GWEN IFILL: What started as an internal upheaval in Ukraine is now a superpower standoff, plus a taste of politics, 2016 style – tonight, on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In 2014 we are well-beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.
MS. IFILL: The standoff between Crimea and Kiev, between Europe and Russia, between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin grows more tense.
MS. SAMANTHA POWER: I don’t mean to sound in anyway Pollyanna-ish about this moment in history. This is a moment that could turn south in a hurry and could escalating a hurry.
MS. IFILL: Russia denies bad intent, but threats on all sides are only escalating.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The United States will not grant visas to those who threaten the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine.
MR. YATYSENYUK: Mr. Putin, tear down this wall – the wall of intimidation, the wall of military aggression. And let’s build up new type of relations between Ukraine and Russia.
MS. IFILL: We examine the history and the future of the confrontation, plus the future of the Grand Old Party on display –
MR. PERRY: It’s time for a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. RYAN: I think the left is exhausted. Our side is energized. And on election day, we’re going to win.
MR. CHRISTIE: We don’t get to govern if we don’t win.
MS. IFILL: -- as Republicans take stock.
Covering the week, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times and Gloria Borger of CNN.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The situation in Ukraine shows every sign of slipping out of anyone’s control. And as always with sudden upheaval, there are more questions than answers. Will diplomacy work? Secretary of State John Kerry spent the week working that front.
SEC. KERRY: Russia can now choose to de-escalate this situation. And we are committed to working with Russia, and together with our friends and allies, in an effort to provide a way for this entire situation to find the road to de-escalation.
MS. IFILL: Another question, is military action a possibility? Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey spoke to my “NewsHour” colleague, Judy Woodruff, today.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I do have this open line with my Russian counterpart. So everything that we’ve done I tell him: Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. You know, we disagree fundamentally about your claim of legitimacy, but as militaries let’s try to avoid escalating this thing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But there is a chance it could escalate.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Of course there is.
MS. WOODRUFF: There is a chance of military conflict.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Sure. Yeah.
MS. IFILL: But at the center of all this is the puzzle that is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Is there a grand plan afoot here that we know of, Peter?
PETER BAKER: (Chuckles.) Doesn’t seem like it at the moment. Seems to be very improvisational. President Obama trying to give what he calls an off ramp to President Putin of Russia, a way to de-escalate, to stand down from this crisis.
MS. IFILL: Hold back from the brink.
MR. BAKER: Hold back from the brink.
MS. IFILL: You’ve heard those three phrases over and over again.
MR. BAKER: All those phrases.
But President Putin seems to be hitting the accelerator. He’s not heading the off ramp. He’s heading down the highway and going faster each day. And with each moment we think he’s possibly pausing, as he did at one point this week; then the next day they take the next step. Right now looking at annexation of Crimea, the southern peninsula of Ukraine. It’s a red line for the United States, but the problem for President Obama is what you do about it. And I think that he’s struggling to find the right mix of diplomacy, action, tough words but not so tough that it can’t find a way to come to a peaceful resolution.
MS. IFILL: Well, we always turn these things into personality conflicts. And I wonder how much of this is really a conflict between these two presidents and how much of it is rooted in something more fundamental and therefore more difficult to solve.
DOYLE MCMANUS: On one level, it is easy to see it as a personality conflict. For one thing, these guys have spent a lot of time talking to each other. They both believe in the power of personal diplomacy.
MS. IFILL: He spent an hour with him on the phone last night.
MR. MCMANUS: And then more than an hour a couple of nights before that. Well, that’s partly because each of these guys thinks he has the capacity to somehow persuade the other. But each one is –
MS. IFILL: How’s that working out? (Chuckles.)
MR. MCMANUS: Not so hot because each one is, in a sense – I mean, American officials and German officials have been saying that Putin talks as if he’s in a different reality. And they don’t mean he’s nuts. They mean he’s looking at a different framework. And that’s what’s making this harder, and that’s why it’s not a personality problem.
You know, Ukraine was part of Russia for 300 years. Putin doesn’t have a grand plan here, but he had grand ambitions to bring Ukraine back into what he called his Eurasian Union. And one thing we all kind of forgot, because we sort of came into this movie hallway through, is that when that revolt arose in Ukraine and Yanukovych was pushed out, that was an enormous defeat for Putin, who had spent a lot of time wooing Yanukovych and Ukraine in his direction. So he – this isn’t just Ukraine – this isn’t just Putin grabbing for victory. This is Putin staving off what would have been a defeat.
