Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking at a Senate Committee hearing

What options does the US have following Navalny’s death?

President Joe Biden warned Russia in 2021 that it would face “devastating” consequences if opposition leader Alexei Navalny were to die in prison. On Friday, the White House announced more than 500 new sanctions on Russia. The World’s host Marco Werman speaks with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland about Washington’s other options.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin recently took a ride onboard a giant Tu-160M bomber, a supersonic plane that can carry a dozen cruise missiles, as well as a dozen short-range nuclear missiles.

After the flight and over the noise of jet engines, Putin told reporters that the bomber is a great addition to the Russian air force. The Russian leader seemed to be sending a not-so-subtle reminder to the West about his military’s nuclear capabilities. The messaging comes as some Russian and US diplomats say they cannot remember a time when relations between these two nuclear powers were worse.

The World’s host Marco Werman spoke to Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland about Washington’s other options.

Marco Werman: Undersecretary Nuland, President Biden warned Russia in 2021 that it would face devastating consequences if opposition leader Alexei Navalny were to die in prison. I know the White House [has been] planning to release a new package of sanctions on Russia, but so far sanctions have not forced the Kremlin to change course. What else can be done?
Victoria Nuland: Well, as you know, Marco, sanctions take some time to work. These sanctions that we plan to introduce in the next couple of days are another crushing installment. They are particularly designed to deal with the fact that Russia has been somewhat effective at sanctions evasion. This is designed to close all of those gaps and make it much tougher for him to fuel his war machine, fuel his economy. And for the Russian people to feel the pinch from the decisions that he has made on their behalf and having sent them into this awful war that is doing nothing for them.
What about confiscating the $300 billion in frozen Russian bank reserves for the defense and reconstruction of Ukraine? Is Washington ready to take that step against Putin?
We certainly believe that that money needs to go in service of Ukraine. We are working on it with our allies and partners. We are working through a number of legal and financial issues, but I have every confidence that that money will be used for Ukraine.
I mean, there are two years of sanctions that we’ve seen. They seem to have done little. So, how much longer until we do see impact?
You know, Marco, I just have to dispute the premise. You can’t imagine how many more weapons and tools of war Putin would have been able to create if he hadn’t had these sanctions on the whole military industrial complex. As it is, he’s having to go begging to Iran and North Korea and other pariah states for these kinds of things. And he’s had to turn his whole economy in service of this war again, starving the Russian people of a future.
Yeah, fair point. But Ukraine desperately needs, now, that assistance. What if the deadlock in Congress continues to not produce a decent aid package for Ukraine? Would that force the White House’s hand to take that step, transferring the frozen Russian assets, for example?
We’re working on both at the same time. Ukraine needs the supplemental money that we have asked Congress for. It needs it on the battlefield. It needs it to keep its economy afloat. It needs it to rebuild the critical infrastructure that Putin has already taken down. But Ukraine also needs the frozen assets because it is going to be a long recovery effort. And as you can see, the taxpayers in the United States and in Europe want to ensure that Putin’s money, not just our money, goes to support Ukraine.
The Russian capture of Avdiivka on Saturday could turn out to be a huge setback for Ukraine. Russia has momentum now on the battlefield in Kyiv. It’s still waiting for renewed shipments of US military aid. What is the estimate at the State Department of how long Ukraine’s military can hold out?
Well, that’s obviously a question for the Ukrainians and a question for the Pentagon. But we are gravely concerned when we have been unable to sustain the kinds of artillery and other assets that we’ve been giving Ukraine every couple of weeks at the level without the money that we need from the supplemental. You see, what’s happening on the battlefield, by some reports, there are Ukrainian soldiers that have 20 bullets a day to survive the kind of onslaught that Putin is meting out. And that’s among the reasons why we really need Congress to pass this money now.
President Biden has said he will “not walk away from Ukraine, and neither will the American people.” That’s his quote. Why has it been so difficult for this administration to fulfill that promise?
Remember that in the US Senate, just last week, 70 senators voted in favor of this assistance. We are in intense conversations in the House of Representatives now. They are in intense conversations with themselves. American polling indicates that the American people understand the importance of supporting Ukraine not only for its fight, but for the larger fight against autocrats and despots all over the world. So, when The House comes back, we fully expect that members will look, deeply into the future, and we hope that they will make the right decision. And we will marshal every argument so that they do.
The US public may understand what’s needed, but support has been waning for the Ukraine cause. GOP presidential contender Nikki Haley says it’s because the Biden White House has not been able to explain to Americans why it’s important to support Ukraine. Does she have a point?
You know, I think President Biden’s been very clear from the beginning that this is obviously about Ukraine, about supporting its sovereignty and territorial integrity and saying no to a big neighbor next door who just thinks that he can take a bite out of another country, because if it happens in Ukraine, not only will Putin keep going, but other autocrats around the world will say, “hey, it’s open season for us to do the same thing.” And that is not the kind of world Americans want to live in. And I fully expect that they will be telling their members of Congress that as well.
Finally, Undersecretary Nuland, on Gaza, the Israeli government is opposed to a two-state solution. There are Israeli leaders pushing for war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. They also want to rebuild settlements in Gaza and annex the West Bank. When should the US acknowledge this growing gap in American-Israeli priorities?
We’ve been very clear from the beginning. The president’s been very clear that even as Israel ensures that Hamas can never again mount the kind of attack it did on Oct. 7, that we need to keep this war from spreading. And we have been counseling all players that it must not spread in the north. It must not accelerate in the West Bank. And the president has been very clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Secretary Blinken has with all Israeli leaders, that it is not in anybody’s interest for this to get bigger. And most importantly, what we need to do is get urgently to a hostage deal, to a pause on the ground that can allow us, to address some of these systemic problems, including providing an alternative for the Palestinian people to what Hamas is offering. And that’s a two-state solution.

Parts of this interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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