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As Penalties Come Down For Russian Officials, How Will Moscow React?


Michael McFaul was, until recently, the U.S. ambassador to Russia. And I asked him today, which set of punitive measures will worry the Russians more: sanctions from the U.S., or from the EU?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: The European sanctions, for the simple fact that more Russians have money in Europe than they have in the United States; that they travel more frequently to Europe. And I think that's why it was a very wise step to do this together the day after the referendum. And I would remind you that this is already a step further than what the Europeans and the Bush administration did, in response to Russian intervention in Georgia, in 2008. Back then, there were no economic sanctions whatsoever.

SIEGEL: When you were ambassador in Moscow, did Russian officials whom you spoke with, did they ever raise the status of Crimea as a concern of theirs?

MCFAUL: Almost never. I've been trying to find a speech that President Putin devoted to the plight of the Russians in the Crimea; that somehow, this was a cause of great concern to him. There are individuals who did - and some of those individuals are on this list - who have talked about the need to reunite all Russians in the former territories of the former Soviet Union. But I can't think of a moment when it came up - for me - until just this recent crisis, nor do I remember a major speech by President Putin devoted to this issue.

SIEGEL: Do you sense any Russian strategy at work here? Or is Vladimir Putin reacting to events in Ukraine; events that he and other Russians, perhaps, didn't anticipate?

MCFAUL: Well, there's no question in my mind that this was a reaction to the collapse of the government in Kiev.

SIEGEL: The Yanukovych government, when he...

MCFAUL: President Yanukovych. And let's be - let me be more precise about that. The government collapsed because Yanukovych fled. There was an agreement, a path forward, between the opposition and President Yanukovych. And the next day, when he was to introduce reforms to the constitution, he decided instead to flee. So this was their response to that, this - President Putin's response to that, and a way to shake up and punish the government in Kiev.

SIEGEL: Turning to Crimea, given that the Crimean Peninsula has a majority Russian population, given the unique history of its fairly recent transfer to Ukraine in Soviet days, and its strategic importance as the base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, even though it's in Ukraine, do you think that President Putin sees Crimea as being essentially, different from regions of eastern Ukraine where there are very large Russian populations? Or might it be all one in the same, to him?

MCFAUL: Obviously, I don't know because, again, I don't remember a major speech on Russians in Ukraine. So it's hard to know exactly what he thinks. I do think there are - that the important differences you just described, with respect to Crimea versus eastern Ukraine, are important. There are significant populations of ethnic Russians, but they live in the cities whereas in the countryside - is populated mostly by ethnic Ukrainians. So there's no simple way to slice and dice, if you will, and to annex territory when we're talking about eastern Ukraine.

SIEGEL: Do you regard the separation of Crimea from Ukraine as actually reversible? Or might we have to accept an agreement that would let this, the judgment of this referendum - whatever its legality or illegality - stand?

MCFAUL: I think it's reversible. I just don't know when it's reversible. You may recall that when the Soviet Union annexed the three Baltic states, we did not ever, ever recognize that as part of the Soviet Union...

SIEGEL: But that took about 50 years to reverse that annexation.

MCFAUL: Well, correct. But it was important that the United States, and the rest of Europe, did not recognize that annexation. And I think it's very important here, too.

SIEGEL: Well, Ambassador McFaul, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MCFAUL: Sure, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Michael McFaul, of Stanford University, was until very recently the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, the ambassador to Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.