Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

The top U.S. Diplomat in Ukraine still hopes Putin chooses diplomacy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is hard to imagine higher stakes than the ones right now for the occupant of this house we're just pulling up to.

Looks like here we are. Big gate - guard coming out.

This is the residence of the U.S. Charge d'Affaires, who is currently the top American official on the ground here in Kyiv since no ambassador has been named.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KELLY: This week, with all eyes on the Russian border, where Russian troops and tanks are massed, she's juggling talks with fellow diplomats, visiting members of Congress and reporters.

Kristina Kvien, nice to meet you. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KRISTINA KVIEN: Thank you very much. I'm very happy to be here.

KELLY: What is your current estimate of the number of Russian troops at the border?

KVIEN: It's over 100,000 now, and it is continuing to increase.

KELLY: It's going the opposite direction than you would like to see.

KVIEN: Exactly.

KELLY: There's a report today of Russia moving mobile medical units to the border. Is that new? Can you confirm that?

KVIEN: I can't confirm that. Obviously, if they were, it would be a concern because it means they're becoming even more prepared for some sort of aggressive action.

KELLY: And how concerned are you? I mean, what is the sense of imminence at this point?

KVIEN: We're very concerned. First of all, the number of troops and materiel that the Russians have at the border could allow them to do some sort of incursion at any time. So when President Biden says that action is imminent, it's because that there are enough now to do some sort of action.

KELLY: So your sense is, should Vladimir Putin make up his mind he is going to invade, he could do it with no notice.

KVIEN: Yes.

KELLY: Is the U.S. assessment that if it comes to that, Ukrainian troops will put up a fight?

KVIEN: Absolutely. Ukrainian troops are well-trained, they're well-equipped, and they're very motivated. Ukrainians in general and the Ukrainian military are very patriotic. They love Ukraine. They're willing to fight to save it, and I anticipate that they would do so.

KELLY: I ask in part because the U.S. assessment was also that troops in Afghanistan would fight.

KVIEN: I think those are two very different things. I can tell you that the Ukrainian people are united. They do not want Russia to come into their territory. They do not want to be forcibly pulled into the Russian orbit.

They want to be west. They're a European country. They want to be part of Europe. They want to support their free and open democracy, which they have now, their freedom of press. All those things they would not have if they were under Russian control.

KELLY: You're a diplomat, so let me turn you to diplomacy. President Biden and President Zelensky of Ukraine spoke yesterday. I've read the official readout, which was pretty typical - that it was a productive, forthright conversation. You will have seen one report from CNN citing a senior Ukrainian official who said the talks, according to them, did not go well and that Biden said an invasion is now virtually certain. Is that true?

KVIEN: President Zelensky himself has said that the so-called report from some senior Ukrainian official is false. It's fake information. Also, I was just with the foreign minister and a visiting delegation who also said he has looked very carefully and knows of no senior Ukrainian official who would have made these comments.

They also reiterate, in fact, that that's not how they saw the call. They saw the call as positive, had a frank exchange of views, which is what you want. You want to have a good exchange of views. It lasted an hour and 20 minutes, which means they had a very good and broad-ranging conversation.

KELLY: As a diplomat, do you honestly see a diplomatic path out of this? It seems like deadlock. The U.S. is steadfastly refusing to budge on the key Russian demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.

KVIEN: Well, perhaps because I'm a diplomat, I think honestly the only clear way to resolve this is diplomatically. And I would say that Russia has been willing to sit down at the table so far. They went through three different meetings bilateral at NATO and then at OSCE. And then Foreign Minister Lavrov met with Secretary Blinken. All of those things are good signs that they are willing to sit down and talk.

Are we willing to meet all of their demands on NATO? No, because some of those demands are frankly not theirs to make. But other things that they've asked to see, including talking about arms control within Europe, about having better transparency and letting everybody know when there are military exercises, even the placement of some missiles, all those things are things that we're willing to discuss, and I do think that it would actually address a number of the concerns that the Russians have made.

KELLY: I'm speaking to you right now sitting in a beautiful dining room that is part of your residence, the residence of the U.S. Charge d’Affaires here in Kyiv. We're not in the ambassador's residence because there is no U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Why?

KVIEN: There's a lot of reasons why. I would say, though, that the good news is I think we expect somebody soon. And until then, I'll continue working with the Ukrainians. They've been very generous in working with me as if I were ambassador, and we've had very good relations, and I'll continue to do that.

KELLY: So we should not read into this any signaling that Ukraine is not important, is not a priority for the Biden administration.

KVIEN: No, not at all. I mean, there's the - you know, in any administration when they come in, there are a lot of processes that have to be done. And of course, the Senate also has to have time to do the review process. We're hoping...

KELLY: But they can't do that when there's no nomination. This isn't to the Senate.

KVIEN: As I said, I think we'll expect some good news soon.

KELLY: So where does this go next?

KVIEN: Well, that's up to Russia. They have two paths they can take. The first, which is obviously the one that we and the Ukrainians very strongly prefer, is the path of diplomacy and discussion. The other path is the path of Russian aggression.

And make no mistake about it, if Russia takes the path of aggression, it will face extremely severe consequences immediately. We have arrayed a group of sanctions and export controls. We also have - our European allies and partners have also worked on a similar package, and we would take these together. And all told, they would have a very serious impact on Russia.

KELLY: And I guess specifically - and I hear you saying Russia has a choice, two paths, you hope they choose the diplomatic one - but there's been a lot of diplomacy these last few weeks. What specifically should we be watching for next?

KVIEN: Well, I think we're waiting for Russia's response to the ideas we put down on paper at their request.

KELLY: The Kremlin spokesperson has given not the most positive readout.

KVIEN: Well, when taking information from Russia, frankly, it's President Putin you need to listen to. And he hasn't spoken yet, so we're waiting for him to speak out. We're hoping that he does choose a diplomatic path. If he does, I think we have a lot of things we can talk about.

KELLY: Kristina Kvien, thank you.

KVIEN: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure.

KELLY: For me as well. We're speaking here at the residence of the U.S. Charge d’Affaires here in Kyiv. Kristina Kvien is the senior U.S. official on the ground here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPERFOLK'S "SLEEPING IN THE SERPENT'S MOUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.