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Has Obama Done Enough In Response To Russia's Takeover Of Crimea?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My thanks to my colleague Jennifer Ludden for sitting in for me last Friday. We're going to start the program today with international affairs. President Obama is in the Netherlands today for a previously planned nuclear security summit.

But Russia's decision to annex Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine, has captured the attention of world leaders meeting there. Here is President Obama today after his meeting with the Dutch prime minister.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Europe and America are united in our support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. We're united in opposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.

MARTIN: But, as you might imagine, this country is not united on the question of how the president has responded to the crisis. Critics say he hasn't gone far enough to stop Russian aggression. And what these critics see as his tepid response to past crises is part of the problem they say.

But others say President Obama is being unfairly criticized by political opponents who continue to disrespect him for their own reasons. We wanted to hear more about this debate. We also wanted to hear more about options in Ukraine and the way forward. So we're joined now by two of our regular contributors. Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor to the Obama administration. He's now a senior vice president at VOX Global. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios once again. Welcome back.

COREY EALONS: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Mario Loyola is a former foreign affairs advisor at the Pentagon and in the Senate. He's also a columnist for the conservative National Review magazine. And he joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Mario Loyola, welcome back to you as well.

MARIO LOYOLA: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So let me start with you, Mario. You were telling us earlier that the situation in Ukraine has been a long time coming. So obviously, without giving us the short course in European history, just tell us why you say that.

LOYOLA: Well, I mean, it was pretty clear in 1994 that the situation that the Cold War left behind, especially in Ukraine and Crimea, was one that the Russians were going to have real difficulty living with. And like many settlements of big conflicts, going back to, you know, the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, I mean, every big treaty has within it the seeds of a future conflict.

And one of the tasks for foreign policy is to be able to look at those areas of potential conflict and make sure that the conflicts don't happen. But the difficulty is knowing when to be flexible and when to be firm. And I think that here, you know, you have a situation in Ukraine where within the borders of modern Ukraine were left large areas that had always been Russian, including the Crimea and parts of eastern and southeastern Ukraine. And so the Russians were left with a grievance.

And, you know, we have to distinguish between whether that grievance is really legitimate and the methods that they're using to go about dealing with it now, which I think have completely, in essence, changed the subject and really raised the stakes for us.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying. I mean, you're saying that you cannot justify the forcible annexation of Crimea. I understand that that's kind of your baseline point of view. What's your assessment of how the president has responded to this?

LOYOLA: Well, you know, my question is - and again, it's very difficult to come up with the right strategy - but my question is whether it's really going to make sense to try to coordinate sanctions that go after really what are areas of common interest with the Russians, for example, the natural gas supply to central Europe and Eastern Europe and things like that, without confronting the Russians directly in the Ukraine.

I mean, I think that we've - the Russians have created a situation now where it's not just the post-Cold War order with respect to Crimea and Ukraine that they're trying to revise. They're trying to challenge a basic tenant of the world left behind by World War II, which is that we don't change borders by force. And I think that you - so the central front in that challenge is Ukraine. And I think that we should be confronting the Russians directly in the Ukraine.

MARTIN: Do you think there has to be the threat of force for there to be a credible confrontation, Mario?

LOYOLA: I think that you have to apply enough pressure that the Russians will seek negotiations.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons, let's turn to you now. The president has been criticized in some quarters heavily, mainly by people on the right, who say that his tepid response to past crises is part of the reasons that the Russians kind of went forward here. You're very critical of the critics in part because of the timing. I mean, your argument is people who criticize the president at a time like this should be ashamed, which is pretty strong language itself. Why do you say that?

EALONS: Well, there used to be an edict that politics stopped at the water's edge, right? We understood that if the president of the United States was going to be engaged in geopolitical issues around the globe, that we needed to be - have a united front. That's simply not the case here because our conservative friends have gone over the bank in their criticism of him, and that's just out of bounds at this point.

Basically, the president has three audiences that he's dealing with right now. First, he's dealing with a war-weary American public. These are folks who have endured more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And anytime there's a sense of sabre-rattling, they get unnerved. So he has to be sensitive to that. The second is obviously the international community. They're watching his response to this situation as well.

And then thirdly and most importantly, you have Russia and Vladimir Putin. Right now, the president is taking very measured engaged steps, bringing together an international coalition to deal with this issue. And that is the same strategy that we used for more than 40 years during the Cold War, that effectively we won out.

MARTIN: Well, I...

EALONS: So for those who would criticize, I think they need to take a step back and appreciate the broader context of history.

