December 5, 2022

Antony Blinken on Russian aggression for Ukraine and beyond

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visits Institute Pasteur of Dakar, in Dakar, Senegal, on November 20, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visits Institute Pasteur of Dakar, in Dakar, Senegal, on November 20, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/

The Stakes of Russian Aggression for Ukraine and Beyond

Speech: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences
Berlin, Germany
January 20, 2022

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.)

Read also, Fact vs. Fiction: Russian Disinformation on Ukraine

Fact Sheet
Office of the Spokesperson
January 20, 2022

The Department of State, working with the U.S. interagency, is aware of several Russian military and intelligence entities that are engaged in information confrontation targeting Ukraine.  These activities include the spread of disinformation and propaganda attempting to paint Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials as the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship.  Such measures are intended to influence Western countries into believing Ukraine’s behavior could provoke a global conflict and convince Russian citizens of the need for Russian military action in Ukraine.  Below are examples of Russian lies about the current crisis and its causes – and the truth.

FICTION:  Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials are the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship.[i]

FACT:  False statements from the Putin regime blame the victim, Ukraine, for Russia’s aggression.  Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, occupies Crimea, controls armed forces in the Donbas, and has now amassed more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine while President Putin threatens “retaliatory military-technical” measures if his demands are not met.

FICTION:  The West is pushing Ukraine toward a conflict.[iii]

FACT:  Moscow instigated the current crisis by placing more than 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, with no similar military activity on the Ukrainian side of the border.  Russian military and intelligence entities are targeting Ukraine with disinformation attempting to paint Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials as the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship.  The Russian government is trying to trick the world into believing Ukraine’s behavior could provoke a global conflict and to convince Russian citizens of the need for Russian military action in Ukraine.  Russia blames others for its own aggression, but it is Moscow’s responsibility to end this crisis peacefully through de-escalation and diplomacy.  Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014, occupies Crimea, and continues to fuel conflict in eastern Ukraine.  This follows a pattern of Russian behavior of undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries in the region – invading and occupying parts of Georgia in 2008, and failing to honor its 1999 commitment to withdraw its troops and munitions from Moldova, where they remain without the government’s consent.

FICTION:  Russia’s deployment of combat forces is a mere repositioning of troops on its own territory.[iii]

FACT:  Deploying more than 100,000 Russian troops, including battle-hardened combat forces and offensive weaponry with no plausible innocuous explanation, to the borders of a country that Russia has previously invaded and still occupies in places is no mere troop rotation.  It is a clear, renewed Russian threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  The buildup is paired with active disinformation measures designed to undermine confidence in the Ukrainian government and create a pretext for further Russian incursion.

FICTION:  The United States has planned chemical weapons attacks in the Donbas.[iv]

FACT:  The United States and Russia are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  In accordance with its obligations under that international agreement, the United States does not use chemical weapons.  However, the Russian government has twice used chemical weapons in recent years to attack and attempt to assassinate opponents, including on foreign soil.  Rather than fuel conflict in eastern Ukraine as Russia has done, the United States has provided more than $351 million in humanitarian assistance to those affected by Moscow’s aggression there since 2014.   Russia is using statements from high-level officials as well as disinformation and propaganda outlets to intentionally spread outright falsehoods to attempt to create a pretext for military action.

FICTION:  Russia is defending ethnic Russians in Ukraine.[v]

FACT:  There are no credible reports of any ethnic Russians or Russian speakers being under threat from the Ukrainian government.  There are, however, credible reports that in Russia-occupied Crimea and in the Donbas, Ukrainians face suppression of their culture and national identity and live in an environment of severe repression and fear.  In Crimea, Russia forces Ukrainians to assume Russian citizenship or lose their property, their access to healthcare, and their jobs.  Those who peacefully express opposition to Russia’s occupation or control face imprisonment on baseless grounds, police raids on their homes, officially sanctioned discrimination, and in some cases torture and other abuses.  Religious and ethnic minorities are investigated and prosecuted as “extremists” and “terrorists.”

FICTION:  NATO has plotted against Russia since the end of the Cold War, encircled Russia with forces, broken supposed promises not to enlarge, and threatened Russia’s security with the prospect of Ukrainian membership in the Alliance .[vi]

FACT:  NATO is a defensive alliance, whose purpose is to protect its member states.  All Allies reaffirmed at the June 2021 Brussels Summit that “the Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia.”  In fact, in 2002 President Putin himself stated “Every country has the right to choose the way it ensures its security.  This holds for the Baltic states as well.  Secondly, and more specifically, NATO is primarily a defensive bloc.”

NATO does not encircle Russia – Russia’s land border is just over 20,000 kilometers long.  Of that, less than one-sixteenth (1,215 kilometers), is shared with NATO members.  Russia has land borders with 14 countries. Only five of them are NATO members.

In response to Russia’s use of military force against its neighbors, NATO deployed four multinational battlegroups to the Baltic States and Poland in 2016.  These forces are rotational, defensive, proportionate, and requested by the host nations.  Before Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, there were no plans to deploy Allied troops to the eastern part of the Alliance.

NATO never promised not to admit new members.  NATO enlargement is not directed against Russia.  Every sovereign nation has the right to choose its own security arrangements and to enter into defensive regional alliances for purposes of self-defense.  This is a fundamental principle of European security, reflected in the UN Charter, and is one that Russia has affirmed in myriad international and regional instruments such as the Helsinki Final Act.

russia nato
Map depicting NATO borders with Russia. Boundary representation is not necessarily authoritative.

FICTION:  The West shuns diplomacy and goes straight to measures like sanctions.[vii]

FACT:  The United States and our partners are engaging in intensive diplomacy to resolve this crisis, including directly with the Russian government.  President Biden has spoken with President Putin twice and U.S. officials have held dozens of high-level meetings and phone calls with Russian and European counterparts as part of a comprehensive diplomatic effort to resolve this situation peacefully.  What remains to be seen is whether Russia is willing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the global community and take steps to de-escalate the crisis it has generated.  But we have also made clear, publicly and privately, that we and our partners will impose swift and severe economic costs on the Russian economy should President Putin choose to further invade Ukraine.

[i] “Now they tell us, war, war, war.  It seems [the Ukrainians] are preparing another operation [in Donbas] and are warning us not to get in the way, or there’ll be sanctions.” – President Putin

[ii] “We have to be mindful of our own security, not just for today and not just for next week, but in the short term.  How is Russia to live with all this?  Do we always have to stay on guard, watching what happens there and when a strike might come?  But what does it all mean if we end up in the conflict you are asking about?  This is not our choice, and we do not want this” – President Putin

[iii] ”We will decide for ourselves solely what to do on our territory.” – Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Ryabkov

[iv] “We have identified the presence of over 120 members of U.S. mercenary groups in the cities of Avdiivka and Krasny Liman to commit provocations…Tanks filled with unidentified chemical components were delivered to the cities of Avdeevka and Krasny Liman to commit provocations.” – Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

[v] “We see and know what is happening in Donbas.  It certainly looks like genocide” – President Putin

[vi] “… all this is happening against the background of active military ‘expansion’ on the territory of Ukraine by NATO countries creating a direct threat to the security of Russia.” – The Kremlin

[vii] ”[Future U.S. sanctions] would be a mistake that our ancestors would see as a grave error. A lot of mistakes have been made over the past 30 years, and we would better avoid more such mistakes in this situation.” – Presidential foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov

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