TOPICS > World

How will U.S. deliver consequences if Eastern Ukraine conflict doesn’t improve?

April 18, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the Geneva deal, escalating unrest in Ukraine and the prospect of imposing additional sanctions on Russia.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on Ukraine, I spoke to President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, a short time ago.

Ben Rhodes, welcome.

As we just heard in that report, a number of the people who are occupying these buildings in Eastern Ukraine say they’re not going to leave, they’re not going to give them up. Does that undercut the deal that was reached yesterday in Geneva?

BEN RHODES, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting: Well, Judy, what we believe is that the Russian government has a tremendous amount of influence with at least a portion of these protesters.

And what we would like to see them do is use all their influence, their public statements, their private comments, to encourage these protesters to leave these buildings, to disarm. The Ukrainian government is keeping its end of the bargain. They took steps toward passing an amnesty law, so they would be immune from prosecution if they do lay down their arms.

And we will be watching this over the next several days to see if the Russians are using their influence and if these protesters are pulling back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, even if some of the protesters listen to Moscow, there are still others who say they’re Ukrainian and they don’t respect the government in Kiev and they’re not budging, no matter what Moscow tells them.

BEN RHODES: Well, what we see is actually the vast majority of the Ukrainian people, including a majority of the people in the East, do support the unity of Ukraine and the government in Kiev.

And there’s a way to address the concerns of some of those minority populations, including ethnic Russians, which is through a constitutional reform process. And the Ukrainian government committed to decentralization, rights for minorities being protected.

They have indicated their commitment to protecting the right of the Russian language as one of the languages of Ukraine. So there’s a pathway for these protesters to have their grievances met through politics and not through the type of armed actions that we have seen in these buildings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one of the other arguments they’re making, Ben Rhodes, is that they’re simply doing what the protesters in Kiev have done, which is take to the streets, hold their ground until they see the government doing what they want. I mean, why isn’t that a valid argument?

BEN RHODES: Well, there’s a huge difference here, Judy, which is, the fact is, in the protest in Kiev, you had tens, in some cases hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in these protests to have their voices heard.

We have not seen that by any measure in the East. What we have seen is very small protests in the hundreds and very organized armed groups in a coordinated fashion taking over these buildings. So this has not been a groundswell of popular opinion manifested by thousands and tens of thousands of people taking to the streets. This has been small numbers of armed men taking control of government buildings in a coordinated fashion, we believe clearly with some support from Moscow.

And it feels much more like a play to destabilize the country, rather than a kind of popular movement that has emerged organically as, was the case in Kiev.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, even having said that, these protesters, again, pointing to Kiev, is the U.S. saying to the Kiev government, we want these protesters in Kiev who are occupying the Maidan also to stand down?

BEN RHODES: Yes, absolutely.

So, when we say in the agreement in Geneva that the Ukrainian government signed up to, all paramilitary groups should lay down their arms, give up those arms, not occupy buildings, that applies to protesters in the West, as well as the East.

And we have encouraged and the government of Ukraine has taken steps to disarm some of those extreme nationalists who are engaged in activities like taking over government buildings in the West as well. This is something that applies not just in the East, applies across the country. And, again, the government in Kiev has made those commitments.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk went out to the East to try to have a dialogue with some of these protesters. We believe it’s important they keep trying to have that dialogue inside of Ukraine, as well as with the international community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if Ukrainians, if the East — if the protesters in Eastern Ukraine don’t do what the U.S. is asking, if Russia doesn’t do what the U.S. is asking, the president and others have said there will be more consequences.

But what we have seen so far is that the sanctions haven’t really had much of an effect on Mr. Putin. What makes the administration, what makes the president think more sanctions will have an effect?

BEN RHODES: Well, first of all, we have put in place a series of sanctions. We also have an executive order that gives us broader authorities to target individuals and entities that they control that are important to the Russian economy and then also potentially sectors of the Russian economy.

We have seen President Putin pause with those forces on the border where he’s massed significant military forces. And then we have seen this destabilization taking place in Eastern Ukraine. So, we haven’t yet seen the worst-case scenario, which is Russian forces coming across that border, which would trigger those vast sectorial sanctions that we would move to with the Europeans.

So, that deterrent effect is in place. But we have also been very clear that if we continue the see these destabilizing activities that we believe are rooted in Moscow’s policy, we will move to additional sanctions. And, again, if we start to go after additional individuals who are important in the Russian economy, important to the Russian leadership, as well as the companies and banks that they are responsible for, we believe we can have a significant impact on the Russians.

In fact, we have already seen their forecasts for the economy downgraded. We have seen capital flight out of the country. So it is having an effect. It’s just, how much does it have to sink in for the Russians to change their calculus and pursue this through politics, instead of force?

And that’s what we have an opportunity to do through Geneva, but, again, if we don’t see them following through, we will move to those additional sanctions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser to the president, thank you very much.

BEN RHODES: Thanks. Good to be with you.