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White House is doing its best to navigate Russia-Ukraine crisis, Sen. Sanders says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we just heard, world leaders are still working on a diplomatic solution, even as Russian troops have Ukraine surrounded on three sides. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says the U.S. should consider its next move very carefully. I talked to him yesterday.

BERNIE SANDERS: Wars have unintended consequences, you know? We saw that in Vietnam. And we saw that in Iraq. And we saw that in Afghanistan. And if Putin decides, in an absolutely outrageous way, to invade the Ukraine, our military experts say that there could be 50,000 casualties in Ukraine alone, not to mention millions of refugees fleeing the country, not to mention sanctions and counter-sanctions. The, you know, Russians will respond probably through cyberattacks, could impact energy and gas prices in America, food distribution, banking. Who knows? So we have got to do everything that we can to try to reach a negotiated and diplomatic settlement.

MARTIN: The U.S. has taken a very public approach to its diplomacy in all this. The Pentagon revealed intelligence that said Russia was plotting to stage a fake attack on Russians living in Ukraine that could be used as a pretext for war. The U.S. has also said Russia could invade at any moment and that, in fact, they have given Wednesday as the day it could happen - very specific. By naming these alleged Russian plans, does it make it less likely that Putin will carry them out?

SANDERS: Well, I really don't know, I don't know that anybody does. But I think it's not a bad tactic. If our intelligence is reporting that, it puts pressure on the Russians to say, no, no, that's not true. And if they say, no, no, that's not true, well, then they would look totally stupid if they went forward with an attack. This situation is complex. It is difficult. And the Biden administration is doing its best walking a very difficult tightrope.

MARTIN: Do you agree, then, with the decision by the Biden administration to send thousands of U.S. troops to Eastern Europe?

SANDERS: Well, I think that's a signal that we stand with NATO. On the other hand, what I think the Biden administration has said is there will not be American troops in Ukraine, which I think is absolutely right.

MARTIN: You wrote in the op-ed for The Guardian that you hear the, quote, "drumbeats" of war in Washington. Where are those coming from?

SANDERS: Well, you know, when I hear absolutes, when people say, oh, we got to be tough, that any negotiation is appeasement and we've got to draw a hard line, I worry about those type of statements.

MARTIN: Is someone saying any kind of negotiation is appeasement?

SANDERS: They are. What you have now is, you know, folks who want to have the very, very tough line. And I'll tell you where the tough line is, you know? For a long time since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has made clear, and American diplomats and government officials have understood, that Russia is concerned about having a hostile - they see NATO as hostile - military force at its border. And where things become complex is that sometimes, you got to put yourself into the other guy's position. I wonder how many of my colleagues from Congress would feel comfortable if, for example, a country like Mexico were to sign a military agreement with a hostile force, somebody that we considered hostile. You think that would be tolerated?

The United States, as you well know, has overthrown at least a dozen countries in Latin America, where we considered that what they were doing is not in our national interest. And many times, we were dead wrong in doing that. We almost went to a nuclear war in 1962 when Russia placed missiles in Cuba. So I mean, I think we have a sphere of influence. And I think it's important to understand that they have and have had concerns about hostile military forces near their border. And that's something that should be taken into consideration.

MARTIN: Let's just underscore that. You're saying that some of Russia's concerns about NATO influence spreading eastward or the potential of Ukraine even becoming a part of NATO, that this is a legitimate worry for Russia that should be taken seriously by the U.S. and NATO?

SANDERS: This is a concern that the Russians have made since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It's a concern that American officials have recognized. And all I would say is that when you enter into complex negotiations, you have to look at the other person's point of view.

MARTIN: Then do you think the U.S. and NATO should agree to not let Ukraine into NATO? Should they make a concession to end the crisis?

SANDERS: That is the decision of Ukraine and decision of NATO. And that's something that, you know, is going to be negotiated. But at the end of the day, as best I can understand, Rachel, nobody believes that Ukraine is going to become a part of NATO in the near future.

MARTIN: You write that the international community will impose severe consequences on Putin and his associates if he doesn't change course. But you think sanctions won't work. Why?

SANDERS: Well, no. I didn't say that. I mean, I think that if Putin does decide, which I think would be just horrible, unimaginable - that he decides to invade Ukraine, then we have to impose sanctions. There has to be punishment for what would be the largest military action since World War II. Unacceptable. And Putin has got to understand that if he does that, there will be consequences either way. And I think a lot of those sanctions should be directly targeted to Putin and his fellow multi-billionaire oligarchs. Those are the guys that we should be going after.

MARTIN: But, Senator, I'm just quoting here from your op-ed in the Guardian says, the sanctions against Russia and Russia's threatened response to those sanctions could result in massive economic upheaval, with impacts on energy, banking, food.

SANDERS: Right. Well, then let's be realistic. We should do it. I mean, I think there's no alternative to that. But when you do that, what do you think Russia is going to do, say, oh, that's fine? They're not going to do anything. I think there will be a response. And I think the response will probably be in terms of cyberattacks, cyberwarfare, against our banking system, against our energy system, food supplies. Who knows what? All that I'm saying is you have to be naive not to believe that may happen. And if it does happen, it will happen not only to the United States, but throughout Europe. So let's sit down. Let's negotiate. And let's come up with a diplomatic solution if at all possible.

MARTIN: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Thank you for your time.

SANDERS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESMERINE'S "A RIVER RUNS THROUGH THIS CITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.