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U.S. and Europeans unite to persuade Russia to back down ahead of Ukraine elections

May 2, 2014 at 6:11 PM EDT
President Obama and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel met at the White House, where Mr. Obama said they are united in their resolve to impose increasing costs on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. Earlier, Russian President Putin declared last month’s Geneva agreement dead. Jeffrey Brown gets two views on the strategy from former State Department officials Richard Burt and David Kramer.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama and Germany’s chancellor Merkel met at the White House today, where the Ukraine crisis took center stage after Russia declared the recent Geneva agreement brokered with the West to defuse tensions was dead.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are united in our determination to impose costs on Russia for its actions.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the White House Rose Garden this afternoon, there were strong words for Moscow. The president warned more severe economic penalties are coming, unless Russian leader Vladimir Putin backs off.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our hope is, is that we shouldn’t have to use them. We’re not interested in punishing the Russian people. We do think that Mr. Putin and his leadership circle are taking bad decisions and unnecessary decisions, and he needs to be dissuaded from his current course.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president said there will be no choice but to act if Russia disrupts Ukraine’s presidential election on May 25.

Chancellor Merkel agreed.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, Germany (through interpreter): The 25th of May is not all that far away. Should it not be possible to stabilize the situation, further sanctions will be unavoidable. This is something that we don’t want. We have made an offer for a diplomatic solution. So it’s very much up to the Russians which road we will embark on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier, though, a spokesman for President Putin declared that Ukraine’s military actions today have nullified last month’s agreement aimed at defusing the crisis.

DMITRY PESKOV, Spokesman for Vladimir Putin (through interpreter): At present, we can regrettably say that those actions by the Kiev authorities cancel out all Geneva agreements. We appeal to the European capitals, to the United States of America to give appropriate assessment of what is happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Russia also called an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, where Ukraine’s ambassador sharply disputed Moscow’s claims.

OLEKSANDR PAVLICHENKO, Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Ukraine: We reject all attempts of Russia to blame the government of Ukraine for allegedly failing to implement the agreements. And we state that, despite numerous calls of the international community, the Russian Federation has taken no efforts to de-escalate the situation and implement Geneva agreement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, in a Washington speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pressed NATO allies to increase military spending in response to Russia’s actions.

CHUCK HAGEL, Secretary of Defense: We must not squander this opportunity or shrink from this challenge. We will be judged harshly by history and by future generations if we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hagel said the events in Ukraine have — quote — “shattered the myth” that the end of the Cold War brought permanent security to Europe.

And we assess where things stand with Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He’s now managing director at the consulting firm McLarty Associates. And David Kramer is president of Freedom House.

Well, David Kramer, let me start with you.

Given today’s military actions, how serious is the situation right now and how likely is it to escalate?

DAVID KRAMER, Former State Department Official: Every day, it gets more serious and every day it runs the risk of escalating into a full-blown war.

The Ukrainian authorities have a right and responsibility to restore control of their territory. These cities in Eastern Ukraine are part of the Ukrainian territory, as is Crimea, which has been sadly forgotten in this whole narrative.

This has been stirred up by Putin and the Russian government. They’re trying to destabilize Ukraine. They’re trying to keep it from holding elections, which will be three weeks from this Sunday. And they’re doing everything they can to try to make Ukraine as unattractive and unappealing to the West. And the West needs to do a better job, in my view, of imposing very tough, hard-hitting sanctions.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, first, let me ask you — first, let me get Richard Burt on this situation right now.

Is it that clear-cut to you?

RICHARD BURT, Former State Department Official: Well, I think David is absolutely right that it is becoming increasingly precarious.

It looks, as one of your early setup pieces said, that we may be on the edge of a civil war. And I think David is also right that the Russians are promoting this instability that is growing there in order to create problems for the Kiev regime and the presidential elections on May 25.

