War in Ukraine: airstrikes, drones and a looming counteroffensive
This week saw heightened tensions in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A wave of drone strikes hit the Russian capital Tuesday morning, bringing the war to Moscow for the first…
Thousands of Russian troops have massed on the border of Ukraine, escalating concern by the U.S. and its Western allies. An Egyptian court handed down death sentences to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Venezuela’s president announced the arrest of three generals for allegedly plotting to overthrow him. Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law was convicted in a U.S. civilian court of conspiring to kill Americans. Authorities shifted the search zone for possible wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. And President Obama visited Pope Francis at the Vatican. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama calls on Russia to reduce the number of troops along Ukraine's border. The search for Malaysian airliner moves 700 miles northeast. And Egypt's Army Chief Al-Sisi steps down to run for President. Here with me for the Friday Roundup of international news, Mark Landler, White House Correspondent for The New York Times, Elise Labott, Foreign Affairs Reporter for CNN and Justin Vogt, Deputy Managing Editor at Foreign Affairs.
MS. DIANE REHMDo join us. As always, you are part of this program. A very important part. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome to all of you. Happy Friday.
MS. ELISE LABOTTThanks Diane.
MR. MARK LANDLERHi Diane.
MR. JUSTIN VOGTThank you very much.
REHMGood to have you here. Justin Vogt, I know that Foreign Affairs has a new e-book titled, "Crisis In Ukraine." Listeners can find that on our website, drshow.org. Russia appears to be increasing the number of troops along the Ukraine borders. What do we know about what's happening?
VOGTVery, very little, I'm afraid. I think that the best that we can say is we know that Putin is playing a high stakes game here. This is a -- he's acting sort of like a gambler. And I think that we also know that the stakes for the West are equally high and it's not quite clear how far we're willing to go in response. And I think that what I'm looking at closely here, and what some of the smartest analysts of the region are looking at is how do we determine just how much the West is willing to do in order to push back.
VOGTWhat is the nature of the deterrent here to Putin?
LABOTTWell, I think it's very interesting that the US meeting with the G7 this week -- it kind of excluded Russia from the party and said that we won't meet as the G8. We'll skip Sochi in June, that the whole world now is kind of united, except for maybe a few Russian allies that are not voting with Russia, not voting against Russia, like China, for instance, saying that this cannot stand. And so, as Justin said, there have been some small sanctions on Putin, on individuals in the Russian government. There's threat of the kind of larger biting sanctions on sectors like defense, like energy.
LABOTTBut it's really unclear what will deter him, and it's really unclear what exactly his intentions are as he surrounds his forces around, kind of, these three cities in eastern Ukraine. The question is, is he just trying to solidify his control over Crimea with land access, or does he have more designs on invading all Ukraine? Or is he just trying to destabilize the country as it looks towards elections in May, to say to voters, listen, you may want to think about whether you want to go with the West or whether you want to go with Europe?
REHMSo, how concerned are American officials?
LANDLERWell, they're extremely concerned. Partly because the numbers of these troops massing on the south and eastern borders are larger than you need for joint, for military training exercises.
REHM20 to 40,000?
LABOTTSome say 80.
LANDLERSome say 80. The point is, it's much more than you need for training exercises. So, the assumption here is that either they're preparing an incursion or, to pick up on Elise's last point, they're simply massing the troops in a way to destabilize, to intimidate, to bully the country and prevent it from kind of coalescing under new leadership. And I think that's why President Obama, in the speech he gave in Europe this week, emphasized as much the things that Europe and the West need to do to bolster the Ukrainians as he did measures against the Russians.
LANDLERThe IMF has passed -- approved this 18 billion dollar, two year loan package, the US Congress has voted a billion dollars in aid. The Europeans have 15 billion teed up. And that's kind of where you saw the President's focus begin to move toward, because I think he recognizes that some of these sectoral sanctions that Elise was eluding to, it's going to be very difficult to get the Europeans to sign on to those. And so, there are limits to, real limits to what the United States and the West can do, punitively, against Russia.
LANDLERSo now I think some of the emphasis may shift to what can we do to bolster the Ukrainians' economically and politically.
REHMSo, he then, after all these meetings between President Obama and European counterparts, they're still not on the same page. Justin.
