Toward a Europe Whole and Free
The Role of the United States: A European Power
Welcome and Moderator: Jim Sciutto, Chief National Security Correspondent, CNN
Senator John McCain (R-AZ)
Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT)
Federal News Service
JIM SCIUTTO: Thanks, everyone, for joining. Apologies for late arrival due to Senate business. And because Senator Murphy says –
MR. : (Off mic.)
MR. SCIUTTO: Well, I wasn’t going to say that. (Laughter.) Senator Murphy is on his way. But because we’re backstopped by Secretary Kerry’s speech at the bottom of the hour, we wanted to get started. Certainly a privilege to sit across from Senator McCain, Senator Murphy as well, particularly when there’s just a little bit of news that relates to the future of Europe, and of great interest, I know, to all the folks in the front row and others here today.
In light of the time we have, I’m going to ask Senator McCain for TV-like answers, while deep and perceptive as always, just so we can get as much – as much in as possible.
So I’d like to start, again, because there’s just a little bit of news this week related to Ukraine – I already know what your thoughts are about the second round of sanctions. So I want to ask you what you think the price would be that would be too high for Vladimir Putin. How high does the U.S., do Europe have to raise the cost to change behavior? And in fact – oh, here comes Senator Murphy.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): These new senators are not very prompt, and so – (laughter) – (inaudible) – not only are they not prompt, but disrespectful to their elders – (inaudible) – (laughter) –
SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): Somehow I left before you, but that is the wily veteran finding a new way here. (Laughter.)
SEN. MCCAIN: I came by helicopter. (Laughter.)
MR. SCIUTTO: The – first of all, thanks very much for joining. I was just saying to Senator McCain (and the crowd ?) what a privilege it is to have both of you here. And I was starting, first of all, by mentioning since we’re backstopped by Secretary Kerry’s comments at the bottom of the hour, we’re a little bit pressed for time, but certainly a lot to talk about. And I was starting with Senator McCain, just asking him not what his thoughts are on the second round of sanctions, because I know those, but what cost do you think would be necessary to change Putin’s behavior and deter him from additional steps, for instance, sending troops into Ukraine – eastern Ukraine?
SEN. MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I’d like to say a kind word about this left-wing communist here – (laughter) – and that is that I’m pleased that Senator Murphy is one of those newer members of the Senate who have taken an active involvement in national security issues. We don’t always agree, but the fact is that he’s thoughtful, and it’s been a pleasure for me to work with him and to travel with him. And we oftentimes have spirited conversations. So – and it’s also nice to see old friends and enemies here today. (Laughter.) Thank you for having me back.
I think it needs to be a series of things, but I also think timing is important. When you do things in a belated basis, it doesn’t have the effect of immediate reactions. And we are now in the second round of basically slaps on the wrist that, in my view, if you’re looking at Putin from where he’s sitting on a cost/benefit ratio, the cost has been very minimal.
Now, one of the most controversial aspects of this is, quote, providing them with arms. Well, we’ve reached a state of low comedy when we decide to send them MREs but don’t want to fly them in in American aircraft because that would be provocative. You know, I’m not making that up. So they had to send them in by truck. I mean, I’m not making that up. So why would – why am I – why is it that the prime minister and the others that are friends of mine in Ukraine say they want defensive weapons? Because they can defeat the Russians? Of course not. But it’s a morale thing with them, that we’re helping them, as we helped the Afghans and we’ve helped other countries in the past.
And by the way, Ukraine has a long record of guerrilla partisan warfare. And I believe that if Putin moves into eastern Ukraine, they will fight. They’ve made that very clear. So why not send them some defensive weapons in order to help defend themselves?
Then sector sanctions. What’s going to happen there? We’re going the lowest common denominator. Look, here’s a – here’s a dirty little secret, my friends: The Europeans aren’t going to enact meaningful sanctions as long as they’re dependent on Russian energy.
