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Is Putin Pushing Around the U.S.?; U.S. Prepares Sanctions

Aired March 3, 2014 - 18:28   ET


SALLY KOHN, CO-HOST: Wolf, Vladimir Putin's giving Republicans a new excuse to play their favorite game: criticize the president.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Sally, I admire your attempt to switch the blame, but President Obama's weak foreign policy is the real problem. The debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, a stern warning to Vladimir Putin.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russia's on the wrong side of history on this.

ANNOUNCER: But Republicans say President Obama is mishandling Russia.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength any more.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Sally Kohn. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Lawrence Korb who supports the president, and Danielle Pletka, one of the president's harshest critics. Is Vladimir Putin pushing around the U.S. because the president is weak? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


KOHN: Welcome to CROSSFIRE's breaking news coverage of the crisis in the Ukraine. I'm Sally Kohn on the left.

GINGRICH: I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, two guests who disagree on President Obama's handling of the crisis in Ukraine.

We're in the most dangerous challenge to the international community since Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait, and in the coming days the Obama administration will only make things more dangerous.

Listen as President Obama sits is helpless in the Oval Office, trying to shame the Russian leader into behaving better.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: The steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, Ukraine's territorial integrity, that they're a violation of international law.


GINGRICH: Nice talk from a former professor of law, but Vladimir Putin has indicated he doesn't care what the Americans or Europeans think. Putin has complete dominance in the immediate region and intends to use it. This is a real crisis. The dangers are going to rebound around the world. Decisions being made right now will change history.

KOHN: I agree. It's just interesting that Republicans wouldn't make any of those decisions differently. They just complain about them.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Obama supporter Lawrence Korb and former assistant secretary of defense and Obama critic Danielle Pletka, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Danielle, as we sit here right now, CNN is reporting that Obama's Treasury Department is putting together a crippling package of sanctions against Russia. Isn't this exactly what Republicans have been demanding, and aren't they going to criticize Obama anyway?

DANIELLE PLETKA, FORMER STAFFER, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, first of all, I don't think we should characterize any of this. You know, I'm delighted to be labeled Obama's harshest critic, but in fact, these are serious matters. And I think the people of Ukraine have more profound things on their mind than American petty politics.

I'd love to see sanctions put in place by the Treasury Department, but at the end of the day what we're going to really need is critical American leadership. And unfortunately, for the president, it's that word "credible" where he has a real deficit.

First of all, he let Putin bring him down the garden path on Syria, a country that was supposed to have given up all its chemical weapons by February but has only given up 11 percent of them. What accountability have we heard demanded by the president? That's the problem that he has from situation to situation, whether it's in Russia, whether it's Ukraine, whether it's China, whether it's Syria, wherever we see him, he just doesn't have what it takes to be taken seriously by foreign leaders.

KOHN: Is he credible? What do you think?

LAWRENCE KORB, OBAMA SUPPORTER: I think he's more than credible. For example, if you go back and look at 2008 when Russia went into Georgia, we did nothing. And people -- that was at the height of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's got the international community to begin putting sanctions. These aren't going to be the treasury. These have to be international sanctions. And nobody, even the harshest critic, wants to put boots on the ground. So if you're not going to put boots... GINGRICH: Let me give you an example of why I think the credibility thing is a little bit tricky. Look at what the president said at one point today. It's remarkable.


OBAMA: One thing they can do right away is work with the administration to help buy package moscassistance to the Ukrainians to the people and that government, and when they get back in, assuming the weather clears, that will be first order of business.


GINGRICH: Let me just make two points, real quick, and then give you a chance to respond.

The first is you're a Russian. Moscow's had 85 inches of snow this year. The president says when the Congress gets back in, assuming the weather cooperates. You're thinking to yourself, is this guy like nuts? OK. This is a sign of American toughness. Five inches of snow, Congress collapses. U.S. time, in the spring we'll be back.

Second, what's his first act? Again, Obama's first act is always to spend money, but the truth is the No. 1 supplier of energy to Ukraine is Russia. The No. 1 debt is to Russia. The president's proposing the American taxpayers send foreign aid to Ukraine, which will immediately go to Russia, which strikes me as Putin saying, "Fine." I mean, he'd like to take the taxpayers' money.

KORB: That's nonsense. OK. First of all, Congress, by the way, is compared to when you're there, they're never there. They're out all the time. They don't get anything done. He can't authorize any money through the IMF unless the Congress adopts it. And that's what he's trying to say.

And by the way, I mean, if you're talking about, you know, Putin was going to lend money to Ukraine. He lent them 3 billion which he's not going to get back. And you know, if you want to take over Ukraine, you're taking over a bankrupt -- bankrupt country. The idea that somehow another -- by saying we want to give the money, yes, I think we ought to help them get out of bankruptcy just like General Motors or something.

