What Costs Can U.S. And Its Allies Impose On Russia?

President Obama has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that there will be "costs" for Russia's actions in Ukraine. David Greene talks Fiona Hill, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, President Obama warned Vladimir Putin that there would be costs if Russia took military action in Ukraine. As we just heard, that appears to be happening now. Yesterday, the U.S. and six other countries threatened to scrap the plan to G8 economic summit planned for Russia this summer.

As for other ways to pressure Russia, let's ask Fiona Hill who's on the line with us. She's a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a former national intelligence officer specializing in Russia. She's also co-author of the book "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin."

Fiona, thanks for coming on the program.

FIONA HILL: Thank you, David.

GREENE: So, lawmakers and others are really starting to put pressure on President Obama, saying he needs to get tough with Russia here. But beyond not attending the G8 Summit, what options does he and European allies really have?

HILL: The main problem that we have is that the unilateral leverage of the United States is not what it used to be with Russia. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Russian economy was not in such robust shape and especially in the 1990s when President Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor, was reliant on IMF programs and World Bank bailouts, then the United States was able to really exert some influence on the Russian economy and to really raise the cost to Moscow on some of these kinds of activities, because to be honest, the pattern that we're seeing under Vladimir Putin now with the unfolding of these events in Crimea and the war previously in Georgia, there are the kinds of things that Boris Yeltsin himself attempted in the past, but, as I said, he didn't have the capacity to pull things off.

This time around, Putin has been very careful over the last decade or more in reducing the vulnerabilities that Russia has. At the same time, Russia is much more integrated with the global economy than before. So, the fact is if we did pull together with the European Union as being suggested and put in the kinds of sanctions that we've actually applied against Iran, that is the only way that we could really make economic sanctions bite for Moscow.

GREENE: And what about any sort of military action? Obviously, I mean, European allies, the United States, they do not want to even think about that possibility of some sort of military conflict with Russia. Is there anything they could do militarily that would get Vladimir Putin's attention?

HILL: Well, this really is a dilemma for us because we've also heard over the last several days, about these large exercises that Russia has mobilized in the west of its own country and its military district that abuts the border with Ukraine and also Belarus, the next neighboring country. And when Russia does these exercises, which are on a large scale, it's always done against a hypothetical conflict in a neighboring country in which there is international intervention.

And then, from there, the Russian exercise usually escalates from some mass confrontation to a nuclear strike. The Russians have actually reserved the right for a nuclear strike. So this, of course, hangs like a pall over any of the discussions about the mobilization of NATO. We've heard requests for consultations, Article 4, but also as Ukraine does not have a membership action plan, is not a member of NATO, it really does raise the stakes then for a mobilization of NATO forces, which would be the logical response to this.

So we're really in a bind. This is a very difficult situation for us and, of course, there are a lot of calls now today from Europe and European allies to be very careful about how we tread on this and to, again, try to find some kind of political resolution to this and not go to a military option.

GREENE: So what you're essentially saying though is that Russia likes to remind the world that it is indeed a nuclear power.

HILL: Indeed it does. And the Russian government has been prioritizing the nuclear arsenal. It's really been putting a lot of emphasis on the refurbishment of the weapon systems and also of making sure that everybody else is well aware that it still has this deterrent capability and that it is prepared to use it in extreme circumstances. So it's always part of exercises and of the long-term military strategy.

GREENE: And, Fiona, help, briefly, I mean, what is Putin's ultimate goal here in Ukraine?

HILL: The ultimate goal is to make sure that the Ukraine stays in the state of complete uncertainly, instability and to make sure that the current government in Kiev and successive governments do not contemplate returning to the idea of signing an association agreement with the EU. That was obviously a red line that President Putin has laid down. Ukraine crossed it, and Yanukovych was about to. So the Russian governor is pretty determined to keep Ukraine in a situation where it has no prospect of going in a different direction. And if it does, the warning is very clear. It will go without significant pieces of territory, specifically Crimea, but also, potentially, other parts of Eastern Ukraine

GREENE: Fiona Hill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Always good to talk to you, thanks so much

HILL: Thanks so much, David.

GREENE: You heard her on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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