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Monday, March 3, 2014

White House Scrambles To Meet Russian Challenge Over Ukraine

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine, March 1, 2014, in the Oval Office. (Pete Souza/The White House)

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine, March 1, 2014, in the Oval Office. (Pete Souza/The White House)

As Russian troops consolidate their hold on border posts and key military installations in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, the White House is rushing to build a coalition to oppose further Russian advances in the region.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the U.S. response to the crisis.

Interview Highlights: Steven Pifer

On the seriousness of the situation in Crimea

“I think the British foreign secretary had it about right. This is a big crisis and you’ve got various pieces in play. The only way that you can now describe Crimea, which is a part of Ukraine, and recognize including by Russia as a part of Ukraine is that it is under Russian military occupation. Fortunately, Ukrainian forces inside Crimea have acted with great restraint I think under orders from Kiev, they have not engaged the Russians. So Ukrainians are trying to do what they can to sort of keep things under control.”

On Russia’s endgame in Crimea

“This is a hard one to figure out. I would think that most Western analysts a week ago would have said Moscow, in particular Vladimir Putin, are very unhappy with what happened in Kiev and the coming to power of a new government after Viktor Yanukovych, the previous president, fled Ukraine. And analysts would have predicted that the Russians would do something to sort of keep that new government a little bit uneasy, to try and destabilize it. But what we all expected would be economic leverage, perhaps raising the price of gas, cutting off the trade to Russia, things like that. And what happened is Mr. Putin jumped over this and went right to this military step. This does defiantly put Ukraine on edge. The end game though, I think at this point remains to be seen and perhaps Moscow has yet decided what it wants to play next.”

On whether Russian is afraid of U.S. sanctions

“I think these levers do have some impact. First of all, one thing that’s very important to Vladimir Putin is international legitimacy — that Russia is a player on the stage. Given the reaction that we’re seeing coming out of Moscow now, it didn’t go down well that yesterday the other seven members of the G8 put out a joint statement saying because of this action against Ukraine, we are holding preparations for the G8 summit plan to be held in Sochi in June. And I think now it looks like Washington is looking at the possibility of financial measures. There are believed to be a lot of Russian money and assets that are in American banks or European banks, in part because there’s not a lot of confidence in the Russian banks. And if there was a way to go after those assets and do assets phases, that could have an impact.”

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW.

And let's get back to our top story, the situation in Ukraine, which the British foreign secretary is calling the biggest crisis in Europe this century. We're joined now by someone who understands firsthand the top-level diplomacy that's going on between the U.S., the EU and Russia. Steven Pifer is former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution. He's with us now. Steven Pifer, welcome.

STEVEN PIFER: Thank you for having me...

HOBSON: Well, things are moving...

PIFER: ...although I wish it could be at a different circumstance.

HOBSON: Of course. Well, things are moving very quickly now. We have gone from President Obama telling the Russians not to move into Ukraine on Friday to the Russians taking positions at these strategic posts in Crimea. It's very easy to start talking about a global crisis here. But how would you describe the seriousness of the situation?

PIFER: No. I think the British foreign secretary had it about right, that this is a big crisis. And you've got various pieces in play. The only way that you can now describe Crimea, which is a part of Ukraine, and recognized including by Russia as a part of Ukraine, is it is under Russian military occupation. Fortunately, Ukrainian forces in Crimea have acted with great restraint, I think, under orders from Kiev. They have not engaged the Russians. So the Ukrainians are trying to do what they can to sort of keep things under control.

HOBSON: Play that out for us because why would they not want to fight back, for example, in Crimea against Russians?

PIFER: Crimea is a particular area. Bear in mind that there actually have been Russian military forces stationed in Crimea for the Black Sea Fleet and associated units going back to the break of the Soviet Union, and they were allowed to be there by treaty between Ukraine and Russia. What happened, though, beginning on Friday was these troops begin to do things that went way beyond the permitted agreement in terms of taking over airports, setting up roadblocks. And then you've had introduction of further Russian forces coming into the area from Russia proper.

HOBSON: What is Russia's endgame here? How do they get out of this situation?

PIFER: This is a hard one to figure out. I would think that most Western analysts a week ago would have said Moscow and particularly Vladimir Putin are very unhappy with what had happened in Kiev and the coming to power of a new government after Viktor Yanukovych, the previous president, fled Ukraine. And analysts would have predicted that the Russians would do some things to sort of keep that new government a little bit uneasy to try to destabilize it.

