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U.S. diplomat talks path forward with Russia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In mid-January, Ambassador Michael Carpenter warned that the drumbeat of war is sounding loud as Russia builds up forces on Ukraine's border. Since then, efforts at diplomacy seem to have gone nowhere. The U.S. has sent troops to Eastern Europe, and there looks to be a real threat that the European continent could be plunged into war.

Ambassador Carpenter represents the United States at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and he joins us from Vienna. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL CARPENTER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Does this situation today look more or less dangerous than it did when you said on January 13 that the drumbeat of war is sounding loud?

CARPENTER: Well, frankly, it does look very dangerous from where I sit. We have not only tens of thousands - well, actually, well over 100,000 combat-ready troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border, but now we have potentially up to 30,000 troops deployed to Belarus on the border as well. And we're seeing very sophisticated weapons, artillery pieces, electronic warfare systems, even short-range ballistic missiles being arrayed on the border and medical supplies like blood being also taken to the border, all of which suggests that there could be an invasion.

Now, we don't know what President Putin's calculations are, so I can't tell you what's going to happen next or when it might happen. But just looking at the military capability, it's a very, very scary picture, frankly.

SHAPIRO: When you've spoken about the stakes here, you've said the West cannot negotiate away key principles like the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations. You said Russia is proposing a slippery slope toward a world order where might makes right. But after Russia seized Crimea and invaded Georgia and committed other acts of aggression, isn't the world already well on the way down that slippery slope where nations cannot be assured of their territorial integrity?

CARPENTER: Well, look. That's precisely why we have to double down on the core principles of what we call the rules-based international order, which Russia has violated twice egregiously in the last decade and a half. We have to demonstrate that it is unacceptable and that there will be these long-term consequences from those actions.

But one thing I would like to say in this context is that while Russia has violated the rules of the international order in both Georgia and Ukraine, it has also suffered, to a certain degree, a strategic defeat in both cases because you have a Georgian population and a Ukrainian population that are more determined than ever to join Euro-Atlantic structures, meaning NATO and the EU.

SHAPIRO: You're describing that as a sort of defeat, but if Putin saw it that way, it stands to reason he would not feel comfortable amassing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine's border.

CARPENTER: Well, again, look. This is why we have to sharpen the choices for the Kremlin going forward. They have to see that there are two paths - one that imposes massive costs and consequences that will be greater, frankly, than those that were imposed in 2008 or 2014 and then the other path, the one that we much prefer, one of de-escalation and diplomacy, where, potentially, we can agree on new forms of arms control that will make the Russians feel safer and us feel safer.

SHAPIRO: Now, part of the purpose of NATO is to present a unified response to external threats. But this week, Putin had what appeared to be a very friendly meeting at the Kremlin with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Hungary is a NATO member. Does that suggest that Putin can divide Europe and weaken attempts to form a united front against him?

CARPENTER: I think there's no doubt that that's exactly what he's trying to do. He's looking for daylight amongst NATO members. Ideally, his - I think his strategic goal would be to try to decouple the United States from our European allies.

But I'll tell you what. Sitting here at the OSCE and talking to all the other 56 participating states here, I have never encountered more unity in terms of participating states believing that what Russia is potentially about to do is just beyond the pale.

SHAPIRO: Do you include Hungary in that?

CARPENTER: Well, I think Hungary, like all other participating states, would really feel threatened if Russia were to violate Ukraine's borders yet again. Now, for his own political reasons, Prime Minister Orban has sought common cause with President Putin. Part of it has to do with gas supplies. Part of it has to do with, frankly, similar crony capitalist systems that both countries have. But at the end of the day, I think Hungary, as a NATO ally, does not want to see borders violated.

SHAPIRO: You represented the U.S. a few weeks ago in a meeting between Russia and the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In that meeting, did you feel like you were negotiating with a good-faith partner on the other side of the table? Or does the future seem already written?

CARPENTER: Look. We have no choice but to pursue the diplomatic path, and diplomats, by necessity, have to plow forward even in the most difficult of circumstances. I don't know if they're going to choose that path. I do not know what is in President Putin's head. But we, on our end, will spare no effort to make sure that we have offered that diplomatic outreach and possibility of lowering tensions.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Michael Carpenter represents the United States at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Thank you so much for your time today.

CARPENTER: Great. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.