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UN Ambassador Power: ‘Russia is looking at the path of political and economic isolation’

March 6, 2014 at 6:38 PM EST
U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power points to the hope of greater economic ties as a critical leverage point for the United States in persuading Russia to "pull back from the brink." She joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the new sanctions announced by President Obama against Russia and how giving that country an "off-ramp" to deescalate the Ukraine conflict could be more appealing than the cost of economic and political isolation.
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GWEN IFILL: Threats, sanctions and dire predictions moved to center stage today, as the crisis in Ukraine showed no sign of abating.

For more on what the U.S., the U.N. and their European partners can do to prevent the country from splitting apart, I spoke a short time ago with Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Ambassador Power, thank you for joining us.

The administration has been talking about economic isolation when it comes to Russia as a response to what’s happening in Crimea. Could you give us a sense of what that really means?

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.: Well, Russia has made clear in recent years how much it is interested in economic integration with the West and enhanced commercial ties.

And as a result of its military maneuvers and its illegal actions in Crimea, Ukraine, that entire process, the possibilities have been suspended, pending a decision by them to pull back from the brink. And so our goal now is to get them to pull back from the brink, get them to recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And our leverage involves something that they have made clear really has mattered to them over time.

GWEN IFILL: You talked about pulling back from the brink. You have talked about de-escalation. It’s a word both you and Senator — Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama have all used.

Why do you think you have the leverage to make them de-escalate, to go — to take — send their troops back to their barracks, as you have said?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, again, Russia has said that it wants enhanced economic ties. Putin has prided himself on steps that he’s taken to shore up the Russian economy.

It’s not doing that well right now. The ruble has depreciated substantially in recent months. A lot of Russia’s export market goes west, so Europe and Ukraine are very important markets for it. But also visa bans and economic sanctions, where U.S. persons are prohibited from doing business with certain individuals in Russia, we think this can have a deterrent effect.

But we don’t know. I mean, at this point, we are putting in place a set of measures, in the hopes that he pulls back from the brink, in the hopes that we don’t have to go all the way to full-on political and economic isolation, because the goal here, again, is to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

But we think that we have a series of levers, particularly when reinforced by our European partners, that will very much get his attention.

GWEN IFILL: If there is a vote for Crimea to go back to Russia, if that referendum were to come to pass, what would be the penalty in international law?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, first, you would see the broad, I think, condemnation and establishment of the illegality and illegitimacy of such a vote by the international community.

I have just come from the Security Council. And, again, with exception of Russia, virtually all council members made clear that this was inappropriate, that you have to operate in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution, which would require any such referendum that would affect the territorial integrity of Ukraine to be a referendum that would be carried out across Ukraine, and not just one subregion.

So, I think you would see condemnation. And the kinds of costs that President Obama laid out today would be the kinds, I think, that other countries would likely bring to bear. But, again, our hope is not to get to that, but rather to lay down those sanctions, as President Obama did today, in the hopes of getting Putin to pull back.

GWEN IFILL: Another off-ramp you have suggested is sending in international monitors. If you had an envoy in Crimea yesterday, Robert Serry, who was forced to leave, why do you think these monitors would be allowed in or allowed to stay?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, this, again, is an off-ramp.

Both the U.N. and the OSCE have made clear that they’re more than happy to go and address the allegations that Russia has made about the treatment of ethnic Russians, again, allegations that we believe are baseless, that we have seen no evidence of.

And it’s clear, I think, on the basis of Russian behavior and the behavior of Russian-speaking thugs in Crimea, that Russia doesn’t want monitors in, that they don’t want to actually expose the baselessness of their allegations.

So, of course this is very disturbing, the treatment of a U.N. enjoy sent by the entire international community, sent by the secretary-general on behalf of all the member states of the U.N. To be treated like that is just deplorable.

GWEN IFILL: So, why…

SAMANTHA POWER: And OSCE monitors today — sorry — also faced, as you know, similar obstructionism in Crimea.

GWEN IFILL: So you don’t really have any hopes that international monitors is a real off-ramp?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, it is, in the sense that it is available.

Right now, there are two pathways. Russia is looking at the path of political and economical isolation that we have spoken about, including a whole series of economic sanctions that — you know, where individuals will be named and penalized severely. That’s one pathway.

The other pathway is to allow monitors in, to allow mediation. Former Minister Lavrov has told Secretary Kerry that he is going to take some of these back to President Putin. And we still believe, again, in the cost-benefit analysis that Putin needs to do for himself, that the cost of going down the path that he is going, denying monitors, denying mediation, refusing to engage seriously with the Ukrainian authorities, is far more costly than pulling back and allowing the spirit of compromise to prevail.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s just talk about what you have had to say this week.

On Monday, speaking to the Security Council, you said, these are the facts, that there were troop and ship movements which put Russians in Crimea, that there were — it was blocked cell phone service, that there was — there were Russian jets in Ukrainian airspace. These were all the things you listed as proof that Russia has overstepped its bounds.

Has anything changed between the time you said that and today which leads you to believe that there is sort of movement toward a compromise?

SAMANTHA POWER: Other than the high-level diplomatic engagement between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, and the fact that there are discussions of an international contact group, no, the situation in Crimea, if anything, has deteriorated, in the sense that you now see the so-called deputy prime minister of Crimea referring to Ukrainian forces as occupying troops, which, of course, is not true and is an illegitimate claim.

You see the Crimea parliament acting as it did today. So, no, we’re very worried. And, again, I don’t mean to sound in any way Pollyannish about this moment in history. This is a moment that could turn south in a hurry and could escalate in a hurry, which is why we’re trying to give the Russians the off-ramp and to encourage them and to have the entire international community speak in one voice, to get them to take the path of de-escalation.

GWEN IFILL: Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, was quoted — wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post this week that the test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.

How do you see this ending?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, all I can say is what needs to happen in order for this to end.

Russia needs to make clear to the world and to the people of Ukraine that it is prepared to work with the international community, with monitors who are independent and credible, in order to pursue its legitimate interests, both in Crimea and in Ukraine proper.

That is what needs to happen. And if that doesn’t happen, unfortunately, we’re going to need to continue to move down this path of political and economic isolation.

GWEN IFILL: United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, thank you very much.

SAMANTHA POWER: Thanks, Gwen.