The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcript: World Stage: Ukraine with Dame Karen Pierce, British Ambassador to the United States

MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist at The Post.

My guest today, a day when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded his neighbor, Ukraine, is the voice of the British government in Washington, Ambassador Karen Pierce.

Madam Ambassador, thank you very much for joining us today.

AMB. PIERCE: Thank you, David. Nice to see you.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Madam Ambassador, you have been meeting today with some of the most senior members of your government, presumably by video, and I want to ask you what your latest information is about what's happening on the ground in Ukraine, the level of casualties, the consequences for both the attackers, the Russians, and the defenders, the Ukrainians. What are your folks reporting from the ground?

AMB. PIERCE: Well, the Russian attack continues. It continues in the northeast and the south of Ukraine. Our information is that there is Ukrainian resistance, quite strong Ukrainian resistance, and the Russian attack may not be moving as quickly as the Russians had hoped.

Much of this is still being assessed at the moment, very hard to get accurate numbers. Casualties, we're not sure of. We know that some people are trying to flee the cities and towns and go west, unsurprisingly. We know there's a lot of fear in Ukraine, but we've also been very struck by the resolve of the Ukrainian people. And Ukrainian forces claim to have shot down some of the Soviet aircraft that have been conducting airstrikes. So, that shows that Ukrainian people are ready to resist.

We understand that in Russia, this is not a universally popular move by President Putin. We watch very carefully what is happening. My prime minister today issued a further statement with more sanctions, and of course, you just had that clip of the president doing likewise.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Madam Ambassador, there have been attacks from what we see on social media on the airport area outside Kyiv, and there has been speculation that the Russians may be seeking to move into Kyiv, at least with special forces, today. Do you have any information that would confirm that move to take Kyiv?

AMB. PIERCE: I don't have anything that I can share that would confirm it, David, but I think looking at the way the Russian forces are disposed, knowing what we do of what President Putin has said, knowing something about Russian military doctrine, I think those in Kyiv must be prepared for an attack. This is all part of the plan to destabilize Ukraine.

President Putin says he has no plans to occupy Ukraine, but really what has happened so far is dreadful enough. You know, fundamentally, this is an invasion of a sovereign independent country. We would appeal even at this late stage for the Russian action to stop.

MR. IGNATIUS: As I'm sure you saw, President Putin in his declaration of war early this morning, Russian time, spoke of his intention to "denazify" Ukraine. It was a bizarre statement, given that there are no Nazis, to my knowledge, in this government, but it suggested that his goal is to install a new puppet government in Kyiv as quickly as possible. Is that your understanding as well?

AMB. PIERCE: I think it's‑‑I think what you see with the rhetoric from President Putin is, if you like, a grotesque usurpation of the types of things that people have gone to war for in the past, legitimate causes. You know, the Second World War was fought against Nazism, and President Putin is trying to borrow all that vocabulary to give his actions in the Ukraine the legitimacy that they don't have.

Is he trying to install a puppet government? I think that must be one of his options, as you say, based on what he said, but I think if you listen to the speech he made as he was announcing recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, there's something very visceral about his dislike and hatred even for Ukraine. He wants to see it incorporated into Russia. If you think that this is some 15 years, 2022, some 15 years after his speech that said that the breakup of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th, 21st century, then I think it shows quite how attached he is to bringing Ukraine back under Russian control, one way or another. One way is obviously to install a puppet government.

But I think he misreads the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians are not welcoming Russians with open arms as saviors, and if I can just say, you know, 13 million Russians died in World War II and they died saying that Europe would be safe and secure. I wonder how they would feel if they see what President Putin is doing now, invading a sovereign independent country, and quite frankly taking a leaf out of an earlier leader's book, who we all fought against in the Second World War.

MR. IGNATIUS: You have been following Russia and President Putin for much of your diplomatic career. I'm sure you've noted the increasing focus, almost obsession with Ukraine, in his writings last summer and in the speeches he's given in the last week. What do you think is going on here? Some have speculated that his isolation in the Kremlin during the pandemic, his isolation from other advisors may be a factor. Do you have any thoughts you could share about what prompts this extraordinary focus to the point of invasion with Ukraine?

AMB. PIERCE: I'm not a Russia speaker, David. I'm not a Russia specialist. You'll have many people in your audience much more qualified than me. So, this is merely a personal anecdote.

