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'Putin lies,' says the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine


When I last laid eyes on Kristina Kvien, it was in somewhat surreal circumstances. This was three weeks ago exactly. We were both in the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. War felt close. Hundreds of U.S. Embassy family members had just been ordered to evacuate, and I had gone to interview her at her residence. That would be the house assigned to the U.S. charge d'affaires in Ukraine. Kristina Kvien runs the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine because, to date, President Biden has not named an ambassador to the country.

Well today, we have reached her again. Madame Charge D'affaires, good to speak to you. Glad you are safe.

KRISTINA KVIEN: Thank you, Mary Louise. It's good to talk to you again.

KELLY: So in the three weeks since I saw you, the Biden administration has closed the embassy in Kyiv, has evacuated almost all staff because of security concerns. And you and a small group have moved to Lviv in western Ukraine, where you remain the ranking American on the ground in that country?

KVIEN: That's right.

KELLY: What's it like to pick up an embassy and move it?

KVIEN: It's a lot of work. It's a lot of work. We - I think as we mentioned the last time we spoke, the embassy is large and has a lot of personnel. And so we did an ordered departure of our American staff. And most Americans did depart Ukraine and go back to Washington, D.C. A small number came here. A core staff crew came here to Lviv.

KELLY: You know, the last time I talked to you - again, three weeks ago - I asked you how many Russian troops were on the border with Ukraine, and you told me 100,000 and counting. The White House says it is now 150,000, more than 150,000 and still growing. That's a pretty dramatic increase. What is your understanding of the urgency of the threat today?

KVIEN: We're very concerned. We feel that Russia could decide to take aggressive action at any time. Not only have they amassed troops, as you said, over 150,000, and a lot of materiel. But they have also done other things that suggests that they're preparing for war.

So we are very concerned. We continue to warn U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately while conditions permit. And we're obviously watching the situation with very careful eyes.

KELLY: And it sounds like you give no credence to Russia's denials, to their protests, hey, we're not going to invade. We're actually drawing troops down, not building them up.

KVIEN: No. Frankly, President Putin lies, and he's done it before. He's doing it now. He says that they're drawing back, but we have seen absolutely no indication of that. And, in fact, we've seen him sending more troops towards the border. So his suggestion that somehow they're pulling back is simply false.

KELLY: I want to put to you a question I put yesterday to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., which is, is it clear to you after all the diplomacy of recent weeks, all the talks, what Putin wants, why he's doing this?

KVIEN: Well, I think he wants Ukraine to come back into...

KELLY: She took a deep breath, too. I mean, I know it's a tough one, but I also know the U.S. has been negotiating with Russia, you know, for weeks, for months on this, trying to tamp down the situation. And I find it interesting that that's a tough question for senior U.S. officials to answer.

KVIEN: So here's the thing. Russia says that it has concerns about its security, but that's clearly a lie. What Russia wants is to control Ukraine, to be able to decide its future path and to be able to dictate from Moscow what leaders in Kyiv decide to do. So we have given Russia quite a number of suggestions of things that we can talk about and work on that would, in fact, address the security concerns that they have raised with us. So whether it's reducing the number of ballistic missiles that are close to Russia's borders, whether it's giving more transparency about exercises that are being done near Russia - all of these things we've offered to do to address the concern they say they have.

The problem is it appears that it's not that they want to actually - to address their security concerns. They want to control Ukraine, and they know they can't do that by negotiation because NATO is united in supporting Ukraine's decisions to join whichever alliances it wishes.

KELLY: So this is interesting. If you have come to the conclusion that what Russia really wants is to control Ukraine, is there room to negotiate? I mean, the U.S. isn't going to ever agree to that. Ukraine certainly isn't ever going to agree to that.

KVIEN: Well, there lies the concern.

KELLY: Yeah. Do you think it goes beyond Ukraine? We had Fiona Hill on the program the other day, Russia expert, former National Security Council staffer. She argues that Putin wants to put NATO and the U.S. in retreat across Europe, to roll back the world order that was created after the Soviet Union collapsed. What do you think?

KVIEN: I think she's right. The stakes do go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people, as well as for the foundations of the United Nations Charter and the rule-based international order that preserves worldwide stability. The crisis directly affects every member of this council and every country in the world.

KELLY: What do you hear from your Ukrainian counterparts? What are those conversations like these days?

KVIEN: They're concerned. They share our concern. They are trying to make sure that their population doesn't panic. They also are really calling for unity. They had - on the 16, they had a day of unity where they brought together all of the various parties, including businesspeople. And these are some people who you know. Politics in Ukraine can be pretty robust. And yet politicians were willing to come together and present a unified front against Russia's aggression and against Russia's attempts to destabilize Ukraine. And that's very important. And I think it shows the maturity of the Ukrainian state.

And I think, frankly, that's one of the reasons that President Putin is so worried about Ukraine because he sees a successful democracy, a successful country that is moving west, and he fears for his own stability and safety when his people see that the freedoms that the Ukrainians enjoy are something that they would like to enjoy, as well.

KELLY: Kristina Kvien is the U.S. charge d'affaires, the senior U.S. official on the ground in Ukraine. We've been talking to her from Lviv in the west. Madame Charge D'affaires, thank you.

KVIEN: Thank you. Good to talk to you.

KELLY: And to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.