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A congressional delegation visits Kyiv to pledge solidarity with Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Meanwhile, here in Kyiv, to get to one of our interviews today, we hopped on a funicular, a tiny train that pops you from Old Town on the river up a steep snowy slope to the historic Upper Town. Now, we are here in Ukraine to cover the standoff at the Ukraine-Russia border, and that standoff is also what has drawn a delegation of lawmakers from Washington to visit. When we find them at their hotel tonight, they are in full swing of a press conference, Ukrainian and other journalists lobbing questions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...First question.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One for Chairman Meeks, please. (Unintelligible).

KELLY: Chairman Meeks is Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. After the press conference wraps, we invite both him and Republican Mark Green of Tennessee to join us at a table near the fire in the hotel lobby and take our questions.

I start by asking about arms. A lot of U.S. arms are now flowing here, something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he is grateful for, but he also says he needs more. I wanted to know, have the Ukrainian officials this congressional delegation is meeting on their trip made the same ask?

MARK GREEN: They've given us a very specific list of what they needed, and we took notes, and we'll take it back to our colleagues. We'll take it to the Defense Department and, you know, secretary of state and all those guys, and they'll see the list that we got presented. I'm sure the senators who were here a week ago got a list and others that are coming after us will get a list. So we'll just keep...

KELLY: Does it strike you as a reasonable list, given how much the U.S. has already sent?

GREEN: It was very - absolutely, very reasonable. You know, and I'm an ex-military guy who spent 24 years in the army. I - what they're asking for is what they should be asking for.

KELLY: Yeah.

GREGORY MEEKS: And I think they were...

KELLY: Chairman Meeks.

MEEKS: ...Very thankful for what we have given thus far.

GREEN: They were.

MEEKS: And...

KELLY: I have been struck by that...

MEEKS: Yes.

KELLY: ...Over and over talking to people here.

MEEKS: Very thankful for what we do.

KELLY: So grateful to the U.S.

MEEKS: And very appreciative and very appreciative of us trying to bring everybody together in that regards and just wanted us to understand, you know, that they want to deter Putin from progressing and being as aggressive as he has.

GREEN: Further invasion.

MEEKS: Further...

GREEN: Further invasion - because the truth of the matter is...

MEEKS: That's correct. He's invaded.

GREEN: ...He's already invaded.

MEEKS: Right. And that - should he continue, that they're ready with their Plan B. And that's why I think we have to help them to have that Plan B.

KELLY: Either of you see any risk that with U.S. weapons pouring into this country, it will provoke Vladimir Putin rather than deter him?

MEEKS: No. I think that it is utilized as a deterrent. There's other things that we've been very clear on.

KELLY: But if you're Putin sitting in Moscow, you may not see it as a deterrent. You may see it as, really? You're arming up? I'll do the same.

MEEKS: Well, we...

GREEN: Well, I think the aggressor here is the guy lining up the tanks across the border. We're sending aid to these guys so they can - and it's going to ultimately not stop Putin. And he knows that, and we know that. But we're going to make it cost.

I mean, if we really wanted to do something more, we could. So what we're doing is providing some lethal aid, and hopefully, it increases the costs and makes him say, no, I'm not doing it.

MEEKS: We're absolutely clear to Putin. He has a way out of this. He's already shown that he's lost with the aggression in 2014. He's lost the people of Ukraine, and he will lose more than that. And he will lose back home. So I think that he has to think twice.

And no one knows what Putin is thinking. I don't know if Putin knows what he's going to do yet, but we - the only thing we can do is be ready no matter what he does.

KELLY: Another thing President Zelensky has asked for is these massive sanctions that the U.S. and allies keep talking about, that they come now, before Russia does anything. Should they?

MEEKS: What we want to do is to make sure that we have this unity, and I think that we're in a position right now where we can leverage that unity for the sanctions should he continue his aggressive behavior. We want to stop him and let him know there is a tremendous price that he will pay if he moves forward and continues with his aggressive behavior.

KELLY: But my question is, do you agree with President Zelensky that sanctions would be more of a deterrent now than after?

GREEN: If I could pitch in there...

KELLY: Congressman.

GREEN: I will tell you that that debate is ongoing, and there are arguments on both sides. But what we are aligned on is if he acts with further invasion, the sanctions are coming. They'll be crippling to his economy.

Now, your question is, would we be better off putting those in effect now? And, again, that debate is going on. I think there are some minuses to doing that. If you use all of your chips at the beginning - and, you know, it's already happened to him. Why wouldn't he just say, well, then I'll go ahead and take it anyway? I mean, you've already put the sanctions on me. So I think we need to have something in our kit bag for when he does act.

MEEKS: And what's also key is this message of unity that I'm talking about. We've got to make sure that NATO and the EU are ready to come strong so that there's no - you know, the way Putin wins...

KELLY: An emphasis on unity over timing, in a way.

MEEKS: That's correct. Because the way - Putin wins if he can divide us. He would love to divide some of our NATO allies, some of our EU allies and Ukrainians - divide us on this issue. That's - would be a victory for him. So we can't allow that to happen.

GREEN: It's important to know we are - everyone's unified on crippling sanctions if he goes with - further with the invasion.

MEEKS: Everyone.

GREEN: Do we - we're debating about whether to move forward.

KELLY: The timing.

GREEN: Yeah.

KELLY: A last question to each of you...

MEEKS: And what triggers.

GREEN: That's right.

KELLY: Last question to each of you - you first, Congressman Green. What message will you be taking back to your constituents on why it is in U.S. interests to help Ukraine fight this fight?

GREEN: When Vladimir Putin put troops into Belarus, he put troops on the border of a NATO ally, and that changes the game for me. You know, we have an Article 5 obligation to the people of NATO, of Poland, the Baltic States. So I think we're compelled to work to a diplomatic solution here as quickly and as effectively as we can.

KELLY: Chairman.

MEEKS: What I would say to - will say to my constituency is democracy's at stake, that if we allow Vladimir Putin to come into a sovereign territory and threaten its democracy or take its democracy, then we are allowing others to do the same, which, in turn, reverberates on us.

There was a saying that - by Dr. King. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

GREEN: Yup.

MEEKS: And the same is here. If there's a threat to removing democracy anywhere - I mean, here, there is a threat to remove it everywhere. We've got to unite with one message to say that's not going to happen.

KELLY: That's Congressman Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York, and Congressman Mark Green, Republican of Tennessee, both of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Great to see you both here in Kyiv.

GREEN: Thanks for having us.

MEEKS: Thank you for having us.

KELLY: And we'll have more reporting out of Ukraine in the coming days. My team and I are headed to eastern Ukraine this weekend to hear what life is like there right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF VILLAIN ACCELERATE'S "REVISIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.