beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

KELLY: We have less than a minute left. But is it clear to you after all the diplomacy so far, all the talks, what Vladimir Putin wants?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I - again, I can't speculate what - on what President Putin wants. I know that what he has indicated is he does not want Ukraine to join NATO. And NATO has an open-door policy. It's an open-door policy that we support.

KELLY: Right.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We support the rights of Ukraine to become a member of any organization that it...

KELLY: OK.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: ...Wishes to join.

KELLY: Linda Thomas-Greenfield - she is the United States ambassador to the United Nations. We thank you so much for your time.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "FANSHAWE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.