Sen. Menendez Wants Ukraine Supplied With Defensive Weapons

David Greene talks to Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about the situation in Ukraine. The New Jersey Democrat has just returned from a trip to Ukraine.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. The message from the West has been clear. It's been delivered by President Obama. It's been delivered by other NATO leaders. The message is no one wants a war with Russia. And yet the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine is increasingly looking like a showdown between Russia and NATO. There's mounting evidence that Russia's military is directly involved in eastern Ukraine, supporting separatists. The Kremlin is still denying this.

Meanwhile as NATO leaders meet this week, they're expected to establish a force of several thousand troops that could deploy quickly to Eastern Europe to defend against Russian aggression. And now some U.S. lawmakers are calling for the Obama administration to supply weapons to help Ukraine's military fight on the ground. One of those lawmakers is Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; he's on his way back from Ukraine now and is on the line with us. Senator, good morning.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Good morning.

GREENE: So you are suggesting that the United States provide weapons to help Ukraine's government fight in this conflict. What kind of weapons are we talking about here?

MENENDEZ: Well, these are defensive weapons. I mean, you've had thousands of Russian troops with columns of tanks, armored vehicles and heavy artillery - including surface-to-surface missiles - come at the Ukrainian Army. And they're not in a position with the equipment that they have to go ahead and fight back. So while we have provided night-vision goggles, that's great, but seeing your enemy and being able to fight them is two different things.

GREENE: Defensive weapons - I mean, can we get a little more specific here?

MENENDEZ: Well, if - you need to have the ability to stop a tank. If a tank is coming at you and you're firing with a B-shooter, you're not going to be able to stop that tank - so, you know, anti-tank type of missiles, that type of defensive weapons, certain radar systems that would give them a sense of where the fire from the enemy is coming. That would be incredibly helpful to the Ukrainians.

It is those type of weaponry that I think is important to provide to the Ukrainians so they could fight for their own defense, at the same time that we are pursuing more vigorous sanctions, I hope, with our EU partners.

GREENE: Let me just think about a few things here. I mean, you're calling for, as you say, these defensive weapons to help Ukraine's military. I mean, is this becoming some sort of proxy war against Russia? What's going on here?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, this is a watershed moment. Thousands of Russian troops have crossed into Ukraine. They've come in with tanks of - columns of tanks and armored vehicles and surface-to-surface missiles. This is no longer the - you know, the premise that, oh, separatists are fighting. This is a continuation of the violation of international order that Russia has created.

We have worked since the Cold War to bring Russia into the international order where disputes are solved not by force, but by negotiation. And at the end of the day, what we have here after the annexation of Crimea - forcefully - after the arming of rebels, including arms that ultimately brought down the Malaysian airline flight and killed hundreds of innocent civilians, now an invasion. This is a question not just for the United States, but for the European Union and those who want to and have worked for building an international order of peace and security that if you up-end the international order, there must be a consequence. And at a minimum, it seems to me that the country that is being invaded - has not provoked Putin to invade them - needs to have the wherewithal to defend themselves.

GREENE: Let me ask you this, Senator; I mean, let's say the U.S. does provide weapons to the Ukraine. NATO is talking about a new rapid response force in Eastern Europe. Could moves like this actually end up provoking Russia more and emboldening Russia's President Vladimir Putin, making things worse in Ukraine?

MENENDEZ: It's hard to imagine when we have done absolutely nothing other than slap sanctions - not the most significant sanctions either - that we have done anything to provoke Putin. And if anything, I met with President Poroshenko yesterday, and I must say that this is the most restrained government that has tried to find a peaceful path to end this conflict, and to continue the aspirations of those who I visited on the Maidan and saw the memorials to the hundred lives that were lost that want to just choose their own course freedom independently.

GREENE: Senator Robert Menendez is a democrat from New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Thanks, Senator.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

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