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Urging change of course by Russia, U.S. ‘prepared to facilitate’ talks with Ukraine

March 3, 2014 at 8:56 PM EDT
Russia has effectively taken control of the Crimean region in Ukraine, despite efforts by the international community to isolate Russia with condemnation and economic penalties if it doesn’t back down. Judy Woodruff talks to Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken about how the U.S. is mobilizing international support to persuade Russia to change course.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We focus now on the United States’ response to Russian actions in Ukraine.

For that, we turn to President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken. He joined us from the White House earlier this evening.

Tony Blinken, welcome.

Despite a 90-minute phone call with President Obama this weekend, warnings from top U.S. officials, Russia has effectively taken control of the Crimean region. Is there anything that can be done now to get them to pull back?

TONY BLINKEN, Deputy National Security Adviser: Judy, the president has been leading the effort to mobilize the international community in support of Ukraine and to isolate Russia for the actions that it’s taken in Ukraine.

And we’re seeing very, very strong condemnations coming from the G7 countries, from NATO, from individual countries around the world. And that pressure, which is beginning to isolate Russia, is already having an impact. We have seen Russian markets, its financial markets, drop 13 percent today. The ruble hit an all-time low.

And we ourselves, in coordination with partners, have pulled out of preparatory meetings for the next G8 meeting that’s supposed to take place in Sochi, Russia, of all places, and that is clearly going to have a chilling impact on the trade and commercial relations that Russia wants with the West and with the United States. So a cost is already being exacted and the president’s made it clear that if Russia continues on this path, there will be additional costs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is that in effect saying that the U.S. is prepared to let the Russians stay in Crimea, given the historic ties there?

TONY BLINKEN: Now, look, there’s a clear choice and a clear path.

The Russians can continue to pursue the course that they’re on and face growing and increasing isolation and pressure, or it’s actually very straightforward. They can withdraw their troops, and if they have genuine concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russians, which is the excuse they have given for going in, then, without violating Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity, they can engage directly with the government of Ukraine, and we can all bring in international monitors and inspectors from the United Nations, the OSCE, organizations to which Russia belongs, and it can play an active role in making sure its interests are upheld.

That’s the way forward. And the president was very clear earlier today that that’s the choice before Russia right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, at this point, there’s no sign the Russians are pulling back. In fact, there’s every evidence they’re digging in even deeper. How worried is the administration that the Russians will go farther into the rest of Ukraine?

TONY BLINKEN: Judy, the longer this goes on and if Russia persists in this course, the costs are going to go up, in terms of its isolation and in terms of being able to do things that it wants to do and won’t be able to do.

So, for example, the way that President Putin, I think, defines Russia’s power is to try to increase its global and economic influence. Everything he’s doing and everything we’re doing in response is actually gutting that influence. If the only way at the end of the way you have to influence people is by intervening militarily or coercing them or bribing them, you’re not going to have much power for a long period of time.

So, Russia really needs to change course. And there is a way forward that can make sure that its interests, its longstanding ties to Ukraine of culture, of language, of history are protected, but that the Ukrainian people, not anyone else, get to choose their own future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what if President Putin has effectively decided that he’s prepared to live with those costs, that it means so much to Russia not to have Ukraine not go in the direction that it’s going, that he’s prepared to accept the financial and cultural and other costs you’re mentioning?

TONY BLINKEN: Look, I think there are plenty of people around President Putin that who will not want to accept those costs going forward.

We’re looking at a wide range of measures that could be taken in coordination with other countries that will increase that pressure, increase the isolation. And over time, if it takes that long, I think the costs will get to a point where they decide to change course.

But we don’t need to go there. There’s a very clear way forward now. There’s a clear path to de-escalate this problem, to uphold the interest that Russia asserts, but to get Russian troops out, get international inspectors in, get Russia and Ukraine talking. We’re prepared to facilitate all of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should the U.S. hold off, though, on any further significant economic sanctions until the Europeans are together, united with the U.S. so you could present a united front?

TONY BLINKEN: You know, we’re working on a package of measures, but we want to maximize their impact if we have to go down that route.

And what the president has been doing in mobilizing international support, in spending the last few days on the phone virtually nonstop with leaders around the world is building that support and making sure that whatever actions we take have the greatest impact possible.

It’s one thing for the United States to do something in isolation; it’s another thing when we bring along the rest of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you trust President Putin’s word? Because it was just, I think, days ago that the president and Secretary Kerry had been talking with top Russian officials. In the beginning, they sent every indication that they were not going to move forward, and yet they have.

So how are you to believe or to trust them as you talk to them going forward? Or does that even matter?

TONY BLINKEN: It’s not about trust — it’s about — trusting anyone’s word.

It’s about actions, determining whether they do what they say, and, if they don’t, making sure that there are clear repercussions for that. But what we’re looking for is clear action. And, again, there’s a way out of this and a way forward that involves Russia pulling back, bringing its troops back to their barracks and allowing the international inspectors to get in there.

If they have genuine concerns about the way people are being treated, those inspectors can verify the facts and make sure that people are protected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But my question is, do you have any sense that that message is getting through? You mentioned the people around President Putin. Who are you talking about?

TONY BLINKEN: Oh, there are, for example, oligarchs who support him and others who support him who clearly want to be engaged in the world, want to do business around the world, want to travel around the world.

They have to ask themselves if the course that Russia is on that leads to greater isolation will allow them to do what they want to do going forward. And over time, in the days ahead, again, I think you’re seeing the pressure mount.

As I said earlier, we’re already seeing a profound impact on Russia’s financial markets, a profound impact on the ruble. Those are real costs, and I think they’re going to raise real questions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Tony Blinken, what do you say to those, in particular Republicans, who are saying that part of what is going on is that President Obama is not feared by the Russians and, therefore, they are operating with impunity?

TONY BLINKEN: There is always a lot of talk, but what really matters is what we do.

And, as I said, the president has been mobilizing the international community in support of Ukraine and to isolate Russia for the actions it’s taken here. That’s been very successful in recent days. And if you look at what we’re doing around the world, I don’t think that our leadership in building extraordinarily deep ties of trade, for example, in Asia and with Europe is — that’s clearly an important example of his leadership and our leadership.

But, in this particular instance, the president is the one who is mobilizing the international community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser to the president, thank you.

TONY BLINKEN: Thank you, Judy.