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Russia To Target U.S. Aircraft Flying Over Syrian Government Airspace


The war in Syria is elevating tensions between the U.S. and Russia. After an American fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane Sunday, Russia has now announced it will directly target any aircraft from the U.S. or one of its allies that flies over Syrian airspace. Yesterday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, played down concerns that the conflict in Syria is escalating.


JOSEPH DUNFORD: I'm confident that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russian Federation operations center. And I'm also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves.

MARTIN: Now, against that backdrop, Moscow's leading adversary, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, is scheduled to meet President Trump at the White House today. To help us get all this into perspective, we are joined in the studio by Daniel Fried. He served as assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. More recently, he was the lead sanctions expert at the State Department, including sanctions against Russia.

Ambassador Fried, welcome back to the program.

DANIEL FRIED: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Russia now says it's going to target American planes. How do you read that? How serious is this?

FRIED: I don't know that it's necessarily serious. And I appreciate General Dunford's measured response. I think that's appropriate. The Russians say a lot of things, and they threaten a lot of things. And in the face of that kind of pressure, we need to be careful, but careful's not the same as being timid. And we need to do what we need to do in Syria. I think we should keep lines of communication with the Russians open, including military lines, as we're doing. I don't necessarily believe that just because they say they'll cut them off that they will cut them off.

MARTIN: This is posturing, you think?

FRIED: I think some of it. And I think, at the same time, Syria's pretty crowded. There are a lot of forces out there and a lot of room for misunderstandings and unintended consequences. But still, I think a steady, sober approach is the way to respond to that kind of Russian language.

MARTIN: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, I mentioned, is meeting with President Trump today. Clearly, Poroshenko, no friend of Vladimir Putin. What do you expect to come out of that meeting?

FRIED: Well, it's a good thing that the president is meeting with President Poroshenko before he meets with Vladimir Putin. I think that's a good sign. And it'll be a welcome signal both to the Ukrainian people, who are fighting for their country, and to Europe to show that wherever we land on relations with Russia, we are not racing down a path of accommodation with Putin at any price. So this is a good thing.

MARTIN: This is just a meet-and-greet, you think?

FRIED: Well, I think it's more than that. It's a chance for President Poroshenko to make his case for continued American support. The Ukrainians are fighting for their independence against Russian aggression. At the same time, the Ukrainians need to complete the reforms that they started. And they need to deal seriously with the things that are holding Ukraine back.

And the fact that they're fighting for their independence doesn't mean they should sit on their hands, and they've got to do both. And I hope that that's part of the message that President Poroshenko gets from the Americans today.

MARTIN: The president has had a lot of good things to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Senate, although, just passed additional sanctions against Moscow for interfering in the U.S. election in 2016. Are there dangers to the lack of a unified policy in Washington towards Russia?

FRIED: Well, I've heard that the administration is putting together a Russia policy. And everything I've heard about it suggests that it's a pretty good one. I define a good policy as one that combines elements of resistance to Russian aggression, elements of looking for areas where we can cooperate, if that's possible. It is possible in some areas if you don't expect too much.

And hopefully, this policy will look at the long term with Russia and perhaps look past Vladimir Putin. He's not president for all eternity. Now, I haven't seen this policy, but I've heard that it's a pretty balanced one. And there are serious people in the administration who've been preparing it.

MARTIN: You said that there are areas of potential cooperation. Where are those?

FRIED: Well, counterterrorism heads the list. And that's one that President Trump has talked about.

MARTIN: Although, even in Syria, that's the U.S. objective there and not the Russian...

FRIED: That's right. And that's the point. It's easy to talk about areas of cooperation. It's been proven more difficult to actually get something done. Ask the Bush administration. Ask the Obama administration.

It's good to keep looking for ways to work with the Russians. I'm all for it, but we need to keep our expectations under control. And we certainly should not pay the Russians extra for cooperating in areas that should be in mutual interest.

MARTIN: Lastly, do you think the sanctions passed by the Senate against Russia over the election meddling go far enough?

FRIED: Oh, man, I am of - I am conflicted about that. As somebody who worked in the executive branch, I understand the problems that Senate action can have. On the other hand, it's a sign of lack of confidence in where we're going. And to deal with that, we need a policy about - we need a policy toward Russia. Final thought - that sanctions legislation demonstrates the strength of American commitment to pushing back against the Russians.

MARTIN: Daniel Fried, former assistant secretary of state for Europe. Ambassador, thanks so much for coming in.

FRIED: Quite all right. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.