VOGTI think that's right. You know, part of the issue here is that even the idea of an IMF loan, like the kind that has been announced, the idea that that will somehow solve Ukraine's problems is really -- that's not the case. First of all, the loan comes with conditions that are gonna be fairly onerous for Ukraine, are gonna be quite unpopular with the public there. And we know that the public in Ukraine has proven that it can make its voice heard. And the interim government right now knows that just as well as the Yanukovych government that preceded it.
VOGTSo, I think part of the distance between the two parties is probably a result of an uncertainty about, well, just how much can Ukraine bear right now?
REHMIt's interesting. Richard Haass was on this program yesterday. When I asked him about the President's speech, he said something like, if I had been there, I would have spoken a little bit more over Putin's head to the Russian people, and that would have been a way of sending a message to Mr. Putin, that what he cares about most, which is his own political future, is potentially endangered by what he had done in Crimea.
LABOTTAnd I thought it was interesting that he called Russia a regional power...
REHMA regional power.
LABOTTInstead of the kind of world power or superpower that it was of years past, to make that message to him that this is weakening you, emphasizing what's going on with the Russian economy. But I think another thing that the President struck was that since the Cold War, maybe the United States and Europe have grown a little complacent. And that the Europeans themselves, not only the United States, but the Europeans have to strengthen themselves to make themselves a more attractive climate for these eastern European countries.
LABOTTAnd also a more stronger collective defense when we're talking about what NATO could do. And I also think, listen, President Putin has seen what's going on in Europe with the economy, with these recessions going across Europe. They've seen the United States looking at the crises in the Middle East over the last several years, the so-called pivot to Asia that we're still waiting for, all these other distractions that the president had, his own economy.
LABOTTAnd perhaps Putin took that message as an opportunity, and this is what a lot of people think, that he wants to recreate, if not the Soviet empire, but the Russian empire, and this is his opportunity while the rest of the world is a bit weak.
LANDLERYou know, there is this school of thought that he's blundering into a terrible situation, that if you look at what the Russians have dealt with in other places where they've exerted control. South Ossetia in Georgia, these places are generally economic sinkholes for the Soviets -- for the Russians, end up costing them billions of dollars. And that will be true of Crimea, as well. I guess against that, I would just put the short term political boost to Putin, domestically, for being perceived as this heroic figure, who's recapturing Russia's sense of national pride.
LANDLERI don't think you can underestimate that, and while I think Richard raises a valid point in the weakness of the Russians can't be overstated, it's sort of a question of what your timeline is. If your timeline is the next five years, Putin's probably the victor in all this. If your timeline is the next 10 to 20 years, the Russians will probably pay a huge price. The question is, will President Putin be the one who pays it, or his successors?
VOGTYeah, I think Elise raised this and Mark talked about it too, that there are these two kind of competing narratives about who do these events demonstrate to be strong and who do they demonstrate to be weak? You know, Putin, over the past couple years, has watched as two autocrats, both of whom are very close to the Kremlin, and both of whom hosted Russian military facilities in their countries, have lost control. Bashar Al-Assad first, and then Viktor Yanukovych. So, if you're keeping score at home, so to speak, you know, actually, in the big picture, things are not really going well for Putin.
VOGTIn the very short term, Mark's right, that there is a domestic political benefit to this. But the real cost of these things, I'm not sure that in a five year span they'll become clear. But certainly, beyond that point, they will. It's also, you know, think of it this way, that Putin has won Crimea for now, but has probably lost Ukraine. And very likely, the rest of the eastern countries that are drifting closer to Europe now.
REHMSo, you do not believe he wants to go after Ukraine.
VOGTI don't know what Putin wants. I do know, though, that it would be extremely risky, much riskier for him to go into eastern Ukraine, than it was in Crimea. Because the same level of support that existed in Crimea, for that kind of incursion, does not exist, in any kind of uniformed way in east...
REHMBut the question remains, what the US should be doing at this moment to discourage any further entry into Ukraine.
LANDLERWell, you know, I think most people will say that what the President has done so far is actually not bad. He's marshaled as much support as he's likely to get for punitive measures.
REHMExcept for Charles Krauthammer and his morning...
