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Sen. Coons was part of the U.S. delegation in Germany to discuss Ukraine


If diplomatic talks don't progress to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, another option could be sanctions. That's something Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wants imposed before Russia were to invade or, as he said on Saturday, to at least have a list of what the potential sanctions may be made public. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked about this on CBS "Face The Nation" yesterday.


ANTONY BLINKEN: We've rallied other countries to make clear and to put together in great detail the massive consequences that will befall Russia if it engages in this aggression. The purpose of that is to do everything we can to deter, to prevent a war, to deter the aggression. And we don't want to pull the trigger until we have to because we lose the deterrent effect.

MARTÍNEZ: Delaware Democrat Senator Chris Coons serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he was part of the U.S. congressional delegation at the Munich conference. And I asked him what needs to happen to move talks ahead peacefully.

CHRIS COONS: At this point, President Biden has done exactly the right thing in pulling together the United States, our NATO allies and, frankly, the entire West in sending a forceful and clear signal to Putin that he faces a choice. Either de-escalate and step back from a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and negotiate for some things, some better security guarantees in terms of arms control, transparency, some new arrangement with regards to Russian concerns about security. Or face devastating sanctions.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Senator, who makes the first move during this meeting? Is it President Biden reaching out to Putin? Or is it Putin maybe offering clarity on what he's wanted this whole time?

COONS: Well, Putin's been clear about what he has wanted this whole time, and we've been clear in rejecting it. He's repeatedly demanded security assurances that frankly are ridiculous and that were rejected out of hand by most Western leaders and President Biden. He's demanded that we pull all NATO forces back to the line before the Warsaw Pact fell apart and many of the Warsaw Pact nations joined NATO decades ago. But he's looking for some things that we could provide - a guarantee that there aren't going to be Western missiles based in Ukraine, for example, more transparency around conventional forces and exercises. So the menu that's been presented and that's been discussed repeatedly between Putin and Biden in their several meetings and in several meetings with other Western leaders remains one where Putin's demands are unreasonable. And if he is willing to accept an off-ramp to more detailed negotiations about arms control and transparency, I think that's something President Biden can and should embrace.

MARTÍNEZ: So that'll be the thing President Biden will be seeking to hear from President Putin, some kind of off-ramp because it sounds like everything else has been discussed, and it's on the table. And we know each side - what they want and what they don't want. So is that the only thing this summit will be for?

COONS: The reason to have a summit is to give Putin a potentially face-saving alternative to going ahead with greater escalation, with a more aggressive, more complete intervention in Ukraine. Remember, the No. 1 thing that Putin's been looking for all along is, as he describes it, a binding permanent commitment that Ukraine will never join NATO. That's a question that impacts the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people. They've put into their constitution that they intend to join NATO. And NATO can't just shut the door on Ukraine unilaterally, nor should we, in response to Russian bullying or threats. So Putin's going to have to be willing to accept something other than a closing of the door to NATO membership for Ukraine. And I think there are some strong options that have been on the table now for a number of weeks that both Secretary Blinken and President Biden have presented in meetings with Russian leaders.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to sanctions, over the weekend, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine was wondering aloud, you know, in terms of what those sanctions might be. His quote was "The question of just making it public, just a list of sanctions for them, for us to know what will happen if they start the war - even that question does not have the support." Why not make it clear, Senator, what would happen if Russia were to invade, make it absolutely clear what those sanctions would be?

COONS: I think it is plenty clear enough. In speech after speech, memorandum after memorandum, Western leaders, President Biden have clarified that there would be sanctions imposed first on Russia's banking system, on its ability to clear transactions through the West through the dollar, that it would have crippling impact on their sovereign debt and on how they're able to do commerce with the West. Second, that there'd be sanctions in terms of technology, their ability to access things like semiconductor chips that they don't manufacture at the level that we do in the West. And then third, that there be consequences individually for the oligarchs who support and surround Putin, who often have stashed their personal wealth, their ill-gotten gains in Western capitals. The British, for example - Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been quite forward-leaning about things they intend to do to make that harder.

Look - the challenge here, of course, is between being specific enough that you then give Putin the ability to price more carefully his decision and to plan how to evade sanctions or to keep it vague but agreed upon enough throughout the Western alliance that it's clear we will impose them and impose them swiftly.

MARTÍNEZ: Senator, it just - it seems like we're in this standstill. And there's movement but not anything actual happening to resolve this. How much longer can we all deal with this?

COONS: Well, how long have we dealt with the frozen conflicts in Georgia, in Moldova and in Ukraine? A long time. Putin, I will remind you, invaded and occupied two areas of Georgia in 2008. He has been engaging in these brush fires along the perimeter of Russia, where he seeks to regain control over portions of former Soviet republics for a long time now. So it's entirely possible that this tense standoff between Russia, Ukraine and the West will stay roughly as it's configured now for a matter of weeks or months.

In that case, the real question is, how long can Russia sustain the cost? It is expensive to keep 150,000 troops combat ready, prepared to go at any moment, particularly in the depths of winter. So I think we can afford a stare-down contest because it is the Russians who are sitting there with their troops deployed in a posture ready to go at any moment. As long as the West continues to support Ukraine and to sustain the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian economy, I think in the end, this will come out well. But I do think the next days or weeks will continue to be a tense standoff until there is a final decision made by Putin as to whether he will take an off-ramp and stand down or gamble and go ahead at enormous cost to both the Ukrainian people and Russia.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons, part of the U.S. congressional delegation at the Munich conference that concluded on Sunday. Senator, thanks.

COONS: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLUSHII'S "SAPIENT DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.