VILNIUS, Lithuania — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that Ukraine would be “defenseless” if the U.S. had not decided to supply Ukraine with controversial cluster munitions to fill a critical gap created by a backlog of conventional weapons.
“The stockpiles around the world and in Ukraine of the unitary munitions, not the cluster munitions, were running out, about to be depleted,” Blinken said in an interview for MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" at the NATO summit in Lithuania. “And so, the hard but necessary choice to give them the cluster munitions amounted to this: If we didn’t do it, we don’t do it, then they will run out of ammunition. If they run out of ammunition, then they will be defenseless.”
Many NATO allies have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use, production and sale of cluster munitions because of the risks they pose to civilians. The U.S. has not signed the treaty, and neither have Russia or Ukraine.
Blinken dismissed concerns that U.S.-supplied cluster munitions could create a deadly hazard in Ukraine for years by releasing unexploded “bomblets”— known as duds — that can act like land mines. He said that is already the case because of Russia’s use of the weapons in Ukraine.
“Every ally I’ve talked to has said they understand why we’re doing this when we’re doing it,” Blinken said when he was asked whether the U.S. was ceding the moral high ground by supplying Ukraine with a weapon the U.S. and its allies have criticized Russia for deploying on the battlefield.
In an interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show, Blinken said Ukraine cannot be extended an invitation to join NATO while the war continues.
"I think everyone’s been clear, including President Zelenskyy, that in the midst of a war, membership can’t happen," Blinken said. "But they’ve made real progress, and the alliance will lay out the further reforms, both in terms of their security work and their democracy, that are necessary to keep moving down that path.”
Blinken also said NATO is “more united than it’s ever been” after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed Monday to drop his country’s opposition to allowing Sweden to become the 32nd member of NATO.
President Joe Biden said in a statement Monday after the announcement that he was ready to work with Turkey on “enhancing defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area.” That was seen by many as an indication that the U.S. would move forward with the sale of F-16s to Turkey after it agreed to cooperate on Sweden’s accession.
Blinken maintained the two matters were not linked.
“Well, these for us have always been separate issues,” he said. “It’s been the policy of this administration that Turkey should have the upgraded F-16s, the modernized F-16s. They’re a NATO ally. To make sure that all of NATO can work closely together. Interoperable — that’s the term that we use. It’s important that Turkey have this technology.”
The sale of the F-16s requires congressional approval. There has been bipartisan opposition to the sale, which could lessen now that Turkey is no longer blocking Sweden’s NATO membership.
“In the interests of the United States, it’s in the interest of the NATO alliance for Turkey to get these planes,” Blinken said. “It’s what we do across the alliance — make sure that all of its members have the technology they need to make the alliance as strong as possible.”
Blinken said on "TODAY" that NATO is committed to help Ukraine in the long run.
"One of the things that will come out of this summit is not only what we’re doing right now for Ukraine, but what the alliance plans to do and what countries individually plan to do to help Ukraine build up over time its deterrence and defense capacity," he said. "That tells President Putin that he can’t outlast us, he can’t outlast Ukraine, he can’t outlast all of the countries that are supporting Ukraine, and it would be in his interest to bring this aggression to an end as soon as possible.”
Andrea Mitchell reported from Vilnius, and Owen Hayes reported from Washington.