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Pro-Russian militias continue to occupy buildings in eastern Ukraine

April 19, 2014 at 5:45 PM EDT
On Friday’s program, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes called on Russia to influence pro-Russian demonstrators to leave the government buildings they’re occupying in eastern Ukraine. To follow up on these comments, Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Timothy Frye, the director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, about the possibility of imposing more sanctions on Russia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We wanted to follow up on the interview Judy Woodruff did last night with deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes about the crisis in Ukraine. In case you missed it, Rhodes called on Russia to use all its influence to get pro-Russian demonstrators to leave government buildings they’ve been occupying in eastern Ukraine. For more, we’re joined by Timothy Frye, he is the director at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. So right now, it seems Russia is using its influence to do the opposite.

TIMOTHY FRYE: Yeah we’re not seeing the demonstrators leave buildings or disarm. They’re actually flouting this agreement that was signed in Geneva,  saying that “we’re not bound by this, we didn’t sign it.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you know there’s all reports now of troops, kind of mysterious troops very similar to the ones in Crimea. Russia initially denied that those were Russian troops, now we see these troops in eastern Ukraine and President Putin is denying that as well.

TIMOTHY FRYE: Yeah, I mean we see a large buildup of of Russian troops on the border, and it’s important to keep in mind I think that the demonstrations came only after there was this large buildup of Russian troops on the other side of the border. So I imagine that pro-Russian militias are looking for cues from Moscow for their actions, as well as trying to drum up support locally. And they’ve largely been ineffective in bringing people onto their street. So I think the majority of people in eastern Ukraine would like to see the country remain whole and free.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So Ben Rhodes was mentioning last night that there is the possibility of more sanctions. Is there any evidence that the sanctions we have imposed so far are working?

TIMOTHY FRYE: Well, they are working in the sense that there’s a much greater level of uncertainty around economic activity in Russia. Banks are much less willing to lend to Russia in part because they are uncertain about who actually is targeted here. So we have the names on the list, but let’s say the friend or a related company of somebody on the list wants to borrow as well, banks are afraid to lend money to them for fear of trying to being seen as trying to get around the sanctions. So we’ve seen $60 billion in capital flight from Russia this quarter. And it’s important to keep in mind that the Russian economy is big, it’s about the 6th largest in the world, but it’s very concentrated in the natural resources sector and the capital sector in Russia comes largely from two state-owned banks. So in this sense Russia is vulnerable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what role does Europe play? I mean, they’re a much larger trading partner, and are they willing to make those hard choices.

TIMOTHY FRYE: Right, I think Germany is the important country here. It gets about a quarter of its energy from Russia. Angela Merkel has been much harder toward Russia than many of her constituents, or many of her businesses. So it’s going to be difficult to get the German’s to go a long. But I think if we see some aggressive action on the part of Moscow, there would be a rallying around sanctions in Europe and the United States. The tricky part though is that if Russia continues to play the role that it is and the situation in eastern Ukraine continues to be unstable, what would be a triggering event that would allow the U.S. to rally the Europeans to impose new sanctions against Russia?

HARI SREENIVASAN: So right now, that trigger event is troops crossing the border?

TIMOTHY FRYE: We don’t know what it is. Part of the bargaining that’s going on is trying to let the Russians guess what would be the kind of activities that would invoke sanctions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Time Frye from Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

TIMOTHY FRYE: Thank you.