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Next moves for the U.S. as Russia invades Ukraine

Smoke rises from an air defense base in the aftermath of an apparent Russian strike in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
Smoke rises from an air defense base in the aftermath of an apparent Russian strike in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Russia’s Vladimir Putin has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine with a blunt warning to Europe and the U.S.

But beyond sanctions and arming Ukrainian forces, what more can the West do?


Derek Chollet, counselor of the U.S. Department of State. (@derekchollet)

Angela Stent, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor emerita at Georgetown University. Former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. Author of Putin’s World. (@AngelaStent)

Terrell Jermaine Starr, senior reporter at the Root covering U.S.-Russia politics and race in America. Founder and host of the podcast Black Diplomats. Senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. (@terrelljstarr)

Mariana Budjeryn, research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Author of the forthcoming Inheriting the Bomb. (@mbudjeryn)

Transcript: A Conversation With Counselor Of The U.S. Department Of State Derek Chollet

KIMBERLY ATKINS STOHR: Today is day two of Russia’s multi-pronged invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine. The capital Kiev is surrounded, as Russian troops begin to fight their way into that city. Intelligence suggests Russia could take the capital city in the next one to four days. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on civilians to prepare Molotov cocktails. Zelenskyy himself announced yesterday that he is quote ‘target No. 1’ and his family called target ‘No. 2,’ but vowed to stay in place. Zelenskyy called for talks, and Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s open to negotiations, but only if Ukraine agrees, essentially, to surrender.

I’m Kimberly Atkins Stohr, in for Meghna Chakrabarti. And this is On Point. This hour, the largest war on European soil since World War II has begun. Why it happened, and what comes next. In a moment, we’re going to hear from Kiev. But first, joining me from Washington is Derek Chollet, counselor of the U.S. Department of State. Derek, welcome to On Point.

DEREK CHOLLET: Great to be with you, Kimberly. Thanks for having me.

ATKINS STOHR: So let’s start with what is the U.S. position now. We are seeing Russia advance into Ukraine, headed toward its capital. What is the position of the United States?

CHOLLET: Well, Kimberly, this is an instance where we, of course, hoped we had been wrong for several months. We have been watching this threat against Ukraine unfold. And what we’ve seen transpire in the last 72 hours is unfortunately what we were expecting. This is a completely unjustified, unwarranted, premeditated attack upon a sovereign country, by Russia. And as we’re seeing the images unfold, minute by minute from Ukraine, the situation is only getting worse.

The United States has taken some tough measures in response. We promised a swift and severe response if Russia chose this path of escalation and confrontation. And you’ve seen President Biden, alongside our partners in Europe and elsewhere unfurl a series of swift and severe sanctions that will be devastating to the Russian economy. And we hope will change the calculus of Vladimir Putin as he pursues this very dangerous course he has put the world on.

ATKINS STOHR: So you’re talking about the swift and severe sanctions that are coming from the U.S. and other Western countries. President Biden says he expects that to take time. This isn’t just going to make Russia, essentially, stop. Explain how that works. How are these sanctions, if they’re not a deterrent, what’s the purpose of them?

CHOLLET: As we were trying to pursue the diplomatic solution here with Russia over the past several months, we made very clear that if they chose a path of escalation and confrontation, the consequences would be swift and severe. The sanctions that the United States, and our European partners and others have announced in the last several days are truly unprecedented in scope and scale. It’s far beyond anything we’ve done against Russia before, certainly far surpasses what we’ve done in 2014. Just yesterday, now, the 10 largest banks in Russia have been sanctioned. That’s holding about 80% of Russia’s banking assets, and billions and billions of dollars.

There’s export controls against Russia, which will hinder its ability to import nearly half of the material it needs to operate effectively on the world stage. And make it very difficult for the aerospace industry, for the defense industry, as well as for their maritime industry to further develop and innovate. Just yesterday, we saw the stock market in Russia dropped precipitously, far beyond what it suffered in the 2008 financial crisis or even the 1998 global financial crisis. The ruble has dropped to historic lows.

And it’s very important to note, this is a sanctions coalition. This is not just the United States moving out alone. This is the United States, our European partners, other countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, representing well over half of the world’s GDP. And so these sanctions will have a lasting impact on Russia. And I believe that this crisis, as terrible as it is, and how much suffering that it will cause in Ukraine and elsewhere, will be a major strategic setback for Russia in the long run.

ATKINS STOHR: Now, before I get to questions about the military side of this, on these sanctions, some of them are expected to have other effects, including rising gas prices, something that Americans may feel. Can you talk a little bit about that? What impact can you expect this to have economically?

CHOLLET: Yeah, absolutely. And as you’ve heard, President Biden has been very clear on this, that there will be some pain associated with sanctions. And pain that all of us will feel. Obviously, most of the pain is going to be felt in Russia. But clearly our European partners, which have a much more comprehensive trading relationship with Russia, will be feeling a lot of pain. As well, some Americans.

