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Russia’s response to MH17 crash shifts EU attitudes on sanctions

July 29, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what changed the attitudes of the Europeans toward imposing tough sanctions, American reluctance to give Ukraine sophisticated weapons and accusations that Russia has violated a Reagan-era nuclear treaty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To help make sense of today’s developments, our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, joins us.

So, Margaret, tell us more about what these sanctions do.

MARGARET WARNER: Broadly, Judy, what they try to do is hobble the Russians’ access to both capital and technology in these three key areas, arms, energy and finance.

So, for instance, let’s just take finance. Now — by now, five of the six state-owned Russian banks basically will have no access to medium- and long-term capital or debt, and since they get almost 100 percent of it from U.S. and Western sources, as one U.S. official said today, they’re essentially going to have to shut down.

Private banks aren’t being touched. If you take the arms area, again, they’re going to use export license restrictions to prevent future sales of arms to Russia. And in the energy sector, they’re going to use export license restrictions to prevent Western companies from giving the Russians access to future technologies, particularly in deep water and in shale gas, because the key thing here is, Judy, nothing will interfere here with current projects, whether it’s BP or ExxonMobil in the energy field, the French selling its warships.

What they’re trying to do as much as possible is not hit Western businesses too hard, but make it clear to the Russians that future investments is really going to be crippled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we know, until now, Margaret, the Europeans have been reluctant to impose critical sanctions like these on critical sectors.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What caused them to change their mind?

MARGARET WARNER: Talking both to Europeans and to U.S. officials, Judy, what’s clear is, it really was a shift of attitudes to one of deep anger, not only in the public, but among officials, about the downing of the plane and then the Russians’ reaction to it, which is, as the president said, rather than stepping back, they doubled down in what they’re doing in Ukraine.

And apparently the publics’ reactions in these Northern European countries in particular, mostly European victims, seeing their bodies left rotting in the field, people rifling through their possessions, I mean, it really changed public attitudes. And key to this was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, one, was responding to public sentiment, and also even the German business federation came together and said, well, we recognize we’re going to have to have sanctions.

The other thing was that the E.U. felt in a way Putin had called their bluff. When they met in the middle of the month, they said to Putin, unless you stop grant access to the crash site, unless you stop shifting men and materiel and weapons across the border, we’re going to do this.

Well, he didn’t, and so they did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Kiev, the leaders of Ukraine’s government, they’re now watching their European neighbors do this. What’s the reaction?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, publicly, the Ukrainian foreign minister was here today and he said of course this is terrific.

But I talked to a well-placed official in the government in Kiev late this afternoon and he said, well, you know, it’s good, but he said, sometimes in an illness the medicine depends on being administered at the right stage. If this had been done in May, it might have helped. He said, and maybe it will persuade the Russian elite that this is a dangerous path to go down.

But this officials said, many of us believe Putin has already made the decision to a full-scale invasion. Now, U.S. officials don’t share that sentiment, though they are also of course preparing for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There has been talk whether the U.S. is going to be prepared at some point to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine. Where does that stand?

MARGARET WARNER: That — there’s still a reluctance, Judy, to provide sophisticated weapons. The line is, they have got plenty of ordinary weapons.

As you saw, there was even a charge today that the Ukrainian military has used ballistic missiles, short-range ballistic missiles against rebel positions. So, don’t they lack for that. The U.S. is still reluctant to provide more sophisticated weaponry, given what happened when Russia provided sophisticated weaponry to the separatists.

What they are now willing to do, I’m told, more, we, the United States, is, is deeper intelligence sharing. The Ukrainians say, we really can’t keep our eye on where the Russian forces and the separatists are deployed. They need more high-resolution and more real-time intelligence.

And, in fact, senior defense and intelligence officials are in Kiev now. The fear has been that the intelligence and military in Ukraine are too penetrated by Russian intelligence and military. But I’m told that the belief is they have identified at least a couple of units and individuals they feel they can trust.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, separate thing that happened today, the Obama administration accusing Russia of violating a nuclear treaty. Tell us, what are the Russians — what do they believe the Russians have done, when did they do it, and how serious is this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they think it’s very serious.

I talked to another separate top U.S. official today who has been very involved in this, who said, we consider this a serious violation. It’s been an extensive program over a number of years. What they’re talking about is simply testing a ground-launched cruise missile, but within the prohibited range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers.

You recall that the reason the U.S. and then Soviet Union, Gorbachev and Reagan, agreed was that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: It goes back to the 1980s.

MARGARET WARNER: 1987, exactly, and it was negotiated all through the ’80s. And it really had put Europe in the crosshairs.

Remember, America had short-range missiles over there. So all the stockpiles were destroyed. What the U.S. is saying now is that, for several years, in fact, Russia has been testing a ground-launched cruise missile.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so — and they have proof? Are they sharing the proof?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, certainly with NATO, there have been consultations. There were people on the Hill who have already known about this.

I don’t know what kind of evidence they have demonstrated, but they have been talking to the Russians about this. Now, the Russians’ answer apparently is, well, you’re violating it, too, because the dummy missiles you used to test your anti-missile systems could constitute — even though they’re dummy missiles, they’re not armed, but they’re dummy missiles — so basically they haven’t engaged.

And that’s why President Obama wrote this letter to President Putin Monday saying, look, sit down, let’s talk about it. Let’s not move to the next stage of deployment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you can’t ignore the timing.


JUDY WOODRUFF: This comes as there are these huge tensions between the U.S. and Russia.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any connection between the two?

MARGARET WARNER: You know, Judy, I asked everybody I talked to today. And each person said, hard as it is to believe, really, there isn’t. This was on its own track.

And that is that they had a report due on the Hill — actually it’s about two months’ overdue — called the compliance report. It actually concerns 2013. And for the first time, the U.S. side says they really had the goods. I mean, in their view, they really had done the investigatory work. They had to declare it. And, in fact, apparently, it’s going to be — if it hasn’t been posted on the Web site yet, State Department Web site, it will be today.

So that’s how it became public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of great reporting, Margaret. Thank you.