U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby’s Interview with TV Rain

TV RAIN: Mr. Kirby, thank you very much for this opportunity. There are a lot of questions, but I’ll start with the hot news. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, has announced the withdrawal, albeit a temporary suspension, as he put it, of the suspension of the strategic offensive arms treaty. Do you think this is a bluff or a demonstration of the seriousness of his intentions?

KIRBY: He’s threatened to do that before. We are still analyzing his statements and trying to get a better understanding of what he meant when he said that Russia was suspending its participation in the Treaty. Yesterday a person from the Kremlin administration commented on his statement and seemed to be trying to walk it back. Anyway, we are analyzing his statement. But in any case, I want to say that President Biden said from the beginning that the Strategic Arms Treaty is very important to us and from the beginning of his presidency Biden said a lot about how important it was for us to extend that treaty. So certainly we would like to see the treaty continue. And what’s more, we would like to extend it, especially now when there’s a very tense relationship between Russia and the United States, it’s in this kind of tense environment that these kinds of treaties, arms control treaties, are needed. It ensures the security of both of our countries. So we will analyze again what Putin meant when he said that Russia would suspend its participation in the Treaty. Will Russia really suspend its participation? It will refuse to participate in the treaty. But in any case it will be better for both our countries.

TV RAIN: In that case, can we expect, for example, that there will be or have been proposals from Washington for direct negotiations with Russia to resolve this problem?

KIRBY: I don’t have any direct discussions on New START to speak on with you today. We have obviously tried to continue to have discussions inside the architecture of New START. You might recall, many weeks ago the Russians postponed the Bilateral Consultative Commission which is the BCC which is part of New START. We were publicly concerned, we were very disappointed by that decision to suspend or to postpone those talks. So there haven’t been any talks inside the framework of New START. Unfortunately, on the Russian side, we would obviously like to get the BCC back and going, we’d like to have those conversations because we believe again, that it’s important to move forward on New START.

TV RAIN: Another very important piece of recent news. Well, at least it seemed significant to me: the new U.S. ambassador was summoned at the Russian Foreign Ministry and demanded that weapons and military personnel be removed from Ukraine. What will be your reaction, Mr. Kirby, given that tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of this terrible war?

KIRBY: Obviously nobody wants to see this anniversary come and go, that’s for sure. But this could end today, and the way it could end today is if Mr. Putin withdrew his troops from Ukraine and stop this illegal unprovoked invasion of another neighboring sovereign state. Now look, the United States doesn’t have US troops inside Ukraine, except for a very small number that we got at the embassy for appropriate attache and security purposes, but there’s no US troops in Ukraine. So that’s just driving a stake through a straw man in terms of the Russian claim. The weapons, the systems, the capabilities that the United States and so many other countries, – more than 50 other nations are providing weapons and capabilities to Ukraine. – is to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion and that support is going to continue.

TV RAIN: If you’re talking about continued support, then naturally the question arises about the fighter jets that Ukraine is waiting for. Do you have an answer to the question of when Ukraine will receive fighter jets from the United States and other NATO partners?

KIRBY: The President has already spoken to us in terms of the F 16. I don’t have anything to add today on this. I would just tell you that we continue to work in lockstep with Ukrainians, literally speaking to them every day, including last week, about their capabilities, their needs going forward. What we’re focusing on right now is the kinds of capabilities we believe they’re going to need in the weeks and months ahead as the weather improves, and we can expect offensive operations on both sides to pick up and so it’s armored capabilities, its air defense, its artillery. Those are the things that we’re most focused on right now. If another nation certainly wants to provide fighter aircraft to Ukraine to Mr. Zelenskyy clearly that’s well within the their dictates and their choice. Those are sovereign decisions and we fully respect that.

TV RAIN: You mentioned direct talks with President Zelenskyy. Mr. Biden’s unexpected visit to Kiev It really was a big surprise to everyone who follows this topic, the war that has been going on for a year in Ukraine. Surely it was a surprise for Moscow as well. Mr. Kirby, have you thought about how Russia reacts to such a gesture from the White House? Not just support, not just statements, not just a meeting, but a visit during a time of war to the capital of a state that Russia was actually going to invade, if not wipe off the face of the earth.