But I think when President Putin first came to power, people saw him as a strong leader, and they hope that he might be able to deliver some of the new reforms that Russia needed. And if you recall, the West took Russia into the G8 at the time, and however difficult that was, there was a big strategic desire to bring Russia in from the cold. And that continues until 2014 and the invasion of Crimea. Before that, of course, we had the invasion of Georgia.

And I think what we've seen over the past decades has been a hardening of President Putin's dislike of the West, an increase in his desire to compete with the West, and not just compete with the West but to actually overturn Western values. He and Foreign Minister Lavrov are both fond of saying, "It's the end of the West." They actively want to go out and contest the universal values, the values that are in the UN Charter that we all try and live by, and they want to overturn that part of the international order.

Quite why that is, I don't know, but I would say that President Putin started, if you like, with certain geopolitical aims and aims for Russia, and that as we saw gradually with the poisoning recently, in recent years of in Salisbury, the Skripal poisoning, with the assassination in Berlin, and with the poisoning of Mr. Navalny, these tactics have become much less strategic and much more "gangsterism," for want of a better word. And I do wonder why that is, and I think you might‑‑there's something in this isolation that he's been going through because of COVID.

We also know that his inner circle has been shrinking. It's not entirely clear which parts of the Russian state are giving him good advice at the moment or, even if they are, whether or not he's listening to them. There are plenty of anecdotes from history about princes who cut themselves off from their advisors, and I do wonder, but this is my speculation, if this is one of the things that's happening with President Putin.

But it's also true, as we were saying earlier, he does have this visceral sense about where Ukraine fits in to Russia's security. It's not a sense shared by the Ukrainian people or the government that they democratically elected. Ukraine is a very different country from the one whose independence Russia agreed to in 1994.

I do want to stress this. President Putin and Russia themselves have signed to all the things about Ukraine being sovereign and independent and having territorial integrity, and now he's prepared to repudiate that. We do have to keep calling this account, and we do have to keep supporting the Ukrainian people.

MR. IGNATIUS: Madam Ambassador, one really extraordinary feature of this confrontation over the last several months has been the move by the United States and Britain together to release and publicize unprecedented amounts of intelligence information about Russian military plans, about Russian plans to destabilize Ukraine through false‑flag operations, even what was alleged to be a kill list targeting Ukrainians. Could you explain to our viewers what the rationale was for this unusual move by your government and ours and what effect you think it's had, whether it's destabilized the Kremlin's planning? Every time that they are thinking about something, it seems to wind up on the nightly news. Tell us a little bit about this approach, which is so unusual.

AMB. PIERCE: Well, I thin it speaks to the seriousness of what we were faced with, David. I think you're absolutely right. It is an unusual approach. We don't often release intelligence and evidence in this way, to very carefully brief out, but we felt the immediacy of the situation was very important, given the Russian buildup on the Ukrainian borders. And we thought the scale of what might be coming was important enough to justify releasing this information, and we have worked very closely as the UK with the U.S. in collecting the information and evaluating it and then releasing it.

Has it had an effect on Putin? I think we'll never know that. It has certainly brought a number of other countries who are not in Europe, not involved in Euro‑Atlantic security. It has certainly exposed them, I think, to Russian lies and Russian disinformation in a way that they might not otherwise have done, and I think that in turn has led to much more pushback from the international community against what Russia has done. And we saw some of that in the Security Council debate the other day and a few days earlier. So, I think it has had that sort of effect.

Was it right to do it? We think absolutely it was, partly to see if it would work as a deterrent. We'll never know whether it did cause President Putin to change his plans, but also to expose the lengths to which Russia was prepared to go to try and destabilize Ukraine. And that's a fact that needs to be out there and talked about in the international community.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let's talk about the danger that this war that's been launched so devastatingly in Ukraine could spread to NATO countries.

President Biden said today in his comments to reporters at the White House that if Russia uses cyberweapons against the United States, the United States is prepared to retaliate in kind. I want to ask you whether Britain is prepared to do the same thing if its financial institutions or other elements of its infrastructure face a Russian cyberattack.

AMB. PIERCE: Yes, we are, David, and we work very closely, again, as you'd expect, with the administration and the American agencies on this. And we exchange information scenarios and countermeasures, and we discuss all the cyber possibilities in NATO with our wider NATO allies as well. So, the Russians should be in no doubt that they will find NATO allies very well prepared.

