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Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin Weighs In On Tensions Between U.S. And Russia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In a week that has been marked by tit for tat moves between Russia and the West, Russia is expelling another batch of diplomats. Today it announced it will be ordering diplomats from more than 20 countries to leave. This is on top of the 60 U.S. diplomats Russia sent home yesterday. This wave of expulsions by Russia was highly anticipated after the U.S. and more than 20 other countries declared this week they would be kicking out Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter.

Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he joins us now to talk about next steps in this diplomatic standoff. Thanks for being with us, Senator.

BEN CARDIN: It's good to be with you. Thank you.

CHANG: I've been curious. What does expelling diplomats actually accomplish other than serving as a show of force?

CARDIN: Well, several of these diplomats, they may have a diplomatic shield, but they're basically gathering intelligence for the Russian government to be used against the United States. So the fewer diplomats, the less information Russia can get in order to carry out a lot of its nefarious actions.

CHANG: And those costs are being suffered on all sides now as everybody's losing diplomats in different countries.

CARDIN: That's correct. But I would challenge the fact that Russia has been the most aggressive country in doing things that violate international norms. So it's important that we let them know they can't do this.

CHANG: You know, just today the Russian military said it successfully tested its latest intercontinental ballistic missile. How concerned are you that this diplomatic tit for tat will just keep intensifying?

CARDIN: Well, we want to see Russia change its behavior. Yes, if they sent the missile into the United States or they used their military against us, I think everyone fully understand that we could not let that go unchallenged. But Russia did that in our elections. And we can't let that go unchallenged. There's got to be consequences.

CHANG: So are you saying that the U.S. has an interest in escalating the tit for tat to reciprocate in like kind each time?

CARDIN: We don't want to escalate. But it will only escalate if Mr. Putin will continue to do these activities and accelerate them if we do not make clear there's a price that he'll pay for doing it. So by taking these actions against Russia, we have a much better chance of changing the escalation of the actions against our own country.

CHANG: Does the current tension between Russia and Western countries feel at all reminiscent to you of what we experienced during the Cold War?

CARDIN: Of course these are different times, and the stakes are much higher than they were during the Cold War. So it is certainly a challenge. But, yes, I think we see some of the trends that we saw during the Cold War being continued now. But understand we are the ones being attacked. We haven't provoked Russia. They did this to us. And therefore we've got to defend our democratic institutions because Mr. Putin is not going to be satisfied until he takes over other countries. We see that in Ukraine. We see that in Moldova. We see that in Georgia. We don't want to see another country be dominated by the Soviet Union.

CHANG: Do you feel that the White House is in lockstep with you and your feelings towards Vladimir Putin?

CARDIN: No, I don't. I think - it's not my views. I think the congressional views of Russia are different than Mr. Trump's views on Russia. Mr. Trump has yet to acknowledge that Mr. Putin was directly engaged in our elections in 2016. His administration has, but the president has not. We saw just recently the president call and congratulate Mr. Putin on his election even though it wasn't a free and fair election. So it's clear to me that Mr. Trump's view of Mr. Putin is not in step with what the Congress believes, that Mr. Putin is a great risk to the United States.

CHANG: All right, that's Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. Thank you very much for joining us.

CARDIN: Good to talk to you, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.