GINGRICH: But won't that money go -- won't a large part of the money go directly to Russia?

KORB: No. No, it won't go to the Russians. I mean, you know, Yanukovych, who was their guy, he got elected because of the Russian vote in Crimea. You haven't seen Putin with him. When he was in Russia he was standing behind a Ukrainian flag. Putin will not even talk to him when he's there.

So the idea that somehow this money is not going to get -- now, I'll agree with you: both Russia and Ukraine are corrupt. That's what I worry about. Getting it there will go to the corrupt Ukrainians.

KOHN: What do you think?

PLETKA: I don't know. I'm not quite sure what you're talking about, frankly, but I think there are a whole series of steps that the president could take.

I think sanctions are an important first step. I think leadership is the sine qua non of moving ahead. I think first of all, we don't -- we don't sell gas to countries without -- with which we do not have free trade agreements. We could undercut the Russians immediately in the European Union by beginning to sell gas and cut the rug out right under Putin's feet.

KOHN: Let's go to the one you said in the middle there, that leadership thing. You vaguely hinted at it. You said it before. It's a credibility issue. I want to know what it really, actually means.

Because again, it seems like a sort of hollow critique, all due respect. The sort of notion of, you know, look, like the president has been showing leadership by getting the world community on the same page, something that the American public was demanding for us to do. We don't want to go it alone in the world any more.

What's the alternative? More tough talk? Is that it? I mean, all the policies on the table are exactly what Republicans are asking for. You have, like, John Boehner out there calling Putin a thug. You want more of that? Is that helpful? Is it just...

PLETKA: Again, I think I try to make clear right at the outset that I think that that sort of petty name calling is foolish. And -- and I think it's foolish whether it comes from Republicans or Democrats.

What I mean by leadership -- and I'm sorry that leadership is such a mystery to you that it needs to be defined -- but what I mean by leadership is really pulling forward and showing the resolve that this will not be tolerated by the United States.

KOHN: Are you saying threaten military action?

PLETKA: No, absolutely not. And I think that that's the kind of straw man that people keep building up. It's what Larry threw out...

KOHN: Tell us.

PLETKA: ... saying boots on the ground at the beginning. First of all, we can start selling gas to the European Union. Second of all, we can start targeting Russian officials and Ukraine officials with banking sanctions. The Europeans have already said they'll consider -- consider stopping the negotiations on easier visa permits for the Russians.

But we can show a lot more decisiveness in this. Angela Merkel, as Wolf reported just earlier, is really waffling on this, which she should be ashamed of. We can talk to the Germans very decisively about what we're going to do and the kind of top cover that we're going to give to them. KORB: The key thing is I agree. That's what we ought to be doing. But we -- it doesn't work if just we do it. And that's the problem.

You know, when I worked for President Reagan and the Soviets went into Poland to stop the Solidarity movement, we tried to get the Europeans not to buy gas from then the Soviet Union. They wouldn't do it.

And so the idea -- and that's where Obama is -- I think excels. He gets the international community to do it.

You know, the great irony here is, if it wasn't for the Russians, those sanctions against Iran wouldn't be working. He was able to get the Russians to work with us on Iran, which is a much more important threat to the United States than whether the Russians are in Crimea.

GINGRICH: You're also in the point of why this is all going to be a mess. The president calls on the Russians for Syria. The president calls on the Russians for Iran. There are certain things we're doing in Afghanistan that require Russian forbearance. The Russians are now a major supplier of energy to western Europe, because we followed an anti-energy policy for a generation.

I mean, the first thing the Congress should do is not send foreign aid. The first thing they should do is then, he said, they should lift the prohibition on sending that gas to western Europe, not that it will work overnight, but that's a very powerful signal to the Russians and, frankly, driving down the price of oil and gas is a strategy. It worked with the Soviet Union. It would work with Putin, because it takes away his resources.

But let me ask you something. I'm always fascinated with symbolic liberalism. And part of that the president gave us a taste of is about international law. Now, you have a KGB colonel who spent his entire career breaking the law, who is actually quite enthusiastic about doing whatever he wants.

Why would anybody in the West believe that Putin is -- I think he could be affected by real sanctions that had real bite, but I think lecturing him on some vague international legal structure will strike him almost as childish.

KORB: Fact, if you read what Putin told the United Nations about international law, it was exactly the same thing. I think he's trying to show he's a hypocrite.

And you know, I think this -- you know, interesting, what happened to the Russian stock market today? Down 11 percent. Their ruble is going down. You know, David Ignatius put it very well this morning when he quoted, as you would know, your old military historian background. You know, as Napoleon said, never interfere with an enemy when he's making a mistake. This is a big mistake that Putin has made.

