US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet smiles ahead of a meeting in Serbia, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. 

America’s top priority is to help Ukraine ‘defend itself’ as a sovereign nation, Blinken adviser says

What are Washington's current strategic goals and limitations in Ukraine? And how do they align with Kyiv? Derek Chollet, a counselor at the US State Department who advises Secretary of State Antony Blinken, joined The World's host Marco Werman to shed some light.

The World

As Russia continued firing missiles on residential areas in the east of the country on Thursday, senior officials from the European Union paid a visit to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen stood beside Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and promised more aid. She also announced the establishment in The Hague of an international center for the prosecution of war crimes in Ukraine. 

"Russia must be held accountable in courts for its odious crimes," she said. 

Leading generals from the US and Ukraine also spoke on the phone on Thursday. They discussed developments on the battlefield and how Washington can boost the war effort. But what are Washington's current strategic goals and limitations in Ukraine? And how do they align with Kyiv?

Derek Chollet, a counselor at the US State Department who advises Secretary of State Antony Blinken, joined The World's host Marco Werman to shed some light.

Marco Werman: I'm hoping you can pull back the lens a bit and help us get a sharper view of how Washington sees its role in the war in Ukraine. Is what's happening there an existential threat to Western values or something more limited, do you think?
Derek Chollet: It's the former, in the sense that what we're seeing happen in Ukraine is, in fact, an assault on the most fundamental principle of international politics, which is that countries should not use force to invade another country and try to gobble up their land. That's what we and all of our partners are pushing back hard against. It's very important. The EU visit that you mentioned today at the top of the piece is yet just another sign of the unity of the coalition that we have so painstakingly worked to put together and maintain its strength over the last year.
I mean, in terms of the military support, it seems like every time the US puts limits on what it'll do, whether it comes to sending Stinger missiles, the Patriot system, armored fighting vehicles, and more recently, Abrams tanks, every time Washington draws a line, policy eventually blows past it. I mean, isn't that fair?
It's not so much of drawing lines or taking them away. We are in a constant conversation with our Ukrainian partners about their needs as this conflict has evolved, and as you rightly noted, in the early days of the conflict, it was all about Stinger, shoulder fire, anti-aircraft missiles. Then it became about Javelin anti-tank missiles, then it was about air defense. And it's been about armor. And undoubtedly, Ukraine's needs are going to evolve as this conflict evolves. Our goal is very simple. We want to give Ukraine as best we can, and take into account all of our interests around the world, the means to be able to defend itself and take back the territory that Russia is trying to take away from Ukraine.
What you just kind of outlined there, isn't that exactly the definition of mission creep?
Well, the mission is quite clear. Again, to give Ukraine the means to defend itself and to be democratic, independent and sovereign. That's our mission. And importantly, that's not just the US mission. There are more than 50 countries around the world that are giving Ukraine some kind of assistance to defend itself. 
I didn't mean mission creep in terms of the overall mission and the goals, but the mission creep in terms of what the US will supply. For example, President Biden this week flatly ruled out providing F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, but the same thing happened with tanks, and tanks are now on their way. I mean, you used to work at the Pentagon — why give the Ukrainians tanks but not aircraft, if we're all in? Why is one OK, but not the other?
Again, it's an evolving conversation that we're having with Ukrainian friends and it's a constant one. Every time Secretary Blinken talks to the Ukrainian foreign minister or President Zelenskiy, as he does very often, almost on a weekly basis, we're hearing more about their needs as their needs evolve. And look, I fully understand the Ukrainians' perspective on this. They are fighting an existential fight. This is a fight for the survival of their country. Russia is trying to take out the government of Ukraine and occupy the territory of Ukraine. So there's no such thing as too much from their perspective. But of course, we have to weigh all sorts of competing interests and needs. We are taking supplies out of our own stocks to give them to Ukraine. These are not munitions or systems that were just sitting on the shelf waiting for someone else to use. These are all being taken away from other Pentagon priorities that we've deemed Ukraine more important. But we always have to take that into account whenever we're making these sorts of decisions.
Would you be surprised if F-16 fighter jets did get a green light in the months ahead?
Yeah, I don't want to speculate on any particular system that Ukraine may or may not get right now. All I can say is it is a constant conversation we're having with them on their needs and what we can do to try to help them.
Can you think of a historical parallel where Washington has given so much military aid in such a short time in a conflict where the US is not a combatant?
Well, it's hard to find a parallel. I mean, I think the closest that comes to mind to my mind is the early days of World War II in the 1940s, through the Lend-Lease Act, where the United States came to assist the UK, in terms of defense of this country.
And if we follow the World War II model, at some point the US does get directly involved and it's a broader war. How much does that stay in your kind of collection of scenarios?
You can overdo the historical parallels on this, of course. But look, we pay very close attention and don't for a second feel the need to apologize for thoughts about controlling escalation here. We've got many interests around the world. Foremost among them right now is the defense of Ukraine. 
So as we think about ending the war and maintaining any sort of peace, the illegally annexed territory of Crimea is, of course, crucial. Can Ukraine get Crimea back and keep it? Would Russia ever agree to giving up the naval base in Sevastopol? 
I don't want to speculate on what Russia may or may not be willing to give up. All I can say is the United States has never recognized the annexation of Crimea as Russia conducted in 2014, and we believe that Ukraine needs to be able to regain all the territory that Russia has tried to take from it. Full stop.
There's been some reporting mostly recently in The New York Times suggesting US officials are strongly considering giving Ukraine the go ahead to attack Crimea. Is there new thinking on Crimea in official US government circles?
All I can say, and I'm not going to comment specifically on these reports, is that we are in constant dialogue alongside our partners with the Ukrainians on the fight that they're in and trying to give them our best advice about what steps they should take. Also trying to best assess their needs and the ways that we can collectively support them as they try to regain their sovereignty and their independence and get Russia out of their territory.
What does a post-war Ukraine look like? Some have suggested it might look like Israel, you know, deal-making whereby no one is really happy and tensions live long. 
What we're seeking is for Ukraine to be independent, to be sovereign, to be able defend its territory, to be democratic, to be clean, to be free of corruption, which is something that's plagued that country for far too long. ... Zelenskiy [is] taking some pretty serious steps just in recent days to try to get at that. And we've been quite impressed, by the way, by Ukrainian stewardship of all of the assistance they have been receiving from us and others. That's our overall goal. And we're going to do whatever we can in the best way we can to try to support Ukraine. 
Finally, and something of a wild card: China. What about China? Is Beijing going to continue to sit on the fence in this conflict?
Well, we've been very clear with the leadership in Beijing that they need to do whatever they can to try to convince Vladimir Putin to stop what he's doing in Ukraine and to have his forces leave Ukraine. We've also been very clear with the leadership in Beijing that they do nothing to help Russia in this conflict, whether that's providing them with military supplies, whether that is helping them circumvent sanctions. And they are well aware of our concerns about this and also the potential consequences if they were to make such decisions.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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