The real question of course is how do we respond to this and whether or not we, the Kiev regime or even the Russians can actually begin to try to put the genie back in the bottle, because there do seem to be some forces at work here. They’re on the verge of becoming out of control.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we saw — let me stay with you for a moment, because we saw Chancellor Merkel with the president today. Is the U.S. and Europe on the same page? What explains the differences here so in terms of the response?

RICHARD BURT: Well, I think, until recently, Jeffrey, there was kind of a quiet agreement amongst the United States and the Europeans that they would be prepared to enact these so-called sectoral sanctions, these broad-based, comprehensive sanctions of the sort that we have taken against the Iranians, for example, if and when the Russian forces cross the border into Eastern Ukraine.

What I heard today was a different kind of message. I think what we heard from both President Obama and, importantly, Chancellor Merkel was a willingness to think about broad-based sanctions, short of actual overt military intervention, but just greater instability and greater Russian activities behind the scenes to sow that instability, not giving the Kiev government an opportunity to have those elections and to begin to pull the country together.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Kramer, what did you hear today and what do you want between the U.S. and Europe in terms of a response?

DAVID KRAMER: The president and Chancellor Merkel did seem to be more or less on the same page, but the concern I have is the Germans and Americans and the rest of the West are too reactive.

We are not being proactive trying to prevent and preempt further Russian aggression. We have already seen it. Russian forces are in Eastern Ukraine, where they have already taking over Crimea. The concern is too high, I think, for setting the bar for Russian tanks and forces to cross the border. They have already infiltrated the territory. The helicopters that were shot down today by the separatists, by the militants were from surface-the-air missiles, which only Russia could have provided.

So there’s no question Russia is causing enormous problems in the region. And I think the West needs to be much more aggressive and proactive. Easy for the United States to do it, because we have not even one-tenth of the trade that the E.U. has with Russia. So, the U.S. needs to take a leadership position, and I think the E.U. won’t have much choice but to follow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Richard, but what about that, then, because could the U.S. go further alone?

RICHARD BURT: No, I don’t think we could.

The — so far, I think the administration has tried to take a small lead with the hope that the Europeans will follow. And we have seen that with the modest sanctions that have been enacted. I think that any unilateral U.S. sanctions now would be a big mistake, because, just as David said, we’re not going to have that big an impact on Putin’s decision-making.

It’s going to take the large European E.U. members, Germany, Italy, Britain, France and others, who have a much larger investment in Russia, to really persuade the Russians that they need to think again. And so we have to stay in synch. If we don’t have a package of multilateral sanctions, it won’t work.

The multilateral sanctions against Iran brought the Iranians to the negotiating table on nuclearization. Multilateral sanctions helped end the apartheid regime in South Africa. Our unilateral sanctions, for example, against Cuba for many decades have not produced the change we have wanted to see. So we have to stay in step with our allies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David Kramer, what exactly do you think the U.S. should do? And what can it do to pull along the allies? Why do you think the allies would come along?

DAVID KRAMER: Well, we’re making a mistake, in my view. And here, I disagree with Rick, that we’re holding out for unity between us and the E.U. in order to move ahead.

We have to take the lead. And there’s no comparison, obviously, between the Russian economy and the Cuban economy. Russia is very integrated into the global economy. It is very vulnerable and exposed to sanctions, including those just by the United States, particularly given the extraterritorial nature of U.S. sanctions. I think the Europeans will have little choice but to follow, but it’s going to take American leadership. And that’s what we need to see right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we have time for a short response.

RICHARD BURT: Well, you’re not going to get — if we take energy sanctions, for example, there are plenty of European energy companies that are already publicly saying they’re willing to step in and fill the vacuum.

It’s true in the financial area. German banks, British banks, French banks would do the same. We need to get Mrs. Merkel and other European leaders on board. And I’m encouraged that some real progress was made today, but some U.S. leadership, but if we get too far out ahead of the Europeans, then we do Putin a favor, because then it becomes a European-American dispute, not a problem vis-a-vis Russia.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. All right, Richard Burt…

DAVID KRAMER: It’s still about business as usual.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Richard Burt, David Kramer, thank you both very much.

RICHARD BURT: Thanks.