MARTIN: But what if they think he's wrong? I mean, if their argument is that the stakes are quite high here, and they think he's wrong, you simply feel that as a matter of, not just tradition, but of efficacy, they should be quiet or express these issues privately and not publicly at this juncture.

EALONS: I think...

MARTIN: Is that what's your view?

EALONS: I think that's exactly correct, especially when you appreciate who we're dealing with in Vladimir Putin. Just take a look at the aggressive nature that he's taken over the past year or so. First of all, he intervened in the issue - in the situation in Syria last year. And he did that, I believe, because he wanted to make the United States look bad, quite frankly. Second, he takes in Eric Snowden and provides him with asylum.

And then finally, he takes this very aggressive action against Ukraine, and he's almost daring the United States and the broader international community to push back against him. So we have to appreciate that this is a Soviet era, former KGB official who is longing for the glory days. And we need to keep that in mind as we take a look at the broader context of what is really happening here and why we all need to be on the same side.

MARTIN: I think you meant Edward Snowden. Edward Snowden.

EALONS: Edward Snowden, exactly.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're focusing on foreign policy today and the U.S. role in Crimea, in the current crisis involving Russia's annexation of Crimea. Our guests are Corey Ealons of VOX Global. He's a former Obama administration communications advisor. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Mario Loyola. He's a former Pentagon adviser. He also writes for the National Review.

So, Mario, what about that? I mean, the argument that - I don't know that Corey is saying that your argument is out of bounds - but do you feel that perhaps political opponents, like, for example, the president's former opponent - former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, who wrote a piece about this - should temper their criticisms, at least publicly at this time? So I'd like to ask that. I also want to ask you more about your idea about what would pressure look like - credible pressure, in your view, look like?

LOYOLA: Well, first of all, I'd like to know more about this idyllic period that Corey's talking about because I can't think of any in American history. I mean, during the Reagan administration, the domestic politics of our foreign-policy was totally paralyzed by a very strident Democrat opposition to almost every aspect of the Reagan administration's foreign-policy. And the same has largely been true going back decades. I think - and from my point of view - I mean, I think that conservatives have a point in looking at the enticing weakness that the president has shown, for example, in Syria, in a lot of areas.

He seems to pursue a policy of not confronting people on purpose thinking that that's going to preserve the peace. And, you know, as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to say - weakness is provocative. And so I think that we're seeing some of what we saw the Soviet Union do in the early days of the Kennedy administration, which is to say, you know what, I don't think that the American's are going to stand up to us so let's see how far we can go.

Now I don't that the - you know, my approach to the administration's policy and to what the Europeans are doing - I don't think is terribly political. And I think that if a Republican administration was in power, they would probably default to a lot of what the current president is doing. So I don't see this as a terribly political situation. I do however, in response to your second question...


LOYOLA: ...Think that the situation in Crimea is much more of an emergency than the president seems to be approaching it as. You know, you've got Russian troops massing on the eastern border of Ukraine. You have military installations of the Ukrainian military being overrun in Crimea, and they are likely to be, you know - the Ukraine military is likely to be in a deplorable state of readiness and morale throughout the country.

And I think that the possibility that the entire military establishment of Ukraine could just fall apart and plunge half the country into lawlessness - that would make a Russian invasion almost inevitable. So I think that we should be rushing to buttress Ukraine's security forces and even putting in, you know, air defense and a couple of Patriot missile batteries. I mean, no one's talking about large numbers of boots on the ground, but you've got to put significant defenses on the ground for the Ukrainians.

You know, and to the extent that they're not asking for them - it's because they're too scared - I think, I have to suspect - that it's because they're too scared to ask for. And they don't want - and that may be our fault for not being clear enough that we are going to defend the sovereignty and the security of Ukraine.

MARTIN: OK, I gave you the first word, Mario, so I'll have to give Corey Ealons the last word on this on this round. Corey, final thought from you.

EALONS: Well, again, I think we have to be measured in our approach here and you don't want what put every sword you have on the table at the outset. As the president is engaged in conversations with world leaders in Europe during his trip this week, I think they may get to the point where they decide those types of actions need to be taken.

But for now, the measured approach that we're using to place sanctions against individuals around Vladimir Putin who may have an influence on him standing down, that's the first step in making sure that we're moving in the right direction.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons is a former communications adviser to the Obama administration. He's now a senior vice president at VOX Global. Mario Loyola is a former advisor at the Pentagon and in the Senate on foreign affairs. He's a columnist for the National Review magazine. Obviously we'll stay on this story so thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

LOYOLA: Thank you, Michel.

EALONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.