And finally, we need to – there’s many ways that the most powerful nation in the world can bring pressure to bear. But one of the things that I think that we need to do long-term, besides redeployment of NATO and other things, that could have the most impact – and Chris and I are in agreement with this – a crash program to be able to get them energy so that they are energy-independent. That changes the entire equation of European behavior. Understandably, they are facing a cutoff of energy, which could disrupt their economy dramatically.
(Inaudible) – for the industrial complex which seems to be governing the Federal Republic of Germany, but I do understand why energy is a vital ingredient. And some people say it could take years. I don’t believe that. I believe that if we put our best minds to work and our best people at work, and just the threat of energy independence can change the balance.
I’m sorry for the long answer.
MR. SCIUTTO: No, you covered a lot of things there. And I want to give Senator Murphy a chance to respond on one point. But let me just – on the issue of immediate aid, you send weapons now. What kind of weapons specifically?
SEN. MCCAIN: Defensive weapons. Look, they don’t even have body armor. They don’t even have night vision capability. If it’s all they’re asking for light weapons, I’d give them some anti-armor weapons as well and set up a long-term military assistance program. My friends, we have military assistance program with about 50 countries. I mean, it’s not as if this was a groundbreaking kind of – or radical kind of behavior pattern.
But it – their morale – my dear friends, their morale is not good right now. They’re seeing an inability in eastern Ukraine to get control. They’re seeing even OSCE people taken hostage, basically. And to give them a little morale boost – countries function, to a degree, on morale, and so do governments, and so do military.
Look, here’s the reality. The prime minister himself said that there’s only 6,000 military personnel that they can really depend on. Stack that up against the 40,000 that are on the border. I mean, I have no illusions about what it could do, but I do believe that it could be a very significant signal to them that we’re willing to help them, just as way back in our history, my friends, we were helped by some European countries.
MR. SCIUTTO: Mmm hmm. Senator Murphy, you know the administration’s position on this, and I’ve asked administration officials repeatedly as – after speaking to Ukrainian officials as well, who’ve asked for exactly this same kind of military support, as well as greater intel sharing, et cetera. Do you disagree with the administration on that? Do you think that some form of military aid, if it’s not – because the argument they give is it won’t change the military calculus on the ground. Senator McCain has made the point that, well, it has other value in terms of showing support, morale, et cetera. Would you disagree with the administration on that?
SEN. MURPHY: Listen, I think, you know, John makes a powerful case on the moral imperative to provide defensive weapons, and we’ve had a number of spirited discussions about this. Here’s my worry. My worry is not that it’s provocative. I think that the Russians are going to do what they feel they need to do in order to disrupt these elections in order to stop Ukraine from staying on a path towards integration in a political and economic sense with Europe. I don’t necessarily think that the type and kind of weaponry that we provide is going to be the thing that tips the balance in Moscow if they were to ever get to the decision to invade eastern Ukraine.
What I worry about is that because we can’t give the level of weaponry necessary to win that fight, that then this would become ultimately a victory not just over the Ukrainian military, but a victory over the Ukrainian military and the American military together, which frankly, I think, would weaken us as a nation in the eyes of the world.
But I think that John makes a very powerful and, to many, persuasive case on this point.
Let me just add one additional place where we agree in terms of what the messages are that we need to send moving forward, and that’s what is going to happen with respect to the future of NATO this summer at the summit in Wales. If you want to send a very clear message on a trans-Atlantic basis to the Russians that what they have done in Ukraine comes with costs, well, then let’s give a Membership Action Plan to Georgia; let’s talk about an aggressive plan to make true the Open Door Policy of NATO. I think that in and of itself would – I think they deserve to have a Membership Action Plan notwithstanding what’s happening in Ukraine, but I think it heightens the need to move on that this summer.
MR. SCIUTTO: One more – yes, please.
SEN. MCCAIN: Could I say that’s an excellent point, and I think we ought to consider Moldova as well, although there are some complexities as far as Moldova is concerned, including an upcoming election.