LANDLERJohn McCain. There will always be a chorus of people that will say that he should do more. But when pressed on what more is, it's always unclear to me. I mean, no one wants a military confrontation of any kind. For one thing, NATO and the West are not positioned in Europe to have that kind of a military confrontation, nor is there any popular appetite for it. So, I think that within this universe of limited options, the President, I think, has struck more or less the right tone.
LANDLERAs much support as he can get on sanctions, as much support as he can marshal for the Ukrainians, to make the case to Putin, that look, Crimea's gone, but don't go any further.
REHMMark Landler of New York Times. Elise Labott of CNN, Justin Vogt of Foreign Affairs. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Our first email on Ukraine is from Jonathan who says, "Doesn't taking over more of Ukraine potentially risk Putin's stirring up problems at home and risk full alienation of world powers? Do the benefits of forceful takeover make sense," Jonathan? (sic)
LANDLERWell look, I don't think...
REHMMark, forgive me.
LANDLERNo problem, Diane. I think that probably he's raising exactly the right point and that's undoubtedly the calculus that Putin is going through. Which is why I -- my sense is that despite this massing, this threatening massing of troops, the goal here is more in the short run to bully and intimidate and divide the Ukrainians than to actually march in. Because as Justin correctly pointed out, you lift the stakes enormously if you make that next move, then you risk those sectoral sanctions. Almost certainly that hurts the Russian economy and then Putin faces domestic opposition at home, which he hasn't had up until now.
REHMAnd here's a Tweet from Don, "What are the chances Ukraine escalates to a nuclear conflict or World War III," Elise?
LABOTTI think that's highly unlikely. I think that Russia -- you know, all these years of the Cold War and the whole idea of mutually assured destruction...
LABOTT...I think that's probably -- he doesn't want to take -- doesn't even want to, as Mark was saying, take it to a military conflict. But even if so, I mean, I don't think in recent decades, and certainly even President Putin has even suggested, the idea that nuclear weapons could be involved. And he's been -- President Putin has also been involved, although the negotiations have been very thorny, about reducing nuclear stockpiles as well.
REHMAll right. And let's turn to Egypt where a judge handed down a mass death sentence to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, more than 500 people, Elise. Pretty shocking.
LABOTTFive-hundred-and-twenty-nine, and that's basically the attitude of the international community. State Department calling it shocking, saying it's defied logic that in two days in a quick mass trial of 529 suspects, that they would be all sentenced to death for the killing of one policeman during these whole riots over the last several years.
REHMHow could they come to the conclusions that 529 people were somehow involved in the killing of one person, Justin?
VOGTWell, this is the phrase that's sometimes used here is telephone justice. In other words, the conclusion was arrived at before any consideration was made of the facts. This was not a procedure of -- a judicial procedure, any that we would recognize as legitimate. You know, the other side of this equation is that, of course, back in August, and even in the initial uprising in 2011, there are hundreds and hundreds of protestor civilians who were killed by security forces in Egypt. And not a single person has faced any trial or even much of an investigation for those crimes. So it's doubly weighed down by the judicial sort of malpractice on both sides of the aisle.
REHMClearly targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, but would these executions actually be carried out, Mark?
LANDLERI'd be surprised if they were. It just seems it's so extreme and it would be so unacceptable. And it would isolate Egypt so profoundly were they to move ahead with it. You know, that said, this counterrevolution, if you want to call it that, that has started over the past year-and-a-half has gone in directions that people never expected in terms of the ferocity of the military crackdown. A number of people have already been killed.
LANDLERIt's just deeply dispiriting. And for the United States it raises again the quandary the U.S. has faced. They've suspended most of their aid to the Egyptian government. There was talk of restoring it. There's periodically discussions of restoring it. Well, this now puts the U.S. in the position of saying, how can we possibly support this regime? And then, once again, estranges the U.S. with what used to be its staunchest ally in the Arab world.
LABOTTSince this regime has taken over and deposed President Morsi in July, 16,000 citizens have been arrested. And we're not just talking about supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood that the regime considers quote unquote "terrorists." We're talking about journalists, human rights advocates, democratic activists that were the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, anybody that had anything to do with it, reporters that were reporting on it.
LABOTTAnd this just goes to show that even as this, as Mark said, counter revolution goes forward, there are some serious reforms that need to take place in the justice system. Even under President Mubarak, this type of mass justice and injustice is really unprecedented. And now, you know, on Tuesday there were 700 people that were also tried with the same judge. And we're waiting on the verdict in April.
