John Kirby, the National Security Council’s director of strategic communications, sat down Friday with VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell ahead of a banner week in global diplomacy, starting with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and ending with the world’s premier diplomatic summit, the U.N. General Assembly, in New York.
Kirby also spoke about the Biden administration’s view that the growing closeness between the presidents of China and Russia — the two leaders met face to face this week — is “really more of a partnership of convenience” than a strategic alignment. And he addressed calls by some to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism over the atrocities its forces have committed in Ukraine.
He also discussed the latest U.S. military aid package for Ukraine and said that although it appears that Ukraine is making military gains, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not ready to sit down at the negotiating table — and neither is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The interview, held in the Secretary of War Suite on the White House campus, has been edited for clarity and length.
VOA: Next week is the United Nations General Assembly. What are the president’s goals for the U.N. General Assembly, especially with regards to further isolating Russia?
Kirby: I think what you’re going to see from the president is a focus on demonstrating the degree to which United States’ leadership on the world stage is back and revitalized. He’ll have a chance to address the whole General Assembly in the morning. He’ll be dealing with issues of food security around the globe … food security which is exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, clearly. And he’ll have a chance to talk about the Global Defense Investment Initiative and some of the efforts that the United States is helping lead in terms of providing alternate sources of investment funds for countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries, that are trying to improve their own infrastructure at home or their own health care at home, and to help lift them up as well.
VOA: Can I ask you to talk about the energy security goals that the U.S. is bringing to the UNGA?
Kirby: I think the president has been very focused on energy security … since his time in office. And as you know, energy security as well has been put at risk by what Putin is doing in Ukraine, literally weaponizing energy.
The president stood up a task force earlier this year to try to look for ways to improve the stores of natural gas in Europe, to get more LNG to the continent, and we’ve done that. The U.S. alone has doubled our commitments, the commitments he made back in March, and we’re working with other allies and partners in the industry to see what else can be done, because winter’s coming.
VOA: On the conflict in Ukraine, does the administration believe that Russia has switched its tactics toward targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure as we’ve seen in recent days? And if so, does the U.S. plan to respond to hold Russia accountable?
Kirby: Sadly, we have seen almost from the beginning of this war … that the Russians, Russian soldiers, Russian leadership, has not only approved of but participated in atrocities against the civilian population of Ukraine — everything from airstrikes on hospitals, to actual on the ground war crimes against the men and women and their children in Ukraine.
And the United States is involved with the international community in making sure that these instances are being documented, and that they are available to international investigators so that Russia can be held accountable. …
But the brutality that Mr. Putin has visited upon Ukraine, and Ukrainians, has been there almost since the very beginning. And I think you’re referring to some recent airstrikes that he has conducted with respect to civilian infrastructure. It’s of a piece of his utter disregard for civilian casualties and his contempt for the very culture of Ukraine. Now, he’s hitting these, these infrastructure targets, we think, because he’s lashing out at the counteroffense that the Ukrainians have been conducting, particularly in the north, and he’s basically trying to punish the Ukrainian people for the work of their soldiers on the battlefield.
VOA: Let’s move on to the initial goal of this conflict. I think it was Secretary Antony Blinken who said this was to strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table. That seems to have happened with these recent victories. So, does the administration believe that now is the time to pressure President Zelenskyy to get to the negotiating table, and is he ready?
Kirby: We believe it’s up to President Zelenskyy to determine if and when he’s ready to sit down at the negotiating table. And he has said himself that he’s not in a position to move that forward right now. We respect that. … I would also note that Mr. Putin has also made it very clear that he’s not interested in stopping the fighting. … Obviously we want to see this war end. Clearly a diplomatic solution would be a preferred option, but a much more preferred option would be for Mr. Putin to just stop it today. … He could end this war today absent negotiations by just pulling his troops out and stopping the violence on the Ukrainian people, and we can’t forget that.
So, again, we’re going to continue to support President Zelenskyy, as President Biden has said, for as long as it takes. We’re going to make sure that … not only can he succeed at the negotiating table if and when it comes to that, but that he can succeed on the battlefield today. Because Vladimir Putin is still prosecuting this war against Ukraine today.
VOA: I want to talk a little bit about the debate over the state sponsored terror (SST) designation [for Russia]. And earlier [State Department spokesman] Ned Price said that “the administration, while they’ve decided against it, is going to apply sanctions and tools that are analogous to an SST.” … What tools do we have other than existing sanctions and export controls?
