The Stakes of Russian Aggression for Ukraine and Beyond
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon. First, let me say how honored I am by the presence of so many friends, colleagues, leaders across different communities here in Germany, and also leaders in the partnership that links our two countries. I’m grateful to all of you for being here, grateful for this opportunity as well to be at the Academy of Sciences and Humanities. I heard a little bit from Sigmar about the history, briefly walked the hallways, and I very much appreciate this hospitality.
But it’s an institution with an extraordinary tradition of scholarship, discovery stretching back more than 300 years. And I understand that, among other luminaries, Albert Einstein was a member here, so I should probably let you know that my remarks today will include very little about astrophysics, which will be to everyone’s benefit.
I want to thank all the institutions that are cohosting us, including Atlantik-Brücke. By the way, my own history with the Brücke, the bridge, goes back well more than 20 years. I remember very well spending time with visiting colleagues from Germany during the Clinton administration. But it’s pleasure to be with you, the German Marshall Fund, the Aspen Institute, the American Council on Germany. And I can’t not acknowledge a great friend, colleague going back to my university days, the Clinton administration, the Obama administration, Dan Benjamin. It’s wonderful to see you as well.
Over the years, these organizations have helped build, strengthen, and deepen the ties between our countries. One of the markers of a strong democracy is a robust, independent civil society, and I’m grateful to our cohosts for their contributions to democracy on both sides of the Atlantic and, again, for bringing us together today.
So as Sigmar said, and as all of you know, I have come to Berlin at a moment of great urgency for Europe, for the United States, and, I would argue, for the world. Russia is continuing to escalate its threat toward Ukraine. We’ve seen that again in just the last few days with increasingly bellicose rhetoric, building up its forces on Ukraine’s borders, including now in Belarus.
Russia has repeatedly turned away from agreements that have kept the peace across the continent for decades. And it continues to take aim at NATO, a defensive, voluntary alliance that protects nearly a billion people across Europe and North America, and at the governing principles of international peace and security that we all have a stake in defending.
Those principles, established in the wake of two world wars and a cold war, reject the right of one country to change the borders of another by force; to dictate to another the policies it pursues or the choices it makes, including with whom to associate; or to exert a sphere of influence that would subjugate sovereign neighbors to its will.
To allow Russia to violate those principles with impunity would drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent and this city were divided in two, separated by no man’s lands, patrolled by soldiers, with the threat of all-out war hanging over everyone’s heads. It would also send a message to others around the world that these principles are expendable, and that, too, would have catastrophic results.
That’s why the United States and our allies and partners in Europe have been so focused on what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s bigger than a conflict between two countries. It’s bigger than Russia and NATO. It’s a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action.
Here today, among this rapidly unfolding situation, I’d like to try to cut through to the facts of the matter.
To begin, Russia claims that this crisis is about its national defense, about military exercises, weapons systems, and security agreements. Now, if that’s true, we can resolve things peacefully and diplomatically. There are steps we can take – the United States, Russia, the countries of Europe – to increase transparency, reduce risks, advance arms control, build trust. We’ve done this successfully in the past and we can do it again.
And, indeed, it’s what we set out to do last week in the discussions that we put forward at the Strategic Stability Dialogue between the United States and Russia, at the NATO-Russia Council, and at the OSCE. At those meetings and many others, the United States and our European allies and partners have repeatedly reached out to Russia with offers of diplomacy in a spirit of reciprocity.
So far, our readiness to engage in good faith has been rebuffed, because in truth this crisis is not primarily about weapons or military bases. It’s about the sovereignty and self-determination of Ukraine and all states. And at its core, it’s about Russia’s rejection of a post-Cold War Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.
For all our profound concerns with Russia’s aggression, provocations, political interference – including against the United States – the Biden administration has made clear our willingness to pursue a more stable, predictable relationship; to negotiate arms control agreements, like the renewal of New START, and launch our Strategic Stability Dialogue; to pursue common action to address the climate crisis and work in common cause to revive the Iran nuclear deal. And we appreciate how Russia has engaged with us in these efforts.
And despite Moscow’s reckless threats against Ukraine and dangerous military mobilization – despite its obfuscation and disinformation – the United States, together with our allies and partners, have offered a diplomatic path out of this contrived crisis. That’s why I’ve returned to Europe – Ukraine yesterday, Germany here today, Switzerland tomorrow, where I’ll meet with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and once again seek diplomatic solutions.
The United States would greatly prefer those to be the case, and certainly prefer diplomacy to the alternatives. We know our partners in Europe feel the same way. So do people and families across the continent, because they know that they will bear the greatest burden if Russia rejects diplomacy. And we look to countries beyond Europe, to the international community as a whole to make clear the costs to Russia if it seeks conflict, and to stand up for all the principles that protect all of us.