LABOTTSo no matter what happens, the next leader of Egypt is really going to have to do some kind of reconciliation of this country.
REHMAnd that could well be General al-sisi who has decided to resign his post to run for president. How much support does he have, Justin?
VOGTWell, he has a great deal of public support right now. Of course the country is extremely polarized but dissent has been very effectively repressed, at least for the past -- you know, since July, since the real coup took place. Now, you have to remember that al-sisi is very likely to become the next president, but now that he's left the military, he has quite a few competing bases of power that he has to tend to. He will no longer be in the military. And the military clings very fiercely to its...
VOGT...power and its economic privileges. A lot of the military controls quite a bit of the Egyptian's economy. And then there's also the business interests in Egypt who are not always aligned with the military because they want to see more free enterprise and not as much state-controlled enterprise. So it's a very tricky balance being the ruler of Egypt, even the undemocratic dictatorial ruler of Egypt, as Hosni Mubarak found out in 2011.
REHMSo is there anybody to oppose al-sisi? You've got elections coming up in July. Anybody out there who's willing to go up against him?
VOGTAt this point there's only one declared alternative candidate, Hamdani, who is a leftist, sort of Nasserite old school traditional left candidate who also ran against Morsi, but is not expected to poll, you know, particularly well, although his voice will be there. I think this is really a foregone conclusion this is a fait accompli. Al-sisi is extremely likely to be the next president of Egypt.
REHMIs this likely to return the country to what it was under Mubarak?
LABOTTIt's not clear. It's not clear whether this was just a period of him trying to stabilize the country, but it certainly isn't moving the country in a very positive direction on the democratic front. And, as we said, there needs to be some kind of reconciliation of these former Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the rest of the country. But also the Egyptian economy is so fragile.
LABOTTAnd you have to remember that President Mubarak and President Morsi, both of them didn't only fall because of political oppression of the society. It was because of high unemployment, of economic concerns, failure to address poverty and near poverty, extremely high youth unemployment and unchecked inflation.
LABOTTSo President al-sisi, if it comes to be, is going to have the same exact...
REHMSame problems, yeah.
LABOTT...challenges and he might find that he's the one who these people are protesting about.
LANDLERThe one other point I'd raise is that all of this -- I think we're going to talk later about the president's visit to Saudi Arabia, but this is going to be a huge topic for the U.S. Saudi relations. The Saudis are now the largest patrons of the generals in Egypt. And so there's a kind of a realignment of alliances and interests in the Middle East.
LANDLERAnd they will no doubt -- the Saudis no doubt will give President Obama a strong message of, this is the way it's got to go. The Muslim Brotherhood is a scourge and, you know, they are the ones who are destabilizing the region. They are the enemy. And that's going to be one of a number of very difficult issues on the table. But this will be among the most attractable.
VOGTIt's interesting that Mark connects this to -- attributes this to Saudi Arabia. There's another interesting connection here too, actually to Ukraine. We were talking about that before and Elise mentioned the economic hardships in Egypt. One of the things that we're going to be looking at closely here are wheat prices. What's happening in Ukraine has a real impact on wheat prices. Ukraine is one of the biggest exporters of wheat in the world. Egypt -- the way in which Mubarak and many, many generations of Egyptian leaders have helped -- have bought support essentially is subsidies for bread.
VOGTAnd this is one of those areas where you can see connections between these issues that don't necessarily appear at first. If al-sisi is not able to keep bread prices low because there's a crisis in some other part of the world, that's going to pose a real problem for him.
VOGTSo some of these things are linked in ways that we don't necessarily see right away.
REHMMark, you raised the president's visit to Saudi Arabia. How and what is he going to try to achieve in Riyadh?
LANDLERWell, it's going to be mainly an attempt on his part to reassure the Saudis. After three decades of a fairly strong strategic alliance, a lot has gone wrong between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Egypt is just one example. The Syria case is another where the Saudi's have been extremely frustrated with the U.S.'s lack of willingness in their view to adequately back the rebels.