And the Biden administration has been working very hard and will continue to work very hard and use every measure at our disposal to ensure that things like energy prices do not go up too much, and to ease any of the pain that might be felt by Americans. But I think it’s very important for all of us to remember the large stakes here. This obviously is a major security crisis for Ukraine, and there’ll be a tremendous suffering inside Ukraine over the next several weeks and months.

But it’s also the greatest security crisis we have faced in Europe since the Second World War. And the principles at stake here, the idea that countries cannot change borders by force, the idea that states have a right to their own sovereignty. What Russia is doing really is a dagger pointed at the heart of the international system itself, and the rules-based order that we’ve all been able to prosper under for many, many decades. And so the consequences of this crisis could be quite profound.

ATKINS STOHR: And let’s be clear here, the consequences of this crisis, could this lead to a broader war? Is this an effort for Putin essentially to reestablish the former Soviet Union? And could efforts to stop that by the United States and its allies lead to a bigger war?

CHOLLET: Well, we’ve heard from President Putin directly several times over the last several days, of how he’s framed this crisis, and what his larger goals are. And clearly this is far beyond the question of NATO or really anything the United States has done. This is about, in some ways, trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union, and unravel the last quarter century of efforts to make Europe more secure.

War always takes unpredictable paths. And that’s why President Biden has been very clear that our Article 5 commitment to our NATO allies — and that’s a commitment of mutual self-defense — remains strong. That the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory. Today, President Biden is meeting virtually in a special NATO summit with the other 29 leaders of NATO, to talk about this crisis, talk about what NATO’s going to do collectively to better protect our alliance. And so we’ve seen no indications that President Putin is seeking to widen this conflict. But nevertheless, we remain steadfast and very clear that we will defend every inch of NATO territory.

ATKINS STOHR: So the U.S. has stated that sending troops out is out of the question. So what other means, besides these sanctions, which will take some time, does the U.S. have to try to curb this invasion?

CHOLLET: Well, again, the sanctions will be profound. They will have a lasting impact. And we will continue to unfurl additional sanctions and efforts to further isolate and punish Russia. And hopefully change its calculus in the coming days. Secondly, we will continue to provide our support for the Ukrainian people. We have been in regular touch with the Ukrainian leadership. Secretary of State Blinken spoke once again today with the Ukrainian foreign minister.

President Biden has been in regular touch with President Zelenskyy, who’s in Kiev. And we will continue to support the Ukrainians to deal with this humanitarian disaster that’s going to be occurring in their country, but then also to provide them the ability to protect themselves, as we have been doing for the last eight years. And then finally, we will work with our allies and partners to further isolate Russia. International community, and you’re seeing many steps along those lines, from private sector actors to governments, further isolate Russia.

Again, I think that in the long run, this will be a major strategic blow to Russia. President Putin seems to think somehow this will work in Russia’s advantage. But I think by almost every measure in terms of its economy, in terms of its role in the world, its place in the world, this will be a setback for Russia in the long run.

ATKINS STOHR: Let me ask you, why should this conflict and why should Ukraine matter to Americans? We know that Americans are war weary after the U.S. involvement in several conflicts that have come, that have been drawing down. The U.S. is not directly sending troops there. We’re seeing these images. But why is it important for Americans to pay attention to this war?

CHOLLET: Well, Kimberly, this is the greatest security crisis that Europe has faced since the Second World War. And it could take an unpredictable direction. It’s in our interest to try to ensure that it doesn’t, and that we remain by our commitments to our European partners. … This crisis will have a tremendous impact on the global economy. No question about it. It’s going to create, very destabilizing inside Europe. And it’s going to affect the global economy and therefore ensuring that we’re doing whatever we can to stop that from happening, and mitigating the damage as best we can. It’s very important.

And then finally, the fundamental principles at stake, really the most fundamental principle in the international system, and upholding the order, which is that borders can’t be changed by force. That countries can choose their own destiny. Those are at stake here. And the larger message that is going to be sent if we do not act would be profound, and put us all in peril in the future. That’s why I’m heartened up to this point.

We have seen such tremendous support in the international community. And a very clear message by many, many countries — most leading countries — against what has happened. And I think that as this conflict rages on and unfortunately, I think that it will for quite some time. We will continue to see that momentum against what Russia is doing only build. And so it’s very, very important for the United States to remain the leading player in this. But we are doing it alongside our allies and partners.

ATKINS STOHR: In the few seconds we have left, talk about the humanitarian aspect of this. We’re already seeing refugees fleeing the country.

CHOLLET: Yeah, this has the potential to be a true humanitarian disaster. We are quite concerned about the number of displaced persons inside Ukraine, but then also those fleeing Ukraine, crossing borders and becoming refugees. For the last several months, we have been working particularly with those countries who border Ukraine, to help them better prepare for the potential refugee crisis. And we’re also working on ways that we could provide assistance inside Ukraine to those who are displaced by this crisis.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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