KOHN: That's right. And a lot of people say it shows the desperation of Russia. But meanwhile, next I'll explain why I wouldn't be surprised if Republicans are, in fact, getting ready to send Vladimir Putin a great big thank-you card.


KOHN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE's breaking news coverage of the crisis in the Ukraine. We're debating President Obama's handling of Russia.

Republicans are practically cheering for Vladimir Putin today. He's given them a new excuse to bash President Obama. Republicans are out in droves, suggesting that, if the president weren't such a weak leader, Putin wouldn't be threatening the Ukraine.

First of all, did the same Republicans call George W. Bush weak when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008? No. Second, what do Obama's Republican critics want? They want economic sanctions and political boycotts to be on the table. Well...


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: There could even be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans. There could be, certainly, disruption of any of the normal trade routine. There could be business drawback on investment in the country.


KOHN: There's an old Russian proverb: "To spite my mom, I'll freeze my ears off."

Danielle, aren't Republicans systematically undermining the president, trying to spite the president, but in effect hurting America's standing in the world?

PLETKA: First of all, I think polling shows uses that the president has done more to hurt our standing in the world than the Republicans at this point. But that's immaterial.

First of all, let's get a little bit of history straight. John McCain, who you guys have been showing on endless loop criticizing the president on Ukraine, ripped George Bush's head off on the issue of Georgia, so did Lindsey Graham, who's also been on your screens, mercilessly and without a lot of attitude from the Republican White House.

So, no labeling them hypocrites. I'm sorry, they're people of principle. And I was in the same place, I agree wholeheartedly.

Bush made a pathetic showing in Georgia, I think it was one of the things that encouraged Putin to believe with an even weaker president, he could go further.

Second of all, these aren't games. It's always lovely to talk about American domestic politics as if it's somehow more important than the lives of the Ukrainian people or the Syrian people. Let me tell you, these are not games for the Republicans or the Democrats who are standing up. KOHN: I wasn't saying this is a game at all. In fact, the difference --

PLETKA: You said it was a game in your open.

KOHN: Well, the difference here is that once upon a time we have this sort of gentleman's and gentlewoman's agreement --

PLETKA: No, we didn't.

KOHN: That our politics ended at the water's edge.

PLETKA: Rubbish.

KOHN: And instead of getting behind the president and together as a country uniting to deal with this crisis, Republicans are out there undermining the president's leadership in the world.


PLETKA: It's absolutely not true. First of all, never stopped at the water's edge, if you recall after the First World War, we didn't join the League of Nations, I think that was probably a moment in the last century before you were born but certainly when politics didn't stop at the water's edge. It never stopped at the water's edge. That's number one.

Number two, this is about national interests and about the security of the world. What we want to ensure is that Putin doesn't view the Crimea the way Hitler viewed the Sudetenland as a free ticket to do what he wants in his part of the world so that we don't have to engage later on. A little bit of toughness.

GINGRICH: Let me ask, Larry, the two point, one in the 2008 campaign, one in the 2012 campaign, that I think could have easily misled Putin, let's take a look at it for a second.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, we also can't return to a Cold War posture with respect to Russia. It's important that we recognize there are going to be some areas of common interest.

When you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing the U.S., you said Russia -- not al Qaeda, you said Russia. In the 1980s and now are calling for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years.


GINGRICH: So, the question I have is pretty straightforward. The president had Secretary Clinton go out with a reset but button. They've had all these gestures.

If you were Putin wouldn't you take from all that that there's a pretty high level of willingness on the part of the Obama administration to give you a pass if you do a few small thing, like say take Crimea?

KORB: I think the real thing is and the president was correct, this is not the Cold War where it's a zero sum game. During the Cold War, we allied ourselves with very unsavory characters because we did not want, you know, the Soviet Union to get ahead. I think that's the point.

It's not a zero sum game. There are things we could work on. For example, had you not had what everybody criticized, you would have never gotten the Russians to help support those sanctions against Iran.

And they're not a geopolitical foe. They're a declining power. This is going to make them weaker because there are going to be a lot of people in Ukraine who might have been willing to work with them, but after this they're not going to do it.

And I think it's very interesting if you take a look, they control two parts of Georgia, but the others are trying to move toward NATO. And that's what you really want in the long term is to move these countries, you know, more toward Europe. And I think the fact that we got -- remember, the Europeans mediated the first thing with Yanukovych and the opposition.

So, to get them involved I think is important because by ourself we can't deal with Putin. It's their backyard. They need to work on it. I think you're seeing this.

I don't know what Angela Merkel said in the phone call but the fact is she did call and at the end she said, this guy needs to get on his meds essentially what she said.

KOHN: That would be a better line. Is he right? Is he right that it's essential to have the Europeans involved here?

PLETKA: I think it is absolutely essential. I couldn't agree more about that, and I would be very unhappy to see them wavering.

