RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
Just before residents of Crimea voted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, a group of U.S. senators visited Kiev. They were showing support for Ukraine's new government, and also offering U.S. help. Among them was Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin. We reached him by phone in Chicago, and asked if the U.S. and Europe have to accept that Crimea is now part of Russia.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I don't accept that. I don't think we should. This phony Soviet-style referendum or election, we knew that that was coming, and we knew what the results would be. We should never recognize it. It just rewards the aggression and ambition of Vladimir Putin.
GREENE: You are saying that even if Russia goes through the formal process of recognizing it as part of their territories, the United States should never recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
DURBIN: Well, I don't think we should, until there is an agreement in their aggression in Ukraine. And if there is an agreement that strikes some balance between Russia's strategic needs in that area and Ukrainian sovereignty, I'm not going to rule that off the table.
GREENE: Well, you are supporting legislation right now to provide military assistance to Ukraine. What exactly is in that bill?
DURBIN: Well, there are a number of things. First, we have a billion-dollar loan to Ukraine that's not specified for military purposes. And we have the International Monetary Fund and our legislation that's prepared to work with Ukraine. Now, when it comes to the future of the Ukrainian military, this is not a strong military force. It will never be a match for Russian forces. But it needs to be strengthened and professionalized.
Now, this bill that came out did not specify military assistance. The Ukrainians of asked for more military assistance. The United States is listening closely and willing to cooperate on the non-lethal side. And I think when it comes to small arms or others, that is still being debated with his administration.
GREENE: And what do you think about small arms and things like that?
DURBIN: Well, it's - small arms are not going to end the Russian aggression in Crimea. That's clear. But when it reaches a point that we're worried about the very survival of Ukraine, I believe there should be an effort made by freedom-loving nations to give the military, first, at least some way to protect themselves.
GREENE: What about U.S. military advisers, if Ukraine asks for them?
DURBIN: Well, I think we can play a role it in building their military. They nominally have some 150,000 troops. But, as I said earlier, now it's only about 6,000 are combat ready. So it could be that advisers through NATO, through other countries and the United States, could help to professionalize their military.
GREENE: Do you worry that even if it's just officially an advisory role, that if there are American and/or NATO personnel on the ground, dipping their toes into that country militarily, that that might escalate things?
DURBIN: You know, the prime minister has made it clear to us he is not asking for boots on the ground. And we haven't offered it, nor will we. I don't believe that a military solution is one that is being seriously entertained by either side.
GREENE: You traveled to Ukraine, Senator, with your colleague John McCain. And he wrote an op-ed recently saying that to Vladimir Putin, weakness is provocative. And he said that President Obama's policies have created a perception in the world right now that the United States is weak. Does he have a point?
DURBIN: Well, I can tell you John's my friend. But if his premise were accurate, the United States invasion of Iraq would have stopped Russian intrigue in the Republic of Georgia. It did not.
I think in the 21st century, there are other ways for us to put pressure on nations like Russia. And I think what the president has proposed for political and economic sanctions is the right start.
GREENE: Well, let me ask you a specific point. I mean, we have Vladimir Putin being aggressive, some even suggesting we're returning to something resembling the Cold War. I mean, China right now it's increasing the size of its military. But the U.S. military is downsizing. Is this the right time to do that?
DURBIN: Let's step back now for a minute and take an honest look. We wouldn't trade places with either of those countries when it comes to national security. The United States leads the world. Now, whether or not we have a certain number of troops or a smaller number of troops is important, but it really doesn't tell the whole story. Our technology and our capacity is dramatically larger than any country in the world. And it will continue to be, under this president or in the future, on a bipartisan basis.
GREENE: Senator Durbin, we always appreciate your time on the program. Thanks so much
DURBIN: Thank you.
GREENE: Illinois Senator Richard Durbin. We reached him on his cell phone in Chicago, shortly after he returned from Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.