But we all expect it would be economic leverage, perhaps raising the price of gas, cutting off (technical difficulties) in the trade to Russia, things like that. And what happened is Mr. Putin has jumped over this and went right to this military step. Now this does definitely put Ukraine on edge. The endgame, though, I think, at this point remains to be seen. And perhaps Moscow has not yet decided what it wants to play next.

HOBSON: So you think the U.S. was caught off guard by the Russian decision to send in troops?

PIFER: My guess is that not just the U.S. but Europe - I think people in the U.S. government expected that there would be some sort of Russian pressure on the Ukrainian government. But it was expected more to be economic rather than this kind of military grab.

HOBSON: How afraid is Russia of the idea of sanctions from the United States or visa bans or any of the economic levers that the U.S. could pull?

PIFER: Well, I think these levers do have some impact. First of all, you know, one thing for - that's very important to Vladimir Putin is this international legitimacy that Russia is a player on the stage. Given the reaction that we're seeing coming out of Moscow now, it didn't go down well that yesterday the other seven members of the G8 put out a joint statement saying, because of this action Ukraine - against Ukraine, we are holding preparations for the G8 summit planned to be held in Sochi in June.

And I think now it looks like Washington is looking at the possibility of financial measures. There are believed to be a lot of Russian money and assets that are in American banks or European banks in part because there's not a lot of confidence in the Russian banks. And, you know, if there was a way to go after those assets and do asset freezes, that could have an impact. But there's also...

HOBSON: An impact being what, what Putin would decide to pull back?

PIFER: Well, at least, you know, Putin will not make an overt pullback, but at least we want to try to steer him to some kind of a negotiating process that might get him a face-saving way to step down. But the one positive news over the weekend was Chancellor Merkel apparently had a conversation with Putin, out of which there seemed to be some possibility of setting up a contact group or some kind of a mechanism for a dialogue that might allow for de-escalation. And unfortunately, we haven't seen a lot of de-escalation from the Russian side over the last week.

HOBSON: What is Europe - excuse me. What is you Europe's role in this? And how big a role will they have to play along with the United States?

PIFER: Europe has a big role for a couple of reasons. One, a lot of the sorts of sanctions that they're talking about on the financial side are going to have much greater impact if they're taken jointly by the United States and Europe. Obviously, if they're going to decide to boycott Sochi, that involves not just a decision by the United States but in Europe, the British, the French, the Germans and the Italians. So there are a lot of players there.

But I think also Europe has to ask - I mean, this is not a sort of thing that you thought you would see in the aftermath of the Cold War. This is a Russian military invasion, a territory that they have previously and repeatedly recognized as Ukrainian territory afterwards. And they have repeatedly said that they would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. Does Europe really - would let that kind of ripping up of the international rules pass (unintelligible)? There has to be a reaction here.

HOBSON: Well, let me just play devil's advocate on that for a second.

PIFER: Yep.

HOBSON: Because what if the U.S. and Europe were to say, you know what, let him Crimea. We're not going to get into a war over this.

PIFER: I think it's probably right. I don't think anybody in the West is talking about going to war over Crimea. But again, if the Russians rip up the rules here, where do they change the rules next? For example, the Russian argument for going into Crimea was that ethnic Russians were at risk. There is zero evidence that there was any threat last week to ethnic Russians or, in fact, to the Russian military installations in Crimea. But you don't want to encourage this sort of behavior because if you look at some of the NATO members, Estonia and Latvia each have significant ethnic Russian populations.

Well, what happens if the Russians say, we need to go to protect those people? That then you have - it's not the case of Ukraine where there's a U.S. and British security assurance to Ukraine. If you're talking about the Baltic states, as members of NATO, it's a security guarantee. We're obligated by a treaty to come to their defense. So I think it's very important that the West now sends a very strong signal to Moscow that this kind of behavior is simply unacceptable. We don't want to encourage them to believe that you get away with it again in the future.

HOBSON: Steven Pifer, just a few seconds left, but what are you going to be watching for over the next 24 hours?

PIFER: I'll be watching to see - I think that Secretary Kerry's visit to Kiev tomorrow, I think, will be a useful signal of support to Kiev. The thing I'm still watching is do the Russians restrict military activities to Crimea? Or do they make - to be a horrendous and doing modern, a broader military intervention into eastern Ukraine? I think, in that case, the Ukrainian military would fight.

HOBSON: Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and senior analyst at the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much.

PIFER: Thank you for having me.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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