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Co-chair of Senate Ukraine Caucus calls for stricter sanctions against Russia


Russia and Kyiv agree to meet. Those talks are on the Ukrainian border with Belarus. But Russia is continuing its push toward Kyiv, and there's fighting in Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv. Dick Durbin is the senior senator from Illinois and a member of the Democratic Senate leadership, as well as co-chair of the Senate Ukraine caucus, and he joins us now. Senator Durbin, good morning.

DICK DURBIN: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: You have called for stricter sanctions against Russia and said the U.S. needs to double down on sending a firm message. What would you like to see next?

DURBIN: Well, I'd like to see the menu of sanctions, which we've already heard. But let's face the reality here. These sanctions, as powerful as they ultimately will be, will take time. At some point, the lights in Moscow may dim, but the question is, will there still be a flame of hope burning in Ukraine at that point? I really have to salute those nations around the world who are rallying behind the people of Ukraine, sending resources for humanitarian aid as well as military assistance.

MCCAMMON: Sanctions so far, as you know, have targeted banks and individuals, but not Russia's energy sector, which is vital to the Russian economy, of course, as well as to some NATO members. And, of course, that could have ripple effects for consumers here in the U.S. How do you think the U.S. should balance these competing concerns?

DURBIN: Well, I think we have to face the reality. Unless Americans are willing to make some sacrifice in terms of energy, the Russians will continue to reap profits from us that they'll spend killing the people of Ukraine. I mean, that is the reality of it. And we have to close off the economy - the world economy, as much as possible - when it comes to Russia. That includes the amenities of civilization such as air travel and those sorts of things. But really, to get to the heart of it, we have to have sanctions that really slow down their economy to the point where the Russian citizens stand up and say enough.

MCCAMMON: Senator, the wire services are reporting that Putin is putting Russian forces that include nuclear-armed units on high alert because of aggressive statements by NATO leaders, as well as the economic sanctions we've been reporting on this morning. What is your reaction to that?

DURBIN: I'm very worried about that, of course. Russia is a superpower when it comes to nuclear weapons. We just hope beyond hope that we never see anyone use a nuclear weapon in a conflict. I wouldn't put it past him. This man is a war criminal. Donald Trump may think he is a savvy genius. I think he is a savage war criminal. And whether he would use nuclear weapons, I pray he'll never even consider that.

MCCAMMON: President Biden authorized $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine on Friday. To your knowledge, senator, is that assistance in the hands of Ukrainian forces yet?

DURBIN: I don't know the answer to that. I will tell you that whatever we have to send them, we need to do it as quickly as possible. I'm sure that the Department of Defense, in considering options, has positioned the kind of supports that the Ukrainians need nearby. It isn't going to be heading from the United States, as I would imagine, but is ready to be delegated to these people as needed.

MCCAMMON: President Biden says that Vladimir Putin, quote, "will be a pariah on the world stage," unquote, but that is not yet fully true. China, India and the United Arab Emirates all declined to vote for a U.N. resolution calling out Russia on Friday. Should the U.S. pressure those countries? Can the U.S. pressure them to join this effort to stop Russia?

DURBIN: I think we should continue to pressure them. You know, I don't expect great things to come from that effort, but we need to stand as a family of nations with the United States in leadership around the world against this kind of aggression that we've seen in Ukraine. These people in the streets of Ukraine are walking into recruiting offices, being handed a Kalashnikov and sent out to really give their lives for their country. Can we do anything less?

MCCAMMON: You've spoken proudly of your Lithuanian heritage. The Baltic states are the most vulnerable NATO members to Russian aggression. Do you think Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia are in Putin's sights?

DURBIN: I do, and I would add Poland to that list because there is this Suwalki Corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad, which the Russians would like to control. It is controlled now by both Lithuanians and Poles. I've visited both of those countries this last week, and I can tell you the people there know what Soviet rule was like and don't want to see anything like it in the future. They are vulnerable, and NATO is their only hope.

MCCAMMON: That's Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. Senator, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

DURBIN: Thank you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.