MR. SCIUTTO: One word you don’t hear a lot in administration conference calls these days is “Crimea.” And when these new sanctions were announced yesterday, I asked administration officials – (inaudible) – so have we forgotten about Crimea? Is the intention – is the intention of the current policy to do anything about that, or is it purely about deterrence in eastern Ukraine, and Crimea is an afterthought? The answer was – and I’ll quote this official – was that our policy is real nonrecognition of Crimea. What does that mean exactly? Is that going to change the situation on the ground in Crimea, or in effect, has – have both the U.S. and Europe, frankly, granted Crimea to the Russians?
SEN. MURPHY: Well, we shouldn’t forget about Crimea. And to the extent that we’ve imposed sanctions and we’ve kicked Russia out of international organizations, they shouldn’t be let back in and the sanctions shouldn’t be lifted until there is some change in disposition with respect to Crimea. So I – listen, the Russians are great at this, right? They just continue to move the ball and force you to accept their earlier transgressions. That’s what has happened in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in Trasnistria. They now want that to be the case in Crimea, and ultimately if maybe their only goal is to muddle and cloud the title of eastern Ukraine, they will try to couch that in terms of a win for the West that they haven’t invaded, but they just want to have some sort of tacit control over the territory.
And they have been very good at this game, and I would argue that the United States and Europe together have been pretty bad at catching them in that game, and we shouldn’t allow it to happen with respect to Crimea.
MR. SCIUTTO: Have we granted – has the U.S. granted Crimea?
SEN. MCCAIN: No, I – yeah, I agree with – Chris said. Very little I can add to it, except to say that we should make it clear in every statement we make that the annexation of Crimea is unacceptable, and someday we – it will return to Ukraine, just as we did in previous scenarios where – look, the reality on the ground is what it is. But we should always emphasize that we do not accept the annexation of a country, particularly for population reasons. I said half in jest to a critic friend of mine the other day, well, I – doesn’t Mexico have a claim to some parts of South Texas where there’s a majority of Spanish-speaking citizens? I mean, if you’re going to get into the game of annexing parts of countries or countries because of the ethnicicity (ph) (sic) and speaking language, boy, we are really down a slippery slope.
MR. SCIUTTO: Well, a lot of ethnic Russians in Estonia, right? I mean, this is – you could see that pretext – yeah.
SEN. MCCAIN: Estonia is scared to death about that. It’s very worried.
MR. SCIUTTO: Senator McCain, I want to quote the president because I think that he might have had you and others in mind when he said this yesterday, and I’m sure you know what I’m going to say, but – and others here have read this. “Most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.” Do you accept that criticism, when you push for stronger response, for instance, on Ukraine?
SEN. MCCAIN: Well, also – you know, I’d – have enjoyed the debate. I’ve enjoyed the back-and-forth with Chris and others who may have differing views, with John Kerry. But it’s – honestly, it’s intellectually dishonest to accuse people like me of wanting to send troops anywhere. Tell me one – he brings up the straw man of Iraq and then knocks it down. I have not, nor do I know any of the critics, who have said, let’s send the 82nd Airborne; let’s send any single American boot on the ground anywhere. And so to set that up as our position is a degree of intellectual dishonesty which stifles debate and discussion which hopefully would lead to consensus.
MR. SCIUTTO: Well, there is a fair point there, and I wonder if you want to comment, Senator Murphy, on what works, right, because, you know, the Bush administration had its own parallel experience with Georgia, right? And as you said, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now part of Russia. And they arguably took more – not military action, but more aggressive military symbolic moves, right? I mean, there was flying aid in on American planes to Tbilisi, right, as a message, et cetera. It just gets to the point, what’s going to work here, right? You know, what’s actually going to make a difference, not only with deterring action in eastern Ukraine, but in reversing gains in Crimea?