MS. IFILL: But have we already seen the endgame here? I mean, whether it’s annexation, whether it remains ambiguous, Putin keeps his port in Crimea, keeps control one way or another. I mean, isn’t – it is what it is.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. It’s hard to see how the United States and Europe can roll back the Russian presence in Crimea right now. They have very few measures that would do that that they seem willing to take, anyway. And it’s hard to change the status quo on the ground. Putin owns the province. He has several thousand – Ukrainians say up to 30,000 troops; there are probably not that many – they possibly could stop him from going further. That’s been the first priority this week. OK, we’re not really thrilled about what’s happening in the Crimea. But he could take all of eastern Ukraine. Let’s not split the country down the middle. And that at least for the moment has been headed off.
MS. IFILL: But one solution the administration keeps floating like a trial balloon is the idea of sending in monitors, international monitors. I asked U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power about this last night exactly what the endgame would look like. This is what she said.
MS. IFILL: How do you see this ending?
SAMANTHA POWER: Well, all I can – 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 interest, both in Crimea and in Ukraine proper.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about how that’s worked so far. There was a U.N. special envoy who went into Crimea and basically was driven out before he was even able to start his mission. So even though they’re talking about things like this, they don’t seem terribly optimistic.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, and also, there’s a group called the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that has sent a mission to Ukraine twice to try and get them on the ground, unarmed Western military officers, to do the monitoring. And the idea there is, OK, Russia, if your concern is the safety of Russian-speaking nationals or Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine, we’ll try and protect that for you. But that group has been blocked not once but twice. So it really looks like at this point Russia is not interested in that particular offer.
GLORIA BORGER: So what about the sanctions that we sort of slapped on this week, which seemed very basic –
MS. IFILL: Modest. Modest.
MS. BORGER: – modest, you know, against the unnamed – or named now – bad boys who have had a part in this? But we’ve kind of limited it to a great degree.
MR. BAKER: I think what you’re seeing is an effort by John Kerry in particular to say let’s go slow on how we do this, so that we have, A, some room to ratchet it up as events warrant –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BAKER: – and B, we give some breathing room to Russia to kind of back down without looking like they’re doing it under pressure.
But they have taken a number of actions. They suspended trade talks. They suspended – basically said we’re not going to the Sochi G-8 at this point unless things change, military cooperation –
MS. IFILL: Isn’t there something called the Magnitsky Act –
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. BAKER: There is a Magnitsky Act.
MS. BORGER: Yes.
MS. IFILL: – that already is in place that they could just invoke?
MR. BAKER: Yes. Now that’s for human rights violations, and they could say, OK, because of your violations of human rights, you individual Russian officials cannot come into the United States, and we’ll freeze your assets. They’re not yet willing to take the “freeze assets” part of it. The sanctions that started this week were a visa ban for about a dozen Russian and Ukrainian figures. They may not even know they’re on this list because they’re not told – if they don’t have a visa, they’re not told. They just simply find out if they have replied. So it’s relatively minor in that sense.
But the problem for President Obama, aside from his own desire to kind of take it in a measured way, is that Europe isn’t all that interested in going that far.
MS. BORGER: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: That was the next part. Yeah.
MR. BAKER: And that’s a real conundrum between – he doesn’t want to be separated from the allies at this point.
MR. MCMANUS: Like any set of –
MS. IFILL: And the reason is, they – and the reason for the – Europe, it pays the immediate price for any sanctions –
MS. BORGER: Sure.
MR. MCMANUS: That’s right. Europe has a whole set of business dealings that are much larger and much more intimate than ours – financial, natural gas. Something like a third of Europe’s natural gas or more comes through Ukraine, so if – from Russia – if Russia cuts that off.
So you know, in a sense, the – what some officials and some in Congress have said the silver bullet here mythically might be would be if you could threaten the oligarchs, the money men around Putin, with freezing their assets in banks in Switzerland, freezing their real estate in London, then you’d really have them where you want them. But the Europeans really hate the idea of that kind of economic work.
MS. BORGER: Could you penalize banks that do business there?
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MS. BORGER: I mean, as – we did that with Iran, for example. The Treasury could do that.
MR. BAKER: That – that’s – yeah. And that is one of the nuclear options here –
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. BAKER: – because what you say is, you’d say, OK, these state-run banks in Russia were involved in, let’s just say, providing arms to Syria. We have sanctions against providing arms to Syria.
MS. BORGER: Sure.
MR. BAKER: We haven’t taken them against Russia because we wanted cooperation from Russia in solving the civil war. So we could tomorrow go ahead and say these banks have been involved with it. But that means not just our banks can’t do business with them but really the Europeans can’t do business with them. And Deutsche Bank has a lot more business with Russian banks than we do.
MS. BORGER: Exactly.
MR. BAKER: And it’s a – and that – again, I think Angela Merkel would take that in a different way than we look at it.
MS. IFILL: What I’m curious, though, about is whether this signals a – we always look for big-picture descriptions of what this means. Cold War comes to mind.
You lived in Moscow. You’ve covered this for years. Give us a sense about whether we are on the breach of yet another Cold War-type standoff.