Could the conflict spread? I don't think it will spread as a result of the conflict, but we need to be very worried about refugees and the humanitarian situation, but I do think it probably isn't the end of President Putin's designs on Europe, a Europe that was meant to be whole and free. I worry very much about the Balkan countries, where there is already Russian meddling, and I worry about the Baltic countries in this respect. The Balts, of course, are part of NATO, and Article 5 guarantee would apply if Russia tried to attack them. But I think Russian meddling in the Balkans is definitely something we can't afford to take our eye off at the moment.

MR. IGNATIUS: There have been reports for some weeks about skepticism within parts of the Russian military, within parts of the Russian policy apparat about Putin's plans, people asking how is this going to end, expressing some concerns. I want to ask you whether you see any evidence that would confirm that view that there may be some at least small cracks in the Kremlin façade as Putin moves forward so aggressively.

AMB. PIERCE: I think it goes back to the question of who does President Putin have around him. How big is that group of people around him? You know, we saw the staged advice session to President Putin where Foreign Minister Lavrov and others were seen giving their advice. It was staged, I think, for media benefit. Whether or not that advice gets given, whether or not President Putin listens, I think our assessment is he has an increasingly small circle around him. Why the factors do not get brought in to that debate or fully evaluated, he says he has no desire to occupy Ukraine. Well, if he has no desire to occupy Ukraine, why is he there in such large numbers conducting airstrikes, conducting special forces operations, conducting ground operations on such a scale from three directions? That's a big question, and he can't answer it.

So, we do need him, if he really is serious about a way out of this, to halt what he's doing and to deescalate and give Ukraine back to its own people. The Ukrainian people are not painting Russia and President Putin as their saviors, as he has once claimed. Ukrainian people want their country back, and we stand with them.

MR. IGNATIUS: The NATO strategy, as articulated by President Biden and by your prime minister, has been to inflict enough pain on Russia that the unpopularity of this war will force Putin to revise his plans, and I want to ask you what assessment you and your colleagues would make of the state of public opinion in Russia about what Putin has done. Do you think that Russians have concerns that are serious enough or prepared to protest in ways that would actually change Putin's behavior?

AMB. PIERCE: I think that's a very hard question to know because the Russian people, with whom we have no quarrel‑‑the Russian people don't have access to the same information that you and I and all the listeners do. They'll never see this program. They probably will never see all the debate in the Security Council, last night, for example. They probably didn't see President Zelensky's emotional and stirring appeal to the Russian people that he delivered in Russian assuring them that Ukraine was no threat to them. So, they have an imperfect set of evidence on which to base judgments.

Nevertheless, we do believe, based on open sources, that there are very many Russians who oppose what President Putin has done, who do believe that you shouldn't break the UN Charter by using force to cross another country's boundaries, who would like‑‑even if they agree with the general point he's been making about Russian security concerns, they don't want it prosecuted in this way. Of course, there are some hardliners in Russia who absolutely support what President Putin has done. Some of those are the oligarchs around him, and we can talk about sanctions, but that some of those oligarchs, we and the U.S. and our G7 friends have been sanctioning today and before.

But it is hard to see real information getting through to the Russian people, and we know from previous conflicts that when there are body bags, when Russian soldiers are asked to do something unreasonable, when the casualties start coming, the Russian people very sadly are often the last to know, and families are not given proper information about how their sons and daughters died in conflict.

So, I think it will take a while for that to trickle through, but I think if the Russian people could see what we see, then I think there would be a different story in Moscow.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you about what Britain specifically is doing to try to assist Ukraine and also punish Russia for its actions. Let's start with assisting Ukraine. Your prime minister, Boris Johnson, spoke this week of providing more military aid, more lethal military aid to Ukraine with a new package beyond what Britain has already provided, which has been significant. Could you give us any indication of what this new package might involve?

AMB. PIERCE: Certainly. So, we're looking at further sorts of military defensive equipment. I do want to stress that, if I may, just in case any Russians do manage to see this, if breaks through the cordon. We are only about providing defensive equipment, but we still provide defensive antitank equipment. We will provide communications equipment. We have sent our own armed forces into NATO countries surrounding Ukraine to help bolster security there. We've sent ships, and we've sent our aircraft. And we have trainers in and around the borders of NATO countries bordering Ukraine, and we were training the Ukrainians until very recently when all the Brits left.