SEN. MURPHY: Well, listen, I think you should take 2008 as an example. Yes, we did fly planes in, and there’s some narrative that suggests that that stopped the further incursion into Georgia, but the reality is, is that you still have a region that continues to be incredibly unstable, and we did not move forward with any type of real crippling sanctions in the face of that aggression, by ourselves or with Europe. And listen, I think, you know, it is all – it is hard for all of us to predict what moves the psychology of Vladimir Putin, but we know that his initial term was all about a deal with the Russian people that brought them some sense of economic stability.
And to the extent that we hold the levers that could create economic instability, if we really exercise them – and I understand John’s reluctance to believe that Europe is ever going to do that – then I do think those are much more effective tools than some of the military options that may be in front of us. We just have never had the economic courage to do it. And as reluctant as Europe is, you can even see today the Chamber of Commerce and big American companies quietly and not so quietly coming to us and others in the Democratic and Republican leadership and saying, well, let me just tell you how this is going to hurt us and hurt your state. And so you can see all of the reasons for reluctance, but that should be our lesson from 2008.
SEN. MCCAIN: Could I just say I was very critical of the conduct of the war in Iraq under the Bush administration. I’m the one that said the secretary of defense ought to resign because – until the surge. So I’ve been fairly bipartisan in some of my criticism.
Second thing is we should have done more in Georgia. I was ridiculed when I said we’re all Georgians, because I believe we’re all part of the human race, and when people are persecuted or murdered or terrorized or whatever it is, then we are part of humanity. Does that mean we interfere everywhere? Does that mean – no. But at least the moral suasion of the United States of America – Margaret Thatcher said Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot. Why is that? Because we stood up for people. We stood up for Natan Sharansky. We stood up for these people who were in captive – so-called captive nations.
And I really had problems with the Bush administration’s response to Georgia. And I think Chris’ argument is valid. You could argue that that – he succeeded there, so why not another step forward? So –
MR. SCIUTTO: And successive step forwards, possibly – steps forward – right.
SEN. MCCAIN: Exactly. And Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously, I’m not going to defend it, but it is Afghanistan where the attacks of 9/11 came from. And I know of no American at the time that didn’t want to go after the people that were responsible for 9/11. And then Iraq – when the secretary of state of the United States of America goes before the United Nations Security Council and says, this guy has – Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and he’s going to use them, I think that the – particularly that secretary of state made a very convincing argument to many of us in Congress at the time. And obviously, I understand the debacle, and now when you look at the black flags of al-Qaida are now flying over the city of Fallujah, the bloodiest – second – battle of Fallujah was the bloodiest of the whole Iraq War. It’s terribly, terribly disappointing.
MR. SCIUTTO: If you accept the criticism that it is European disunity or reluctance on more severe economic sanctions, sector sanctions, that’s holding the Obama administration back – and I’ll ask you if you accept that criticism, one, but two, if that is the case, do you think the U.S. should move forward its own – and buy this other argument that’s out there that if the U.S. leads, the Europeans will follow, and that’s really what they’re waiting for here?
SEN. MCCAIN: I think we have to lead because it’s clear that we would go to the lowest common denominator, which we have just done in this last round of sanctions. And again, everybody thinks now, particularly us conservatives, that during the Reagan administration, everything went fine. We’ve forgotten about Iran-Contra. We’ve – (chuckles) – forgotten about several, maybe, bumps in the road. But the fact is that there were times when there was huge resistance to American – when we decided to put the cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, there was hundreds of thousands of people that demonstrated. They were steps that the Reagan administration at the time were strongly disagreed with. So I think America has to lead, and I expect our European friends will either follow or not, but we should not be – have to go to the lowest common denominator, in my view.
MR. SCIUTTO: Do you agree, Senator Murphy?
