An Ambassador's Take On Ukraine's Tenuous Situation

Michael McFaul just returned from a dramatic two years as U.S. ambassador to Russia. NPR's Jacki Lyden speaks him about the situation in Ukraine and Russia's response.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden. Rachel Martin is on assignment.

It's looking more and more like war in Ukraine. Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula yesterday. And in response, this morning, Ukraine has called up its military reserves. After a 90 minute phone call with President Vladimir Putin yesterday, President Obama warned that there will be costs if Russia intervenes militarily in Ukraine. The question is how high will those costs be?

We're joined now by a man who spent two years walking the tenuous line of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Until just last week, Michael McFaul was the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Now he's returned to Stanford University in California, and he joins us live from there.

Welcome, Ambassador.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: We're glad you could be with us. Let's start with that 90-minute call because President Obama's remarks afterward represent the administrations' first direct response. He accused Russia of a breach of international law and he threatened greater political and economic isolation. I know I'm asking a diplomat, but do you think the president went far enough?

MCFAUL: Well, it was important that he made the call. First, I want to acknowledge that; that it is important to try to engage with the one man in Russia that could try to reverse what right now is a very dangerous course. The statements and subsequent statements that have been made are true, are factual. Russia is in violation of many different international commitments. It's intervening militarily in a sovereign country. That cannot stand.

LYDEN: Yesterday, at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power had some strong words. Let's hear some of what she said.

AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWER: It is ironic that the Russia Federation regularly goes out of its way in this chamber to emphasize the sanctity of national borders and of sovereignty, but Russian action in Ukraine are violating the sovereignty of Ukraine and pose a threat to peace and security.

LYDEN: Again, Ambassador McFaul, does that statement have enough teeth?

MCFAUL: Well, I think everybody is trying right now in the Obama administration to put the Russians on warning and to try to get back to a negotiation. Obviously, what Ambassador Powers said is true. I remember being very frustrated as a U.S. government official - first at the White House and then in Moscow - listening to speeches about sovereignty from our Russian counterparts with respect, particularly, to Syria.

And so, it is a paradox, a cynical statement that the president of Russia has made to say they need to go in to protect Russian citizens of Crimea when, of course, that is a violation of their number one principle in international relations - the inviability of sovereign borders. And, two, there is no threat as of yet, to those Russians, ethnic Russians in Crimea. That's totally been made up in Moscow. So there's no justification whatsoever for the military actions they've taken so far.

LYDEN: What about U.S. options here? Could the U.S. impose serious economic sanctions on Russia?

MCFAUL: Well, first, I think the response will be political. And you've already heard, out of the White House, suggestions of not going to the G8 Summit. And I just want to remind your listeners how important public opinion is to President Putin. He just spent over $50 billion in Sochi, I was there just last week, to introduce the new Russia to the world. And I think therefore, for the G8 not to be held in Sochi would be a big blow to the way he wants to reposition himself on the world's stage.

But second, most certainly economic sanctions can be considered. And I would just remind people who say, oh, they don't work, Russia is too big, the Obama administration, and when I was part of it, was part of these negotiations, put together some fairly effective sanctions against Iran in a creative way. They can do that again with Russia, if necessary.

LYDEN: Thank you, Ambassador Michael McFaul. Thanks very much for joining us from Stanford.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

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