A bipartisan congressional delegation is in Germany this weekend, along with Vice President Kamala Harris for the annual Munich Security Conference. The meeting of high-level international officials comes at a pivotal moment on the world stage, with Russia poised to invade Ukraine. Among the lawmakers attending the conference is Representative Seth Moulton from Salem. He joined hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel on Morning Edition today.
Paris Alston: Russia has said that they would withdraw troops from the border of Ukraine, but U.S. officials have not seen that yet. How are you and fellow members of Congress preparing for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Seth Moulton: Well, let's be clear, Russia is lying about what they're doing, and this is part of Putin's deception campaign. He's really trying to do two things right now. He's trying to sow confusion among NATO allies, and he's trying to come up with a justification for his invasion. Those two things are related, of course. When there's more confusion, it's easier for him to justify what's coming. But I'll tell you at this conference, not just in the U.S. delegation, but among all our NATO allies, there is a real sense of foreboding doom that the invasion is coming and likely coming within days.
Jeremy Siegel: What will be the consequences if an invasion does come in the coming days?
Moulton: It's a great question, Jeremy, because a lot of Americans are asking, what does Ukraine have to do with us? Why should I care about what happens in Ukraine? And just to put this in perspective, this would be the largest military action in Europe since World War Two — an outright invasion of a sort of a sovereign country. And even though Ukraine is not technically a part of NATO, it's very much seen as an affront to NATO from Russia, something that could dramatically undermine the NATO consensus that kept peace and security in Europe for the past seven years.
I'll tell you what, we have consistently underestimated Vladimir Putin. Every time he does something like this, whether it's in Georgia or Crimea, we have this naive belief that seems to say this will probably be his last stop. He probably won't do it again. And yet, there he goes again. Next time, it could well be a NATO ally, and that means U.S. troops will be involved and American lives will be lost. So the consequences of this could be incredibly serious, and that's why we still need to do everything we can to try to deter an invasion, to try to prevent war here at the last minute.
Siegel: Do you foresee a future where the U.S. military is involved, given the situation that there is with Russia and Ukraine right now?
Moulton: The president has been very clear that U.S. troops will not be sent to Ukraine, not even to conduct an evacuation. He wants to avoid the confrontation between U.S. troops and Russian troops that, as he said, could result in another World War. But the scenario I'm painting is that if Putin is not stopped here, we don't know where he'll go next. And the security guarantee of NATO is that if one nation is attacked, it's considered an attack on us all. We have thousands of U.S. troops positioned all around the borders of NATO, the eastern flank that faces Russia. Those troops are being reinforced with more troops as we speak.
So we don't know where this could go next, and that's why it's such an incredibly dangerous situation. That's why this delegation is here in Munich trying to do everything we can to prevent war. But in an ominous sign at the last minute, the Russian delegation, usually an annual fixture of this conference, has pulled out
Alston: Congressman, for months, you've warned that the U.S. was too slow in dealing with Russia and focusing more on responding to a possible Russian invasion instead of preventing it. Do you think that's still the case?
Moulton: Well, I think the administration has done a fantastic job in the last few weeks of trying to catch up. Now it's too late for certain things. They've been sending a lot of weapons, but we don't have any time to train the Ukrainians on how to use these defensive weapons. So I think that it's a bit too late for that. I would have liked to see a sanctions regime organized and put into place earlier, not applied but ready to go. So Putin knows that the second he invades, he will face the harshest sanctions that he has ever seen, and they'll be targeted directly at him and his allies. We're still working on that. We've made tremendous progress. But I do wish that our effort had started a bit earlier.
Siegel: You mentioned earlier that you think that Putin's intention here is to sow confusion among NATO allies. I'm sure you'll learn more in the coming days at this conference. But do you see that confusion? Is there sort of a lack of understanding across the board among allies or is there an agreement that you're seeing?
Moulton: That's another great question, I actually think NATO allies are quite aligned. Back in the fall when we had intelligence that we couldn't share with all of our allies about this build up, a lot of the European allies didn't think it was so serious. I think everyone now recognizes the threat. But the simple fact that your first question to me was, are Russian troops pulling back or are they not, shows the effect that Putin's propaganda has. As soon as he announced that he was pulling back troops, all the western media outlets said it sounds like the crisis is thawing, even though there is absolutely no evidence for that to be the case. That's not the criticism of you. It's just a reality that this propaganda that he puts out is effective.
So he may not be sowing confusion among the military and political leaders of the European Union of the NATO alliance, but he's certainly effective at sowing confusion in the West in general.
"This would be the largest military action in Europe since World War Two."-Rep. Seth Moulton
Alston: So, Congressman, what's on the agenda in Munich this week and how are you all coming together to try to mitigate this crisis?
Moulton: Well, one of the most important things that we're doing is we're solidifying these alliances, this agreement that we have with our NATO allies about exactly how we will respond if he invades. And what we can still continue to deter him from taking that action. That's on-the-ground diplomacy that matters. It matters to be face-to-face with your counterparts.
I just had a long conversation with a fellow veteran who's a minister of parliament in the U.K. He's someone who had a very similar experience to mine overseas, but being able to speak face-to-face about the challenges that our country has faced together right now is incredibly important to unity in the days ahead.
If Putin invades, the question is not just going to be, how do we respond on day one? Are we going to be effective at putting these harsh sanctions that we're still negotiating into place? But the longer-term question will be, will the NATO alliance hold together if he tries to occupy Ukraine over the coming months? Will we be effective at supporting an insurgency that essentially teaches Putin a harsh lesson that he shouldn't have ever invaded in the first place? Or will the NATO alliance start to crumble? Which, of course, is exactly what Putin hopes.
Siegel: Being at this conference, being on the ground in Munich right now, what would you say is the mood among both fellow lawmakers and international counterparts? Does it feel like crisis mode in these conversations?
Moulton: It does. This is a group of experienced leaders who are generally calm, cool and collected in the face of challenges like this. But there's certainly a pervasive feeling that we could be on the precipice of a true disaster, that literally within the next week, the whole security framework of NATO in the West could change because of what Putin does.
We just heard a speech from the secretary of the U.N., and the foreboding sense of crisis was palpable and everything that he said. So we're working hard. We're doing everything we can to solidify the NATO alliance and present a unified front to Putin, hopefully to deter an invasion, but also to convince them that the response will be significant if he does invade. But I will tell you, there's a tremendous sense of concern.
Alston: And Congressman, are you concerned about Americans who are in Ukraine right now, and do you think that they should be trying to get out?
Moulton: Oh, absolutely. This is so important that you heed President Biden's advice to leave the country. If you are an American, I mean, frankly, if you're someone who could be targeted by the Russians for any reason, if you're a foreign national, you should get out of Ukraine right now. We would love, as the U.S. Military, to be able to come in and rescue you if necessary. But we will not be able to do that because of the potential for a wider conflict. So even though there are troops all over Europe, they're not going to be able to save people who are left in Ukraine. So it's imperative that Americans get out now.
Siegel: Congressman Seth Moulton of Salem joining us from Munich. Thank you so much for talking with us.