ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Aid for Ukraine, sanctions against Russians. Those are key features of a bill that Senator Robert Menendez proposes. He is a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program once again.
SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: You write in a Washington Post op-ed today of the U.S. response to Russian actions. We refuse to blink. Going eyeball to eyeball and thinking the other guy blinked is a famous phrase from the Cuban missile crisis. Are you talking about potentially a renewed Cold War with Russia?
MENENDEZ: No. What I'm talking about is making sure that as President Putin makes his calculations both on Crimea and the possibility of extending his invasion into eastern Ukraine, that as part of those calculations he understands that there are real consequences. And so what the legislation that we are pursuing both assists the Ukraine and, at the same time, creates real consequences for those who have been engaged in undermining the Ukraine. And in doing so, adds to the overall calculation of President Putin as to how far he'll go.
SIEGEL: Do you regard the Crimea, which is overwhelmingly Russian by ethnicity and whose attachment to Ukraine was a pretty recent phenomenon, do you regard that as one and the same with eastern Ukraine? Or can you imagine some difference between the Russian presence in those two places?
MENENDEZ: Well, regardless of what historical or other links there may be, Crimea is part of the Ukraine. And an invasion in Crimea is an invasion. To the extent that the Russians are concerned about the citizens of Crimea and whether there'd be questions of language protection or security or other protections, those can be dealt with diplomatically with the Ukrainian government and in concert with the international community, which has offered Russia to deal with any legitimate concerns they have. And an invasion is an invasion.
SIEGEL: Former defense secretary Gates said the other day Crimea is gone. The Russians have it. That's not the case of the city of Donetsk (unintelligible) in the east of Ukraine. Would you accept that perhaps the issue of Crimea as being part of Ukraine is perhaps no longer an issue?
MENENDEZ: Well, I am not willing to accept the legitimacy on an invasion. And once we start down at that road, then the only questions left are whether a particular invasion is legitimate or not because of any historical language or other ties. I certainly don't accept it as a proposition that is acceptable under international law.
SIEGEL: If sanctions against Russia work in the bill that you're proposing, what would be the measure of their success?
MENENDEZ: Well, clearly, in the first instance, it would be to ensure that there is no more forward advance by the Russians into eastern Ukraine, and it would be a resolution of the Crimea occupation in a way that would resolve the concerns that the Russian federation has and the territorial integrity that the Ukrainians have.
SIEGEL: You mean voiding the referendum, for example? Would you consider that a measure of success if they voided the referendum?
MENENDEZ: Well, the referendum is already seen as illegal under the Ukrainian constitution, as well as the international community. So, to me, it is not whether or not a referendum takes place. It's what happens on the ground, how, in fact, the Russians deal with their occupation in the Crimea and what other actions do they take beyond.
SIEGEL: Senator Menendez, one other question. Washington has many other big foreign policy challenges that involve Russia - trying to get Iran to back away from a nuclear weapons program, trying to do something to stop the carnage in Syria are two of the big ones. If you could have a choice between some constructive, if cynical, partnership with the Russians in Crimea that could lead to real progress on those other issues, would it be worth it?
MENENDEZ: Well, I have to be very honest with you. As I've said, I'm not of the view that one can just steal away the Crimea on behalf of the Ukrainian people and its government. Secondly, I have not found the Russians to be all that cooperative. They're a patron of Assad. The only time that they engaged on moving on the chemical weapons is when my committee gave an authorization for the use of force for the president as he was headed to the G20 summit in Russia.
And on Iran, soon after the deal was made on the - by the P5+1, the Russians were already talking about a package that would've been in violation of sanctions. So their track record as it relates to these other issues that are of real concern to the United States as well has not been great. So they don't embolden me to be thinking on a path of any such negotiation.
SIEGEL: Senator Menendez, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
MENENDEZ: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. He's the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.