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Ukrainians aren't getting U.S. intelligence on Russia fast enough, Sasse says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rarely in history has the world shown such interest in the Moscow financial markets as they have shown this week. The world is watching to see how devastating Western sanctions may be even as they watch Russia move more military hardware to the war in Ukraine. Senator Ben Sasse joins us next. He's a Republican of Nebraska. And he's on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator, welcome back.

BEN SASSE: Steve, thanks for the invite.

INSKEEP: I'll remind people you can't divulge what they've been telling you in the intelligence committee briefings or in a full Senate briefing last evening. But you can, of course, comment on the news coverage that we've all seen. You last night in a speech celebrated the Ukrainians' defiance - six days now. But do you think they can win?

SASSE: Well, they've changed the world already. This invasion is not going according to Putin's plan at all. He expected the Ukrainians would roll over. He expected they would've just accepted defeat. But all over the country, you see brave men and women fighting back. You're right. They're outgunned. They're outmanned. But they're making Putin pay a bloody price for every inch of soil that he's forcing his army to take. It's perfectly clear who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. That's going to change a whole bunch of things in the world in the next month and year. But you're right - at a military level, they've got a big, big battle in front of them.

INSKEEP: I saw a newspaper report overnight suggesting that maybe they had - the Ukrainians had a week of ammunition left. Is the United States getting them enough and everything that they need?

SASSE: They don't have enough. And, no, we're not getting them enough. I applaud pieces of how the administration has responded. But I've been pushing hard that they need to be sending more actionable intelligence in real-time to the Ukrainians because we're not moving fast enough. Knowing where a Russian tank was 10 hours ago isn't very helpful to a Ukrainian who's, you know, fighting to defend his or her family and homeland.

INSKEEP: Is that not happening now? I kind of imagined the United States would be sending them intelligence. Is it not getting to them very quickly?

SASSE: We are sending them intelligence. But we have lawyers delaying the process at way, way too many steps. And we shouldn't be letting technicalities get in the way of helping the Ukrainians fight back. Putin threatens that real-time, actionable intelligence is tantamount to being engaged in the war on their soil. That's obviously not true. So I applaud many pieces of what's happening in the intelligence community. But we need the Ukrainians to be as deadly as possible as fast as possible so they can protect as many civilians as possible...

INSKEEP: Is that...

SASSE: Putin is targeting civilian populations. And we need to work faster.

INSKEEP: Is that what the lawyers are doing, trying to make sure the United States does not go over some legal tripwire into being actively involved in a war?

SASSE: There are a bunch of technicalities about intelligence in general versus targeting information in particular. And we should be giving the Ukrainians all the intelligence we can possibly get them as fast as possible. It's way too lawyerly. We have a very limited window here. If Zelenskyy’s government falls, it's going to be much, much harder to share intelligence with any confidence with partners that are invading - you know, waging some sort of insurgency war, as opposed to having an actual military right now. So we need to do it fast. We need to do it now.

INSKEEP: Senator, last week you said you wanted more sanctions. Then over the weekend, Europe and the United States added a cascade of sanctions. Is this enough?

SASSE: I definitely applaud the European and American conversation over this weekend. We needed the financial sector sanctions. It's kind of amazing to see Zelenskyy’s heroism change the trajectory of Switzerland, change the path of Sweden and Finland, change Germany. Many of us on the intelligence committee were in Munich last week. And where the Germans were a week ago in these conversations versus where they are today is great, great change. But we need to be sure that every single oligarch crony and their girlfriends and their children are all putting back pressure on the oligarchs and the way they've stolen from the Russian people, so that Putin understands that he's losing support. Obviously, this is a long, long battle. And there's no, you know, room for naive optimism. But these sanctions have had real consequences. And Putin is feeling a kind of pressure that he didn't expect.

INSKEEP: And the president of Russia has responded by putting nuclear forces on one higher degree of alert. Of course, it's hard to imagine starting a nuclear war when it could destroy your own country. But Putin is considered less predictable than he was just a few weeks ago. Is there a real danger of a Russian leader, backed into a corner by sanctions and other things, who does something crazy?

SASSE: Well, let's be clear that Vladimir Putin is evil, and he bears sole responsibility for what's happened here. There's not one praiseworthy thing to say about the man. He's a tyrant with the blood of innocents on his hands. But people are going to debate for a long time whether he's genius or mad. But the thing we should lead with is that the guy is evil. But his - I'll only comment on the public piece here. But the claim that things were on alert is a little more press release than reality. So there was less substance happening underneath.

But we need to remember that weakness has emboldened Putin. There's all sorts of very important, precautionary conversations and steps that we need to take about the fact that the guy has the largest nuclear arsenal we're ever going to stand up against. But weakness has emboldened him. He took part of Georgia in 2008, paid no price. He took Crimea in 2014, paid no price. He shot down a civilian airliner in 2014, no price. He meddled in our election, no price. He poisoned his political rivals. We have to tell the truth about this guy and not be intimidated by press release threats.

INSKEEP: Ben Sasse, Republican senator of Nebraska. Always a pleasure - thank you, sir.

SASSE: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.