SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Vladimir Putin of Russia made a surprising phone call to President Obama last night about the situation in Ukraine. Meanwhile though, thousands of Russian troops amass along the Ukrainian border. President Obama suggested in an interview with CBS that Russia might have what he ominously called additional plans. Today, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said again that Russia has no intention of sending its armed forces into Ukraine.
The U.S. Congress is set to pass legislation next week that would provide aid to Ukraine and strengthen sanctions against Russia. Senator John McCain has been calling for the U.S. to strengthen its Russia strategy. We spoke to him from his office at the Capitol yesterday and began by asking him whether he believes sanctions work.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I believe they can have an effect, but I think it's only one of a broad variety of actions we should take in response to what has been a naked act of aggression by Vladimir Putin.
SIMON: What other kind of actions do you have in mind?
MCCAIN: Well, first of all I think we have to change our whole relationship with Vladimir Putin instead of one of reset and tell Vladimir I'm going to be more flexible when I'm re-elected to realizing he is what he is, a KGB colonel that is committed to the restoration of the Russian empire. Then I think we need the economic assistance, which is in motion right now, to help them restore their economy, which is on the verge of collapse.
Then we need to impose as stiff a sanctions as possible, even maybe taking these further. We need to provide them with defensive weapons. Right now, as we speak, the...
SIMON: You mean Ukraine, yes.
MCCAIN: Yes. Yes. Right now Ukraine needs defensive weapons. There're all published reports of Russian troops massed on the western border of Ukraine. I don't know if Vladimir Putin will go in or not, but the Ukrainians have said they will fight and we ought to be able to supply them with the ability to defend themselves in whatever way that they can.
SIMON: Does the U.S. still share some powerful common interest with Russia?
MCCAIN: I think we have some common interest, but you have to deal with Vladimir Putin for what he is. This is a man who at a press conference when asked if Russian troops were in Crimea, said no, and that you could buy old Russian uniforms at stores in the region. That, you've got to understand for what he is, and then you deal accordingly. It used to be, in the words of a former president, called peace through strength.
SIMON: Senator McCain, what do you say to Americans, and they're in both parties, both liberals and conservatives, who say that whatever Russia does in Europe just isn't the concern of the United States?
MCCAIN: You know, I understand the Cold War weariness. I'm sure that the mothers in Syria who have lost their children are war weary also because of our failure to act appropriately against Bashar Assad, but I believe the American people will understand. The American people in many times in our history have wanted to withdraw to fortress America, which is very understandable. But it's American leadership that has to explain to them that just as Hitler was allowed to go into Vienna and gave a speech from a balcony of a hotel in Vienna that is really eerily like the speech the Vladimir Putin just gave after the absorption of Crimea into Russia, that we have to act and we have to act with strength and resolve.
And that does not mean U.S. troops - see, the people in the administration are criticizing people like me for saying, well, either do nothing or you send in American troops. I can't tell you how many times McCain wants to send in American troops. No, I don't. And it's unfair to say that I do. But what I do want us to do is bolster the defenses of our friends, show strength and steadfastness and understanding of Vladimir Putin and what he's about, and stand up for freedom.
That's been our history, and that does not mean getting us into wars, but it means us to be prepared in case of further escalation that Mr. Putin may feel that he can take with impunity.
SIMON: Senator John McCain of Arizona. Thanks very much for being with us.
MCCAIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.