The United States has not seen many signs that Russia-Ukraine negotiations are “proving fruitful” as Moscow’s war on the country enters its third month, said a senior State Department official.
“The Russians don’t seem to be willing to negotiate in a particularly meaningful way,” State Department Counselor Derek Chollet told VOA in an interview Thursday.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Ukraine on Thursday after a stop Tuesday in Moscow, where he met for nearly two hours with President Vladimir Putin.
Chollet said that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Guterres before his trip to Moscow and Kyiv, and that the U.S. looks forward to hearing from the U.N. chief to see whether there is a way forward toward peace.
In Congress, proposed legislation scrutinizing China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. If adopted, the Assessing Xi’s Interference and Subversion Act would require the State Department to submit ongoing reports.
The U.S. has not witnessed China providing weapons and supplies to Russia, but it is watching closely, American officials said.
“China will pay a price if it is seen as assisting Russia — either providing a direct assistance, particularly military assistance, or assisting Russia in evading sanctions,” Chollet told VOA.
He warns that the “cooperation space” between the U.S. and China is “dwindling,” just as Blinken is expected to elaborate on a U.S. approach toward China “in coming days.”
The excerpts from VOA’s interview with Chollet have been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: Today, President Biden announced a proposal to hold Russian oligarchs accountable. He’s also asking Congress for additional money to help Ukraine. … What makes today’s announcement unique from previous ones?
Chollet: This is a historic announcement of support from the United States. President Biden (asked) Congress for over $30 billion in U.S. support for Ukraine. Twenty billion of that will be towards security and defense assistance. And then there will also be humanitarian assistance and economic support. So this is yet another example of United States commitment to a strong, secure and independent Ukraine.
VOA: Also today, congressional members are voting … (on the) Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022.
Chollet: Well, what the U.S. is focused on right now is getting the supplemental assistance through the Congress that the president has just proposed, and the $30 billion is the kind of scale and scope of assistance that we think reflects (that) it’s in our interests to have a safe and secure Ukraine.
What’s been critical throughout this crisis is the bipartisan support we’ve had from Congress. And Congress has been working very closely with the administration to get Ukraine the significant support that we’ve received thus far. But again, we’re going to be quadrupling in the coming weeks if we get this $30 billion, which we believe we will, from the Congress.
VOA: Does the U.S. have an assessment on Putin’s health?
Chollet: We don’t. We obviously don’t deal with him much in person nowadays. And so we do not have an assessment on his health.
What we do have an assessment of is of the consequences of the decisions he’s making. He has made the wrong decision, we believe clearly, in prosecuting this brutal war against Ukraine. We gave him every opportunity to choose another path over many months, but we also made very clear to him that Russia and he would pay a high price if he pursued a war against Ukraine.
VOA: Has the U.S. talked to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres after his meeting with Putin on Tuesday?
Chollet: We have been in very close touch with the secretary-general throughout this crisis. Secretary Blinken had an opportunity to speak with him on the phone before his trip to Moscow and Ukraine. I’m not sure if colleagues have spoken to him, since the secretary (Blinken) has not yet. But we, of course, will look forward to staying in touch with the secretary-general to hear about his trip, and if there is a possibility for a way forward on peace. We’re doubtful. We have not seen (many) signs (of) hope that negotiations are proving fruitful. The Russians don’t seem to be willing to negotiate in a particularly meaningful way.
VOA: Moving on to China’s role in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Could China face secondary sanctions if it provides material or financial support to Russia?
Chollet: Well, the United States has been very clear — President Biden in his conversations with President Xi (Jinping), Secretary Blinken in his conversations with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang (Yi) — that China will pay a price if it is seen as assisting Russia, either providing a direct assistance — particularly military assistance — or assisting Russia in evading sanctions.
China knows very well the economic consequences that it could face if it’s seen as helping Russia. China itself is suffering because of the sanctions we have placed on Russia. So we are hoping that the Chinese make a decision not to support Russia.
VOA: Is Secretary Blinken’s China speech before or after the US-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit?
Chollet: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of the secretary’s speech. He, of course, places a very high priority on our strategy towards China. We’ll look forward to speaking to that in the coming weeks.
VOA: What is the U.S. approach to PRC (People’s Republic of China)? Can (the) two countries work together after Russia’s war in Ukraine?
Chollet: The US-China relationship is a very complicated relationship. There are elements of it that are conflictual, clearly are areas where the U.S. and China are going to fundamentally disagree. There are areas of that relationship that are competitive, and the United States welcomes the competition with China as long as we are playing by the same set of rules. And there are areas of the relationship that we think, by necessity, have to be cooperative. For example, on an issue like climate change, where we are not going to be able to address the consequences of warming climate if the United States and China can’t find a way to work together. Unfortunately, that’s a dwindling space in terms of the cooperation space.
VOA: As Washington is hosting a special summit with ASEAN in May, what is the U.S. pitch to ASEAN on Ukraine?
Chollet: This ASEAN special summit … will be a historic summit. It will be the first time that ASEAN leaders have been able to meet here in Washington and will be the largest meeting of leaders here in Washington since before the pandemic. … Our pitch to our ASEAN allies and friends is the same pitch we make to all of our allies and friends around the world: There’s a clear side that we all should be on against what Russia has been doing in Ukraine. We want ASEAN friends to stand with us when it comes to isolating and punishing Russia.
VOA: How about the reported military drill between Vietnam and Russia, announced by Russian state media?
Chollet: I can’t comment specifically on that drill. I was in Hanoi a few weeks ago, had long conversations with Vietnamese Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials about the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, which we believe has tremendous potential, and also our genuine concerns about Russia and the way forward with Russia.
Our point that we made to our Vietnam friends, which I believe they see merit in, which is that Russia is a far less attractive partner today than it was even four months ago. Russia is going to be more isolated in the world. It’s going to have an economy that’s destroyed. And frankly, its military has shown its vulnerability.
And so, if a country like Vietnam, for many decades, has had a relationship with Russia, and before that the Soviet Union. So, we realize that maybe perhaps some of the policy changes we’re asking for aren’t going to happen instantly. But nevertheless, we believe that those countries need to assess the relationship with Russia, and we’re willing to be a partner with them as they’re thinking through their security in the future.
VOA: Myanmar’s military government is showing support for Russia. Speaking of it, do you have anything on the conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi?
Chollet: This was a sham judicial process, and it’s just yet another example of the junta in Myanmar that unlawfully took power in February of 2021 to use the judicial system to try to go after their political enemies. What we need to see in Myanmar is a cessation of violence. We need to see a return to democratic governance. And until we see that happen, the United States is not going to be engaging with the junta. The junta representatives will not be part of the ASEAN special summit here in Washington.
Myanmar will be represented at a nonpolitical level, like it has been in ASEAN meetings, and the junta in Myanmar knows what it needs to do. It needs to adhere to the ASEAN 5-Point Consensus and get Myanmar back on the track to democracy, not use its judiciary to have sort of sham sentences against democratically elected leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi.