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Rep. Michael McCaul on the latest in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There is still hope for negotiation between Russia and the West. That is what Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is saying. He made a televised appearance alongside his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, today, and the message was diplomacy is not dead - not yet - this as the U.S. announced today it is closing the embassy in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. It is moving the radically downsized diplomatic operation farther west to the city of Lviv in preparation for a possible Russian attack.

Well, we're going to talk about the threat and what, if anything, the U.S. can do at this point to stop it. And to do that, I'm joined by Texas Republican Mike McCaul, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman, welcome.

MICHAEL MCCAUL: Well, thanks for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let's just take stock of where things stand. The White House is warning that a Russian invasion could begin any time, warning there is a very real possibility this invasion could involve the seizure of the capital, Kyiv. Does that square with your understanding of where we are with the situation?

MCCAUL: Yes, it does. I mean, and remember; this started last March. It's been going on for quite some time. I had a briefing with Jake Sullivan this morning, the national security adviser. While the foreign minister is talking about more diplomacy, and that's helpful, I worry that the time for diplomacy is running out.

And the briefing we had - it's quite grim. There are 130,000 Russian troops like a noose around Ukraine, and it's starting to - you know, starting to strengthen. And these forces are more in attack, forward-leaning posture. The tanks are there. And Putin's timeline, we know what the window is. And so we're hoping for more diplomacy, but realistically, I'm worried.

KELLY: Yeah. Can you share any information you may have gleaned as to this specific date that is being floated, Wednesday? There were reports of intelligence pointing to an attack that could begin as soon as Wednesday. Has that date been briefed to you?

MCCAUL: There has been reporting of that particular date. And, you know, in the briefing call this morning, he said it could be any day, now warning it could happen before the end of the Olympics, which before, we thought this would most likely, if it was going to happen, happen after the Olympics.

KELLY: Which would be February 20 - the end date for those Beijing Olympics.

MCCAUL: Correct. And so look; this has been a legacy item for Putin a long time, and he's always wanted Ukraine back. He wants to weaken NATO. Energy is very important to him if he controls the Black Sea. Unfortunately, the president waived our sanctions - Congress' sanctions - on Nord Stream 2. And I think he's been a bit empowered.

KELLY: Let me - I understand and people will be gathering from that comment there that you have not been on board with every aspect of the way that the Biden administration has handled this, but we are where we are. What can the U.S. do at this point to stop it? If we're talking about something that you're saying, you're hearing credible warnings could come within days.

MCCAUL: Well, here's what an invasion will look like. A major cyberattack will shut down all the infrastructure. Then you'll see the tanks rolling in, the planes, and it'll be over in two to three days. And then what happens after the invasion? There will be a resistance movement. We have - you know, I sign off on foreign military weapons sales. We've armed them with a lot of ammunition.

And - but I think sanctions - and this is what Jake Sullivan and I and Speaker Pelosi on the phone talked about. What can we do, the administration and Congress, to sanction Putin for this bad behavior? And there are things we can do that can make him hurt very badly.

KELLY: You're talking about levying more sanctions before he invades in the effort of deterring him?

MCCAUL: Well, my view was precisely that. Because they're being so provocative and aggressive, we should have aimed sanctions prior to an invasion. The administration didn't want to go down that route, so now we're looking more likely after.

I thought sanctions on Nord Stream should have been applied. That is what Putin understands. He understands strength, you know, not weakness. And I think we have...

KELLY: I mean, the U.S. has already targeted - you're talking about the Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. There has been legislation targeting that with sanctions - multiple years. Why would additional sanctions keep it from coming online, keep Vladimir Putin from crossing this red line in Ukraine?

MCCAUL: Well, and that was my bill, to put in mandatory congressional sanctions. The president waived them in the international interest of the United States. I'm not quite sure I understand that. So Putin was allowed to build this pipeline into Europe. I had an amendment that passed on the National Defense Authorization to waive that presidential waiver so he couldn't exercise, you know, waiving those sanctions. And that's kind of where we are, right?

What I was told - assured - today, though, by the national security adviser would be that those sanctions would definitely come back upon an invasion. And that would...

KELLY: So you think - sorry to interrupt. But in the few seconds we have left, you're arguing that sanctions would still be a useful tool. Again, to this precise moment, is there anything the U.S. can do right now other than keep trying diplomacy, watch and wait?

MCCAUL: Well, they're not a NATO ally. We can't put our troops there. They're not under Article 5. We're in a defensive posture, putting our troops in the eastern flank NATO countries. I think, you know, knowing that this will come at a high price economically will send, hopefully, a message. But I don't think he's taking it right now.

KELLY: All right - a grim assessment there and lots to watch for. Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thank you.

MCCAUL: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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