SEN. MURPHY: You know, I went over to Berlin, to Brussels shortly after the NSA revelations and got an earful about the special relationship that we had violated and that this was a relationship different than others because it was underlaid by values that we share. Listen, I think this is a test of that relationship today. We clearly believe that there are values important to the United States, that other countries shouldn’t be able to reset their borders with military force, that we are seeking to enforce with these sanctions, because in reality, other than that, there – the imperative of United States fulsome engagement in Ukraine is hard to make to our constituents. It’s on the other side of the world. But we believe there is a principle here. And the question is does Europe believe it with the same strength that we do? Is that commitment to values that we have been, frankly, lectured about a little bit over the last six months still as real as it historically has been?
And so I really do think that this is a test. I agree with John that the United States can’t wait, that this is too important. But having been told that this relationship is more than just about individual temporary strategic interests, now’s the chance for us to prove that.
MR. SCIUTTO: On that – please, please.
SEN. MCCAIN: And could I just mention one reality real quick? Vladimir Putin isn’t keeping 40,000 troops on the border because it’s a recreational effort. I still believe that he is calculating his cost-benefit to further action, whether it be further destabilization of eastern Ukraine, or as General Breedlove and others have said, he may go across the south, regain control of Odessa, Moldova, et cetera. I’m not sure. I predicted that he would go to Crimea because he couldn’t give up Sevastopol, that part of his dream of a “Greater Russia.” But I’m not sure. I just think he is figuring the cost-benefit, and a weak response, in my view, can only perhaps encourage him to further acts of adventure.
MR. SCIUTTO: Mmm hmm. You – this is the Atlantic Council, but I’m going to ask a Pacific question because you talk about precedent here. I just spent a couple years in China, and I keep reminding my colleagues at CNN that there’s this other territorial dispute going on in Asia. Actually, there are several, right, then Senkakus, Scarborough Shoal, et cetera, involving China and a number of other nations. How closely do you think not only China but our allies in Asia, Japan, Southeast Asian countries, are watching the U.S. and European response to Ukraine? And how relevant is it to the way China responds or acts in the coming years regarding those disputes? I’ll start with you, and then Senator Murphy.
SEN. MCCAIN: I think it’s – they’re watching very carefully. And there’s no doubt – every time I talk to one of these leaders, they mention Syria, the Syria decision. But I’d like to give the administration a kudo (sic), and that is this recent agreement with the Philippines. I think it’s an important step forward. I think it’s a model that we saw in Australia. We’re now seeing it in the Philippines. I think we’ll see it in other countries. My friends, there’s a ship that’s named after my father and grandfather that’s based out of Japan. It recently paid a port visit to the Port of Da Nang. Now, that shows you if you live long enough, anything can happen in this world. (Laughter.) And so we are – we are – I think we are doing a good job of kind of assembling a coalition there of countries that are really deeply, deeply concerned about China’s aggressive behavior.
Finally, the bad news is that’s – it isn’t totally bad news, but it’s indicative, and that is Abe’s new interpretation of the constitution of Japan. That clearly sends a signal that they intend to be far, far more active militarily.
MR. SCIUTTO: And you get the final word because Secretary, I think, is waiting in the wings.
SEN. MURPHY: Don’t disagree with anything John said. I would just caution us in all of these comparative debates to pay attention to treaty obligations. It is important to remember that we do not have a treaty obligation to defend Ukraine. Ultimately, that’ll be a decision as to whether they come into NATO. That’s different with some of the countries that have disputes with China. And so when we make these decisions, both in Asia – when we think about the implications for what happens in Ukraine for what happens in China, you have to remember that it all depends on what our actual treaty obligations are to the countries that are in question. I think you just have to remember that when you’re comparing what are sometimes apples to oranges.
MR. SCIUTTO: Secretary – (chuckles) – secretary – Senator McCain, Senator Murphy, thanks very much. Appreciate it. We covered a lot – (inaudible) – enjoyed.’
SEN. MCCAIN: Thanks for having (me ?). Thanks.
SEN. MURPHY: Thank you. Enjoyed it. Thank you. Thanks very much. (Applause.)