KIRBY: There’s no question that this was a trip that had risks inherent to it. And there was a lot of planning to go into making sure that we could mitigate those risks as best as possible and the President’s team presented him with a plan late last week that they believe to have mitigated those risks to an acceptable level. The President agreed, and the President decided to make this trip. He made that decision last Friday in the evening timeframe, but again, knowledgeable that there were some risks to going to a wartime capital in country where there is not a US military footprint to help with the protection of the President. But he believed it was that important at this critical time as we now approach the anniversary of this war to make it clear to President Zelinskyy and to the Ukrainian people, that the United States stands with them and that our support with them will continue, as he has said, for as long as it takes. Now there was some prior notification to the Kremlin about this trip. I won’t get into the details of when or how that was transmitted to them. But there was some prior notification, just prior to the president arriving in Ukraine so that so that they were aware.

TV RAIN: They knew about the visit of the President of the United States to Ukraine. And in that sense, I would like to conclude that, at least for now, Russia doesn’t want nuclear escalation and a direct confrontation with the United States of America. And yet, Mr. Kirby, I asked you about this the last time we talked in Washington and I’ll ask you now. In your view, how high is the threat of nuclear escalation, both with the withdrawal from the treaty on strategic offensive weapons and with the rhetoric that we hear from Moscow, all the time from different people. These are regular threats, the use of extreme measures. How do you look at this, how close are we to a catastrophic situation?

KIRBY: Again, I think we need to be careful drawing too many conclusions from the announcement that he’s going to suspend New START. That, first of all, we’re not sure exactly what that means and it doesn’t have to mean that some sort of nuclear activity is now in the offing because he’s decided to pull out of the New START. The New START is about limits and inspections, right kind of dialogue around our nuclear arsenals. That’s a separate issue than these threats and the rhetoric that we keep hearing out of Russian leaders with respect to the use of WMD – weapons of mass destruction to include nuclear weapons. We have no choice but to take that rhetoric seriously. It would be irresponsible if we didn’t. And so we monitor Russian nuclear capabilities as best we can. And their moves in that regard as best we can. What I can tell you is we have seen no indication that Mr. Putin is moving in the direction of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine or elsewhere. And I can tell you that while we also monitor our own strategic deterrence posture as best as possible, and we haven’t had to make any changes. We’re comfortable with our nuclear deterrent posture as it sits right now. Again, we never take that for granted. We’re monitoring as best we can. But we just haven’t seen anything out of the Russian side that will cause us to change our calculus.

TV RAIN: What do you know about Russia’s plans for Moldova, Mr. Kirby?

KIRBY: We talked about this a week or so ago, I mean, we saw the concerns expressed by the Moldovan Moldovan government about potential election interference. That’s certainly is part of the Russian playbook. We’re in no position to refute the very real possibility that they did try to interfere in the electoral politics in Moldova. This is this is again a piece of Russia’s ability or trying to do to improve their ability to interfere with democracy in the region. And that’s something we all have to take seriously. We all have to be on guard for, we all have to be vigilant.

TV RAIN: In your estimation, could the war in Ukraine go beyond the borders of Ukraine and spill over into Moldova? Is there such a danger at the moment?

KIRBY: I think that’s something we all have to watch closely. I couldn’t be perfectly predictive here and tell you that it’s going to happen or what the chances are. Mr. Putin is deeply deeply involved in Ukraine right now. He’s got some 80% of his ground forces devoted to the war in Ukraine. And he has not achieved any of his strategic objectives over the course of this last year. So I can’t tell you for sure what his plans might be in terms of moving this war outside Ukraine. It’s something obviously we’re all watching very, very closely.

TV RAIN: Mr. Kirby, I can’t help but ask you this question. There has been a lot of discussion recently about the U.S. position on theoretical strikes on Russian Federation territory, strikes by Ukraine on Russian Federation territory, as well as on the territory of Crimea, which Russia considers its own. Although it is clear that the internationally recognized borders of Crimea remain Ukrainian. In short, do you have an answer to the question, did the U.S. give the green light for these strikes?

KIRBY: We do not encourage or enable Ukrainian attacks inside Russia. Point 1.
Point 2: Crimea is Ukraine. We do not recognize the Russian illegal occupation of Crimea. It is Ukrainian territory and we want to see all of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders restored, we want to see their sovereignty respected. Mr. Putin could easily do that by pulling all US troops outside of Ukraine, where they don’t belong in the first place. Now, when it comes to Crimea, we’re not dictating to President Zelenskyy what what operations he conducts inside his own country. He gets to determine how he uses his military. He’s the commander in chief, he gets to determine what targets he’s gonna go after, and whatnot. We give the best information that we can when he asks for intelligence that can help him improve his ability to defend his country. Clearly, we’re providing an awful lot of security assistance in the form of weapons and platforms and ammunition to him to be able to do to do that, but ultimately, these are his decisions. And we respect that.