You know, the Europeans can't even agree with President Obama, we need to slow down on the G-8 that's going to be taking place in Sochi. So, I think that's very troubling.

I also think a lot of our NATO allies are very, very worried. Some of them have substantial Russian minorities. They've asked for NATO to come in and talk about that. They want to be sure that we're going to stand with them if the Russians start threatening them. And we're really not making a show of strength, either here, frankly, or in NATO.

GINGRICH: I think, I mean, it strikes me (INAUDIBLE), I'll toss to both of you. Putin's not out of touch with reality. Merkel is just not -- she's just totally misreading this. Putin is looking at the Europeans being frightened, looking at their economies, being afraid of what he's going to do to their supply of natural gas.

And Putin's calculus is, he can run over all of us, because we're not going to get together. And I think it's very, very dangerous. I mean, what you just described about the European reaction, if they won't even drop in on the G-8 and have a G-7 meeting in London or Berliners somewhere, that is a sign of being willing to tolerate a level of violence that is very sobering.

KORB: If this thing doesn't end and it gets out of hand, they will drop them. You've already seen the British say they will do it. The French have said, they will do it. So, we're moving in that direction.

I think what they're trying to do is, say, OK, we'll give you a little bit of wiggle room, but if you keep up with this, you're going to pay a price for it. And again, look at what happened to the Russian ruble and stock market today. He can't keep doing that or the Russians are going to get upset.

KOHN: That's right. I mean, it seems like the difference here is, again, tough talk and bluster in a unilateral fashion, or taking some time? Yes, it's going to take some time. This is an evolving crisis to get the Europeans on the same page.

But you think that -- is that weak in your mind, to sort of take time, not speak out more strongly, not put stronger options on the table without our allies behind us? Is that what makes --

PLETKA: I think that allowing Putin to believe that we're going to back down and tolerate his occupation and effective annexation of Crimea is a huge mistake.


PLETKA: That is what we did with -- that is what we've done with Georgia. That is the reality of today, is that we accept it, is that we accept the de facto Russian occupation of two regions of Georgia.

It didn't stop us from going to the Olympics. It didn't stop anything. It didn't stop the G-8.

The fact is that Putin is the one who gets us.

GINGRICH: Stay here. We want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Who has a stronger hand in the crisis in Ukraine? Tweet Putin or Obama using #crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.

We'll also have the "Outrage of the Day". I'm outraged that anyone would be surprised by what Vladimir Putin is doing.


KOHN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

It's time for our "Outrages of the Day".

So, I'm thrilled that "12 Years A Slave" won best picture at last night's Oscars. Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, said "12 Years A Slave" won because it had the magic word in the title, "slave."

No. It won because it's an exquisite film. But, thank you, Mr. Limbaugh, for reminding us how far Hollywood and America still have to travel on issues of race and racial justice, as Adam Serwer wrote today, "Most films that tell stories of people of color are oftentimes movies about the exceptional white people who ultimately triumph against evil."

"12 Years A Slave" was not this. But the fact that most other Hollywood films are is still sad and outrageous and exactly what makes the "12 Years A Slave" so remarkable.

GINGRICH: It's remarkable, but I personally was pulling for the "Dallas Buyers Club."

KOHN: That was my second choice. So, I would have been -- it was also a good film.

GINGRICH: At least I had your second choice --

KOHN: Two great films.

GINGRICH: Always thinking of you.

I'm outraged that anybody would be surprised by what Vladimir Putin is doing. Not just the brutality in Crimea, but in all of Russia.

Why would anyone think of him as a kinder, gentler leader? He's a former colonel in the KGB. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates described him as a stone-cold killer. And yet, we seem to be continually surprised when he acts like a stone-cold killer.

We need policies based on reality. And Vladimir Putin is a reality. Now --

KOHN: I completely agree. We would have been more persuaded if you would have said that shirtless wrestling a bear.

GINGRICH: That would have been disgusting television.

Now, let's check on our "Fireback" results. Who has a stronger hand on the crisis in Ukraine? Right now, 31 percent of you say President Obama, 69 percent say Putin.

What do you two think of those results?

KORB: Well, I'm not surprised, because people don't like to see people do other things. But I was thinking about that, the Russians, the Soviets, '56 in Poland and Hungary, '68 Czech (ph), what did we do? President Eisenhower invited Khrushchev to the United States after that.

KOHN: Quickly, Danielle?

PLETKA: I'm not surprised by the results, but I am disappointed and I disagree. I think the president as a stronger hand. He's just not playing it.

KOHN: All right. We'll have to end it there.

OK. Thank you so much to Lawrence Korb and Danielle Pletka.

The debate continues online at as well as on Facebook and Twitter. From the left, I'm Sally Kohn.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.