MR. MCMANUS: It sure sounds like it and feels like it because the rhetoric has ratcheted up. I mean, the State Department put out a statement rebutting a lot of the Russian claims that was just scathing. In said in one case that this is the most imaginative Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky. (Laughter.) Well, that’s not what you do to a country that you’re seeing as a great partner right now.
But OK, if you want to look on the bright side, this – look, the U.S.-Russian relationship has been falling apart for some time. The Russians haven’t been helpful on Syria for six months or more. The reset is really no more than a sad memory right now.
But people in the administration will say on chemical weapons in Syria, the Russians are still cooperating. On Iran, there’s no sign that the Russians are bolting, and in Putin’s last statement, which was very tough, a very tough summary of his last conversation with President Obama, there was this funny little note at the end saying, but I hope this doesn’t mess up our bilateral relationship. (Laughter.)
MS. BORGER: What about Snowden, though? I mean – (inaudible) –
MR. BAKER: Right, you got Edward Snowden, right, Edward –
MS. BORGER: Throw Snowden into that – (inaudible) –
MR. BAKER: He’s sitting there in Moscow. President Obama canceled his meeting with Putin last fall, even before this was happening, and that was the first time in half a century that an American president had done that. So you’re right, this has already been a really rocky time.
MS. IFILL: Everybody at this table remembers when President Bush, the last President Bush – that with President Putin in Slovenia – Slovakia – where were they?
MR. : Slovenia – (inaudible) – (laughter) –
MS. IFILL: And he came away, and he said, I looked into his soul, and – that he had him to the ranch, and he said, I wouldn’t have had him to the ranch if I didn’t trust him. So who has miscalculated here? And has it been a series of U.S. presidents, just this president, just the last one?
MR. BAKER: No, it’s the last three. And it’s sort of the – (inaudible) – the triumph of hope over actual experience. And each president comes in and says, I want to create a new dynamic in this relationship, and I want to put the past in the past. And President Clinton did it with President Yeltsin; President Bush did it with President Putin; President Obama did it with Medvedev, who was temporarily, as you remember, in the presidency while Putin put himself in the prime ministership.
MS. IFILL: Took a break.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. And I think each one of them has miscalculated in thinking they had a greater chance of success than they did. And it’s a cycle. We see the same cycle again and again.
MR. MCMANUS: And it hasn’t been completely self-delusion. Peter spent more time in Moscow than I did, so he knows this better, but look, the Russians have been divided between modernizers and oligarchs. And Medvedev was in fact the modernizer, and there was always the hope that if you could build up the Medvedevs of Russia, the ones who wanted to build a Silicon Valley, the ones who wanted to join the international economy – not so much the international community per se – then you’d actually have a process going. But Medvedev hasn’t been a key figure.
MR. BAKER: No, and the miscalculation was thinking he was in fact the future rather than a front man, in effect, for Putin, who was going to come back.
MS. BORGER: Remember the president’s famous whisper to him, which is to tell Putin, I’ll have – which John McCain is talking about nonstop, I might add, which is saying, remember, tell Putin I’ll have a little bit more flexibility after the election.
MS. IFILL: Right, which maybe was taken as weakness, not as flexibility.
MS. BORGER: Well, that’s what – you know, that’s what McCain says. What the president was saying is sort of maybe we can really push the reset button here, and we can – but of course, current events intervened. I mean, look at Syria.
MS. IFILL: You know, but lost in all of this, it seems to me also, is the reason why Yanukovych was overthrown in the first place, and it was corruption. It wasn’t because of Putin and Obama; it was about unhappiness about the way the country was being run, and that has not changed, has it?
MR. BAKER: No. No, no, not at all. And the problem for Ukraine is it is a genuinely divided country. It’s divided along ethnic lines, it’s divided along language lines, and it’s divided, you know, along these corruption lines, as you put it, the haves and the have-nots. And the new government’s got to come in, and there’s no reason to think necessarily that they’re going to have any more success than the pro-Western government that came in after the Orange Revolution of 2004 unless something changes – and so as the Americans and as the Europeans are putting together an aid package, to try and say, let’s not do the same things we did last time; let’s actually do real reform this time and make a different base for progress.
MS. BORGER: But Putin’s aware of all of that, and all he’s worried about is Crimea right now. And he’s got what he wants, essentially.
MR. MCMANUS: And that’s a very long process. What Peter just described isn’t something that happens in the next week before there’s a referendum and Crimea says it wants to secede. That is going to take years.
MS. IFILL: OK, well, thanks.
If you’re one of those who think it’s too soon to be talking 2016 – (laughter) – like me – but I’ve given up – then you weren’t paying attention to the doings just outside Washington at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this week. Forget about the Democrats and Hillary; this was all about Republicans competing to reclaim the White House. Here’s a taste.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R-WI): The way the left tells it, the Republican Party is in this big massive civil war. It’s tea party versus establishment, libertarians versus social conservatives. There’s infighting, conflict, back-biting, discord. Look, I’m Irish. That’s my idea of a family reunion. (Laughter, applause.)
SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): As our voices rise in protest, the NSA monitors your every phone call. If you have a cellphone, you are under surveillance. I believe what you do on your cellphone is none of their damn business. (Cheers, applause.)
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY (R-TX): It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government’s role: defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and what the heck, deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays. (Laughter, cheers, applause.)
(End of clip.)
MS. IFILL: And there were others, too, Chris Christie and Ted Cruz among them. It sounds like the elephant is back and roaring again, Gloria.
MS. BORGER: Back roaring, stepping all over each other.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. BORGER: I might add, I mean, you know, this was an audition for 2016, and it was kind of a raucous – a raucous one. And you heard all the dissident voices in the party, and as much as Paul Ryan says this is just a great thing, there are some really deep-seated differences that are going to get played out over the next few years, and obviously this convention of conservatives is one of them. And, you know, you heard Rand Paul there talking about privacy, an issue upon which Republicans disagree about what you do about surveillance. What you do about drones is another issue on which they disagree. Ted Cruz –
MS. IFILL: But Chris Christie came out and he said, we should talk about what we’re for, not what we’re against.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MS. IFILL: It doesn’t sound like that’s happening.
MS. BORGER: And by the way, Christie was for everything the people in that room were for. He checked off every box that he could possibly check off, ranging, you know, from being anti-abortion to taking on “Obamacare” and the president. You know, so, look, I think – I think they’re all now in this phase where the only thing they agree on is that they don’t like President Obama. And they’re at a point where they’re trying to see who’s more conservative, who can appeal to the base, and, by the way, who might actually be able to win an election, which –
MR. BAKER: Christie, of course, you know, haunted by this bridge controversy, but this is actually a controversial audience for him even before that, right?
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. BAKER: I mean this is not his natural –
MS. BORGER: Right. You know, and he wasn’t – this year he was actually, believe it or not, even given the controversy, in a much better position with conservatives because they believe he’s been taken on by the media, he was railing against the media, and then got a standing ovation at this conference. They don’t really much like him. Only three out of 10 Republicans actually say they would consider voting for him. They’re very suspect about him. They believe – they remember the hug that he gave the president after Hurricane Sandy. So they’re very suspect of him.
But he came there as kind of a little bit of a hero who took on the press and is being unfairly maligned, so they were very receptive to him, at least in this audience. I still do not believe he’s a favorite of the people in that room.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, let me ask, is there a favorite of the people in that room? Because one of the reasons – go ahead.
MS. BORGER: You know, you have – there isn’t, but Rand Paul got a great, great reception there.
MS. IFILL: He won the straw poll, such as it is, as last year.
MS. BORGER: Such as it is, which tells you nothing. But yes, he got a great reception. Cruz got a warm reception, Huckabee. You know, so you can see where this – where this gathering is, but, you know, it doesn’t really tell you much of anything other than they have the ability right now to give a great speech and to throw the red meat out to the base.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s go to 2014, then. Let’s come a little closer – Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, walks out on stage with a big rifle, I guess, a firearm, a weapon, and waves it over his head Charlton Heston style. What was that?
MS. BORGER: Well, Mitch McConnell is in a very tough political fight back home. Now, what’s helping him is that Rand Paul is for him, very popular in the home state of Kentucky, very important tea partyier. So he’s got him on his side; that’s good. But he does – is really going to face a very, very tough fight. And so he needs to shore up the base of the Republican Party, get them out there, Second Amendment very important to the Republican base. And so Mitch McConnell is doing what he has to do. He’s not running for president, but he just wants to get re-elected and be the leader of the Republican Senate, which he wants to take over.
MR. BAKER: One guy who might be running for president, right, Marco Rubio, we didn’t mention him. What did he do with this –
MS. BORGER: Well, Marco Rubio’s an interesting fellow right now. He got – he got a lot of criticism for being for immigration reform, looking for a path to citizenship. What he’s trying to do right now is distinguish himself as the person in the Republican Party who’s kind of McCain-lite, more muscular, interventionist foreign policy.
MS. IFILL: And as long as that’s going on, they’re going to look divided, whether in fact they actually are, between now and Election Day.
MS. BORGER: Yep.
MS. IFILL: Fun to watch.
Thank you, everybody. We have to leave you a few minutes early tonight, want to give you the chance to support your local PBS station, which in turn supports us. But our conversation continues online. We’ve got to much more to say. It’s on the “Washington Week” webcast extra, where we’ll talk more Ukraine and more politics. That streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time and all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with daily developments over at the PBS “NewsHour,” and we’ll see you here again next week on “Washington Week.”
Don’t forget to turn those clocks ahead. Good night.