We've given a package of over $150 million, partly for humanitarian but partly also to help the Ukrainians build their resilience, build their government structures so that they can resist whatever the Russians are throwing at them.

MR. IGNATIUS: And on the question of economic sanctions, any visitor to London can see the quite lavish displays of Russian oligarch wealth. London has become a destination of choice, and there's been some question as to whether Britain was really prepared to squeeze those oligarchs, their families, go after the properties they own. Help us understand what sanctions have been put in place as of today and how far those will go in going after, punishing, freezing the assets of Putin's inner circle.

AMB. PIERCE: So, I can assure you, David, we take this incredibly seriously, and we are determined to go after illicit financing, including Russian illicit finance. For historical reasons, some of the legislation that we need in order to do that lawfully, we have to put in place. We have had to do that from scratch, but that is now in hand and will be speeded up. The prime minister has been very clear about that.

As far as our own measures go, we have targeted specific oligarchs whose money we know helps Putin fund his defense military operations. We are squeezing that money. We have brought to a halt the special visa scheme that's allowed certain investors to come into the city of London, and we are scrutinizing some of the earlier visas that have been issued.

We have targeted five Russian banks that we also know provides money to Crimea and other parts of the Russian war machine, and we are ready to do more. The prime minister spoke about that in the House of Commons today.

We are looking at what more can be done along with our G7 partners, along with the U.S. and others, and President Biden mentioned this today. We're looking at how we can bring to a halt Russian access to capital markets, and the prime minister and foreign secretary, chancellor has all been very clear that that will be part of our next step. And we are looking at bringing forward legislation to limit and halt dual‑use technology going to the Russians, which might be diverted to their war machine. So, we are working on a sweeping set of sanctions, the like of which Russia has not seen before, but I want to stress that we're doing that with the G7. We're doing that with the Americans.

And, finally, one of the main names of these sanctions, so by no means the only one, is to try and reduce the Western dependency on Russian hydrocarbons. We need to find a way through that. Britain itself is not dependent on Russian energy, but as we know, there are other countries in Europe that are. We very much salute Chancellor Scholz's great decision about Nord Stream 2. That has our full support, and we will be working with Germany and others to find a way through getting Europe less dependent on Russian energy.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Madam Ambassador, let me go back to the question we discussed at the beginning of our conversation. Putin has been making clear in different ways, for at least 15 years, how seriously he takes the question of NATO's eastward expansion, has often talked about Ukraine. As you look at this story and consider what may be the horrific cost of this war, do you think that there are things that could have been done, that should have been done, that might have averted the catastrophe that we now have in terms of addressing the Russians, in terms of being more insistent about a solution of the Donbas crisis? What do you think?

AMB. PIERCE: I think President Putin has used it for his own ends, to be honest, David. I think he makes these claims about NATO being a threat to Russia, but if he examined them closely‑‑and his own military can tell him‑‑NATO is a defensive alliance. It's no threat to Russia. Even now, even with war in Europe, and the Russians having crossed into a sovereign independent country, even now, NATO is on its own territory. We have not done anything that will threaten Russia, and that is our posture.

Russia has worked with NATO in Bosnia. At one time, not many people know this, Russia used to have a delegation right at the heart of NATO's military headquarters. So, I think that shows that there is a different posture possible had President Putin wanted to take it.

Instead‑‑and I'm sorry to say this‑‑he twists the deals, the agreements that have been made between NATO and Russia in the past to suit his ends. He could use all the mechanisms that exist in Europe around legal agreements, legal ways forward of raising security concerns. There are very many, NATO in the EU, have mechanisms with Russia. There's the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe, where Russia is a full member. There are very many opportunities for Russia to bring forward concerns and have them debated and discussed. Instead, Russia walks away from the NATO‑‑

MR. IGNATIUS: Madam Ambassador, we need to‑‑we need to wrap our conversation here because we've come to the end of our time. This is a wonderful tour of what is a very depressing horizon. I want to thank you for joining us today.

AMB. PIERCE: Thanks very much, David. Thank you.

MR. IGNATIUS: So please join us again on for Washington Post Live. We have a lot of programming coming up. Please go to our website at Washington Post Live and register for programs. Thank you very much for joining us today.

[End recorded session]