LANDLERIn the case of Iran, we're engaged in this nuclear negotiation that leaves the Saudis extremely rattled. And really more broadly I think what the Saudis fear the most is that should that negotiation produce a deal, it could represent a long term tilt away from the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf toward the Shiite Islamic regime in Tehran. And that would be one of these generational shifts in American foreign policy that would potentially leave the Saudis in a much more isolated position.
LANDLERSo there are both these immediate issues and then this longer term American focus. And in both cases the president's going to need to say to the Saudis, look, I can negotiate with the Iranians on the one hand. It doesn't mean that we're any less united ourselves. And that, I think, will be the message he'll try to put across.
REHMAnd then, Elise, you've written about a former Saudi diplomat who's gay and seeking asylum here in the U.S. Is that likely to come up?
LABOTTI don't think it's likely to come up but it is very interesting that the president has made the issue of gay rights -- gays and lesbians around the world and their persecution, protecting them a priority. And so he said that he was going to help asylum seekers. And the idea of that, he's going to this country where gays and lesbians can be flogged, tortured, killed for their sexual orientation, presents an interesting dynamic as to whether that policy is just convenient when it's countries like Uganda or another country where the relations are not so critical.
REHMDo you think he brought that up with the Pope?
LABOTTI think that -- I don't know if they actually spoke about gay rights, because you've seen some interesting things by the Pope to say such as, who am I to judge?
LABOTTBut just to quickly bring it back to Mark's point on the assurances. I'm not sure how much he's going to be able to assure the Saudis because that deal with Iran is going to go forward. President Obama is not likely to do much more on Syria. And I think that the relationship is going to have a lot of turmoil for a lot of years to come.
REHMElise Labott of CNN and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Justin, you wanted to add to that?
VOGTYeah, another point about the Saudi U.S. relationship has to do with the American production of oil, the shale revolution. This has really transformed the relationship with the Saudis. Probably by about 2016 U.S. production of shale oil is going to just about match what we import from the Saudis. And so that has sort of a structural factor in the background that is really changing the terms of our relationship with the Saudis.
REHMWe, this week, saw the conviction of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law in New York. Mark, tell us about that.
LANDLERThis is a guy named Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. The role he played for al-Qaida was to sort of be the person who came out and was the public face of the Jihadi movement for bin Laden, so a very close and trusted associate. The importance here is the venue as much as the person. He was tried and found guilty in a civil court. This is perhaps a litmus test for an example for other cases. Of course the administration's been trying very hard to bring major al-Qaida figures to civil courts as opposed to in the military Guantanamo process.
REHMAnd who's still in Guantanamo?
LANDLERPrecisely. And there's of course a great deal of opposition on the hill. Republicans, Lindsey Graham and others have come out against this. It's been extremely difficult. The administration's not made a great deal of progress in this area and then, hence, it's complicated President Obama's pledge to shut down Guantanamo.
LANDLERThe fact that this trial went forward, the verdict was brought, was returned swiftly could be a way for the administration to make the argument to bring others to civil courts. And I think that's why it'll be, you know, much cited in the coming months.
LABOTTIt took less than 13 months for Abu Ghaith to be arrested, put on trial and convicted. Now, it's been 11 years since Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the master minds of this attack who's in Guantanamo Bay, was captured and later sent there. And he's still being detained with no trial in sight. So it -- that alone shows that civilian courts, not military detention centers, may be better suited for these high-profile terrorism cases.
REHMAll right. Let's turn to South America and Venezuela. The Maduro government arrested three generals accusing them of plotting a coup. Is there any evidence to support those charges, Justin?
VOGTNot that I'm aware of, and he has yet to even name the generals in question here. Keep in mind that Venezuela has a long -- this is an accusation of a coup -- it really resonates with the public there because of course there was in fact a coup in 2002 when the former President Chavez was deposed very briefly.
VOGTAnd beyond that there's good evidence that the United States was at least, in some sense, aware of this coup and wasn't necessarily 100 percent opposed to it. Let's put it that way. So this allegation has a lot of power in Venezuela because, in fact, it's based on a history of these kinds of things actually happening. Now whether that means it has happened, I have no idea. But you can see why he would turn to that in a moment of crisis to shore up his own political support.
REHMBut he really has been targeting high profile people.
LABOTTThat's right. A prominent congresswoman Maria Machado led this march this week through Caracas. She came to the organization for American states and wanted to make a speech about the oppression that the Venezuelan government...
REHMHe's accusing her of treason.
LABOTTHe's accusing her of treason. He's trying to strip her of her seat in congress, which would also strip her of immunity. And then she could be criminally prosecuted. And it just is a continuation of the kind of oppression of opposition that President Chavez had launched. But President Maduro is not President Chavez. And it just remains to see how long he can keep this up before there is a major revolt against his power.
REHMElise Labott of CNN. We'll open the phones when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the international hour of our "Friday News Roundup". I know many of you are interested in Ukraine. Let's go first to Rosa in Baltimore, Md. Hi, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
ROSAOkay. Obama needs to do all these sanctions to show strength, but he needs to be diplomatic with Putin. I believe it was a big mistake to call Russia a regional power. It was the quintessential put-down. He is dissing a bully. Putin is a bully and we do not know how stable he is. But we know, in fact, that Russia is not a regional power. It has the most nuclear weapons, probably, other than us. And we need him. We need him in Syria to help us to negotiate there and do, you know, and -- but put in a position of weakness, a bully will retaliate.
ROSAAnd so I -- it would do well for President Obama to be diplomatic in speaking about Putin and Russia, because...
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Mark Landler.
LANDLERWell, look I agree with the caller's observation about Russia's power. It's clearly not a regional power in the sense that, you know, any number of smaller countries are regional powers. That said, the president's language, if you look at his language through this entire crisis, has been quite sensitive to understanding the Russian link to Crimea -- understanding, he spoke to Scott Pelley of CBS just yesterday and spoke at some length about understanding Putin's sense that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a tragedy, that Russia was a country that had been mistreated at the hands of the West.
LANDLERSo I guess I would take issue with the notion that he's been dismissive or derisory toward Russia and Putin. I actually think he's acknowledged several things about where Putin is coming from, what his sense of grievance might be, while at the same time saying, the actions you're taking simply can't stand and they don't put you in the company of great world powers, which I think is the context in which he maybe meant that regional power reference.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Charley in Ann Arbor, Mich. You're on the air.
CHARLEYYes, regarding Putin, I was going to say that I think what he's doing is he's telling Ukraine that you exist at my pleasure. And by telling that to Ukraine, he's also telling it to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and all the other former Soviet-controlled states. Even Jimmy Carter has said that, well, maybe the next step should be some sort of military action. So, you know, what about the possibility of this extending to other parts of Europe?
VOGTWell, the caller's right to point out the Baltic States, but remember that they are in NATO and Ukraine is not. And that is a really important distinction here. The U.S. and Obama has said, full stop, we will not go to war against Russia over Ukraine. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which is the founding document of NATO, says that if there's an attack on a NATO ally, the rest of the Alliance will consider it just like an attack on the rest of them. There's always been a little bit of doubt about, would the United States and the rest of NATO really go to war with Russia over Estonia?
VOGTYou can -- you better believe that the leaders of Estonia are asking that question...
REHMCount on that.
LABOTTHe is telling Ukraine, you exist at my pleasure. Condoleezza Rice wrote an interesting Op-ed this week saying about the first time she met Viktor Yanukovych, I think, was in Moscow. She met President Putin and he trotted out Viktor Yanukovych and said, "This is Viktor Yanukovych. He's running for president of Ukraine." And the message was, Ukraine is mine. Hands off.
LABOTTAnd I think the question for me, that I've been thinking about, is whether the support that the U.S. has shown Ukraine -- obviously it's a close ally -- but during this whole issue with Viktor Yanukovych, when the U.S. was really competing for Europe to move towards this agreement with the EU, when Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary, was handing out bagels to protestors on the line -- if that was a message to Russia that, no, Ukraine is not yours -- and I think that President Putin had a legitimate fear that if Ukraine was going to lean towards the West, if you had a new government that joined the EU, that Crimea would not necessarily be his.
LABOTTAnd these bases would not -- would be up for grabs. And so I think that, while, yes, he does have expansionary powers, he's really trying to hold on to the sphere of influence that he has had for the last several years. There are a lot Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans that do bend very closely towards Russia.
REHMAnd President Obama continued his travels. He went to visit with Pope Francis, whereas Michelle Obama went to China. What was she doing there?
LANDLERWell, this was a visit that actually grew out of the fact that when President Obama met President Xi Jinping and his wife in Southern California a year ago, the first lady wasn't there and she didn't meet Madam Peng, the Chinese first lady. So the idea, I think, originated from that -- to have the first lady and the president of China invite Michelle Obama and her daughters to spend a week in China. And, you know, it was sort of played very much as a spring break visit to China with a very nice overlay of education and culture for the first lady, her two daughters and her mom.
LANDLERWhat happened, which was sort of interesting, was the trip turned out to be a lot more substantive and even more political. And I...
LANDLERWell, she spoke at a number of venues, A high school at the Stanford Center at Peking University. And in those places, she basically spoke about the importance of free expression, how the free exchange of ideas, particularly on the Internet is important for the creation of a prosperous society. This is in a country that, of course, blocks the Internet widely, has threatened to kick The New York Times and Bloomberg and a number of other media organizations out of the country -- so a strong message.
LANDLERShe also spoke about minority rights, using herself, her own story and that of her husband as an example -- African-Americans who grew up in a society that still, in her childhood, discrimination was still a legacy issue. And she overcame that, worked very hard and went to elite universities. That's, of course, a very powerful message in a country like China, where the Tibetan minorities have been brutally repressed for years.
REHMAnd how was she received?
LANDLERI think she was received with a great deal of excitement and perhaps a sense of novelty as well. I mean, for an African-American woman who went to Princeton and Harvard to come and speak about that childhood she had and where she came from is a message that's really quite unusual for Chinese -- for young Chinese, in particular…
LANDLER...to hear. So I think this visit turned out to be perhaps -- I, you know -- the famous first lady visit that's always cited is when Hilary Clinton went to Beijing in 1995 and spoke about women's rights, really establishing herself as a global figure. This visit won't be that. That was a -- sort of a vivid thunderous message delivered at a time, and it really had an impact on American-Chinese relations. This visit won't be that. But I think it was a more significant, important and substantive visit than anyone expected.
LABOTTAnd it was telling, right, that a lot of times, especially with Hilary Clinton's speech, that that was very controversial in China. The Chinese tried to block it and make sure that the other Chinese didn't hear it. They didn't do that here. They didn't block any Internet sites or block the televised speech. And I thought that that was, A, a show of respect and a sign that Chinese -- U.S.-Chinese relations could evolve.
LANDLEROne more small point to make, to the extent that there was sensitivity on the White House's side, it was evident in the fact that they chose not to bring reporters on the plane with Michelle Obama. The visit was covered by correspondence from our paper, The Washington Post, and others. But in breaking with a tradition, there was no traveling pool of press. And I think that actually showed, to the extent there was sensitivity, there was also a lot of sensitivity on the U.S. side. They didn't want press too close to see too much of what Michelle Obama was doing.
LANDLERSo it's sort of interesting that these types of issues are not just true of the Chinese, they can be true of us to some extent as well.
REHMI liked the gift that President Obama gave to the pope.
VOGTOh, the carrots? Yeah, the seeds?
VOGTYeah, from the White House garden.
VOGTYeah, that was a -- that was a nice touch. And what did the pope gift to the president?
LABOTTHe gave him two medallions and a series of readings. But I think, as thoughtful as the pope's gifts were, they also kind of reflected some of the issues that the U.S. and the Vatican don't agree on. And I think, in the statements that came out of this meeting, it was telling that, while the Vatican and particularly this pope and this president want to have a very good relationship, there are areas of conflict...
LABOTT...particularly on the issue of contraception and the Affordable Care Act and how that is supposed to mandate employers to provide contraception.
REHMAnd the power of women.
LABOTTAnd the power of women. And I think that, you know, while they might have had a candid discussion and certainly the president respects this pope's attention to addressing some of the issues of poverty and the disenfranchise that I think President Obama thinks that he might be able to advance his own goals through the pope, it's still very clear by the statements that came out of the Vatican that those issues still remain thorny subject between the U.S. and the Catholics.
REHMAnd I must say, I don't think we can close this hour without talking about the Malaysia airliner that seems to have been lost, search zone now shifting by nearly 700 miles. How come, Mark?
