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Understanding the push behind more U.S. aid to Ukraine

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United States has already given Ukraine more than $75 billion in aid since the war against Russia began last year. But there's opposition in Congress to continued funding without conditions. There are $300 billion in frozen Russian assets. And Anne Applebaum suggests now's the time to thaw them out and give them to Ukraine. She explains her reasoning in her latest piece in The Atlantic, and she joins us now. Anne, thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How hard or easy is this to unfreeze $300 billion and then direct it to Ukraine?

APPLEBAUM: So I think, I mean, technically, it's very easy. The money is in European - mostly European banks, some in American banks. It's, you know, a swipe of the pen, and it's released. The difficulties up until now have been both legal and pragmatic. Some have argued that legally, this constitutes a violation of Russian sovereignty, property rights. Increasingly, though, the fact that Russia has violated Ukraine's sovereignty and Ukraine's property rights, has taken Ukrainian land, has destroyed Ukrainian cities, kidnapped Ukrainian children - sooner or later, Russia has to pay reparations for all of that. And people are beginning to argue, why not make them do it now? You know, this is a kind of advance down payment on the reparations that Russia will eventually have to pay. And there's a pragmatic argument that some European countries and some...

SIMON: Yeah.

APPLEBAUM: ...European banks are worried that there will be repercussions if we do this, that the Russians will retaliate, that other countries will be afraid to keep their money in dollars...

SIMON: Well, you...

APPLEBAUM: ...And the...

SIMON: ...Let me just - in the interest of time, you anticipate almost all of my questions...

APPLEBAUM: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...In response. But let me begin when you say sooner or later, Russia will have to pay reparations. I don't think Vladimir Putin says that at all.

APPLEBAUM: No. But the coalition around Ukraine, which includes 50 countries around the world, will want him to pay reparations. And if we have this money and we can make him pay reparations now, then we can do it.

SIMON: Isn't - and may I ask - isn't the whole idea of sanctions also to be some kind of an incentive to give Russia a reason to say, ah, you know what, we'll leave Ukraine? Give us our $300 billion.

APPLEBAUM: There are different kinds of sanctions. Some are really export controls. Some are sanctions intended to influence behavior. But it's been nearly two years. And the sanctions intended to influence behavior haven't worked. So we need to move on to the next phase. And the next phase is make Russia pay reparations with its own money.

SIMON: Based on what the world has seen of the behavior and decisions and policies of Vladimir Putin, how practical is it to expect the Russian regime to accept this and not retaliate some way - economically or even militarily - to say, this is a major act of theft?

APPLEBAUM: So they may well retaliate economically. I don't think they can retaliate militarily. They've been retaliating against Ukraine already for two years without any success, in the sense that their goal, which was to destroy the Ukrainian state, has not been achieved. There could be economic side effects, but - and there are some risks. But, you know, given the risks of not helping Ukraine, given the risks of Western countries running out of money or running out of the ability to fund the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian army, the catastrophic consequences of failure, which would be, you know, a Russian conquest of Ukraine, further Russian threats to other NATO countries, are so high that it's becoming clear that the risk is worth taking.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Alexei Navalny. As we speak, he has essentially been disappeared from the prison camp where he was serving a 19-year sentence. So much concern around the world - do we have any indication about where he might be or any indication that the calls around the world to make his whereabouts known have any effect on Russia?

APPLEBAUM: The best guess of the people who know him - and I was in touch with some of them in the last few days - is that he's been moved to a camp or a prison somewhere very far away from Moscow. Believe it or not, although he is in prison and although Russia is about to run a fixed - I talk about rigged elections - you know, an election in which Putin will win. The Russian state may be nervous that he - even behind bars, he has the ability to influence people and to persuade them not to vote for Putin, not to accept the ongoing war. And they seem to want him out of the way. That the best - but - and there doesn't seem to be, so far, any indication that outside pressure affects them much at all. No.

SIMON: In the 45 seconds we have left, if Vladimir Putin is reelected, I believe he's on a direct course to have an administration that lasts longer than Joseph Stalin's. Is he a latter-day Stalin?

APPLEBAUM: He's moving rapidly in that direction. I really didn't think it was possible. I thought that Stalinism was gone. The Soviet Union was gone. I didn't believe they want to bring it back. But they - you know, Russia is recreating a totalitarian state in which almost no political opposition is possible.

SIMON: Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic, thanks so much for being back with us.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.