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U.N. meeting is full of tense exchanges between the U.S. and Russia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The path to a diplomatic solution involving Russia and Ukraine appears to be narrowing. The tensions burst onto the world stage at the U.N. Security Council yesterday. Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, accused the U.S. of provoking Russia to attack Ukraine. He spoke through a U.N. interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VASILY NEBENZYA: (Through interpreter) The discussions about a threat of war is provocative in and of itself. You are almost calling for this. You want it to happen. You're waiting for it to happen, as if you want to make your words become a reality.

FADEL: Russia's ambassador aimed his words at U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. And she joins us now. Ambassador, thank you for being on the program.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here with you.

FADEL: So yesterday, your Russian counterpart said that U.S. warnings about a possible invasion were, quote, "hysterical fear-mongering." Is he wrong?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We expected to hear that kind of response from the Russians. They did not want to stand before the world and explain what they are doing on the border with Ukraine. And we called the meeting for just that purpose and to pursue - continue to pursue a diplomatic response, given the stakes that we see for Ukraine and for Europe and for the rest of the world. And I think what was important is that the Russians heard almost every member of the Security Council tell them that they agreed with us, that the path of diplomacy is better than the path of war.

FADEL: But I've got to ask you - you know, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has also complained about U.S. warnings, saying it has needlessly caused a panic that puts Ukraine's economy at risk. What do you make of that?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, you know, the permanent representative, the ambassador from Ukraine, was at the meeting yesterday. And he reaffirmed our concerns and Ukraine's concerns about the situation on their border. And we have met with the president. We've met with the foreign minister. And I think you had the foreign minister on your line this morning.

FADEL: Yes. Mary Louise Kelly spoke with him yesterday on All Things Considered.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes. And he said that they absolutely agree. He confirmed there were more than 100,000 troops on the border. Their messaging is different from ours, as he noted. But the goals are the same.

FADEL: You spoke about a diplomatic solution. But will this very public confrontation at the U.N. Security Council hurt, quiet diplomacy?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we've had more than a hundred quiet, behind-the-scenes meetings with the Russians. This meeting at the Security Council, while public, was one more diplomatic effort to give the Russians an opportunity to explain what they are doing on the border with Ukraine. We are continuing to relentlessly engage with them diplomatically. As you may have heard, Secretary Blinken is speaking with Foreign Minister Lavrov today. That's part of that diplomatic approach that we have not given up on.

FADEL: Yesterday, do you feel like something was actually accomplished?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Absolutely. Russia heard from the world that they agree with us. They tried to stop this meeting. They called for a vote. And they did not win. The council voted to hear from Russia. The council voted to discuss this issue openly and publicly. So it clearly was not a failure. It was an absolute - for us, it was an absolute success in the sense that we allowed the world to hear what we've been hearing from the Russians. And we were able to refute their disinformation and their propaganda campaign.

FADEL: Now, if the diplomatic efforts don't work and Russia does invade Ukraine, does the U.N. have any leverage to try to resolve the crisis, especially given Russia's veto power and possible support from China?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Absolutely. We will continue to work within the Security Council to pursue an approach that will allow us to hold Russia accountable. And Russia saw that happen in 2014, as well. So there's definitely a possibility. But I will say, I think, clearly - and you've heard it from us before - that our response will be swift. And it will be severe. And it will be united. And Russia has heard that.

FADEL: I have to ask - the U.S. has made some pretty major miscalculations on the world stage, most recently in Afghanistan, where the U.S. didn't seem to anticipate the Taliban's quick takeover. There was also a case made for the war in Iraq at the Security Council. Why should the world listen to the U.S. this time?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The world can listen to the Ukrainians. The world can listen to the Russians. Russia has 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. There is no equivocation about that. There's no question that their intentions have been nefarious. But at the same time, the world is not just hearing it from us, they're hearing it from others.

FADEL: And is the assessment of the administration right now that an invasion is still imminent?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No, I would not say that we are arguing that it's imminent because we're still pursuing a diplomatic solution to give the Russians an offramp. Our hope is that this will work and that Putin will understand that war and confrontation is not the path that he wants to follow. But he wants to take a path of diplomacy. We're giving them an opportunity to discuss their security concerns, Europe's security concerns and certainly Ukraine's security concerns. So we'll keep working on that.

FADEL: Just in the few seconds we have left, what kind of conversations are you having with the Chinese these days? Russia drew the support of China's ambassador, who called for quiet diplomacy.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I think the Chinese approach was not unexpected. They generally will align with Russia in the Security Council in terms of votes. But the message that the Chinese delivered calling for diplomacy was the message that Russia heard from all the members of the council.

FADEL: Ambassador, thank you for your time.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.