LANDLERWell, the reason the Malaysian authorities have given is that it's a new analysis of the radar data that they have, that has allowed them to both move the search zone and also narrow it a good deal. And the good news here, if they're actually working with accurate data, is that the ocean that they're moving it to is a little less turbulent. The depth of the ocean is -- it's not as deep as the area they were searching earlier. But I've got to say, really more than anything, this shows the continuing and enduring mystery of this and the fact that, even now, days and days and days later, we still seem somewhat to be grasping at straws.
REHM239 people on board and their families still waiting in a lack of understanding -- really difficult. And then the landslide in the State of Washington. I realize that's not an international event but, golly, talk about disasters. CNN has really played up the Malaysia airliner.
LABOTTWell, I think that we find that this mystery of the -- and the plight of these 239 families -- we're not just covering, obviously, the search and the investigation. But these families are very frustrated. And you saw some of them, particularly in the hotel in Beijing and how they've been briefed by the Malaysians. They're very frustrated, and as everyone is, as investigators are, that they haven't been able to find what's going on. And the fact that the search changes every -- the search area changes every day. And every day is a new day that brings new disappointment.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Ted. He's in Ridgefield, Conn. Hi, you're on the air.
TEDGood morning. It's really a pleasure to be on. I actually live in Simferopol, Crimea. And I thought, if it's possible, if we could move the discussion a little bit out of the political to the cultural. As a sociologist, I worked there some. And I think the thing that's disturbing is, is what's currently happening, they're going to be forcing Ukrainians to leave Crimea. It's almost verging on what I would consider ethnic cleansing. There's absolutely no money. People are going without food. I'm currently sending as much money as I can. But Western Union may or may not work. There's no schools. People are not being paid.
TEDPensions aren't being paid. And, of course, when we look back at the whole referendum, it was highly a corrupt process at best, especially when, at my apartment we're looking down at machine guns. And I guess the thing is, is that we try to think about an international response, we never exactly consider the cultural and the sociological, if not the humanitarian effect of what's going on. And I wondered if your speakers would want to respond to that.
LANDLERWell, I think you're raising an absolutely vital issue. And I do -- and I think it's particularly apt for you to raise it now, because if you talk to kind of the Realpolitik people in the West, the sort of general consensus is, well, Crimea's gone. I mean we've sort of acknowledged that Putin has taken what he's going to take and he's not really going to be pushed out of it. But you raise an absolutely valid point, not just of Ukrainians, but I presume of the Crimean Tatar minority, which presumably feels itself extremely threatened by a Russian-controlled Crimea.
LANDLERAnd, as you point out, the referendum -- and as Victoria Nuland and others have pointed out -- the referendum was extremely dubious, with this sort of massive amount of approval, no complaints lodged with the election commission. The whole thing was sort of a bit of a joke. So, yes, I think you raise absolutely the right points. And you, who obviously know a great deal about this, should speak out as much as you can about it.
VOGTYeah, it's also, it's worth pointing out that, you know, in the places where Russia has done similar incursions -- in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, for example, in Georgia -- the people in those places, many of them, especially the Russian speakers, were quite happy about that at first. Over time, the lack of investment and the sort of difficulties that annexation always poses, what with borders moving and customs changing, currencies, is actually...
VOGT...is actually quite a problem. So aside from all the really intense sort of humanitarian issues that the caller raised, there are also a sort of a host of economic problems that Crimea might have to expect.
REHMDaily issues that people have to face. Who's running the place right now? Do we know?
VOGTI don't think anyone has a really clear sense of that, except that there was a sort of self-declared prime minister of -- a pro-Russian prime minister of Crimea, who sort of stepped into the vacuum during the uncertainty, after the initial Russian incursion. But I don't think anyone -- I'm sure people in the Kremlin know exactly who is running Crimea. But for outside observers and even probably for people on the ground there, it's probably pretty confusing.
LABOTTWell, and it -- and we also saw that this so-called self-declared prime minister let all of the Crimean self-defense forces, these so-called irregulars that were pro-Russian, go, because he said that the enemy is no longer here. And the message that this is now under Russian control and we don't have to fear any of those Ukrainians anymore, because Putin has our back.
REHMElise Labott, foreign affairs reporter for CNN, Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times, and Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs has a new e-book out titled "Crisis in Ukraine." You can find a link to it at our website, drshow.org. Have a great weekend everybody.
LANDLERSame to you, Diane.
VOGTThanks very much.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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