Kirby: So what we’re talking about here is looking for and working with Congress to look for additional measures of holding Russia and Mr. Putin accountable for what they’re doing in Ukraine. There have been very effective, very stringent sanctions and export controls already put in place by the United States alone, let alone our European colleagues, on Mr. Putin. And we’re going to continue to look for additional ways to hold him accountable and to increase the cost and consequences for this war.
We don’t believe that a state sponsor of terrorism designation is the most effective way to do that. … We talk to humanitarian groups, and … they have expressed concern that with such a designation, it might make it hard for them to work with vendors inside Ukraine, to get humanitarian assistance to the men and women there who desperately need it. … The Food Security Deal could also come under risk. … We’ve now been able to get, because of this Food Security Grain Deal out of the Black Sea, more than 2½ million [metric] tons of grain have left Ukraine. … And if we designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, it’s possible that that grain deal could be put in jeopardy. …
And then lastly … about the negotiating table, we want to make sure that Mr. Zelenskyy has enough flexibility, not only to leverage, but flexibility when he sits down on the negotiating table. That designation could, in fact, reduce his flexibility to come up with a negotiated solution.
VOA: I’m going to ask you to give us a precis of the new aid package, which was approved last night.
Kirby: I think what you’ll see … it’s very consistent with most of the recent packages here since the Russians have really focused on the Donbas and down in the south. And so, you’re seeing more ammunition for the HIMARS system, the advanced rocket system, you’re seeing more artillery rounds, you’re seeing small arms and ammunition and other items that we know the Ukrainians are literally using every day … and we want to make sure that they get more of them.
VOA: Moving on to the meeting yesterday between the Chinese and Russian presidents. … Do you believe that this new alignment or this closer alignment is tactical or strategic? And we also heard Putin say that China expressed its concerns and questions over the conflict in Ukraine.
Kirby: Well, I think it’s been no secret that President Putin and President Xi have been forging a closer relationship. That’s not new. It’s not really surprising either, because both leaders of those two countries have expressed their annoyance and their dislike of American leadership around the world, and in the rules-based international order, that not only the United States but so many other countries around the world espouse and try to improve.
I think it’s noteworthy, though, … that Mr. Putin recognized publicly that China has expressed concerns.
We … don’t believe that this is the time for business as usual in Russia by anybody. It’s not the time to be buying their oil at these exorbitant prices. It’s not the time certainly to be violating the sanctions. And we have not seen the Chinese provide any material support to Mr. Putin for the war in Ukraine. And we haven’t had any indications that they are violating sanctions.
So, it is noteworthy that Mr. Putin would mention that China had some concerns. China’s got choices to make. And as we’ve said many times before, we would clearly prefer that the choice they make is to condemn what Mr. Putin is doing in Ukraine … and make clear these concerns that they apparently have about what he’s doing there.
VOA: How are you going to leverage that? Because there is a disagreement between these two great powers. How’s the U.S. going to work that diplomatically, or what tools are you going to bring to bear?
Kirby: We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing to support Ukraine and to hold Mr. Putin accountable. And we’re going to continue to keep the lines of communication open with Beijing, as we must. There are issues of disagreement, clearly, between the United States and China, but there’s also areas where we have said we can and we should cooperate on, such as climate change, such as the opioid crisis, such as counterterrorism. And it’s regrettable that the Chinese have shut down, I think, some of those avenues for us to have a discussion, particularly for opioids, fentanyl and, of course, climate change. … We look for ways to continue to make sure we can keep those lines of communication open.
I think it’s also important to note that these two countries are not, like, best of friends. I mean, they have a relationship, obviously, but it is not built on a whole heck of a lot of mutual trust and confidence. It’s really more a partnership of convenience then it is anything akin to the kinds of alliances and partnerships that the United States has around the world.
VOA: On the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], the Iran nuclear deal … how optimistic is the administration that a deal can be reached, and do you have any timelines or any predictions for that?
Kirby: I couldn’t give you a prediction. I wouldn’t begin to speculate on that.
I would just tell you a couple of things. The president has been very clear that we’re not going to allow Iran to achieve a nuclear weapons capability, because he knows that no problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve with a nuclear-armed Iran.
The president has also said that he believes the best way to achieve that outcome is through a diplomatic process, and we have been involved in back-and-forth negotiations for 16 months, trying to get the JCPOA reimplemented and get everybody back into that deal from 2015. … And as you heard Secretary Blinken say, we are actually farther apart now than we were … even just a few weeks ago. And as the secretary said, it’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to … get us back into the deal anytime real soon. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve given up on the effort. It doesn’t mean that it’s all abandoned.