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Reviewing U.S. options for responding to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine

March 4, 2014 at 6:11 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The standoff in Ukraine and the tension it has triggered between the U.S. and Russia has become the central foreign policy challenge in Washington, in Moscow and in European capitals.

Here to take us behind the scenes, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

Margaret, welcome again.

So, this war of words we saw amped up today, especially between John Kerry, the president spoke, and especially Vladimir Putin, what does it signal?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I can tell you what the administration thought Putin had to say signaled, on the one hand — and the press reports really emphasize — his tough talk about how Russia had a right to go into Ukraine to protect Russians and they also felt he was out of touch with reality, as many have said, in terms of denying that Russian troops are there.

On the other hand, as they read underneath the bluster, they did see a couple of glimmers of encouragement. One, he talked about elections coming up in May, which is what the U.S. is talking about. Two, he — though he said Yanukovych was the legit president, he also admitted that Yanukovych had walked away from power and said he told him on the phone the other day you will never win another election.



GWEN IFILL: Seemed to be in conflict.


And then he also talked about wanting to engage, though apparently last night, when there was a meeting between the Russian and German foreign ministers, Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had no give, no interest in any — taking any real steps to start the Russians and Ukrainians talking.

GWEN IFILL: There’s been a lot of discussion in this country about sanctions. This is something the president or Secretary Kerry mentioned every single time. Secretary Kerry showed up with a billion dollars in loan guarantees today. Are those sanctions moving any closer to reality?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they are, Gwen.

In fact, an official traveling with Secretary Kerry talked about the fact that there could be something coming as early as late next week. This week, I talked to Senator Corker — an aide to Senator Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today. There’s a movement on the Hill to impose some sort of sanctions, though they’re trying to work with the administration on that.

The most interesting word I heard on sanctions came actually from German officials today, who said despite all the stories about how Chancellor Merkel is more reluctant on sanctions than some of the Europeans, they said the E.U. has this foreign ministers summit — in fact, heads of state summit on Thursday, and if there is no movement, if there is no change from Putin, sanctions will be on the table.

So I think the administration would like to have the Europeans have a concerted front, not, one, because they’re more effective, economic sanctions are, but, two, also for the political signal it sends.

GWEN IFILL: Are the Europeans in lock step with the U.S. on these kinds of things?

MARGARET WARNER: No, no, quite to the contrary.

I mean, as we know, the — Europe has much closer trade ties, they are more dependent for energy on Russia. Russia is a very near neighbor, if not a direct neighbor. It’s — one — one European official said to me today, it’s a little different for you all sitting in the U.S. Russia doesn’t really look like a direct threat. But if you’re in this neighborhood, you know, there are both positive benefits to engaging with Russia and there’s also the hostility that exists there.

So, no, they’re not on the same page. But I heard Secretary Kerry say today he was quite sure they would work it together, in other words, that they would be in agreement. Now, what we don’t know is, does that mean the administration thinks they can bring the Europeans along to where they are?

Or does it mean that President Obama is willing to slow his pace down to stick with the Europeans?

GWEN IFILL: How much of this is — you alluded to this in the answer to the first question. How much does this depend on their confidence in Putin’s motives, whether they truly believe, as Merkel has been quoted as saying, that he has lost it?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the German officials wouldn’t confirm that he used — she used those words, but said that does reflect the German view, and, in fact, it was obvious from what Putin said today.

American officials, when I say, well, how do you read Putin, I mostly hear sighs.


MARGARET WARNER: Like, we can’t read Putin, and — other than knowing he’s an ultranationalist who wants to retain or in fact enlarge the Russian sphere of influence in his neighborhood.

They really don’t know how to read him, and they have given up. What is concerning to them and also to Europeans is, he has the bit between his teeth on this issue. So, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, on whom Secretary Kerry has spent a lot of time developing a relationship with on Iran, on Syria to some limited degree, they’re supposed to meet tomorrow, though that’s not 100 percent set, in Europe.

They — there is a concern in the administration that Lavrov may not have much room to maneuver. This is Putin’s baby. And I heard that also from Europeans today.

GWEN IFILL: Is the — how far is the U.S. in particular prepared to push on this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, see, that is the question.


MARGARET WARNER: Is — let’s say — and this is a hypothetical, so I couldn’t get anyone to engage on it. Let’s say Putin basically says, look, I’m not going to move into Southeastern Ukraine, short of some incredible provocation, which he sort of hinted that today, but he — he retains the status quo in Crimea, in which the Russian troops, he may call them irregulars, but there are Russian troops outside of those bases that they’re allowed to under treaty.

Does the world say, well, Crimea used to belong to Russia and it’s sort of a de facto — it’s happened and we have to accept it, or does the United States and the Europeans continue to then say, well, we are — we’re not going to send troops in, but we’re going to exact a price? And I think that remains to be decided.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks so much. So many questions to answer.


GWEN IFILL: Among them, is this — is this a standoff the U.S. should have seen coming? And what are the options now?

For that, we get two views. John Mearsheimer is a professor at the University of Chicago and has written extensively on strategic issues. And Amy Knight has authored several books about Russian politics and history. She also writes for “The New York Review of Books.”

