Remarks at the Atlantic Council’s NATO Transformation Seminar 2015

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: We discussed a lot of common priorities from trade to energy, but a major topic was the importance of transatlantic unity as we collectively address Russian aggression in Ukraine.

I was in Berlin and a student asked me, “Why are you so focused on Ukraine? Why does it actually matter? Russia’s actions don’t pose a threat to you; they don’t really pose a threat to Germany. What’s so important about what’s happening in Ukraine?” And so I tried to explain that our concern in the first instance was helping a European state attain its democratic aspirations, that Ukraine is not whole if its people are not free. If the country is not at peace, then in some fundamental sense neither is Europe.

But I also explained that as each of you know, the crisis that we’re facing now goes beyond Ukraine and beyond even Europe. As Russia and the separatists that it backs descend on eastern Ukraine, they’re doing more even than violating the borders of one country. They are threatening the principles on which the transatlantic partnership was founded and upon which the international order we seek to build depends. Moscow’s actions, from manufacturing the phony Maidan-in-reverse in eastern Ukraine, deploying thousands of heavy weapons and troops across the border, to supporting a reign of violence through the separatists that it controls – they threaten to set a new precedent whereby basic principles are up for debate.

These principles, that the borders and territorial integrity of a democratic state cannot be changed by force; that is – it is the inherent right of citizens in a democracy to make their country’s decisions and determine its future; that linguistic nationalism, something we thought was confined to the dustbin of history, must not be allowed to be resurrected; and that all members of the international community are bound by common rules and should face costs if they don’t live up to the solemn commitments they make – and I want to pause on this last one for just a second because it resonates particularly and in interesting ways in the context of the Ukraine crisis.

As all of you know very well, when the Soviet Union dissolved, it left successor states, three of which had nuclear weapons – Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine – thousands of nuclear weapons. One of the great achievements of the Clinton administration and of our European partners at the time was to convince those successor states to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited. And of course in the case of Ukraine, that required a solemn vow and commitment from three countries to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty – the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia. That we would allow that commitment to be trampled upon not only does a grave injustice to Ukraine, but think about what it says at this very moment when, as we speak, our Secretary of State, the secretaries of state from our major partners are working to convince Iran to forego nuclear weapons. It would be understandable that Iran would want certain assurances in order to do that. What does it say to Iran today when a commitment like the one that was made in the Budapest memorandum is grossly violated?

So this crisis in Ukraine resonates in ways that go far beyond even Ukraine and even Europe. So with so much at stake, it is imperative in our judgment that we continue to stand together to affirm these principles, to end the conflict peacefully, to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And the best way to do that is through full and comprehensive adherence to the September Minsk agreements and to the February Minsk implementation plan that President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel did such a good job in negotiating.

I want to emphasize one point here. The most critical step in that plan is the last step – the restoration of Ukraine’s international border. Until that is done, this crisis will not be resolved because Russia will have the ability until that is done, at will, to turn up the volume, to pour troops and arms back across the border and into Ukraine. And so until that last step is completed, it’s imperative that we sustain the pressure on Russia, that we continue to support Ukraine, and if Russia continues to violate its obligations, then we should increase the costs.

Let me emphasize – and I think I speak for everyone here – this is not something that any of us wanted. This is not something that any of us want to continue, unless we have to. It is our most fervent desire that everyone comply with the Minsk agreement and that we’re able to start to roll back the sanctions and the pressure and try to get back to a more normal and more cooperative relationship. But again, until there is compliance, we need to keep the pressure on.