So let’s look plainly at what’s at stake right now, who will actually be affected, and who is responsible. In 1991, millions of Ukrainians went to the polls to say that Ukraine would no longer be ruled by autocrats but would govern itself. In 2014, the Ukrainian people stood up to defend their choice for a democratic and European future. They’ve been living under the shadow of Russian occupation in Crimea and aggression in Donbas ever since.
The war in eastern Ukraine, orchestrated by Russia with proxies that it leads, trains, supplies, and finances – well, that’s killed more than 14,000 Ukrainians. Thousands more have been wounded. Entire towns have been destroyed. Nearly one and a half million Ukrainians have fled their homes to escape the violence. For Ukrainians in Crimea and the Donbas, the repression is acute. Russia blocks Ukrainians from crossing the line of contact, cutting them off from the rest of the country. Hundreds of Ukrainians are being held as political prisoners by Russia and its proxies. Hundreds of families don’t know if their loved ones are alive or dead.
And the humanitarian needs are growing. Nearly 3 million Ukrainians, including a million elderly people and half a million children, urgently need food, shelter, and other life-saving assistance. But of course, even Ukrainians who live far away from the fighting are affected by it. This is their country; these are their fellow citizens. And nowhere in Ukraine are people free from Russia’s malign activities. Moscow has sought to undermine Ukraine’s democratic institutions, interfered in Ukraine’s politics and elections, blocked energy and commerce to intimidate Ukraine’s leaders and pressure its citizens, used propaganda and disinformation to sow mistrust, launched cyber attacks on the country’s critical infrastructure. The campaign to destabilize Ukraine has been relentless.
And now Russia is poised to go even further. The human toll of renewed aggression by Russia would be by many magnitudes higher than what we’ve seen to date. Russia justifies its actions by claiming that Ukraine somehow poses a threat to its security. This turns reality on its head. Whose troops are surrounding whom? Which country has claimed another’s territory through force? Which military is many times the size of the other? Which country has nuclear weapons? Ukraine isn’t the aggressor here; Ukraine is just trying to survive. No one should be surprised if Russia instigates a provocation or incident and then tries to use it to justify military intervention, hoping that by the time the world realizes the ruse it’ll be too late.
There’s been a lot of speculation about President Putin’s true intentions, but we don’t actually have to guess. He’s told us repeatedly. He’s laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn’t believe that Ukraine is a sovereign nation. He said it flat out to President Bush in 2008, and I quote, “Ukraine isn’t a real country.” He said in 2020, and I quote, “Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same people.” Just a few days ago, the Russian ministry of foreign affairs tweeted in celebration of the anniversary of Ukraine and Russia’s unification in the year 1654. That’s a pretty unmistakable message this week of all weeks.
And so the stakes for Ukraine come more fully into view. This is not only about a possible invasion and war. It’s about whether Ukraine has a right to exist as a sovereign nation. It’s about whether Ukraine has a right to be a democracy.
This hasn’t stopped with Ukraine. All the former Soviet socialist republics became sovereign nations in 1990 and 1991. One of them is Georgia. Russia invaded it in 2008. Thirteen years later, nearly 300,000 Georgians are still displaced from their homes. Another is Moldova. Russia maintains troops and munitions there against the will of its people. If Russia invades and occupies Ukraine, what’s next? Certainly, Russia’s efforts to turn its neighbors into puppet states, to control their activities, to crack down on any spark of democratic expression will intensify. Once the principles of sovereignty and self-determination are thrown out, you revert to a world in which the rules we shaped together over decades erode and then vanish.
And that emboldened some governments to do whatever it takes to get whatever they want, even if that means shutting down another country’s internet, cutting off heating oil in the dead of winter, or sending in tanks – all tactics Russia has used against other countries in recent years. That’s why governments and citizens everywhere should care about what’s happening in Ukraine. It may seem like a distant regional dispute or yet another example of Russian bullying, but at stake, again, are principles that have made the world safer and more stable for decades.
Now alternatively, Russia says the problem is NATO. On its face, that’s absurd. NATO didn’t invade Georgia; NATO didn’t invade Ukraine. Russia did. NATO is a defensive Alliance with no aggressive intent toward Russia. To the contrary, efforts by NATO to engage Russia have gone on for years, and unfortunately, been rejected. For example, in the NATO Russia Founding Act, which was intended to build trust and increase consultations and cooperation, NATO pledged to significantly reduce its military strength in Eastern Europe. And it’s done just that.
Russia pledged to exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe. Again, instead, it invaded two countries. Russia says that NATO is encircling Russia. In fact, only 6 percent of Russia’s borders touch NATO countries. Compare that to Ukraine, which is now genuinely being encircled by Russian troops. In the Baltic countries and Poland, there are around 5,000 NATO troops who aren’t from those countries, and their presence is rotational, not permanent. Russia has put at least 20 times as many on Ukraine’s borders.
President Putin says that NATO is, and I quote, “parking missiles on the porch of our house.” But it’s Russia that has developed ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles that can reach Germany and nearly all NATO European territory despite Russia being a party to the INF Treaty that prohibited these missiles. In fact, Russia’s violation led to the termination of that treaty, which has left us all less safe.
It’s also worth noting that though Russia is not a member of NATO, it, like many non-NATO countries, has actually benefited from the peace, stability, and prosperity that NATO has helped make possible. Many of us remember vividly the tensions and fears of the Cold War era. The steps that the Soviet Union and the West took toward each other over those years to build understanding and establish agreed-upon rules for how our countries would act were welcomed by people everywhere because they turned down the heat and made military conflict less likely. Those breakthroughs are the result of a great deal of hard work by people on all sides. Now we’re seeing that hard work come undone.
For example, in 1975, all OSCE countries, including Russia, signed the Helsinki Final Act, which established 10 guiding principles for international behavior, including respect for national sovereignty, refraining from the threat or use of force, the inviolability of frontiers, the territorial integrity of states, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and non-intervention in internal affairs. Russia has since violated every single one of those principles in Ukraine and has repeatedly made clear its disdain for them.
In 1990, the OSCE countries, including Russia, agreed to the Vienna Document, a set of confidence- and security-building measures to increase transparency and predictability about military activities, including military exercises. Now, Russia selectively follows those provisions. For example, it holds large-scale military exercises that it claims are exempt from the notification and observation requirements of the Vienna Document because they’re conducted without prior notice to the troops involved. Last fall, Russia conducted military exercises in Belarus with more than 100,000 troops. It’s impossible that those exercises were no notice. And Moscow has failed to provide information on its military forces in Georgia, to notify the OSCE of its massive troop buildup around Ukraine last spring, to answer Ukraine’s questions about what it was doing, all of which are required under that 1990 agreement.
In 1994, in a pact known as the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United States and Britain committed to, and I quote, “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine and to refrain from the threat or use of force against” the country. Those promises helped persuade Ukraine to give up their nuclear arsenal inherited after the dissolution of the USSR and which was then the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Well, we need only ask the people living in Crimea and Donbas what happened to those pledges.
There are many more examples I could cite. They all support the same conclusion: One country has repeatedly gone back on its commitments and ignored the very rules it agreed to despite others working hard to bring it along at every step. That country is Russia. Of course, Russia is entitled to protect itself, and the United States and Europe are prepared to discuss Russia’s security concerns and how we can address them in a reciprocal way. Russia has concerns about its security and actions that it says the United States and Europe and NATO are taking that somehow threaten that security. We have profound concerns about the actions that Russia is taking that threaten our security. We can talk about all of that. But we will not treat the principles of sovereignty or territorial integrity enshrined in the UN Charter, affirmed by the UN Security Council, as negotiable.
And if I could speak to the Russian people, I would say to them you deserve to live with security and dignity like all people everywhere, and no one – not Ukraine, not the United States, not NATO or its members – is seeking to jeopardize that. But what really risks your security is a pointless war with your neighbors in Ukraine with all the costs that come with it, most of all for the young people who will risk or even give their lives to it.
At a time when COVID is running throughout the planet, we have a climate crisis, we need to rebuild the global economy, all of which demand so much of our attention and resources, is this really what you need – a violent conflict that will likely drag on? Would that actually make your lives more secure, more prosperous, more full of opportunity? And just think of what a great nation like Russia could achieve if it dedicated its resources, especially the remarkable talent of its human resources, its people, toward the most significant challenges of our time. We in the United States, our partners in Europe, we would welcome that.
Tomorrow I’ll meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov and I’ll urge that Russia find its way back to the agreements it swore to over the decades and to working with the United States and our allies and partners in Europe to write a future that can ensure our mutual security but also make clear that that possibility will be extinguished by Russian aggression against Ukraine, which would also do the very thing Moscow complains about: bolster the NATO defensive alliance.
These are difficult issues we’re facing. Resolving them won’t happen quickly. I certainly don’t expect we’ll solve them in Geneva tomorrow. But we can advance our mutual understanding. And that, combined with de-escalation of Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders – that can turn us away from this crisis in the weeks ahead. At the same time, the United States will continue to work with our allies and partners in NATO, the European Union, the OSCE, the G7, the United Nations, throughout the international community to make clear that there are two paths before Russia: the path to diplomacy that can lead to peace and security; and the path of aggression that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences, international condemnation. The United States and our allies will continue to stand with Ukraine and to stand ready to meet Russia on either path.
It’s no accident that I’m offering these thoughts here in Berlin. Perhaps no place in the world experienced the divisions of the Cold War more than this city. Here, President Kennedy declared all free people citizens of Berlin. Here, President Reagan urged Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall. It seems a time that President Putin wants to return to that era. We hope not. But if he chooses to do so, he’ll be met with the same determination, the same unity that past generations of leaders and citizens brought to bear to advance peace, to advance freedom, to advance human dignity across Europe and around the world.
Thanks so much for listening. (Applause.)