Welcome to you both.

Now, John Mearsheimer, as you see it now, what are the options that are available for the U.S. or Europe or Russia?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: Well, the fact is that we have remarkably few options.

We have no military option at all. Even John McCain and almost every hawk has said that there’s no military option here. And when you look at the economic options, they do not look attractive at all either. People talk about sanctions. I think it’s going to be very difficult to get the Europeans to go along with meaningful sanctions.

And even if they do go along with meaningful sanctions, the fact is that the Russians have ways of countering us. The Russians will put enormous pressure on Ukraine, and they will even put pressure on the Europeans. They have a second strike, so to speak, here. So we don’t have really good options, which is why we should have never gotten into this mess to begin with.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Knight, what is your take on that?

AMY KNIGHT, Author, “How the Cold War Began”: Well, I think clearly the U.S. is in a difficult position. And I do agree that we can’t count on the Europeans to back all the economic sanctions.

But, nonetheless, I think that Putin and his colleagues in the Kremlin probably are nervous about the possibility of having visas denied to Russian businessmen, possibly having assets frozen. And I think another thing is, Putin showed by the effort that Russia put into the Olympics — they spent over $50 billion — that they — that the image of Russia and of Putin himself in the West was very important, and now that is pretty much gone down the drain because of this recent incursion into Crimea.

GWEN IFILL: John Mearsheimer, as you look into this situation as it’s unfolding today, we heard John Kerry use the word de-escalate. Is it too late too late for that?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: No, I don’t think it’s too late at all.

And, in fact, I think everybody has a deep-seated interest in trying to de-escalate this crisis and go back to the status quo ante. We certainly don’t want a war and we don’t want to see Ukraine partitioned or anything like that. What we would like to do is have an election this coming May in that country, get a government in place that is neither anti-Russian or terribly pro-Russian, and create a situation where we don’t have any significant differences with the Russians over Ukraine.

And I think, in addition to that, what we also have to do is, we have to stop talking about NATO expansion. I think it’s an important backdrop to this whole crisis. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and the West Europeans have been pushing NATO further and further eastward, and this just drives the Russians crazy. It’s what precipitated, in my opinion, the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia.

And I think what’s going on here is that the Russians are basically saying — and here we’re talking about Putin — that there’s no way that they’re going to tolerate a situation where the United States installs a pro-Western regime in Ukraine and then eventually brings Ukraine into NATO. This is simply unacceptable.

GWEN IFILL: That’s a basic question, Amy Knight. Has the U.S. miscalculated, overreached in supporting NATO expansion and Ukrainian independence?

AMY KNIGHT: Well, I don’t think so, particularly with regard to Ukraine. I don’t think the U.S. installed a government in Ukraine.

Ukrainians were very emphatic that they were unhappy with the Yanukovych government. It’s terribly — it was terribly corrupt. And they — a good number of Ukrainians wanted tighter ties, economic ties with Europe. So I don’t think the U.S. can be blamed for that.

And I think that Russia and the Kremlin really underestimated the reaction that would come from their moving into Crimea. I don’t think it was such a wise thing, even though it’s quite clear that Putin’s motivation was to show that Russia doesn’t tolerate easily what it perceives of as the West and the U.S. in particular trying to influence events in states that were formerly a part of the Soviet Union.

GWEN IFILL: Most Americans, John Mearsheimer, who were watching the Olympics and the shiny Sochi spectacle only a few weeks ago are puzzled that Putin would make this effort to tarnish his reputation so quickly. Is there something behind this that made this inevitable?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, it’s not only most Americans who have been shocked by what has happened. It’s quite clear that the White House and most experts in Washington have been shocked.

I don’t understand why they have been shocked. The fact is that Putin and the Russians more generally have made it clear that they will not tolerate on their borders a Ukraine or a Georgia that is pro-Western and is leaning towards joining NATO. They’re very clear on this. And we didn’t, by ourselves, engineer the coup in Kiev, that’s for sure, but there’s no question that the Americans — the Americans were giving encouragement to the rebellious forces, and that helped topple the government.

And from a Russian point of view, this is simply unacceptable. Ukraine is a core strategic interest, and the fact that most Americans don’t understand that is amazing to me.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this, Amy Knight. Is it too late at this point, if there is de-escalation that is possible, is it too late to return to some sort of status quo place for Ukraine, where, indeed, Vladimir Putin steps back, a new government is in place, and we go back to where we were before this latest hostility?

AMY KNIGHT: Well, I’m not sure whether it’s possible in the near future to have Russia withdraw its troops from — that were brought in recently to Crimea.

But it seemed pretty clear to me from Putin’s press conference that he is clearly backing down from the idea of further incursions in Eastern Ukraine, for example. And I think that’s really been the main concern of the U.S. and its European allies. That would — would really start a bloodbath and a civil war. And I think, right now, for the time being, we can be pretty much assured that Russia won’t be taking those kind of steps.

When and if it will be for conciliatory and step out of Crimea, that’s another question, and I think, as we see, nobody really knows whether that’s going to happen or not and how far the United States will press Russia in that direction.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Knight, John Mearsheimer, thank you both so much for your insights.

AMY KNIGHT: Thank you.