TV RAIN: Will the moment ever come… I understand that the United States declares repeatedly that they will support Ukraine for as long as necessary. At the same time we see press reports that U.S. resources may run out at some point. Could that moment come when it will run out of resources to support Ukraine?

KIRBY: We have funding thanks to the Congress of the United States. We have funding that will help get us through this, the remainder of this fiscal year. And if we feel like at some point later on, we need to go back and ask for more support from Congress, we’ll do that. We’re just not at that stage right now. We have enjoyed terrific bipartisan support, and I might actually actually add bicameral support from both the Senate and the House. And even with New House leadership. If you just listen to Speaker McCarthy and Chairman McCaul who is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, you know, they have all expressed the concerted intent to continue that support for as long as it takes. So we’re not taking anything for granted, of course, and we would like nothing more than to not have to be sitting here having this interview a year from now, looking back on yet a second year of war. We’d all like it to end just as soon as possible. But we just can’t be perfectly predictive. We have terrific support on Capitol Hill. We do not take that for granted. There’s no blank checks. We’re constantly consulting with Congress as we move forward. And again, we feel like we’ve got enough funding here to get us through the rest of this year. And we’ll see where that takes us.

TV RAIN: In closing, I would like to ask you, looking back on this year, this past horrible, monstrous year that has changed us all so much. Do you believe, Mr. Kirby, as someone who does a lot of work on this conflict, who knows a lot about this war, a lot, and about how Russia’s leadership behaves and how Russian society reacts. Do you believe that Russia has a democratic future, that Russia has a future in which it can establish relations with Western nations, including the United States with NATO and, of course, with Ukraine, as you see it? When we meet a year from now, can we even talk about this?

KIRBY: Yeah, that’s really a question much better put to the Russian people, not to me, it needs to be up to the Russian people. We aren’t trying to drive political dynamics inside Russia. What we are trying to do is support Ukraine in this war that they did not ask for, did not deserve, that completely illegal and an unprovoked and our focus is on helping Ukraine continue to succeed on the battlefield so that Mr. Zelenskyy can succeed at the negotiating table and also to make sure that we are continuing to support the Ukrainian people whose homes have been destroyed and cities leveled and lives lost and children now taken from the bosom of their family and, and shipped off into Russia. I mean, it’s just atrocious. It’s totally brutal, what Mr. Putin is doing. And it’s clear to us that he has not been completely honest with the Russian people about the cost that he is incurring to his country’s coffers, but also to, to the men of his of his military. So again, all of that’s really going to have to be a discussion for the Russian people to determine.

TV RAIN: I can’t help but end by asking: do you see any prospects for negotiations in the near future? Could it happen that Zelenskyy will sit down with Putin at the same table to discuss a possible agreement? Well, this is theoretically imaginable.

KIRBY: President Zelenskyy has said recently that he is not in a position where he’s ready to do that. And you can hardly blame him for that. I mean, given that the Russians are still sending cruise missiles into Kyiv, to other cities around the country, knocking out the power and turn it off the heat and trying to make life even more miserable than it already is for so many Ukrainians. And of course, he continues to fight in the Donbas in this town called Bakhmut. So, Mr. Putin has shown no inclination that he is willing to negotiate in good faith or negotiate at all. In fact, quite the contrary, he’s showing every indication that he wants to continue this war, and he’s going to use the intervening weeks here in the wintertime to re-equip, rearm and regroup and potentially try some offensive operations here once the weather improves. So you can hardly blame Mr. Zelenskyy for not believing that “You know, now is the time to sit down at the negotiating table”. We’d all like that to be the case. We would love this war to end immediately. And certainly if you can’t end precipitously by Mr. Putin doing the right thing and pulling his troops out, we certainly want to see it in at the negotiating table with President Zelenskyy feeling confident with the wind at his back and in the strength of his positions and his convictions in those negotiations. And that’s what we’re trying to do. Help them succeed on the battlefield so that if and when he’s ready to negotiate, he can he can succeed at the table

TV RAIN: Thank you very much for this conversation and I hope to see you when there is good news.

KIRBY: Yeah, that would be great. Thank you.