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Russia, Ukraine And The U.S.


President Trump was going to meet with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit, but that meeting's now off after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels. The military confrontation took place in an area off the coast of Crimea, which Russia took back in 2014.

Victoria Nuland was assistant secretary of state under President Obama and ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. Ambassador Nuland, thanks so much for being with us.

VICTORIA NULAND: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Why do you believe Russia seems to have raised the stakes on this conflict with Ukraine now?

NULAND: Well, after Russia seized Crimea, they then built a bridge between Crimea and mainland Russia across the Azov Sea, effectively giving them the ability to control the whole sea and the eastern part of Ukraine, including two very important ports for the Ukrainian economy. So when they stopped Ukraine from being able to ship in and out of those ports and to help patrol them, it's a way of squeezing Ukraine further economically, politically and militarily and gaining at sea what they couldn't gain on the ground.

SIMON: Is the canceled meeting, for whatever reason it was canceled, between Vladimir Putin and President Trump a missed opportunity for the U.S. to state its position, try and apply at least verbal pressure on Russia or at least condemn what they've done in Ukraine?

NULAND: President Trump had two options - you know, either cancel the meeting as he did or go into the meeting with a very firm position and with some sticks in his hand if Russia does not return the Ukrainian sailors, if he does not - if it does not restore freedom of navigation in the Azov Sea. The president chose in some ways the easier measure - you know, just skip the meeting.

I think what's disappointing here, though, is with all the Western leaders there, the United States would normally be in the position of organizing a united front in its demands of a country that violated territorial norms and putting together a coalition of sticks to get things back to normal. But we don't see the U.S. leading in that way in Argentina.

SIMON: Well, and at the White House, Sarah Sanders said this week that the continuing investigation into the Mueller investigation and reports about President Trump's commercial relationship and other relationship with Russia - all of that was weakening the hand that he could take in negotiations with Russia. How do you feel about that?

NULAND: You know, on the contrary, the president has a chance to show the nation, to show the free world that he is willing to stand up to President Putin when he bullies other countries. And that would go a long way to, you know, addressing the concerns that many have about why the president has been so easy on a guy like Vladimir Putin when not only is he bullying Ukraine, but he also bullied us by interfering in our democratic process in 2016 and continuing to try to do. So, you know, we need strength vis-a-vis Russia, not excuses for why we can't deal with them.

SIMON: Well - but to be blunt about it - I don't have to tell you, I'm sure. This week, Michael Cohen, the president's lawyer, admitted he lied to Congress and said that he did have discussions with Russia about a potential Trump project in 2016. Does this suggest that the Kremlin has had some kind of leverage over President Trump?

NULAND: Well, I think that's what the Mueller investigation is trying to get to. Has there been leverage that the Kremlin has had, and if so, of what kind? It's certainly clear that if Cohen is now telling the truth that the president was continuing to seek a commercial opportunity in Moscow throughout the campaign, I think we need him to come clean about exactly what his relationship in the past with Vladimir Putin has been. But most importantly, we need a strong position - the United States position vis-a-vis Russia now. And we need the United States to organize the free world in the sense of values and in the sense of international law and to stand up to Putin.

SIMON: Ambassador Nuland, we've got half a minute left. Do you think by seizing three Ukrainian vessels Vladimir Putin is testing the U.S. or NATO?

NULAND: Absolutely. And there are plenty of things we could do here. We could offer international navigation in the Sea of Azov. We could offer international air oversight to protect that sea and allow free navigation by both countries. We could threaten international sanctions if those ships and sailors are not returned. So far, we haven't made a decision on any of those things.

SIMON: Victoria Nuland at the Center for a New American Security, thanks so much for being with us.

NULAND: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.