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Harris meets with Zelensky in Munich

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start today with the latest from a high-stakes security summit in Munich, Germany, where Western leaders met today to discuss what to do about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Vice President Kamala Harris told Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the United States takes that threat against his country seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: If Russia further invades your country, as I mentioned earlier today, we will impose swift and severe economic sanctions.

MARTIN: Sitting down with Harris, Zelenskyy thanked Vice President Harris for U.S. help and support over the years. But later in the day, he questioned why Western allies were waiting for the, quote, "bombardment to begin," end quote, before imposing new sanctions against Moscow. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is traveling with the vice president, and he is with us now to tell us more. Franco, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So what more can you tell us about the meeting between the vice president and the Ukraine President Zelenskyy?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it was largely a symbolic meeting, but it was an important one because it was a message that the United States was supporting Zelenskyy. The two took pictures together before sitting down. Harris told Zelenskyy that the United States took the threats against Ukraine seriously. She said that the United States supports Ukraine's sovereignty and its borders, and she emphasized that Russia would pay a very heavy price if it invades Ukraine.

MARTIN: How did Zelenskyy respond?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he told her that the main thing that he was seeking was peace for Ukraine. He did raise the possibility of seeking some more assistance and resources for his army. The U.S. has been supplying ammunition and equipment for the Ukrainian military. But Zelenskyy was very thankful for the support the U.S. had provided. And, you know, they were meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. This is an annual get-together of global security leaders. And he spoke later to the larger conference, and in that conversation, his message shifted a bit, particularly during a Q&A portion of his presentation. That's when he was kind of critical of the West for not imposing sanctions when some have already claimed that Putin had made a decision to invade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Then what are you waiting for? We don't need your sanctions after the bombardment will happen and after our country will be fired at or after we will have no borders or after we will have no economy or part of our countries will be occupied. Why would we need those sanctions then?

ORDOÑEZ: It's clear that Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians are not satisfied, though, with the pace of the diplomatic efforts that are ongoing.

MARTIN: The Ukrainian president was also asked about his country joining NATO. What did he say?

ORDOÑEZ: He said that Ukraine needs security guarantees. He said they understood that there are steps that need to be taken but that NATO should be more clear about what they are and actually how long they're going to take.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: Be honest about it. Open doors are good, but we need open answers but not the years and years of closed questions.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he said that Ukraine should not be a buffer between Russia and the West.

MARTIN: So Franco, can we step just - back just a little bit? Harris took part in a Q&A, and she was asked a lot about the strength of the transatlantic alliance and its future. What did she say about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. She was asked about whether the alliance can survive, particularly after four years of former President Donald Trump's "America First" approach to foreign policy. You know, there's been some uncertainty about whether the alliance can last past the Biden administration, even, you know, and she was asked about that. She said, this is an issue that is important to the administration but also to the United States. And she pointed to the dozens of members of Congress - from both parties, I'll add - who were there at the Munich conference. She mentioned that they don't often agree, but they did agree on this issue. You know, and she also talked about how this crisis has brought the alliance together and made it stronger. Here's a little bit of what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Not everyone started out in the same place in terms of a variety of issues that are on the table. How do we define aggression? What should be the consequences? Which consequences are appropriate? Which are we willing to pursue? Which aren't we willing to pursue? So we didn't all start out in the same place.

ORDOÑEZ: As she said, this year's conference was being convened under the most dire circumstances since the end of the Cold War. But she said the U.S. and its alliance with Europe hasn't been this strong in years.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Franco Ordoñez traveling with Vice President Kamala Harris in Germany. Franco, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "A PUNCH UP AT A WEDDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.