U.S. President Joe Biden is focused on shoring up NATO unity in supporting Ukraine in his meeting Friday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House, said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, in an interview with VOA on Friday.
Dismissing concerns about growing war fatigue on both sides of the Atlantic, Kirby said Biden was confident that Western allies’ unity remained “resilient, resolved and unified.”
He repeated calls from the administration urging Beijing not to supply weapons to help Russia, warning of a “blow to China’s standing in the international community” should it decide to do so.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: President Biden is meeting with Chancellor Scholz. Both met [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy recently; they’ll be comparing notes on their support for Ukraine. But will they also be speaking about pathways to peace?
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications: I think both of these leaders share the Ukrainians’ desire for a peace that is just and fair and sustainable, a peace that supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and maintains their independence. Also, they both agree that it’s got to be a peace that President Zelenskyy can sign on to; it’s got to be done in full consultation, full coordination with the Ukrainians. Otherwise, there’s no way it’s going to ever really get off to start and it’s not going to be sustainable.
VOA: Just last week, there were 10,000 people in Germany protesting sending arms to Ukraine. So, there’s political pressure on Chancellor Scholz. Is the president concerned that this might create a crack in NATO unity?
Kirby: No, the president is not at all concerned about a crack in allied unity. If you just look back at the last year, the allies had been incredibly resilient, resolved and unified in terms of supporting Ukraine. And he’s convinced – especially after coming home now from meeting with the Bucharest Nine, meeting with his counterpart in Poland, and of course meeting with President Zelenskyy in Kyiv – he’s even more convinced that that allied unity will continue.
We’re not taking anything for granted. We know we have to continue to work on providing the kinds of support to Ukraine that they need most. But he’s confident that the allies are going to be able to stay together.
VOA: I understand that Ukraine will be the focus. But will the president also make the argument that it is strategically risky for Germany to be so trade-dependent on China, the same way it has proven to be risky for them to be so dependent on Russian gas? Will the president urge the chancellor to take a tougher stance against Beijing?
Kirby: Today’s visit is really about how we can stay coordinated in supporting Ukraine. And I would point you to what Chancellor Scholz said yesterday in terms of his concerns about the potential for China to provide lethal weaponry to Russia and his call that what China should be focusing on is convincing Russia to withdraw, to take their troops out of Ukraine. That’s an illegal invasion to begin with. But as for economic practices, those are sovereign decisions that Chancellor Scholz has to make on behalf of the German people.
VOA: On China potentially arming Russia, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield recently said that should China do this, that’s a red line for the administration. Is the administration prepared to back up that threat?
Kirby: I don’t think it’d be helpful to get into hypotheticals at this point. You’ve heard Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken talk about this. He’s mentioned this privately with his counterpart, his Chinese counterpart, that clearly, we don’t want to see them move in this direction. They have not done so, though they haven’t taken it off the table. And we have been very honest about the fact that there will be ramifications for doing that. Clearly, at the very least one of them is a blow to China’s standing in [the] international community.
China has a choice to make. Does it really want to come down on the side of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin? Does it really want to assist Mr. Putin in killing innocent Ukrainians? Because that’s what this kind of a move would be. And if China cares about their international standing, one would think that they would find this not in their best interest.
VOA: Let’s talk more about this name-and-shame strategy. In the lead-up of the Russian invasion, you said that you had intelligence that Putin is going to do it, and then he did it. You’re doing the same thing with President Xi Jinping, saying that China could potentially arm Russia. But if the strategy did not work to deter Putin from invading Ukraine, why would you believe that the strategy would work to deter Xi from helping Putin? I don’t see either of these men being the type that could be easily shamed or intimidated.
Kirby: This isn’t about shaming. It’s about sharing our concerns privately with the Chinese and also sharing those concerns publicly about indications that we see potentially that China might move in this direction. China has a choice to make. President Xi has a choice to make. And we strongly urged him to make the right choice here, to not make it easier for Mr. Putin to kill innocent Ukrainian people.
VOA: And that kind of approach you believe will be an effective deterrent?
Kirby: That’s going to be up to President Xi and the Chinese.
VOA: We know now that Iran and North Korea have supplied arms to Russia. Other than Belarus, what other third country could potentially be a conduit to funnel Chinese arms to Russia?
Kirby: That’s a great question for Vladimir Putin. Who else is he reaching out to, to try to get weapons and capabilities to continue the slaughter in Ukraine? We know that the Iranians are part and parcel of that effort. We know the North Koreans have provided, at least in some cases, artillery ammunition to the Wagner Group. And I think President Putin should have to speak for who else [is he] reaching out to, to continue these murderous ways.
VOA: Surely you must be monitoring these countries. Our sources point to potentially Myanmar as one of those countries. Do you see any intelligence to support this?
Kirby: I don’t have any other third-party countries to speak to today.
VOA: We spoke yesterday about the $620 million arms sales to Taiwan. Is this how the administration is helping Taiwan prepare, to stock up munitions in case of a Chinese blockade?
Kirby: This is about helping Taiwan with their self-defense capabilities. Specifically, it’s about munitions for their F-16 fighter aircraft. We work in lockstep with them about their needs, but it’s very much in keeping with our commitment, both legally and from a moral perspective, to make sure that they have the sufficient self-defense capabilities that they need.
VOA: With this timing, could it also provide Beijing with an excuse to funnel arms to Russia?
Kirby: That’s a question for President Xi. There should be no reason for him to want to provide arms to Russia. There should be no reason for him to want to help Mr. Putin kill innocent Ukrainian people. And that’s what this would be if they moved on with that decision.
What’s going into President Xi’s calculus is really a question for him. The Taiwan arms sales are in keeping with our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, and our belief that we must continue to help Taiwan have sufficient self-defense capabilities. This is separate and distinct from what’s going on in Ukraine.
VOA: Moving on to Iran, is the administration now seeing Iran as a global threat rather than a regional one?
Kirby: Iran has remained certainly a regional threat for quite some time, and that continues. They are fomenting instability in the Levant throughout the Middle East, they continue to support terrorist networks, they continue to threaten maritime traffic in the Gulf and beyond. And now they are directly impacting a war in Europe. So certainly, they have stretched their malign impact well beyond the region.
VOA: Do you now consider them a global threat?
Kirby: I’m not going to characterize them one way or the other, other than saying they are a malign actor in the region, and they are now stretching that influence beyond the Middle East. The other part about this that is concerning — and we’ve talked about this — is that they seek Russian capabilities in return. So, if that all comes to pass, then Iran would have the benefit of Russian capabilities, which makes them even more of a threat to [Western] friends and partners in the Middle East.
VOA: Any update on the poisoning of the Iranian schoolgirls? You said yesterday that you don’t know what the cause is. Do you know more at this point? UNICEF has offered to help. Is the U.S. prepared to offer the same?
Kirby: I’m afraid we don’t have more information about these reports of poisonings. They are deeply disturbing. We want the Iranian government – they say they’re going to investigate. We want that investigation to be thorough, complete and transparent with the Iranian people as well as the rest of the world. Little girls should not have to worry about their safety when they go to school. They should only have to worry about their grades.